Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Full Blessing (Portion Vayera)

God is with you in everything that you do.

In this week’s portion, Vayera, Abraham receives this somewhat unusual blessing from an adversary, Avimelech, the king of Gerar.  What does it even mean for God to be with a person in everything that s/he does?

The Hasidic commentator Mei Ha-Shiloach suggests that the real challenge is to find the divine in unpleasant circumstances.  It is relatively easy to see God’s work in our moments of joy, success, and celebration; it is much harder when we are suffering.  And yet sometimes the good and the bad are inextricably mixed, and God is present in all of it.  

In his book, Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that in the grace after meals, we ask God to bless us just as God blessed our forefathers, with a brachah sh’leimah,  a “full and complete blessing”—similar to what Avimelech offers Abraham.  Yet as we read their stories in the Torah, we see that our patriarchs often struggled with enormous challenges: infertility, war, bitter family quarrels.  What sort of blessings are these things?  Kushner concludes: I can only understand the phrase “a full and complete blessing” to mean the experience of life in its fullness, tasting everything that life has to offer, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the bee stings, love and loss, joy and despair, hope and rejection.  The blessing of completeness means a full life, not an easy life, a hard road, not a smooth one, a life that strikes the black keys and the white keys on the keyboard so that every available emotional tone is sounded.

This week, consider: where might you find blessing in an unexpected place?  How can you better experience God as being with you in all that you do, the good, the bad, and everything in between?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Chutzpah Toward the Heavens (Portion Lech L'chah)

In our tradition, arguing with God is not just acceptable; sometimes—especially when justice is on the line—it is essential.

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, God tells Abraham, “Walk in My ways and be blameless” (Genesis 17:1).  The language here is strikingly similar to the description of Noah that we read last week: “Noah. . . was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.”

For the Rabbis, such parallels beg for commentary, inviting a critical comparison between these two biblical patriarchs.  While Noah and Abraham are both depicted as righteous, the Rabbis’ closer reading of the text argues for Abraham’s moral superiority.  They point out that while Noah’s blamelessness is qualified by the term “in his age” (as I discussed here last week), God’s words for Abraham are unqualified.  Furthermore, while Noah walks with God (et ha-Elohim), God commands Abraham to walk ahead of the Divine Presence (hithalech l’fanai).  Noah is present with God, step by step—but Abraham actually takes the lead, with God’s blessing.

This difference in “walking” is borne out in Noah and Abraham’s actions in times of crisis.  When God tells Noah about the coming deluge, Noah does as he is told and builds the ark.  He saves himself, his family, and the selected pairs of animals, but does not protest on behalf of the rest of humanity.  By contrast, when God informs Abraham of the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham steps up and argues on behalf of their citizens: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty. . . Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

We Jews are the children of Abraham, not Noah.  It is not enough for us to walk with God; God sometimes asks us to take the lead. Our calling is to live with chutzpah, to challenge authority—even God’s authority—in the face of injustice.   For all too often, accepting the status quo means acquiescing to bigotry.  As Elie Wiesel reminds us, “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”  To be a Jew is to break the silence that breeds persecution and fear—even when that silence seems to start with God.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Righteous--In ALL Generations (portion Noach)

While this week’s Torah portion, Noach, describes its protagonist as a “righteous man,” most Jewish commentators, past and present, tend to disagree.  They note the qualifier that immediately follows this claim, b’dorotav, “in his generation” and argue that by implication, Noah was only relatively meritorious, compared to the very low standards set by his contemporaries. Unlike Abraham or Moses, Noah does not argue on behalf of his condemned fellow men and women. Anyone who is content to do nothing while all of creation is destroyed cannot be all that righteous.  Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, drawing on the Hasidic tradition, puts it, Noah was a tzaddik im pelz, a holy man in a fur coat.  In a world gone cold, you have two choices.  You put on a coat and warm yourself, or you build a fire, which warms both yourself and others.  Noah, alas, prefers the first, more selfish option.

This distinction feels particularly timely during the current panic over Ebola.  Many political pundits and network talking heads are now playing on people’s very real fears, using them as fodder to stoke their calls for travel bans that would end our ability to deliver essential aid to the West African nations suffering deeply under the Ebola epidemic.  These fear mongers would, in short, have those of us in the developed world don our nice fur coats and avert our eyes while our fellow men, women, and children in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea die of this terrible disease.

