Sermon For Rosh HaShanah Morning – “The Boundaries We Must Defend”

This past summer, my son Ari worked as a broadcaster for the Duluth Huskies – a minor-league baseball team.  There were lots of reasons to love the Huskies.  First, our beloved Rabbi Emeritus Merle Singer grew up in Duluth, and I’ve always had a soft spot through him for Minnesota.  Second, the team is part of a college development league, and it’s fun to watch these young talented players grow.  And … they did well!  When they made the playoffs, I flew to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove seven hours to Bismarck, North Dakota to watch their first playoff game.  They won, so we drove another six hours to Willmar, Minnesota where they beat the Stingers too.  I flew home, and Ari jumped on the bus for the seven hour ride to Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin where they faced the Dock Spiders in the Championship series.

They split the first two games, and we anxiously listened to Ari and his partner Mitch call the final game.  It was a tight game, and I hung on every pitch.  I had become a really passionate Huskies fan.  In the later innings, the Huskies fell behind 4-3.  They had a chance to score, but one of the players made a base-running error and got a needless out.  I was SO angry!  I pounded my fist on the table in frustration – my daughters looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They lost the game and I was crushed.

It’s amazing to see how passionate we get for sports teams. They become like family.  We exult when they win, and anguish when they lose.  They evoke deep connections – the city where we grew up, the school we attended, the place we make our home. They represent the tribes to which we belong.

From the very beginning of time, human life and experience was tribal.  Before the dawn of civilization, for thousands of years humanity roamed the land as tribes, working together to eke out an existence.  We learned that if you pull down the branch I can pull off the fruit and we can share the food together.  We learned that if we surround an animal we will be more successful at the hunt and can share in the meal.[1]

As tribes evolved, they began to create symbolic markers to rally group membership. We embraced physical markings, we made standards and flags, we invented songs, we told and retold our stories.  Tribes make for the source of our identity.  They tell us who we are, where we come from, what matters to us, who we need to care about, and who we can trust.[2]

Jonathan Haidt in his monumental work: The Righteous Mind teaches that being part of a tribe makes you feel bigger.  You are not simply one lonely individual but you are part of a group and that group makes you larger. Because other people depend on you, you develop a sense of importance.  Because what you contribute to the group matters, you have a purpose.  Because other people care about you, you are loved.  A veteran of World War II spoke about his experience this way.

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle … has been the high point of their lives … Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance…  I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self-sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy … I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.[3]

Tomorrow is September 11 – a date that has taken on so much resonant meaning. Seventeen years ago, our nation was attacked in dramatic and vicious fashion, killing nearly 3000 people and injuring more than 6000.  In the aftermath of that attack, we felt an inexorable need to come together.  We called everyone we knew to make sure those closest to us were okay.  We came together in civic gatherings and in synagogue to pray and remember.  We flew our flags on our homes, on our cars, and on ourselves.  We sang national hymns at school and at baseball games.  Thousands joined the military.  Peoples from around the world expressed their care and concern.

Our congregation began the tradition of leaving empty chairs on our bima, draped in the American and Israeli flag. This tradition was formed to remind us that there were those from our people who were spending holy time in harm’s way, to defend and protect the United States of America and the State of Israel.  Even though we who are sitting here are not serving in harm’s way, we care for those who are.  Like a tribe or a sports team, we may not be on the field of battle or play, but we are fully invested – their success is our success, their loss is our loss, their pain is our pain.  Because we share a kinship, be it a fan-base or nationality, they sacrifice for us.  And in turn we honor them because it is for us that they sacrifice.

As Jews part of the power of this ritual of the New Year derives from coming together as a community to reconnect to each other, to our ancestry, to our people and our tradition.  There is a reason that coming together is so powerful.  It is because God is found in that web of relation.  God is found when we come together as one.

In the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel gather together at Mt. Sinai.  The Torah teaches that “A mixed-multitude went up out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:38).  When they lacked for food and water, they turned on each other and on Moses their leader, but now, they came to Mt. Sinai and it was there that God chose to commune with them.  The Torah teaches that the people made camp at the mountain, using the singular verb VaYichan to show the unity they had fashioned.  When Moses gives them instructions, they all answer together as one.  By becoming one with each other, they were able to be one with God as well.

So, if the way we draw nearer to God is to be more one with each other, then perhaps the goal is to erase the tribal divisions we create for ourselves?

That is the goal that novelist Michael Chabon proposed earlier this year in his controversial graduation address at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Chabon finds the idea of barriers repugnant: “I abhor homogeneity and insularity, exclusion and segregation, the redlining of neighborhoods, the erection of border walls and separation barriers. I am for mongrels and hybrids and creoles, for syncretism and confluence, for jazz and Afrobeat and Thai surf music, for integrated neighborhoods and open borders.”[4] He explains that boundaries and borders are what separates people.  The purpose of walls is to define those on the opposite side as “Other.”  To Chabon, there is no difference between a wall to imprison and a wall to protect. “Security for some,” he said, “means imprisonment for all.”[5]

In some ways, I understand his criticism.  Our country and our world are growing ever more tribal.  The natural impulse to associate with people who are like us and to define everyone else as “other” is growing.  Over the last several decades, Bill Bishop writes in his book The Big Sort that Americans have migrated, moved, and organized themselves into ever more homogeneous groups. College-educated whites move to different cities than the non-college educated.  Different ethnic groups sort into communities where people like them live. Gay individuals and couples move to certain zip codes. More and more our kids go to schools with kids who are mostly just like them, and we congregate with people who are mostly just like us.[6]

Meanwhile, he writes, national institutions have splintered.  “In this new world, there will be greater differences nationally among communities but fewer differences within the smaller groups … missing will be any sense of the whole…. We have created, and are creating, new institutions distinguished by their isolation and single-mindedness.”[7]

Jonah Goldberg writes that “For most of human history, meaning was confined to a very small zone: “us.” Us could be a tribe, a faith, a city-state, or denizens of a specific class.  The rules for us were different from the rules for them, and there was nothing wrong with using force … to arbitrarily enforce the rules in your favor.”  When all of your identity is bound up in a single group or cause, your concern for institutions and people outside your group diminishes or vanishes.”[8]  In essence, your total concern is for your tribe, and everyone else becomes your enemy.

This sense of obsessive self-concern is spreading.  A young woman lamented to me this summer that on her college campus, the drama group she loves has become so preoccupied with promoting identities of color that her own identity as Jewish woman is demeaned and ignored. Campus speech codes and intolerance have rendered her voice meaningless. At a political rally, two men proudly showed off their T-shirts which read: “I would rather be Russian than a Democrat.”  As Israel too becomes more tribal, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem pronounced that Reform leaders and other “quarrel-mongers [should] examine themselves” after a stone spontaneously fell from the Western Wall onto the egalitarian prayer platform.  The President of Israel, after the passage of the Nation-State law, declared: “This law is part of a broader trend, a global one perhaps, that … strives for a reality in which there are two options: Either you are with me, or you are against me. Either you are with me, or you are a traitor, an enemy.”

