Is Israel Our Life Boat?

Lifeboat-drill

Have you heard the story about the Jewish grandmothers sitting by the pool and complaining about various things? The first begins with a heartfelt “Gevalt.”

Before she can explain, the lady next to her sighs,
“Oy, taten-yu.”
Then the woman to her left exclaims, “Oy vey.” and then the fourth woman cuts things short.
“OK, ladies, enough about the children. Whose dealing?

Speaking of complaints.
These days are tough for the Jewish people.
Another terrorist attack in Europe.
Another Jewish victim.
Another response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And, as he did after last month’s attacks in Paris, he said European Jews should draw conclusions from these events when he called on them to “come home” to Israel.

This time, in response the chief rabbi of Denmark criticized the prime minister saying that the statement was irresponsible and that terrorism wasn’t a reason to move to Israel.

Netanyahu argues — with no little amount of political calculation some would say — that Israel is serving its basic need, a life-boat for Jews in danger of drowning in a sea of hatred.

Is the Prime Minister correct in doing so? And will it help or hinder the Jewish people?

In support of Netanyu we have — not surprisingly — the Jewish neo-cons:

This week, Jonathan Tobin from Commentary, wrote :
Some, especially Netanyahu’s many critics, view this exchange as yet another example of his seeking to take advantage of tragedies for the sake of boosting his poll ratings in a tight election race. But whatever you may think of Netanyahu, these attacks are both unfair and inaccurate. As the nation state of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland, Israel doesn’t exist solely as a refuge for Jews under attack. But the latest string of attacks on Jews in Europe, as the editors of this magazine wrote in an editorial in the February issue of COMMENTARY, do once again prove “the existential necessity of Zionism.”

And now for the counter-point:

Danish Chief Rabbi Yair Melchior — a distant relative of mine by the way — was not engaging in a political attack on the Israeli Prime Minister. Rather, he seemed to view Netanyahu’s statement about the need for Jews to leave Europe as an attack on his community. As others said after the Hyper Cacher attack in Paris, the rabbi seems to believe that if Jews flee, the terrorists as well as the growing ranks of European anti-Semites win.

Rabbi Yair Melchior: “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism. But not because of terrorism.

“If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island,” Melchior said.

There is some truth to Melchior’s argument. Certainly Jews who immigrate to Israel from the United States are not fleeing injustice but are rather embracing Israel and Zionism.

But does he really think the decline in the population of European Jews and the vast increase in aliyah in recent years is a statistical anomaly?

As the Pew Research Center’s latest data reports, Jews are fleeing Europe. That is not just because of the alarming increase in violence against Jews but a product of the way anti-Semitism has once again become mainstream in European culture after decades of being marginalized, or at least kept under wraps, after the Holocaust.

It is a plain fact that those who have made up every great wave of immigration to the Jewish homeland have been primarily motivated by necessity rather than an ideological commitment to Zionism.
The logic of Zionism is not so much the very real appeal of its efforts to reconstitute a national Jewish culture and language but the need of the Jews for a refuge from the potent virus of anti-Semitism.

It would be nice to believe that in the enlightened Western Europe of our own day the fears about mobs crying “Death to the Jews” that motivated Theodor Herzl to write The Jewish State and found modern Zionism would no longer apply.

But a Europe where the Jew-hatred of the Arab and Muslim world that was imported by Middle Eastern immigrants mixes with the contempt for Jewish identity and Israel that has become conventional wisdom among European intellectual elites is not a place where Jews can live safely.

Under these conditions, isn’t it the duty of any prime minister of Israel to remind the world, as well as those faced with such a difficult decision, that Jews are no longer a homeless people that can be abused with impunity?  The rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel not only has given the Jews a refuge that would have saved millions during the Holocaust. It also gave every Jew around the world, whether Zionist or non-Zionist, religious or non-religious, a reason to stand a little taller.

So, yes, Israel is a life boat AND a flag-carrier ship of state for the Jewish people.

Jews may choose to stay where they are, whether in an increasingly dangerous Europe or a place like the United States where, despite the existence of anti-Semitism, they can live in unprecedented freedom, acceptance, and security. But the existence of a home for Jews helps make them more secure.

Anti-Semitism is “a disease for which there is no cure.” But after Copenhagen, the conclusion is just as true: “The existential necessity of Zionism after Paris is not only a fact. It is a charge for the future.”

As long as we’re talking about Bibi, we should also observe, that beyond the politics of his coming to speak to the Congress without White House approval, there lies the specter of Iran.

A couple of years ago, during a slightly more friendly time, the Prime Minister of Israel granted President Obama, a special gift: the biblical book of Esther. He wanted President Obama to put this book on his night table and read it perhaps before retiring to bed, so he could understand something about the history of Jewish people.

It’s a familiar‐sounding story: In Persia, an oppressive and vengeful leader seeks the total annihilation of the Jewish people. It sounds like a line from an Israeli speech, but it’s also the story of Purim.

Bibi has spoken of some of the evils perpetrated by the Iranian regime murdering thousands upon thousands and continued: “This is how Iran behaves today, without nuclear weapons. Think of how they will behave tomorrow, with nuclear weapons. Iran will be even more reckless and far more dangerous.

“There’s been plenty of talk recently about the costs of stopping Iran. I think it’s time to talk about the costs of not stopping Iran.

“The world’s most volatile region would become a nuclear tinderbox waiting to go off. And the worst nightmare of all, Iran could threaten all of us with nuclear terrorism.”
I was proud of him when he said: “As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.”

So, Israel is a life boat, it’s a ship of state, and it’s a gun boat.
Of course it has to be all three and more. And it deserves our support. Our unconditional support.

Which is not to say we should agree with what its leaders always do. Not by a long shot.

But we would do well to remember the wisdom offered by Robert Frost: “Home is, when you go there, they have to take you in.”

We Jews know the bitter reality of having no home.
We should never forget.

 

What We Learn from the Brian Williams Mess

 

Brian-Williams

As some of you know, I have a dog named Charlie. I love him but he is often in trouble. And then he feels guilty. Dogs are great at guilt. The moment you walk into the house, a dog will telegraph to you with its whole body the sin it has committed. The eyes squint and dart this way and that. The ears are flattened. The head is lowered. The tail trails. Pathetically ingratiating behavior usually accompanies all this – desperate little hand licks, half-hearted tail wags, general obeisance.

When you discover the actual crime – a mistake on the rug, a broken what-not, a chewed shoe – it only takes one phrase to crush your dog’s faint optimism and fawning spirit.

In a low, I’m-the-master-voice, you intone: “Shame on you! Oh, how could you? Shame!” Complete canine collapse ensues. Guilt overwhelms the creature. It throws itself on your mercy or slinks away in abject misery. This is probably one of the main reasons people like to have dogs as pets – it allows us to wield the power of punishment and forgiveness with such clear-cut, unambiguous results.

Unfortunately for God, human beings are not nearly as reliable or repentant. Indeed, we seem to possess an uncanny ability to shift blame, ignore consequences and shirk responsibility. After one particularly corrupt boondoggle had been exposed in the infamous administration of Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley, he was confronted by a young reporter. “Aren’t you concerned and embarrassed by these activities, Mayor?” Daley turned to the earnest young man and bombasted, “Son, nothing embarrasses us!”

As crazy as that statement may seem, it appears to be the guiding principle in our behavior today. The outlandishly corrupt, overtly immoral, banally violent and shockingly evil are paraded before us, invited on talk shows, made rich and famous and given control of our streets. It seems there is no longer any sense of shame or guilt or embarrassment operating in our culture.

To live without a sense of shame or embarrassment suggests that we can go through our entire lifetime without ever being ashamed of our behavior, no matter what transpires.

I am not saying we should purposely do bad things, but I do believe in the spiritual power of embarrassment.

Consider this teaching:
“Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we either replenish or frustrate a wondrous expectation. It involves an awareness of the grandeur of existence that may be wasted, of a waiting ignored, of unique moments missed. It is a protection against the outburst of inner evils, against arrogance, hubris, self-deification. The end of embarrassment would be the end of humanity.”
-Heschel,
Who Is Man?
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965), 112-13.

When Abraham Joshua Heshel wrote these words he was speaking of our our vulnerability and the opportunity for embarrassment to lead us to depth and spiritual growth.

Speaking of embarrassment, let’s consider the sad case of former and perhaps future NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. As you know, on January 30 for the first time on the news program, Williams declared that in Iraq in 2003 he was on a military helicopter that sustained enemy fire and had to crash-land. Soon, however, some who had been on that mission started disputing Williams’ account online, saying he was actually on a different helicopter. NBC launched an internal investigation.

Williams apologized on air on February 4 and, on February 7, announced his decision as managing editor of Nightly News to take himself off the program “for the next several days … to allow us to adequately deal with this issue.” He stated, “It has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.”
After the bulk of this lesson had been written, it was announced that NBC had decided to suspend Williams for six months without pay from both of his Nightly News roles.

He has expressed remorse and says he is committed to regaining viewers’ trust.

Related to this story are general questions about the reliability of human memory, as well as the psychology and dynamics of lying to improve one’s status or reputation.

New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope writes: “Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.”

Others assert that people are tempted to lie about themselves to try to enhance their status. Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post: “What Williams’ lie was about was what lies are always about: … The term ‘fish tale’ does not mean you mistakenly tell people you caught a sickly 8-ounce catfish when actually you snagged a 95-pound monster marlin.”

What does Judaism say about Brian Williams’ situation? Consider this episode from the Bible:
(For context, read 1:1-15.)
2 Samuel 1:7-10
[The man said,] “When [King Saul] looked behind him, he saw me, and called to me. I answered, ‘Here sir.’ And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ I answered him, ‘I am an Amalekite.’

He said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’

So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord.”)

Here we read about a young Amalekite who is trying to ingratiate himself with the new king of Israel, David. The former king, Saul, had been David’s enemy and had tried to kill David several times, although David has refused to do battle with or kill King Saul. We also know from the report in 1 Samuel 31 that, a few days prior to this, King Saul, seeing that he was about to be overrun by the enemy Philistines in battle, chose to kill himself rather than die at the hands of the enemy.

We aren’t told much about the Amalekite.
Perhaps he was an after-battle scavenger, stripping the fallen soldiers of their belongings.
In any event, he takes the crown and bracelet from King Saul’s body to give to David, and claims to have killed King Saul himself — at Saul’s request, of course. Perhaps he thought King David would be grateful for being rid of one of his enemies, although he was careful not to claim to be one of them. Just a little embellishment — or maybe some “misremembering” — to advance himself in the new king’s eyes.

It didn’t work, however. Instead, King David has the young Amalekite executed for daring to kill God’s anointed king.

A little self-aggrandizement may seem like a good idea, but it often leads to problems later on — even if, as in this case, it’s not discovered to be a lie right away.

Remember the advice of Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”.
But we don’t follow this advice do we?

A question: Have you ever remembered a particular event with great certainty, perhaps even vividly, which you later learned could not possibly have happened the way you recalled? How did you react to this discovery?

There was a great op-ed, written by David Brooks, which appeared in the New York Times February 10. I quote a few sentences here, but it’s worth a full read:

“There’s something sad in Brian Williams’s need to puff up his Iraq adventures and something barbaric in the public response. … The barbaric part is the way we respond to scandal these days. When somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. … I … think we’d all be better off if we reacted to these sorts of scandals in a different way. The civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling. … [R]igorous forgiveness … balances accountability with compassion.”

So what do we learn from Brian Williams mess? To sum up:
three things:

Embarrassment and shame are not always bad — and they can actually help us grow. Maybe Brian will find this out.
Self-Aggrandizement is human and even understandable but it often leads to unforeseen problems down the road. Be aware!
And let’s try to practice compassion for those who have messed up their lives. It could be us.

Jews and Morocco? The End of A Beautiful Friendship?

Casablanca

A week ago last Sunday, some spectators left the National Football Conference Championship game early, presuming that, with only five minutes left, the Seattle Seahawks could not change the trajectory of the 19-7 score that favored the Green Bay Packers. No doubt Seahawks’ faithless fans kicked themselves all the way up the space needle and back when they learned what happened after they split. Their team somehow scored two touchdowns in two minutes to take the lead, after which the Packers tied with a field goal, pushing the game into overtime. One more stunning touchdown won the Seahawks the right to defend their 2014 Super Bowl title on February 1 against the winners of the AFC Championship game, the New England Patriots.

Seattle Seahawks’ third-year quarterback Russell Wilson had expected “an all-out battle,” but he also believed “that somehow, we would get it done. I believed we could overcome the turnovers and the mistakes and the adversity.”

Coach Pete Carroll affirmed, “Even when things were rough, [Wilson] was in it the whole way. He never doubted that he could get it done. He never hesitated, never flinched. … he kept saying that we were gonna find a way.”

“A lot of teams would have given up. We kept fighting,” said Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin. “We kept fighting and believing. The motto of our program is finishing, and that’s what we did.”

Some Questions:

1. Have you ever left a game or a match before it was over, only to discover later that it didn’t end the way you thought it would? How did you feel about your decision to leave early?

2. What might cause a person to lose faith in God? Have you ever been tempted to give up your passion or values? How did you handle that challenge?

3. Is it easier to believe the naysayers, or the die-hard fans who never give up on you? How do you decide whom to believe when you’re in a situation that looks hopeless?

This week’s Torah Portion, describing Pharaoh’s pursuit of the fleeing children of Israel, tells us that there were those among our people who despaired: “Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? … For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we are to die in the wilderness.”

There are always persons in every crisis who yield to counsels of despair.
Erich Fromm, distinguished psychoanalyst, in his great book “Flight from Freedom,” tells us that some people fear the responsibilities of freedom and prefer the stultifying slavery, which is to them escape from responsibility. It was this psychological reaction that enabled slave peoples in the past to accept the tyranny that enslaved them. After all, freedom does impose responsibilities; freedom does require courage; freedom means maturity.

Moses’ answer, however, stands as the classic response: “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” And salvation came as the children of Israel walked through the parted waters of the Red Sea.
It is faith in freedom and the courage to implement that faith by action that brings deliverance.

My recent trip to Morocco makes me question my faith in the future of Jews there. Although the Jewish community has been there for more than 2,000 years, the signs seem clear.  There are very few Jews left.  Those who can have left.  Most of the others are looking to leave.  They do so not so much out of fear as resignation that the country and Jews have no future together.

But the lesson of the Seahawks and this week’s Torah portion humbles me.  Who knows?  Perhaps the worried Jews in France will return to Morocco?  Perhaps the are other factors not understood by me.  In the meantime, I encourage us to visit and show support for those who remain behind.

2000 years is a long time to be part of a country.  One would hope that somehow the relationship will survive.

The Meaning of Selma

la_ca_1021_selma

A story: A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing his error, sent the e-mail.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack.

The widow decided to check her e-mail expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife

Subject: I’ve Arrived

Date: January 19, 2010

I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now, and you are allowed to send e-mails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I’ve seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow.

Looking forward to seeing you then!

Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

P. S. Sure is freaking hot down here!!!!

 

Journeys!  You see the promise at the beginning of the Torah this week is that God will take us on a journey. Beginning with Exodus, chapter 6, verse 6, “I will take you out from (vehotzeiti) the labors of the Egyptians, and I will save you (vehitzalti) from their bondage. I will redeem you (vegaalti) with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. I will take you (velakachti) to be my people, and I will be your God, and you will know that I the Lord am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you (vehevayti) to the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and I will give it to you for possession. I am the Lord”.

Now you will notice that there were five different verbs that I read in the Hebrew. Four had to do with going out from and one had to do with arriving at. To put it another way, four were about the journey, and one was about the destination. Significantly, when it comes to the Seder and the ritualization of this text, we eliminate the fifth and drink 4 cups of wine for the four verbs of being taken out of Egypt.

There is a fifth cup of wine, but we are uncertain about drinking it, and so we leave it undrunk, and it is the cup of Elijah. To put it another way we have 4 cups for the journey and we have uncertainty for the destination.

If we look at the bigger picture, that is to say the entire Torah, we see the same pattern.

The whole Torah is the setup for the Exodus then the actual story of the Exodus, and the remainder of the book is about the 40 years of wandering, of journeying. But never in the Torah do we arrive. The destination is ahead of us, but not Moses, who will die before they get to cross the Jordan, or the people of Israel who will capture Israel actually begin the process in the five books of Moses. It’s only in the book of Joshua that the arrival at the destination takes place.

Rabbi Paul Plotnik has wisely observed: “Is this all a coincidence? Is it just by chance that both the Torah which tells us of the Exodus, and the Seder which relives it annually, could both focus on the journey and leave the destination for another time?

“I doubt it. It is another message. A message that we need to guide us through the entire travels of our life. We need to be reminded over, and over again, that in life the journey is at least as important, if not even more important, than the destination.” This is true for actual journeys and for theological ones as well.
Rabbi Shai Held tells of such a theological journey. “Many years ago, when I was a teenager studying in an Israeli yeshiva, I found myself preoccupied by a series of what felt to me like pressing theological questions, mostly about biblical criticism and its implications for faith.

“I asked several of my teachers for help, but they were uniformly unhelpful: some confessed ignorance of the issues at hand, while others warned me that my questions posed a danger to the religious welfare of other students.

“Quite by accident, I stumbled upon a book by the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, in which he wrestled with precisely some of the questions I found most vexing. As only an angst-ridden adolescent could, I proceeded to write him a fifteen-page, handwritten letter about my religious concerns, anxieties, and fears. He was kind enough to respond right away.

What stayed with me was how he concluded his very kind note. ‘Remember always,’ he said, ‘that the search for Torah is itself Torah, and that in the very search you have already found.’

“Those words have sustained me through periods of great doubt, and enabled me to be nourished by the joy of spiritual, and intellectual, quest.”

 

__________________________________________

It’s not necessarily the destination – it’s the journey that counts.
On this weekend one person’s journey matters most of all:
the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I saw the movie Selma last week. What was so important about the march? It was all about keeping the process going and leading to further progress. It wasn’t about one moment. It was about one movement.

The day before he died, Dr. King spoke prophetically about the fact that the journey matters most of all.

His words:

“Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We will get to the Promised Land. But we are never actually there. We are moving in the direction. That is what we must remember.

Dr. King: The arc of history moves slowly, but it bends toward justice.

Let’s remember it is not the destination that counts but the journey, the direction, and the faith that we are indeed heading in the right direction.

The Choice of Loving-Kindness

josephinthepit-600x600

Last week, our Torah portion left us on the edge of a cliff with a “to be continued” sign. This weeks Torah portion continues telling the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, and the move of Jacob’s whole family down to that region to weather the long famine.

Rabbi Sidney Greenberg points out that very often in our lives we remember the wrongs that have been done to us and neglect to keep a mental list of all the “rights” that we have been the recipients of. As we come to the end of the secular year and are about to embark on the journey of a new year, we can take the time to make a mental balance sheet of what we will remember and what we will forget.

Joseph has many things in his life that come under both headings. He can choose to remember that he was somewhat obnoxious towards his brothers when he was younger and self-righteous. He can choose to remember what his brothers did to him when they threw him into the pit and took his multi-colored coat away then traded him to the Ishhmaelites. Now that he is in a position of power over them, ready to decide their fate, he can choose to remember the good and or the bad. Joseph the righteous chooses to inform his brothers that all that they had done to him was G-d’s will in order for him to be in the position to save the people in the region from starving to death.

A question:

What should we choose to remember in our own lives? Should we dwell on the negatives that have been done to us? Should we remember the negatives that we perpetrated upon others? Perhaps we should strive to remember the good others have done for us, especially if for some reason we are currently estranged from that person or persons for a different reason.

Rabbi Greenberg points out that we easily remember promises that others made to us that they neglected to keep. Our task is to be forgetful of others’ promises while we maintain with great integrity our promises to others.

There is a Hebrew word that comes to mind when thinking of Joseph’s choice: Chesed.
Chesed is difficult to translate. No single word in English captures its meanings. Translators use words like “kindness,” “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “loyalty.” Perhaps “loyal love” is close.

Chesed. Loving kindness and choosing a path of chesed over resentment.
Chesed is the midah of our new month. But how do we practice this most difficult of virtues?

Mussar, classical Jewish ethical teachings, remind us that the most important aspect of Chesed is not what we feel but what we do. When we overcome our inner-resistance and do the nice thing anyway, we benefit ourselves as well as the world.

Rabbi Simlai in the Talmud explained: The Torah begins with an act of Chesed and ends with an act of Chesed. “God made for Adam and his wife garments of leather and clothed them.” And “God buried Moses in the valley.” Both acts are out of love.

And when Joseph chooses a path of Chesed for his brothers he is doing so out of love.

There is a story told of a man who died after having led a thoroughly selfish, immoral life. Moments later, he found himself in a world of bright sunlight, soft music and figures all dressed in white. ‘Boy, I never expected this,’ he said to himself. ‘I guess God has a soft spot in his heart for a clever rascal like me.’ He turned to a figure in a white robe and said, ‘Buddy, I’ve got something to celebrate. Can I buy you a drink?’ The figure answered, ‘If you mean alcoholic beverages, we don’t have any of that around here.’ ‘No booze, huh? Well, then, what about a game of cards? Pinochle, draw poker, you name it.’ ‘I’m sorry but we don’t gamble here either.’ ‘Well, what do you do all day?’ the man asked. ‘We read the Psalms a lot. There is a Bible class every morning and a prayer circle in the afternoon.’ ‘Psalms! Bible study all day long! Boy, I’ll tell you, heaven isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.’ At which point the figure in white smiled and said, ‘I see that you don’t understand. We’re in heaven; you’re in hell.’

Heaven, the story suggests, is having learned to do and enjoy the things that make us human, the things that only human beings can do. And by contrast, the worst kind of hell I can imagine is not fire and brimstone and little red figures with pitchforks. The worst hell is the realization that you could have been a real human being, and now it’s too late. You could have known the satisfaction of caring for another person, of being generous and truthful and loyal, of having developed your mind and your heart, of controlling your instincts instead of letting them control you, and you never did it. (Harold Kushner)

Even when it comes to our understanding of God, we have a choice. Do we favor the harsh, vindictive view of God or the loving, forgiving view?

Last week, Rabbi Harold Schulweis passed away, a brilliant rabbi and noted practitioner of Chesed. One of his most moving sermons,
following the 6.7 on the Richter scale earthquake in LA.

I quote Rabbi Schulweis at length:

After the earthquake, the children of the Day School and Hebrew School were brought together to talk about their fears. (We did the same a few miles away in Hollywood, where I was a rabbi.) The re-iterated question they asked was, “Why is God so angry at us?” Much the same question was asked by their parents.
Where did that question come from? Are we teaching our children and adults a theology that leads them to believe that where there is smoke, there is God’s fire? Are we teaching them that catastrophe, indiscriminate disasters are, as the lawyers say “acts of God”? Are we in our theological teaching preparing the ground for guilt, accusation, self-recrimination? Is that the healthy minded, realistic tradition of the Jewish faith?

I shared with the questioners my belief, which is grounded in the Jewish tradition. Two familiar names of divinity stand side by side in our prayers and in our Bible. One name is “Elohim,” the other is “Adonai.”  Different, yet one. “Hear O Israel the Lord (Adonai) our God (Elohim), the Lord is One.”
The names that describe one divinity are different. The name Elohim in the first chapter of Genesis is used exclusively. Elohim is the God of nature, the life of the universe, the author of all creation. Elohim is the God who creates lion and lamb, light and darkness, the eagle and its prey. Elohim is the Jewish reality principle “Nature pursues its own course,” our sages taught, and Elohim is the ground of nature. Nature includes earthquake, hurricane, tornado, sun, moon and mountains. Through the eyes of Elohim the whole of existence is “very good.”  One can command nature only by obeying it, understanding its ways.
The world of Elohim is not a court of justice. In this sense the world is not fair. But that is not the whole world, nor is Elohim the whole of divinity. Were Elohim the only description of God’s way we would be pantheists, equating God with nature. We would submit to nature and live according to nature. But Judaism knows another dimension of Divinity, Adonai. It is the name that is introduced in the Bible with the creation of humanity (Genesis 2:5; 4:26). If Elohim refers to that which is, Adonai refers to that which ought to be. If Elohim is the source of all that is given, Adonai is the power that transforms givenness, repairs the broken shards, mends the torn fabric, holds back the chaos.
Why the earthquake, and where is God? There are powers, energies, colliding forces that scientists identify. Theologians have no better or alternative explanation. The laws of tectonics that the seismologists describe theologians may trace to Elohim. In that sense and only in that sense, Elohim is in the earthquake. Elohim is amoral, revealing the transcendent power out of the whirlwind as we read in the concluding chapter of the book of Job.

But where is Adonai in the earthquake? In the energies and talents of His divinity as imaged in creation, in people in their individual and collective behavior to protect, sustain and comfort those who suffer. Adonai is present when we are present and it is through our godly behavior that belief in His existence and goodness is demonstrated.

The rabbis ask in a Midrash (based on Deuteronomy 13:5) how it is possible for human beings to follow the devouring fire of God.  The answer is that we are to imitate the attributes of Adonai. As Adonai clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, visits the sick, comforts the mourners, buries the dead, so faith in Adonai within and between us mandates us to emulate His qualities.
The earthquake is not a moral judgment of God. It is the consequence of the amoral world of nature. A natural cause is not a divine moral intention, a natural consequence is not a divine curse.

The Jewish answer to the question, “Where is God in the earthquake?” is typically another question: “Where are we in the earthquake?”  What have we done to alleviate the suffering of its victims, to calm the frightened, shelter and feed those made homeless? What have we done and what will we do to anticipate and mitigate the effects of the turbulence? With Adonai, there is always something to be done.

If we are paralyzed by the shock and aftershocks of the earthquake, it is because we have split apart Elohim and Adonai as if they were separate Gods. Left with Elohim alone, we incline toward passivity. Left with Adonai alone, we tend to ignore the principle of reality. In the Sh’ma we proclaim the unity of both, the nexus of the real and the ideal, of nature and morality. That unity is to be achieved by binding Elohim and Adonai together….

Elohim creates day and night, light and darkness. Lion and lamb, Bacteria and penicillin.  Gives power to the fowl above the earth, to the great sea monsters below, to every living creature that creeps on the earth.
And Elohim said, “It is very good.” All existence is good in the eyes of Elohim, the God of the first chapter of Genesis, Elohim who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.
Who laid the cornerstones of earth? Who shut up the sea with doors When it broke forth and issued out of the womb? Who caused it to rain on a land where no man is? On the wilderness, wherein there is no man?
Elohim, the God of Omnipotence, before whom we recognize our own impotence, “Canst Thou bind the chain of the Pleides or loose the bands or Orion?” Elohim the God of Omniscience, before we whom we recognize our ignorance, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you number the clouds by wisdom?” Elohim, before whom we bow our heads and bend our knees, the sovereign God whose power and reality we accept.

But Elohim is not the whole of divinity. Alongside Elohim is Adonai. This is our affirmation of oneness. “Hear Israel, Adonai our Elohim is One.”
Adonai, the Lord of all that ought to be. Adonai revealed in the yearning and behavior of His human creation for justice, for fairness, for peace, for harmony. Adonai in the vision of a compassionate society. Adonai in the transformation of chaos and violence and the void of the universe, into order, sanity, and love.

Adonai in the mending of the universe, the repair of the world, the binding of bruises, the gathering of fragmented sparks buried in the husks of the world. Adonai revealed in the discovery of the self created in the image of Adonai-Elohim, the Lord God, who breathed into our nostrils and made us a living soul.
Elohim/Adonai, Acceptance and transformation, the reality of what is, the reality of what ought to be the reality of what is yet to be.

Just as God has different facets, so do we. My hope for us in the month and year ahead is that we tend toward Chesed in how we treat ourselves and — most importantly — how we treat each other.

In the Shelter of Each Other

A preacher once heard about another preacher who gained notoriety by preaching the world’s longest sermon. He felt led to preach some kind of notable sermon, too, and get in the record books. But he didn’t want to bore people with a long sermon.
So he decided he would preach the world’s shortest sermon and he told his congregation that he was going to do this. He didn’t want it to just be an excuse for a sermon. He had to say something meaningful in the sermon.

He received a lot of good suggestions. When the time came for his notable short sermon he stood up at the pulpit, cleared his throat and said, “Love,” and then sat down.
Now, I am sure some of us would love for me to follow this noble fellow’s example. Sadly, ethical issues in terms of plagiarism, prohibit me from preaching someone else’s sermon, so my message will be longer — perhaps considerably longer — than this particular pastor’s sermon!
You may know the old adage that a rabbi has only one sermon. We just keep giving it over and over again, throughout our careers in a variety of different ways. Hillel’s sermon, for example, was more than one word but still short and sweet, yet undoubtedly profound. Two thousand years ago he said: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

I am still pretty new here so you may not know what my “sermon” is. So let me tell you. It is very simple. I can express it in a few short sentences:

(1) “I believe in God but the God I believe in exists not out there somewhere, but in all things. Everywhere. Including inside of us.

(2) Second, the oneness of God is reflected in the oneness of the entire universe.

(3) And finally, animated by the divine spark within, we are called on to instill our relationships with holiness.

That’s it. The rest is commentary, now go and study it.

1. God exists.

2. God is One – Therefore all being is one.

Tonight is not a theology lesson so I don’t care if you understand the import of these two lessons. It’s the third statement that calls to each of us:

3. Because we are all animated by the divine spark within, we are called to sanctify our relationships and make them holy.

I say again: Because we are all animated by the divine spark within, we are called to sanctify our relationships and make them holy.

At a certain level, this orientation we share is simply a matter of looking for and recognizing God in every person and in every thing.

Our task is to see God’s presence in the other and make it manifest by bringing out the holiness in potential. The early Chasidic teachers called this “raising the sparks.”

We can also call it living life with meaning and purpose and demonstrating our sense of responsibility for others by engaging in holy deeds.

That’s my sermon. A little longer than one word. And – sorry – I’m not done yet.

So let me just share a few observations and implications.

• One can’t be a Jew (or perhaps any religious person) alone. We need each other in order to live lives of meaning and purpose. Holiness can only be created in relationship.

• One can be a Jew without praying in Hebrew or without actually knowing much of anything. Not that it wouldn’t hurt to learn and embrace the richness of Jewish thought and practice.

• One can be a Jew without being born Jewish.

• One certainly can be a Jew without believing in God – as long as you act towards others as if you do believe in God.

• But you can’t be a Jew alone. You can’t be a Jew living on a mountaintop or on your own tropical island.

To be a Jew is to sanctify your relationships with others in order to bring God into the world. That is why around here we are constantly talking about community. Community – that is, the way we organize our relationships – is the mediator of Judaism and Jewish life.

Judaism teaches us how to live with others, beginning in our homes with those whom we feel closest to. It extends to our friends, our congregation, the larger community and the world beyond.

For Jews, there is no such thing as independence or complete autonomy – in truth we are interdependent with others. We need each other in order to live out our religious lives, and God needs us to bring the Divine Presence into the world by discovering and creating holiness everywhere we can.

I can’t think of a more timely lesson than the need for community. This idea is more than timely; it is downright counter cultural.

Historians undoubtedly will point to 2014 as – among other things – the year of the selfie. This obsession is more than sermonically interesting. It is also literally dangerous.
After the Tour de France race began this summer, several cyclists were knocked from their bikes by bystanders who seemed more interested in taking pictures of themselves than in watching the race or photographing the participants. American racer Teejay van Garderen called the behavior, which toppled him as well, “a dangerous mix of vanity and stupidity.”
Race organizers stepped up online and onsite efforts to increase awareness of the potential for collisions between cyclists riding along at speeds up to 45 MPH and inattentive people on the sidelines who want to record their presence at the big event to share with friends and family on social media.
In some cultures, taking photos, depicting one’s own image or looking at oneself in a mirror is considered a display of ostentatious pride and something to be avoided. Modern technology takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum.
It is much easier to become preoccupied with oneself, engage in “navel-gazing” and develop an inordinate sense of our own self-importance when it is possible to post 24/7 to the entire world about every daring, exceptional, insignificant or stupid thing we do.
I believe that these days we are in the midst of a major shift in our society in the way we engage with others. This shift, away from the communal to the individual, has serious implications for our congregation, our communities and the way we live our lives. We are fast moving into an age of super-individualism in which our communities and all they bring to us are potentially at risk.

Yes, we inhabit a world of unprecedented opportunities for personal choice. The entire economy seems to be driven by them.

Think about it: when we travel, be it on the train, plane or cars, we can sit in our smart phone bubble and not interact with anyone.

Wear headphones in the gym or walking the dog and most people will leave you alone.

The ability to make personal choices can be very empowering. But when it creates a real disconnect from those who would be our friends and partners in life, extreme individualism pits us in competition with each other, burdens groups trying to meet everyone’s needs and threatens to become destructive to the individual and corrosive to our society.

Tell me honestly there haven’t been times when an iPhone didn’t lead to resentment.

This, then, is our challenge: to respond to the culture of individualism and isolation by nurturing communities that provide centers of value and meaning for their members. We cannot function as a religious community unless our members join together and sacrifice a bit of themselves for a higher, communal purpose.

If we are living in the age of the “selfie” then we need a counterbalance. We need community.

Therapist Mary Pipher has written a book around the Irish proverb It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.

Here is what she says:

[These days]… ironies abound. With more entertainment, we are more bored. With more sexual information and stimulation, we experience less sexual pleasure. In a culture focused on feelings, people grow emotionally numb. With more timesaving devices, we have less time; with more books, we have fewer readers. With more mental health professionals, we have worse mental health. Today we’re in a more elusive crisis, a crisis of meaning, with emotional, spiritual and social aspects. We hunger for values, community and something greater than ourselves to dedicate our lives to. We wake in the night, sorry for ourselves and our planet.

In his classic work, I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote that a community must have a center. It has a shared vision, purpose and commitment through which all members are connected to each other like spokes on the hub of a wheel. In order to create such a community, people give up some of their individual needs and desires for the benefit of the group. In return, the collective provides its individual members with the support they need to live lives of meaning and purpose.

Temple Sholom of Chicago has a vision. It is our commitment to support each other as we deepen our engagement with Judaism and Jewish life through prayer, study and acts of social justice. To this end, members are expected to give of themselves in support of the community in a wide variety of ways:

Our tradition teaches us that when two people sit and exchange words of Torah, the Shechinah – God’s presence is among them. When we share our stories and bind ourselves together in meaningful relationships, we provide a place for God’s presence to dwell among us, making this Kehillah Kedoshah truly a sacred community.

What is the purpose of our community?

We are here for religious and spiritual quest – our search for meaning and purpose: We gather together for study, for celebration, for prayer and reflection, because none of us can do any of these things alone.

We come together in community to provide for mutual support.

We form and nurture relationships in order to create and discover holiness in the world through the performance of mitzvot.

These are all ways of recognizing the godliness in others, sanctifying our relationships and, ultimately, bringing God into the world.

Strengthening our community is the way to begin.

A chapter in Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, is entitled: “Why I Make Sam Go To Church.” Her son Sam, then seven years old, is the only child among his group of friends who goes to church. Sometimes he doesn’t want to go, but she doesn’t let him get away with that. Here’s why: “I make him go because I can. I outweigh him by nearly 75 pounds. But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want — which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy — are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith — people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.”

I want this light, this life for all of us.

This year, find a way to be involved at Temple Sholom and through Temple Sholom. The Monday Meal. Classes for all ages. The Social Action Committee. Worship on Friday and Saturday. Chesed. Welcoming. Ecco Chavurah. Mishpacha. Brotherhood. Sisterhood. Israel advocacy. This year especially, middot practice.
The list is long. The list is for you.
It’s also about having fun so mark down May 2 for a party.

Help us help you make of this place an even more sacred community.

During the past couple of years a group of congregants became a community within a community and produced a Shema Statement, saying Temple Sholom seeks to be a sacred community that embraces, inspires and matters. A commentary produced from the manifold conversations became known as the V’ahavta Statement.

It reflects our aspirations for our community. It says:

We welcome you as you are
For all the stages of your life
We say to you “Hineynu – We are here when you need us.”

We challenge you to grow.
To join our search for relevance and renewal in ancient wisdom.
We say to you “Awaken! So much to be discovered!”

We invite you to share our mission:
To be a source of healing in the world
To ask with us: “If not now, when? What is our sacred work?”

Thus we remember that we are a community that engages in Torah (sacred study), Avodah (spiritual exploration), Tikkun Middot (personal growth) and Tikkun Olam (healing a broken world).

As a rabbi of this congregation I am so proud of this statement and the work behind it. But I am even more hopeful that these words will guide us to becoming the kind of place that our community needs.

A final thought:
Scott Russell Sanders is a prize-winning essayist and a retired English professor at Indiana University. In his book, Writing From the Center, he tells about a prominent builder in a small Ohio town who was asked to join the volunteer fire department. He politely declined. After all, what could he get out of it? His home was brick, wired to code, and fire-resistant.
But one day his house caught fire. The volunteer firemen showed up with the pumper truck. But before turning on the water, they playfully asked the contractor if he still saw no reason to join. Without hesitation, he said he would be glad to join right then and there, and the fire was extinguished.
Sanders likes to tell this story because his dad was one of the volunteer firemen that day. He also likes to tell it because of what it says about being a part of a community.
We should not have to wait until our houses are burning before we see the wisdom of facing our local needs by joining in common work. … We had better learn how to live well together, or we will live miserably apart.

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how our world is a scary place these days. There is only so much we can do to change that. But our work here stands before us and it is clear and attainable: to see the holiness within. To embrace each other. To remember that everyone matters. And to be inspired to create together a community of sacredness and – yes – that very thing called love.

 

I am grateful to Rabbi David Thomas for some of the rhetorical methods of my sermon.

There is No Hope, But I May Be Wrong

sisters

There’s a story about an elderly Jewish man in Miami who called his son in New York and said, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of this misery is enough.”

“Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screamed.

Said the dad: “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer. We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.” And the father hung up.

Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “This is not happening!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of this.”
She called her father immediately, and screamed at him, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hung up.

The old man hung up and called to his wife, “Okay, they’re coming for Rosh Hashanah. Now what do we tell them for Pesach?”

Visits are nice. So are cards, if you can’t arrange a visit.

I hope some of us have received some nice New Year’s cards.
People still send cards, right?
Hallmark, famed purveyor of creative accolades, doesn’t publish everything their artists conceive.

Here’s a list of some rejected cards (presumably after the attorneys weighed in).
I miss you, the dog misses you, and the cat? Well the cat I had put to sleep because it had neither personality nor purpose for living. But me and the dog miss you.

Happy Birthday to someone who will make a fine ambassador to France … if anyone asks you, which I can’t imagine. You’d be good, though. It’s a shame.

Dear Teacher: You’re more than a great teacher … you’re the lowest paid person of all my role models

Front: Happy 78th birthday!
Inside: In America, the average life expectancy is 78 years and 5 months.

All of these fall under the rubric of mixed feelings. Not too mention questionable taste.
But let’s talk about the mixed feelings.

If we’re honest, don’t we feel such mixed feelings today?

On the one hand, we celebrate the New Year.

On the other hand, many of us make the turn toward the New Year this day with trepidation.

After all, this day is not only about the future; it is also about the past. And we know that the choices we made were not always the right ones. If our lives were recorded and we could review the video I am sure there are episodes that would make us cringe.

Many of us have gadgets that measure our steps. What if we had ones that measured our missteps, our sins?

It is not only our personal trepidation that is palpable. It’s also our national anxiety.

Roger Cohen last week in the New York Times called our time “the great unraveling”. His list of summer crises gives us a great deal to consider:

It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker.
It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane.
It was a time of weakness. The most powerful nation on earth was tired of far-flung wars, its will and treasury depleted by absence of victory. An ungrateful world could just as well police itself.
It was a time of hatred. Anti-Semitic slogans were heard in the land that invented industrialized mass murder for Europe’s Jews. Frightened European Jews removed mezuzahs from their homes.
Europe’s Muslims felt the ugly backlash from the depravity of the decapitators, who were adept at Facebooking their message. A nihilistic Hamas plotted a New Year’s massacre in Israel and engaged in a cynical war of terror.

The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded…Politicians, haunted by their incapacity, played on the fears of their populations, who were device-distracted or under device-driven stress.

Dystopia was a vogue word, like utopia in the 20th century.
—–

I don’t know about you, but this dystopia thing is starting to get to me. And it’s not just the tragedies of this summer. There is also the eerie feeling that, as a nation, we have been here before.

Writing a few months ago in the New Yorker magazine, Adam Gopnik observed that, we don’t have to have a very enlarged sense of history to remember what happened last time Western Civilization sped around the corner from ’13 to ’14.

Not so good.

Writes Gopnik: The year 1913 had been full of rumbling energy and matchless artistic accomplishment and then, within a few months, the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the troop trains were running and, pretty soon, the whole positive and optimistic and progressive culture was on its way to committing suicide.

The Great War left more than ten million Europeans dead and a civilization in ruins. Naturally, a lot of people, staring at this year’s tea leaves—at rising new powers and frightened old ones—are searching for parallels between that ’14 and this one, and finding them.

Continues Gopnik:
Lodged somewhere in our collective memory of that catastrophe is an image, a metaphor of hubris, from just a year or so before: a great four-funnelled ocean liner, the biggest and most luxurious ever built, whose passengers, rich and poor, crowd on board, the whole watched over by a bearded man named Edward John Smith, with the chief designer, Thomas Andrews, along for the maiden voyage, too.

Then the ship sets off from Southampton, sure of itself, unsinkable, until it comes to the ice fields of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland

—and speeds right on through them to its anchorage in New York.

Because this ship isn’t the Titanic but her nearly identical twin sister, the Olympic, made at the same time, by the same people, to do the same job in the same way. The Olympic not only successfully completed its maiden voyage but became known as Old Reliable, serving as a troop carrier in the First World War, and sailing on for twenty years more.
The story of the two ships is one to keep in mind as we peer ahead into the New Year. It reminds us that our imagination of disaster is dangerously more fertile than our imagination of the ordinary. You have certainly heard of the Titanic; you have probably never heard of the Olympic.

If our history leads us to the First World War, then we imagine that we were always bound on that collision course, and we cannot imagine that, with a bit of luck, we might have been on the Olympic, not the Titanic.

We search for parallels of disaster, and miss parallels of hope. False positives are the great curse of diagnostics, in historical parallels and prostate screenings alike.

Is it all chance and luck, though? Do we not know what boat we’re on until the iceberg informs us?

—-
On this New Year I want to speak about hope. Hope for our country, hope for our community, hope for our congregation, hope for our families, hope for ourselves. And, of course, hope for Israel and the Middle East.

This is not an easy emotion to summon these days. The Titanic, not the Olympic, seems to rule our thoughts and expectations.

Add to this our personal challenges. Broken relationships. Bad jobs. Illness.

Hope seems distant for so many, and how can we not feel their pain? And what can we do to help?

The sheer quantity of wreckage around us is appalling: wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity.

We avert our eyes. We try not to dwell on it. We whistle in the dark. We wake up in the morning hoping for health and love, justice and success, we build quick mental and emotional defenses against the inrush of bad news, and we try to keep our hopes up.
And then some kind of crash or other puts us or someone we care about in a pile of wreckage.

Newspapers and the Internet document the ruins with photographs, headlines and updates. Our own hearts and journals fill in the details. Are there any promises, any hopes that are exempt from the general carnage? It doesn’t seem so.

According to Dante, written over the gates of hell are these words: ABANDON HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER. Newspapers and evening news show us the gates of hell every night — and we are tempted to abandon hope every time we enter there:

We had hoped … that he or she was the one.
We had hoped … that the tests would prove negative.
We had hoped … that he would stop drinking.
We had hoped that … please fill in the blanks.

Speaking of hope is a common theme in cultural works across the world. We know the platitudes:
Hope is the thing with feathers. The Audacity of Hope. Keep Hope Alive. The Man from Hope. And most of us have been told by well-meaning people to keep our hope alive.

And yet, telling someone to keep having hope when facing serious bad news always seems a little cruel to me.

I cannot offer a solution to all the challenges we are facing. All I can do as your rabbi is offer a Jewish framework that speaks to me and – I hope – speaks to you. You see, hope is a very Jewish concept, in its own way. We like to joke that Jews are pessimistic and depressed, the “ever-dying people” in the words of one historian.
Or as modern author, Aaron David Miller, puts it, we follow “the cosmic oy veh.” This is not the whole picture, however.
There is a reason that the National Anthem of Israel is called, Hatikvah, “the hope”. Hope in Israel is not an attitude. It is a necessity.

The ancient prophets, for all their rebukes, also could summon profound messages of hope.

Here is a good one:

Shuvu levitzaron, asirey hatikvah

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope. (Zechariah 9:12)
Prisoners of hope? What does that even mean?
Zechariah was not speaking about literal prisoners. He was addressing the people of Judah after they had been released from exile in Babylon and had returned to their homeland. 

But they had become prisoners in another sense. The destruction to which they had returned was overwhelming, and it required great energy just to cobble together the things needed for a subsistence-level existence.

As a result, many had become prisoners of despair.

 Through Zechariah, however, God called them to fresh hope based on his covenant made with them. Rather than being prisoners of despair, they now were “prisoners of hope.”
That phrase is a literal translation of the Hebrew, but its meaning, as made clear by the context, is “prisoners who now have hope,” perhaps like a person who is still incarcerated but who has a parole hearing scheduled and reason to expect that the ruling will be favorable.

That is my message for all of us in a very fraught time of our world’s history. And for those facing a more personal despair. Whatever the challenge we face, we do have a choice. We have a choice between being a prisoner of despair or of hope.

So just how do we become prisoners of hope? Let’s follow the advice of the prophet: we return to our stronghold.

And, what, pray-tell, is our stronghold?

It’s not an actual fortress. The Hebrew word, bitzaron, actually means to “withhold,” or “cut-off” – to “enclose.”

So I would translate the advice of the prophet like this:
To be a prisoner of hope, withhold your judgment. In other words, don’t despair.
Instead, remember the message of the bumper sticker:

There’s no hope, but I may be wrong.

In practical terms it means not giving up, despite the odds or the chorus of negativity in our ears.
It means keeping in your heart a flicker that we may actually be on the Olympic, not the Titanic.

Take peace in the Middle East, for example. No one says it will be easy, especially after this summer. But I would ask us to remember the events of a few decades ago:

On March 11, 1978, 11 Palestinian militants came ashore in Zodiac boats north of Tel Aviv and set about murdering as many Israelis as they could with guns and grenades. They hijacked a taxi and two buses; 38 were killed, including 13 children. The massacre was intended as a provocation; a disproportionate Israeli response was assumed. And three days later, Israel invaded southern Lebanon, which was then controlled by the Palestine Liberation Organization led by Yasir Arafat. “Those who killed Jews in our times cannot enjoy impunity,” the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin said. More than a thousand Palestinian civilians were killed; more than 100,000 were left homeless. The world, including President Jimmy Carter, was horrified. Following another invasion in 1982, Israel would occupy parts of southern Lebanon until May 2000. The similarity to recent events in Gaza is striking, of course. The Middle East never changes.
Except, very occasionally, when it does. A mere six months after the Lebanon incursion, Begin and the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, would negotiate peace between their countries, having been hounded into a very tentative dialogue by Carter during 13 days spent in isolation at Camp David. It was not a happy two weeks for the participants; Begin and Sadat could barely look at each other; no one sang “Kumbaya.” A great deal of what Carter and Sadat wanted to accomplish — a comprehensive plan to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands — had to be set aside. But a framework for peace between Egypt and Israel, the region’s principal adversaries, was beaten into shape during marathon sessions of what can only be called bare-knuckle diplomacy. Thirty-five years later, the peace between Israel and Egypt stands, sometimes unsteadily, as the most profound diplomatic achievement to emerge from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Honestly, who would have seen that coming on March 12, 1978?
In our personal lives too I recommend we keep moving despite the odds. Call it hoping with our feet.
We see such examples all around us if we look:
Cancer survivors. Holocaust survivors. Israeli terrorist survivors.
How do we hope with our feet? We feed the hungry, visit the sick, fight for worker justice. We defend Israel and work for a more just society in Israel and at home.

How can we hope with our feet? We can get up each morning and resolve to meet the day with faith that the good we do matters, even if we don’t always know how.

How do we hope with our feet? We continue to believe that most people are good, and that, in the words of Dr. King, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.

I began by speaking of World War I beginning one hundred years ago. On the eve of the war, British statesman Sir Edward Grey, observed, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”

Lamps and lights going out is a prophetic reference to the blackouts made necessary during nighttime bombing runs. Such blackouts were frequent and commonplace during the war years. But the words also reflect the loss of hope during war. These days, there are many battles in the world, and hope is once again in short supply. Even as our hearts go out to
those suffering in the Middle East and elsewhere, we also should remember to bring hope in the dark places nearby.

There will always be those who tell us not to bother with hope. At times our voices may join this grim chorus. “Nothing’s going right. I’ll never get this job. I will never fall in love again. I will never get out of this rut. I will never heal.”

But we need not be prisoners of such despair.

For hope is not passive. Hope is not standing on the sidelines. It’s also not wishful thinking. Hope is the courage to work for a better world.

Hope is to buy a ticket for the RMS Olympic, not the Titanic.

Hope is the comprehension that there is always so much within our power. And hope is about not giving up.

As the poet put it:

Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light,
Adorns and cheers our way;
And still, as darker grows the night,
Emits a brighter ray.
Oliver Goldsmith
British-Irish author (1730 – 1774)

Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope – cried the prophet. My prayer for all of us at this New Year is that, we too, will embrace the bonds of hope. We will look to the horizon and see the possible born from the impossible. We will look to each other for succor and strength. And we will stride with strong gait into a dark but waiting world. Amen.

Following The Call

I speak of two fine men and martyrs. And I speak of us.
U.S. citizen James Foley was doing his job as a journalist and photographer, documenting in words and pictures the suffering of people in the Syrian Civil War, when he was abducted by a Syrian militia group November 22, 2012. Eventually, he was put into the hands of the self-proclaimed jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who slew him on August 19, saying his slaying was in retaliation for U.S. air strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq.
Foley was a Roman Catholic Christian, and at a mass for him following his slaying, Bishop Peter Libasci made it clear that Foley’s job was not merely an income-producing activity, but was also his vocation, his calling from God. The bishop said that Foley was living his faith by filing images and reports of people suffering from war and oppressive regimes.
Foley’s kidnapping in Syria was not his first detention for pursuing his work; he’d been captured in Libya in 2011 and held for 44 days. But, said the bishop, Foley “went back again that we might open our eyes.”
The slain journalist’s parents, John and Diane Foley, explained on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that their son’s experience while an undergrad at Marquette University, a Catholic and Jesuit school, helped him choose his life’s course.
“Jimmy was challenged when he first met poverty and disadvantage at Marquette University,” John Foley said. “Since that moment his soul and heart grew and grew and grew to encompass all those people who needed help, needed their stories told. He began to love all and that was his biggest gift to the people he met. His love and his help.”
When one of the “Morning Joe” hosts suggested that the younger Foley grew to feel a responsibility to help others, John Foley responded, “He ran with it. He grew stronger and more committed.”
“He was home in October 2012 for his birthday,” Diane Foley said. “He looked so good. I said, ‘Jim, can’t you stay home through Christmas?’ He said, ‘Oh, Ma, I have to go back, but I will be home for Christmas.’ He had made promises. He was so committed to the people whose suffering he was trying to humanize. He wanted the world to know, to know how people were suffering, particularly the children.”

U. S. and Israeli Citizen Steven Joel Sotloff was the son of Arthur and Shirley Sotloff of Pinecrest, Florida. He was a grandson of Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Pinecrest, Florida, graduated from Kimball Union Academy, a private boarding school in Meriden, New Hampshire, and later attended the University of Central Florida from 2002 to 2004, where he majored in journalism but didn’t graduate. He studied at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. Sotloff was Jewish and previously worked for Temple Beth Am Day School in Florida.
Sotloff, became a freelance journalist, and was kidnapped in Syria in August 2013. Sotloff’s mother Shirley appealed on Aug. 27 in a videotaped message to Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for her son’s release. Addressing the leader of the Islamic State group by name, Shirley Sotloff said in a video her son was “an innocent journalist” who shouldn’t pay for U.S. government actions in the Middle East over which he has no control.
After his abduction in Syria about a year ago, his family had sought a news blackout, as has been done in the case of many other abducted journalists. The theory is that by putting the journalist in the international spotlight, the kidnappers will assume they’ve netted someone high-profile and can extort ever-higher sums for their captive’s release.
Before his capture, Sotloff at some point based himself in Yemen, having learned Arabic there, and traveled around the region with a Yemeni mobile number. His career took off during the Arab Spring, during which he published work in TIME, National Interest, Foreign Policy, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Long War Journal, to name a partial list from his Twitter account. He also freelanced for the Jerusalem Report and the Jerusalem Post.
“We refused to acknowledge any relationship with him in case it was dangerous for him,” said Avi Hoffman, editor of the Jerusalem Report magazine, which had published Sotloff’s pieces.
The 31-year-old had been drawn to reporting from the world’s conflict zones because he was unable to “turn his back on the suffering pervading the world,” a family spokesman said, after Sotloff’s father briefly appeared holding a photo of his son, declining to speak to media.

This is tough stuff but we cannot afford to ignore it. Tonight, however, I don’t want to speak about the American response. I want to speak about Jim and Steve. I want to ponder with you how two men – not soldiers – would put themselves in harms way. What were they thinking?

I believe they were doing their jobs in order for the world to open their eyes. I believe they were soldiers, sans uniforms. I believe they were heroes.
A question:
When has a news report or photos of some situation far from where you live “opened your eyes”? Did you hear any kind of calling in that? Once your eyes were “opened,” what form did your response take?
In other words, have we felt called, compelled to do our job, despite the risks? And like Jim and Steve, did we comply? Did we accept the burden?
I think of the prophet Amos (7:14-15) who said, I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”
Amos lived in the eighth century B.C., when the Hebrew people were divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom, Judah, had its capital at Jerusalem. The northern kingdom, Israel, had its capital at Bethel. Unfortunately, some unholy things were going on in Israel, and God needed someone to point out the people’s sins and call them to repentance.
Thus God called Amos, who lived in the southern kingdom. While devout, Amos was not a religious professional. He was a herdsman and farmer. But when God called him, Amos traveled to Bethel and delivered God’s message. There, Amaziah, the chief priest of Bethel, confronted Amos, pointing out that he was a foreigner and telling him to go home and prophesy there.
Amos responded with the words quoted above. To put it in a contemporary setting, Amos was saying, “Look, I’m not preaching here because I’ve got a yen to be a minister. I’m a layperson, a farmer, but God has called me to speak to this situation, and I have to obey him.”
Questions:
To what degree does a sense of compulsion help us identify a call as being from God? In what way or ways might Jim’s and Steve’s compulsion be said to have been driven? In what ways might we discern that it was from God?
Did the fact that Amos considered his true vocation to be agricultural take away from or give more authenticity to his prophetic ministry? Amos seemed to be saying, “I’ve got a real life.”
How are spiritual gifts related to one’s vocation and calling?
From my favorite author, Scott Peck: “… vocation implies a relationship. For if someone is called, something must be doing the calling. I believe this something is God. God calls us human beings — whether skeptics or believers, whether…[religious] or not — to certain, often very specific activities. Furthermore, since God relates with us as individuals, this matter of calling is utterly individualized. What God calls me to do is not at all necessarily what God is calling you to do.” (From The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, p. 152.)
And this, from the diary of Dag Hammarskjold, a former secretary-general of the United Nations, who found his work for peace in troubled places often exhausting:
On the path of others
Are resting places,
Places in the sun
Where they can meet.
But this
Is your path
And it is now,
Now that you must not fail.
Weep
If you can,
Weep
But do not complain.
The way chose you —
And you must be thankful.
          (from Markings, July 6, 1961)
Final question: what is our sacred calling and are we prepare to respond?
Jim and Steve died, doing their jobs.
What are our jobs? What is our calling?
And are we prepared to follow this work as far as we can?

So Many Ways to Give

Facebook has become saturated with videos of people dumping buckets of ice on their heads.

They’re taking the #icebucketchallenge, a viral phenomenon whose ostensible purpose is to raise money for charity. The challenge is simple: Either donate $100 to a given cause, or douse yourself with ice, film it, and pass the challenge on to others via social media.

The long list of participants so far includes Matt Lauer, Martha Stewart, numerous politicians, pro athletes, and several members of the Kennedy clan. President Obama could be next.

As the trend has caught on, it has become linked with efforts to raise money for research on the neurodegenerative disorder ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

This all came from a dare that was circulating among a group of pro athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath. Those who declined the ice bath were compelled to give $100 to charity of the challenger’s choice.
Anything that safely raises awareness is a good thing, of course.
And there is nothing wrong with such works bringing us joy.

One of the surprising things we learn when we study Torah is the central focus our religion puts on happiness. As Rebbe Nachman once put it, people are sad because nothing is going right for them — but what they don’t realize is that nothing is going right for them because they’re sad! For you shall go out in joy (Isaiah 55:12), the Kotzker Rebbe explains. The beauty of joy is that it has the power to extricate folks from all troubles.

– David Sacks, executive producer and writer of the TV show Third Rock from the Sun, The Holiness of Humor, Farbrengen.

This week’s Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar:
Three times a year – on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Pesah), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) – all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you.
The Torah presents a fascinating three-fold series of descriptions of our offerings: 1) we are to appear not empty handed; 2) we are to give according to one’s own gift; 3) our gift is to be according to God’s blessing.

What do these three qualifications tell us about our place in society, the place for our personality and distinctiveness in God’s world?
On the surface, these three statements are parallel, reiterating that we are to give in joy, and to give within our means. As the medieval sage, Sa’adia Gaon reminds us, they teach a person to offer, “what his hand can afford, according to that which God has bestowed upon you.”
Similarly, the Talmud insists on limiting our charitable contributions: “If one wishes to spend generously, one should not spend more than one-fifth of one’s income.” The p’shat of the Torah, most traditional sources agree, intends to regulate our voluntary religious gifts, so that they are joyously given, and given within our financial capacities. Rabbi Brad Artson puts it well:  This insight is no small advance. Imagine how differently we might celebrate b’nai mitzvah, wedding parties, and Jewish communal celebrations with these stipulations in mind!

And yet, perhaps these three guidelines are meant not only as synonymous phrases, but as three plateaus, each adding a layer of meaning to extend and complement its partners.

During our joyous celebrations, we must not come empty handed. To celebrate in God’s presence one must not focus only on taking, not only on our own personal joy. To celebrate in the fullest sense is to harness our private triumphs to contribute to the repair of God’s world. Whether that means using a party to feed the hungry, or to link a personal milestone to some communal cause, we transform moments of self-congratulations into occasions to heal wounds and to right wrongs (and to show true gratitude) when we connect our simchas to tzedakah, our parties to justice.

As Moses Maimonides taught:
When a person eats and drinks [as part of celebrating a holiday], they are obligated to feed “the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 16:11).
But someone who locks the doors of their house, eating and drinking with their children and spouse [alone], and doesn’t provide food or drink to the poor and depressed, is not participating in the joy of [God’s] commandments but rather the joy of the gut, and about them it says, “their sacrifices are like bread for the dead; all who eat of them will become impure, for their bread is for themselves” (Hosea 9:4) Joy like this is disgrace for them, as it says, “I will strew dung upon your faces, the dung of your festal sacrifices”(Malachi 2:3).
The second biblical qualification is that the offering we bring must be “according to one’s own gift.” That is to say that no two people may bring precisely the same thing. Each must bring an offering reflective of one’s own special talents and passions, something that illumines our own uniqueness. That gift should be, in the words of the Talmud (Gittin 59a), “in accordance with one’s own acumen.”

 

In the corporate world these days we they speak of “strength based management.” In other words, people are not hired so they can strengthen their weaknesses but rather so they can play their strengths. Our task is to discover our gifts and then share them with the world. This is quite different than expecting the same from everyone.
Some will put ice on their heads. Others will give money. Both are acceptable. Although the ALS research probably could use more cash and less ice.
The third qualification is that the offering be “according to God’s blessing.” Here one can see the Torah as recognizing that human individuality is a reflection of divine love and bounty.

God’s greatness is reflected not in some numbing conformity, but precisely in the stunning diversity of human character, interest, and talent. As the Mishnah affirms, a single person [Adam] was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessing One for when people stamp many coins from the same seal, the coins are all alike. But the Holy Blessed One has stamped every human with the seal of the first person, but no two descendants are alike. Therefore everyone is required to say, ‘the world was created for my sake.’
Christina Hoff Sommers of Clark University tells of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by a creative writing professor at Pasadena City College. One of the professor’s favorite techniques in teaching is to use Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery with college students. 

It is a tale of a small farming community that seems normal in every way; its people are hard-working and friendly. As the plot progresses, however, the reader learns this village carries out an annual lottery in which the loser is stoned to death.

It is a shocking lesson about primitive rituals in a modern American setting. In the past, students had always understood The Lottery as a warning about the dangers of mindless conformity, but now they merely think that it is Neat! or Cool! Today, not one of the teacher’s current students will go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice. 
-Are We Living in a Moral Stone Age? Vital Speeches, LXIV, May 15, 1998, 475-478.

Knowing that God wants us to be who we are – unique, special, and distinctive – can provide a desperately needed tool for fighting social conformity and thoughtless habit. We dare not appear before God empty handed, but what we bring must reflect our unique gifts and personalities if it is to reflect God’s blessings, and to bless, in turn, the lives of others.

Is It Ever Okay to Lie?

liar

According to a recent survey, we bend the truth an average of 1.65 times a day.

Another report states that those of us who are morning people lie more than night people. My wife really ribbed me for that one. Maybe you saw the GEICO commercial in which the honesty of Abraham Lincoln was sorely tested. Mary Todd Lincoln stands in front of him and asks, “Does this dress make my backside look big?”

After an awkward pause, Honest Abe answers truthfully. His wife walks off in a huff. 

Of course, most day-to-day lies do not rise to the level of the whopper told by a postal carrier named Cathy Wrench Cashwell. According to The Atlantic magazine (September 2013), she appeared on the show The Price Is Right, raised her arms, grabbed the wheel and gave it a spin.

So what was the problem with that? Five years earlier, she had filed for workers’ compensation, claiming that she had been injured on the job. She said that her injury left her unable to stand, reach and grasp as part of her job — skills which she demonstrated quite well on The Price Is Right.

The tape of the game show caught her in her lie, as did the pictures she posted on Facebook showing her riding a zip line on a Carnival cruise. Indicted in federal court for worker’s-compensation fraud, she pleaded guilty. 

Clearly, people lie. We may not tell big lies that land us in federal court. But we’re not as truthful as Honest Abe in the Geico commercial either.   The ancient rabbis understood that sometimes lying is okay, if it is done for the right reason. According to the House of Hillel, the dancers should chant the same words in front of all brides: “What a beautiful and graceful bride!” Their opponents, the House of Shammai, disagree. “If she is lame or blind, are you going to say of her, ‘What a beautiful and graceful bride?’ Does not the Torah command, ‘Stay far away from falsehood’ (Exodus 23:7)?” They thus oppose reciting a standard formula; rather, each bride should be described “as she is” (see Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 17a). Hillel’s position is accepted as Jewish law. One praises the beauty of all brides and, in any case, the bride is likely to appear beautiful in the eyes of her groom.

 So, too, the rabbis accept the fact that Joseph’s brothers lied to him to maintain family harmony, after their father died.   Lying itself is not the issue. Whether we do so to help ourselves or help others is the deciding factor. And, of course, whether or not we are objective enough to know the difference.   So the next time (sometime today) you are tempted to lie, ask yourself why and see if this lie reflects your values or your weaknesses. Then you will know, most likely, what you should do.