Sunday, August 27, 2017

You Cannot/Must Not Hide (Portion Ki Tetze)

You must not/cannot hide yourself.

If we seek a more just society, there is no room for inaction in the midst of evil.  This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, contains more mitzvot/commandments than any other.  Most are concerned with the creation of a more equitable and holy community, laying out the details of our individual obligations and responsibilities toward this end.

One refrain from the parsha cuts to the heart of this endeavor: Lo tuchal l’hitalem.  Yet the precise meaning of the Hebrew is unclear, for it could be rendered either as a command—“You must not hide yourself!”—or a statement of fact—“You cannot hide.”  Which way should we understand the passage?

In good Talmudic fashion, sixteenth century commentator Moshe Alshikh reconciles the two readings.  He writes:

After you have performed a commandment three times, then you will know that the observance of the mitzvah is, once and for all, firmly implanted within you, so that whatever the circumstances, “you cannot hide.”

In other words, once we thoroughly accustom ourselves to doing the right thing, our own moral conscience and the power of habit make it virtually impossible to ignore injustice.

As we continue our communal and individual journeys through the month of Elul, toward the Days of Awe, let us heed this imperative to refuse to hide ourselves amidst the seething injustice engulfing our nation.  As Jews, we know all too well that avoiding responsibility and being a bystander is not an acceptable option.  As Elie Wiesel taught: “We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.”

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Justice, Justice--Means and Ends after Charlottesville (Portion Shoftim)

As we begin the first week of Elul, the Jewish month of reflection and preparation for the coming Days of Awe, we have a lot of work to do.  Our nation is bleeding.  In the aftermath of last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, so much is broken, starting with the moral abomination at the helm whose comments have empowered bigots and abused the vulnerable.

And then this verse shouts out at us from this week’s Torah portion, Shoftim: “Justice, justice you must pursue!”

Why is the word tzekdek—justice—repeated twice in succession?  Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peschischa teaches: "Torah is telling us to be just also in pursuit of justice—both the end and the means by which it is obtained must be just."

This is crucial.  Our tradition insists that if we wish to repair the world, we cannot pretend that a positive end justifies negative means.   Justice will only endure if we achieve it with integrity.

Rabbi Mordecai Liebling was in Charlottesville during the white supremacist rioting.  In his article, “Fighting What the Nazis Fear,” he speaks of the imperative to resist evil and, concurrently, to reach out, even—or perhaps especially—to those whose views are repugnant to us.  He writes:

“We are faced with a difficult challenge: we cannot tolerate white supremacy and we must listen to the fear and pain that many of its supporters carry. . . The truth is that they are not getting what they were led to believe and their economic future is not promising.
It is the work of those white people who are able to hear their pain, attempt to reach over barriers and advocate for policies that will benefit them as well. Dehumanizing and dismissing them leads to more hatred. We will not bring about a more just society through violence.”
This is our enormous challenge in the coming year. 
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.  Justice, justice shall you puruse.
Resist and reach out. 

Reach out and resist.

A Love that Lights the Sky: Musings on the Eclipse

Talmud teaches: “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world. “  This is not surprising.  Nearly every ancient tradition shared this view.  Shakespeare describes an eclipse as a “stain on the sun that portended no good.”  The English word “eclipse” comes from the Greek, “ekleipsi,” which implies, at its root, abandonment.  In a prescientific world, the sun’s unexpected diminishment and even disappearance was utterly terrifying.  Without its light and heat, the earth would be a lifeless, frozen hunk of rock.  What could be more traumatic than the sun’s abandonment?

Times have changed.  This weekend, millions of people across the US will go significantly out of their way to view the Great American Eclipse.  As writer Ross Andersen notes: “The primary emotion most of us now feel upon glimpsing an eclipse is wonder.”  The moon, which is, amazingly, both 400 times smaller than the sun and also 400 times closer to earth, perfectly blocks the sun, so day turns to night and the sun’s corona glitters in the darkened sky.  Here in Idaho, many will witness what will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I share the wonder.  I don’t believe in the kind of God who makes everything happen for a reason, micromanaging the Creation with divine signs and portents.  Eclipses are not omens in response to our sins; they are entirely predictable and will occur whether we are sinful or saintly.  Like other celestial mechanics, they are, in fact, powerful reminders that we human beings are not the center of the universe.

Yet I am convinced that with a bit of post-modern interpretation, Talmud still has something significant to teach us on these matters.  My conviction that eclipses are not sent as inherently purposeful messages from an omnipotent deity need not leave them absent of moral significance.  I believe that as fundamentally meaning-making creatures, it is in humanity’s nature to find purpose in events after the fact.  This eclipse might still serve as a powerful sign for humanity if that’s how we consciously choose to understand it.

How, then, do I propose we interpret both the fear and wonder of next week’s solar eclipse in a contemporary context?  I suggest we take it as a call to action on climate change.  On Monday, August 22—or, by the Jewish calendar, the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, a month devoted to reflection and repentance—the source of life on earth will, for a moment or two, go dark, from coast to coast across the world’s most powerful nation.  And then, just as scientifically predictably—and, at the same time, still miraculously—the light and warmth that sustain us will return.  Let this awesome event serve as a reminder that unless we change our behavior as a species, in the future, we may not be so lucky.  The damage that we are doing to our planet—and our own civilization—with our profligate devastation of earth’s natural systems is not so easily undone.  May the temporary eclipse of the sun wake us to the wisdom of philosopher and naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore’s words: “To let the world slip away—the starfish and sea anemones, the green and fecund marshland, the glacial streams—to let it slip away because we’re too busy, or too comfortable to change, is a sin against creation.”

Now is the time for turning, in action and in prayer.  Let us conclude with the words of poet Daniel Landinsky, inspired by the work of Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
"You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
Whole Sky.