Israeli Paradoxes

I am writing this on Monday, February 29, a leap day and plot device in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, Pirates of Penzance.  In the story, Young Frederic is forced to be a pirate, but is allowed to give up this despicable occupation when he turns twenty-one.  However, when on his twenty-first birthday, he goes to the pirate lair to declare his independence, the pirate king has an ingenious paradox to share with Frederic: Because of your birthday, Frederic is only five years old!  So, no, he is not allowed to stop being a pirate.

My recent trip to Israel, courtesy of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, has shown me many paradoxes in Israel.

For starters, despite the new age of terror in the streets of Jerusalem, Israelis are enjoying life more than ever before.  One day I went wine and beer tasting in the Ellah Valley, near Jerusalem.  It could have been the Loire Valley!

In addition, despite all the bitterness of the Palestinian plight, I visited a model Palestinian city, Rawabi, in the middle of the West Bank, where a 21st century oasis of order and beauty is taken shape. 

More meaningful to me is the contrast between my Israeli Reform youth trip leader, back in 1979, expressing his frustration to me that whenever he mentioned Reform Judaism to young people in Israel, they just laughed at him.  Last week, this troop leader, Rabbi Danny Freelander – now the head of the World Union for Progressive Judaism – spoke at the K’nesset and no one was laughing.

Finally, praying with men and woman together at the Kotel last Thursday morning, while a female colleague read from the Torah, reflects the biggest paradox of all: Reform Judaism in Israel is now seen as a solution to many who want religion without sacrificing modern values and sensitivities.  At the same time, it is becoming a huge problem to the Ultra-Orthodox who see their absolute control of matters religious in Israel challenged and even endangered.

The biggest paradox will be if we serious Reform Jews do not continue to build on our victories and push for the recognition and support Reform Jews require and need to transform Israeli society.  As the Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv said, adding her voice to the many Members of K’nesset, the President of Israel, and the Prime Minister of Israel: Israel is counting on us.

It’s time to take a leap!th

I Believe in the God of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Do You?

STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977
STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977

Unless you have been camping out on the planet Alderon you probably know a new Star Wars movie was released today.

There is a small amount of hype.

A long time ago, in a movie multiplex not so far away, a child looked up and asked: “Mom, Dad, is the Force the same thing as God?”

Actually, children have been asking that question for 40 years. The simple answer is “yes.” But this raises another question: Which god or God is at the center of the Star Wars universe?

The creator of Star Wars was well aware that his work invaded turf traditionally reserved for parents, priests and preachers. George Lucas wrote Star Wars shortly after the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. He sensed a spiritual void.

“I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand,” said Lucas, in a New Yorker interview. “There is always a lesson to be learned …. Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art and in the modern world we get them from the media – from movies.”

Lucas set out to create a modern mythology to teach right and wrong. The result was a fusion of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, of Arthurian legends and Japanese samurai epics, of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power and the Narnia tales of C.S. Lewis ….

The impact of Lucas’ work has led some researchers to speak in terms of a “Star Wars” generation.

A modern rabbi who wants to discuss self-sacrifice will be understood by more people if she refers to the death of Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, rather than that of Rabbi Akiva.

Now we could spend many, many sermons discussing all the religious themes of Star Wars.  Tonight I want to focus in on two: (1) the Force itself , and (2) the choice that has to be made between the good side and the dark side of the Force.

First, the Force. What is the force. Is it the same as God?

In the Star Wars universe, the Force is VERY real, and it matters greatly. But is the Force equivalent with God? Let’s consider the definition of the force in the first movie:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”

This is key. The force is an energy field created by all living things.

This is actually fairly congruent with the great eastern religions, especially Buddhism. There are many different varieties of Buddhism, but most forms of Buddhism are non-theistic. They would say there is no creator God, but that all creatures share a deep connection with each other none-the-less.

However, the idea of the Force as being created by all living things is VERY different from the classical western religions: Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. God creates the world and creates life. Life does NOT create God. And the Force is rather impersonal and nebulous. Judaism would say that God is knowable, and is personal, and wants to be in relationship with his creation. But he is never created by his creation.

Thus I would never equate the Force with classic Judaism understandings of who our God is. But then there is early Chasidic thought which actually came quite close to this Star Wars notion.  Non-dualism, which is sort of when the mystic and atheist shake hands, is the idea that there is no separation from ourselves and God.  In his recent book, Everything is God, Jay Michaelson writes that things appear to be separate from each other but in reality everything is connected, and everything is therefore God.

So maybe Judaism can relate to the Force after all.

There’s something else disturbing about the Force. It is for the elite only. Yes, it’s created by all life. But only a few are able to perceive it. In Star Wars you have to have the right biological makeup–you have to have a certain threshold of what are called midi-chlorians in your body to perceive the Force.

In this way, the Force is similar to an ancient Christian heresy that was rejected over 1,800 years ago, the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnosticism was diverse in the 2nd century church. But at heart it proclaimed that only a select few could know really God. You had to be an insider, you had to have the proper knowledge and training to know God and be in relationship with him. In this, the idea of the Force is gnostic.  The ancient mystic rabbis had a similar idea.  Only the elite of the elite could know God.

Gnostics were also anti-materialists. As I said, materialism is thinking that only things made of matter are real. Gnostics said the opposite–only the spirit is real–matter is nothing more than a temporary illusion. Listen to what Yoda says in the second movie:

“My ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”

We are “luminous beings” not “crude matter.” Very gnostic. In contrast the classical Jewish position is that it’s not either/or but both/and when it comes to matter and spirit. There’s more to the universe than just matter. There is a spiritual dimension that’s VERY real. But that doesn’t mean that matter is evil. God created the world and said that it was good.

Then there is the Dark Side of the Force.

The Dark Side is not equal to the good side of the Force.

Luke asks Yoda, “Is the Dark Side stronger?” To which Yoda replies, “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Classical Judaism believe that there is evil in the universe, and even within ourselves. And it can be seductive.

But the forces of darkness are never equal to God. Judaism is not a dualistic relation, where good and evil are balanced.

And in Star Wars, while there were at times many Jedi knights, there were only two dark Sith Lords. They were powerful, but never all-powerful.

But the dark side is extremely seductive. And it’s a slippery slope. Yoda says to Luke,

“Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did (Darth Vader)….”

Luke then asks, “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”

To which Yoda replies, “You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.”

The dark side stems from anger, fear, and aggression. The good side is calm, peaceful, and passive.  In Hebrew we call it the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer hara.

That means that for each of us there is a struggle, and we constantly have to choose. That’s a main theme in Star Wars–we all have good and evil within us, and we can have to make a choice.

Luke has to struggle with the seductiveness of the dark side. It’s no accident that he wears white in the first movie, grey in the second movie, and black in the third movie–the dark side is trying to seduce him. The Emperor and Luke’s father, Darth Vader, are also trying to get him to turn to the Dark Side.

But while all of this is going on, Luke is trying to bring his father back from the dark side. His mentors think it’s hopeless, that his father is too far gone. Remember Yoda’s words from a few minutes ago: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”?

But Luke senses the good in his father. He says to him, “Your thoughts betray you, Father. I feel the good in you, the conflict.” And he also tells his sister, ” There is good in him. I’ve felt it… I can save him. I can turn him back to the good side.”

And in the end, Darth Vader returns to the good side. He destroys the emperor even though it mortally wounds him. Afterwards, as the space station is falling apart around them, Luke says to his father, “I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.”

STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977
STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE), Alec Guinness, 1977

His father replies, “You already have, Luke.” You were right. You were right about no one is beyond saving. No one is beyond redemption. Not even the wicked and evil Darth Vader, the Dark Father himself. There was still good in him.

Yes, the dark side is seductive. All of us have to struggle with sin. All of us have to turn and return to God. But God is always there. And God is always loving and forgiving. And no one is beyond redemption.

The Force may be an impersonal energy field. But the TRUE Force, the Living God longs to embrace God’s children.  All God’s children.  And that’s no fairy tale.

 

It’s Time to Start Really Listening to Each Other

A 91 year old fellow went to the doctor to have a checkup. Two days later, the doctor saw his patient smiling, with a 30 year old woman on his arm.

The old man said, “Thanks, doc! I did what you said.”

The doctor asked, “For heaven’s sake, what did I say?”

The 91 year old man replied, “You said, find a hot mama and be cheerful!”

The doctor replied, “No! I said you have a heart murmur, and to be careful!”

Mis-communication is not only funny, but it can be dangerous, and may even be fatal.

Something interesting takes place in the Torah reading this week.

Isaac is now an old man. He is blind, and he’s hungry. He calls his son, Esau, and he says that he would like his son to make him some dinner and then afterwards, he would like to give him a blessing. Not just any blessing; but one that he describes as, “my most inner-most blessing.”

The Torah tells us that the matriarch, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, was shocked that her husband, Isaac, now intended to give over to Esau, the first-born blessing; the historical and divine mission that God gave to Abraham, to pass on through his seed, through the generations.

It was obvious, um, to anyone, “except a blind man,” that Esau was not fit to carry out the family’s spiritual traditions. Esau was, by nature, a wild man. He was possessed with violent passions. He was contemptuous of spiritual values.

The Torah already told us in the previous passage, that he, “despised the birthright.”

Jacob, on the other hand, was suited both by temperament and intelligence.

Knowing this, the reader is justifiably confused.  Why would Isaac choose Esau?  And, if you know the story, you know that Isaac will be tricked by Jacob and give Jacob the blessing.  All of this trickery happens because Rebekah – the mother of the twins and Isaac’s wife – doesn’t share with Isaac her concern about Esau.  In fact, the parents don’t seem to be speaking to each other.  Instead, they use their children to fight their battles for them.

Talk about miscommunication!

The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) once wrote that Isaac and Rebecca never learned to communicate closely.  Sarah and Abraham, Rachel and Joseph, they knew how to speak about difficult things.  But not Isaac and Rebecca.  Even when they meet for the first time the first thing Rebecca does is veil herself.  The relationship is never casual.

Most of us fall into the trap of miscommunication because we assume we know what the other person is saying.  You make a plan to meet at Starbucks in the Loop but you don’t specify which one.  You engage in a discussion with a person of another faith and assume that the words “God,” “Messiah” and “Sin” mean the same thing in both religions.

Time is another source of miscommunication.  Ever show up on time to a Conservative Shabbat service on Saturday?  You may be alone; the rabbi may not even have arrived.  Edward Hall, an anthropologist, relates the story of an Afghani man in Kabul who could not locate a brother with whom he had an appointment. An investigation by a member of the American embassy eventually revealed the root of the problem: The two brothers had agreed to meet in Kabul, but had neglected to specify what year. What often surprises clock-watching Anglo-Europeans most about this story is to learn just how many people in the world fail to see the humor in Hall’s story – most are quite understanding and sympathetic toward the miscommunication.

Sometimes the miscommunication is pretty funny.  It seems once a rather old fashioned lady, was planning a couple of weeks’ vacation in Florida. She also was quite delicate and elegant with her language. She wrote a letter to a particular campground and asked for reservations. She wanted to make sure the campground was fully equipped but didn’t know quite how to ask about the “toilet” facilities. She just couldn’t bring herself to write the word “toilet” in her letter. After much deliberation, she finally came up with the old fashioned term “Bathroom Commode,” but when she wrote that down, she still thought she was being too forward. So she started all over again; rewrote the entire letter and referred to the “Bathroom Commode” simply as the “B.C.”. Does the campground have its own “B.C.?” is what she actually wrote.

Well, the campground owner wasn’t old fashioned at all, and when he got the letter, he couldn’t figure out what the lady was talking about. That “B.C.” really stumped him. After worrying about it for several days, he showed the letter to other campers, but they couldn’t figure out what the lady meant either. The campground owner finally came to the conclusion that the lady was and must be asking about the location of the local Baptist Church.

So he sat down and wrote the following reply:

“Dear Madam: I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take pleasure of informing in that the “B.C.” is located nine miles north of the camp site and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along, and make a day of it….. They usually arrive early and stay late. The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that right now, there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats…..They plan to hold the supper in the middle of the “B.C.”, so everyone can watch and talk about this great event…..I would like to say it pains me very much, not to be able to go more regularly, but it is surely not for lack of desire on my part….As we grow older, it seems to be more and more of an effort, particularly in cold weather….. If you decide to come down to the campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time you go…sit with you…and introduce you to all the other folks….. This is really a very friendly community….

You get the idea.  Why is miscommunication a concern for us?  Sometimes there is nothing funny about it.

Miscommunication ceases to be funny when we don’t feel listened to.

It ceases to be funny when we resent what the other person is doing or not doing.

It ceases to be funny when we are frustrated because our desires are not being addressed.

