Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Health Care, Pesach, and the Real Meaning of Freedom

With their proclamations of sovereignty and passage of the Idaho Health Freedom Act, which purports to exempt our state from federally-mandated health care reform, our governor and legislature have reduced Idaho to the level of a petulant child whining to Washington, “You’re not the boss of me!”

This position may curry favor with anti-government zealots, but it is also legally and ethically wrong-headed, and fighting it will squander enormous resources. The US constitution clearly grants the federal government the power to write laws that are binding on all fifty states. In 1861, the Confederacy challenged that authority—and lost when the Civil War ended with their unconditional surrender at Appomattox. The history is telling because ever since then, efforts to re-vivify the old states’ rights argument have consistently been—to borrow a phrase from Samuel Johnson—the last refuge of scoundrels. Idaho Republicans have now cast their lot with the dubious company of ante-bellum slave-holders and Jim Crow southern segregationists. Now, as then, assertions of state sovereignty have nothing to do with real freedom and everything to do with maintaining an unjust and oppressive status quo.

Why has this always been the case? Because genuine freedom is not about the childish notion that one can do whatever one desires, regardless of the cost. My Jewish tradition speaks out of a deeper understanding of liberation in this season. Our festival of Passover marks our deliverance from Egyptian bondage—but we regard that exodus as merely the first step of the journey rather than the final goal. We remind ourselves of this by counting the omer, the seven weeks that separate Passover and Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. This connection asserts that freedom does not find its fulfillment until we accept the responsibility to one another and the rest of God’s creation that is at the heart of Torah’s teachings.

By this same logic, the federal government can and should require individuals to purchase health insurance for the same reason that states require drivers to buy auto insurance: we are part of a common weal, and the welfare of any one citizen affects the welfare of us all. Mandating that those who are healthy and can afford to pay must do so is the only way to create a pool large enough to cover the needs of those who are unable to afford insurance on their own. This is our moral obligation because we are, as the Bible consistently teaches, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

An important Talmudic teaching describes the classic libertarian attitude of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” as the morality of Sodom. Indeed, the sin of Sodom has nothing to do with sexuality (as many anti-gay groups would have it) and everything to do with selfishness and the tyranny of valuing individual wealth over social responsibility. As the prophet Ezekiel taught: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy. . . and so I removed them, as you saw.”

Alas, here in Idaho, three thousand years later, too little has changed. The so-called “Idaho Health Care Freedom Act” only entrenches our place among tantrum-throwing toddlers, selfish sinners of Sodom, and spiteful segregationists. Is this really the kind of company our governor and legislature wish to keep?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Placing My Bet

Today, my community dedicated our newly-repaired Torah scrolls. This included filling in the opening line of Genesis, which for some unknown reason was never properly consecrated when it was written close to a century ago.

We did this with the help of Sofer Neil Yerman, a dedicated, wise and creative scribe, who is also a real mensch. As members of the congregation came up to complete the letters in the scroll, he guided everyone's hands with great compassion, kindness, and expertise.

He told us all a story about repairing a Holocaust Torah scroll from Prague. He had to remove and replace an entire section, in which one of the names of God was damaged beyond repair. With great care, he re-wrote this whole page of parchment, meticulously emulating the style, font, size and script of the original scroll. Yet when he sewed his new section to the adjoining original sections, he says:

The old letters began to kvetch and complain to me about their new neighbors: "Who are these newcomers? Where did our old friends go? These interlopers don't belong here." I heard them, and I could empathize. Imagine losing your oldest friends, your family, the loved ones you have lived with for nearly three centuries, and having them replaced by new kids on the block. But I told the ancient letters that in time they would come to love their new companions. The elders responded by asking me, "Who are these strange young letters?" And I answered, "They are your great grandchildren."

Sofer Yerman called my daughter Rosa and me to the bimah to complete the scroll by filling in its very first letter, the "bet" that begins the opening word of Torah, b'reishit, "in the beginning."
We approached slowly, entering under a beautiful chuppah, made by my congregant and friend, Shira Kronenberg, which we had set up to celebrate this renewal of vows, this wedding between the Holy One of Blessing and the people of Israel. The covenant is, after all, a kind of marriage, a relationship bound and defined by love, and Torah is the ketubah. I draped my blue silk tallit, with its images of night and water and the Tree of Life, over my shoulders and Rosa's, and I held her close to me. Then, with my left hand, I gripped the quill and, with Sofer Yerman guiding me, I filled in the outlined letter bet. But we were not done until Rosa got the last word, topping that magnificent letter with a four-fold crown, the only one of its sort in the entire Torah scroll. Then, together with the entire congregation, we sang "Sh'hechiyanu" and "Siman Tov u-Mazel Tov," giving thanks for the opportunity to celebrate this remarkable occasion together.

My eyes were filled with tears the entire time. Even as I wrote, I thought so much of my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, z"l, of his love of Torah. Filling out that first letter of that first word, I felt my inestimable debt to the man who taught me so much Torah, who opened the scroll for me and gave me the heart and mind to find my own place in it, just as he had done over the course of his lifetime. I felt his undying optimism, his enormous passion for life, his undiminished and even child-like curiosity, and his constant love. And even as I felt all of this, I also felt the love and creativity of my own children, and their commitment to growing and finding their own way in the scroll. It was a miraculous moment, one of those rare instances in a lifetime when past and present and future are one and the same, a time of laughter and tears and love and loss and renewal and grace and blessing, the brachah shleimah, the gift of what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls "full catastrophe living."

I'd like to end with a lovely passage by Rabbi Zoe Klein, which was part of our service today and which captures the extraordinary power of the moment. The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, teaches that every Jew should write at least a small piece of a Torah scroll in his or her lifetime. I am grateful beyond words for having had the opportunity to fulfill that mitzvah today.

When the potion wore off the children of Israel looked around them. Once again they were in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they said to one another, "Love is in this place and we did not know it. What have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it Gan Eden? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagle's wings?

This thing between God and Israel, it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, "Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?"


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Absence and Presence, Purim and Pesach

In this season that seems to oscillate between winter and spring, we Jews move from the bacchanalia of Purim toward the more subtle joy that comes with Pesach's liberation from Egypt and all the other narrow places where we so frequently find ourselves stuck. These two holidays are connected by a series of special Shabbats that fall in this season, beginning with ShabbatShekalim (a few weeks before Purim) and ending with Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbaththat falls the weekend before Pesach (and classically one of only two days a year--along with the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur--when rabbis would deliver sermons).

This connection reinforces the seasonal nature of these celebrations. Purim marks the first buddings of spring, Pesach its true arrival. Each is centered around a story--the scroll of Esther in the case of Purim and the haggadah's account of the Exodus for Pesach. And both holidays prominently feature our children, who blot out Haman's name with their raucous noisemaking on Purim and open Pesach's sacred storytelling by asking the Four Questions at the seder. Yet there are also significant ways in which Purim and Pesach are profoundly different. Purim is the day when "anything goes." Pesach, by contrast, is when we are most bound by extraordinarily detailed rules (mostly around what we can and cannot eat). This is paradoxical, of course: we celebrate our freedom by obsessing about eliminating chametz--leavened products--not only from our diets but also from every corner of our homes.

Recently I read of another way in which these two holidays are simultaneously similar and, in manner of speaking, mirror-opposites. The similarity is this: the story at the heart of each celebration is marked by a profound absence. In the case of Purim, the absent character is God, who does not make a single appearance in the megillah. While many of the traditional commentators point to God as running the show from backstage, directing the human actors according to a divinely conceived script, at least on the surface, the book of Esther is entirely a tale of human drama. In the case of Pesach, Moshe Rabbenu is the one whose absence permeates the haggadah. The account of our liberation in the book of Exodus prominently features Moses, but the haggadah clearly and explicitly edits him out of the story. When we recount our tale of deliverance at the seder, it is as if God brought us out of Egypt directly, with no human actors or initiative involved at all.

And thus the similarity between Purim and Pesach--a gaping absence in the narrative of each--is also the profound difference. In Purim, this absence leaves us with an entirely human drama, with God relegated behind the curtain. In Pesach, by contrast, the absence leaves us with an entirely divine drama, in which we are all bit players compared to God's overpowering star-turn.

For most of us, citizens of a secular state and age, Pesach is the more problematic of the two absences. Our lives are more like Purim, lacking a deity who intervenes directly in our affairs. The message of haggadah can be jarring for us. We don't know what to do with a God who tends to us with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. After all, if God could act in such a manner, then where was S/he during the Holocaust and countless other catastrophes which might have been averted through divine intervention? As far as I am concerned, any God who could have acted to stop the Shoah but chose not to do so is a monster, unworthy of our prayers.

I prefer to think that God is absent when we do not make room for God. The Divine is present to us when we make room for it, by laughing at Purim and asking questions at Pesach. After all, it is absence that calls us to seek Presence. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "Not to have is the beginning of desire." In Purim, that desire draws us into a search for God. By Pesach, it calls us to search for Moses, for human leadership.

In these difficult days, surely we need both--human leadership and divine inspiration--to move forward.

Happy Pesach to all.