Sunday, September 25, 2016

Today! (Portion Nitzavim)

The core mitzvah of this season—teshuvah, or turning away from our failings toward renewal and blessing—demands that we learn to free ourselves from the notion that history is destiny.  Our past is an important part of who we are, but it need not be prelude to our future.

In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, we read: “This mitzvah that I command you today—it is not hidden or distant from you” (Deuteronomy 30:11).  For most of our commentators, the mitzvah at stake is teshuvah, and the critical word in the passage is “today.”  As Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson notes, one of the Hebrew terms for sin, aveira, has the same root as the word avar—which means “past.”  Sin is about staying stuck in the past, believing that change is impossible.  We free ourselves through teshuvah, through turning—believing that we can start anew if we live mindfully, in the present.

Rabbi Pinson concludes: “Teshuvah is a radical act of renewal and recreation. . . Learn to focus on the present.  When we are preoccupied with our past or future, we are stealing a moment from the ‘now’.  The gift of life is the present.  The past is memory and the future is imagination; the only true moment of life is the formless, eternal now.”

Rosh Hashanah will be here next week.  Meanwhile, as our portion reminds us, we have “today”—the promise of the present moment.  May we choose life and blessing. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What do we do with urges and desires that we know lead us astray—and yet sometimes find overwhelming?

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, offers a story that, when understood metaphorically, provides guidance.  On a literal level, the passage deals with women taken as captives in wartime.  It states: "If you go to war against your enemies and. . .you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her. . . then you shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. . . and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month.  After that, you may be intimate with her and take her as a wife for yourself.  And if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes."

Every year, we read these verses in the month of Elul, the time of preparation for the Days of Awe.  This is no accident, for they suggest a strategy for dealing with the challenges of unrestrained passion and desire.  As Rabbi Alan Lew writes: Since we can’t and probably shouldn’t repress our desires, and since it is so often a calamity when we follow them, what should we do?  The passage points us to an answer.  First of all, we watch our desires arise.  The soldier at the beginning of Ki Tetze has to live with his desire, to watch it as it evolves without acting on it, for a full month.  And the second thing we can learn from him is that once we have our desires firmly in view, we can then strip them of their exotic dress.  We can make them cut off their fingernails and their hair, we can make them take off that revealing frock they were wearing when we first saw them.  In other words, we can see them for what they really are.”

The Talmud famously teaches that true strength lies in our ability to master our own impulses.   Our Torah portion, as viewed through Rabbi Lew’s commentary, suggests that this process begins with naming and acknowledging them.  Quietly suppressing our passions never works—we may shove them away for awhile, but ultimately they will return in some other, unexpected area of our lives, with more power than ever before.  Besides, the energy and desire that drives those passions is a gift from God.  When we recognize this, and speak of them openly, we can use it constructively. 

So I’ll end with a suggestion that Rabbi Lew offers in his book—I’ve mentioned it many times before, but can’t sing the praises of this book enough—This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared.  You might consider devoting some time to this practice each day during this Jewish month of Elul, up through, and including Rosh Hashanah:

Devote a bit of time each day to identifying whatever desire has distorted in our lives, the beautiful delusion for which we’ve thrown everything away, or for which we stand ready to do so, in any case.

And when we’ve located it, all we have to do is look at it.  We don’t have to kill it, and we certainly don’t have to act on it either.  We can just let it arise in the fullness of its being, unromantically stripped down to the naked impulse that it is, without the finery of romance, without hair, nails or dress, just the bare impulse itself. 

We can watch this impulse as it arises for the entire month of Elul, and if after a month it still seems to be something that we want, something that continues to arouse strong feeling in us, then we’ve learned something useful about ourselves. 

But if this desire stripped of its romantic trappings simply fades away, then we’ve learned something even more useful.  We learned that there is more to heaven and earth than those things on the surface of the world that provoke desire in our hearts. 

Wait on God.  Be strong and courageous of heart and wait on God.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Fearful--and Hopeful--Heart (Portion Shoftim)

Fear is contagious—but so is hope.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, offers laws around warfare.  After describing how the leadership prepares the troops for battle,  we get an extraordinary verse, in which the officials declare: “Is there anyone here who is afraid and disheartened?  Let him go home, lest his brother’s heart melt as his heart has.”

Commenting on this passage in his wonderful book about our fall holy days, This is Real and  You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew notes: “The assumption beneath this admonishment is staggering in both its scope and its simplicity: we all share the same heart. . . We look like separate bodies.  We look like we are discrete from one another.  Physically, we can see where one of us begins and another one of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn’t this way.  Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beneath the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty. . . . So if someone is afraid, the Torah tells us, we had better send him home from battle before the fear spreads from his heart to ours.  The fear is more real than the self.”