All of this works not only on the personal level but also on the communal plane.

As a city there is so much we don’t understand about other people, including their religion, their geography, their experience.

We miscommunicate and we don’t even know it.

Recently the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, recounted time spent at the Synod in Rome.  They were discussing marriage – or more specifically, divorce — with representatives from South Africa.  Those in South Africa tried to explain that divorce does not mean the same for them as it does in Europe and America.  Here it means two people split up.  There it means two clans split up – a far more serious thing, relatively speaking.

In the Torah, the miscommunication between Isaac and Rebekkah will lead to heartache and loss of any functional family.  Even decades later, when Esau and Jacob reunite, the miscommunication will continue.

Like most things, we get better at miscommunicating the more we do it.  So the only way to reverse the trend is to become more aware of how often we do not really understand what the other person is saying.

There are techniques to help but the best thing is to slow down, stop multi-tasking, and listen.

This is a gift.

 

Wars have started because of miscommunication.

Families have broken down.

Corporations have dissolved.

Our task is to establish a culture in which honest, open and respectful communication takes place.  Speaking and listening.  Or tragedy will come.

 

 

 

 

 

The Face of A Gardener Yom Kippur 2015

Butchart.gardensA Yom Kippur confession: as many of the readings in our new Machzor demonstrate, I don’t believe life-changing wisdom is limited to Jewish sources.
As the ancient rabbis declared, Torah was given to the Jewish people but wisdom was given to all people. (Midrash Lamentations Rabbah 2:13)
I am not just speaking about Shakespeare or various modern poets.
I am personally enamored with the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, whose writings inspired Tom Wolfe’s novel, A Man in Full.

I also can’t seem to let go of Dante’s the Divine Comedy, even if I have never read the whole thing, and none of it in the original. And I’m not alone.
One might think that a fourteenth-century allegorical poem on sin and redemption, written in a medieval Italian vernacular, would have been turned over, long ago, to the scholars in the back carrels. But no. There have been almost a hundred English-language translations, and not just by scholars but also by prominent poets. Clive James has given us the newest translation:

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out…it is hard to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear.

Haven’t we all been there? We have all suffered through dark nights of the soul.
Or what about the feeling of despair when seeing the gates of hell?

From now on, every day feels like your last
Forever. Let that be your greatest fear.
Your future now is to regret the past.
Forget your hopes. They were what brought you here.

On this night of Kol Nidre a little of that despair feels natural. We are here to confront our darkest selves. We all know how large the gap is between who we are and who we should strive to be.

And yet, there is a difference between a gap and an abyss. We are not here to be plunged into terror. As you might know, the ultimate message of The Divine Comedy is one of love. God’s love saves us. But Jewish theology is not so different. We, too, are well aware that it is Divine love and compassion that enables us to live with hope. Our list of sins tonight is long but the overwhelming emotion of tonight should be relief and hope, not despair.

How does this message get conveyed by the machzor? Consider this very Yom Kippur evening service. During the Selichot, or Forgiveness, section we included a refrain showing the gap between our shortcomings and God’s benevolence.

We are insolent –
But You are compassionate and gracious.
We are stubborn and stiff-necked –
But You are slow to anger.
We persist in doing wrong —
But You are the essence of mercy.

We then ponder what might happen if we could see God’s face – not as God actually is (even Moses could not see that) but within our own hearts.

It is here that we feature an original poem, one of many compositions in the machzor by Rabbi Sheldon Marder. This poem introduces a new image, that of a garden and its loving Gardener. Like a garden, we are potentially in a state of growth, but requiring nurture lest we fill with weeds, forget how to blossom, or wither and die.

As the poem progresses, however, its emphasis is not just on God. We need God’s care, but equally, we need to be tender toward each other as well as toward ourselves. Here is the poem:
If I could see God’s face within my heart…
I’d see the face of a Gardener –
Compassionate to weed and flower alike, patiently pruning, graciously planting,
Loving the endless hours of tending and nurturing the earth — seeds, roots, all that grows;
And true to the essence of the gardener’s work:
Forgiving the fallen branches, the withered petals, the cracked stones, the broken stems.

I’d see the human face in a thousand acts of mercy –
The one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger;
Who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work:
Defying evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves as God forgives us.
The movement from petitioning God for kindness to “forgiving ourselves as God forgives us” is intentional. Yes, an honest assessment and recognition of our moral failings must occur; but there should also be compassion and understanding for our imperfections.

Worshipers used to the more traditional Yom Kippur focus on sin alone may find it jarring to find this balance between sin on one hand and forgiveness on the other.
We are not the first, however, to recognize the fullness of human nature and the need to appreciate the redeemable that is in us. As a model for our approach, we can look, in part, to Rav Nachman of Breslov, who wrote:

Always look for the good in yourself.
And remember: Joy is not incidental to your spiritual quest: it is vital.
For so it is written (Isaiah 55:12): “You will go out through joy and be led forth in peace.” Focus on the good in yourself; take joy in what is good, and you will be led forth from inner darkness.

Rav Nachman captures not just a balanced view on our moral frailty and goodness. He actually privileges the compassionate side of God. We are chastened by guilt but vouchsafed by a loving God whose very insistence on divine compassion leads us toward showing our own compassion – to others and to ourselves.

Some of us may recall the old Rav Nachman parable: One year, in some mythical kingdom far away, the entire stock of grain became poisoned. Anyone who ate it would become insane. Grain had been stored from years past, but only a small amount. The king fell into a quandary. Should people eat and become crazy? Or starve to death? Finally the king decided to feed the people the contaminated grain. But he reserved a little of the unpoisoned grain for a trusted advisor, the king said, so someone will know the rest of us are crazy.

That mythical kingdom turns out to be not so far away after all. It could very well be ourselves. With their emphasis on mercy and gentleness, their awareness of human brokenness, their affirmation of vulnerability, and their ethic of forgiveness, our prayers tonight are analogous to that unpoisoned grain.

While everyone else seems to be living insane lives, filled with unhealthy competition, bruised egos, skewed values, and inappropriate feelings of shame, it is surely the task of religion in our time to preserve for our planet a vision of compassion and a visage of what God who personifies it would have us do.

With its deep focus on sin and punishment, the traditional machzor, is akin to the poisoned grain. On the day when we starve for repentance, we do indeed require reminders of our sins and the regrets that such awareness ought to occasion. But too much of that poisons us; we become overly soured on who we, personally, are — as on human nature itself. We grow insane with a jaundiced view of humanity at large and ourselves as part and parcel of it. The antidote to all of this is mercy.

The Days of Awe inevitably leave their mark on how we see the human condition. We celebrate God’s mercy not just for what this says about God, but for what it implies about us, God’s creatures. At our best, we too are compassionate, gentle and good. We should avoid the inevitable madness that too much self-incrimination evokes.
Yes, we remain responsible for our actions; there are consequences for wrongdoing, and even the best of us approaches the High Holy Days knowing we are guilty as much as we are good. Yom Kippur in no way absolves us of responsibility for our actions.

But after centuries of overemphasizing guilt, it is time to balance the picture. Our relationship with God, when healthy, is not about castigation and guilt alone. It is about love and support. It is about holding ourselves responsible, but never giving up on ourselves as being able to reach the moral heights that God intends. It is about the garden reaching for the sun and the Gardener who cares about our doing so.

One of my favorite songs is by the Irish composer, Loreena McKennett; it is called “Dante’s Prayer”. In concert prior to her singing this song, she once related to the listening audience what inspired her to write it. A few years ago she was riding on a trans – Siberian train and reading The Divine Comedy. She recounted that since there was no dining car on the train, it would stop at various towns along the way and the riders were given exactly 20 minutes to leave the train. During that time they could buy food from the locals who lived in the town and would come to the train to greet and sell to the passengers. This would have happened perhaps once or twice throughout the day.

There was an attendant on the train, a woman, who would come around and seem very grumpy and rather miserable in general. At first, Loreena simply dismissed her demeanor as one of culture. One time, after Loreena had re-boarded the train after buying some food from locals, the woman came by. Loreena stopped her and gave her some of the food that she had bought, simply as an act of kindness. The woman responded with a surprised smile and a countenance that reminded Loreena about the story that she was reading in the Divine Comedy.

In that moment, she discovered her muse for the song and thought that she would never forget the look of gratitude on the attendant’s face, being sure that no one else had ever taken the time to consider the woman as she travelled back and forth, day after day, year after year through the dark harshness of Siberia. Loreena hoped that on some of those dark moments, the woman would remember her and perhaps return the smile to her face. And so the song was born.

I would say that that woman on the train was not only responding to Loreena’s face but to the face of a gardener, to the face of God. And the best part is we are all gardeners. We are all the face of God, if we indeed choose this path.

My friends, before us beckons a New Year, a new beginning.
May we greet it with a thousand acts of mercy.
May we be the one who gives bread to the hungry and shelters the lost, who hears the voice of grief and makes room for the stranger;
Who brings relief to the blind, the bent, the unjustly imprisoned; and is true to the essence of holy work: Defying evil, healing brokenness, easing pain; and, in the end, forgiving ourselves as God forgives us.

On this dark night, may our fragile but hopeful hearts know the brightness of inner light and the blessing of never-ending love. Amen.

When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone

I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and fire

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We’ll rise above these earthly cares

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me

Rosh Hashanah Morning 2015 5776 Keep the Conversation Going

 

conversation-image

A story: There once lived a king much beloved by his subjects. He ruled a little kingdom tucked away in a corner of Europe.

One day an army came and overran the castle, making off with half the treasury. The king decided he had to increase taxes to make up for his losses, and called in one of his wise courtiers to ask how to tell the people the news without inciting a revolt.

The wise courtier suggested the king explain the theft as a tragedy for the entire kingdom and appeal to their spirit of sacrifice and support for the kingdom. The king did exactly that, and the people responded. Actually, the king had to do it twice, after a second invasion took more of the treasury. But apart from some grumbling, the people responded in heroic fashion.

But then the neighboring army raided the kingdom a third time, and this time they took all the king’s food and all the queen’s jewels. “What can I do this time?” the king cried.

The wise courtier hesitated and then said, “I think it’s time for your highness to put the water back in the moat.”

This is a prime example of someone speaking truth to power.  Now, “speaking truth to power” has become a popular way to describe taking a stand, even when the people speaking truth to power are powerful themselves.

 

The Torah reading this morning is the epitome of speaking truth to power.  Abraham actually calls out God!  Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do Justly?

The usual understanding of this appeal is that Abraham teaches God about social justice.

However, there is another possible way to read the story.  Even now it is God who teaches Abraham: After all, God invites Abraham into the conversation.  God decides to bring Abraham along so he can weigh in on God’s plan.

Think about it: God is comfortable enough to invite honest feedback.  God invites Abraham into the conversation.

Once a few summers ago I was riding my bike outside of Aspen, Colorado and I befriended another rider.  He told me he was in Aspen to teach about Game Theory at the Aspen Ideas Festival.  Short of breath but curious, I asked him for a one sentence description of Game Theory, as in “What’s the point of Game Theory?”  He answered: To Keep the Game Going.

Here is my modification of his answer: When it comes to relationships, the point is to keep the conversation going.  When inviting Abraham into the conversation, God models doing just that.

Keeping the conversation going may sound easy.  It is not.  First of all, one has to realize that any conversation takes partnership.  This summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, our wonderful local Reform Jewish camp, I accompanied a group of middle schoolers on a field trip to Comedy Sportz, an improv competition center in Milwaukee.  One of the rules our coach told us about improv is when someone engages you in the sketch, you can’t say no.  Because then the sketch is over.  You have to keep the conversation going.

Comedy Sportz makes it into a competition.  Because like any “sport,” doing it well is not easy.

When it comes to families, the conversation seems at times impossible to keep open.  My mother used to pull a trick when losing a conversation with my sister.  If things got a bit difficult, she would play the Holocaust card.  “I was in the Holocaust” she would say and boy did that make my sister mad.  I once told my sister that she shouldn’t be mad so much as just understand that this was our mom’s way of saying, “The conversation is over.”  After all, in the realm of rhetoric, how does one trump the Holocaust?

With all due respect to my wonderful mom, I believe that, whenever possible, families should keep the conversation going.  After all, extreme cases of not keeping the conversation going lead to years of silence and regret, and sometimes a total breakdown of relationships.

In his book I Never Forget a Meal, actor Michael Tucker tells of an incident in his family that forever changed the way he looks at cooking and hospitality. When he was young, his extended family gathered for Passover. His mother and sisters, who worked very hard on preparing holiday meals, also tended to be emotional.

At this particular Passover, which took place at his uncle’s house, an argument broke out between his mother and his uncle over whether the Seder liturgy should be read in Hebrew or English. The tensions rose ever higher. Some people sought to defuse it with humor, to no avail. His mother left the table. His uncle, too, left in anger — getting into his car and driving away from his own house.

Tucker’s mother ran outside, into the night. While the men searched for her, the aunts wrapped up the uneaten food. The children sat there in awkward silence: scared for their mother, but also embarrassed by her “crazy” behavior.

From that day on, the family disintegrated. Never again was there a happy holiday meal involving the extended family.

Tucker explains in his book that he now understands why he has a passion for cooking. He is trying to finish that meal, once and for all. It is “to finish that meal with grace and calm and convivial family conversation, with laughter and warmth,” he writes. “Mostly, I think about warmth; so that I can melt away the cold of that uneaten dinner.”

Maybe we too had an uncomfortable seder, or an argument about carving the turkey on Thanksgiving before uncle so-and-so had arrived.  There are always reasons for ending the conversation.  But are they worth the damage that ensues?

In addition to families, Temple families, too, can suffer from a breakdown in conversation.

Now, I know that Temple Sholom wants to be like a family, which means sometimes bad family dynamics is mixed in with the good.  And often the bad behavior leads to a breakdown in relationship and the end of conversation.

Ask yourself: Does this look like congregational behavior sometimes?

  1. People doing spiteful things — giving the silent treatment, doing things to irritate, ignoring someone, and when conversations are initiated, omitting routine courtesies.
  2. Making excuses — playing the pity card, blaming others, claiming their feelings are hurt (any excuse to avoid accepting blame).
  3. Selfishness — disregard [for] others’ feelings and needs, placing desires first.
  4. Twisting the truth — manipulating truths of an argument by leaving facts out (i.e, telling only part of the story to make others look guilty).
  5. Hypersensitive — throwing a temper tantrum, showing anger, insulting, over-reacting to trivial matters.

Such tactics may feel good in the moment but they infantilize others and in the end do the same to ourselves.

They are the opposite of keeping the conversation going. 

I ask all of us who care about this sacred community: Are we doing enough to invite in everyone to our community, into our conversations?  Or, if we are honest, does our behavior betray pushing others away?

A story: During the Second World War a platoon of American soldiers were fighting their way through a French village. When the battle had ended and the GIs began checking to see if everyone had survived the fight, they found one of their comrades had been killed during the battle.

Because of the respect and love these men had for each other, the surviving members of the platoon carried their friend through the village to the local church. They knocked on the door of the church. A priest answered the door and asked them how he could help them. They requested permission to bury their friend in the church cemetery.

The priest asked if their comrade was a Roman Catholic. Their answer was “No.” He was not of that particular church. “I’m sorry,” the priest said, “I cannot give permission for you to bury your friend. The cemetery is for Roman Catholics only.”

The men weren’t sure what to do, so they buried their friend just outside the wall of the cemetery. When they had finished they left the area disappointed but pleased that they were able to care for their friend.

The next day, as they were preparing to move out, the members of that platoon went back to the church cemetery to pay their last respects to their friend. When they reached the church and the cemetery they could not find the grave where they had placed their friend. They noted the landmarks around the church and were certain that they were in the right place. But there was no grave to be found. Finally, in frustration they went back to the church and knocked on the door, hoping to speak with the priest.

When the priest they had spoken to the day before came to the door, they asked him if he remembered them from the previous day. He said that he did. They asked him about what had happened to the grave of their friend. The priest answered, “After you left, having buried your friend, I was so ashamed of how I had treated you that I spent the rest of the day and night moving the wall of the cemetery to let your friend in.”

A question: what walls might we move, what behaviors might we change, to become more welcoming of each other?  To keep the conversation going?

Conversations should also keep continuing in the realm of politics.  I know they say don’t bring up politics and religion but sometimes these matters are too important to ignore.  Take Israel for example.

I don’t believe non-Israelis have the right to criticize the Israeli government in the same way as Israeli citizens, but that doesn’t mean we keep a resentful silence.  Israeli diplomat Tal Becker counsels for us non-Israelis a middle of the road approach: Jewish criticism of Israel is best modeled as Mother in Law to Mother in Law: Out of a great stake in the outcome we still hold our tongues in certain situations.

Then there is the Iran deal.  Talk about keeping the conversation going.  If only there were more conversation and less shouting.  As American Jewish Committee leader David Harris has pointed out recently,

 The Iran deal is perhaps the most consequential foreign policy issue in a generation. Yet the debate over it has too often fallen short of what’s needed.

 Rather than focus on possible strengths and shortcomings, some have resorted to sweeping generalizations, partisan attacks, personal insults, and hysterical hyperbole. None of this advances the discussion.

What a sad summer it has been!  In the name of stopping the deal, there have been calls for violence against American officials; some have accused President Obama of sending Jews “to the ovens”; some have claimed that supporters of the agreement will have the blood of “hundreds of millions” on their hands.

At the same time, we have had the rhetoric of some of the deal’s supporters, who accuse opponents of “warmongering,” “dual loyalty,” using the power of the purse, and willfully repeating the mistake of Iraq.

This toxic, misplaced language on either side certainly doesn’t bode well for engaging in genuine conversation.

 There are people here today on both sides of the issue.  I understand that.  I also believe all of us care about a secure Israel.  I hope and pray that we will all try to be civil and responsible in our conversations over this critical issue.  And that Israel – over all – will be protected.  But let’s allow the conversations to continue.

The same is true when confronting our global refugee crisis.  Writing today in the Forward, J. J. Goldberg (no relation) could have been speaking about my sister and mom’s curtailed arguments when he observes that raising “ images of the Holocaust may help draw attention to the crisis. But it also shuts down reasoned discourse, and thus drowns out urgent questions that need airing….[Furthermore]…in an atmosphere where every dinghy is the St. Louis, where refrigerator trucks smuggling migrants into Austria become boxcars transporting Jews to the gas chambers, where numbers thoughtlessly scrawled on refugees’ forearms in felt-tip pen by Czech police frantically trying to keep track of the human tidal wave are transformed into numbers tattooed on death-camp inmates — in such an atmosphere, there’s nothing left to discuss.”

Simply put: let’s keep the historical allusions at bay, knowing they more often provoke the end of discussion as opposed to enhancing the discussion.

Finally, besides conversations continuing between family, the congregation and those on different sides of the political aisle, we should remember one other vital conversation, as shown in the Torah passage today: our dialogue with God.

It is easy to be resentful of God.  One can even make the argument that at times we are too angry to continue the conversation.  But consider this story:

The chasidic rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk was once asked by a disciple how one should pray for forgiveness.  The teacher told the student to observe the behavior of a certain innkeeper before Yom Kippur.

The disciple took lodging at the inn and observed the proprietor for several days, but could see nothing relevant to his quest.

Then, on the night before Yom Kippur, he saw the innkeeper open two large ledgers.  From the first book he read off a list of all the sins he had committed throughout the past year.  When he was finished, he opened the second book and proceeded to recite all the bad things that had occurred to him during the past year.

When he had finished reading both books, he lifted his eyes to heaven and said “Dear God, it is true I have sinned against You.  But You have done many distressful things to me too.

“However, we are now beginning a new year.  Let us wipe the slate clean.  I will forgive You, and You forgive me.”

Why did the innkeeper initiate this conversation?  I think it is because the innkeeper realized that he needed God more than God needed him.

So what does it mean for us to be God’s sparring partner?

For one thing, it’s a reminder that questioning, pushing back, expressing doubt, and arguing are not out of bounds. We needn’t fear that we’ll offend God. God will have the final word, but we may receive insight, inspiration, understanding, blessing — or if not those things, at least the comfort that comes from having aired our grievances, even if the answer isn’t what we’d hoped for.

You may not know this but Hollywood has another Bible movie planned, this one about King David.  That old king certainly had many conversations with God.  And even though he made some terrible mistakes, and his own prophet Nathan spoke truth to power against him, David never stopped speaking to God.

That’s why we have the psalms.

I am sure you know many of these psalms, or conversations between David and God.

And you know that a common word in these psalms is Hallelujah, “praise God”.  The Canadian Jewish poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen labored over five years to write his version of this conversation.   Cohen’s “Hallelujah” expresses the struggles that many of us go through, perhaps wanting to praise God but feeling honestly that such praise is not easy to feel.

This Hallelujah is not about praise but rather the pain of failure and disappointment. It contains vaguely religious allusions—Hallelujah, King David, various references to brokenness: disappointment, personal failure, the loss of love, the loss of optimism.

As Leonard Cohen expresses so poignantly “love is not a victory march… it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”

Leonard Cohen ends his “Hallelujah” with a most humble admission:

“I did my best, it wasn’t much.

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.

I’ve told the truth. I haven’t come to fool you.

And even though it all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

At the end, there may not be much to say, but the conversation does not end.  It continues.

And my prayer for all of us is this: with our friends and family, with our community, our country, with our family in Israel, and even with God, may our words never stop.  May our love never cease!  And may our hope for more understanding and acceptance lead us to a better future of everlasting peace.

 

What Might We Lose from a Failure of Nerve? Iran, Israel and the Bomb

UnknownShabbat is a day of joy, but we are also abutting a sad day in Jewish history, the Ninth of Av.

The Talmud (BT Gittin 55b-56a) records a fascinating but very relevant debate between the Rabbinic leaders and Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. It occurred in 66 BCE when Judea was under Roman control. Bar Kamza, a Jew, felt slighted by Judea’s Rabbinic and political leadership and was determined to avenge this insult. He thus informed Emperor Nero that the Jews were not loyal subjects and as proof he proposed that Nero send a calf to be sacrificed as a gift offering in the Temple. Bar Kamza delivered the calf but not before he had made a slight cut on its lip that the Jews regarded as a blemish but not the Romans.

The Rabbis immediately understood what had transpired and were faced with a dilemma: whether to refuse the animal thereby spurning the royal gift o to sacrifice it in violation of Jewish practice. They were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government, but Rabbi Zechariah contended that people will now believe that blemished animals can be bought as an offering in the Temple. The Rabbis then considered killing Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Zechariah protested, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”

The Rabbis, immobilized by “Zechariah’s dilemma,” neither sacrificed the calf nor executed Bar Kamza who then reported the Rabbis’ rejection of the royal gift. The Emperor’s ire at the perceived slap in the face set into motion a series of events leading to the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Temple and countless Jewish casualties. The Talmud’s footnote to this story is the lament, “through the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Was Rabbi Zechariah correct? Did the Rabbis exhibit a failure of nerve in not following the path of least existence? Was it wise to insist upon upholding the highest moral and ritual standards regardless of the cost?

Our world has not changed much since two thousand years ago. We Jews have a modern State of Israel but we still find ourselves between doing the “right” thing and doing the practical thing.

Sometimes when I read of Jews and even Israelis supporting the Palestinians at all cost, as one reads about in the new book, Catch the Jew, I think of Rabbi Zechariah.

These staunch defenders of Jewish morality are latter day successors of Zechariah; it is a counterpart of the lose-lose dilemma in which Bar Kamza placed Judea’s leadership of his day. Do we engage the enemy with force necessary to succeed and to survive? Or should our first concern be avoiding any possibility of collateral damage? Does Hamas’ immoral actions give us the freedom to pursue a war in a manner that compromises our own moral standards?

The Talmud bemoans that two millennia ago the Rabbis and the leadership of Judea paid a dear price by allowing themselves to be swayed by Zechariah’s insistence that our moral and ritual principles must be upheld regardless of the consequences.

The Tradition ultimately rejected Zechariah’s argument. The Rabbis certainly believed that life was sacred and that bloodshed violated God’s will – but there are exceptions. If a rodef ( a pursuer) threatens your life, you must do what is necessary to save yourself. Self-defense is not merely a valid response – it is a required moral response.

Similarly a nation threatened by a neighboring pursuer has a moral right to take needed action to defend its people. Thus in 1967 when Israel was threatened by the alliance of Egypt and Syria, it took pre-emptive action – that assured the successful culmination of the Six Day War

In contrast in 1973 when there were again clear signs that Egypt and Syria were preparing to attack Israel, the government heeded the warnings from Washington to hold fire until attacked. The failure to preempt hostilities led to great losses in the early days of the Yom Kippur War. There was actually a period when it seemed that Israel would be defeated with all the horrible consequences that would have inevitably followed.

We are now at the end of the Nine Days, the period between the beginning of the month of Av and the Fast of Tisha b’Av, the day set aside millennia ago to mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the loss of Jewish hegemony over Eretz Yisrael with its enormous loss of lives.

When we gather tomorrow night to observe the Fast we will lament not only past tragedies in our history but also the ongoing tragedy Middle East violence. And although the Palestinian issue has not diminished we find ourselves atremble at the notion of a stronger, more determined Iran.

