Sunday, August 24, 2014

Guarding Our Gates (Portion Shoftim)

The service that concludes Yom Kippur is known as ne’ilah, roughly meaning “the hour of the closing of the gates”—a reference to the last opening afforded to us for repentance and renewal as the Days of Awe draw to an end.

As this sacred season ends, so it commences.  This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, is always read at the beginning of Elul, the month of self-reflection and preparation that precedes the fall holy days.  It opens: “Judges and officers you shall appoint for yourselves in all your gates.”  On a surface level, this injunction calls us to establish a legal system, but most commentators delve deeper into the imagery of gates.  The Hasidic teacher Mei Shiloach (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica) reads the passage as a spiritual imperative, identifying the gates with the seven physical openings through which we take in the world: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. 

What does this metaphor teach us?  If we understand the “gates” in the passage to be the instruments of our sensory perception, what would it mean for us to appoint “judges” over each of them?  Mei HaShiloach implies that we must carefully govern both the information we seek to acquire and the ways in which we use that information.  Our challenge is to make every effort to view the world through positive attributes such as justice, kindness, compassion, and honesty.  If this was true for Mei HaShiloach almost two centuries ago, all the more does it apply to us, for we live in an age of information overload.  Our senses are bombarded daily with images and ideas—many of which are far from positive.  What we choose to take in goes a long way toward determining what we, in turn, put back out into the world.   Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant guardians of our “gates.”

In his wonderful book on our fall holy days, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew reminds us: “Judges shall you put in all your gates.  This is how Teshuvah begins.  When Elul comes around again, watch the window.  Keep a mindful eye on the gates of the soul.”  As Elul begins, this Tuesday, and through the days that will bring us to Rosh Hashanah, try paying closer attention to all that enters your “gates” and how it affects your emotions and actions.

Idaho Statesman 20th Anniversary column

With this piece, I mark my twentieth anniversary as a Statesman columnist. When I joined the paper’s rotation of clergy writers, shortly after moving to Boise in 1994, I could not have envisioned that I’d still be doing it two decades later.  I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity, and to all of my editors, who have been, without exception, wise and very patient.  It has been a great pleasure to work with them all.  Through this experience, I have gained enormous respect for all of the professional op-ed writers, national and local, who somehow manage to publish two or three articles every week—my bi-monthly deadline is more than difficult enough for me!

I am taking this milestone as an occasion to look back at my collected columns and try to discern some running themes.  Although a lot has changed since I started writing in an age before internet and email, I do find some common leitmotifs.

 I’ve dabbled a bit in the expected religious topics: debates over doctrine and practice, biblical interpretation, Jewish theology and tradition, God and prayer.  I’ve shared personal stories about growing up as a rabbi’s kid and raising my own family, confessed my ambivalent relationship with Facebook and social media, and offered tributes to some of my personal heroes: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, musicians Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and my father, Rabbi Arnold Fink.  I’ve written dispatches from distant places while on sabbatical, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Ronda, Spain, and even sent one in from a month-long trek in Nepal.  And, of course, I’ve done numerous stories from Israel, our Jewish homeland, where I have lived and worked on several occasions.  Many of those focus on the normalcy of daily life, which is rarely portrayed in the media, but I’ve also addressed the critical issues of war and peace from my perspective as a proud progressive Zionist.  This can be tough going; as I re-read my 2009 column on war in Gaza, I was struck by how little emendation it would need to speak to the situation now, five long years later.   That breaks my heart.

But the vast majority of my columns over the past twenty years deal with issues at the intersection of faith and politics: stewardship of God’s creation, separation of church and state, hunger and homelessness, religion and reproductive rights, economic justice, gun control, health care as a human right, feminism, education reform, and the battle for full equality for the LGBT community.

Above all, I see that I have returned, again and again, to the question of how our culture cares (or fails to care) for its most vulnerable members: racial and religious minorities, the poor, immigrants, the elderly and the sick and handicapped, lesbians and gay men.  These matters cross the boundaries between religion and journalism because they are, in fact, the fundamental concerns of all human beings living in community.  It has been a privilege to be able to wrestle with—and write about—all of them, and to share my thoughts with you, my readers.  I look forward to continuing the discussion for many years to come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Ahead (Portion Re'eh)

“See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.”
            -Deuteronomy 11: 26, opening of portion Re’eh

“The past is a source of knowledge and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”
            -Stephen Ambrose

The entire book of Deuteronomy is, essentially, Moses’ farewell speech to the people he has led for the past four decades.  Now 120 years old, he will soon die, and Joshua will lead a new generation of Israelites, born into freedom in the wilderness, into the Promised Land.  As he speaks, Moses recalls the past, again and again, as a source of guidance for the future.  He is afraid that as they establish themselves in Canaan, the people will forget from whence they came and grow ungrateful, taking their manifold blessings for granted.  And so he urges them to remember their history and learn from it.   He teaches us that by reflecting on the choices that we have made—for both good and bad, blessing and curse—we can learn and grow and choose more wisely on the road ahead.

This is critical for us, both collectively and as individuals.  Looking at current events, I often see signs of a deeply disturbing national forgetfulness.  Just consider some of the vituperative rhetoric (and policy) on the subject of immigration.  How have we so quickly forgotten that all of our forebears, save for those of the Native American population among us, came to these shores as immigrants?  When we remember our own history, we should realize how callous it is to deny others the same opportunities that have proven so advantageous for us.

And as individuals, we Jews have a special obligation to reflect on the past in this sacred season.  The Hebrew month of Elul begins in just a little over a week, on August 26.  That marks the commencement of our traditional period of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Days of Awe.  Our tradition urges us to use this time for a spiritual accounting (cheshbon nefesh) of our actions of the past year.  We consider our choices, our blessings and curses, and use our insights to help us improve our deeds in the year to come.

Financial advisors always caution: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future returns.”  To which, in the spiritual realm, I’d say: “Thank God.”  Knowing the past, we can change the future.  Now that’s a miracle for which I’m very grateful, indeed.