Sunday, January 26, 2014

Raising Light (Portion Terumah)

Our Jewish tradition calls us to raise up both our world and our selves by casting light into dark places.

This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s command to Moses and the Israelites: “Bring me an offering—let every person whose heart moves them make an offering to me.”  The Hebrew word for “offering”—terumah—which gives the portion its name, literally means “uplifting.”  Thus the interpretation of this verse by the Hasidic commentary No’am Elimelech: “Strive to enjoy the light of My divine presence in your life. . . This verse tells you to draw the Blessed Creator to you and rejoice in the Divine Presence.”

This sacred calling can push us into difficult places, both within and without.  For instance, the Talmudic sages once debated whether or not Jews should be permitted to attend the Roman gladiatorial games, which were brutally violent and rife with gratuitous carnage.  Rabbi Meir understandably forbid it, arguing that one who goes to the stadium to watch was complicit in the bloodshed.  But Rabbi Natan argued that Jews could attend—in order to cry out for mercy and potentially save someone.

Rabbi Natan believed it a mistake to pretend that we could above the fray.  For him, our challenge is to step down into the darkness and add to the light that might lift it away.  He asks us to engage in the world, with all of its ugliness, for we cannot possibly help to heal it from a pure but aloof distance.

So, too, with the dark places of our own souls.  Rather than pretending they do not exist, we should endeavor to lighten and lift them up.  When we find ourselves sinking into the blackness, we should strive to pull ourselves up and, when need be, reach out to those willing and able to throw us a lifeline when we cannot raise ourselves.  And when we emerge back into the light, we have a duty to pay it forward and offer our own lifelines to help raise those needing our love and care and support.

The Psalmist declares: “Ivdu et Ha-Shem b’simchah—serve God with joy.”  May we be givers and receivers of light and uplift toward this end in the coming week .

For a great contemporary Jewish song on the topic:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Blink (Portion Mishpatim)

In the introduction to his book, Blink, writer Malcolm Gladwell notes: “We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.” 

The Torah certainly agrees with Gladwell.  In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, the Israelites accept the yoke of the Torah’s teachings at Mount Sinai—well before reading the fine print of what they are committing themselves to practice.  They say to Moses: “Na’aseh v’nishmahAll that God has spoken, we will do and understand.  As countless sages have noted, the doing precedes the understanding.  Commenting on this, Rashi notes: “In that instant, the Israelites acted with the genius of the Ministering Angels.”  For Rashi, Gladwell’s snap intuition is a kind of angelic gift. 

When we think back on most of the biggest decisions of our lives—such as choosing a college, taking (or leaving) a job, getting married (or not), having (or not having) a child, buying a house, moving to a new place, when to retire, etc—we realize that we never really understand full implications of our actions before we make them.  No matter how much research and deliberation we do, in the end, we always make a kind of leap of faith into the unknown because we cannot ever truly grasp, in such situations, what we are really getting ourselves into.  Our course at Sinai, Na’aseh v’nishmah—to act, and only afterwards, gradually, come to appreciate the consequences of our actions—remains the only way to move forward in our personal, professional, and communal lives.  In the end, there is no path that does not demand significant faith.  In those fearful times just before we leap, it is good to know that our ancestors have been there before us, and that, with God’s help, we are likely to land with the earth solidly beneath our feet.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Ten Commandments--Forty Years On (portion Yitro)

Forty years ago, as a blizzard blanketed my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, I seriously encountered this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, for the first time, at my Bar Mitzvah.  Standing in front of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in my abominably loud plaid sports jacket (OK, it was 1974), guided by my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink, I made my way through the Ten Commandments.  Since it was not yet customary in Reform synagogues to leyn (chant) the portion, I read it, first in Hebrew from the Torah scroll and then in English, following the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation.  By far the most challenging moment of the day came when, following that English passage, I had to declare, out loud and in front of all of my adolescent peers: “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s ass.”  At thirteen, this was embarrassingly hard to say and even harder to do!

Four decades later, fashion and English Torah translations have both, thankfully, improved, but the Ten Commandments themselves (or, as they are known in Hebrew, aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Utterances) remain central.  As I have grown and changed through the years, I have tried to live my life by their principles and guidance, along with the rest of the Torah’s mitzvot, even though I have broken, often repeatedly, eight of the ten (all but #6 and #7 for those who are counting).  As I have grown and changed, so has my understanding of, and appreciation for, their wisdom.  And now that the last commandment is read as a neighbor’s donkey, it’s a lot easier to both keep and read!

Next Shabbat, I will mark the fortieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah in the best way I can imagine: learning about the Ten Commandments with my community and family at our annual Feast of Torah.  Sandy Berenter has done her usual extraordinary job of organizing a marvelous program of Jewish learning and living, centered this year around these core teachings that lie at the heart of our tradition and, indeed, of all of western culture.  Please join me there to study and share and celebrate together.  I even promise to tone down the sports jacket!

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Roundabout Paths that End Up in the Right Direction (portion Beshallach)

When Pharaoh sent away the people God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines although it was the shortest route; for God said, “The people might change their minds should they encounter war, and return to Egypt.”      (Exodus 13:17) 
I once wasted an entire day driving around the city of Chicago in a futile pursuit for a “short cut” (and, being a man, adamantly refusing to ask directions).  I learned, the hard way, that sometimes what purports to be a quick and easy route turns out to be just the opposite.  More often than not, in both navigation and life itself, there are no real short cuts.

We see this on our portion for this week, Beshallach.  God takes the Israelites out of Egypt by a circuitous path.  Why?  Rashi tells us that if we had gone the direct route, it would have been too easy to turn back.  Other commentators add that the whole point of the wandering in the wilderness is for us to learn along the way.  Our journey is not just a physical one; we need the time and experience to make the deeper transformation from a ragtag bunch of former slaves to a truly free people.

So, too, for each of us.  We err when, too focused on some distant endpoint, we fail to appreciate and learn from our encounters along the way.  There are no easy paths to wisdom and spiritual growth.  As the old story goes, wisdom consists of good judgment.  Good judgment is born of experience.  And experience is gained through—bad judgment. 

Rabbi Harold Kushner offers a powerful insight along these lines based on a famous phrase from Psalm 23: “God leads me on straight paths for the sake of God’s name.”  Kushner writes: “The Hebrew phrase translated as ‘straight paths’ [ma’agley tzedek] actually says something more complex and interesting than the translation would convey.  It literally means ‘roundabout ways that end up in the right direction.’  Maybe in plane geometry the shortest distance between two pints is a straight line.  But in life the shortest distance to our goal may be an indirect, roundabout route.  The straight line between us and our goal may have hidden traps or land mines, or it may be too easy and never challenge us to discover our strengths or give us time to let those strengths emerge.”

This week, in Torah, we begin again on the long walk toward freedom, as a people and in our own lives.  There are no shortcuts, for the learning can only come along the way. 

But being older and a, hopefully, a little wiser, I’ll now admit: it really is OK to ask for directions.