What shall we make of the recent negotiations with Iran? Should we follow AIPAC’s dire warning and fight against its approval by Congress? Should we follow J-Street’s counsel and celebrate this “victory”. Do we have peace or merely “peace in our time?”

I am no expert on the Middle-East but I know something about Rabbi Zechaiah b. Abkulas. And let me tell you: he was bad news for the Jewish people. You see, he had could not possibly have the right answer because he was addressing the wrong question. He thought the leadership should play by a certain set of rules. But those were not Roman rules.

And now, as Jews who care about the State of Israel, we find ourselves asked to play by a certain set of rules, but whose rules are they? Obama’s rules? Russia’s rules? The U.N.’s rules?

Let me tell you what I think. Israel has to work the real problem it faces, not the one summoned up by over-anxious politicians and other Cassandras. So let’s start with the facts:
Iran is going to get a nuclear bomb sooner or later. It just is. It’s too big and too arrogant and too ornery not to.
(2) Israel is going to have to defend itself from the bomb but a more pressing question will be the proxy wars it has to fight with Hezbollah and Hamas.

(3) Therefore, I respectfully disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has refused to accept US gifts of security materials in order to placate the Israelis. I think this is standing on ceremony and not helpful. “Take the weapons, Mr. Netanyahu. Take the systems. Take anything you can.”

(4) In short, Israel is going to have to tough it out and she needs our support. If I thought we could somehow turn the Obama administration away from its present course I would entertain this possibility.

But I don’t and so my pragmatism kicks in.

Writing this week in Haaretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie says it better than anyone else: My suggestion is that American Jews proclaim their profound misgivings about this deal, indicate their regret that it will be approved, and then demand a package of political, economic, and military aid to compensate Israel for the tremendous risks that she will face. Perhaps this package will include a new security umbrella for Israel, or membership in NATO, or a protocol for what action the U.S. will take to counter Iranian subversion throughout the Middle East. It should include a long list of weapons systems as well as political understandings about support in the United Nations and elsewhere. It should be ambitious and far-reaching, put forward on behalf of a faithful ally that does not always agree with America, but that stands with America and requires her support, especially now.
As we remember the tragedies of the past and confront the sad realities of the present, may we never lose sight of Isaiah’s great hope that the day will come when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and none shall wage war any more. It’s an age old dream, but woe unto us if we lose faith in human efforts to help make that dream come true. But also woe unto those who support Israel who forget that the problem before that is containing an malevolent Iran. There are many ways to do so, and this is just getting started.

The Latest Update from Temple Sholom of Chicago’s Israel Trip

The trip is so much fun!  In the last few days we have hiked around the Golan Heights and the Galilee.  We have also celebrated the Torah and our past and future B’nai Mitzvah students on Masada.  We have floated in the Dead Sea and we have enjoyed the delights of Jerusalem, the most beautiful city in the world (arguably).   In the days ahead we will explore ancient Jerusalem, enjoy Shabbat at a sister Reform congregation outside Jerusalem, and visit the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.  We will also learn from a great expert on Israeli politics, Dr. Reuven Hazan.  Our trip will conclude with a visit to the Jerusalem Holocaust Memorial and a festive closing dinner.

Torah on Masada
Torah on Masada

Message from Israel

Temple Sholom’s 2015 Family Expedition is well underway!  We all arrived safe and sound on Thursday afternoon and made sure to jump in the beautiful roof top pool of the Carlton Hotel, overlooking the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea.  We enjoyed a delicious dinner on Thursday night at the venerable Yemenite restaurant, Magadna.  Friday morning was greeted with an amazing breakfast by the sea and then a trip to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where the State was formally declared in May 1948.  We also visited Rabin Memorial Square and then enjoyed the frantic noshing and shopping of Nachalat Binyamin and the Carmel Market.  Tonight we will greet Shabbat on the beach and share Shabbat dinner at the hotel.  Tomorrow we leave for the Negev and the incomparable Brasheet Hotel.

 

It is great to be in Israel with wonderful Temple Sholom of Chicago families!
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Three Days in DC with the American Jewish Committee

I have just returned from spending time in our nation’s capital with 2500 people, many but not all Jews, and quite a number of them diplomats and representatives of more than thirty nations. A number of Temple Sholom members were in attendance. The Chicago contingent from the AJC local chapter numbered more than one hundred!

The annual global forum of the American Jewish Committee is in effect the Jewish People’s summit of ideas, hopes and calls for action. Beneath the specter of the June 30th due date for negotiations with Iran, the tragic renewed rise of antisemitism in Europe, and the flagrantly antisemitic BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) movement, we heard from top leaders and thinkers concerning these very issues.

One thing I love about the AJC is the nuance. Debates are held, and both sides are given serious attention. The big one this year pitted the arch conservative Israeli Caroline Glick against bestselling author and Haaretz editor Ari Shavit. The topic: Two State Solution or Two State Illusion?

Along with others I lobbied members of congress to work to ensure that only a just agreement with Iran be reached. After all, no agreement is far better than a bad agreement. We also called upon our leaders to oppose the inciting to hate speech of the Palestinian Authority and to speak out against BDS.

At the conference moral heroes were honored, including the brave Druze guard who gave his life defending Jews against a terror attack at a Jerusalem synagogue last November, a French immigrant from Mali who rescued Jews during the terrorist attack at the kosher market in Paris, and the volunteer synagogue guard in Copenhagen who lost his life defending children at a bat mitzvah party.

We also heard from a UCLA student, not Jewish, who was penalized by her fellow students for visiting Israel. The Los Angeles chapter of the AJC helped her defend herself from the anti-Israel allegations of the student government. Who would have thought such help would be needed?

Melanie and I also dined at the home of the Spanish Ambassador and were thrilled to hear of the cooperation between Spain and Israel and the upcoming law that will allow Sephardic Jews to regain their Spanish citizenship. After having seen first hand in March what the expulsion did to the once glorious Spanish Jewish community, this visit provided a needed tonic.

I think that, somewhat sadly, the work of the American Jewish Committee is more relevant now than ever. After all, it started in 1906 as the Jewish defense agency. And let’s be honest: we Jews need to be defended. I hope you will consider joining me and Melanie and others from Temple Sholom and Chicago next year for this vital event.

Intrinsic Time Over Instrumental Time

6a00d83462eb8d69e20162fca0900d970d-800wiA quick survey: How many people in our congregation regularly wear a wristwatch? Apple watch, anyone?  Regardless of what timepiece you carry, it’s clear that we live in a world obsessed with time. Rarely does anyone sidle up to you in the grocery store anymore and ask, “Do you have the time?” because everyone has it attached to their body in some way. We have multiple apps for tracking our calendars, managing our deadlines and even timing our walk to the office. We have time staring at us from the corner of our computer screens, from the dash board of the car and from the digital clock on the bank sign down the street. If you live in a city, you might even look up and see a classic old clock fixed on a historic building which has been marking the time for generations.

In some cities, in fact, telling time is literally a big deal. If you’re in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for example, you can’t help but see the Abraj Al Bait Towers clock just about anywhere you go. Its clock face is 43 meters in diameter, roughly the size of a luxury yacht, built on a tower that’s 601 meters (almost 2,000 feet) tall. By comparison, Big Ben, arguably the most famous clock in the world, is just over 6 meters in diameter on a 96-meter-high tower on the bank of the Thames. Other cities around the world have similar “big time” clocks to help residents and visitors track the time, some even assisting with chimes or bells when the clock strikes the hour.

You’d think that the plethora of clocks in our world would make us better at managing our time, but the truth is that time management is one of the biggest stressors in our culture.

We work too many hours, we have too many distractions, and we’re trying to squeeze in more work in less time. Procrastination is often the result of being so overwhelmed with tasks that we keep putting things off, only to find that we’re now even more squeezed for time.

Item:

The first-grader asked his mother why Daddy brought home a briefcase full of papers every evening.

She explained, “It’s because Daddy has so much to do he can’t finish at the office and has to work nights.”

“Well, then,” said the child, “why don’t they just put him in a slower group?”

ITEM:

 The synagogue wanted to help its congregation cope better with the stresses of modern life, and decided to offer a course in time management.

Soon after the course was announced, a member telephoned the rabbi.

“What time does the course start, Rabbi?”

The rabbi replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Six-ish, seven-ish.”

A few years back, in an issue of Loyola University of Chicago Law Journal, M. Cathleen Kaveny – now at Notre Dame, wondered whether the lives of lawyers are being distorted by what she calls the “billable hours mentality.”

That mentality, she observes, is only an extreme version “of the view of time dominant in American life today.” Kaveny, who also teaches in the university’s theology department, thinks religious traditions have something valuable to teach us about how to view time.

Peter Steinfels of The New York Times reported on her article: “Lawyers did not always bill clients that way, and small firms generally still don’t. But the growth of firms employing over 50 lawyers exploded after the early 1960s, and computers gave managing partners a way to measure the productivity of young associates whom they could scarcely know personally.

“In [Professor Kaveny’s] opinion, the ‘regime of billable hours’ treats time ‘as instrumentally valuable, rather than intrinsically valuable.’ What counts are the extrinsic goals of winning advantages for the client and profits for the firm. Intrinsic satisfactions like doing good work, nurturing younger associates or contributing to the community cannot be translated into billable hours.

“The habit of treating time as a commodity with a price tag can seep into other aspects of lawyers’ lives, Professor Kaveny says, so that non-work activities and even personal relationships are viewed in financial terms.

Time spent with family or friends is calculated in terms of ‘trade-offs’ and lost opportunities. The billable hours framework levels all time, Professor Kaveny warns, flattening out its rhythms into a kind of ‘endless, colorless present.’ Life is experienced as monotonous extension.”

–Peter Steinfels, “A religious alternative to billable hours,” The New York Times, December 29, 2001.

The relentless ticking of the clock (or, in their case, the movement of the shadow around the sundial) is what the ancient Greeks referred to as chronos time, from which we get “chronological” time. If you buy an expensive watch today (either to actually tell time or to make a fashion statement), the jewelry store will likely refer to it as a “chronograph.” It keeps the time that we’re always tracking, managing and running out of.

Chronos time might be the instrumental view of time. Intrinsic time is the spiritual view. We should learn to know the difference.

These days we might have atomic clocks in our homes that are accurate to the second because they synchronize automatically by radio frequency with the National Institute of Standards and Technology atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. The watch on our wrist or the clock in the bell tower might be fast or slow, but the NIST F-2 clock is always right. The same might be said of God’s time, which calibrates us toward being right with God’s time and accurate in our faith and practice.

How we “make the most of the time” is thus a function of how well we use our chronos to focus on the religious.

How does your calendar reflect time spent cultivating your relationship with God? Does your daily rhythm include time dedicated solely to prayer? Are you participating in weekly worship where you can be filled with spirit?

Rather than just letting time tick away, put it to the more intrinsic use.

One of the iconic images of the silent-film era is that of funny-man Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a giant clock on the side of a big-city building, many stories above the street. The scene is from the 1923 comedy, Safety Last.

The man in the picture is Lloyd himself. There is no safety net. In those early days of cinema, stunt doubles were only just emerging as a specialty, and CGI effects were completely unheard of.

Perhaps the reason that scene is so memorable is that a man dangling precariously from the hands of a giant clock seems to capture our ambiguous relationship with time.

In this week’s Haftarah Portion, Jeremiah asks a question which is significant in every age: “Shall a person make unto oneself gods, and they are no gods?”

“Shall a person make unto oneself gods, and they are no gods?”

Sadly, the sin of idolatry is not confined to the ancient past.

Throughout the ages, we have made gods of things which are not gods. Idolatries of wealth, possessions, class and caste are still with us. Fascism has been defined as an idolatrous religion, glorifying the state and canonizing a leader. Communism may be defined as an idolatrous religion, glorifying a class, idolizing leaders and reading its class doctrine into the nature of things. People have put their faith in science as a religion, in rationality as a panacea, in blueprints, economic and social, for the reconstruction of society.

Some people have made an idol of time.  If we are guilty then isn’t it time to take time back?

Ann Lamott is quoted on a sermon billboard this week:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you.”  I know all of us here take Shabbat seriously; that’s why we are here. I challenge us to make a list of all the things we do that are instrumental and those that are intrinsic.

And I ask us to find more balance between the two.

By stopping. By studying. By doing less. By living with more gratitude. By remembering that clocks serve us. We don’t serve clocks.

A British father wrote that when he was on an outing with his family, his wife implored their daughter Molly to hurry up because there was no time to stop and blow dandelions. In response, Molly raised what may be for a child — perhaps for all of us — the major philosophical issue of our day. Mummy, she said, what is time for?

Exactly.