Sunday, January 10, 2021

Portion Vaera: Faith/Emunah



During my rabbinical school years, I attended a fascinating debate between two faculty members—one a devout believer, the other a staunch atheist.  They disagreed about almost everything, and as the conversation wore on, each of them grew frustrated.  Finally, the atheist exclaimed: “You keep asking me why I don’t believe, based on the Torah!  Well, if I had seen firsthand the miracles described there—the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the thunderous voice upon Mt Sinai—then I, too, would have faith in your God.”  To which the believer responded: “No—if you had been there, you’d have turned to me and asked, ‘What’s this ruckus all about?’”

In this week’s Torah portion, we see the truth of this argument: miracles never make believers out of skeptics.  Pharaoh repeatedly fails to take to heart the lesson of the plagues; for him, seeing is not necessarily believing.  Alas, as the story of our liberation unfolds, it becomes painfully clear that the Israelites are equally unconvinced by God’s marvels.  Miracles do not move us any more than they do Pharaoh.  Much as his heart is hardened, our spirits are crushed.  Thus, when Moses first performs portents and proposes to bring us out of Egypt, we refuse to listen.  Immediately after our miraculous passage through the Red Sea, we complain about the bitter water.  Our response to the revelation at Mt Sinai is to ask Aaron to make us a golden calf.  Indeed, in the entire Hebrew Bible, there is not a single case of a miracle inspiring sustained faith in God for anyone.  My teacher, Rabbi Herbert Brichto, z”l, argued that this is, in fact, the core lesson of miracles: Torah comes to teach that they are no grounds for spiritual living.  We don’t believe on account of what we see; we see on the basis of what we believe.

So if miracles inevitably fall flat, what does constitute a firm foundation for a faithful life?  David Foster Wallace tells the story of two young fish who are swimming along when they meet an older fish coming from the opposite direction.  “Morning, boys,” he says, “How’s the water?”  The two young fish continue along silently until eventually one of them looks at the other and asks, “What is water?”

Wallace’s point is simple: the only way to open our hearts—and therefore also our eyes—is to live mindfully.  What blinds the young fish—and Pharaoh and our own biblical ancestors and, of course, ourselves—is our tendency to operate wholly unconsciously, to take things for granted rather than making our choices consciously.  Our challenge is, as Wallace notes, to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”  It all begins with mindfulness.  Full consciousness is the real miracle.  

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The Hebrew noun for faith—emunah—refers to a kind of trust and reliability.  It is less a matter of belief and more a case of mindful conviction.  When we commit to true attentiveness, we see that there is always more than meets the eye, whether or not we choose to call it God.  As Alan Morinis notes, “in Mussar, faith is not so much something held as pursued.  How could it be otherwise when relating to divinity that is not only hidden, but that has hidden that very hiddenness?”

Mussar Practice for this Week 

This week, begin and end each day with the words of the Shema:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai eloheynu Adonai echad

Pay attention, children of Israel, the Holy One is our God, the Holy One is One.

As you speak or sing the words, be mindful of your breath—and of the beauty in the people and world around you.  For a moment, at least, trust in the God/the Universe.


Friday, January 8, 2021

This Is America (Portion Shemot 5781)


In a dark and troubled time, how and when does the healing start?

When hatred and violence constrict our world so tightly that it’s hard to breath, what marks the beginning of our liberation?

At the end of this tumultuous week, these questions stand at the heart of both our national discourse and our Torah portion, Shemot, which opens the book of Exodus, with its epic narrative of bondage and redemption.

First, then, the here and now, in the aftermath of an unprecedented insurrection fomented by a sociopathic president raging through the bitter end of his tenure.  On Wednesday evening, President-Elect Biden gave a brief speech designed to reassure our shell-shocked nation.  As I listened, I felt grateful for his calm, collected demeanor and magnanimous words.  But uneasiness set in when he insisted, “This is not America.  This is not who we are.”

I have heard variations of this statement for decades, including here in Boise.  After every anti-Semitic or racist or xenophobic action—including, just a month ago, the defacement of the Anne Frank Memorial—our political leaders invariably say, "This is not Idaho." 

Alas, friends, in January of 2021, I believe it is imperative that we reflect upon the heinous fury we’ve witnessed in Washington, DC and here at home and acknowledge: 

This is America.

This is Idaho.  

