Friday, March 29, 2013

Anger and Its Consequences (Portion Shemini)

Anger takes a terrible toll on us.  While there are some situations in which it is appropriate to feel and express anger, far more often, rage creates a host of unwelcome consequences.  As my wife and mother-in-law note in their book on anger management, The Grump Meter: “Anger without alternatives, reasonable means of expression, and limits, causes monstrous problems.”

We see this in our Torah portion for this week, Shemini.  In an otherwise unremarkable passage, Moses rebukes Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar, who are the first kohanim (priests), for a perceived failure to follow the proper ritual:

Moses burned with anger toward Eleazar and Ithamar. . . and said, “Why did you not eat the purification offering in the sacred area. . . as I commanded?”

But Moses is wrong.  Eleazar and Ithamar are, at the time, grieving for their brothers, Nadav and Avihu, who have just died.  And so the Midrash teaches: “Look at what anger can do, even to a person as wise and pious as Moses.  When Moses became angry, his knowledge of the law left him, and he forgot that a priest in mourning was not permitted to eat of the sacrifice.”

To which another Moses—the medieval sage, Maimonides—adds: “Whoever angers—if he is a prophet, his wisdom will depart from him, and if he is a prophet, his prophetic spirit will depart from him.  People who have raging tempers—their lives are not lives.”

When we are angry, we do not think straight.  I suspect that all of us can recall times when our rage got the best of us.  Looking back on those occasions, we can see how ridiculously and foolishly we acted when we were gripped by anger.  To be in that state too often is to have no control over one’s life whatsoever.  Thus the Rambam’s teaching that the hothead’s life is not really a life at all.

In this season of Pesach, this time of liberation, may we pray and work for a release from the grip of anger.  May spring bring renewal, blessing, and peace.

For a link to more on the Grump Meter, see:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Students and Seder

Every good teacher knows that each student comes with his or her own learning style; the teacher’s job is to find ways to reach a classroom full of different learners.    Some of us learn aurally, some visually.  Some respond best to music; others gather information best through words or mathematical patterns.  Some learn well in groups, others on their own.  Some can only learn if they are sitting still in a quiet environment, others cannot learn unless they are constantly stimulated and moving.

Our tradition recognizes this reality, first and foremost, in the Pesach seder.  The genius of the seder is that it presents its core lesson—the ever-new journey from narrowness and bondage towards liberation—in so many different ways.  We tell the story through words and singing, games and pictures, numerical patterns (four glasses, four questions, four children, “who knows one?”) and, of course, symbolic foods.  Over the course of the night, we are both raucous and reflective, serious and celebratory.

My favorite section of the seder is the parable of the four children: wise, wicked, simple, and unable to ask.  We recount the miracle of the passage to freedom for each of these children in a way that is designed to reach and respond to that child’s particular attitude and abilities. 

Of course each of us contains all four children.  We are all, at times, wise and wicked, and simple, and inarticulate.  This is the nature of human life.

So I am wishing you all a wonderful Pesach celebration.  May you hear the story anew this year, in a way that challenges your mind, touches your heart, and moves your soul.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sweets and Cemeteries--My Weekend in New Jersey (Part 2)

After Sunday’s somber cemetery pilgrimage, Monday’s mission was in a much lighter vein—though not without its own sort of sacredness.

My son, Jonah, is a huge fan of the reality television show, Cake Boss.  When I told him that I would be traveling to New Jersey, he responded without missing a beat: “That’s awesome!  You’re so lucky!  You can go to Carlo’s Bakery!”  I had a 3:10 flight back to Boise, so Monday morning meant a trip to Hoboken to check out the now-famous bakery owned and operated by the star of Cake Boss, Chef Buddy.

This turned out to be a lot easier than the journey to Queens, a forty-minute jaunt down the highway.  As I neared Hoboken, I got some beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, just across the river, including the new World Trade Center, which is rapidly rising and looks to be a striking tribute to the victims of 9/11.

I parked in the city’s municipal lot and walked the three blocks to Washington Street, which is Hoboken’s gentrified thoroughfare, lined with organic markets, all sorts of hip specialty stores, ethnic restaurants, food carts, and, of course, coffee shops.  I stopped to take a picture of a psychic’s store front, featuring phrenology, tarot, and astrology readings.  A young woman passing by paused and addressed me with great urgency: “Do NOT go in there.  She is a BAD psychic.”  “OK,” I thought, as if there are a whole lot of good ones. . . .All the while, a strong and bitterly cold wind was blowing in from across the Hudson River, so I zipped my down coat tightly and kept my hands in my pockets for warmth.  Spring has come to Idaho, but it is still winter in the northeast, and I am no longer accustomed to the dampness of the chilly air.

Carlo’s is at 95 Washington Street—but you couldn’t miss it if you tried.  It’s mobbed, humming with people coming and going, with all of the tourists (myself included) taking star-struck photographs out front, as if we were at the White House or the Grand Canyon.  If only Andy Warhol, who spoke of a world where everyone enjoys “fifteen minutes of fame” had lived to see the consequences of reality TV!

