Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tyranny of "Mine" (portion Behar)

It starts so early.  The first word of many a child is “Mine!”  Thus begins a life of striving after ownership.  Much of American culture is built around this propensity to crave and accumulate, with multi-billion dollar industries manipulating us to want stuff we don’t need.
Of course, as Ecclesiastes recognized long ago, this is a kind of vanity, a striving after wind.  Indeed, it is far worse than empty gesture, for the impulse behind “mine!” is at the heart of much of our human unhappiness.  No matter how much we acquire, the urge for more is never satisfied.
Given this crushing human propensity to possess stuff (and sometimes people, too), our weekly portion, Behar, offers what I believe to be the most radical teaching in the entire Torah.  Consider its words:
‘When you come into the land which I shall give you, then the land shall have a sabbath to the Eternal Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its crop,  but during the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard. 
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. . .   It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, [e]and each of you shall return to his family. 
 ‘The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. 
This is extraordinary.  Every seven years we give the land a compete rest and every fifty years we redistribute it so that no one is left poor and landless.  This guards against the grossly unjust distribution of wealth that increasingly undermines both America’s and Israel’s economy.  It also reminds us that the assertion of “Mine!” is ultimately idolatrous, for in the end, all of Creation belongs only to the Creator.
Imagine if an America politician were to propose such a policy!  This is not a platform upon which one is likely to get elected, in either of our major political parties.  Yet here it is in our Torah, as a core part of its vision of a just society and a critical antidote to our consistent craving for more power and possessions.  It may not become economic policy any time soon, but it remains essential for us as a way out of the trap of materialism into which we sometimes stumble.
Henry David Thoreau reminds us that “in wildness is the preservation of the world.”  Why?  Because what is wild is, by definition, that which cannot be owned.  This is why Torah was given in the wilderness, a wild place, open to all, possessed by none.  As we move toward Shavuot and our celebration of receiving Torah, consider: how can I open myself to more wildness and escape the clutch of my impulse to insist upon mine?

For more on the sabbatical and jubilee years, and their potential to transform our contemporary culture, see the work of Hazon, starting at:

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Power of Memory (8th Day of Pesach)

Listen up, can you hear the song of our history
The poetry the mystery the symphony is filling me
To the point of overflowing intensity
Incredibly the remedy for entropy is memory

Ten days ago, Jewish teacher and hip-hop artist Eden Pearlstein—aka Eprhyme—shared these words with us in his extraordinary rap rendition of the week’s haftarah portion.  Throughout this Pesach holiday, I have continued to reflect on his teaching, especially his observation in the last line:  “the remedy for entropy is memory.”

Entropy is, sadly, a fact of life.  Things—and lives and relationships—fall apart.  It takes a lot of love and labor and energy to sustain goodness and blessing in our world.  Death and loss are inevitable parts of even the best-lived lives.

But memories of liberation and celebration, of times and people and places that we cherish can help to carry us through our dark, dry seasons.  When we find ourselves in narrow places, we can recall previous passages out of these “Egypts” and renew our hope that we will move, again, toward promised lands.  And when we despair of our ability to make a difference in healing the brokenness that so often shatters both our personal lives and the wider culture, we can remember the kind, righteous, and inspiring friends and loved ones who did bring that kind of healing, and take sustenance in their examples.

This coming Shabbat is also the eighth and final day of Pesach—and thus one of four days that our tradition designates (along with Yom Kippur and the last days of Sukkot and Shavuot)  for a special Yizkor service, in which we honor our beloved ones who have died. This week, as you celebrate Passover, make an effort to remember your special times, places, and people—and in so doing, affirm that the remedy for entropy really is memory.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Hearing God's Call (Portion Vayikra)

One of my favorite verses in Torah comes when Jacob awakens from his dream of a ladder connecting heaven and earth and declares, “God was in this place and I did not know it.”  I love that moment of  holy recognition, when we realize something has been before our eyes all the time without our previously noticing.  It is the beginning of our becoming more awake and aware, of living a more conscious and conscientious life.

This week we start the book of Leviticus.  Of all of the sections of the Torah, this can be the most difficult for contemporary Jews.   While most of us find it relatively easy to relate to the stories, ethics, and teachings of the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the sacrifices and laws of ritual impurity that take up much of Leviticus strike our modern sensibilities as profoundly strange, alien, and archaic. 

