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

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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.

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What We Mourn On Tisha B’Av

“Let us search and examine our ways, and turn back to Adonai…(Lamentations 3:40)”

What gives life its real meaning, its real value?  What fills the moments we most treasure?  Summer provides a time for many of us to think about that question.

The great 20th century philosopher and teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book Between God and Man: “Life passes on in proximity to the sacred, and it is this proximity that endows existence with ultimate significance.”

Life demands that we invest great effort in taking care of everyday needs, but we hunger for holiness. We crave meaning and purpose.  We have an insatiable need not simply to fill ourselves with food and drink but also with something larger and more lasting.  Instinctively, we seek the sacred: love and life, knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, beauty, accomplishment, and awe.

Today is Tisha B’Av – a day that commemorates the destruction of holiness.  It was on this day centuries ago that the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed.  It is a day of mourning and sadness – a day when Jews traditionally fast and express grief for the awful memory of the destruction.

But to me, the Temple itself is not worthy of such mourning.  Buildings are built and destroyed all the time.  Judaism teaches that God’s presence was never fixed in place in the Temple, but joined us in all our wanderings.  When asked to build the Tabernacle, God said, “Make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell in you. (Exodus 25:8)”  In you, it states, not in it.  We turn our hearts and heads in prayer toward Jerusalem not because God is there but because of the teachings that went forth from that place.

It was not just the Temple the Babylonians and the Romans sought to destroy, but the moral teachings and traditions that make Judaism holy itself.  They sought to destroy the idea that each and every human life is created in God’s image.  They sought to destroy the idea that none of us is an island, but that we must live in a state of communal trust and interdependence.  They sought to destroy the idea of a society which cherishes justice and fairness, compassion and kindness – a society that commits itself to protecting the vulnerable and the weak, that calls us love our neighbors as ourselves, and that demands we seek peace and pursue it.

It was not a city or a building that was assaulted.  It was an idea – the idea of a holy society.  But what we have taught the world through the generations of our wanderings is this. You can destroy our cities, and you can destroy our Temples. You can exile us from our homeland and make us wander the continents of the earth.  You can lock us in ghettos and expel us from countries, you can attack us with pogroms and with holocaust.  You may shake our faith to the core.  But we will be destroyed only when we let go of our ideals and relinquish our values.  That is up to us.

What I mourn today on Tisha B’Av is the sense that while we are safe and secure and Jerusalem itself is vibrant and rebuilt, nonetheless we are giving up on the sacred.  In response to the natural fears that come with insecurity for our livelihoods and our future, I worry that we no longer hold fast to the essential values that make life holy.  I look around at the two lands that I call home, America and Israel, and I ask: is this a society that is championing the sacred values of life?  Are we becoming so obsessed with power and privilege that we have lost the humility to ask if the Other has wisdom or truth we might need?  Can we honestly say that what animates our society is a commitment to elevating life, love, wisdom, understanding, justice, compassion, beauty and peace?

The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because we turned away from the moral teachings God lent to our people, and turned instead to senseless hatred.  Ultimately the Temple is not destroyed from the outside but the inside.

The book of Lamentations, which we read today ends with this admonition – “Hashivenu Adonai Elecha V’Nashuva, Chadesh Yameinu K’Kedem – Bring us back to You, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old. (Lamentations 5:22)”  Let us recommit ourselves not to rebuilding ancient Temples of stone, but to societies of humanity, humility, holiness, and peace.

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Mr. President, Journalists Are Our Allies, Not Our Enemies

(Originally published by Forward.com).  forward.com/opinion/364008/mister-president-journalists-are-our-allies-not-our-enemies

Long before I thought of entering the rabbinate, I dreamed of becoming a journalist.

I served as a reporter on my high school newspaper, and when I was in 11th grade, the local school board threatened to close our high school. I remember my heart pounding when I had to pick up the phone to call a member of the board for an interview. I remember how powerful it felt to ask her to explain to me and my fellow students why she supported closing the school we loved.

I spent five weeks that summer at Northwestern University’s National High School Institute’s journalism workshop, where my teachers pounded into our heads the importance of fair, objective, honest reporting:  “If your mother says she loves you,” they urged us, “check it out!”

In America, the freedom of the press emerged to facilitate opportunities for individuals to challenge the government. Most of the early newspapers in the American colonies were partisan outlets for speaking out against the British monarchy. As America grew, political parties owned most newspapers, which promoted the party’s platform and ridiculed the opposition.

But by the turn of the 20th Century, with advances in technology and the advent of the Progressive Era, publishers realized they could profit from advertising and expand their subscriber base by becoming independent of the political parties.

Journalists began to report on the major issues of the day, shedding light on societal ills. Upton Sinclair exposed the horrendous conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing plants. Murrey Marder of the Washington Post stood up to Joseph McCarthy, disproving accusations by the red-baiting Senator that soldiers at Fort Monmouth engaged in espionage. Woodward and Bernstein, of course, revealed the Nixon administration’s corruption.

At times, newspapers and television have also abused the public’s trust, by libeling individuals, exposing salacious details of celebrities’ private lives, and reporting half-truths. I subscribed to Newsweek while living in Jerusalem during the late 1980s, and wondered how the magazine’s stories could be believed when the Israel I experienced every day was so different from what they told their readers. I have personally felt the sting of being misquoted by reporters.

But the repeated attacks on the media by the President of the United States are dangerous, and represents an attack on America itself. His recent statement that the mainstream news media is the enemy of the American people recalls the attacks on independent journalism by despotic totalitarian regimes. As Amanda Erickson of the Washington Post chronicled, dictators from Lenin and Stalin, to Hitler and Mao, used the moniker “enemy of the people” to persecute their political enemies, especially those who dared to challenge the ideology and rule of the State.

Journalists are often tasked with telling difficult, uncomfortable truths, whether it was Seymour Hersh detailing the My-Lai massacre, or The Spotlight team at the Boston Globe uncovering the sexual abuse perpetrated by local Catholic priests. The stories reporters tell may anger us or confound us with disbelief. We may fundamentally disagree with a journalist’s analysis or conclusions, and we may take great issue with what we read on the editorial pages of national and local newspapers.

But there is great value in being forced to consider that which runs counter to what we think we know. The rabbis of the Talmud teach us that debate and argument can be great forces for good: “Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven will ultimately endure, and one which is not for the sake of Heaven will not ultimately endure (Avot 5:20).” The hallmark of a great society is one that embraces dialogue and difference, one that promotes a robust exchange of ideas and that demands strong thinking grounded in verifiable fact and powerful, sensitive, thoughtful analysis.

Part of the reason I decided to become a rabbi was due to my love for journalism. Journalists learn and teach and strive to help their readers to be better informed and more responsible citizens. It is that same passion for learning and teaching and helping to expand the wisdom and understanding of my community that led me to the rabbinate.

Mister President, the news media is the ally of the American people, not its enemy. It is only through dogged reporting and persistent questioning that the American people can hold accountable those in positions of power. It is what truly makes America great.

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A Thought For Inauguration Day

This week, we begin to read the book of Exodus. When I began to study Torah many years ago, this was the first passage my teacher explored with me.

The first verse of Exodus begins: “These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob…” It’s strange that the passage refers to both Israel and Jacob – they are two names for the same person. So why use both names? Why do we need to know that both Israel and Jacob went to Egypt?

Jacob is the twin son of Isaac and Rebecca, named Ya’akov because he was born holding onto his brother Esau’s heel. In some ways, Jacob’s name Ya’akov defines who he is: a heel-grabber. Over the course of his life, Jacob grows from a young man sheltered in his tent, unsure of himself or who he ought to be, to become a shrewd and proud man who realizes he has to confront his demons to become what God needs him to be.

In the course of that journey, Jacob comes to realize what are the most important morals and principles for which he will live and fight. Pitted in a wrestling match with God and himself, Jacob refuses to back down from what he knows is his life’s mission, and from who he knows he must become. And so Jacob becomes Israel – one who wrestles with God.

Ultimately, Jacob and Israel are one and the same. Each name represents a different aspect of our selves and our spirit. At once he is growing and grounded, changing and steadfast. He is constantly learning who he needs to be; in a process of self-discovery he uncovers the man he always knew he was.  

And when one is descending into a narrow and complicated place like Egypt, one needs to bring both sides of one’s self. We need to bring our Jacob side, that shrewd and savvy self, one that knows how to work the system and how to get things done. And at the same time we have to bring our Israel side, that passionate moral self who will never waver from what we know to be truly right and good.

Our nation needs Jacobs and Israels. We need voices that tell us we have to be cautious and shrewd in our dealings with other nations. We need voices that tell us to see the world as it really is, and not only as we wish it would be. We need voices that tell us not to be naive, to be wary and careful in a world that is often dangerous and where people cannot always be trusted. We need voices that tell us to look after our own best interests, to insist that we take responsibility for ourselves, and that each of us contribute only what is fair, and never to take more than we need.

At the same time, we need voices that call for utopian optimism and that dream of a higher and holier reality than the one we inhabit. We need voices that demand we envision a world that is both just and compassionate. We need voices that tell us to reach deep within to the wellsprings of our own humanity and to raise up the humanity that lies in those we don’t know or fully understand. We need voices that tell us that the measure of a person is not found in their race or ethnicity or gender or sexual-orientation, but in the holiness of their spirit and the content of their character.

What we need, if America is to realize its promise and its potential, is to turn the cacophony of selfish voices that listen only to themselves into a chorus that listens to each other, blending those disparate voices into one harmonious whole. We need to leaders who take more seriously their oath to serve the whole complex array of the American people than their promise to defend their party’s narrow interests. We need to appreciate that sometimes the truths we need to learn are to be found in the voices of those who disagree with us, but at the same time never to lose our own voice when we need to speak the moral truths we know.

Ours is a tradition that values life and love, knowledge and wisdom, justice and compassion, freedom and peace. We are a people that have always championed the plight of the poor, the vulnerable, and the needy. We believe that we must take responsibility for our actions and to strive each day to be one rung higher on that infinite ladder of Jacob’s dream that reaches from our world to heaven. May all who are invested with the privilege and responsibility of leading this great nation train their focus on those values and never turn away to the right or to the left. May they be blessed with wisdom and insight to employ their power with decency, with integrity, with courage, and with compassion. May all of us as citizens support those leaders when they lead us on paths that secure life and health and dignity for those that dwell in our nation and across the globe. 

And may we all, with humility and respect, never shy away from raising our voices when those leaders lose their way, when they turn their gaze from those ultimate values in favor of short term advantage, or when they fail to consider the depth and breadth of how their decisions will affect the most vulnerable in our society and our world.

But mostly, may we all learn to bridge that which separates us from one another, to heal the fractures that have broken across our nation and our world. Let us push ourselves out of our comfort zones to reach across the divide to grasp the hand of the other, that we may become one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

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Faith – Israel’s Future

(My deepest appreciation goes to Micah Goodman who shared with me this paradigm for thinking about Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute – July 2016).

In April of 1903, a Ukranian boy was found killed in the town of Dubossary.  Soon after, a Ukranian girl committed suicide by poisoning herself and died in a Jewish hospital.  The anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz linked their deaths to the infamous blood-libel, claiming the children were killed so that their blood could be used to produce Passover Matzah.

At the urging of the Russian Orthodox priests on Easter Sunday, a mob poured out of the churches in Kishinev and over two days attacked the Jewish community with a viciousness that cannot be described.  Dozens of people, including infant children, were hideously murdered.  Dozens more women were gang raped and hundreds of houses destroyed.

The Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik was asked to visit Kishinev not long after and instead of submitting a report on the pogrom, he instead composed a poem called “The City of Slaughter.”  But Bialik’s reaction was not what one would typically expect. Instead of saying that the victims died in the sanctification of God’s name, he instead claims that their lives were taken in vain.  Bialik rails against the Jews for what he saw as their cowering passivity, their refusal to stand and fight.

Come, now, and I will bring you to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering — the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!

A young journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and from that inspiration became one of the most influential Zionist voices leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in Odessa, which at the time was one of the most sophisticated centers of Jewish life in Europe.  As Zionist scholar Arthur Hertzberg explains, Jabotinsky “was raised much more on Russian than on Jewish culture.”[1]  At the age of 18, he skipped his last year of high school to become a foreign correspondent for one of the Odessa newspapers.  After a few months in Bern, he made his way to Rome, where he spent three years studying in the University.  He became a skilled orator and a talented writer, and he balanced both talents in his journalism career and his support for the growing Zionist movement.  Eventually Jabotinsky learned to speak eleven languages and could write in seven.

For Jabotinsky, Zionism represented the resuscitation of the Maccabees, the reclamation of the Jewish people’s ability to defend themselves.  The creation of a Jewish state, he thought, was necessary for the very survival of the Jewish people.  During World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, and so single-handedly pushed the British to allow the creation of three Jewish battalions, where he himself enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant.  Following the war and the periodic Arab riots and revolts of the 1920s, Jabotinsky lobbied for a rapid mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, a position rejected by Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist elite.

There was another young journalist named Theodor Herzl who built a very different vision of Zionism.  Twenty years older than Jabotinsky, Herzl was a young foreign correspondent who had also been raised in an assimilated household.  He was assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, who was framed on charges of treason.  Covering the trial, Herzl was astounded when he heard cries of protesters outside the courthouse chanting, “Death to the Jews!  Death to the Jews!”  Despite all the claims of the enlightenment, Herzl had an epiphany that Europe would never accept the Jews.  He believed that if the Jews could actualize their dream of a homeland, and become a “normal” nation among the family of nations, then anti-Semitism would disappear.

Herzl wrote a book called Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land”.  The book begins with the main characters, Friedrich Lowenberg, a young intellectual from Vienna, and his friend Kingscourt, who tired from European bourgeois decadence, and decide in 1903 to retire to the Cook islands in the South Pacific.  On their way, they stop in Jaffa, and find Palestine a pathetic, destitute, and backward land.  Twenty years later, on their way back to Europe, they stop again in Jaffa and find a thriving utopia.  The land is filled with technologically advanced industries, a booming economy and a growing, diverse population.  The Arabs enjoy equal rights with Jews, and people from all over the world live together in a free, sophisticated, harmonious society.

Building this utopian Jewish society, in Herzl’s imagination, would erase anti-Semitism.  The Arabs and the Jews live together in harmony because the Jews brought them a prosperity they never imagined they would enjoy.  As my teacher this summer Micah Goodman explained, in Herzl’s mind the Jews will want Zionism because it will allow them to leave Europe.  The Arabs will want Zionism because it will bring them the richness of Europe.

Herzl died on July 3, 1904.  Jabotinsky died on August 4, 1940.  Neither lived to see the birth of the State they both worked so hard to create.  But each of their voices continue to echo throughout the land.

Tal Becker is the principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, including in the last round of talks mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I had the privilege of studying with him during my weeks at the Hartman Institute this summer.  He explains that Israel sits in a Middle East today that can be divided into four groups:

  • There is a growing Shia Crescent, led by Iran and includes Hizbullah, Iraq, Lebanon, Assad, and now has a partner in Russia.
  • There are the Global Jihadists – the Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, each of which hates the other but both believe in an anti-Shia global agenda.
  • There are the Political Islamists, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and their sponsors in Qatar, which have a nationalist character to their ideologies
  • Then there are the Old Guard Sunni countries which have not yet fallen – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who spend their time shoring up their own defenses against the threats they perceive from each of the first three groups.

Israel, he says, is essentially a Jewish old guard sunni country.  Looking around at the violent chaos and convulsions in the Sunni / Shia Islamist struggles, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Israel’s senior objective seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent the rise of extremists from within and on Israel’s doorstep.

This is the echo of Jabotinsky.  Jabotinsky believed that the key to the saving the Jewish people was to build an army that would make us strong.  He believed that Zionism was about restoring Jewish honor and pride by promoting self-sufficiency and an ability to defend ourselves.  As Micah Goodman taught us, Jabotinsky believed in Isaiah’s vision of a world where the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but he believed it’s far better if you are the wolf.

But Becker asks a fundamental question: if your agenda is only prevention, is that enough to inspire people to send their children to the army?  Don’t we need a more expansive vision of what Israel should be than simply the largest Jewish ghetto in history?

This is the vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.  Raised in a religious Zionist home, during her time in the army, Tamar came to appreciate the books that could be found on a different bookshelf in a Jewish home.  While studying philosophy at Hebrew University, reading the works of the great thinkers Buber, Rosenzweig and Heschel, she pondered the fact that the great voices of Jewish thinking were all dead and gone.  It was at that time that Tamar told her teacher Professor Eliezer Schweid:  “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.”  Tamar studied for the rabbinate with the Masorti movement, the parallel to the conservative movement in Israel, and after a short stint as an associate rabbi in Westchester, New York, returned to Jerusalem to create Tzion: A Native Israeli Community.

Tamar speaks with a prophetic voice that is riveting and inspiring.  She shared with us this summer that her deepest pain is to see an Israel that focuses solely on its survival.  Like Herzl, she laments that “what should have been the habitat for the renewal of the Jewish soul is a place focused solely on survival.”  She implored us to re-read the words of the great Israeli statesman Ahad Ha-Am, who warned that if we save the Jewish body without saving the Jewish soul, we will create the scariest Jewish ghetto in history.”  Israel, she says, must be a body that is strong enough to survive with a soul that is still hopeful enough to dream.  Israel, she says, is a test for Jews and Judaism.  “A Jewish national project with … no imagination or dream will result in our children turning their back on this project.”

I spent the better part of two months in Israel this summer, two weeks touring with members of our congregation and four weeks in study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  And throughout my time in nearly every conversation I could feel the tension and the pull of the dreamers and the skeptics, the descendants of Herzl and the descendants of Jabotinsky.

On the one hand, I found a state of Israel at its most cynical.  The government negotiated a plan to build an egalitarian section of the Western Wall that would be open to all who wanted to pray in Judaism’s holiest site free from the restrictions of the Haredi rabbinate, only to see the administration renounce the deal they had negotiated because of pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox.  I saw so many friends I admire shrug their shoulders in despair as they lamented the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 11th year of a five-year term as President of the Palestinian Authority, will not negotiate a peace agreement, and even if he would, has no power or ability to deliver it.  I saw an Israel that seeks to understand how 19 families control 60% of its wealth, how the small minority of ultra-orthodox dictate the religious lives of the larger Jewish majority, and who struggle to imagine a future in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.

There is a painful irony in Israel today.  Goodman explains that 70% of Israelis think that we have to leave the West Bank because the occupation not only threatens Israel’s future demographically but morally as well.  And 70% of Israelis think we cannot possibly give up the West Bank because that will return Israel to indefensible borders and will invite the horror and chaos of the Middle East into the heart of the State.

But just when we feel overcome with a sense of despair, we can be inspired by what Herzl and Jabotinsky and all my teachers at Hartman share as their primary value – Emunah – faith.  They believe in the future of the Jewish people.  They believe that in strengthening Israel’s body, we can redeem Israel’s spirit. They believe that as Tamar taught me, Emunah will be the spiritual training system that will empower us to rebel against the natural stress of survival to find meaning and reason to survive.

And here is where I found that faith come alive. Last summer I visited the City of Lod, which lies adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and was once an Arab city whose Arab population was mostly expelled during Israel’s war for independence.  Today, Lod is a mixed city of Israeli Arabs, working class new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and a growing number of religious Jews.

There is a community center in a depressed area of town, adjacent to a rutted field and the ruins of an 19th century inn.  The community center is run by two women, a Muslim woman Faten and a Jewish woman Yafit, who despite all that divides them, have built a close friendship. In the roughest section of the city, they have not only built a model of coexistence, but of collaboration and integration. “We don’t agree on most things,” Faten said, “but I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.  So we have to deal with each other, we have to know each other, we have to figure out how to understand each other so we can live together in peace.”

It is the same faith in the future for Israel we find in Faten and Yafit that I also found in my extraordinary teachers at Hartman this summer. It is the same faith that drove Herzl and Jabotinsky in years gone by, and is the faith that will sustain Israel in these turbulent and difficult times. It is a faith that despite all the obstacles we face, we are strong and resolute, idealistic and hopeful.  We still believe we can plant in that rocky and arid soil a sapling of hope that will sink deep roots and grow tall and strong, a living and vibrant Tree of life that will not only blossom with the wisdom of Torah and tradition, but provide shade for all who seek to sit together in peace.  Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – as Herzl said, If you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea. New York: JPS, 1959, p. 557.

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Tell The Truth

In second grade, Mrs. Greene brought our class to the All-purpose room at Farmland Elementary to stand around an enormous map of the United States.  She was trying to teach us about directions.  So she asked, “Who here was born in a state in the eastern part of the United States?” Since most of us were born in Maryland, a lot of hands went up.  She called on one girl who said: “New York!” so she said, “Good, go stand on New York – you are going to be Miss East!”

“OK,” she said, “Who was born in a state in the South?” A few kids raised their hands, and she called on one boy who said, “Texas!” and she said, “Good, go stand on Texas – you are going to Mr. South!”

I was starting to feel bored and a little left out. So when finally, Mrs. Greene asked, “Ok, who was born in a state in the North?” I raised my hand.  “What state were you born in?”

“Montana!” I shouted.  Mrs. Greene said, “Great Danny! Go stand on Montana – you are going to be Mr. North.

I have to admit, it was a lot more fun to be Mr. North for the morning than to be a regular old nobody from Maryland.  That is, until later that night.

“Daniel Edward!” my mother called.  I knew I was in trouble because she used my middle name. “Why did you tell Mrs. Greene that you were born in Montana today?”  “What do you mean?” I stammered.

“Well,” my mother said, “I just got a call from Mrs. Paul, who told me that your friend Sarah came home from school and said you told your class you were born in Montana.  She wanted to know when we lived in Montana.  Danny, you lied.  That’s terrible.”

I don’t remember much else, except that I had to go to school the next day and apologize to Mrs. Greene for lying to her about Montana.

Lies, deceit, and dishonesty seem to have become a hallmark of our society and our world today.  Sissela Bok in her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life remarks that in the 1950s, most people had faith in our leaders, institutions, and each other. In 1960, “many Americans were genuinely astonished to learn that President Eisenhower had lied when asked about the U-2 … spy plane [that] had been forced down in the Soviet Union.” But only 15 years later, in the aftermath of the War in Vietnam and Watergate, nearly 70 percent of people surveyed said that “over the last ten years, this country’s leaders have consistently lied to the people.”[1]  According to the Pew Research Center, only 19% of Americans today say they can trust the government always” (3%) or “most of the time” (16%).[2]  This decline in confidence spreads to our feelings about medicine, the heads of major companies, the justice system and the media.  Fact checking has become a natural part of the national debate, and we hardly bat an eye when Politifact labels a lie worthy of their “pants on fire” rating.

But the practice of deception and the degeneration of public trust literally has the power to destroy our society. Bok asks us to “imagine a society … where word and gesture could never be counted on. Questions asked, answers given, information exchanged – all would be worthless … this is why some level of truthfulness has always been seen as essential to human society, no matter how deficient the observance of other moral principles.”[3]

Honesty is found in the very core of our moral tradition. In the Ten Commandments alone, two different admonitions focus on veracity – the commandment that we should not invoke God’s name for a false or vain purpose, and the commandment that we shall not offer false testimony against each other. (Exodus 20:6 and Exodus 20:12).  The Psalms teach us that “he who deals deceitfully shall not live in my house; he who speaks untruth shall not stand before my eyes. (Ps. 101:7)”

We are taught from the youngest of ages that we must always tell the truth.  Our system of justice depends on the idea that every witness tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  Trust is a social good to be protected as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink.[4]

So then why do we all lie so much?  If it is so plainly obvious that the core of our morality is embedded in integrity, honesty, and truthfulness, why is it that people lie and deceive with such terrible frequency?

Sometimes it’s actually okay for us to lie.  A friend asks you for your opinion on their new haircut – “you look marvelous!”  The Talmud permits us to lie in order to cultivate modesty or to protect someone from embarrassment.  Hillel tells us that we must always compliment the beauty of a bride, even if we personally don’t find her beautiful.  In cases of personal danger, we are sometimes even obligated to lie.  When Abraham and Sarah make their way to Egypt, Abraham says to her: “When the Egyptians see you they will say, ‘this is his wife’; and they will kill me, but keep you alive. So please, say you are my sister that it may go well with me for your sake… (Genesis 12:12-13).”  When Pharaoh orders the murder of male infants, the Hebrew midwives Shifra and Puah lie to Pharaoh to protect the mothers and sons of the Israelites, and the Torah tells us they were greatly blessed with goodness (Exodus 1:15-20)

But mostly Jewish tradition represents a passionate exhortation for truth.  Integrity and honesty are prized virtues.  There is even a tradition in the Talmud that when Rabbi Abaye would buy meat from partners, he would pay each partner separately, and settle up later, so that neither partner would think that he left without paying.[5]

But despite the fact that honesty is rooted in our moral core, dishonesty is pervasive throughout our society.  A survey conducted by Accenture found that nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults approved of overstating the value of claims to insurance companies.[6]  75 percent of college students report having cheated at least once during their college careers. Scores of dishonest mortgage brokers deceived millions of Americans into buying homes they never could afford, setting up the financial collapse that created the Great Recession, causing untold pain and heartache for millions of people. And don’t even get started with the political campaign, where even the candidates tell you to check the fact-checkers.

So why do people lie and cheat?  The classic economic theory teaches that each of us are inherently selfish human beings, interested only in how to maximize our economic self-interest.  The decision to be dishonest depends on how we balance the expected benefits, like getting money, increasing business, or professional advancement, and the expected cost, like paying a fine, losing a job, or going to jail. According to this perspective, people think of three things as they pass a convenience store: how much cash could I get from robbing the place, what’s the probability of getting arrested, and the magnitude of the consequences if I am caught.[7]

But there is also an internal mechanism that governs our decisions. Psychologists show that people internalize the norms and values of their society. If it’s a general moral expectation to be honest, then when we do things that are honest, which matching up with society’s values, our internal system provides a positive reward – you did good.  Brain imaging studies show that the same reward centers in the brain are stimulated from doing what society teaches are good social acts with other pleasure stimuli like eating chocolate.[8]

Like most people, we like to think of ourselves as honest. Most of us have some sense of our own morality and we want to maintain our perception of ourselves as good, moral, and honest people. For example, let’s suppose we’re at a restaurant and when the bill comes, we see that the waiter forgot to charge us for one of the entrees. We can save a few dollars by paying the bill as is, or we can tell the waiter to add the forgotten item. If we don’t pay, then our actions won’t comply with our sense of honesty, and we will have to tell ourselves that we are dishonest, which is something that is naturally abhorrent.  The cognitive dissonance that comes from this conflict can sometimes be enough to regulate our behavior.

The space between the reality of the world as it is and the reality of the world as we wish it would be creates a psychological and spiritual pain – and just as your hand will automatically jerk back when it touches a hot stove, so will we do nearly anything to get out of that pain.

So we lie.  When I was a kid, the real life I lived was not the life I wanted to lead.  I wanted to be cool and accepted, so I made up stories that I thought would get other people to like me.  I couldn’t handle the fear of not succeeding at school, so I would lie and say I had finished my homework when I hadn’t opened the book.  Someone wants to believe he’s a good provider but isn’t making enough money to cover everything, so he lies and moves a little money around, always intending to pay it back.  Someone wants to believe she’s a good person but isn’t fulfilled in her marriage so she lies to her spouse and has an affair.

Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call this dissonance reduction. A person gets addicted to drugs and convinces himself that he can handle it because he simply can’t admit to himself that he’s lost control. We hurt someone we love, but we can’t admit that.  We tell ourselves, “I’m a kind person; you’re telling me I hurt you?  You started this fight so you deserve whatever I did to you.”

The implications of these self-deceptions are immense, because they show how many problems arise not just from bad people who do bad things, but from good people who justify the bad things they do, in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.[9]

If we couple the natural instinct to protect ourselves from confronting painful realities with a world that is more and more dishonest then we find ourselves in a place that is incredibly dangerous.  If we have a society that tells us it’s acceptable to be dishonest, then we remove that internal moral mechanism that keeps our tendency toward dishonesty in check.  We begin to justify dishonesty as an acceptable means to achieve some greater end. My political campaign doesn’t need to be honest because it’s more important to win the election. We don’t have to tell the truth about a potentially fatal flaw in our copmany’s product because acknowledging it will cost us so much money we will have to let people go or lose the business altogether.

And it’s not just the lies we tell each other – it’s the lies we tell ourselves. If a person begins to feel tightness in her chest, a pain in the jaw and a tingling down the arm, and lies to herself and says, “Oh, it’s just a bit of indigestion,” that refusal to confront reality may ultimately be fatal.  If a young person starts to smoke cigarettes, and lies to himself that he can kick the habit any time he wants, that smoking really isn’t that bad, and hey, there are people who smoke every day who live until their 90’s, he may not pay the price right away.  It may wait until he’s in the middle part of his life, when his family is growing, he has kids who are depending on him, and a career that is just taking off when the doctor tells him he has cancer.  If we continue to deny the reality of climate change, and insist that the science isn’t conclusive, that human contribution to global warming is a hoax, and that we shouldn’t have to change how we live and power our world because, after all, the Chinese are the real culprits, then we may find that our grandchildren, who didn’t create this problem, will be forced to live in a world of ever more dangerous storms, desertification, drought, famine, and mass migration that will make the refugee crisis in Syria pale in comparison.

Eventually the slippery slope of deceit and dishonesty will rot the foundation of our society, and cause it to come crashing down around us, destroying everything we hold sacred, even our very lives.

As Sissela Bok writes, “trust in some degree of veracity functions as a foundation of relations among human beings; when this trust shatters or wears away, institutions collapse.”  Society only works if we can have some degree of trust and faith that people will tell us the truth, and it’s not fair to expect others to tell us the truth if we are unwilling to tell the truth to ourselves.

Our society is not condemned to be destroyed by deceit.  As this holy day reminds us, our moral lives are founded on choice.  As Sissela Bok writes, “Trust and integrity are precious resources, easily squandered, hard to regain. They can thrive only on a foundation of respect for veracity [and truth].”

If we really mean it when we say we’re tired of all the lying and cheating we see in our world, then we have to start with ourselves. Each of us can choose to build our lives on a foundation of integrity and honesty. We cannot confront the personal challenges we face in our individual lives and the awesome problems we face in our collective world if we cannot find within the moral courage to be honest with ourselves and each other.  It may make us feel better to deceive ourselves by finding stories and random facts to fit the theories we already believe about ourselves and the world, but what we really need is to have the courage to see our world as it really is, and to see ourselves as we really are.

But it’s more than that.  Just as my parents taught me in my teens, if we are honest with ourselves, we may begin to really know ourselves.  If we can summon the courage to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, we may see reflected there a beauty we never saw, a wisdom we never understood, a strength we never knew.  And if instead of lying to each other we told each other the truth, we might be able to rebuild the bonds of trust that our indulgence with dishonesty has torn apart.

The words of Psalm 15 teach us: Adonai who may dwell in your house, who may abide in your holy mountain?  Those who are upright; who do justly; who speak the truth within their hearts. Who do not slander others, or wrong them, or bring shame upon them, who scorn the lawless but honor those who revere God; who give their word and come what may do not retract; who do not exploit others and who never take bribes. Those who live in this way shall never be shaken.

In this New Year 5777, if we truly want to live in a world that is more honest and secure, then we need to start, each one of us, by being honest with each other, and by being honest with ourselves.

[1] Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, p. xxx.

[2] http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/public-trust-in-government-1958-2015

[3] Op. Cit. Bok, p. 18.

[4] Op Cit. Bok, p. 26.

[5] Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a

[6] “Dishonesty in Everyday Life and its Policy Implications” by Nina Mazar and Dan Ariely published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, No. 06-3, January 2006, p. 2.

[7] “The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance” by Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely. Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, No. 6, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid., p. 5.

[9] “Why We Lie to Ourselves When We Make Mistakes” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in Time, October 30, 2015.

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