Just as I stepped back to snap my own picture, another couple came forward to do the same—and to my great surprise, the man was wearing a bright blue Boise State Broncos sweat shirt!  Of course, being an avid Broncos fan, I introduced myself and asked where they were from.  They told me that they had lived all of their lives in Maryland, but had adopted the Broncos as their favorite team because of their status as giant-killing underdogs.  They are huge fans and love our trademark blue turf.  It was especially nice to have this almost-miraculously unlikely encounter on this particular morning, as just last night, Boise State received a bid to the NCAA championship basketball tournament, aka “March Madness.”  So we got to kvell about this together.  Then I took their pictures, they took mine, we bid one another farewell, they headed for their car, and I stepped into Carlo’s and took a number.

#72.  At the time, they were serving #51.  The rest of us, waiting, crowded into the small space, gawking at the gorgeous cakes and cookies all around us, and Buddy’s memorabilia on the walls, while episodes of Cake Boss ran repeatedly on a flat screen TV mounted in the back.

To the great credit of all the folks at Carlo’s, the line moved very briskly, and the despite the tight confines, the crowed was in high spirits.  The cashiers were models of both friendliness and efficiency.  When my turn came, I ordered two gorgeous small cakes (white chocolate mousse and red velvet), six cannoli, six chocolate almond biscotti, and a bunch of chocolate rugelach—along with two Carlo’s Bakery tee shirts for Rachel and Jonah.  Everything came neatly packaged in white bakery boxes with smart red trim.   As he rang up my order, the cashier asked where I was from.  When I replied, “Boise, Idaho,” he smiled and warmly said: “Welcome to New Jersey.  God bless.”

It was a great way to conclude my sojourn in the Garden State.   I got in my rental car, gassed up, and twenty minutes later, arrived at the Newark airport.  Rosa and I will enjoy a late dessert from Carlo’s upon my homecoming. 

And then, quite literally, sweet dreams.  I can’t wait to bring Jonah his cakes!

Sweets and Cemeteries--My Weekend in New Jersey (Part 1)

Sweets and Cemeteries—My Weekend in New Jersey (Part 1)

I spent this weekend in the Garden State, where I officiated at a wedding for a former student and congregant.  The festivities were held Sunday evening at an historic inn in Bernardsville.  The wedding was intimate and joyous, and the accommodations very lovely, in classic George Washington-era style, the inn’s walls festooned with brass gas lights and dark oil paintings of horses, fox hunts, and Revolutionary War generals.   In a happy juxtaposition to all of these high WASP colonial icons, there was also a terrific bagel place right across the street, where I enjoyed real New York bagels, with whitefish salad to die for, both Sunday and Monday mornings.

But during the daytime hours, I did not hang out in Bernardsville.  Instead, I took two interesting road trips, each memorable in its fashion.  So here, for part 1 of this post, Sunday’s trip.

Sunday morning, I set out to visit the grave of my great-great grandfather, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein.  Thanks to my father’s years of genealogical research, I’ve learned a bit about R. Yehudah Tzvi’s life.  He was born in 1824, in Keidan, a largely Jewish shtetl north of Kovno in what is now central Lithuania.  Like his father, Shimon HaLevi Finkelstein, and eight generations before him, Yehudah Tzvi became a rabbi who studied and taught in Slabodka, the materially-poor but spiritually-rich Jewish ghetto of Kovno.  He was, according to family lore, a student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern Mussar movement; later he would go on to teach this tradition to students of his own.

Together with his wife, Faige Rivka, R. Yehudah Tzvi had five children: daughters Chana Ettel, Reise (Rose), and Rachel Esther, and sons, Shimon and Mendel.
Channa would later move to Palestine with her first husband.  Shimon Finkelstein followed in his father’s footsteps, learning Mussar in Slabodka and receiving rabbinic ordination.  He emigrated to America and served Orthodox congregations in New York and Baltimore; his son, Louis Finkelstein was a pre-eminent American rabbi and historian, who was, for many years, the chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.  My great grandfather, Mendel Finkelstein, also became a rabbi and came to America, with the blessing of his renowned Lithuanian teacher, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Spektor.  He settled in Dayton, Ohio with his wife, my great grandmother, Tobba (Tillie) Kagen, who grew up in Srednick, Lithuania, along the banks of the Nemunas River.  Their son—my grandfather—Rabbi Joseph Fink, broke with Orthodoxy, studied at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in nearby Cincinnati, and spent most of his illustrious career at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, where he was a major public figure, teacher, and activist well beyond the Jewish community.

But to return to Yehudah Tzvi. . . this “Old Country” Litvak came to the United States as a widower in 1906, with his daughter Reise, her second husband and their six children.  He was 82 years old at the time.   He lived twelve more years in New York and died on the exact same secular date as my own father—March 28—in 1918.