So maybe Chabon is right. Maybe the key to building a better world is to eradicate boundaries and erase difference, to embrace a radical universalism that says all things are one.

But what Chabon misses is that boundaries and borders matter.  There is enormous value in one’s distinctiveness, and in distinguishing difference.

The Torah begins by describing the world as Tohu VaVohu – messed up and mixed up.  God begins the work of creation by bringing a sense of order to that chaos.  And to do that God needed to make separations, borders, and boundaries.  God separated light from darkness and day from night.  God separated the sky from the earth and land from sea.

But then God made other distinctions.  Humanity was not like other creatures – we were created differently, in God’s image, and with that power and privilege came responsibility and duty.  Not only were we given the earth to conquer and subdue, but also to till and to tend.

God also made distinctions in time – six days are for work, but the seventh day is for holiness.

But then, the Torah introduces us to Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of a very particular people.  That particular people is asked to make a particular covenant and to become a tribe.  But that tribe is not created simply for tribal sake.  That tribe is created to introduce the world to an idea – and that idea is the pursuit of holiness in human life.  From Abraham and Sarah comes Isaac and Rebecca; and from them come Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and from them come twelve separate tribes.

It is those tribes that God brought together at Mount Sinai.  It is those tribes, separate and distinct, that God sought to fashion into one nation.  God brought those tribes together at that mountain to fashion a nation where moral truths and ethical concerns were more important than tribe.

This is the essence of what makes us Jewish.  As a tribe we celebrate our distinctive culture.  We celebrate holidays with our special foods, we sing our special songs, we don our special garments, we tell our people’s stories.  We welcome children into life with rituals that celebrate their entrance into peoplehood and covenant. We celebrate their coming of age by making sure they can tell and interpret our stories; we wed in accordance with custom and tradition, and look to that tradition in moments of anguish and loss. What makes Judaism so valuable is that it is tribal but not simply for the sake of tribe.  What makes Judaism so valuable is that every facet of its particularity is for a purpose; our ritual, cultural, and textual tradition all serve to fashion a world of holiness in which tribes can dwell together as one.

Elli Fischer responds to Chabon by reminding us of a Mishna in tractate Bava Batra of a beekeeper and a mustard farmer who must keep the bees and plants away from each other.[9] “Honey mustard,” he writes, “is a great flavor, but if you turn the bees loose on the mustard plant you ruin both, because they have to develop independently with their own integrity. Chabon forgets that ‘mashups, pastiche and collage’ require difference.”[10]

We are Americans and we are Jews.  Our identities are formed from what we learn from multiple allegiances to sacred institutions.  We feel a belonging to many tribes. We are loyal to Torah and loyal to the constitution. We are loyal to honor codes of teams and bands and orchestras and studios and schools and neighborhood covenants.  It is these multiple loyalties that remind us that opponents are not enemies.[11]  A football team can fight with all its might to win a game, but they play within the rules and when its over, win or lose, you walk across the field to greet and congratulate your opponent – and in some cases take a knee and pray together.

But among all our allegiances there are principles we all share.  As Americans and Jews we believe and teach that human life is of ultimate value.  If we allow someone to take another person’s life or to trample the dignity of another person’s life our society becomes profane.  We believe in love and that care and compassion are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to act callously toward each other, or to take advantage of those who are weak or vulnerable, our society becomes profane.  We believe that justice and fairness are of ultimate value.  If we allow people to cheat and lie and steal, if we do not apply the law equally, if we allow people in positions of power to take advantage at the expense of those with less, our society becomes profane.

These are the borders and boundaries we must defend.  These are the moral principles we must champion and from which we cannot waver.  These principles, lie at the core of who we are as a people. They come from our tribe but are more important than tribe.  It is to these principles, and not simply to our tribe, that we must pledge our fidelity.

The sounding of the Shofar is a tribal call. It is sounded from the bima, from the top of city walls, the Temple mount, and from Mount Sinai itself. It is our sound – a distinctly Jewish sound.  In some fashion the sounding of the shofar today calls us to return to our tribal roots, its echo reverberates today throughout the entirety of the Jewish world.  But the Shofar must call us to something larger than our trial selves or our identity as Jews.

In ancient times the Shofar called us to defend our walls.  In our time, the Shofar calls us to defend different walls.

The shofar does not call us to embrace chauvinistic pride but instead to celebrate the boundaries that define what is right and good and holy.  We must stand at the boundary of decency, honesty, integrity, kindness and compassion and say these are the borders we will not allow to be breached.  We must stand at the border and banish hatred and greed, oppression and violence, poverty and hunger from our realm.

At Mount Sinai, as we gathered, a mixed multitude of different tribes bound together as one community, Moses admonished the people to set boundaries around them, to keep everyone together as one.  And when the Shofar sounded God told us what a holy society is to look like.  It is to that call that we must return, to fortify the walls of holiness for our people and peoples everywhere.

[1] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012, p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] “Those People, Over There” by Michael Chabon. Graudation address at HUC-JIR Los Angeles – May 13, 2018.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bill Bishop, The Big Sort. Boston: Mariner Books, 2008, pp. 7-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 302.

[8] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West. New York: Crown Forum, 2018, pp. 60-62.

[9] Talmud Bava Batra 25a

[10] “Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine”, by Elli Fischer in Jewish Review of Books, June 13, 2018

[11] Op. Cit. Goldberg, p. 62.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under High Holy Days, Uncategorized

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Evening 5779 – “Time Is A Terrible Thing To Waste…”

In my senior year of college, toward the end of January, I was sitting in my room looking down at a pile of papers. On the top was the application for the Wexner Graduate Fellowship. A professor had recommended that I look into the Fellowship: “I think they have some money,” he had said.

He was right. The Fellowship would pay my full tuition, pay me a generous living stipend, cover my health-care expenses, and provide me with an extraordinary program of leadership training. I had written away for the materials, and, like so many important things, I put it on the pile next to my desk.

I looked at the application again. It was Thursday. The application was due the following Wednesday. I had less than a week. So I called: “I was wondering if I could have an extension on the application?” “Sorry … no you can’t,” came the reply.

So – I went to work. I called one of my professors: “Would you be willing to write me a letter for that fellowship?” “It would be my pleasure,” he said. “Would you be willing to Fed-Ex it?” I asked timidly. “It’s due Wednesday.” I cancelled my weekend plans and buried myself in front of the computer to complete the required essays and then I saw the last piece.