Writing in this week’s New Yorker, Michael Specter adds that for at least a decade, we in the West could have pushed for the development of an Ebola vaccine but didn’t—because we weren’t the people getting sick.  At worst, this is blatant racism.  At best, it is just another example of “holy people in fur coats”, ignoring God’s unequivocal call, in last week’s portion, to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Our tradition asks more of us.  It challenges us to see all of humankind as created in the Divine Image, and therefore worthy of our love, concern, and care.  Torah does not believe in borders sealed against aid workers—and hearts hardened by fear.  Neither should we.

For Randy Newman's prescient take on the matter, here's a video of his extraordinary song: "The Great Nations of Europe".  Listen, especially, for the last line.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

In God's Image (Portion Bereishit)

What is the most significant verse in the Torah—the one that best expresses the central principles that undergird all the rest?

Not surprisingly, the Rabbis of the Talmud debated this question amongt themselves and, of course, arrived at an array of different answers.  Some point to the first line of Shema, which proclaims God’s oneness.  Others argue for what we often call the “Golden Rule,” from Leviticus 19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But Rabbi Ben Azzai makes the case for a passage from this week’s Torah portion, Bereishit, which opens the book of Genesis and thereby marks the beginning of a new year’s Torah cycle: “God created humanity in God’s own image. . . male and female, God created them.”

Why is this verse so important?  As numerous commentators note, it is the foundation of all of Torah’s rules governing human interactions, individual and collective.  Only when we come to see our neighbors—and even more pressingly, our enemies—as sacred and inviolable divine creations will we treat them with the love and respect that the rest of the Torah legislates.

Today, in a world that is torn apart at the seams by war, poverty, terror, and injustice, it is hard to even imagine what life would look like if everyone treated one another as if they were created in God’s image.  But God asks us to do just this—imagine, and act, we must!  We cannot even hope to repair our battered world unless we maintain a clear and vigorous vision of what it might yet become.

And this challenge begins at home, with each of us.  This week, make a special effort to remind yourself that someone you don’t particularly like is, indeed, created in the divine image.  Re-envision your relationship with that person accordingly—and then consider how this changes your interactions.  When we recognize the holiness in others, we become holier ourselves.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Why the Jewish Camp REALLY Matters

A couple weeks ago, I asked some of the kids from my congregation who were at Camp Kalsman last summer to share their reflections at a Friday night Shabbat service.  Here's what my son, Jonah Kaufman, age 9, wrote:

The thing that I enjoyed most at camp is that everybody in the cabins are like brothers.

I think that, because all of us share clothes, we play card games with each other, and most important of all, is that we almost love each other.

Sure, sometimes we get in fights, or we get mad at each other, but in the end, we all love each other.

Although I've been going to camp for two years, It has made a serious impact on my life from swimming to meeting friends to services that I love going to camp, and that one of my favorite things are meeting new friends.

For those of us concerned about Jewish survival in America in the wake of things like the Pew Study, this seems like a strong response: we need to send a lot more of our kids to camp.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Man in His Life (Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot)

Since our fall harvest celebration of Sukkot begins on Wednesday night, this coming Shabbat is the Sabbath that falls during the intermediate days of that week-long festival—Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot.  On that day, it is customary to read the book of Ecclesiastes.

The best known passage of Ecclesiastes comes from the third chapter; many of us recognize it immediately from Pete Seeger’s song, popularized by the Byrds, “Turn, Turn, Turn”:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
 a time to be born and a time to die,
 a time to plant and a time to uproot,
 a time to kill and a time to heal, 
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,    
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up, 
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, 
a time for war and a time for peace.

The great Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai wrote a poem that I read as a kind of commentary on this passage.  While the author of Ecclesiastes speaks of everything having its own time and season, Amichai presents a more complicated picture:

A Man in His Life

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose.  Ecclesiastes
was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love. 
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur.  It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

As we prepare to celebrate Sukkot, consider these two reflections on life’s passages.  Do you believe that there are separate times for all things under the heavens—or do you agree with Amichai’s assessment, that we don’t “have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose”? 

What difference does it make—does our view on this question shape the way we live?

Chag Sameach—a joyous and blessed Sukkot to all—

Rabbi Dan

And here's a nice live version of the Byrds: