Sunday, May 27, 2012

Getting by Giving (Portion Naso)

Whoever dies with the most toys wins.

I have often seen this bumper sticker—and every time I do, it saddens me.  The notion that we can achieve contentment by accruing a bunch of stuff is perhaps the most damning and destructive lie at the heart of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism.  As Ecclesiastes realized three thousand years ago, amassing anything—wealth, fame, power and even knowledge—is, in the end, pure vanity.  The Rabbis put it succinctly: “Who is happy?  Those who rejoice in their own portion.”  Or in Sheryl Crow’s insightful take on this wisdom: “It’s not getting what you want—it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

In this week’s portion, Naso—the longest in the Torah—we find another version of this lesson.  Numbers 5:8-9 teaches: “Any gift among the sacred donations that the Israelites offer shall be the priest’s.  And each shall retain his sacred donations: what a man gives to the priest shall be his.”  By the standard reading, “his” is a reference to the priest, who receives the gift.  But the Talmud (Brachot 63a) offers an alternative interpretation, in which “his” refers to the donor.  In other words, as the commentary in Etz Hayyim notes, it is only when we give something away that the gift, and the good deed that it represents, becomes permanently ours.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner captures the essence of this paradox in his path-breaking book, Honey from the Rock.  He writes of our central human challenge: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I get more when others give to others.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.”

In other words, the things that matter most—love, kindness, wisdom—do not follow the rules of the “dismal science” of economics.  Paradoxically, it is only when we share what we have that we can gain and grow.

Or, to amend that bumper sticker: Whoever dies with the fewest toys wins.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Shavuot: Making Room for Silence

If we want to hear God’s voice, we must learn to keep silent.

This coming Saturday night we will celebrate Shavuot, which our Rabbis called z’man matan Torahteynu—the time of the giving of the Torah.  The festival marks the high point of Jewish history, the moment when we stood together to hear God’s word at Mount Sinai.

A time of high drama, to be sure.  And yet, the Talmud suggests that revelation did not end there.  The Rabbis insist that God still speaks to us: “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues forth from Sinai” (Avot 6:2)

So if the Holy One continues to reveal the Sacred Word to us, what was so special about the events commemorated by Shavuot?   A passage from the Midrash notes that the difference was the utter silence which preceded God’s Ten Utterances:
R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yohannan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, not one of the angels said, “Holy, holy, holy!”  The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: “I am the Eternal your God.”

In other words, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time is because the noise, static, and muzak of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  Only at the time of the “giving of the Torah” did God “silence the roar.” At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along. 

Often, as we imagine the giving of the Torah, we think of the pyrotechnics: thunder and lightning and fire.  But the key ingredient for hearing God is, in fact, silence.  Elijah learns this when the Holy One pays him a visit in a cave where he is hiding on Mt. Carmel. 
As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a still, small voice.”

In our high-tech culture, so noisy and full of distractions, Shavuot reminds us that Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down.  The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always.  But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly.

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen!  This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One.  The Psalmist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.

So, this week, try to make some time for silence.  Still the noise, within and without, even if just for a moment or two.  And then listen for the voice of conscience and spirit—the sound of God speaking to you.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Setting Free the Captives (Idaho Statesman piece for May 2012)

Faith communities tend to make requests of God that She either cannot or will not deliver.  Sometimes we petition for what simply cannot be; more frequently, we pray that God will do things that She, in Her great wisdom, delegates to humanity.   Since we are God’s partners in the work of repairing our broken world, much of this sacred burden falls on us.

Such is the case with a blessing that Jews traditionally recite upon waking.  Every morning we proclaim, “Praised are You, Eternal One. . . who frees the captives.”  Yet God does not free captives.  God leaves this calling to humankind.  The point of the blessing is to remind us of our God-given obligation to bring liberation.  Alas, we in America are failing dismally in this task.

Adam Gopnik offers a powerful indictment of our national epidemic of incarceration in his January New Yorker essay, “The Caging of America.”  He notes that our prison population is at a level almost unprecedented in human history.  With over six million people currently locked up, we have surpassed the numbers cast into the Gulag at the depths of Stalin’s tyranny.  Racism plays a significant role here; there are now more African-American men living under the auspices of the criminal justice system than there were slaves prior to the Civil War.  This scandal exacts a terrible cost in both moral and fiscal terms.  Over the past twenty years, the money that states spend on jails has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.  As Gopnik concludes: “The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life.”

Surely faith communities, who are charged by God to “free the captive”, should insist that America—and Idaho—can do better than this.  We who believe that every human being is created in the Divine image should not abide the cruelty, racism and corruption at the foundation of our penal system.  We should sound a clarion call for reform.  Such reform might start by abolishing the contracting out of our prisons as for-profit business to for-profit companies.  As Adam Gopnik points out: “It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.”  So, too, should we be doing more to combat the racism and poverty that render the system so inequitable.  Justice should be colorblind—which, for now, it surely is not.  Meanwhile, synagogues, churches, mosques and other houses of worship have largely failed in our God-given mission to provide people with hope—and people condemned to live in hopelessness will always turn to crime in disproportionate numbers. 

Last but not least, we should insist on the decriminalization of marijuana and the reform of our nation’s drug laws.  The so-called “War on Drugs” is an utter failure and the collateral damage that it has inflicted on our entire nation is colossal.  The compassionate response to drug use is rehabilitation rather than incarceration.  We need prisons to protect society from violent criminals; locking up addicts serves no one, and is a sign of barbarism.  

God does not free prisoners—but we can.   Before we continue praise or petition the Holy One for liberating captives, it is long past time that we do our human part.                                        

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Perils of Self-Deception (Behar-Bechukotai)

Self-deception is the root of much ill.

This week’s double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, completes the book of Leviticus.  Much of it is devoted to the sabbatical and jubilee years, which provide the land—and those who work it—with a prolonged rest period and serve as a reminder that, in the end, the earth belongs to God, rather than us.  It is in this context that we find a verse admonishing against shady real estate deals: “Do not deceive one another but revere your God, for I, the Eternal, am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

But the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha shifts the focus of this verse with a brilliantly incisive bit of commentary.  He taught: “Do not deceive anyone—not even yourself.”

Rabbi Bunem points to a profound psychological truth here, for of all the multifarious forms of deception in which we engage, none are so harmful as the ways we deliberately mislead ourselves. 

Why do we do this?  Often, to avoid pain.  It can be terribly difficult to face the truth about poor choices that we have made and in which we have become invested and enmeshed.  Even worse, we deceive ourselves in order to rationalize our doing things that, deep down, we recognize are wrong.  I have always believed that almost all of our moral shortcomings are failures of willpower rather than knowledge.  We know when we are transgressing.  Yet we engage in self-deception to justify our misdeeds.  We make excuses and conjure up mitigating circumstances—and, more damaging yet, eventually can come to believe our rationalizations.  Our Rabbis called this unfortunate propensity for self-deception the yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Inclination.  It is a huge barrier to transformative insight and personal growth.

If we wish to become better, wiser, more compassionate people, we must begin by being brutally honest with ourselves.  This sort of clear-eyed appraisal is arduous, indeed—but it is the only way forward.

“Do not deceive anyone.”  Even—or especially—yourself.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Find the Cost of Freedom

Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.
                                    -Robert Frost

Back in 1989, cultural critic Greil Marcus wrote a terrific essay on “The Myth of the Open Road.”  In it, he surveys the vast corpus of rock and roll “road songs” from Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Marcus notes that this is an almost inexhaustible genre, drawing from the (mostly male) American myth of boundless freedom.  In these songs, the road is a place of no responsibilities, no burdens, no map.  The music celebrates going wherever and whenever you want.

Marcus’s point is that the myth of the open road is just that—a fantasy.  Real life does not work this way.  In Marcus’s own words: “Sooner or late you’re going to have to figure out where you want to go, which means you have to acknowledge that you start from somewhere, that you’re not absolutely free.  You’ll carry the baggage of your place and time with you.  You’ll never get rid of it.  You can go anywhere only if you come from nowhere, and no one comes from nowhere.”

Our Jewish tradition does not exult the fantasy of the open road.  For us, freedom is a means and not an end—an opportunity to take on holy obligations and responsibilities.  In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, God instructs us to number the days between Pesach and Shavuot.  This seven week period is known as sefirat ha-omer, the counting of the omer.  By marking these days, we draw an explicit connection between our liberation from Egypt (at Pesach) and our acceptance of the Torah, fifty days later, at Mt. Sinai (on Shavuot).  As commentator Nehama Leibowitz puts it: “The exodus was not an end in itself but purely the means of freeing Israel from human bondage, enabling them to shoulder the divine yoke of the Torah and its commandments.  The truly free person is the one committed to Torah.”  We move from “freedom from” to “freedom for and to.”  Emancipation is just the beginning.  To remain stuck in this stage is to be ever the haughty child declaiming, “You’re not the boss of me.” 

We Jews have a higher calling.  Our challenge is to use our freedom to take on the sacred responsibility of repairing the world.  As Kathleen Norris puts it, in her lovely book, The Cloister Walk: “What looks to so many people like restriction ends in freedom. . .  To employ yet another analogy, I’ll use Robert Frost’s famous comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.  An ordered life, a disciplined life, is not lived at the price of freedom.  One might even hold that freedom is enhanced as the relationships in which I find myself are enriched.  That would explain how we might be persuaded that our greatest freedom is found in our relationship with God.

This is our Jewish road.