Dad’s records told me that he was buried in the Old Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, in a section belonging to the United Hebrew Congregation of New York: Gate 148 N, Block 88, Row 20 R, Grave 20.  So that is where I headed from Bernardsville.

Well, the trip is not the arduous journey it would have been back in 1918, but it is still quite a shlepp.  After almost ninety minutes, twenty-plus dollars in toll, and way too many miles of decrepit pot-holed roads (where is all that toll going?) through the grim and graffiti-blighted bowels of the Bronx, I arrived at the cemetery.  I checked in at the office, where the thoughtful and accommodating receptionist very graciously outfitted me (contrary to the stereotype, I almost always find New Yorkers to be unusually helpful) with a map and directions to the section.

I parked the car, passed through gate 148N, and walked among crowded rows of tall, weathered, mostly-granite headstones to where my great-great grandfather’s gravesite should have been and found. . . nothing.  I thought maybe I had counted wrong, but a recount of rows shed no new light.  So I made my way, slowly and carefully, through the entire section, probably containing over four hundred graves, examining each stone and searching for Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein—to no avail.  Eventually, I drove back to the office and asked if they would come out and help me, which they agreed to do.  Well, as it turns out, the grave is exactly where it is supposed to be, but the headstone has toppled over and is lying face down on the grass, partly covered with leaves, dirt, and moss, so I could not get even a glimpse of the inscription.  I was deeply disappointed, but there was nothing to be done, as the fallen headstone weighs hundreds of pounds, which ruled out the option of trying to raise or even move it.  To add insult to injury, at the very moment that I tried to take a picture of the sad cemetery scene, the batteries in my camera went dead.

I did leave a lovely round pebble, which I had taken from the banks of the Boise River before leaving home, atop the prostrate stone, as the traditional token of my respects, as if to say, “Despite all this, I was here.” As I did so, I imagined how utterly unfathomable it would have been to Rav Yehudah Tzvi Finkelstein to imagine his great-great grandson a Reform rabbi in Boise, Idaho.  Such is the mystery and miracle of Jewish history.

But equally unfathomable to my family patriarch would have been the presence of hordes of Hasidim buzzing around the cemetery where he is buried.  I wondered what brought them there, until one of them approached me and asked if I had put on tefillin that morning.   As it turns out, the last Chabad Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is buried just a stone’s throw from R. Yehudah Tzvi.  Needless to say, his headstone is very well-tended, as it is a pilgrimage site for Lubavitchers from around the world.  A Talmudic Litvak and misnagid, my great-great grandfather was a undoubtedly a zealous opponent of Hasidism, which spread rapidly through most of Eastern Europe but failed to take hold in proudly rationalist Lithuania.  How ironic that he now lies in the shadow of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who most Chabadniks actually believe to have been the messiah as they pray for his imminent resurrection and return.

I bid my great-great grandfather farewell and made the long, expensive trip back to Bernardsville, arriving just in time to shower and change for the wedding.  All in all, a bit of a frustrating day, but also educational. 

And, just maybe, for the best. 

For in the end, of course, no headstone lasts forever.  With the passage of sufficient time, even words etched deeply into the hardest rock are worn away by wind and rain.  Even the Ohel, the Chabadniks’ venerating complex built over the Rebbe’s grave, will one day yield to history and weather.

Of course R. Yehudah Tzvi’s entire world in Lithuania is also gone—not as a result of time’s slow ravaging but, rather, the Nazis’ swift and brutal annihilation. 

I thought of all of these passings, slow and swift, as I reflected on my great-great grandfather’s toppled headstone.  Perhaps my memories are somehow better—more fitting—than the picture I might have taken had my camera batteries lasted just an instant longer.  Perhaps the best that I can do is to just tell his story, to try to keep his memory alive for another generation or two.  And live up to that memory in my own personal and professional life as a rabbi and a Jew.

Zichrono l’vrachah—May his memory be for a blessing.

And in the sprit of his memory and fallen headstone, I will conclude with a favorite poem, by Jane Hirschfield:

The November Angels

Late dazzle
of yellow
flooding the simplified woods,
spare chipping away
of the afternoon-stone
by a small brown finch—
there is little
for them to do,
and so their gossip is
idle, modest:

the Earth-pelt
dapples and flows
with slow bees
that spin
the thick, deep jute
of the gold time’s going,
the pollen’s
traceless retreat;
enter their kingdom,
their blue crowns on fire,
and feast on
the still-wealthy world.

A single, cold blossom
tumbles, fledged
from the sky’s white branch. 
And the angels
look on,
observing what falls:
all of it falls. 

Their hands hold
no blessings,
no world
for those who walk
in the tall black pines,
who do not
feel themselves falling—
the ones who believe
the loved companion
will hold them forever,
the ones who cross through
alone and ask for no sign.

The afternoon
lengthens, steepens,
flares out—
no matter for them. 
It is assenting
that makes them angels,
neither increased
nor decreased
by the clamorous heart:
their only work
to shine back,
however the passing brightness
hurts their eyes.