I needed to submit the application in triplicate – with passport photos. It was Sunday afternoon. The only place that did passport photos in Hamilton, New York was the bike shop. I called – “Bob’s out fishing,” came the reply. “When’s he getting back?” I asked. Thankfully, Bob opened the shop for me at 10:00 p.m. and I was able to Fed-Ex my application out the next day.

Jewish tradition teaches that to truly perform Teshuva you have to admit your failings out loud. So, I will say it here with you: I procrastinate. It’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still a terrible vice. I procrastinated on working on that application until the last minute. It inconvenienced my teachers, who had to produce recommendations at the last minute. My friends were mad I cancelled on them. And had Bob been out fishing for one more day, I would have missed the deadline.

Thankfully, I got a call in May early on a Friday morning that I had been selected for the Fellowship. I was up – I had just pulled an all-nighter finishing my thesis.

When I told my family I was going to talk about procrastination on Rosh HaShanah, I got a lot of the predictable jokes. “Written your sermon on procrastination yet?” Haha. But procrastination is a really serious problem. Procrastination increases our stress, jeopardizes our capacity for success, and inconveniences the lives of those around us. Procrastination is the most potent form of self-sabotage that keeps us from living the lives we want, the lives we ought to live.

Why do we procrastinate? For most of us, procrastination is simple. There is something we know we have to do, but we really don’t want to do it. Ask any student with homework to do why they are sitting watching television or playing video games and they will tell you – I hate homework. It’s not fun. It’s boring. We put off the things we don’t want to do, even though we know we need to get them done. Who wants to clean out a closet? Who wants to do their tax forms? It’s fine. It can wait. It’s not urgent. It will get done … eventually. Come on – no one’s going to die.

But sometimes it’s bigger than that. Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen in their studies of procrastination found that one of the major reasons people procrastinate is fear. Primary among those fears is a fear of failure. “Many people who procrastinate,” Burka and Yuen write, “are apprehensive about being judged by others or by the critic who dwells within.” Deep down, we worry: what if I do my best, and it’s not enough? What if I’m not enough? Internally, so much is riding on what we accomplish that we can’t finish or even start a project – we literally become paralyzed with fear.

It’s worse for perfectionists. A perfectionist sets extremely high standards, sometimes impossibly high standards, and believes you can only be successful if you meet them. You become so concerned with making mistakes, or that your finished product won’t measure up to your expectations that you feel a sense of shame and disappointment in yourself. That fear of failure makes it so you cannot begin or see your way through to the end – you procrastinate.

We see this fear of failure everywhere. Someone decides they want to write a book, but can’t get past the first few pages because they think their writing stinks and that their ideas aren’t smart enough. Someone decides to start exercising, but gets quickly frustrated when they can’t perform at the level they did in high school. Someone decides to take up a hobby, but drops it when they can’t paint like Picasso or hit a golf ball like Tiger Woods.

A second reason people procrastinate ironically comes from a second kind of fear: a fear of success. How can you be afraid to succeed? Sometimes people fear being criticized for being ambitious. Other times people are afraid to compete for a promotion because if they win, someone loses, and you might hurt someone’s feelings, lose a friend, or people won’t like you. A woman was working in a terrible job in an abusive work environment, but kept putting off applying for a better job because she didn’t want to abandon her co-workers.

A third reason people procrastinate is a fear of losing control. No one likes being told what to do, so we put off what others expect or require so we can prove to ourselves that they can’t control us. We use procrastination like a weapon – “This is a ridiculous assignment! Why do we have to do it her way?” If my self-worth comes a sense of autonomy or independence, from feeling like I’m the master of my own destiny, then I procrastinate in order to resist letting someone else have control.

But no matter why we procrastinate, we suffer similar consequences. We miss deadlines and antagonize co-workers or partners or family members who were counting on us. We carry anxiety and dread knowing we are falling behind in our responsibilities and commitments. We feel lousy about ourselves because of the things we leave to the last minute or leave undone forever. And worse – we wasted time.

One of the greatest gifts Judaism gave to the world was the concept that time itself is sacred. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time… There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique … exclusive and endlessly precious.”

There is nothing holier or more precious than time. The Holy One has loaned us something incredibly holy and precious – the gift of life. The High Holy days remind us how incredibly fragile and fleeting is that gift. We are loaned something so precious – and when we procrastinate or waste time, we defile the holiness of that gift.

The consequences of wasting time can be catastrophic. We procrastinate too often at our work commitments and we lose a job. We procrastinate too often in our commitments to our families and we lose our marriages. We procrastinate too often in taking care of our well-being that we lose our health – or worse. We procrastinate too long in taking care of our world, and we may lose life as we know it.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has warmed more than one degree Celsius. The Paris Climate Accord from which the United States announced its intent to depart sought to limit warming to two degrees – the odds of its success is about five percent. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that at this stage, three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that will produce catastrophic consequences around the globe – the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters, the loss of most coastal cities, the advance of desertification and severe weather disasters.

And as Nathaniel Rich has reported, “Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels.

In the late 1970s, the CIA and other governmental agencies formed a group of scientists called the Jasons to devise scientific solutions to national security problems. They began to study the effects of carbon dioxide on the earth’s atmosphere. “The Jasons’ report to the Department of Energy, titled ‘The Long-Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate,’ was written in an understated tone that only enhanced its nightmarish findings. Even a minimal warming “could lead to rapid melting” of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet contained enough water to raise the level of the oceans 16 feet.”

In response, a lobbyist and organizer named Rafe Pomerance and a master geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald circled Washington and Capitol Hill to raise awareness among power-brokers and policy-makers. Over the ensuing decade, a growing consensus was built among scientists, leaders in the fossil fuel industry, politicians and policy-makers that something profound needed to be done on a global scale. In 1988, George H.W. Bush campaigned for president and took up the challenge. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect,” he said, “are forgetting about the White House effect.”

But during that first year of his administration, the consensus around meaningful action toward lowering carbon emissions began to unravel. From inside and outside the administration came voices challenging the science, questioning the economic impacts, and looking to postpone an agreement. At an international conference convened in November 1981, in the end no agreement was reached to curb carbon emissions. And in the years since, we have continued to procrastinate, and now the world is beginning to see the horrific effects we have known were coming for forty years.

So why haven’t we acted? Because we’re collectively afraid. We’re afraid of changing our way of life, especially if it costs more. We’re afraid of inconvenience. We’re afraid of giving over control to the science and policy makers to change how we power our lives and transport ourselves, and policy makers in turn are afraid to ask us to change for fear of losing their positions and power. Fear is what leads to procrastination, but procrastination is what leads to self – destruction.