Torah’s wisdom is uncannily applicable in our current environment.  Fear is, indeed, wildly contagious.  Anyone even remotely familiar with the political discourse in this election year knows how tempting it is for a candidate to run on a platform of fear—especially fear of the Other, of the unknown, of change.  To portray our nation as a sort of malevolent dystopia is to conjure up deeply rooted fears.   As conservative columnist David Brooks (who will be speaking in Boise this month) noted in a piece this summer, it is all to easy to take the pervasive collection of anxieties that plague America and concentrate them on the most visceral one: fear of violence and crime. Brooks concludes: “Historically, this sort of elemental fear has proved to be contagious and it does move populations.”

But Torah reminds us time and again that hope, too, can spread from heart to heart, just as readily as fear.  “Be strong and have courage”—so Moses speaks to Joshua, and Joshua to the people.  So one generation encourages one another, linking our hearts not in terror but in love and compassion and promise.  As we move toward Rosh Hashanah, we renew our souls, individually and collectively.  May we strengthen one another, generating holy sparks of light that spread out into the world and dispel the darkness of fear.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Inheritances, Past and Future (Portion Pinchas)

Tonight, Hillary Rodham Clinton will speak to the nation, accepting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.

I have at times been a reluctant supporter of Sec. Clinton.  In many ways, I would have preferred a progressive with a stronger populist streak, more critical of Wall Street and the Democratic party establishment.

But tonight I celebrate this nomination.  This is an historic occasion, and I am eager to see the election of America’s first female president.  Tonight I celebrate the fact that my three daughters might aspire to the highest levels of leadership just as much as my son.  And tonight I celebrate the promise of hope over fear, of the Democrats’ vision of America as a land of expanding possibility rather than Donald Trump and his party’s dark and narrow dystopia.  Thank you, Hillary Clinton, for your leadership here.

And the timing is uncannily in sync with the Jewish year.  This Shabbat, we will read the story of five brave women—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah—the daughters of Zelophehad, who came to Moses with a quiet but revolutionary request: let us inherit land in Canaan, just like the men.  God responds by heartily approving their request, noting: “They speak justly.”  The great contemporary commentator Avivah Zornberg adds: “Before a word has been spoken, the narrative has set these sisters in a world that holds no obvious place for them. . . The sisters’ fine timing is expressed in their speaking against the grain of common prejudice.  Here, then, to speak at the right moment is to speak precisely at the wrong moment.  It is to speak without the support of conventional frameworks; to speak at the particular historical moment when one’s speech will resound uncannily—when it may create change.”

May Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech tonight, and her actions in the coming weeks and months, echo that of these five biblical foremothers, courageously paving the way for justice, for hope, for compassion, for change.

I’m with her.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

To the Contrary (Portion Sh'lach L'chah)

It is essential to remember that sometimes the majority—even the vast majority—is radically wrong.  Our tradition reminds us of this, and urges us to take precautions.
This week’s Torah portion, Shelach L’chah recalls one of those critical moments.  As the Israelites approach their destination, Moses sends twelve scouts to survey the land of Canaan and then report on how to proceed.  All agree that the land is bountiful, but ten of the twelve argue against crossing the Jordan, fearing the military strength of its inhabitants.  Only two of the scouts—Joshua and Caleb—dissent, urging the people to have faith and move forward.  The majority wins—and the nation loses.  The Israelites, defying Moses, choose not to enter the Promised Land—and are thereby condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years.
This experience teaches us to be wary of commonly accepted wisdom, to maintain a healthy skepticism and to question authority.  This is especially critical, because sometimes the errors of the majority are compounded by groupthink; outliers are tempted to second guess themselves and go along with the majority even when they are convinced it is on the wrong path, just because everyone else is doing so.  It must have taken Joshua and Caleb a great deal of strength and clarity to stand by their position in the face of so much opposition.
How do we avoid the pitfall of mindless majoritarianism?  Not surprisingly, the Talmud—the great Jewish compendium of debate and dissent—offers wisdom here.  In talmudic argument, one encounters the Aramaic phrase ipchah mi-stabra.  It is invoked when there seems to be a consensus on an issue—and one of the Sages questions it, suggesting ipchah mi-stabra—just the opposite is, in fact, the truth. It is a gambit to challenge conventional wisdom and offer strikingly different perspectives.
This ancient phrase—and the insight it contains—was famously invoked by the Israeli military in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, which proved the overly confident pre-war consensus in the intelligence community to be devastatingly wrong.  Citing ipchah mi-stabra, institutions were put into place to reduce the chances that groupthink and overly dominant commanders would prevent diverse opinions from reaching decision makers or even being initiated at all.  One of these was a unit known as the Devil’s Advocate office, with a mandate to question any and all proposals coming from the majority of the defense establishment.  This approach has proven to be very fruitful in the intervening forty years.

Healthy skepticism and thinking outside the box have long been strengths of the Jewish people.  This week, question something in your life that you’ve too long taken for granted.  Perhaps—ipchah mi-stabra—you’ll discover something very different and new.