Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sweet Cake (Rosh Hashanah 5778)

Last week, the air turned cooler, the smoke cleared, and the first leaves of autumn began to turn.  For us, too, the time for turning has arrived.  On Wednesday night, we will welcome in the new year, 5778.

I look forward to seeing many of you for the first time since returning from my sabbatical.  Over the course of the fall holy days, I’ll be sharing some of my experiences in Lithuania as part of a sermon series that I’m calling “Turn.  Pray.  Liberate.”  It’s based on the central line of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which teaches that teshuvah (turning), tefillah (prayer), and tzedakah (acts of justice) have the power to mitigate the severe judgment of the season.  My experience while paddling the rivers of my ancestral homeland—and meeting the people there—illuminated that teaching for me, and I’m eager to share the stories with you.

In the meantime, here’s a poem by my colleague Rabbi Alden Solovy that expresses my hopes and dreams for our CABI community during the Days of Awe:

Sweet Cake

Give me a drop of honey,
And I will give you the harvest moon.
Give me a silent tear,
And I will give you the roaring sea.
Give me a cup of milk,
And I will give you the rising sun.
Give me your secret prayer,
And I will give you my broken heart.

Give me a drop of honey,
And we will make a feast of this life.
Sweet cake,
To feed ourselves with joy and love.
Sweet cake,
To feed the world with awe and wonder.
Sweet cake,
Of milk and honey.
Sweet cake,
Of prayers and tears.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu.  May we all be written and sealed in the book of life for a good year.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Failing Better (Nitzavim-Vayelech)

Faith and failure are not mutually exclusive.

In the second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Nitzavim-Vayelech, God calls us to faith and courage: “Be strong and brave.  Do not fear or be dismayed, for the Eternal your God goes with you.”

What comforting words!  We feel our spirits lift as the Holy One esentially tells us: “You can do it.  You will be taken care of and supported.  You are not alone.”

And yet, just a few verses later, God says to Moses: “Behold, you are about to die and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land into which they are coming.  And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them.”  How fatalistic!  God may be with us, yet we are doomed to miss the mark.

At first glance, this seems like a profoundly confused, mixed message: Go forth with courage—and then you’ll fail?

Yet upon reflection, this is the paradoxical truth at the heart of our human experience, especially in this fall holy day season.  As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we conduct our spiritual inventory and commit to making positive changes in the year ahead—even though we know that we will frequently fall short of our ideals and expectations.  We need both sides of this equation: realism about our inevitable shortcomings and the moral fortitude to keep on trying to transform ourselves.  As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

L’shanah Tovah—May we all fail better in the coming new year.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Fear and Awe (Portion Ki Tavo)

Is it ever desirable to serve God—or, for that matter, any good cause—out of abject fear?

At first glance, this week’s Torah portion seems to answer in the affirmative.  Ki Tavo offers a few lovely blessings and a host of horrific curses that could easily be read as a path to observance grounded on the promise of reward and—more tellingly—fear of punishment. 

Yet the great medieval scholar Moses Maimonides adamantly rejects this perspective.  He writes: 

A person should not say, 'I will fulfill the commandments of the Torah and occupy myself in its wisdom in order to receive all the blessings which are contained in it, or in order to merit life in the world to come.  [Similarly,] I will avoid the transgressions which the Torah warned against in order to be saved from the curses contained in the Torah or so that I not be cut off from the world to come.'"  This is not [worship at] the level of the prophets or the wise...  The only ones who serve God in this [inferior] way are ignoramuses... and children, who are trained to serve from fear until their knowledge grows and they come to serve out of love" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 10:1)

With this in mind, it is worth noting that Hebrew word for fear—yir’ah—also means awe.  What is the difference between these two responses?  Rabbi Shai Held offers a critical distinction:

Awe is what happens to fear when it stops being about me. . . If one of the core goals of the religious life is to teach us that our interests and concerns ought not to be the exclusive center of our lives, then fear of punishment is something that must ultimately be minimized - or perhaps, according to some, jettisoned altogether.  As an alternative, Jewish tradition offers us awe, wherein we acknowledge Someone far greater than ourselves, and thus allow God - and not our own egos - to become the very center of our world.

In just two and a half weeks, we will enter the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.  I pray that they will be filled with just that—the kind of awe that wakens wonder and calls us to community.  Only bullies rule out of fear.  The God that I worship in this season and beyond wants radical amazement and pursuit of justice.  To achieve those ends, as individuals, as a community, and as a nation would be truly awesome.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

You Cannot/Must Not Hide (Portion Ki Tetze)

You must not/cannot hide yourself.

If we seek a more just society, there is no room for inaction in the midst of evil.  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, contains more mitzvot/commandments than any other.  Most are concerned with the creation of a more equitable and holy community, laying out the details of our individual obligations and responsibilities toward this end.

One refrain from the parsha cuts to the heart of this endeavor: Lo tuchal l’hitalem.  Yet the precise meaning of the Hebrew is unclear, for it could be rendered either as a command—“You must not hide yourself!”—or a statement of fact—“You cannot hide.”  Which way should we understand the passage?

In good Talmudic fashion, sixteenth century commentator Moshe Alshikh reconciles the two readings.  He writes:

After you have performed a commandment three times, then you will know that the observance of the mitzvah is, once and for all, firmly implanted within you, so that whatever the circumstances, “you cannot hide.”

In other words, once we thoroughly accustom ourselves to doing the right thing, our own moral conscience and the power of habit make it virtually impossible to ignore injustice.

As we continue our communal and individual journeys through the month of Elul, toward the Days of Awe, let us heed this imperative to refuse to hide ourselves amidst the seething injustice engulfing our nation.  As Jews, we know all too well that avoiding responsibility and being a bystander is not an acceptable option.  As Elie Wiesel taught: “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Justice, Justice--Means and Ends after Charlottesville (Portion Shoftim)

As we begin the first week of Elul, the Jewish month of reflection and preparation for the coming Days of Awe, we have a lot of work to do.  Our nation is bleeding.  In the aftermath of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, so much is broken, starting with the moral abomination at the helm whose comments have empowered bigots and abused the vulnerable.

And then this verse shouts out at us from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: “Justice, justice you must pursue!”

Why is the word tzekdek—justice—repeated twice in succession?  Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa teaches: "Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just."

This is crucial.  Our tradition insists that if we wish to repair the world, we cannot pretend that a positive end justifies negative means.   Justice will only endure if we achieve it with integrity.

Rabbi Mordecai Liebling was in Charlottesville during the white supremacist rioting.  In his article, “Fighting What the Nazis Fear,” he speaks of the imperative to resist evil and, concurrently, to reach out, even—or perhaps especially—to those whose views are repugnant to us.  He writes:

“We are faced with a difficult challenge: we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry. . . The truth is that they are not getting what they were led to believe and their economic future is not promising.
It is the work of those white people who are able to hear their pain, attempt to reach over barriers and advocate for policies that will benefit them as well. Dehumanizing and dismissing them leads to more hatred. We will not bring about a more just society through violence.”
This is our enormous challenge in the coming year. 
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.  Justice, justice shall you puruse.
Resist and reach out. 

Reach out and resist.