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Now to be clear, it's not the entirety of America or Idaho. There is much that is good and beautiful in our beloved country, state and city.  But the hatred and violence are not incidental. They are part of who we are, and have been from the start, since Europeans arrived on this continent, slaughtered its indigenous inhabitants and started buying and selling black Africans as chattel.  As David Brooks noted in a column yesterday, “There are dark specters running through our nation — beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth. They have the stench of Know-Nothingism, the hot blood of the lynchers, and they ride the winds of nihilistic fury.”  This shadow side of our national story has long been painfully obvious to people of color, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and other minorities.  To insist that this is not America is to deny their—our—lived experience here.  We need to hear and honor the opening words of Langston Hughes’s powerful poem:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain.
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America was never America to me.)

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How and when does the healing start?  What marks the beginning of our liberation?

Our Torah portion offers a quiet, and perhaps unexpected answer, taking us back months before the plagues and our ultimate exodus.  We read: 

After many, many days, the King of Egypt died.  The children of Israel groaned from under the labor and cried out in protest.  Their cry for help from their bondage rose up to God and God heard. . . 

Why is different in that moment, after we had already endured over two centuries of slavery?  The Gerer Rebbe taught: “Our sigh, our groan, our crying out was the first step of our redemption.  For as long as we did not cry against our exile, we were not ready to experience liberation.”  In other words, the journey toward the Promised Land cannot commence until we muster the courage to take stock of who and where we truly are, for good and for bad alike.  Only then might we catch a glimpse of who we seek to collectively become.

On a personal level, we relearn this lesson every fall as the Days of Awe approach.  Year after year, we engage in the sacred labor of teshuvah, of getting our lives back on their proper path from which we inevitably stray.  Our Sages remind us that genuine teshuvah always requires at least four steps: we must make an honest accounting of our souls, admit our failings, express our remorse and, to the best of our ability, make amends to those we’ve hurt.

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So, too, on a national level, this is a time of reckoning.  America cannot move forward until we acknowledge the dark side of our past and our present.  We need to recognize that Donald Trump is less the cause of our current state than a symptom of it.  As Professor of African-American Studies Eddie Glaude reminds us: “He is a manifestation of the ugliness that is in us.”  It is long past time to let go of the arrogance of American exceptionalism and understand that we all carry some complicity and bear some responsibility for the kind of ugliness so prominently on display this week.  This is an hour of reckoning.  Let us listen to the voices that have too long gone unheard; let us hear the groans and the cries and bear witness to the affliction.  For these experiences are undeniably a prominent part of who we are.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his visionary essay on religion and race: In a free society, some are guilty.  All are responsible.

This is America.  This is Idaho.

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But just as we must stop denying our very real shortcomings, so, too, must we remember our highest ideals and truly extraordinary accomplishments.  While too many on the right side of the political spectrum willfully ignore the ugly side of our nation’s history, too many on the left seem to see only the warts and none of the beauty.  To dwell only in the darkness is, by definition, to be without vision—and a nation with no vision cannot endure.  As civil rights activist and law professor Bryan Stevenson reminds us: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.  So, too, on a national level.  If the American experience was nothing but racism, genocide, and oppression, it would not be worth our while to continue the endeavor.  Thankfully, despite its authorship by slaveowners, our constitution’s highest ideals, as interpreted over the course of our history, remain a guiding light to us, and to much of the rest of the world as well.

F. Scott Fitzgerald taught: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Thankfully, the Jewish people have honed this skill over centuries.  Our tradition is not one of “either/or” but “both/and.”  We are Hillel and Shammai, who differ on every essential question—even as both speak the words of the living God.  And to return to our book of Exodus, the most well-known symbol of our journey from degradation to praise is matzah, which is simultaneously lachma anya, the bread of affliction, and the centerpiece of the meal that marks our liberation.

This is precisely the task before us in this urgent hour, as the fate of our democracy hangs in the balance.  We must learn to see that America is a land wracked by racism and xenophobia—and a nation where we just witnessed, in the heart of the deep South, the election to the US Senate of a black preacher from MLK’s church and a young Jewish journalist.  We are both children kept in cages on the Mexican border and the words of the Sephardi Jewish poet Emma Lazarus emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .   We are both slavery and abolition, vigilante violence and restorative justice, fear and hope, demagoguery and democracy. We are the insurrectionists desecrating the Capitol and we are the activists honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so many, many more.  We are the vandals who pasted swastikas on our Anne Frank Memorial, and we are the scores of citizens who filled that same sacred space with cascades of flowers and well-wishes.

In this moment of reckoning, This is America.  This is Idaho.

So let us look into our individual and collective souls.  Let us acknowledge and make amends for the monumental failures and celebrate the magnificent achievements.  The path to the Promised Land is long and arduous.  It’s a journey, accomplished not in a day or a week or a month but over forty years or more.  We can’t foresee what lies around the bend.  But we do know it’s better when we travel together.  Then and only then might we make real the end of Langston Hughes’s prophetic poem:

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again.