It helps, then, to remember that at the heart of all of the ancient sacrificial rites lies the book’s opening word, which comprises its Hebrew name: Vayikra—“And God called.”  Ultimately, for all of its strangeness to the contemporary reader, Leviticus is all about hearing God’s call in our lives.  The Divine Voice never ceases to beckon.  It calls to us in the music of the natural world, in the love of family and friends, in our ability to learn and grow, in the beauty of human arts and culture, in the creation and sustenance of caring community, and in our work for justice and peace.  Our challenge, like Jacob’s, is to become more fully aware of that sacred presence and acknowledge it.

It is no accident that the final letter in the first word of Leviticus, Vaykira is an aleph.  It’s the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and it is silent.  And here, in the opening of Leviticus, it is also much smaller than any of the other letters on the page, hovering slightly above the line.  This makes it look like the word could be Vayikar, which means, “God chanced upon. . . .”  Torah is asking us to read—and look and listen—closely, to experience, in the silences, what Elijah will later describe as God’s “still, small voice.”   When this happens, what once seemed like chance becomes constant calling—to holiness and life and blessing.

When we experience life this way, then, like our father Jacob, we might have the privilege to proclaim: “God was in this place, and I did not know it.”

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Fashion, Fast and Slow (Portion Vayakhel-Pekude)

Everyone knows about fast food, but have you heard of fast fashion?  This is the term for the clothing that is the bread and butter of stores like H&M, Forever 21, and Zara, which bring in new shipments—and new looks—of cheaply assembled garments weekly.  The goal is simple: to get customers to buy as many clothes as possible, as quickly as possible.  Most of them will fall apart after just a few wearings—which is the whole point.

But just as healthy eaters have launched a slow food movement, so, too, have conscientious retailers and customers begun to promote slow fashion.  Folks like are now producing ethically-sourced, well-made clothing designed to last for many years.  These garments will never be the “it” items at any given moment, but they are built to last and look good in a sustainable long-term wardrobe.

This slow fashion movement is in keeping with the Jewish values in this week’s double portion from the Torah, Vayakhel-Pekude.  As Exodus draws to an end, we get a detailed description of the garments worn by the kohanim, the priests, in the portable sanctuary.  These clothes were not trendy.  But they were beautiful, hand-sewn, dignified, and sturdy.  They were created to serve and honor the Holy One, and did just that.

We live in a throwaway culture.  More than 2.5 billion pounds of our used clothing ends up in landfills each year—an average of 67 pounds for each of us.  Our tradition urges us to do better.  It teaches bal tashchit, meaning, “thou shall not waste!”  The challenge is to learn to better value our God-given resources, both human and natural, as our ancestors did.

Now—what color was that dress?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Model and Mission (Portion Ki Tissa)

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1)

In a very thought-provoking piece on the future of church attendance, Pastor Cary Nieuwhof draws a critical distinction between model and mission.  Models are, essentially, means, while missions are ends—which we confuse at our peril.  For as Nieuwhof notes: The difference [between congregations that will ultimately succeed and those that fail] will be between those who cling to the mission and those who cling to the model.  Look at the changes in the publishing, music and even photography industry in the last few years.  See a trend? The mission is reading. It’s music. It’s photography. The model always shifts….moving from things like 8 tracks, cassettes and CDs to MP3s and now streaming audio and video. . . Companies that show innovation around the mission (Apple, Samsung) will always beat companies that remain devoted to the method (Kodak).  We need to stay focused on the mission and be exceptionally innovative in our model.”

This is as true for us in the Jewish world as it is for churches and corporations—and it always has been.  In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, Moses' prolonged time away atop Mt. Sinai throws the Israelites into a panic.  They fear that in the absence of the man who has led them out of Egypt, God will abandon them.  And so they commission Aaron to build them a golden calf.  Without the customary model—a powerful, charismatic leader—they forget the mission: the service of the Holy One.

As we move our CABI community forward, let us be careful to heed this warning.  Our mission is timeless: to empower our community to live richer Jewish lives grounded in Torah (life-long learning), Avodah (spiritual growth), and G’milut Hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).  But the way we achieve that mission requires innovation and creativity, so that we can remain relevant in a rapidly changing world.  In other words, we must be open to changing how we do things—in order to preserve the core of what we do.

This week, consider: How, in your personal and communal life, can you be more open to creativity in your model in order to better fulfill your mission?

Thank you to Rabbi Seth Goldstein for calling my attention to Pastor Nieuwhof's piece.