Sunday, February 24, 2013

Carrying the Load (Portion Ki Tissa)

What causes burnout?  Recent studies suggest that burnout is not necessarily related to the number of hours that people work.  We can toil for lengthy periods of time without much rest if we feel that our efforts are making a significant difference in the world.  But even a little labor can quickly bring on burnout if it seems to produce no significant results. 

This truth is powerfully illustrated in our weekly Torah portion, Ki Tisa, which describes the events around the building of the golden calf.  Moses spends forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God, then heads down the mountain with great strength and energy, 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 both enraged and despondent.  As the text tells the story: “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 raises one difficulty: even though he is understandably angry, how can Moses purposefully destroy the tablets that are God’s own handiwork?  The midrash in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer offers an ingenious answer to this problem.  It says that at the very moment when 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 burnout.  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.”

As our portion ends, Moses and God and the people of Israel are all reconciled.  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. 

As we now move from Purim to Pesach, to the season of our liberation, may we find meaning in our labors and with that meaning, renewed strength to build a better future.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What's In A Name (portion Namah-Iacedrom)

This week’s portion, the double section Namah-Iacedrom, is the only parashah in the last four books of the Torah that does not contain the name of Moshe Rabbeynu, our teacher, Moses.  Our sages offer two divergent explanations for his absence.  The great medieval authority, Rashdiaper notes that this reading almost always falls around the 14th of Adar.  Since Jewish tradition teaches that Moses was born (and died) on Adar 7, that would have been the day of his circumcision.  Rashdiaper cites a well-known midrash in which, upon losing his foreskin to his father Amram’s flint knife, a miraculously precocious Moses cries out in Aramaic: “Olyha osesma atwha  etha ellha aveha ouya oneda ota ema—Holy Moses, what the_____ have you done to me?”  To which God responded: “My son, you have taken your name in vain.  So from this time forth, that name shall not be heard on this day.”

But the contemporary Hasidic master, Reb Yosef of Berent draws a different lesson.  He teaches: “A mayse, a story of when Rav Rehtse of Kiryat Shlumpkin came to Babylon from the land of Israel after drinking 27 kabim of potent Persian wine.  The Babylonian sages saw him staggering from the synagogue and inquired: ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’  To which Rav Rehtse replied, ‘I’m Patrick Murphy O’Sullivan, you shmendricks.  What’s it to you?’  From this, the Sages concluded: No matter how much of a putz he is, a man may always change his name if it behooves him to do so.”

What do we learn from this story?  The Berenter Rebbe concludes: “In connection with this teaching, I have heard that given his recent confirmation troubles, on account of the ‘Jewish lobby’, Chuck Hagel is now considering changing his name to Chuck Bagel.  Apparently, he is tired of his opposition’s ‘schmeer tactics.’”

Happy Purim,

Rabbi Dan

A Progressive Faith (Idaho Statesman Column for February 2013)

Hard-line atheists and religious fundamentalists are not really so far apart as either side would like to believe.

I thought about this as I listened to astrophysicist Adam Frank on a recent episode of the public radio show, “To The Best of Our Knowledge”.  Frank is an unapologetic atheist.  He is also the author of Constant Fire: Beyond the Science and Religion Debate.  He does not believe in God—but unlike more strident and simplistic non-believers, he refuses to reduce religion to an atavistic and irrelevant body of fanatical doctrines and practices.  Adam Frank told the interviewer: “When you say science and religion to people, the first thing they think of is Richard Dawkins arguing with a southern evangelist about evolution, and that (argument) has gone on for so long and it just sucks all the air out of the room.  You know there is absolutely nothing interesting that is going to happen in that debate.”

Why, exactly, is that old debate so stale and boring?  Because each side comes across as a kind of parody of itself.  On the one hand, there is an arrogant and fanatically-materialistic scientist, and on the other, an arrogant and fanatically-pious preacher.  The two think that they represent polar opposites—but in fact, on the critical issue of how to read Scripture, they completely agree.  Both are simplistic literalists.    The fundamentalist takes the Bible as God’s word, dictated letter by letter, and concludes (to quote a bumper sticker): “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.”   The atheist reads it exactly the same way—and on this reading, dismisses it as utter nonsense.

But progressive people of faith—and open-minded scientists—will acknowledge that there is another way, which is to interpret our religious texts non-literally.  We see our traditions as full of irony, paradox, humor, and, above all, metaphor.  We read God-language as poetry rather than as (bad) science.  The truth of our sacred texts is not literal or historical; it is spiritual and psychological.  I, for one, do not know if Moses ever actually lived.  Nor do I care.  His physical existence is irrelevant to my faith.  Moses is my teacher because, as the foremost character in my tradition’s great story, he informs me how to live and lead.  Or, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner puts it: “Torah is not true because it happened.  Torah is true because it happens—to us.”

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur suggests that there are three stages in a progressive approach to faith and holy texts.  First we believe on a literal level.  Then, as we learn more about science and history, our sacred “myths” are broken.  But later still, as we reach maturity, we can once again embrace our traditions’ stories—precisely as myths, which define and bring beauty to our world.  As Ricoeur puts it, “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”

Neither the fire and brimstone fundamentalists nor the strident atheists believe in my God, who is the Source of both science and the spirit.   She is a lot more complicated and ambiguous than many would like.  She does not speak in one voice or language.  What She asks of me is not always clear.   My calling, as a person of progressive faith, is to learn and live this.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Gift of Giving (portion Terumah)

Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you.
                        (Exodus 25:8)

It has long been said that it is better to give than to receive.  Apparently, the latest social science confirms this ancient truth.  Psychologist Liz Dunn recently published some revealing research in the journal Science.  In her study, she gave envelopes containing money to students at the University of British Columbia and told them that by day’s end, they had to either spend the money on something they wanted or purchase a gift for someone else.  When Dunn interviewed the students later, the results were clear: those who gifted others were significantly happier than those who kept the money for themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God asks the Israelites to bring gifts, which will be used in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they will carry through the desert for the next forty years.  God tells Moses: “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”  And the people respond with extraordinary generosity, bringing forth beautiful fabrics, tanned skins, fine wood, oil for lighting, precious stones and, above all, gold, which will be used to cast the sacred vessels.

Why does God request such offerings?  Lest one think that the Holy One needs a luxurious dwelling place, the Rabbis point to the wording of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell among them.”  God does not ask for a sanctuary in order to dwell in it;  instead, God suggests that through the building process—which invokes the people’s generosity—God will dwell among them.

In other words, God asks for our gifts because God knows that the very act of giving opens the heart of the giver and thus creates the possibility of intimacy.  When we share what we have with others, we raise ourselves (the name of the portion, Terumah—a donation—comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to lift up”) in holiness.  Through giving, we draw upon our own higher angels and invite the Divine into our lives.

In other words, it really is better—healthier and holier—to give than to receive.

In that spirit, I will end with Rabbi Yael Levy’s poetic interpretation of the portion:

Bring me gifts of what you love,
Gifts of beauty, radiance, and joy.
Bring me gifts of what you value - what you hold most precious and dear.
And make for me a sacred place that I might dwell within you.

Know that it is not your gold and silver I desire,
Nor your dolphin skins, copper, or jewels.
What I am asking for is your generosity,
            Your willingness to give.

For I am seeking intimacy:
            Make for me a sacred place by opening your heart
                        And lifting up the work of your hands.
            Create a space for my presence
                        By honoring your beauty and offering your gifts.

And while I am present in the boundless, the spectacular, the transcendent, the grand,
My desire is to live among you
In the intricacies of your everyday.

So please,
            Light your lamps,
                        Set your tables,
                                    And invite me in.