Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Story of Isaac (Portion Vayera--in memory of Leonard Cohen, z"l)

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a God
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
"Just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan
                        Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

In this fall’s e-Torah, I’m focusing on midrash on the weekly portion.  For the most part, this means classic rabbinic commentary, but midrash really means “interpretation”—and that process of encountering and wrestling with the biblical text is a living one that very much continues in our time.  In that spirit, this week I’m sharing a text from a song, The Story of Issaac, by Leonard Cohen, z”l, who died on Thursday. 

The Torah portion ends with the Akedah, the account of the binding of Isaac that many know from the reading on Rosh Hashanah morning.  In Cohen’s telling, this terse tale becomes an anti-war hymn and cautionary warning against all the callous ways that we still sacrifice our children.  While God spared Isaac, too many are not granted such a reprieve.  Cohen introduced the song this way in a 1968 session with the BBC: “There's a story in the Bible about Isaac, how his father summoned him to go and climb a mountain, how his father built an altar there after he had been commanded to offer up his son.  And just at the last moment before he was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel held the hand of the father.  But today the children are being sacrificed and no one raises a hand to end the sacrifice.  And this is what this song is about.”

This week, consider: How are we still leading our children to the altar?  What societal changes do we need to make to better tend to them and their future?

And for a fine performance of the entire song:

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Smashing Idols (Portion Lech L'chah)

Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop.  A woman came in with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods.”  Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."
"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"
Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"
                                    Midrash Genesis Rabbah

The midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols is perhaps the best known of all rabbinic tales.   It is so oft-told that many Jews mistakenly believe it’s found in the Torah itself.  In fact, Torah says nothing about Terach being an idolator.  So why is this story so popular?

I believe it points to the centrality of iconoclasm in Jewish life.  According to the midrash, Abraham’s call commences only after he destroys his father’s gods.  One might think that his life journey starts with the command “Lech L’chah!—Go forth!” that opens this week’s portion and bestows its name—but it doesn’t.  Instead, all that Abraham will accomplish begins with an act of destruction.  In order to create something new, Abraham must first question everything that came before him.  He is not content to maintain the status quo for its own sake—he’s determined to blaze his own path.  Abraham’s unwavering pursuit of truth leads him to monotheism, to a belief in the one God who will enter into a covenantal relationship with him and the Jewish people to follow.  We are his heirs.

It is no accident that Jewish iconoclasts have changed the world time and again.  Our prophets had the chutzpah to challenge societal norms—and even argue with God.  In our time, Jewish artists, scientists, and social activists have maintained this proud tradition of questioning established traditions and putting forth visions of a better world. 

This week, consider taking some time to reflect on your own past.  What “idols” did you have to shatter to launch yourself on your own journey into adulthood?

Monday, October 31, 2016

Make Yourself an Ark (Portion Noach)

Whenever people saw Noah occupying himself with the building of the ark—which took 120 years—they would ask: “Why are you building this boat?”  Noah would respond: “Because God is going to bring a flood upon the earth [unless you change your harmful ways].”

The people would respond: “What sort of flood?  If God sends a flood of fire, we know how to protect ourselves.  If it is a flood of waters, then if the waters bubble up from the earth, we will cover them with iron rods, and if they descend from above, we know a remedy against that, too.”
                                                  -Midrash Genesis Rabbah

Sometimes, to our detriment—or even our doom—we ignore what should be obvious warning signs.  In the midrash on this week’s Torah portion, Noach, Noah trys to warn his contemporaries about the coming deluge.  He builds the ark publicly, over a very long period of time, so that others might observe him and inquire about his efforts.  This works—they ask—but their response to his explanation is not what he expects.  When he tells them that God is preparing to wipe them out unless they repent, they insist they can thwart the floodwaters.  Instead of changing their behavior, they double down on it.  This deadly combination of arrogance and denial becomes the downfall of dor ha-mabul, the generation of the deluge.  Only Noah and his family will survive.

Alas, it seems we have not yet taken to heart the lesson of this Torah tale.  In the face of insurmountable scientific evidence of catastrophic climate change, our response so far looks stunningly similar to that of Noah’s contemporaries.  We deny the problem or arrogantly insist that we can use technology to overcome it.  Instead of examining and altering our misguided behavior at the root of the crisis, we either deny its existence or brazenly proclaim our faith in fanciful technological solutions. 

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner taught: Torah is not true because it actually happened, historically, as recorded; it is true in a deeper and more important sense—because it happens, in real time, to us.  The stories of Genesis—including Noah—have much to teach us, if we are willing to hear and contemplate the lessons they offer.  We need not repeat the errors of the flood generation—but time is running short, for us, as it did for them.  The hour is late, but disaster can still be averted if we summon the will. 

God tells Noah, “Aseh l’chah tevah.”  This is usually translated, in Torah, as “Make an ark for yourself.”  But the midrash reads it as simultaneously more literal and more metaphoric: “Make yourself an ark.”  By this interpretation, the Holy One is reminding us that each one of us can be a source of sanctuary and liberation.  May we speak—and act—on behalf of our little corner of the earth in this new year.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Justice and Mercy (Portion Bereshit)

As we begin a new Torah cycle, starting with Bereshit—“In the beginning”—I’m taking a new approach to this fall’s e-Torah.  Instead of focusing on a text taken directly from the portion, I’m going to share thoughts on a midrash—a rabbinic commentary—on the week’s parshah.  In our Jewish tradition, we believe that the Written Torah (Hebrew Scriptures) is inextricably bound with the Oral Torah—the corpus of commentary that continues to grow in our own time.  I invite you to join me here over the next few months as we journey through the lens of Oral Torah. 

This week’s passage comes from Louis Ginzberg’s anthology of Midrash, Legends of the Jews.  It suggests that the creation story detailed in Genesis does not constitute God’s first act of formation:

God made several worlds before ours, but ultimately destroyed them all, because God was not pleased with any of them until creating ours. But even this last world would have had no permanence, if God had executed the original Divine plan of ruling it according to the principle of strict justice. It was only after God realized that justice by itself would undermine the world that God tempered justice with mercy, and made them (justice and mercy) rule jointly.

This is an important message for us as we come to the end of our fall holy day season.  First of all, it points to the importance of second—and third and fourth—chances.   If even God went through a few drafts before successfully creating our world, then we, too, are naturally going to make our share of mistakes.  The important thing is to learn from them.  As Samuel Beckett famously wrote: “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”

And second, the passage reminds us that a world governed by strict justice cannot endure.  Life is not entirely fair—and never will be.   If God judged us without mercy, none of us would pass the test.  So, too, in our appraisals of others—we should judge compassionately, otherwise we will quickly find ourselves friendless and alone.  As the old church billboard warns: “Husbands, if you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”

This week we return to our origins, beginning, yet again, the cycle of Torah with the story of creation.  May it inspire us to be more compassionate toward one another.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Confessing Together—Always Room for One More (Yom Kippur Am 5777)

A Jewish girl goes to synagogue with her father for the first time on Yom Kippur.  She’s eight or nine years old, and takes it all in with great curiosity.  Much of it moves her.  She’s enthralled by the white vestments, the large, elegantly-dressed crowd, the haunting music.  And mostly she loves being there with her father, sitting by his side, his soft tallit draped over her shoulder. 

Then the congregation crises for vidui, the communal confession of their past year’s failings.  They rap on their chests and chant the litany: Ashamnu.  Bagadnu.  Dibarnu dofi. . . . Al cheyt, al cheyt, al cheyt. . . We are arrogant, bigoted, cynical.  We’re robbed, lied, cheated, and stolen. . . on and on and on.

The girl is shocked.  With a deeply worried look, she turns to her father and cries, “Daddy, we’d better get out of here.  Everyone around us has done a lot of really bad stuff!”

The father smiles and reassures her: “My love, they’re not all guilty of everything they’re admitting.  This is just something we do together on Yom Kippur.”

“But why?” she persists, as only an eight year old can.  “Why do we beat ourselves up over mean things we didn’t even do?”

It’s a good question, and not just for children.  Conservative Rabbi Mark Greenspan composed a meditation on the subject that opens:

            I have a problem with the Vidui,
            the confessional prayer that we recite
            several times during Yom Kippur.
            It seems to me that for a confession to be honest
            It has to be sincere, heartfelt, and personal.
            I can’t sincerely confess someone else’s sins
            Nor can I simply read a generic list of sins.
            Yet this is what we seem to do in the Yom Kippur liturgy.
            My transgressions may or may not appear on that list
            And there is something disingenuous about confessing
            Sins that I did not commit, just because
            They are “on the list” and written in the plural. . .
Why do we read this list of confessions?

Why, indeed?  Why do we still recite that litany of transgressions, from aleph to tav,
from “A” to “Z”, repeatedly over the course of this long and solemn day?
This morning I’d like to offer three answers, three approaches I have learned from diverse and unexpected sources: a non-Jewish journalist from Connecticut, a local Christian clergy colleague, and a deceased longtime CABI member who I find myself missing a great deal this season.


I’ll start with the Colin McEnroe, columnist for the Hartford Courant and  host of a daily public radio show.  I heard him on one of my favorite Jewish podcasts, “Unorthodox”, where he appeared as the tongue-in-cheek “Gentile of the Week.”   After schmoozing about a variety of topics, the moderator, Mark Oppenheimer, asked Mr. McEnroe for his take on Donald Trump’s rise to political stardom.  McEnroe replied:

His persona was sculpted in the world of reality television—and reality TV is completely based on the idea of getting rid of somebody.  At the end, whether it’s “American Idol” or “Survivor” or “The Apprentice”—what happens at the end is you get rid of somebody.  And that’s a kind of tempting view, because in life, you can almost never get rid of anybody, right?  The people in your life—they’re not going anywhere.  The folks in your workplace, the people you like the least—they’re just not going anywhere.  They will be there tomorrow when you come to work.  The folks who most get on your nerves—they’re here to stay. So that’s why these shows are incredibly popular, because there’s this incredible fantasy—you can actually get rid of someone who’s a pain in the butt.  That’s the world that Trump comes out of, this fantasy world, in which he’s the guy who can make this happen
This illusion perpetuated by reality television is, of course, the antithesis of Jewish tradition.  We are inextricably bound in covenantal community with friends and foes and everything in between.  As Yom Kippur begins, before we chant Kol Nidre, we ask God for permission to pray with the Avaryanim—the sinners—which is to say, all of us.  If you can’t tolerate being in the presence of those who irritate you, you won’t thrive in the Jewish world.  As one of Boise’s former student rabbis, Mordecai Finley wrote in an insightful article:

One must start any conflict resolution with the commitment to the community, to emphasize the many benefits one receives and not focus on winning the conflict.  Conflicts and tensions are inevitable and even productive aspects of communities.  Conflicts mean that the participants are active, dedicated and have a stake; and the willingness to be reasonably unhappy means that one takes a more expansive view of these things.

If you’re Jewish—or really, as Colin McEnroe notes, if you’re human—you don’t always get your way, because in our communal lives, we’re not getting rid of anyone.  When we confess publicly, we remind ourselves of our obligation to learn to live together.

My favorite teaching on this topic comes from Rabbi Harold Kushner’s marvelous book, When All You’ve Wanted Isn’t Enough.  Kushner recounts how, just before Yom Kippur, he runs into an unaffiliated Jew who insists on sharing why he won’t be coming to services: “I tried to get involved in your synagogue but I found it to be full of hypocrites.”

To which Rabbi Kushner is tempted to respond: “True.  But there’s always room for one more.”

Instead, he notes: “A synagogue that only admitted saints would be like a hospital that admitted only healthy people. It would be a lot easier to run, and a more pleasant place to be, but I’m not sure we’d be doing job we’re here to do.”

Jointly confessing our transgressions reminds us that there’s always room for one more—that, like it or not, we’re not getting rid of anyone, that we’re in it for the long haul, together.

It also encourages us to open our hearts to one another.  My colleague, Rev. Andrew Kukla, senior pastor at Boise’s First Presbyterian Church, shared this in a post to my Facebook page.  He wrote:

I think the current state of political and social discourse affirms why public and communal confession is so important.  It’s owning that none of us has “arrived”; that we are all struggling to find the “better angels of our nature”.  Such communal ownership has the power to make the discourse less about
finger-pointing at them and more about looking at ourselves.
A unified prayer of confession is our mutual task of accountability and responsibility, and yes—of mercy and forgiveness.  Because somehow and some way, we have to make it okay for people to be less than perfect, so we can stop investing so much energy in armor.

How might we take the energy we waste on emotional armor, pitting ourselves against the world, and, instead, invest it in our common humanity? Rev. Kukla suggests we start by acknowledging our shared vulnerability.  Communally confessing our shortcomings is a step in that direction—even if, at first, we’re merely following a formulaic script without much real feeling.  As our Sages noted centuries ago, Lo lishma ba lishma—If we practice doing the right thing, even if our initial motivation is insincere, eventually we will do it with proper intention.   Even a rote public confession can help us start to stretch our atrophied “forgiveness muscles.”  The Yom Kippur vidui may, over time, inspire us to examine our own choices, take responsibility for our failings, and make amends to those we’ve hurt.

It can also nurture gratitude.  I’ve already quoted Rabbi Mark Greenspan’s challenge to the notion of communal confession but he ultimately affirms the practice as a path to gratefulness.  He reminds us:  

We do not shrink from taking advantage of rewards for the efforts of others. The same person who sits in a building he did not build, cooled by air conditioning he neither created nor paid for, reading words he did not write, will protest indignantly at discomforts visited upon him by someone else's mistake. We see our blessings as birthrights and our troubles as undeserved.

Perhaps we confess in the plural to bring home to us that interconnectedness is true in all ways: in sin, in punishment--and in virtue and reward. We seek to be good not only for our own soul, but to help those around us. You may beat your own chest, but the vibrations echo through the breast of everyone whom you know, and many whom you will never meet. Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.

Swift and sure are the currents that tie us to one another.

This affirmation of our interconnectedness is at the heart of my third and final argument in defense of our Yom Kippur vidui.  It involves a scientific breakthrough I learned about in detail this past summer in the podcast Radiolab—but which I first encountered in its infancy through my dear friend Bob Parenti.

Many of you were lucky enough to know Bob, may his memory be for a blessing.  He was a stalwart CABI member, a past president, and original chairperson of the rabbinic search committee that hired me.  He was also an eminent botanist who did trailblazing work in the field of plant communication.  To walk in the woods with Bob—to see the world through his eyes—was to enter into a beloved secret kingdom.  He patiently taught me, in layman’s language, what he’d learned through rigorous scientific research: that plants communicate with one another.  Bob showed me that what we see is, as it were, the tip of the iceberg—a tiny fraction of an intricate, interconnected ecosystem.  When he began his academic career, this hypothesis was mostly met with scorn.  Plants talking? Nonsense.  But by the time he retired, the scientific community had begun to come around.

Bob would have reveled in the findings documented in the Radiolab episode.  It features the work of Professors Suzanne Simard and Teresa Ryan at the University of British Columbia.  They have mapped out the mechanics of what Bob intuited, a forest beneath the forest, in which plants converse in the language of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and water.  Simard and Ryan discovered the medium for this communication: a web of tiny white tubes, barely visible to the eye, called mycorrhizal networks—essentially, mini-mushrooms.

When they plug their roots into these networks, trees become capable of amazing range of behaviors that stun even the most cynical biologists.  When life is good, and trees have extra sugar, they store it in these fungal cells.  When times are hard, the mycelium release this sugar to the trees so they have food amidst the famine.  If rising temperatures are stressing certain trees, they will send a warning signal through this web.  Dying trees dump their carbon into fungi in order to redistribute it to their healthier neighbors.   The nutrients don’t just get reapportioned, as one might expect, to the offspring of the dying tree, or even to other members of the same species.  Instead, they go to the forest’s strongest young trees of all varieties, which have a better chance of surviving global warming. 

Rabbi Adam Lavitt views this new botanical model through the lens of Jewish tradition.  He writes:

Torah teaches: “The human being is a tree of the field.”  As we learn more about them, the trees of the field invite us to cultivate aware participation in the web of interconnectedness in which we are naturally embedded.  All of our actions have consequences.  We, too, can plug into the micro-universe, the web of intricate connections, both out in the world and within our own lives.

And so we gather here, bound by the brit, by covenantal community, on this sacred Day of At-one-ment.  We confess our failings together, because it is our holy obligation to learn to live with one another in all our imperfection, to stop investing so much energy in armor, to recognize that our interconnection echoes the sometimes hidden oneness underlying all of God’s creation. 

We recite the vidui, the lengthy list of shortcomings, large and small, because our choice to acknowledge our mutual responsibility determines the difference between heaven and hell.
The story is told of an old woman who wished, more than anything, to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. All her life she prayed for this, until God finally agreed and sent a messenger to grant her request. The angel put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, "First you shall see hell."
When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The room was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — main dishes, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.
The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their gaunt faces creased with frustration. Each person had an enormous, three foot-long spoon strapped to his or her arm. As a result, the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get it into their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their  desperate, hungry moaning. "I've seen enough," she cried. "Please let me see heaven."
And so the angel reapplied the blindfold and declared, "Now you shall see heaven." When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, with countless round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that the people sitting just out of arm's reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.
But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were beautifully healthy, with smiling, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.
And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell: the people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed one another.
The choice is ours.  Confess together—live with one another, as the frail, flawed, and deeply vulnerable creatures that we are—or wither away, spiritually-dead, isolated and alone. 
This morning God tells us: I set before you this day life and death, the blessing and the curse. 
Let us choose community, which despite—and even because of—our endless imperfections, is the only path toward life. 

Heaven awaits.