What if we could work this year to overcome our fears – to name them and acknowledge them, but not let them dictate how we live? What if we could realize that our self-worth is defined by our courage to face the challenges and opportunities of our time?

Tomorrow we will return to the central theme of our liturgy – Unetaneh Tokef Kedushat HaYom – Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day. In the midst of this day of reflection and judgment, we are reminded of how fragile is that precious gift of life. “Who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not…”

For everyone – there comes that day. One day, you will visit the doctor who will tell you, “You have …” One day you will find you can’t do what you used to do. You can’t remember as well as you once did. The abstract idea that life is short suddenly becomes very real.

We don’t want to arrive at that place and discover, as Henry David Thoreau feared: “that I had not lived.” We can, instead, live deliberately, and be more careful and conscious about how we make best use of the precious time allotted to us.

The Talmud relates a story: “Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai said A king once invited his servants to a feast and did not set a time for them to come. The wise among them adorned themselves and sat at the entrance to the king’s house. They said: Is the king’s house missing anything necessary for the feast? Certainly the king could invite them at any moment. The fools among them went about their work and said: While the feast is being prepared, we will attend to other matters.

“Suddenly, the king requested that his servants come to the feast. The wise among them entered before him adorned in their finest clothes, and the fools entered before him unprepared. The king said: These wise servants who prepared themselves for the feast shall sit and eat and drink, but these fools who did not prepare will not participate.”
None of us knows what time is left to us. So we must endeavor to use our time most wisely. We need to stop putting off the choices we know we need to make, the tasks we know we need to fulfill. We need to make it known to our elected leaders that we demand they stop procrastinating and come together to confront the pressing issues of our time – the soaring national debt, our failing infrastructure, our broken immigration policies, and the challenge of greenhouse emissions, climate change, and sea rise.

In the Mishna in Pirke Avot, Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that we ought repent one day before our death. Since none of us knows when that day will come, we need to always be prepared. Like wise guests, we do not know when we will be summoned to the feast, so we need to live our lives ready to answer that call.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short and the work is much, the workers feel sluggish, but the reward is great, and the Master of the House is pressing.

In this New Year, let us resolve to make best deliberate use of the precious gift of life we are so blessed to enjoy. It’s not easy. It’s scary. But if we can overcome our fears and face the challenge of this moment, then this moment can be truly blessed, our lives can be truly blessed, and our world can be truly blessed, for us, for our children and the generations to come.

Leave a comment

Filed under High Holy Days, Uncategorized

Almost Home

The last morning in Jerusalem – I awaken early. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. The light is brighter here, and it floods the apartment. I leave the shades open at night so it will draw me into the day.

I lie in bed contemplating a run. I’ve been doing that a lot in Jerusalem. Some mornings I lace up my shoes and head out into the street. Other mornings I lie in bed and let my mind do the running. This morning I throw on the shoes and down the steps.

My route takes me down a familiar avenue to an intersection where the old Jerusalem rail line once descended from Jerusalem. The municipality has filled the old tracks to make a boardwalk and lined the area as a long public park. It is often filled with runners, walkers, bikers, strollers. There are young fit Jewish men and middle-aged Arab women trying to stay fit. I turn left to take a long climb to the old train station.

For twenty-nine years I have come to Jerusalem to learn. I came for university, for rabbinical school, for seminars, with my congregation, and for the past three years, for intensive study at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The Prophet Isaiah said: Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah – Torah will go forth from Zion. He was right. It does.

I live on a street called Malal – it’s the acronym for Moshe Leib Lilienblum. He was born in Kovno in 1843. He became enamored with the writings of Jewish enlightenment thinkers and began rejecting his traditional orthodox upbringing and education. He was one of the early organizers of the first Zionist movements, and though he worked most of his life to lay the foundations for building a Jewish state, he lived his life in Odessa where he died in 1910.

Like him I have spent my life wrestling with how to blend the wisdom of our tradition with the insights of modern understanding. I struggle with how to fit that blend into my membership in the Jewish people. Like him I love the Jewish state and work as hard as I can to help build the Jewish homeland. Like him my heart is here but my home is far away.

Running uphill in Jerusalem requires some concentration. As I run I go deeper into myself: I think, I meditate, I write, I learn.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the Jewish people started to run. We ran from persecution and pogrom. We ran from the shtetl into the city. We ran from Europe to North America and to Palestine.  We ran to Jerusalem. It was an uphill climb. We were forced to adapt to new ways and places to live. We had to build homes where we were often unwelcome and unwanted. But as we ran, we thought, we meditated, we wrote, we learned.

At the top of the rise I reach the old Jerusalem train station. It has been renovated and is now a cool public plaza with restaurants, carnival games, shops, and a public theater where there are nightly performances. Many nights there is Israeli dancing. Often on Friday nights there is a public Shabbat Evening service. Last night was an Israeli Beatles cover band – you can only imagine.  Like so much in this city – it is old and new.

Theodor Herzl imagined this place in a novel he called Altneuland – Old/New Land.  My days in Jerusalem are like that.  I start and end my days in the modern city of Jerusalem. The texts I study bring me back to walk the streets with King David, with the priests and zealots who fought with Rome and each other, with sages and mystics and modern Zionists.  I am in dialogue with them all.  They are all my teachers.  I walk and run in their footsteps.

I reach what was the end of the line and turn to head back. Each step brings me closer to home. It’s downhill from here. I think about what I’ve learned these last three weeks. I’ve struggled with how text and tradition guide my individual journey in life, how I can be a better husband and father, brother, and son, what God requires of me as a Jew and as a human being.  I’ve struggled with Jerusalem herself, where I feel at home and yet am often told I am not really welcome. Twenty-four days of wrestling knead me like dough – I am softer and am ready to rise.

I return to my apartment – I live on the fourth floor. Each rise has 18 steps – there are no accidents in Torah or Jerusalem. I ascend. I am tired, but energized. In the apartment my bags are almost packed. My last morning in Jerusalem … I am almost home.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

What Are We Building?

In 2014, the Pew center found that 55 percent of Americans say that they pray every day.  That’s good.  I find myself praying a lot recently too.

But prayer can mean different things.  In Jewish tradition, prayer is not only a petitional exercise, asking God for the things we cannot deliver for ourselves.  Prayer is also a values-clarification exercise, a reminder of what really matters and what doesn’t.

In chapter 19 of the book of Leviticus, each of us are enjoined to strive for holiness in our lives and together to create a holy society.  The commandments here demand of us not simply fastidiousness in our personal behavior, but also describes how we are to interact with each other.  In defining for us what constitutes holy behavior, they also define how we build a good society.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you must leave unharvested the edges of the field and you may not gather in the gleanings that fall to the ground as you reap.  They must be left for the poor and the stranger.

You shall not steal; neither shall you deal falsely or lie to one another.  You shall not swear falsely.

You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him; you shall not delay in paying the wages of a hired worker.

You shall not curse the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.  You shall not commit unrighteousness in judgment, neither favoring the poor or the mighty.

You shall not go around as a gossip or bearer of tales.  You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.  You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall offer rebuke.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And if a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Lev. 19:9-34)

Essentially, a holy society is one where we care for the poor and the vulnerable.  A holy society is one where we tell each other the truth.  A holy society is one where we are fair and honest, and we do not abuse or take advantage of each other.  A holy society is one where we make it easier for those who have a difficult journey, and see all as equal before the law.

A holy society is one where we guard not simply each other’s physical security, but also our emotional well-being.  A holy society is one where the stranger is made to feel safe and secure.  A holy society is one where we open our hearts to each other, where we feel each other’s pain, and where we suffer when others are suffering.

Think about where we are as a society at the end of 2017.  How wide is the gap between the society we were asked to create and the society we have created for ourselves?  More importantly, as we think about the direction the leaders of our country want to take us, are their proposals leading us toward a holy society or will their proposals make that gap even wider?

These are not partisan questions.  To me these are questions of fundamental morality.  I want our country to be a holy society.  And I am blessed to witness extraordinary acts of holiness by members of our community every day.  Members of my community volunteer to help care for the homeless and feed the hungry and ease the way of the poor.  Members of my community rally to help children coming into adulthood from foster homes.  Members of my community run and march to help find cures to pernicious disease.  Members of my community work to build bonds of understanding and friendship with people of different ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths.

But it is also important to demand that our national leaders ask themselves if each vote they take is helping to build our country into a holier society.  What are the foundational values and principles on which they are building their policies?

Do their proposals help the poor and the vulnerable?  Do they make it easier for the average person to get a quality education?  Do they make it easier for them to get care when they are sick?  Do they champion the humanity of the worker?  Do they make our society more fair and just, more caring and humane?

Do we, as a society, condone those who are not honest with us?  Are we ignoring the suffering of the Other?  Are we welcoming the stranger? Are we, as individuals, carrying hatred for each other in our hearts?

It is up to us to decide what kind of a society we want America to be. We must cultivate enough personal humility to admit where we fall short of our ideals, but we must also demand, of ourselves and of our leaders, that we do everything we can to build a society that is just, compassionate, and holy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Two Truths – Sermon For Yom Kippur 5778

In the Midrash, Rabbi Shimon said: When the Holy One was about to create humanity, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups.  Some of them said, “Create humanity!” while others urged, “Don’t create humanity.”

Love said, “Let him be created, because he will perform acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of lies”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”

What did Holy One do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground.[1]

Centuries later, the great Hasidic sage Menachem Mendl of Kotzk – the Kotzker Rebbe – reflected on this teaching.  “Why did God only throw Truth down and not Peace as well, when Peace had also argued that humanity should not be created?”  So he answered: “The source of strife is that each person fights for his own truth.  But if one pushes Truth aside, there is no longer a cause to quarrel, there are no disputes, and no one to denounce Peace.”

Truth is a complicated thing.  Maybe the Kotzker Rebbe is right.  Battles over truth seem to fuel the conflicts that roil the globe. When we look at the great human conflicts in history, they often were not simply contests for land and treasure, but also conflicts of ideas and competing truths.  Fascism vs. democracy.  Communism versus capitalism.  Shiite versus Sunni, Catholic versus Protestant, orthodox versus Reform.  Right versus left.

More and more we see people retreating to their corners, refusing to work to compromise or even talk to people with whom they disagree.  We refuse to accept that the other side might actually have something to teach us.  We become so fixated on our vision of the truth, that not only do we refuse to accept that there is another truth, we demonize those who hold that different truth.  People who take positions opposite to the truth we know are either “useful idiots” or belong in a “basket of deplorables.”

The Psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12).” And sometimes it seems like truths grow like weeds. So perhaps the best things we can do is stop worrying so much about truth.  Maybe if we just stop spending so much time thinking and arguing about who was right and who was wrong, our world would be a much more peaceful place.

At the same time, imagine what would happen if we no longer were willing to fight for what we believe in?  With the dawning of the enlightenment in the 1700’s a new truth sprang forth from earth that changed the world: the idea that all people are created equal. This truth which rose up from the core of our texts and tradition is what gave birth to this nation.  The authors of this nation enshrined that truth in our founding documents, and posited the idea that Government should no longer be determined by the whims of a monarch, but instead government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

They were willing to stake their lives on those ideas.  Patrick Henry famously said: “Give me liberty or give me death!”  So convinced they were of the rightness of their ideas, they were willing to risk everything to advance their truths.

Similarly, after nearly two thousand years of living in exile from the land of Israel, at the end of the 19th century Theodor Herzl and the early Zionists realized that the Jewish people, like all peoples, had a right to live in peace, safety, and security in our own homeland.  Herzl worked himself into exhaustion fighting for this idea, a truth that had never been extinguished from the Jewish soul.  The proclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem” would no longer be a fantasy, but a reality.  “If you will it,” Herzl said, “then it is no dream.”

The struggle to realize that truth came to fruition just 70 years ago in the UN Partition plan which created the State of Israel, and is a truth thousands of our people have given their lives to secure.

But as committed as many are in fighting for the truth, the fact is that we, as human beings, have fundamental limitations on our ability to understand what is true. Gandhi once said: “What may appear as Truth to one person, will often appear as untruth to another person.”

We ought to fear anyone who claims with any certainty that they possess a monopoly on the truth. At the same time, to abandon a pursuit of the truth, or to shirk our responsibility to fight for what we know to be good and right can be a dangerous and grievous sin.

So what do we do?  I think the answer lies in a profound teaching from our tradition. There is a midrash which teaches that when God created humanity, God fashioned just one human creature, androgynous – male and female together. This first human being was created with two faces and no back.  But to create us as individuals, God sawed us in two – male and female, and suddenly each had a back.

The face is where we encounter and interact with the world. When we are little, our parents teach us – “look at me when I’m talking with you.”  When we want to disengage, we turn our faces away and turn our back to the world.[2]

From the beginning humanity was supposed to be able to look out at the world from all directions.  We had to learn to see in two directions at once, to see the world in 360 degrees, to embrace the full complexity and diversity of life.  We had to appreciate that there was more than one way of looking at a problem, more than one way of seeing the world.

As individuals and we have come to love our backs. We like to believe that there is only one right answer, only one right way, only one truth. And sometimes there is. But our lives are filled with contradictions.  What’s the right thing to do – take on additional responsibility at work or to spend more time at home with our children?  What’s the right thing to do – stretch for a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel and experience the world or to be more conservative and save for a rainy day?  What’s the right thing to do – try one more experimental treatment or let nature take its course?

Our world is filled with contradictions too.  There is a passionate debate going on in our country about the challenge of immigration.  How open should our society be to immigrants or to refugees? What should we do about individuals and families whose residence in America may not have been secured through the legal process?

For example, let’s suppose Hector comes from Honduras, where the menacing violence of the drug cartels make it impossible for his son to go to school without being forced to join a drug gang.  So he takes his son on summer break to visit cousins in America.  During his visit, he tells his family the horrors of everyday life in his home country.  So they encourage him to stay with them.  His cousin helps Hector get a job with his friend’s landscaping company, and his son starts going to school in the fall.  They thrive.  Hector and his cousin eventually start their own landscaping company which employs 20 people, he buys a house, his son becomes a straight-A student and applies to college.  They realize the America dream.

So the truth of the matter is this.  The rule of law is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the midrash, the rabbis teach: “The whole Torah is dependent on the rule of law – that is why the Holy One gave a set of laws that follow the 10 commandments.”[3]  Judaism is about creating a moral and just society that is dependent on the rule of law.  In rendering judgment, the Torah teaches us not to show favor to the rich or the poor, but to adhere simply to the facts of the case and the law.  Hector, like millions of immigrants who did not follow the legal process, broke the law, and so he must be prepared to accept the consequences of his decision to break the law.

And the truth of the matter is this.  The admonition to love the stranger is intrinsic to the essence of Judaism and is fundamental to a moral society.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses commands us to: “Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts, and don’t be so stiff-necked. For Adonai your God … upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.  You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).”  The command to care for the stranger recurs no less than 36 times in the Torah, more than any other commandment, and demands that we protect the stranger not simply from physical violence, but economic oppression and emotional harm.  As Jews who have wandered the globe for two thousand years, always the people who were “not from here” we know what it is to need safe haven and to have doors slammed in our face, to suffer expulsion, deportation, and xenophobic hatred.  We also know that our people has benefited from the American dream perhaps more than any immigrant community in our nation’s history – how can we not be moved with compassion by those who follow in our footsteps?

The truth of the matter is this:  there is more than one truth. It is right and fair and honest to say that the moral core of our tradition teaches two truths – that the rule of law must be venerated as a primary moral value, AND that our responsibility to protect the vulnerable and welcome the stranger is also a primary moral value.  When we cultivate the ability to hold two truths in tension, we can use the energy that tension generates to find a creative and moral solution.

Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – is a day that demands Teshuva which means engaging a process of repentance and return.  But a return to what?  To whom?  Perhaps what we need to return to on this Yom Kippur is the core essence of who we were at the beginning of our human journey.  Perhaps we need to return to a time when we had no back, when we had two faces and could see more than one truth at a time.

Maybe instead of seeing only one truth, and turning our back on the other, perhaps we can open our hearts a little wider to see if we can find room for more than one truth – the truth we know and the truths others know.  Making room for more than one truth does not mean abandoning the truth you know.  But if we can hold more than one truth at a time, we may find that we learn a great deal from simply listening to both.

Parker Palmer, in his book Healing the Heart of Democracy teaches that in a world of competing truths, we need two things: chutzpah and humility.  “By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it.  By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial and may not be true at all – so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to ‘the other’ as much as I need to speak my own voice with clarity and conviction.”[4]

The fact is that none of us possesses the entire truth.  In the course of our lifetimes, with education and experience, we can learn to appreciate just a fraction.  We must begin to realize that the way to heal our broken society is not to destroy those whose truth is different from our own, but to expand our hearts to hold the tension of multiple truths. Ultimately, it is when we are willing to hold two different truths together, even contradictory truths, that is when we get closer to understanding the larger truth that only the Holy One possesses.

The Talmud teaches us that in ancient times there was a dispute between the two great academies of Hillel and Shammai that threatened to split the Jewish people itself.  One asserted, the law is in keeping with our view, and the other contended, the law is in keeping with our view.  Then the rabbis suggest something amazing: A voice from the Holy One called out from the heavens saying: “Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God.”[5]

We will begin to heal our fractured world when we can begin to see in the truth others hold an echo of the Holy One’s commanding voice.  Learning to see the world through two sets of eyes will teach us to see the world as God sees it.  Elu V’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim – these words and those words are the words of the living God. Just as the psalms teach us that “Truth springs up from the earth (Psalm 85:12), so may we endeavor in our lives to cultivate in our world a garden where different truths may take root and grow and thrive.  In this New Year, may we gather from that garden a beautiful bouquet, a larger truth whose fragrance and sprit will inspire us to be more at one with God, and more at one with each other.

[1] Bereishit Rabba 8:5

[2] My deepest thanks to Rabbi Tamar Elad Appelbaum of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem for sharing this insight in her webinar “On The Threshold of a New Year”.

[3] Nachmanides commentary to Exodus 21:1 in The Commentators Bible: Exodus edited by Michael Carasik.  Philadelphia: JPS, 2005 p. 168.

[4] Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011, p. 43.

[5] Talmud Babli – Eruvin 13b

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fear and Vision – Sermon for Rosh HaShanah 5778

Two weeks ago, I was spending a lot of time doing what I suspect we all were doing – carefully watching the storm track for Hurricane Irma.  Every six hours, at 11 and 5, I would jump onto the internet to see where the latest computer models and storm track would put the infamous “cone”.  Irma was a Category Five monster aiming straight at Boca Raton.

I looked at pictures of the awful damage Irma had already wrought in the Caribbean, in St. Martin and Barbuda, where more than 90% of the structures were rendered uninhabitable.  I heard friends and neighbors retelling stories of Hurricane Andrew, and I remember the awful destruction that storm brought to Homestead.  And I got this feeling.  It was a sinking feeling in my gut, my heart quickening and filling with butterflies. “What is this feeling?” I asked myself.  Was it nervousness, anxiety … and then I knew.  It was fear.

I remember another time I had that same feeling.  It was a number of years ago, and I had felt a lump in my leg – a soreness and bruise that wouldn’t go away.  I went to the doctor and he seemed concerned. “Let’s get some pictures of this,” he said.  So we got an X-Ray, and he called me a couple of days later.  “There’s something there, but we don’t know what it is. I want you to have an MRI.”  I felt that same chill wash over me – the butterflies rose up, and I could feel the color drain from my face.  I had the scan and then as I waited three days for the results, I remember that same feeling of dread and fear. “What if this is something serious?  What could it be?  How will I handle this?  What will it mean for my wife, my children, for you – my congregation?”  I did my best to keep walking, going about my normal business even with my heart in my throat.  And then the call.  “Don’t worry.  It’s nothing.”

Fear is an unwelcome and painful companion on our journey of life.  We naturally assume that life is supposed to be full and free, joyous and tranquil.  And then something happens and all that we assumed would be is suddenly in thrown into jeopardy. We feel like we’re in danger, unsafe, vulnerable … afraid.

Fear is an immensely powerful force.  It shapes us.  It transforms us. Fear is a paradox.  Fear destroys but it also saves.  Fear paralyzes, but also catalyzes. Fear hardens but also softens.  Fear reminds us that we can die, but fear also reminds us that we can live.

At different points in our lives, we live with all kinds of fears.  When we are little, we find ourselves afraid of a dog or the dark.  In our adolescence we fear that we might not fit in, that we will never find our place, that we won’t measure up to our parents’ expectations or our own.  As we grow into adulthood we fear that we will not find a career, that we will not find our soulmate.  We fear that our businesses might fail, that our careers might not flourish, that we may lose or never find our economic security.  We fear for our physical safety and our emotional equanimity. We fear for our children, and we fear for our parents, and we fear for ourselves – that happiness may erode, that health may fail, that we won’t get to do everything we planned, that we may get hurt, or even die.

But beyond the natural fears that are a normal part of our life’s journey, other fears seem to consume our society as well.  These days we see a growing sense of fear of the Other – a xenophobic fear of foreigners, fear of people whose skin is a different color, fear of people whose sexuality is different from our own, fear of people whose religious beliefs we don’t understand, and even now a fear of people whose politics may tack away from ours toward the Left or the Right.

Many of us carry the scars of when we were hurt, and the remembrance of those traumas inspires more lasting fears.  An injury makes us afraid to venture out or walk or run. An abusive parent makes us afraid of conflict.  An unfaithful partner makes us afraid to love.

Fear comes from feeling unsafe and vulnerable.  We fear the fact that there are things we cannot control and that we do not understand. Ultimately, what we fear is the awesome fact and reality that we are human.

Rosh HaShanah is a celebration of life and our humanity, and in that celebration a painful reminder of what truly makes us human. To be human is to be mortal, fallible, limited and scared.  This morning we declared, “ונתנה תקף קדושת היום – Let us proclaim the power of this day – a day whose holiness awakens deepest awe!” In this New Year some of us will live, and some of us will die.  Some will see ripe age and some will not.  Some of us will fall victim to the vicissitudes of living in a broken world.  Some of us will be secure and some will be driven, some will be tranquil and some will be troubled. Some of us will be poor, and some will be rich. Some will be humbled and some exalted.

The High Holy Days are designed to make us embrace the fact of our mortality.  These days remind us that our time here is limited, our days are numbered, that we are human.  They are called the Yamim Noraim – the days of Awe.  But the root of the Hebrew word for Awe – נורא – is the same root as that for fear יראה.  These Days of Awe are also Days of Fear.

There are different ways we can choose to live with fear.  One response can be to give in to our fears, to allow them to dictate how we live.  That response can make us feel safe, but it also can be crippling. A friend in our congregation told me she had always longed to visit Israel. “Come with us on our trip in June!  Take your family – you’ll meet fantastic people.  I would love to share Israel with you.”  She shook her head with sadness.  “I can’t,” she said.  “I’ve always been afraid to fly.  I would love to, but I simply can’t do it.”  And so her fears will keep her from fulfilling one of her life’s dreams.

Our fears can dictate how we live in the world.  We feel afraid and vulnerable that people who are not like us might come to hurt us.  So we build walls around our neighborhoods, and we build walls around our countries in an effort to make us feel more safe.  We fear the effects of longevity and age, so we do everything we can to stay young – obsessively searching for the perfect diet, exercise regimen, and sometimes surgical remedies to ward off aging.  We fear the unknown, and so we bury ourselves in echo chambers, right and left, that constantly reinforce what we already think and feel, never pushing us to look at things through a different lens or consider a different point of view.

Fear makes us feel insecure and weak, and that is why fear is often used as a weapon. In the course of a normal day, we walk down the street, go to a pizza restaurant, or join friends at a dance club or a concert, without a care or concern. But then a terrorist takes what should be secure and makes it dangerous, insinuating fear into the safety of our normal routine.  What should be safe, suddenly isn’t.  When White Supremacists stand armed with assault rifles across the street from a synagogue in Charlottesville, VA, suddenly the fear they impose destroys the basic sanctity and peace of Shabbat.

Fear can take us to awful and ugly places, especially when it spawns cynicism, callousness, hardness and hatred.  This is the lesson in the story of the Exodus.

Exodus begins with a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, who did not understand this foreign people, the Israelites, living on his northern border.  The Israelites were different.  They came from a different land. They had different customs and ways of life.  They spoke a different language.  And Pharaoh was afraid: “in the event of a war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us… (Exodus 1:10)”.  So Pharaoh sought to dominate them through ruthless oppression, enslavement, and hard labor. Pharaoh’s fear drove him to become hard and cold and mean and cruel.  His fear even leads him to commit genocide – ordering the Israelites to cast their infant sons into the Nile River.  Pharaoh’s evil lies in his insistence on pretending he is god and not a human being, and that is what dooms his nation, his people, and his family to destruction.

But fear need not be the force that destroys our societies from without and our souls from within.  Fear can also inspire us to pursue paths that are constructive and healing and holy.

Fear of a Category Five hurricane can prompt us to pack up our cars and flee, to prepare our homes with proper materials and resources to keep ourselves safe, and to reach out to others who are vulnerable and in need.  Fear of illness can drive us to get into the gym and get healthy.  Fear can inspire the deepest courage and resilience. But more importantly, fear can remind us of what it really means to be a human being.

The journey of Abraham teaches us about our own journeys in life.  In the Ten Trials Abraham is made to endure, his journey is one of constant encounters with fear.  He is asked to leave all he knows and all that is familiar to journey to a land he has never seen for a future he could not possibly imagine.  He is asked to confront hunger and famine, infertility and family drama, to see his loved-ones taken captive and fight to redeem them, – I mean could there be anything scarier than being asked at age 99 to perform your own circumcision?!

Yes.  There is something even scarier than that.  And that is to contemplate your own mortality, or God forbid, the loss of your own child. Abraham’s last trial is one that asks him to confront the greatest imaginable fear.

Think of the fear Abraham carried as he walked those three days with his son toward Mount Moriah.  Imagine how difficult it was to pretend everything was normal.   How did he do that?  How can we, like Abraham, learn to live day after day, year after year, in fear?

What Abraham discovered is what these Holy Days are meant for us to discover.  We all live with fear.  It is the inescapable essence of human experience.  But what makes human life holy is how we choose to respond to fear, and tradition on these holy days teaches us that there are three holy answers to a life filled with fear: Teshuvah, Tefilah, and Tzedakah.

What is Teshuva?  Teshuva is the process that reminds us what we’re here for.  Fear warps our ability to see, and takes us off the path we’re meant to follow.  God wants us to love, but fear hardens our hearts.  God wants us to be just, but fear makes us selfish.  God wants us to be understanding, but fear makes us ignorant.  God wants us to achieve, but fear makes us paralyzed.  So what is required is for us to transcend our fears so that we champion love and justice and understanding even though we’re afraid.

In the Kabbalah, the Zohar teaches us that God wants us to transform our fear into reverence, into awe, to wonder, and to love[1]. Teshuva is the process whereby we refocus our attention – turning from what we fear to what God wants.  Teshuva asks us to recommit ourselves to live as God would want us to live – pursuing a life of meaning, purpose and holiness.

But how do we do that when we are so afraid?  The answer is in the second holy response – Tefilah – meditation, petition and prayer. In her book Hope Will Find You, Rabbi Naomi Levy describes her arduous journey learning how to raise a daughter with a rare degenerative disease. When her daughter was very young, doctors offered her a terrible diagnosis, but said they would only know for sure if she had this dreaded condition when she was older.  She writes how she spent years wallowing in fear, in anger, in sadness, losing her sense of self, her spirituality, her hope.

But then, she is reminded of a teaching from the great Hasidic sage Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who himself knew something of fear, having lost four of his children in infancy and his wife at a young age to tuberculosis. It was one of his most famous teachings that captured Rabbi Levy in her moment of deepest fear: “כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאד. והאיקר לא לפחד כלל – The whole world is like a very narrow bridge, but the most important part is not to be afraid.”[2]

She learned that through prayer – through deliberately pushing away her fears and opening up her soul and her spirit she could harness her fears and walk that narrow bridge.  In prayer she cultivated that sense of wonder and awe, of deep appreciation and gratitude for life’s awesome and holy gifts, even if those gifts are fragile and fleeting.

“Our challenge as humans,” she teaches, “is to recognize our frailty, to understand how brief our time here is.  There is a rumbling beneath the surface of all things.  We don’t know what today will bring, what any day will bring.”  Life can be difficult – it is fragile, it is tenuous and it is scary.  But as Rabbi Levy says, “If all I’ve got is this brief tenuous existence, I’d better live it to its fullest… All I can do is strive to live passionately and fearlessly as long as I can.”

And that’s what leads us to Tzedakah – to act in the world with righteousness and goodness.  The greatest way to live with fear is to live – to live with passion and compassion, to live with kindness and generosity, to laugh and to love, to pursue justice and peace.  To keep walking, one step at a time, on that scary narrow bridge, confident that we are walking toward a holy place, toward a greater good, toward a better world.

No matter what is asked of him, no matter how frightened he is, Abraham keeps walking.  He knows somehow, that with enough faith, with enough courage, he can triumph over even the most powerful fears.  And that’s why, when Abraham’s trial is over, his son is safe, and he is finally relieved of his fear, he names that place Adonai Yireh – God will see, because it was in that place that Adoani Yeraeh – God is seen.  But what’s amazing is that those two words – Yireh and Yeraeh are spelled exactly the same as Yirah.  That place of fear – Yirah – became a place of vision – Yireh.  What did Abraham see in that place?  Abraham saw that even though human life is fragile and finite and fraught with fear, it can be, with faith and fortitude, nonetheless holy and Divine.

In this New year 5778, let us embrace the fullness of our humanity.  Let our fears gives way to an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder for the gift of life, of love, and courage and of light. And may the sound of the shofar announce for us a New Year of vision, of understanding, of love and of peace.

[1] Zohar I:11b-12a

[2] Likutei Moharan II:48

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Idolatry of Hatred

Why is the human spirit so consistently and powerfully drawn to hatred?

A natural part of human experience is sometimes to feel vulnerable or weak or scared. Often, we are most afraid when forces over which we have no control threaten our power or our well-being. It is when we are most vulnerable that many people find someone to blame for their feelings of frustration and impotence. For many, blaming someone else restores a sense of power and importance.

Hatred is a powerful generator of human energy. Having someone to hate makes us feel strong and powerful. Hate is magnetic; it draws people together to feed off the angry and hateful energy of others.

I believe that hatred stems from the same source as idolatry, what we as a people have always believed is the ultimate of sins.

People worship idols because they become infatuated with what they perceive their idols are on the outside, without ever stopping to check if their false idols have anything of value on the inside. The idolater thinks that it is only what can be seen on the surface that has any meaning or power, without taking the time understand what lies within that cannot be seen. Those that are drawn to bigotry are no different.

What makes the neo-Nazis and white-supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend so evil is that they think a person’s worth is found a person’s exterior, in the color of their skin or their ethnicity.

Neo-Nazis and white-supremacists know nothing of those whom they hate. They seek to find power and preserve privilege in society not by virtue of their own personal merit and achievement, but because they worship the superficial and have found scapegoats to blame for their frustrations and resentments.

Our tradition teaches us that hatred, like idolatry, is a potent and dangerous force, with the power to destroy individual lives, entire peoples and even societies. The Holy One commanded us to eradicate idolatry because the real value of person is found within. Like our God whom we cannot see and touch, each of us is of infinite value because of who we are on the inside, The color of our skin, the outer features of our identity are not what matters; it is the essential holiness that lies within that determines our value.

Hatred arises from an obsession with the superficial. Love is drawn to the power of what lies within. It is love that gives life real meaning, that builds what is lasting and real and good. It is through love that we understand who another person really is on the inside, and it is the bonds we build with love that truly bring us the power and sense of worth we all desire. It is love that we must learn to practice and employ as the tool for building the society we want.

What we know from our people’s long and painful experience is that hatred is like a cancer that will grow ever more powerful and destructive if it is not conquered and repressed. Hatred must be condemned whenever its ugliness appears, and those that practice hatred must be shunned by society.

Realizing that hatred is society’s cancer is a universal truth. We must realize, as Lincoln said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We may hold strong differences in how we would like to see our nation governed, and we may have significant disagreements about what is the best way forward for our country, but we must stand united as a people and as a nation against those who espouse bigotry, intolerance, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. It is not simply in our national interest, or for personal expediency. It is a moral imperative that stems from the roots of our Jewish tradition – a moral imperative that everyone with whom we share this life must embrace.

May the Holy One bring comfort to the families of Heather Heyer, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, who lost their lives in the wake of this eruption of the scourge of hate.

May our response in some measure redeem the tragedy of their deaths.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized