Search This Blog

Friday, December 21, 2012

GOD WRITES TO JAMES DOBSON

Dear Dr. Dobson:

I briefly interrupted my grieving over the deaths of the children and teachers murdered in Newtown, Connecticut to consider your recent comments concerning the massacre. This is part of what you said on your international radio program:

“Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I'm not talking politically, I'm not talking about the result of the November sixth election. I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God. I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn't exist, or he's irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too. And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God almighty, and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that's what's going on. We’re seeing things happen that didn’t happen just a few years ago, and there’s a reason for it. Something has gone wrong in this country.”

I created those innocents who were murdered by Adam Lanza. I created Adam Lanza. I mourn deeply that My defenseless creations could be mercilessly destroyed by another of My creations whose brain went utterly out of control, as his soul plunged into pure evil. I also created you, and like every other human being, I gave you moral and behavioral freedom. You claim that in Newtown I wreaked judgment upon America. Please stop speaking in My name and engaging in dangerous perversions of faith.

We are not going to argue about abortion and gay marriage right now, but you dare not forget that the people whose lives you condemn are made in My image no less than you are. Enough said. Let me instead argue against your dark insinuation that I would use a mass murderer as an instrument of judgment, punishment and warning to Americans. This assertion ultimately robs humans of moral freedom and responsibility by asserting that our most horrible behaviors are really just a part of My great plan for sinful humanity. Further, it’s true that Western religion developed early on the belief that I punish communities and individuals for their sins through nature and human violence. However, early in the Bible, Abraham took Me to task for even contemplating destroying the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah without first sparing the innocent people living there. He challenged Me, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justly?” The ideas and values of communities of faith developed along with their sacred texts. The prophet Ezekiel repudiated an earlier belief that children will die for the sins of their parents. The book of Job utterly rejected the earlier biblical idea that if good people suffer evil, they are being punished by Me for their hidden sins. People’s perspectives about Me have developed and grown. Why haven’t yours?

I’ll assume that your beliefs about Me are sincere and that you are genuinely concerned for the health of America’s children, as you explained on your show. However, have you not forgotten other teachings of Mine that should be of equal or greater concern to you? What about your obligation as a person of faith to help those who suffer, or at least not to make them suffer more because of your words? What about the book of Psalms’ warning that you guard your tongue from speaking evil? What about your sacred obligation to support those who mourn? Some people take perverse comfort from your words because, as obscene as they are, they offer simple explanations and solutions for the most baffling tragedies: evil would no longer plague humanity if everyone just returned to basic biblical principles and averted My wrath. Trust Me, as a God of mystery, I assure you that with respect to human evil, even I am often mystified.

There are those who dismiss you as a bigoted crackpot who should be ignored. However, you are much more than that: you are a high profile psychologist and powerful evangelical leader whose daily Family Talk radio show is estimated to reach two hundred million listeners worldwide. Use your unprecedented influence to foster inclusive national dialogue about what ails America and to teach the best values of religion without distorting My image. Otherwise, My name and the memories of those who died will have been desecrated.

FOR THE MIRACLES

Dvar Tefillah For Shabbat Mikketz/Hanukkah 5773.

The American philosopher, George Santayana, is famous for his dire warning that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. However, Santayana who was a confirmed atheist, also had much to say about religion and the true nature of the world. One of his statements that is most interesting to me, if not particularly deep, is this one about miracles: “Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.” What I find so strange about this statement is Santayana’s extraordinarily narrow definition of a miracle as something that is assumed to be outside of the natural order, thus setting up a philosophical strawman which can be easily knocked down. Since science has proven to us the ironclad laws of nature, it is a scientific fact that the laws of nature cannot be altered. Anything amazing that you and I call a miracle in the religious sense is nothing more than a lucky, blessed accident that is based in nature as well, even if you and I don’t understand it. To argue anything else is to brand oneself an ignoramus who replaces science with silly superstition.

Can the miraculous be defined in only one way? What about all of those phenomena within the natural world that imbue us with a sense of wonder and awe precisely because they are too complicated and mysterious to be understood? What about the things that human beings do as a natural part of being human that nevertheless are so extraordinary they overwhelm us with a sense of their miraculous power? A holiday like Hanukkah pushes the envelope of our definitions of miracles precisely by refusing to make them either/or propositions about reality and faith.

An excellent example of this is the prayer, Al Hanissim, which thanks God for the miracle of saving us from King Antiochus and his Syrian-Greek army many thousands of years ago. My translation, which is taken from the new Siddur Sim Shalom, is somewhat more literal than that of the Siddur’s editors:

We thank You for the miracles, for the deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs that You performed for our ancestors from ancient days at this time of the year.

In the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan, the heroic Hasmonean Kohen, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel, demanding that they abandon Your Torah and violate Your mitzvot. You, in Your great mercy, stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, vindicated them, and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent. You delivered the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Your Torah. You have revealed Your glory and Your holiness to all the world, achieving great victories and miraculous deliverance for Your people Israel to this day. Then Your children came into Your shrine, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your sanctuary, and kindled lights in Your sacred courts. They set aside these eight days as a season for giving thanks and chanting praises to You.


Since every text has a context, we should note that Al HaNissim is placed in the Amidah prayer immediately following Modim, the prayer that expresses gratitude to God for the daily miracles of being alive. Two early rabbinic sources are clear that this is where Al HaNissim must be placed; in fact, the Hebrew phrase Al HaNissim, which means literally, “For the miracles,” is a direct echo of the phrase in Modim that praises God for daily miracles, “Al nisekha she-b’khol yom imanu.” This placement and repetition of phrases hints at a connection between our ancestors’ victory over Greek oppression and the common nature of the miraculous: their ability to vanquish the evil king Antiochus was a miracle, but it was not something that happened outside of the normal course of nature and the world.

This idea is played out in two other ways in the prayer. It makes clear that it was God who stood up for the Jewish people and defeated our enemies who sought to destroy us. However, as we know from ancient history, the way that God did this was through the determination of the Maccabees and the people, who steadfastly refused to allow the Greek armies and government to trample our rights to live freely and securely as Jews. The miraculous salvation may have been entirely God’s doing, but none of it would have happened without the thoroughly human resistance to oppression. Finally, what about the story of Hanukkah did you notice is missing from this synoptic account of the Hasmonean revolt? The Talmud’s account of the miraculous way in which the little jug of oil burned for eight days, a miracle quite outside of nature and frankly pretty unbelievable, is nowhere to be found in this prayer. This is the case despite the fact that Al HaNissim was likely composed around the same time that the early Tannaim, the sages of the Mishnaic period, were teaching that story about the jug of oil burning brightly for eight days.

Al HaNissim is a more subtle and sophisticated response to Santayana’s rather dismissive critique of the religious perspective on miracles. It does not ask the believer to park his or her intellectual and spiritual honesty at the door. It is a prayerful expression of what the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev refers to as nissim she-b’tokh ha-teva: God’s great miracles that happen precisely within the context of nature and normal, profane human affairs. They are not miraculous because God mysteriously undoes the regular order of the universe to right wrongs and change tragedy to triumph. They are miraculous because you and I find the mysterious power of divine love and justice within that order and use it in our struggle to bring light to a darkened world.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

ALL’S “WELL” THAT ENDS “WELL.”

Dvar Torah For Parshat Toledot 5773.

When is retreating from conflict weakness and when is it wisdom? When should one fight and when should one flee? The three stories of Isaac’s retreat from the wells that he had dug in the face of opposition from his Philistine neighbors hold more than one answer to these questions. Let’s review what we read in the Torah portion this morning. Isaac echoes his father, Abraham by claiming that Rebecca is his sister in order to avoid harassment or being killed by the locals when he journeys into the territory of Avimelekh, the Philistine king of the city of Gerar. This morally problematic tale of our ancestor forfeiting his wife’s physical and emotional integrity is nonetheless an accurate description of how nomadic heads of household may well have survived the salacious advances of the populations in which they were guests during ancient times. Likely the story is meant to describe Isaac’s actions, not praise them, as we can see from Avimelekh’s far more ethical outrage at Isaac’s deceptiveness.

The Torah then tells us that, having settled in or near Gerar, Isaac reaps one hundred times the amount of produce that he had planted, and during a famine no less. He grows so great in livestock and agriculture that he incurs the jealous wrath of the Philistines, who stop up the wells that had belonged to his father and that had become Isaac’s possession. Avimelekh warns him to leave the area because he has grown too much, thus compromising the king’s ability to protect him, according to some commentators. Twice, Isaac’s servants dig new wells, only to have their ownership belligerently contested by the local shepherds. These wells are named by him Esek and Sitnah, “Conflict” and “Hatred.” Only on the third try, after moving out of Gerar altogether, is Isaac able to dig wells without incurring hostility, so he names those wells Rehovot, “Wide Spaces.” Avimelekh and his dignitaries then visit Isaac in his new home and conclude a pact of peace with him, for they realize that God has blessed him. He is a man of power. At the very day this happens, Isaac’s servants inform him that Abraham’s wells which Isaac had attempted to re-open are full of water.

On the surface, we can read this story of Isaac’s retreat from his rightful property in two ways: either as an example of strategic retreat by a smart man who knows that he lacks the power to overcome his opponents who are stealing from him; or as an example of a cowardly man who easily relinquishes whatever is valuable to him –his wife, his property- to save his own neck. Let me suggest a more subtle, contextual reading. The Torah makes very clear that Isaac is a good guest of, and later, a treaty partner with Avimelekh. He is also blessed BY God, so that he becomes insanely wealthy and well fed in the midst of a famine. Isaac at times may be strategic and at other times he may be a coward, but this time he is a man who loves peace and courageously pursues it. He knows full well that, though it is no fault of his own, Avimelekh’s people are hungry, restive and hostile. He has nothing to prove to himself about his power, and he certainly has no reason to hurt his friend and patron the king. So, Isaac engages in a real act of courage: he backs off for the sake of not rubbing his good fortune in the faces of those who are suffering, with whom he is a neighbor. Note however that his willingness to compromise is only so elastic. God has already told him that he may not leave the land in order to sojourn in Egypt. Isaac may be ready to give his neighbors physical and emotional breathing room by contracting his own presence among them. However, he is not prepared to let them drive him out altogether. He recognizes that good fences may make good neighbors, but only when one person’s fence doesn’t become his neighbor’s graveyard.

