Friday, August 26, 2011

Parshat Re'eh

Parshat Re’eh
August 26, 2011/ 26 Av 5771

ראה אנוכי נותן לפניכם ברכה וקללה

See, I set before you blessing and curse (Deut 11:26)

This week begins the month of Elul, the thirty days of reflection that precede the High Holy Days. During this time, we are invited to take an honest look at our lives, at our relationships, and at our world and start the hard work of healing that which is broken. It is a time of both pain and possibility, an invitation to personal and social transformation.

Parshat Re’eh opens with the words: “See, I set before you blessing and curse.” Both possibilities-- blessing and curse, life and death—stand before us at all times. We can walk in the world in ways that bring joy and fulfillment to ourselves and those whom we love. Or, we can cling to bad habits and foolish choices that only serve to bring us down. The Torah’s radical notion is that God created us in His Image, endowed with total freedom, and we therefore must take the responsibility of choosing our own path.

It is true that life hands each of us a great variety of challenges, pains, and frustrations. It is so easy to fall into the mindset of victimhood—a sense that we are helpless to break old patterns or overcome stubborn obstacles. Yet, the dignifying message of this season is that we can refuse to be victims. Elul teaches us that we have the power take our own lives into our hands and shape our own destiny. We are, in the famous words of the poet William Henley, “the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul.”

May this Shabbat be a new beginning for each of us, an opportunity to choose blessing for ourselves and for our world.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Pesach 5769

Pesach 5769

I have been reflecting a lot lately about the idea of a “window of opportunity.” A window of opportunity is a process in time during which something goes from being impossible to being possible to slipping back into impossibility. Some times that process is very quick-- blink and its gone, other times it’s much more generous-- you can take your time, wander a bit, the opportunity will still be there, waiting for you when you arrive. The trick, of course, is to distinguish one type from the other.

Matzah, the central food of this Passover season, is all about a “window of opportunity.” According to Jewish law, the whole process of making matzah-- from mixing the dough to placing the finished sheet in the oven-- must be completed in under 18 minutes. If it goes one second over the allotted time, the matzah become chametz and is forbidden to be eaten on Passover. My teacher, Reb Mimi Feigelson, explains matzah as a metaphor for the moments in our lives that we have to grab with both hands, because if we delay for even an instant they will spoil.

Another window of opportunity: Wednesday morning is a very special Jewish ritual, Birchat ha-Chama, the Blessing of the Sun, which happens once every 28 years. The custom comes from the Talmud and is based on the ancient astrological idea that the sun moves in cycles and that every 28 years it comes into the position that it was in at the moment of Creation. In honor of such an auspicious occasion, I plan to get up at 5:30 AM to head up to the Tayelet boardwalk overlooking Jerusalem to watch the sunrise and recite the special words. If I sleep in and forget to say the blessing tomorrow, I will miss the chance to fulfill a ritual obligation that I can’t do again until I am 52 years old. Talk about grabbing a narrow window of opportunity!

I am coming near to the end of my year in Israel-- only two months remain of this precious and challenging experience. I realize now that I have to make a choice-- will I seize my window of opportunity in this country, to do this things that I have been meaning to do, to solidify forming relationships and forge new ones, to learn the last pieces of Torah that I came here to learn, or will I let the last two months slip away? When put that way, the right answer seems obvious-- but as with so many things, the practice is much harder than the theory. Recognizing that time is fleeting and making the most of it is a spiritual practice that takes conscious, daily work.

In Jewish tradition, Pesach is seen as a parallel New Years to Rosh Ha’Shanah-- so it seems right that this too should be a season of self-examination and re-committing to our higher values. As we meditate on what it means to be free, we should also take the time to reflect on what we are doing with our freedom-- whether we are using it wisely, seizing every precious opportunity, before the window slips shut.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Parshat Vayiggash

Parshat Vayiggash
Jan 2, 2009/ 6 Tevet 5769

"I am Joseph, your brother." (Gen. 45:4)

I will never forget the first question that I was asked in my interview for rabbinical school. Rabbi Aaron Alexander asked me: "If you could teach only one text, what text would it be?" My answer today is the same as my answer was then-- of all the beautiful texts that I love to teach, there is one that stays with me every single day and that I believe holds the key to the transformation of the world.

The Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law, enters into a short excursus in the middle of the laws of criminal procedure, in order to teach us about Creation. It asks the following question-- Why was Adam HaRishon, the first man, created all alone? Here is its answer:

"Therefore, Adam was created alone in the world, in order to teach that whosoever destroys one life, the Torah considers it as though he destroyed the entire world. And, whosoever saves one life, the Torah considers it as though he saved the entire world.

And it is also for the sake of peace among people, so that no man can say to his fellow 'My father is greater than your father"…

And also to portray the grandeur of the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, since when a person stamps many coins with a single seal, they are all alike. But when the Sovereign of sovereigns, Blessed be God, fashioned all human beings with the seal with which he made the first person, not one of them is like any other." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Our Mishnah instructs us that Adam was created alone to teach three things. First, that every single human life is infinitely precious-- that any loss of life is equivalent to the destruction of the entire world and any act which protects and preserves life is equivalent to saving the entire world. Second, that we are all of us brothers and sisters-- that no matter our differences, we are part of a single human family. And finally, that our uniqueness is to be celebrated, not feared, that our diversity is a testament to God's awesome majesty.

In this week's Torah portion, Joseph, who was long ago sold into slavery and later rose to become grand vizier over Egypt, is reunited with his brothers. At first, he does not reveal his identity and his brothers cannot recognize him. Finally, after many painful interactions, Joseph is unable to restrain himself any longer and declares: "I am Joseph, your brother!" In a moment, the vizier and his pleading visitors recognize each other for what they were all along-- brothers, the children of a single father.

This has been a terrible, bloody week here in Israel. In response to enormous and ongoing provocation, the IDF is currently engaged in a massive operation in the Gaza Strip. Israeli bombs have killed hundreds, including many civilians, in the just the past few days, and Hamas rockets continue to pound the Israeli South. There is no end in immediate sight. I will not use my parsha email to weigh in politically on what Israel ought to be doing or not doing in Gaza. However, I think that no matter our political beliefs, we would all do well this week to remember that we are all brothers and sisters, the children of a single Parent. And, we must all enter this Shabbat with heavy hearts at the ongoing news of what brothers and sisters of capable of doing to each other.

I hope we can all join together in praying for the day when all humanity will recognize our commonality and when each and every human life will be treated as a unique and precious manifestation of the Divine. May it come soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Parshat Veyetzei

Parshat Veyetzei
December 5, 2008/ 8 Kislev 5769

"Indeed, God is in this Place, and I didn't know it!" (Genesis 28:16)

The Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, once told this parable:

"If one was to walk in the woods and a spring appeared just when he became thirsty, he would call it a miracle. And if on a second walk, if he became thirsty at just that point again, and again the spring appeared, he would remark on the coincidence. But if that spring were there always, he would take it for granted and cease to notice it. Yet is that not more miraculous still?"

In Parshat Veyetzei, Jacob is on the run. He is fleeing his aggrieved brother, his broken home, and his old life. He stops in a barren, unnamed place somewhere between Beersheva and Haran. He is utterly alone—with neither friends nor family—without a home to which he can return. Worn out from all his running, he falls asleep with only a stone for a pillow.

That night he has an amazing dream. He sees a ladder with its base planted in the earth and its top reaching toward the heavens, and holy beings are ascending and descending upon it. He has a vision of God who promises to be with him in his wanderings. He wakes up and exclaims: "Indeed, God is in this Place, and I didn't know it!"

Sometimes it feels like we spend most our time running. There is so much to do and time is always short. We have dozens of interactions each day, some of them meaningful, most of them not. We rush to work or school, grab a bite to eat, rush back home, zoom through errands and tasks, and tend to collapse into our beds at the end of the day.

One of the functions of religion is to mandate that we take short breaks in our hectic lives, in order to notice things that we might otherwise have missed. Judaism asks us to pause for a moment before we eat something in order to acknowledge the gift of sustenance. It invites us to carve out two short periods in our day to say the Sh'ma, the declaration that there is Unity underlying all the chaos. It gives us Shabbat, a day of quiet, to help us reconnect with ourselves, our loved ones, and God.

Jacob wakes up from his dream and realizes that God has been with him all along; he had just been running too fast to notice. The Baal Shem Tov wakes us up the fact that we are daily surrounded by myriad gifts, springs of living water, which we don't notice because we have grown so accustomed to their always being there. This Shabbat, let's enjoy the chance to pause, to notice, to live life awake.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Parshat Toldot

Parshat Toldot
Thanksgiving 2008/ Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5769

"And Isaac loved Esau... and Rebekah loved Jacob"
(Gen 25:28)

Parshat Toldot is a story of unwise parental love and the tragedy it engenders. At the beginning of the story, Isaac and Rebekah spend many lonely years praying for a child, and their prayers are finally answered with twins-- Esau and Jacob.

Rebekah and Isaac's long childlessness ought to make them particularly grateful for both of their boys. Yet, this isn't the case. From the outset, the parents divide their loyalties and their love. Isaac favors Esau, his rough-and-tumble son, the skillful hunter and family provider. Rebekah prefers her mild-mannered Jacob, who the text tells us liked to stay in the camp, presumably in her company.

The rest of the parshah is one long tale of the deceit, trickery, and misery that follows from Isaac and Rebekah's unequal application of love. By the end of the story, the family is irrevocably broken-- with Jacob on the run and Esau vowing revenge. What began with so much promise ends with alienation.

The Book of Genesis is the story of the disastrous consequences of treating love like a zero-sum game, a limited commodity which must be rationed out and fought over. Again and again we read about characters who struggle for limited love-- Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. In every case the result is violence, loss, and grief.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in his classic Honey from the Rock that learning that love is not a limited commodity is the great challenge of growing up. He writes:

"Is this not the great childhood problem-- and therefore the great human problem: To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you? That I have a stake in their love. That I get more when others give to others."

Rabbi Kushner challenges us to put aside out childish assumption that love is a zero-sum game and instead invites us to imagine ourselves as part of a web of interconnection, in which all the love that we give out inevitably comes back to us. If our ancestors had only realized this basic human truth, the Book of Genesis would read very, very differently.

On this Thanksgiving, may we fully open ourselves to the blessings of family, friendship, and love.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Parshat Vayera

Parshat Vayera
November 14, 2008/ 16
Cheshvan 5769

In Parshat Vayera we read the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible does not give a clear reason why the cities are destroyed, only that God hears of their sinfulness and decides to act.

Before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, God tells His plans to Abraham. Perhaps surprisingly for God, Abraham does not respond by meekly accept the decree. Quite the opposite, he initiates a lengthy debate on behalf of the doomed cities. Over and over he demands that God be absolutely sure that he is not wiping out the innocent together with the guilty. In one of the most eloquent protests in history, Abraham cries out: “Will not the Judge of all the Earth act with Justice?!” (Gen. 18:25)

Abraham’s challenge eventually fails, and the cities are indeed destroyed. However, the Jewish tradition is unstinting in its praise of his “holy chutzpah.” The Sages see Abraham’s willingness to protest against the Master of the Universe as a sign of the depth of his moral character and one of the reasons that he is fit to be the Father of our people.

In college, I learned a beautiful story, whose source I have been searching for ever since, which suggests that Abraham was not the first person to protest outside of Sodom:

“Long before Abraham came along, there was a certain man, who used to stand outside the gates of Sodom and cry out against it. Day after day, year after year, the man would stand there, all by himself, pleading and demanding that the people change their ways. Once, after many years, a group of people came to the man and demanded to know what he was still doing there-- hadn’t he realized that his protests wouldn’t change anything? The man replied: “I came to Sodom to try to change them-- and I have long since realized that that won’t happen. However, I must keep trying, because if I leave, they will have changed me.”

The same year that learned this story, I also had my first experiences with political protest. During the many months leading up to the Iraq War, I joined with millions of people around the world in protests and vigils that asked President Bush to halt the relentless march toward war. I don’t think that anyone really believed that those protests would change his eventual decision, but we went nonetheless. Silence would have been assent.

Our world faces so many seemingly insurmountable challenges. And truthfully, each lone individual can only do so much to overcome them. However, there is not excuse not to try. The Jewish tradition demands that we exercise some holy chutzpah-- that we be willing to stand up and demand justice, even from the Master of the World. We may not always achieve the outcome we desire, but at the very least, we can remain the kind of people who get back up and try again.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Parshat Lech Lecha

Parshat Lech Lecha
November 6, 2008/ 9 Cheshvan 5769

Parshat Lech Lecha introduces us to Abraham, the man who is often called the "Father of Monotheism." Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to him as the first person in history to recognize the One God.

The Bible, however, is silent about how Abraham came to that faith. In this puzzling silence, many rabbinic legends (midrashim) have emerged. One of the most popular of these traditional stories says that even as a child Abraham rejected his father's idolatry.

In Beresheet Rabbah, the rabbis imagine that Terach, Abraham's father, was a seller of idols. One day, he put his young son in charge of the store. As soon as Abraham's father left, the boy took a hammer and smashed all of the statues, except for the largest one among them, and then he placed the hammer into that one's hands. When Terach returned to the store he was horrified and demanded to know what his son had done. Abraham replied: "I didn't do anything! That big one over there got mad at the others and smashed them all with that hammer." His father yelled back: "That's impossible. Idols can't feel or move!" To that, Terach's witty (and fearless) son retorted: "Do you hear what you're saying?! How can you possibly believe in them?"

This midrash is funny and sweet, but it doesn't really answer our questions about the origins of Abraham's faith. This week, Rabbi Ed Romm of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, introduced me to a beautiful, modern midrash that suggests that if we want to understand the Father of Monotheism, the story we should try to recover is not the story of his childhood relationship with his father, but rather his relationship with his mother. Yakov Azriel, a modern poet, invites us to imagine a woman who is completely absent from the text, but whose silent influence just might continue to shape all of our lives:

Abraham's Mother
by Yakov Azriel, "Threads From A Coat of Many Colors: Poems on Genesis"

Abraham's mother (let's call her Binah "Understanding") --
Was it she who taught Abraham
To ask why and why not?
In her lullabies,
Rocking him in a simple cradle,
Singing to him of little goats and raisins and almonds,
Did she also mock the idols,
Whisper questions with no answers?

Abraham's mother (let's call her Emunah "Faith) --
Was it she who first perceived
Beyond the facade of wind and storm
A greater power blows?
Was it her insight that showed a little boy
Not to bow to stars
But let his own soul

Abraham's mother (let's call her Tikvah "Hope")--
Did she smile behind her veil
When the youth smashed his father's icons?
Was it she who supplied the hammer and the ax?

Abraham's mother (let's call her Ima "Mother") --
Did she feel pride, or sadness, or triumph
When her son, hearing God's voice and choosing the route to Jerusalem,
Packed his belongings and left home?
Did she whisper, "God be with you?"
Was this her vindication?

Abraham's mother--
Is all we have