Sunday, October 25, 2020

Portion Lech L'chah: Emunah/Faith



This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

Faith is often contrasted with doubt.  In this understanding, faith means absolute certainty, usually around the existence and lovingkindness of God, while doubt is defined by skepticism about those things.  In truth, however, many people of deep faith live with a great deal of doubt.    For instance, Mother Teresa’s private writings reveal that she struggled mightily to find the faith that she embodied for so many of her followers: “I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one.  Alone.  Where is my faith?  Even deep down, there is nothing.”  Thankfully, our Jewish tradition does not depict faith in this manner. For us, faith and doubt can go hand in hand.  As Rabbi Daniel Gordis notes: “Uncertainty is not the enemy of religious and spiritual growth.  Doubt is what fuels the journey.”

For us, the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is fear.

********

A Jewish understanding of faith—in Hebrew, emunah—as moving forward despite our fear, stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah.  The parshah opens with God’s challenging call to Abraham:

The Eternal said to Avram: “Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .”  Avram went as the Eternal had commanded him, and Lot went with him.  Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

Abraham’s journey demands an enormous amount of courage and trust.  God tells him to go, on short notice, with no map or clear destination.  And though he undoubtedly felt a great deal of trepidation around leaving his homeland and kin, Abraham complies.

Sarah’s departure demands even more faith, because she agrees to embark upon the same journey--without the benefit of Divine reassurance. Sarah only hears God’s call secondhand, through her husband. Yet she goes, too.

********

We can learn a great deal from Abraham and Sarah, for most of our major life decisions involve this same sort of faith.  No matter how much preparation and research we may do, we are never really aware of what we’re getting into when we first leave home, or get married, take a new job, move to a different city, or decide to have children.  These journeys always begin with a leap of faith.  Like Abraham and Sarah, we move forward despite our fear, trusting that things will somehow work out.  

And it’s not just the big transitions; most of our ordinary actions are also, ultimately, based on trust.  One of my favorite descriptions of this reality comes from the poet Tomas Transtromer: 

How much we have to trust, simply to live each day without

      sinking through the earth!

Trust the piled snow clinging to the mountain slope above the village.

Trust the promises of silence and the smile of understanding, trust

      that the emergency telegram isn't for us and that the sudden

      axe-blow from within won't come.

********

In the Mussar tradition, emunah—faith in the face of fear—is a very important midah, which we develop through years of dedicated practice.  This is a good week to concentrate on trusting the Holy One, or, if you prefer, the Universe.  Consider some of the things that you take on trust, consciously or unconsciously.  Notice the earth, firm beneath your feet.  And, as Mussar teacher Alan Morinis suggests, “Stretch into the territory of risk, not recklessly, but with trust.”


Mussar Practice for this Week:

Write yourself a note with the phrase, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.”   Taken from Psalms 56:13, the “you” traditionally refers to God, but feel free to redefine the grounding for your faith however works best for you.   Carry the note around and read it regularly over the course of each day.  What does the practice of emunah/faith look like for you in your work and/or family life?


Monday, October 19, 2020

Portion Noach: Anavah/Humility



This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

This week’s portion, Noach, concludes with the succinct tale of the Tower of Babel.  When the narrative commences, with Genesis 11, “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.”  By its conclusion, just a few verses later, humanity is dispersed all over the world, with each nation speaking its own language, unable to understand its neighbors.

What is the human failing that carries such profound consequences?  Overweening haughtiness.  God scatters humanity and confounds our speech in response to our conceit, as expressed in our desire to erect a tower in the center of a large city, with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves. The building is a tangible symbol of our arrogance.

**********

Humility—in Hebrew, anavah—plays a central role in the Mussar tradition. Among the midot, it is foundational because a person who lacks humility—who thinks they are better than others—cannot really learn and grow.  It is no coincidence that humility is the only character trait that Torah directly attributes to Moses, describing him as “the humblest person on the face of the earth.”  Our Sages add that a person who is too full of him (or her) self does not leave room for God to dwell.

But it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake.  Being humble does not mean being a self-debasing nobody; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem.  As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper balance between arrogance and self-loathing.  Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my place.”

**********

After God scatters the generation of the Tower of Babel, our portion ends with a long genealogy listing the ten generations from Noah to Shem to Abraham.  Most of the people in that list are long-forgotten, but their legacies live on in the enduring story of the Jewish people.  Each of them had a role to play, a time to step forward, a space to occupy. So, too, for each of us: when we live with humility, we do not always see the fruits of our labors, but this does not make them any less real.


Mussar Practice for this Week:

Write yourself a note with the phrase, “No more than my space, no less than my place” and carry it around with you, reading it regularly over the course of the day.  

What does the practice of humility look like in your work and/or family life?


Bereishit 5781

Portion B’reishit: Acharayut/Responsibility


This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter.  The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc.  Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition.  As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.

This week’s portion, B’reishit, opens the Torah; it is also a perfect place to introduce the mission of Mussar.  While the portion begins with the creation story, I would like to start a few chapters later, with Cain and Abel.

When each of the world’s first brothers brings a good will offering, God inexplicably accepts Abel’s gift but rejects Cain’s.  This understandably sends Cain into a jealous rage.  God takes note and warns Cain not to give in to his violent impulses, saying: “Surely if you do right, there is uplift.  But if you do not do right, sin crouches at the door.  Its urge is toward you, yet you can master it.”

Cain hears God’s words, but he doesn’t listen.  He recognizes that it’s wrong to kill his brother, yet he does it anyway.

Why does Cain fail to heed God’s warning?  Why would he—and why do we—choose to act unethically, knowing full well that we are in the wrong?

********

This story takes me back to my years as a student of philosophy.  As an undergraduate and in rabbinical school, I expended a great deal of time and effort studying ethics.  I learned a lot but the philosophers’ writings always left me rather dissatisfied, because their core inquiry felt far removed from my own ethical concerns.  They focused on moral reason, parsing out how we know the good and what would constitute the right course of action in all sorts of complicated hypothetical situations.  I found this intellectually interesting, but when I honestly considered my own misdeeds and poor choices, they invariably felt like failures of will rather than knowledge.  When I asked friends and family to reflect upon their own mistakes, they confirmed my hunch.  Four decades later, I am ever more convinced that in the vast majority of cases, we know the right thing to do.  The problem is that we so often fail to muster the will and master the tools that would enable us to actually do it.

********
That’s why I was drawn to Mussar.  As Rabbi Ira Stone notes in his book, A Responsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, this Jewish discipline starts by asking, “What prevents me from doing what is good?  If I know what is right, if I espouse a set of values that describe the good, why is it so difficult to act on that knowledge and those values?”  There are, of course, a host of answers to these questions, but at its heart, Mussar offers us a set of tools to help us not only know what’s right but actually live it.  To improve our souls, we examine our unique array of personal traits, duly consider where we are out of balance, and commit to spiritual practices that strengthen our capacity to choose the good. 

********

Viewed through this lens, God’s words to Cain in our parshah falls woefully short.  God delivers admonition when Cain needs a toolkit.   A good Mussar teacher might have offered Cain a short course on anger management, with concrete strategies on how to overcome his evil impulse rather than a vague and ineffective warning against it.

********

Mussar empowers us to take responsibility for our actions by giving us tools to scrutinize and correct them.  Over the coming weeks, we’ll be looking to each week’s portion as a source for those tools, and for examples—good and bad—of their application.

I look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Pesach 2020: All Who Are Hungry


As we prepare for our Passover seders in this very challenging year, I would like to share two teachings from our tradition that strike me as more relevant than ever in our current circumstances.

The first comes from the description of the original Pesach, in Exodus 12, where Moses relays God’s instructions to the Israelite community:

Go pick out lambs for your families and slaughter the Passover offering.  Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts.  None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. . . Thus the Holy One will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter your home.

The eve of the Exodus is a sacred time, but it is also fraught with death and danger.  While the death of the first born is supposed to afflict only the Egyptians, Moses knows that if the Israelites wish to be spared, they must take proper precautions and stay at home, lest the Destroyer strike them down indiscriminately, together with their taskmasters.  The implication is clear: during a plague, the Angel of Death potentially spares no one.

I decidedly do not see the COVID 19 pandemic as a vehicle for God’s wrath.  Still, there is a lesson for our in the original Pesach story: Stay home!  This must be a sacred obligation, for it is truly the best way to preserve life and health for both ourselves and others.  Distance physically, while reaching out electronically.  Check in on one another but do not go out.  And express your deep gratitude toward those who do not have this luxury of staying in, like health care workers and those running the businesses that provide essential services (including cashiers, those delivering goods, and many other lowly-paid workers).  Tip even more generously than usual.  Support the hospitals.   And if you truly must go out yourself, be sure to wear a mask!

**********
The second Pesach teaching for this unusual time comes from the Haggadah itself, where, toward the beginning of the Seder, we break the matzah and recite over it:

Ha Lachma Anya
This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread,
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want, share the hope of Passover.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.
This year we celebrate here.
Next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are still in bonds.
Next year may we all be free.

Now, more than ever, it is incumbent upon those of us blessed with abundance to share it with those who are not.  In the midst of this virus, the number of vulnerable people in our community is expanding exponentially.  With the illness raging and the economy grinding to a halt, hunger and homelessness threaten so many!

Hence the obligation upon those of us who are secure to extend our support to those who are not.  If you are able, please donate generously—including your forthcoming government stimulus check—to care for those facing deep financial insecurity.  In particular, for this Pesach, I want to urge you to give to two local organizations.  Jesse Tree works in partnership with the city of Boise to prevent folks from falling into homelessness, by providing emergency rental assistance and relevant social services.  You can support them here

The Jewish Assistance Fund of Idaho (JAFI) cares for those in need within our own community.  That number is growing and we anticipate unprecedented pressing need in the coming weeks.  You can support them here:

Let all who are in want share the hope of Passover.

Next year in Jerusalem!  Next year may we all be free of hunger and illness and need!

A safe and meaningful Pesach, all.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Liberation and the COVID 19 Virus

This season, from the opening of the month of Nisan through the forthcoming Pesach holiday, is known in our tradition as z’man cheiruteynu—the time of our liberation.  As the natural world blooms with the rebirth of spring, we prepare for the sacred journey out of Egypt toward freedom and the Promised Land.

As many have noted, the Hebrew word for Egypt—Mitzrayim—means “a narrow place.”  In our current strange and challenging circumstances, as we continue our physical distancing due to the COVID 19 virus, many of us feel that sense of confinement viscerally.  We worry for our loved ones, and for ourselves.  We see pain and suffering, and sometimes feel powerless to avert it.

I have no easy answers.  At CABI, we are learning together, as we go.  We are exploring new ways to reach out to one another.  And we are very open to your ideas and suggestions.  Let us know how we can help.  I’m proud of how our community has responded over the last two weeks.  I have seen an outpouring of generosity, a hunger for real connection, and an extraordinary resilience.  I believe that when life eventually returns to whatever the new “normal” will be, our community will be profoundly strengthened by what we learn.  We are growing, together, and will continue to do so in the days and weeks to come.

In the meantime, though, let us recognize that the pain and suffering is not distributed evenly.  Life is, as always, unfair; indeed, the inequity is, if anything, magnified by the crisis.

I am, therefore, reaching out to you with a request relating to the recently-approved federal stimulus package.  Many of us who will receive a significant check from the government—including me and my family—are privileged not to need it.  I am grateful to have enough.  For others, however, that subsidy will be far too little, a pittance for those left without work, struggling to pay for food, rent, and basic services.  And for some, like most of the homeless and those who are not US citizens, there will be no money at all.

I am, therefore, urging our CABI family to work together to create more justice in this crisis.  If you do not need your subsidy money, I am asking you to donate it to support those who need it dearly.  I’d like to suggest four possibilities.
Create Common Good and Life’s Kitchen are working with our own Jodi Peterson-Stigers to provide food for our community’s homeless through Interfaith Sanctuary during this crisis.  You can support them here:

Jesse Tree works in partnership with the City of Boise to prevent our must vulnerable tenants from falling into homelessness. You can support them here:

Last but decidedly not least, the Jewish Assistance Fund of Idaho (JAFI) provides for those in need within our own Jewish community—and in the current circumstances, we expect that need to be considerable.  You can support JAFI here:


I believe with all of my heart and soul that when this crisis has passed, we will be judged by how we treated the most vulnerable among us.  May we rise to the occasion as the Jewish people have, time and again, throughout our long history.

May this week bring strength and healing to us all.

L’Shalom-

Rabbi Dan

Monday, March 16, 2020

Vayakhel-Pekude: Gather the People


Moses gathered together the entire Israelite community. . .
                                                -Exodus 35:1

This week’s double portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, begins with Moses convoking all of the children of Israel at God’s behest.  The root of the opening word, vayakhel/to gather, is also the source of the word kehillah—Jewish community.  Our Jewish calling is to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  As Rabbi Ron Wolfson notes in his powerful book, Relational Judaism:

Our obligation to each other is rooted in the biblical notion that every human being is made in the image of God. The image of God is within, but the presence of God is found "in the between," in our relationships. . . . Covenants form the foundation of "community"—a group of people bound together in relationships based on reciprocal responsibilities.

It is rather ironic that we encounter this portion grounded in gathering during a week when, across the globe, we are quarantining ourselves; it’s also timely, because in this season of fear and anxiety our sacred challenge is to find ways to remain in community with one another, in spite of the COVID 19 virus.  Indeed, now, more than ever, we need community.  This is why I reject the phrase “social distancing.”  For the sake of public health, especially for the most vulnerable among us, physical distancing is necessary and entirely in keeping with our core Jewish value of pikuach nefesh—saving life.  But we need social connection.  One cannot live a rich Jewish life without community, even—or especially—in this strange and difficult time. 

In this spirit, we at CABI will be busy working from our homes to find fresh ways to connect with each of you.  As we do, please give us feedback.  We are all learning as we go.  Text or email us.  Call us.  And reach out through some of the new platforms that we will be using.  This past weekend, we livestreamed our Shabbat services for the first time.  We plan to continue that practice, and hope to add opportunities that allow for more dialogue, in real time, between us.

Fittingly, the portion ends with the final chapter of Exodus—and therefore after reading it, we proclaim the words that our tradition prescribes for the conclusion of each book of Torah: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong!  Let us be strong!  And let us strengthen and draw strength from one another!

**********

Davar Acher—An Additional Interpretation: COVID19 is a potent reminder of just how globalized our world has become.  The virus testifies to the utter artificiality of national boundaries. 

Facing this reality is, in some ways fearful and painful but it also points the way to a brighter future, for just as borders are inconsequential to a pandemic, so, too, in the matter of climate change.  Long after the coronavirus has come and gone, we will continue to reckon with existential ecological concerns.  Let us hope and pray and labor to bring our fractured world together in responding to COVID 19—and in so doing, generate new paths of hope and cooperation on climate. 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ki Tissa: Making a Difference


-->


One of the challenges we face in working on climate change is the trap of hopelessness.  Because the problem is so immense, in both scope and consequences, it is easy to despair of our ability to make a difference—and without faith that our actions matter, we are likely to do nothing. 

Our Torah portion for this week—and some commentary on it, old and new—offers an important insight into this conundrum.

Ki Tisa presents the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.  After forty days atop Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God, Moses heads down with great energy and enthusiasm, ready to bring the Word to his beloved Israelite people.  But when he sees what they have done in his absence, constructing and then worshiping an idol of gold, he becomes enraged and despondent: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the [people] dancing, he grew furious.  He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”

This account in Exodus raises a significant difficulty: Even though he is understandably angry, how can Moses intentionally destroy God’s handiwork, containing the Divine Name?  The midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer offers an ingenious answer to this problem.  It proposes that in the instant Moses beheld the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, the letters flew off the stones and they became too heavy for him to bear.  In other words, Moses did not throw the tablets—he dropped them out of exhaustion.  This gets him off the hook for demolishing God’s words—for God’s words are no longer on the tablets when they shatter.  It also suggests that Moses was a victim of hopelessness.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner interprets the scene: “When Moses felt he was bringing God’s word to a people eager to receive it, he was capable of doing something difficult and demanding.  When he had reason to suspect that his efforts were in vain, the same task became too hard for him.”

Our efforts to combat catastrophic climate change can feel very much like this.  When we can’t see ourselves making a difference, the task becomes inordinately difficult.  That is why it is important to remind ourselves that what we do really does matter.  The website crowdsourcingsustainability.org offers three reassuring truths to keep us going:

1.     The size of an individual’s footprint is mind-boggling. 
Our impact over a lifetime really adds up!

2.     The macro dictates the micro.   
When enough citizens, employees, and consumers start to advocate for climate-friendly policies and products, government officials and companies will step up to supply them.  By using our power, we incentivize better products, services, and innovation.  Each of us plays a role in this.


3.     The ripple effect—we are a highly social species.
Sustainability can and will start to spread rapidly once it gets going. If just one person starts acting sustainably – if you start acting sustainably others are sure to start following suit. You won’t even know all the people you influence. By being the change you wish to see, you will have an outsized impact and help to build momentum in the fight against climate change.


As our Torah portion ends, Moses and God and the people of Israel reconcile.  The sacred labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, continues and takes up the rest of the book of Exodus.  God and Moses learn that their labors are not in vain—but that progress is incremental, and often filled with setbacks.  The Israelites are given a second chance—and this time, fare better.  Each side learns to see its work as meaningful, and that sense of purpose will sustain them for forty years in the desert. 

So may it be with our sacred labor on behalf of God’s creation.