It is not easy to be Isaac. One needs to know how to retreat for the sake of peace with others, but to do so in a way that leaves one’s integrity and security intact. This requires a careful balance of ego and self-respect with humility and greater vision: a vision of peace and community that transcends one’s immediate needs, hurt pride, or fear. It is not easy to be Isaac, whether we are talking about a family member, an employee working with others, a neighbor, a citizen, a leader in a badly divided congress, or a sovereign state of Israel that is trying to defend herself from the attacks of people whose territory she left years ago. Nonetheless, Isaac is the role model we need to emulate at every level of relationship. Thus we will truly be able to insure that all’s well that ends well.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

THE END.

Dvar Torah For Kohelet/Shabbat Hol Hamoed 5773.

“And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love that you make.”

Paul McCartney and the Beatles ended their iconic White Album with this seemingly irrelevant couplet of poetry that was part of a song called, appropriately, The End. What fascinates me is how memorable these two lines have become in the history of music and musical lyrics, as if their words were somehow the most important wisdom ever taught to humankind. Apart from their catchy tune, the Fab-4’s cute little harmony, and the one-finger piano work that backs them up, the words of this little poem actually pack a whole cosmos of ideas into very little verbal space.
Think about it. In sixteen words, we are taught that in the final analysis, the wisdom to end all wisdom is this: the quantity of love you, or I, or the world receives is directly related to the quantity that we give. Underlying such a grand idea is the even grander idea that all love and hate, peace and war exist in an almost karmic balance of cause and effect that is the result of free human initiative. You and I are at liberty to put out however much love we choose, and it is a firm universal law that we will get back what we gave in equal measure. The Beatles are perhaps unconsciously echoing here the classic Talmudic concept of middah k’neged middah, measure for measure.

These are great and powerful ideas, but their truth value is limited. The truth is that there are people who take plenty of love and a whole lot more from plenty of other people, yet who give very little love back; and there are lots of people in the world who give lovingly and unstintingly of themselves, yet who still get abused, neglected, or exploited by others. Love does not work its way magically into everyone’s heart, and relationships are often the settings for terrible heartbreak when the person who loves is repaid with selfishness and dismissiveness. Love is a fickle fellow, whether in the realm of romance, friendship, or life in community. It often needs to be balanced by other human endeavors and qualities to insure that in its absence people don’t get hurt. The end of the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that we are about to chant offers us its own final-analysis wisdom about how to achieve this balance. Look with me briefly at the very last verse of chapter 12, on page 78 of your Megillah books. There we read:
The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: revere God and keep His commandments. For this applies to all mankind.

This verse, which you can see repeats verse 13, ends this biblical book that for a full twelve chapters counsels the reader that all human endeavor is vanity and worthless striving, and that there is ultimately no difference between humans and beasts. In the end we all will go to the same place: our deaths. Some Bible scholars assert that this verse was placed at the end of the book as a kind of pious conceit. The author or editor of the book knew that his ideas were threatening to his audience, so he pitched the book as a story about a man named Kohelet whose ideas were depressing and cynical. At the end of the book, the narrator comes back to tell us: “Whatever Kohelet said about life, in the end what really matters is for you to be a good person who does what God wants.” In this way, the author is able to distance himself from the same ideas he is trying to teach by placing them in Kohelet’s mouth and allowing the narrator to end the book on a note of simple, traditional faith.

Let me suggest that this ending of Kohelet can be understood in another way, as more than an appeal to simple piety. Having considered all of Kohelet’s tortured ruminations about the purposelessness and injustice of life, the narrator sits back and tells us the following: in the end, all of Kohelet’s ruminating might be very enlightening, but taken to excess it is paralyzing. Yes, life often is meaningless and cruel, yes, we humans are no different in some respects from all other animals with whom we share mortality. However, dwelling on these truths for too long doesn’t bring us any resolution, it just causes us to waste time that we could be using to make the best we can of the lives that we have. Moreover, while it sure would be nice for everyone to just love one another in the manner suggested by the Beatles, this is not going to happen because love is a fickle emotion that does not always translate into good behavior. In those moments when love is absent, fear God by doing what God wants and needs us to do to be menschen, decent human beings. In those moments when you don’t feel loving or loved, you still have to treat yourself and others properly because that is what it means to be created in God’s image.

This truth applies to all mankind.

BREATHING BALLOONS, BECOMING AND BEING.

Dvar Torah For Parshat Breishit, 5773.

Balloons are one of the most fun and instructive of educational tools that I like to use. To elucidate one important teaching from the Torah this morning, permit me to blow up this balloon…. Obviously, were I to tie the end of this balloon, you and I could bounce it around and marvel at its lightness and liveliness until it ran out of air. With Helium inside, our lowly balloon could soar into the air effortlessly. Now, watch as I let go of the opening…. Obviously, balloons deflate when their air or Helium is let out, and they return to being mere pieces of cheap synthetic rubber or plastic.

Now, let’s take our balloon analogy one step further. I invite you, if you would like, to close your eyes for just one moment…For the briefest moment, pay attention to your breathing, the simplest, most miraculous thing that healthy human beings do reflexively every few seconds…Inhale and feel your lungs inflating, filling with air….Exhale and feel your lungs deflating, being emptied of air…At their simplest physiological levels, we and our lungs appear to be no different from balloons… But that is where the comparison ends…The air that we breathe is energy that feeds every last atom of our intricate, miraculous bodies and minds…The carbon dioxide that we exhale is the end result of processes too complex and too numerous to even try to describe…Best of all, we don’t deflate into lifeless, cheap balloons…For the duration of our lives, we continue to breathe, to live…Our breath is energy, divine in origin, human in execution…Our breath is the breath of God.

This idea that our breath is a miraculous wonder whose source is God’s breath is found in the second version of the story of the creation of human beings, which we read in our Torah portion. According to the Torah, (Genesis 2:7), “The Lord, God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing.” In crass, popular consciousness, this verse may evoke scenes of rabbis creating Golems or scientists creating Frankenstein beings, but in classic religious writings it is a touchstone for talking about the miracle of life and the uniqueness of human consciousness. The Targumim, the two ancient Aramaic translations of the Torah, interpret the words, “living thing” to refer to humankind’s unique ability to speak; Rashi explains this verse to mean that God created human beings with physical characteristics from the earth and with divine characteristics, particularly the ability to think; Nachmanides waxes eloquent and at length about the utter uniqueness of humankind in having been brought to life directly through the efforts of God, who directly breathed divine breath or life force into that first human. Later commentators on specific early morning prayers that emphasize the miracle of the body and the soul, allude to this verse when they write at length about the amazing nature of our bodies that manage to hold our spiritual essence –represented by God’s breath – inside of us through the duration of our lives; several commentators explore the complex, dual nature of humankind in that we share overt characteristics with all other animals here below on earth, while we are also heleq Eloah mi-maal: an enduring part of God above.

It is not clear if the traditional commentators on this verse of the Torah believed that God literally breathed enlivening energy into us at the beginning of time, and that each of our breaths is literally God’s breath flowing in and out of us. What is clear to me is that one need not take this verse’s claim literally at all in order to take it very seriously. This one verse and its interpreters represent the Bible’s and Judaism’s worldview and values at their best. They teach us that to be human is to be a daily miracle: we live and breath, actions that are so reflexive we do not need to think about them at all; yet not to think about them at all also puts us in the dangerous position of forgetting how miraculous being alive really is, and how critical preserving and respecting life truly is. This verse and its commentators also reflect brilliantly upon how complicated it is to be human. We are animals, not angels: we have animal needs, animal impulses, we live and die like all other animals. Yet, we are so much more than animals: we use speech, a trait that according to many anthropologists is the most important thing distinguishing us from all other species, and that has allowed to evolve in the way that we did; we possess consciousness and the capacity for moral choice that present us with challenges and glories no other animal could contemplate; we come as close to being divine as we can without actually being God;. Finally, this verse and its commentators constantly warn us that, no matter how special the human species is, we are not the center of the world, for we are not the Creators of ourselves, God is. In his comment on how God formed the first person from the earth, Rashi quotes an ancient teaching that God took earth from every part of Planet Earth because it is the medium in which we are buried after we die; but earth was also the material used to build the holy altar of the Jerusalem Temple, upon which offerings would be made to ask God’s forgiveness for human sin. Rashi is saying here that we human beings come from and return to the greatest symbol of our mortality and our humility. We will not live forever, and hopefully we learn over time that we are not the center of the universe, only the God of eternal life is.

This mortal life of ours at times looks, feels and maybe even is as fragile as the filling up and deflation of a balloon. That is worth our humble consideration when we lose perspective and allow the all-too-human capacity for arrogance to dominate us. However, this wonderful life of ours is also a precious creation of God whose own spirit resides in us, animates us, and propels us forward to do the incredible things that humans do best. Yes, we share much with all other species, but we are also profoundly different, in the most miraculous ways, from our most complex thoughts and actions, to our simplest breaths. This is why Jewish tradition teaches us to awaken each morning with simcha atzuma, literally “gigantic joy”, and express our deepest gratitude for simply being alive at that very moment. It is why we celebrate the birth and naming of baby or the wedding of two people who love one another: they are opportunities for us to stop rushing through this miraculous life relentlessly, so that we can look at and add to the rich tapestry of experience love that all began with that first breath of God which awakened our ancestors and began this great narrative we call being human.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

HEAVENLY AND EARTHLY JERUSALEM

Dvar Torah For Parshat Ki Tavo/Shabbat of Selichot 5772.

There is something about dreaming that helps me to see the truth in ways I can’t see when I’m awake. Take the dream I had the other night. I woke up at about 4 AM after trying several hours before to write this sermon. I sat in somewhat of a stupor, not having slept sufficiently, and looked over some of the commentaries to this week’s Torah portion. At about 4:50 my body told me, “Dan, this is ridiculous, go back to sleep, even if only for an hour before you get up again to go to morning services.”

I did just that, and I had one of those dreams you have just before sunrise, that possess deep clarity and allow you to awaken feeling a bit wiser and more refreshed, even as they convey a world of conflated fantasy and real-life images. In the dream, I am riding down two main streets in Jerusalem on a rainy day just before the holiday of Purim, when everyone is out selling masks and costumes and the whole world feels like a masquerade ball. I feel like I have felt when encountering this scene in real life: a sense of bursting emotion and pride that the Jewish state is a place where we Jews can just live as naturally and openly as we wish. Suddenly the dream scene changes, and I am on a hill overlooking the old city with the Dome of The Rock prominently showing in the foreground, along with the Western Wall. The scene is clearly part of a dream sequence because next to the Temple Mount where these sites are, stands an elaborate palace that does not exists in the real Jerusalem. It shimmers with a deep maroon color, even on that cloudy, rainy day. Next to me stands an older man and a teenage boy. I am overcome with emotion…then the dream ends.

Psychology teaches that dreams allow us to confront fantasies and unresolved issues pushed down into our subconscious minds. They generally weave together emotional responses to real life experiences using images that are not real in the objective sense, but whose symbolism touches upon very real things with which we struggle. Thinking back over the last two weeks, I realize that my dream may well have been my mind’s way of dealing with a few things, obviously having to do with Jerusalem and Israel, that I have been too busy, or too afraid, to deal with. First, about two weeks ago, a woman by the name of Penina Ha-Levy died at the age of 92. She and her husband, Avraham (whom everyone referred to simply as Halevy) were my kibbutz parents when I spent the summer on their kibbutz, Hatzor-Ashdod, in the summer of 1979. They both have had a tremendous impact on me well into these, my middle years. I realize that I have been grieving their deaths, and I’ve also been feeling some guilt at not having kept in touch with them over the years. Around the same time as Penina passed away, I read the news reports about the group of young Israeli teens who attacked and severely beat four Palestinians in downtown Jerusalem while a crowd of people looked on and did nothing. Some Jewish leaders explained that this vicious, racist act was an anomaly in a generally democratic, peaceful Israeli society; others warned that it was a sign of the growing tolerance for racism and extremism in Israel. Finally, the night of my dream, earlier in the evening, I was privileged to attend a Sheva Brakhot for a young couple in the community who had just been married. Sheva Brakhot, which means in Hebrew, “seven blessings” is a week-long party after a Jewish wedding, in which the couple is hosted for a daily or nightly meal, at which the traditional seven blessings of the wedding ceremony are chanted after Birkat Ha Mazon, grace after meals. At the meal for the young couple, I was honored to publicly chant the fourth blessing, whose words are the following:

Bring great happiness and joy to mother Zion who was barren, as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You Lord, Who gladdens Zion through her children.

The blessing places the joy we feel at the creation of a new Jewish family in the context of the rebuilding of Zion, one of the symbolic names for Jerusalem, Israel and the Jewish people. Youngest to oldest, we are Zion’s children.

Reflecting upon these experiences I had and the images in my vivid dream, I have concluded that deep down I am struggling with what traditional sources call the conflict between the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem is the one of our fantasies, in which everything is beautiful and emotionally sustaining, and the city is a place that shines with the light of the messianic age, full of peace and joy. The earthly Jerusalem is beautiful too, but like all cities in all real societies in the world, even democratic ones, it is less-than-perfect, it is at times the site of human ugliness and violence, and its light is often mixed with darkness. Penina and Avraham Halevy understood this better than anyone. Their families immigrated to America, where they both became passionate left wing, secular Zionists, then made aliyah before the founding of the State of Israel, even as their extended family was being murdered by the Nazis. The Halevys raised at least three generations of their family on their kibbutz. As they and their descendants fought physically and politically for the survival of the State of Israel, they also taught their family and others about the supreme importance of keeping Israel democratic, and actively pursuing peace with the Palestinians well before it was fashionable for anyone to even mention such things. They taught me to love Israel, yet more important to love the Jewish people in all of its complexity. Most of all, they taught me that a State of Israel that mistreats its weakest members may feel strong in the short run, but will become weak in the future, because it is not being true to its best Jewish and democratic values. Remember that these were people who lived and died as Israeli citizens and soldiers, who built the Jewish state with their own hands. They were part of an almost deceased generations of halutzim, pioneers, who pursued the dream of heavenly Jerusalem, who slogged through the dark waters of earthly Jerusalem, who spilled their own blood so that you and I could have a Jerusalem to visit, and who would have been appalled by the bloodshed perpetrated upon innocent people by their fellow Jews in the city of Jerusalem. In their own very secular way, the Halevys understood better than any of us what that blessing of Sheva Brakhot means when it talks about Zion’s children returning to her in joy. They just weren’t willing to accept the either/or notion that our Jewish people’s joy at returning to Zion has to preclude the joy of others who are living there alongside us, and vice versa, something that plenty of Palestinians still don’t get as well.

This summer, responding to people in our community on the left and the right who have asked me to speak out more on Israeli politics, I started writing a long essay about my views. After two weeks, I realized I was writing a boring, cagey, defensive manifesto that no one would read, even though it would still make everyone angry. I stopped writing it, thankfully, and I now see that this sermon is what I was intended to write instead. I am not the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, and I do not have a PhD. in Israeli and Middle East Affairs. I would never, never presume that even my best insights about how Israel ought to deal with Iran, the Palestinians, or its own democracy and religious life are definitive truth. I do not pay Israeli taxes, I do not serve in the Israeli army, and my family is safely ensconced in Albany, NY. What some might assume is my cowardice or political cageyness in not expressing my political views is actually more a matter of humility on my part, at least I would like to believe that. I am not an AIPAC rabbi or a JSTREET rabbi, I am just one rabbi, one Jew living in America, but deeply connected emotionally and morally to the state of Israel and the Jewish people. I am tired of the political correctness police telling me that Israel is an apartheid state. That is like telling me that because America still struggles with its racist past, ipso facto, America must be an apartheid state as well. I do not see any of those same people who are so smug about demonizing Israel leaving America because it still deals inadequately with racism. I do not see them divesting themselves of their iphones or laptops, even though China, the world’s biggest producer of these items, is also the world’s biggest human rights violator. At the same time, precisely because I am a student of the Torah and of people like the Halevys, I get worried when I witness the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem diverging. But forget about my worries, for in the end they lack a certain credibility since I am not an Israeli. Think about what Penina and Avraham – two people who not only dreamed but lived and loved the real Jewish state – would have worried about. Think about what they would have told us we need to do to support Israel physically, while also helping Israel democratically, Jewishly and spiritually. Would their emphasis on security and using military might to protect the Jewish people have made them right wingers? No. Would their emphasis on peace and justice for all of Israel’s citizens have made them left wingers? No. It would have made them, it did make them, Jews and Zionists in the best senses of those words.

I grieve the loss of my friends and mentors, the Halevys. I continue to dream and try to make reality the things they taught me. I rejoice at the rebuilding of Zion each time a Jewish couple marries, each time anyone goes to Israel and comes back transformed. I pray that Israel continue on its path of being a strong, Jewish and democratic state. I am hopeful that these dreams of mine will continue to become reality. I make a commitment in this coming new year to doing my part to make those dreams come true.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

YOU, GOD, WHO LIVE NEXT DOOR...

Dvar Torah For Parshat Va-Etchanan, 5772.

Listen to this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, the 19th century Austrian-Czech writer whose Book Of Hours is a classic of contemporary spiritual poetry.

You, God, Who live next door—
If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking—
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why wouldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
easily,

it would barely make a sound.


Who is this God that Rilke addresses? Certainly not the God that popular religious culture has trained many of us to believe in. That God, meaning that description of God, figures the Holy One as so distant, frightening, mysterious, impenetrably Other, that we could never imagine Him as anything other than Melekh Ha-Olam, the imperious Ruler of the universe. Certainly, our experience of life’s awesome mysteries, as well as our mortal smallness before Nature and Time can humble us sufficiently to understand and relate to God in this way, even when our exercise of human prowess makes us arrogant. Who is the God that Rilke is speaking to? Imagine yourself awake in the lonely night listening so intently for your parent, your child, your good friend sleeping right next door to you, just beyond the paper-thin walls separating the two of you. You can barely hear him or her breathing, you have no way of knowing how he or she is doing, or even if your loved one is alive! You are so paper-thin-walls close to each other, but even that distance is achingly far. So too, Rilke tells us, is his relationship with God. Rilke’s God is potentially vulnerable, even needy, and Rilke wants so badly to knock down those walls separating them because God needs him. Sometimes, God’s need for him – for any person – is deeply reflected in even the most mundane tasks of helping other people, symbolized by getting someone a glass of water in the middle of the night. Rilke listens for any sound God would make in the world, the sound of God calling for help.

In case you think that this way of talking to and about God is scandalously un-Jewish, think again. Though images of God as the all-powerful and all-knowing King abound in Jewish tradition, the idea of God as being in need or in search of Man, as Abraham Heschel put it, finds expression particularly in rabbinic and later mystical literature. Think of God as the divine father who suffers when His children suffer, of Shekhinah, the up-close-and-personal face of God who goes into exile when the children of Israel are exiled, and of the God of the Kabbalah Who cannot heal Herself or the world without human intervention. All of these striking images are a part of Jewish tradition, and all of them point to a critical role for us human beings in God’s life and in life itself.

Though the following is admittedly a highly creative interpretation, I want to suggest that our reading of the majestic first line of the Shma is pointing us to the same kind of relationship with our vulnerable God to which Rilke alludes. We just read the first paragraph of the Shma in its original setting, our Torah portion. In context, the Shma is Moses’ stunning charge to the Israelites to affirm God’s oneness and to love God with absolute finality and exclusivity.

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ekhad.
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Little wonder that this line is recited twice a day by Jews, why it is the subject of so much roiling theological debate, why it is one of the first prayers that a Jew learns in infancy, and why it is the last thing we say before our deaths. Essentially, its assertion that God is our God and the God of the universe, that God is the absolute Oneness underlying all of existence, is what Judaism is all about: the ultimate protest against all idolatry, the ultimate faith statement that all existence is one. That is tremendous.

However, look at a number of things that are so strange about this first line of the Shma. Why does Moses tell us to listen to a statement of faith? Normally, when the Bible asks us to listen or to hear, it is asking us to pay attention to instructions or commands. Why does God’s name Adonai, spelled YHVH, get repeated? Grammatically, it would have been more logical to say simply, Adonai Eloheinu Ekhad: the Lord our God is one. Why this superfluous phrase, the Lord (is) our God? What is the deeper meaning of Yisrael, the name Israel, and does Ekhad only mean that God is One?

Using Rilke’s imagery and that of Jewish tradition before him, I suggest that Moses’ charge could be read quite differently. To this point, God has staked so much on the viability of the covenant with the Jewish people, a covenant upon which God relies to bring testimony of God’s presence and power into the world. We, the people of Israel need God as we are about to enter the promised land, but God needs us just as much. A well known Talmudic comment (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brakhot 6b) elucidates this mutuality in a rather shocking way. After playfully “proving” that, like us, God also wears Tefillin, the black prayer boxes containing the Shma that are worn on weekdays in prayer, the Talmud then teaches that a passage praising the Jewish people’s uniqueness to God is written in God’s Tefillin as well! Our Tefillin remind us that God is the only One for us: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” God’s Tefillin remind God that we are the only ones for Him: “Who is like Your people, Israel, a unique nation on earth!” The Talmud then imagines God telling us Jews: “Look, you singled Me out for love and attention among everything in the world; what is written in your Tefillin is evidence of this. So too, I single you out for love and attention among everything in the world with what is written in My Tefillin.” Implicit in this highly imaginative story is mutual love and need between us and God, a two way street of interdependence.
With this Talmudic story and Rilke in mind, how might we read this first line of the Shma differently? Let me offer my own translation:

Yisrael, you who are always struggling with God and men: listen closely for Adonai our God Who is right next door to us in love and intimacy. That same Adonai is alone and lonely.

Let me quickly break down each part of my translation.

Shma, the command form of the Hebrew verb SHAMAH, to hear, is often employed to mean heed instruction or orders. I understand it in its most literal sense: to listen intently to or for something, as when Rilke tells God, “I wait listening, always.”

Yisrael, the biblical name for the Jewish people, is taken from our patriarch, Jacob’s new name that was given to him by God’s messenger after their tumultuous struggle prior to Jacob being reunited with his estranged brother, Esau. Like our ancestor, we are a people constantly struggling with the divine and the human, and like him we prevail.

Adonai is Eloheinu. We are asked from time to time to desist from our Yisrael struggles long enough to listen closely, carefully, compassionately for God with Whom we have such intimacy, yet Who feels at times so detached and isolated from us.

Adonai is Ekhad: not One in some abstract philosophical sense of pure unity of being, but One in the sense of being alone, lonely, and isolated.

In other words, with this first line of the Shma, Moses might really be calling us to reach out to God, Who is often very alone in the struggle to be a presence in the world, Who feels close enough to be our next door neighbor, yet from Whom we feel at times alienated. So much evil and despair in the world push us and God apart, as if our distance were the difference between heaven and earth. This is terrible for God and even worse for us. The Shma inspires us, commands us, to knock on God’s door with the greatest urgency and to let God know that God may be One in a way that is beyond us, but with us as God’s partners, God is never alone.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

YOUR CHILDREN ARE YOUR CHILDREN.

Dvar Torah For Shabbat B’Midbar/Erev Shavuot 5772.

One of the books that has carried many of us through the histrionics and narcissism of adolescence is Kahlil Gibran’s, The Prophet. Gibran, a renowned Lebanese poet and artist, wrote about a prophet who dishes out wisdom on a variety of life topics to the people of his adopted country before he leaves them to return to his home. The book’s overly florid diction, likely an attempt by Gibran to make it sound biblical, did not stop the book from becoming an international bestseller that continues to be read today in many languages. One of the prophet’s teachings – the one about children – is quoted quite often:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from
you.
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.

With all of my children currently home for a brief time, and with two of them preparing to graduate their respective school programs, I certainly understand what the prophet was saying. We parents learn, not always quickly enough, that almost from the moment they leave the womb, our kids are becoming their own people, shaping their own souls and charting their own destinies. Clearly, we the parents have a lot to do with this; but as they get older, if we give them the room to do so, our children grow into the people they wish or need to become, hopefully for the better and not for the worse. Our job is to guide them in this process of self discovery, and to do so with the humble recognition that, in a very healthy sense our children are not our children.

However, that is not the entire story, as the Torah and later Jewish tradition teach us. In the Torah portion, B’Midbar, we learn about God’s command to Moses to match each of the firstborn males with each of the Levites for the purposes of redeeming the firstborn from sacred service to God after that task was given to the Levites. We read earlier in Exodus, chapter 13 that God sanctified the firstborn males as dedicated servants of God after the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. When the Levites replaced them for this work, the firstborn were still sacred to God, and as such needed to be redeemed from that sacred status before they could return to normal life with their families. Our Torah portion tells us that there were 273 more firstborn males than Levites. They were redeemed by giving five shekel coins to the sanctuary coffers as a kind of redemption price in lieu of turning over their status to other Levites who awaited this conferral of status. Later on in chapter 18 of Numbers, God commands us to redeem all firstborn males in the future by giving this redemption money to a Kohen, a priest, who then absolves each firstborn from dedicated service to God. This ritual of redemption developed over many years into Pidyon Ha-Ben, redemption of the firstborn which is performed by a Kohen in behalf of a family and its firstborn son after the newborn has been alive for thirty days.

It is unfortunate that Pidyon Ha-Ben is not performed more often in our non-Orthodox Jewish circles. We could certainly expand it to include firstborn daughters, specifically because of the meaningful symbolism of the liturgy that has been written for it. In America, the custom is to offer the presiding Kohen five silver dollars in memory of the five ancient shekel coins used during the time of the Torah. That money is generally not pocketed by the Kohen, but is given to the poor. What is so interesting is the script that the Kohen and the parents recite to each other before the Kohen recites the blessing thanking God for the mitzvah of redeeming firstborn children:

The Kohen asks the parents:

What is your preference: to give me your firstborn son, the firstborn of his mother, or to redeem him for five shekel coins as you are obligated according to the Torah?


The parents then respond:

We wish to redeem our son. We present you with cost of his redemption as required by the Torah.


This is a very strange script. Why would the Kohen give the parents a choice to redeem or not to redeem their child, while in the same breath reminding them that the Torah obligates them to redeem the child for five shekel coins? One siddur commentator suggests that the Kohen is merely reminding the parents that they might think they can get away with not paying the five shekels for their child’s redemption, but their attempts will not succeed. I suggest a different reason for this script. We parents begin an amazing and terrifying life journey with our children from the moment they are born, one in which we and they struggle simultaneously with their being and not being ours. Life with children is all about holding on and letting go. One of the great insights of developmental psychology is that the terrible twos and the teen years mirror one another: at those ages, our kids will do almost anything to push us away while also seeking to keep us near them, as they figure out how to be in the world. There are times when, in our deepest frustration with our kids, we even contemplate wishing them to leave the house and be out of our hair, so we can get back the lives we had before parenthood. Yet how many of us have felt the pushback of guilt and remorse after feeling these things, which is only natural. The redemption of the firstborn and its liturgy seem to be telling us that, no matter how grown up and far away from us they get, our children never stop being our children. We are always “redeeming” them by recognizing our bonds of family responsibility and love with one another, even if at times we do not like each other very much. What is more, as much as this parent-child relationship is an obligation, the challenge for both parents and children is to reaffirm regularly that we choose this relationship, by allowing it to grow and change and deepen from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood, and perhaps even into that time when our children become parents, and the great mystery of family and parenting begins again.

So, my postscript to Kahlil Gibran’s sage insight is this: our children are our children.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

CARL STROCK, THE SCHENECTADY GAZETTE AND ANTISEMITISM.

Over the past few weeks, our friends in the Schenectady Jewish community have been subjected to one of the most insidious forms of anti-Semitism: the use of freedom of the press as cover for espousing uninformed, virulently antisemitic views that demonize Israel, and that denigrate Judaism (along with Christianity and Islam). Columnist Carl Strock who has written for the Schenectady Gazette since 1981, retired from full-time work about four years ago. He continues to write a column known as The View From Here. After a trip to Israel last month that included only Jerusalem and Ramallah, he returned to our area and wrote a series of articles that can only be denounced as pure bigotry, Mr. Strock's protests of honest reporting and claims of victimization notwithstanding.

Ohav is firmly committed to Zionism and to supporting the State of Israel. Though we as a congregation do not publicly take sides in debates about Israeli politics and foreign policy, constructive debate about what is happening in Israel should be no different from constructive debate about what goes on in any nation. Certainly, we Jews must be vigilant to ensure that such debate not be exploited vindictively by those who hate the State of Israel; nonetheless, debate is often necessary and just, when it is based upon fact, careful analysis, and a desire to help Israel be its best self.

What Carl Strock has done, with the permission and support of the Gazette, is not legitimate, constructive debate or criticism: it is antisemitic screed, and it needs to be condemned as such by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Let me briefly analyze just one segment of one of Mr Strock's articles, since my point is to demonstrate how easily words can distort the truth, especially in the hands of a well known opinion writer and a readership that may not know any better. Below is an excerpt from his essay from April 3, 2012. After the italicized paragraph which is his writing, I will offer some commentary.

One thing that struck me about Judaism on my brief visit to Jerusalem is that it’s a tribal religion. The god that it posits — the ineffable YHWH — is the god of a particular people, his Chosen People, in opposition to other gods of other peoples. That’s the way it originated in biblical times, when YHWH had to compete with Ba’al and other disreputable types, and that’s the way it still seems today. Christianity, for all its warts, is at least intended for everyone. Islam claims to be for everyone, but its god speaks only Arabic and you have to be able to pray in Arabic if you want to have any show with him. Judaism makes no pretensions to universality. This matters because Judaism is the heart of the state of Israel. The state is not for everyone either. It’s for members of the tribe, as made clear in its declaration of independence and its national anthem. Its central conceit is that modern-day Jews, whether from Poland or Ethiopia, and regardless of physical type, are all lineal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible. After 2,000 years they have come home. You hear this all the time in Israel. I heard it most memorably from an aggressive guy in downtown Jerusalem who buttonholed me and tried to get me to sign a petition against the division of Jerusalem, not that any such division is in the works. “We waited 2,000 years!” he shouted at me, though I was not offering any resistance. It turned out he was from New York, though he could as well have been from Kiev or Marrakech.

Judaism began as a religion intended to bring the idea and presence of one universal God to the entire world, through the life and family of Abraham. Though this idea of the one God of the universe Who has universal standards of behavior for all people developed over millenia, it is hardly "tribal." Consider that it is our Bible that teaches from the beginning that all human beings are created in God's image. Consider also that the rabbis who developed Judaism in the Talmudic period taught explicitly that seven laws of personal and societal decency govern all human beings and that all righteous people - not just Jews - have a place in the world to come. Finally, were Judaism merely tribal, no one could ever gain admission to the tribe. However, conversion to Judaism occupies a prominent place in Jewish life and practice, precisely because being "part of the tribe" is as much about accepting the historic mission of Judaism and the Jews to be a light unto the nations, as it is about being born into a Jewish family. The Jewish concept of chosenness is often the "bad boy" that is used by people like our writer to "prove" that we Jews see ourselves as inherently superior and solely self-concerned. Certainly, we care about the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, just as other ethnic and religious groups quite naturally care about their own survival. Nonetheless, the concept of being the chosen people is more often expressed by Jewish sources in terms of being responsible for our historic mission of being God's partners in healing the world. Further, this historic partnership with God does not preclude other peoples and faiths from having their own partnerships, from being "chosen" for their own missions in the world.

Mr. Strock would also do well to note that the "universalism" of classical Christianity he highlights was historically a universalism of coercion that insisted every person accept Jesus as his or her savior or forfeit salvation in the next world, and often one's life in this world. This does not mean that any or all Christian communities accept this idea today; it does mean, however, that Mr. Strock is dangerously ignorant about religion and history. (Further, I am amazed that Mr. Strock would be so quick to assert that Islam only allows people to speak to God in Arabic. What is his basis for such a comment?) We Jews have struggled for millenia to be a part of the world while also being apart from the world, that is, to live in the larger society as a people with a distinctive identity. Why is that tribalist bigotry when it applies to Jews, but healthy self-assertion when it applies to other nations and peoples who seek to thrive and express themselves?

The worst aspect of Mr. Strock's assertions is his wholesale condemnation of Israel as a bigoted, tribalist Jewish state. Citizenship in the Jewish state is for everyone and it is particularly supportive of the repatriation of the Jewish people. Why is that? Why did the Israeli Knesset create the Law of Return that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew seeking to live in Israel? Precisely because for two thousand years, when we had no home, we were persecuted repeatedly and treated like pariahs simply because we were Jews. The most extreme expression of this, of course, was the Holocaust, which ironically was perpetrated by Germany, one of the leaders of "refined, universalistic" Western civilization and culture at the time. One can hardly call it bigoted and tribalist to establish a homeland for our people in order to express ourselves culturally, politically and spiritually, as well as to protect ourselves. Certainly, wanting to establish that homeland in the place with which we have been connected for 3,000 years can hardly be called bigoted either; unless, of course, one wishes to condemn all national and cultural aspirations of every people in the world as bigoted, which itself is the worst form of bigotry dressed in the garb of universalism.

Whether through the Law of Return or other means, Israeli citizenship is open to Jews and non-Jews. There are Israeli Arab citizens who fully integrate into Israeli society, who vote, and who do quite well academically, socially and economically. There are Arab Knesset members and physicians, university professors, and an Arab supreme court justice. The relationship between the State of Israel and her Arab citizens is not perfect by any means. Discrimination, inequality and racism exist, as they do in every Western democratic society. Right now in Israel, a great deal of public controversy exists between forces within Israeli society that would like to deny rights to women and minorities and the vast majority of Israeli society that wants Israel to remain a strong democracy. That controversy is as public and civil as it is precisely because Israel is a democracy, howbeit an imperfect one. We must look carefully at what Mr. Strock is doing here: he is using "hot-button" words that bother Americans, such as "tribe" and "tribalism," to convey the distorted message that Israel is a racist backwater founded upon stone-age ideas and loyalties.

Finally, Mr. Strock's comments about the Israel Declaration of Independence and Ha-Tikvah deserve some firm response. The declaration is exactly what a declaration of independence is supposed to be: a profound and succinct statement that tells the world about a people's national aspirations and its determination to achieve self-determination. It is not necessarily supposed to be a statement of universal principles about the brotherhood of Man. However, this is what we read about two thirds of the way into that document, after its writers summarize the tragic history of Jewish homelessness and persecution in the diaspora :

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Israel has not been able to live up to every one of these high ideals. To be fair, what nation can? Yet a look at Israel's record over 64 years of existence reveals that she has done a remarkable job in building her democracy, especially given her onerous burden of being constantly vigilant about defense and security. Could Israel do a better job? Yes. Is it clear that Israel and the Palestinian people need to forge a lasting and just peace that will benefit everyone in the region? Yes. Does Israel deserve to be relentlessly singled out for one-sided criticism from people like Mr. Strock and others who are even more vocal? Most certainly not.

Later in his essay, Mr. Strock trots out the usual canards about the Jews as colonialist late-comers to the Middle East who forcibly dispossessed indigenous populations living in the land. What he and too many others seem unwilling to accept is the historical truth that we Jews did not simply "show up" in the Middle East after the Holocaust. We have truly waited to come home for over two millenia, and Israel is that home to which we have returned. This does not mean that our having a home deligitimizes the national aspirations of Palestinians or other peoples. What is does mean is that we have no less of a right to fulfill our dreams and mission as a people than anyone else, in our historic homeland.

Mr. Strock's writing about Jews, Judaism and Israel has been incendiary and divisive, and he has made a point of attacking Christianity and Islam as well, thus engendering even more hurt and divisiveness in the capital district community. His cover is that he hates all religions equally and wishes to debunk and demystify all religious claims and authority; also, that he has a right to say and print what he likes, given freedom of the press. What he has actually done is create a toxic atmosphere that fosters hatred and misunderstanding by exploiting his pen power to spread outright lies. That is an abuse of a free press, not an embodiment of it. The organized Jewish and Christian communities are taking a number of steps to respond to Mr. Strock, but each of us has the power to respond as well. Specifically, we have the vital task of learning as much of the truth as possible about who we are as Jews, what Judaism says and does, and what Israel is all about. We have the opportunity to write, speak and teach the truth whenever we can, so that our children and grandchildren, our fellow Jews and our fellow citizens learn that truth. Isn't a fair, free, and rational exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal or repression what American civil liberties are all about? If Mr. Strock chooses to use his authority to lie and behave unfairly, then we have to choose to correct those lies and help others to understand the Jewish experience. Finally, we need to keep building bridges between us and the wider community, not just for our own sake but for the sake of all our citizens.

May we continue to be strong in our fight against bigotry and demagoguery, as Jews, as Zionists, and as proud American citizens.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

BEING TAKEN WITH LOVE, EVEN AFTER DEATH DO US PART.

Dvar Torah For Shmini Shel Pesach, Shir Ha-Shirim, and Yizkor, 5772.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.

As some of you know, throughout the week of Pesach, I have been exploring the meaning of the drinking of the four cups of wine that structure the seder ritual and enhance our celebration of our freedom. We have studied the verses from the book of Exodus in which God employs at least four different verbs to describe God’s promise of liberation to the people of Israel. These four verbs are seen by the Talmud as the literary basis for the four cups of wine at the seder.

The last verb in the Bible’s list is v’lakachti, which means literally, “I (God) will take you Israelites to be my people.” Most commentators on the Torah explain that God’s promise to take us to be God’s people was fulfilled at Mount Sinai, when God gave us the Torah, thus signifying that we were not only physically free from slavery, we were spiritually free as well. This verb, v’lakachti, is used in other parts of the Torah as well as later Talmudic literature as a reference to a man taking a woman and making her his wife. Though this technical term for marriage and the imagery accompanying it may disturb us because it is sexist, it provides us with a rich portrayal of how Jewish tradition has always understood the Exodus from Egypt and our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: God removes us from slavery to Pharaoh and marries us, with the Torah serving as our ketubah, or marriage contract, on our wedding day when we truly become a people married to God. It is no wonder, then, that we chant Shir Ha-Shirim during Pesach. Its erotic love poetry about a man and woman desiring each other became a preeminent symbol of the romance between God and the Jews that resulted in God taking us to be God’s bride.

One of the most evocative images in Shir Ha-Shirim is of the woman lying on her bed at night, unable to sleep because she is tormented by thoughts of her lover from whom she is separated. We read in chapter 3:1:
Upon my couch at night//I sought the one I love//I sought but found him not.
The sages of the Talmud interpreted this verse to be a lament of the Jewish people before God. There are physical and spiritual nighttimes when we are either oppressed by others or when we drift away from the Torah. At those times, we lie not on a lover’s couch but upon a sick bed, tormented by our alienation from God. Only through our efforts and God’s love is the rift between us repaired so that we can continue to live as individuals and as a people.

The image of the couch in Shir Ha-Shirim is invoked to describe a physical romance between two people, and a spiritual romance between the Jewish people and God. As we will see during Yizkor, the image of the couch is also invoked in the beautiful memorial prayer, Eil Malei Rakhamim. There, we not only call forth memories of our loved ones before God, we call upon God to protect their souls by having them lie upon their couches in peace, in the afterlife: v’yanukhu b’shalom al mish-k’voteihem. What strikes me about this image in the memorial prayer is its firm assertion that those we love and remember who have died, are not really deceased, but alive with God in a place of rest and peace upon heavenly couches that are attended to by God. This is not only a theological image, and it is not necessarily trying to make some forced assumption about immortality and the soul. It is a poetic image that binds us, our loved ones who have died, and God together in the hope that our love, their love, and God’s love keeps them alive in spirit, even when their bodies are no longer alive. We hope for our loved ones that the couch – one metaphor for life experience- that may have been a place of turbulence and torment during their lives- is now the setting for peace and rest for their undying spiritual selves that we remember with sadness, but also with love.

SQUEEZING THE GRAPES OF REDEMPTION.

Dvar Torah For Shvii Shel Pesach (Pesach, Day Seven), 5772.

Chag sameach.

During the first two days of Pesach, I explained that in each dvar Torah for the holiday I would discuss the four cups of wine at the seder, with a close look at their form, function, symbolism and where tradition derives them from. You may recall our having looked at Exodus, chapter 6:6-7, which contains four different verbs that refer to God’s promised liberation of the Israelites from slavery. The derivation of the four cups of wine from these four verbs is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesahim, 10:1. There, we learn about three other sources in the Bible that hint at our practice of the four cups. These include the mention of four cups of bitterness that will be drunk by the Jewish people when we are under the thumb of different rulers and the four cups of salvation that we will drink when God redeems us from oppression in the messianic era. Each of these references to four cups that are drunk by the Jewish people actually makes sense as a poetic basis for explaining the source of our seder ritual. According to the Mishnah, the oral Torah, we begin telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt bi-g’nut, in a state of degradation, and we finish telling the story bi-sh’vach, in a state of praise: we were once slaves, then we became free; we once were slaves to idolatry, then God made us God’s people. This Passover story is a paradigm for and a microcosm of the Jewish experience throughout history: we have drunk many cups of oppression and we continue to drink many cups of deliverance. We will finish doing this when we and the world are finally redeemed by God during the ultimate messianic redemption.

However, one more creative allusion to the four cups of seder wine is found in the Jerusalem Talmud, and at first glance it makes no sense at all in this context. If you open your Humashim to Genesis 40:9-11 on page 243, we will read a passage from the story about our ancestor Joseph’s encounter with the royal cup-bearer in prison:

Then the chief cup bearer told his dream to Joseph. He said to him, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.

Notice that in telling his dream to Joseph, the cup bearer uses the word “cup” three times. Joseph, of course interprets his prison mate’s dream correctly. In three days’ time, Pharaoh celebrates his birthday by pardoning his cup bearer and restoring him to his former position. In fact, we read later on, in chapter 40:21, page 245:

Pharaoh restored the chief cup bearer to his cup bearing, and he placed the cup in Pharoah’s hand.

These four mentions of the word “cup” in our story are taken by the Jerusalem Talmud as a hint to the four cups of wine that we drink at the seder.

All of the Talmud’s explanations for the source of our seder drinking ritual are essentially asmakhtot, after-the-fact rationales based upon the Bible, in this case for what was likely already a very ancient Jewish seder practice. However, as I already mentioned, this one asmakhta about Pharaoh’s cup bearer seems to make the least sense of all of them. How can the four cups of the cup bearer’s story be connected at all to the four cups of wine at our seder? The cup bearer was a non-Jew who had the good fortune to meet Joseph at the right time in his life and to be pardoned by Pharaoh, likely on a capricious whim of the latter, so that his life was saved and he was able to go back to serving in the royal court. This is hardly the basis for the story of our Exodus from Egypt. Other rabbinic sources explain that the cup bearer’s whole account is actually a veiled reference to the redemption of the Jewish people from Egypt, with the cups of wine and the grape vine serving as symbols for the means by which God would vanquish Pharaoh and save us from his clutches.

Obviously, there is no arguing with this kind of poetic license, because that is what an asmakhta is: a poetic marshalling of biblical sources in a playful way to make a point after the fact and “prove” as it were that some tradition or innovation actually has its roots in an authoritative biblical text. This being the case, allow me to offer an asmakhta explanation of my own based upon the verses about the cup bearer’s dream from Genesis. I make no claims that our sages would have agreed with me about my interpretation, but as we say in the rabbinic world: ein m’shivin al ha-drash: creative interpretations on the stories and ideas of biblical narrative should abound without anyone critiquing the creativity of anyone else. I suggest that these verses we quoted from Genesis should actually be taken in their most universal sense. Joseph the Hebrew is about to interpret the dream of redemption of his non-Jewish prison mate who just wants to be rehabilitated by his boss, Pharoah. The cup bearer wants to get out of prison, to receive the king’s favor, and to get back to his old job that must have supported him pretty well. In the end, as Joseph predicts, this is what happens. Yet, implicit in this story of the cup bearer’s good fortune is a darker story about the caprices of a powerful king who can raise a man like the cup bearer out of prison or behead a man like the royal baker, the other character in the Genesis story who did not fare as well. The fortunes of these two men, like that of Joseph, were utterly dependent upon other all-powerful elites who, no matter how benign they appeared, could turn on an underling and make or break a man’s life as part of a trifling bit of entertainment for a birthday celebration. Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud connected the four cups of wine of the seder to this story to teach a more ominous, universal lesson about slavery and redemption. Unchecked by a power greater than oneself, whether the fear of God or the rule of law, the best leader easily degenerates into a tyrant whose decisions about the fate of others are vindictive and destructive. In the shadow of absolute power, even those who could be considered politically and economically fortunate, really have little real control over their own lives; how much more so the members of society with no money, prestige, or connections. sitting at their seder tables under the thumb of Roman occupation, our sages may have wanted to connect the night of redemption from Egypt to this disturbing story about the cup bearer because it is a story about incomplete liberation and freedom. They may have wanted to remind us that human authority and power should never be left unchecked and that the Pesach celebration is not only about our successful liberation from Egypt, but also about the many Egypts that remain throughout the world for millions, not just Jews.

Last week, I prefaced my first dvar Torah with an informal discussion about modern-day slavery. Millions of people who are desperate for economic security wind up being illegally trafficked or abducted and forced into slave-like conditions as prostitutes, farm workers for cacao farmers who supply some of the world’s biggest chocolatiers, and many other circumstances of forced labor. An estimated 15-27 million people throughout the world are modern-day slaves, many of them are minors, and many of them are women living under the coercive authority of abusive men. Further, modern day slaves are even living here in the United States and in Israel, two of the freest places on earth. They are far worse off than the cup bearer in the Bible story quoted by the Jerusalem Talmud, but they share with him one common condition: they have no real power to chart their own destinies and they are robbed of their dignity. If you go to Brandeis University’s website, brandeis.edu, link to its Schuster Institute of Investigative Journalism, and you will find more resources than you can stand to read about modern day human trafficking and slavery. To learn more about women, poverty, and modern slavery and trafficking, look at Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn’s excellent book, Half the Sky.

The four cups of wine at our seders are certainly intended to celebrate the redemption and liberation that we experienced in Egypt, as well as the redemption that we experience through our reliance upon God. Yet, they can also be seen as uncomfortable reminders to us free people of the liberation and redemption that remain to be achieved by so many throughout the world. God needs us to make this freedom a reality.

Chag sameach.

Monday, April 9, 2012

HOW ELSE CAN WE UNDERSTAND THE FOUR VERBS OF REDEMPTION?

Dvar Torah For Day Two Of Pesach, 5772.
Chag kasher v’sameach.

Yesterday, we began to look at the ritual of the four cups of wine at the seder, specifically how the four cups function as markers along the path toward physical and spiritual freedom that we take each time we celebrate Pesach. You may recall the Talmudic teaching about the hint of these four cups of wine that our sages found in the language of the Torah. You will notice the verses from the book of Exodus, 6:6-7 that we studied yesterday morning:

I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people…

As we will see next week during Yom Tov, and as I alluded to yesterday, this four-verb hint used by the Talmud for rationalizing the practice of the four cups is not the only one that is taught. However, it is the one that is most popular and that is cited most often in traditional sources. For me, the big question about these arbaah leshonot geulah, these four mentions of redemption, is that they appear to be saying the exact same thing four times. Is there anything about each of these verbs, to free, to deliver, to redeem and to take that makes them distinctive? Are God and the Torah simply being verbose?

Let me suggest that we follow the sage advice of our sages: no word in the Torah is superfluous or mere verbal ornamentation. It all possesses significance, even the parts that speak colloquially, in the language of human beings, as our rabbis call it. The fun and meaning of Torah text are found precisely in the significance –manifest and hidden - of each word, even at times, each letter of Torah. That being the case, let’s learn more about these four mentions of redemption with one of the masters of Torah commentary, Rabbi Hayyim ben Attar, also known as the Or HaHayyim, after his commentary by the same name. Rabbi ben Attar lived in 17th century Morocco in what was then still a thriving Jewish community. His commentary is noted for very fine, subtle questions about the Torah as well as a great deal of application of Jewish mysticism to interpreting the text. Rabbi ben Attar wrote the following about the four mentions of redemption in Exodus that form the basis for the four cups of wine:

God told Moses, “Inform the people of Israel that My nature is one of mercy. I will be merciful toward them, and here is the list of good things I will do for them:

I will free them: this means that I will free them from the worst of the Egyptian oppression through the ten plagues, but the dread of Egyptian power will still be over them. Then…

I will deliver them: this means that I will free them finally from all oppression and forced labor prior to the Exodus. Then…

I will redeem them: this means that I will actually take them out of Egypt, through the Sea of Reeds, beyond the reach of persecution and enemies. Then…
I will take them to be My people: this means that at Mount Sinai I will give them the Torah, when they become singled out for relationship with Me.


Note what the Or HaHayyim appears to be doing. Each one of the verbs represents a different stage of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. By itself, this idea is nothing new. The innovation that Rabbi ben Attar adds here is this: the process of liberation and redemption was taking place well before the event of liberation and redemption, when our ancestors finally went free during the Exodus. Whether you believe that God literally did the work of freeing us, or that the Exodus was a purely human endeavor, the Or HaHayyim reminds us that the transition from slavery to freedom doesn’t just happen all of a sudden, out of the blue. That is because human beings get so tangled in the dark chaos of oppression, both as oppressors and as the oppressed, that even God, as it were, has to move with relative slowness to disentangle us from the mess of persecution. Even God cannot redeem us when we ourselves are not fully ready to be redeemed or to take responsibility for our own redemption. In a more secular vein, people who have been oppressed generally need to take the time to develop political consciousness and conscience that allow them to see that they do not have to allow themselves to be abused by the power of others. Even when the overturning of oppressive power can and should be swift, - when political revolution is the better path than political evolution - the creation of new, more equal expressions of power and governance likely needs to move with thoughtful deliberateness; thus, no one is able to grab the reins of new power too quickly or self-righteously, which prevents newly freed people from meeting the new boss who just winds up being the same as the old boss.

For me, the most interesting ritual implication of Rabbi ben Attar’s explanation of the redemptive process is how it is reflected in the seder. We recline and drink the four cups of wine at the seder, like free people. Yet, as we drink each of those cups, we like our ancestors, are reenacting the experience of still being slaves as much as the drama of becoming free. We are in Egypt slowly shaking off oppression but not yet fully free, just like they were. This liminal experience of being both enslaved and free, of being on the threshold between both, is found throughout the seder: matzah is the bread of the Exodus and freedom, and it is the bread of affliction; we begin the telling of the Pesach story at the seder bi-g’nut, in a state of degradation, and only later do we journey to the end of the story bi-sh’vach, praising God for the dignity of freedom; we consume symbols of the Paschal sacrifice and bitter herbs and haroset, symbols of the bitterness of slavery. Each of these threshold rituals forces us to feel the discomfort of not being quite a slave yet not being quite free, even as we party through the seder night in celebration. That way, we never take freedom for granted, we never dismiss the possibility of slavery as merely a thing of the distant past, and we never lose our sense of humble gratitude to God for the blessings we have.

THE FOUR CUPS AT THE SEDER #1.

Dvar Torah For Day 1 of Pesach, 5772.

Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v’sameach.

I trust that your first seder was a joyous experience that not only involved a great feast with family and friends, but also an opportunity to literally taste slavery and freedom in one meal. One of the primary ritual and educational tools of the seder is the drinking of the four cups of wine. For this and the next three divrei Torah that span the four days of Yom Tov during Pesach, I want to explore this ritual of the four cups from different perspectives, ritual, halakhic, and symbolic. This is especially helpful today, the first day of Yom Tov, as we reflect upon our first seder and prepare for the second which will take place tonight.

The practice of drinking four cups of wine at the seder derives from the Mishnah, the oral Torah, specifically Tractate Pesahim, chapter 10. There, we read in the very first section that even the poorest members of the Jewish community must drink four cups of wine at the seder, and even if that requires taking assistance from the public charity fund that would be used only for those in the most dire financial straits. The rest of chapter 10 teaches us about the four times that each cup of wine is drunk: as part of Kiddush for Yom Tov evening, at the end of the recitation of the Passover story, right after Birkat HaMazon, or grace after meals, and at the conclusion of the Hallel prayer which is mandated by the rabbis of the Mishnah as a way of praising God for delivering us from Egypt. Each of these rituals to which wine drinking is connected is an obligatory practice that sanctifies our celebratory meal as a religious event.

The Mishnah never actually explains to us where it derives the drinking of the four cups from, only that each of the four major rituals of the seder is to be accompanied by the drinking of a cup of wine, over each of which the later rabbis of the Talmud required a blessing. Other rabbinic sources assert that this practice is based upon the four different verbs used to describe God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, which are mentioned in Exodus 6:6-7. There God explains to Moses God’s plan for freeing the people from Egypt:

I am the Lord. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. And I will take you to be My people…

God promises to free us, to deliver us, to redeem us, and to take us as God’s people. At first glance, this four-word emphasis upon liberation in the Bible is a sufficient explanation for the four cups of wine. Each celebratory cup that we drink serves as a reminder of God’s promises fulfilled in the past and of God’s promises to be fulfilled toward us in the future. However, as we will see later on during Pesach, other plausible four-fold explanations for the four cups exist, and the verses that I quoted before from Exodus can easily be interpreted to evoke five or even six words related to liberation, when the verse are quoted in full. Though these four words that evoke images of God liberating us are powerful, let me suggest a more basic reason for why we drink these four cups at the seder, as well as why we drink them when and how we do.

The seder is, as its name attests, literally an ordered ritual experience; it is intended to help us feel like we are slaves leaving Egypt, not simply have us retell the Exodus story as someone else’s story from an inaccessible and distant past. Everything about the seder is conducted with an eye toward helping us to act and feast like newly -freed people. In the Greco-Roman world of ancient Palestine where the seder liturgy was developed, it was common for the upper classes to hold symposia, in which they mixed heavy amounts of eating, drinking, and not always wholesome partying with light intellectual discussions about philosophy, science or the arts. A common misconception is that the seder was modeled directly after the symposium. Though the form of the Roman symposium was likely the skeletal model for the structure of the seder, the content of the seder was anything but an imitation of the symposium. My teacher Professor Barukh Bokser, of blessed memory, wrote many years ago that the Mishnah I mentioned above reflects our sages’ efforts to create a distinctively Jewish spiritual experience through the seder. Their true model was the first Passover meal that the Israelites engaged in as slaves on the verge of freedom that night before the Exodus millennia ago. Of course, their second true model was the great Passover offering celebrated in Jerusalem by thousands of pilgrims who would worship at the Bet Hamikdash, the holy Temple, as one free community, prior to the Temple’s destruction by the Romans. Rabbi Bokser and other scholars point out where our sages chose to pointedly make changes in the symposium model or to ignore it altogether. First, they insured that everyone, men, women and children, rich and poor alike would be part of the seder experience, particularly the drinking of the four cups of wine and reclining in the manner of free people. The seder became a rehearsal for radical egalitarianism, something to be tasted by all members of the community within the larger values framework of redemption, even if only for one night. Egalitarianism and inclusiveness were hardly the fare of the typical symposium. Second, while they certainly expected seder participants to feast and drink as free people do, they placed the discussion of the Exodus first in the order of the evening, before the revelry and the drinking, which were considered of secondary importance in some respects. In fact, the revelry and drinking were highly regulated by the Mishnah, so that the seder did not degenerate into the bacchanalian nonsense for which Roman symposia were apparently infamous. Third, and I think most relevant, the four cups of wine were placed by the sages in the seder as ritual markers of transitions, rather than simply opportunities for a good, stiff drink. Look at where each of the four cups of wine is found. The first cup ushers in the holiday through Kiddush, which proclaims Pesach and the people of Israel holy, something that is hard to do when a people is being beaten down by an oppressor. The second cup concludes the mitzvah of telling and re-living the story of the redemption from Egypt, which is what defines us on the night of liberation. More specifically, after the telling of the story we now define ourselves as free, rather than having our identities handed to us by Pharaoh, thus leading us to a celebratory drink. The third cup follows the grace after meals, in fulfillment of the traditional requirement according to Halakhah, something not often done anymore. Significantly, this third cup of wine seems to be one more reminder to us free people that our freedom is not license for anarchy in eating, drinking and partying, but a reminder that we have the capacity to discipline our behavior voluntarily and freely. Finally, the fourth cup completes the recitation of the second part of the Hallel prayer, which our sages required us to chant as a final hymn of thanks to God, who is the real center of the Exodus story. We who are physically free can once again exercise our spiritual freedom by recognizing God, not a human being, as the supreme ruler, yet another reason for a celebratory drink within appropriate limits. Each of these transitions or stations follows a larger pattern that the four cups of wine and the text of the Haggadah reflect: first, we needed to be physically liberated from Pharaoh. Only then could we liberate ourselves spiritually and morally by exercising freely our relationship with God and a life of self-imposed discipline, the ultimate form of freedom.

Thus, far from being opportunities for making the seder a happy hour, the four cups of wine concretize and ritualize order and structure, while at the same time allowing us a certain amount of space to unwind, have fun, and celebrate the literal and symbolic taste of freedom. Ultimately, they parallel beautifully the four verbs from Exodus that are their literary basis: At Kiddush, we thank God for literally freeing us from Egypt. During the telling of the story, we praise God for literally delivering us from Egypt. After Birkat Hamazon, we recognize that God gives us the tools for spiritual redemption. After Hallel, we revel in the One who takes us to be that One’s own, which is the deeper purpose of the Exodus—to freely accept a life of mission and partnership with God in repairing the world.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

WHY DID GOD TAKE US OUT OF EGYPT ANYWAY?

Dvar Torah For Parshat Tetzaveh and Shabbat Zakhor 5772.

Even with Purim on our doorstep, we are already looking past the Hamentaschen and the madness of the Megillah reading toward Pesach, which will find us whether or not we are ready to find it. As you may know, I just returned from our biennial congregational pilgrimage to Israel, the ultimate symbol for us of Jewish freedom, power, and self-expression. Experiencing Israel always makes me do more thinking about the nature and purpose of the Jewish people, whose journey really begins with the Exodus from Egypt, that pit of slavery and oppression. So, as I begin to think about my celebration of Pesach and my telling of the story of the Exodus at the Seder, I am wondering once again: why did God take us out of Egypt, anyway?

This morning in the Torah, we completed our reading of God’s very long, complex, elegant instructions to Moshe and the Israelites concerning the construction of the Mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary, as well as of the sacred clothing to be worn by Aaron and his sons during their service in that sacred building. God began these instructions in last week’s portion, Terumah, with an explanation for all of this construction: Let the Israelites build Me a holy place and I shall dwell in their midst. Numerous are the repeated explanations of commentators that God never says that He will dwell in the sanctuary, for what mere physical building could hold God? Rather, they point out, the Mishkan is there to help us feel God’s presence dwelling among us as a community. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, as we near the end of all the instructions for the construction, God takes the idea of the Mishkan one step further. Please look with me at Humash Etz Hayyim, Exodus 29:45-46, on pp. 516-517:

(Through the Mishkan) I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they will know that I the Lord am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them; I the Lord their God.

According to this passage, God not only uses the Mishkan as an opportunity to dwell among the people, God’s whole purpose in taking them out of Egyptian slavery was to be able to dwell among them and be their God. This appears at first glance to contradict Bible passages such as Genesis, chapter 15, in which God promises Abraham that his descendants will leave Egypt in order to escape suffering under Pharaoh’s thumb, and then in order to enter the land of Canaan that has been promised to them by God. Further, framing the purpose of the Exodus as being about following a portable sanctuary around nomadically in order to experience God’s presence is a very diaspora-like idea. What is the focus of our freedom and formation as a people: to be in relationship with God as we move around the world or to be in relationship with God, to quote HaTikvah – Israel’s national anthem – as a free people in our land?

I am, of course, oversimplifying the Torah here. Since we take the text as a united whole, we know perfectly well that the Torah emphasizes both divine aspirations. God took us out of Egypt not so much for the purposes of freedom itself, but in order to give us the opportunity to experience God’s presence fully so that we could be God’s servants in a covenantal relationship and a shared mission: this is the essence of the “chosen people” idea, and it applies wherever Jews are, from Jerusalem to Albany and everywhere in between. But God also made clear from the moment that God called Abraham to start a new life that this new people we call the Jews would find the greatest fulfillment of its mission and its life in the land that we today call Israel. This dual sense of our mission as the Jewish people is quite ancient and it forms the basis for contemporary religious Zionism; however, it underlies even secular thinking about Zionism which may not emphasize traditional ideas about God making us a nation, but which certainly emphasizes the need for the Jewish people to have its own home in which to thrive, express itself and make a positive difference in the world.

Having just tasted the richness of both aspects of this great Jewish mission by being in Israel, what am I going to bring to my seder table this year and how is my celebration of Pesach going to be different? Part of what makes pilgrimage to Israel so enriching for me is that, paradoxically, it leaves me feeling deeply challenged and somewhat incomplete. I have made my home in our Jewish community, my family and I are firmly rooted here, and I need not explain to you how good America has been to the Jewish people. Nonetheless, I refuse to pretend that somehow our Jewish lives in America and Jewish life in Israel are equal, for they really aren’t. Without whitewashing or idealizing Israeli life and society, I feel drawn to the rhythms and routines of Jewish identity and culture that are commonplace in Israel; its entire civil life, however secular it may be, is Jewish in a way that even the most intensive Jewish community in America simply cannot be by virtue of the fact that we are a minority here. Saturday is Shabbat, the whole country celebrates Purim almost with a passion, advertisements, street signs, and protest slogans that draw off of three millennia of Jewish sacred literature abound. Even more important, the existential anxieties of American and Israeli Jewry are vastly different, however much our two communities are intertwined as part of world Jewry. We Jews in America may feel physically safe, but we are constantly preoccupied with the threat of cultural suicide that is the result of being an assimilating minority. The Jewish state may always have to be vigilant about its physical safety, but as a living, sovereign Jewish state it can devote its spiritual and cultural energies to far more productive concerns: these include, among others, what to do with power, how to create a just society founded upon Jewish values, and the role that Israel plays as the center of the Jewish world and as a modern nation in the international community. For me, Israel is this nagging goad that I hope will never stop nagging me. It keeps whispering in my ear, “Dan, you are the descendant of those who left Egypt to enter a relationship with God in the desert, and then to enter the homeland that God gave us as an inheritance for building that relationship. You may be comfortable in the disapora, but aren’t you really still trying to follow God as a nomad like your ancestors did? That Israelite caravan with its portable sanctuary left the Sinai desert a long time ago. Why don’t you come home, and fulfill both parts of God’s plan for us when God took us out of slavery?” I will be listening for this nagging voice that is Israel when I lift up the matzah, tell the story of the Exodus, drink the four cups of wine, and finally sing “L’shanah Ha-baah Bi-Yerushalayim,” next year in Jerusalem.

I hope you will not think that I am simply blathering starry-eyed, post-trip nonsense that will wear off in a couple of weeks. I am not. I have felt this way about my place and our place in ancient and contemporary Jewish history for a long time, and my biennial trips to Israel only refine my sense of cognitive and spiritual dissonance. I am not making aliyah tomorrow, and I am fully aware of how much the State of Israel relies upon America and its Jews, however much some Israelis are into the myth that they are entirely self-sufficient. Further, I would not be doing the work that I do if I did not value what we have as a Jewish community here, and if I was not fully aware of how much Jewish life outside of Israel has yielded over the past two millennia. Nonetheless, I am happy to be challenged and pushed to remember where ideally I should be, through my encounters with the grit and the miracle of Israel, past, present, and please God, future.

As we get ready for Pesach, what can you and I do to respond to that nagging, goading challenge, short of uprooting ourselves, Exodus-style, and living in Israel? First, if you have not been to Israel or you have not been there in a long time, begin to make plans to go there. You can go with Ohav in 2014, you can volunteer there, you can plan a family trip around a bar or bat mitzvah, you can connect with another organized tour or program. The point is for you to go, and if you won’t go, to facilitate your children and grandchildren going. Plan on having a lot of safe, wholesome fun, prepare to retrace the steps of our ancestors, and stay open to the fact that such a trip is more than a trip, it is a pilgrimage that echoes, howbeit faintly, the pilgrimages to the Jerusalem Temple from long ago. Second, if you are filled to the brim with anxieties about Israeli politics, Iranian threats, and conflicts with the Palestinians, set them aside for a while, and just reconnect with Israel as a blessing, as our extended family whom we love, just because. I am frankly so tired of the way that American Jews, on the left and the right, have reframed the Jewish state as one huge problem, as if it were a bunch of sick, dysfunctional relatives we fret over but never see or enjoy. Israelis mouth off plenty about politics and other vital issues, and they struggle with issues aplenty, but first and foremost they live their lives in their country. We Jews in the diaspora are so frightened at times of our own shadows that we can’t seem to get past this “Israel as huge problem” narrative, which is unhelpful to us and to Israel. We try not to spend all of our time talking about our loved ones in terms of what ails them and what they are not. Why, then, do we seem to do this almost obsessively when talking about our “loved ones” who are the State of Israel? Finally, be ambassadors for the Jewish state: learn more about her ancient and contemporary history, get the facts and share them with our friends, neighbors and family, Jewish and non-Jewish who just don’t know those facts. Most of all, convey your love for Israel to them with your stories, your ideas, your values, not a na├»ve, ignorant love of an Israel that can do no wrong, but a mature love of an Israel that gets so much right.

Today is Shabbat Zakhor, when we remember Amalekite aggression and the way that Haman the Amalekite tried to destroy the diaspora Jewish community of Persia. These themes of Purim resonate so strongly with us Jews and with all people who have tasted oppression that even in Israel, the ultimate anti-diaspora, Purim is celebrated with gusto. Just as the different passages of the Torah about the Exodus help us to do, so too, Purim and Pesach hold us in a creative tension between our experience as Jews outside of Israel and our connection to Israel: the cultural, political, physical, and spiritual center of the Jewish people. Let’s use this next month of remembrances and celebrations to remember why God liberated us from Egypt, to enjoy the sacred privilege of being Jewish that God has given us where ever we are in the world, and to never stop striving to return to the place from which Torah goes forth: Zion and Jerusalem.