Tuesday, October 11: Kol Nidre Sermon: Seeing Others in Ourselves

Empathy: For Others and Ourselves

One of the tributes to Israeli leader Shimon Peres upon his death read as follows: “Most leaders in the Middle East have become so hard-bitten that they have completely lost their ability empathize with anyone other than their own tribe. Peres was unique among both Arabs and Israelis in that he could stand in the other guy’s shoes.” Empathy is the cornerstone of reconciliation: between world nations, between groups within the same community, and between individuals.

Last week, my Rosh Hashanah sermon focused on the commandment: “you shall love the stranger as yourself,” as the first step toward restoring harmony within American society. On Yom Kippur, let’s take up a more personal concern: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” as the basis for restoring harmony in our relationships with one another. The Golden Rule entails more than simply treating the other person as you would like to be treated. After all, her needs and desires may be different from yours. What you want for yourself may not be what she wants. “Love your neighbor as yourself” means looking at yourself from her perspective, and treating her accordingly.

Let’s say a friend calls you on the phone to berate you for a slight that you committed. (By the way, by reproaching you, she’s fulfilling the Levitical commandment that immediately precedes “love your neighbor”: “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk;” plus, she’s acting to your benefit. Better for her to confront you directly than nurse silent grievances and avoid you without telling you why, or—worse still—complain to others about you behind your back, which is quintessential lashon hara. But that’s another sermon.) She accuses you of asking her to do something, and then you went ahead and did it yourself. If you’re anything like me, your first reaction will be defensive: “I was doing you a favor! I was trying to spare you the trouble.” Then she says: “but you never let me help you. You always brush me aside when I offer.” By now, you’re feeling flush, your head is pounding, and thoughts are racing: “she’s making a mountain out of a molehill. What’s the big deal? I don’t have time for this.” So you blurt out: “Look! You’re making this too complicated. I wasn’t trying to offend you; I was just trying to meet my deadline.” Then you go a step further: “Besides! I can never depend upon you. The last time you were supposed to come over to give me a hand, I was waiting on you for hours.” (As the saying goes: the best defense is a strong offense!) At this point, both parties are consumed by their own grievances, and the conversation is unlikely to end amicably.

But let’s consider an alternate scenario. Let’s rewind the altercation to the moment you feel the surge of anger well up. This time, instead of ramping up the counterattack, you take a deep breath. You remember that there have been times when people other than she have been upset with you for taking over tasks that you had assigned to them. You see that it’s a pattern of behavior that you occasionally fall into. So you reply: “you know what. I’m sorry. Maybe deep down I don’t want to be beholden to other people. I guess somewhere inside I believe no one will ever do as good a job as I can, and that’s an attitude I need to let go of.” This is the moment of teshuvah, which is the act of turning away from blaming others and external circumstances and instead turning inward, examining one’s own motives.

Now, contrition is a curious thing. It’s amazing how one person’s admission can sometimes spark another’s. She responds: “Well, to tell you the truth, I got agitated because I worry what I do is never going to live up to your standards. In fact, the reason why sometimes I promise to come over and give you a hand, and then I change my mind and not show up, is because I don’t feel that I have anything of value to contribute.” Suddenly, you gain new understanding of the entire situation. You begin to realize that your fear of letting go of control dovetails with her lack of confidence in her own abilities. Like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each character flaw fits with the other to elicit mutual feelings of hurt and recrimination. Now not every interchange is going to feature this level of candid confession, nor is it necessary. The point of moral growth is to cultivate an attitude of humility concerning our own character traits and empathy for those of others.

Empathy, meaning viewing situations from the other’s perspective, is the basic ingredient in apology. Consider Maimonides’s basic steps of teshuvah: acknowledging what we have done to the person we harmed, expressing remorse, taking responsibility for our misdeed, and making restitution. These actions are effective for restoring harmony because they focus on the other person, not on us. When want to say “I’m sorry,” we need to be specific; we should avoid expressions such as “I regret it if I hurt you.” We mustn’t qualify our apologies, with statements such as “it was not my intention to cause you distress,” nor justify our behavior, as in “I was stressed out,” or “you made me so mad,” because that’s taking away with one hand what we are trying to give with the other. An apology works only if it is offered in humility: when we make the other person’s feelings paramount and our own experience insignificant. Genuine repentance is painful, which is why we avoid it in the first place. But, here’s the thing: if it hurts, if you’re feeling bad, then take that is a sure sign that your apology is genuine.

Conversely, empathy is also necessary to forgive. In Judaism, granting forgiveness is not an act of generosity that we perform out of good will, but a commandment. But how does one grant forgiveness, in practice? Unforgiving people tend to be those who are conditioned to experience negativity concerning those who offended them, especially fear, and that leads to avoidance and retaliation. Any stimulus that reminds them of past wrongs, even just seeing the offender in passing, reawakens the old hurts and resentments. Victims do not have to wait, and should not wait, until feelings of warmth well up spontaneously, because that may never happen. They can train ourselves to be empathetic.

In his book Wounds Not Healed by Time, Dr. Sol Schimmel presents several clinical models of forgiveness, which include the following practical suggestions: Try to speculate what the offender might have been thinking of feeling during the hurtful event. What were some of his preoccupations that might have had nothing to do with you? Assume that he was not acting with malice or intent to wound you but that his motives were understandable. If so, what might be some explanations for his behavior? Maybe you could even see yourself acting that way under similar circumstances. In fact, call to mind times when you yourself have misbehaved and caused hurt to someone else. Viewing his failures in light of your own will help you cultivate compassion. Finally, recall pleasant experiences you’ve had in the past with the offender, times when you’ve felt connected with him. Instead of zeroing in on the painful episode, it’s important to view the other person in his totality, as a multifaceted person with flaws as well as redeeming qualities, just as you are.
Repentance and forgiveness, the key processes for achieving atonement between human beings, both entail empathy, which is the ability to detach from our own position and adopt the position of the other as if it were our own. So let’s take a moment to think about what that implies. After all, we can’t really know with certainty what’s going on inside another person. It requires an act of imagination. We have to take as an unverifiable axiom that human reactions are the same in all of us. Anyone with normal eyesight agrees that strawberries, cardinals and the planet Mars all have a similar color. But couldn’t it be that what you call red is what I call blue? If no uniform standard exists regarding vision, how much more so regarding emotions. Let’s say you tell me, as your friend, that you are anxious and felling helpless because, God forbid, your daughter is very ill. Now, I don’t have a daughter, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be your daughter. So what does it mean to relate to you in that situation? I’ll never forget the time when, as hospital chaplain, I was trying to comfort a suicidal patient, and she suddenly turned on me, shouting: “you don’t know what I’m going through! You’ll never understand! No one can understand.” Now, I recognized in her outburst the symptoms of severe depression, the feeling of being engulfed in a black hole, beyond the reach of all human contact. All the same, I realized that on some level, she was right. I didn’t know exactly what she was going through. Each of us perceives the world uniquely, nor can we ever directly partake of another’s perception. Consider this very moment: I’m up here on the Bimah speaking the words of this sermon, and all of you are listening (well, many of you, anyway!)—and yet, if there are 200 of us in this room, then there are 200 different versions of what is happening right now.

There is a fundamental loneliness to the human condition resulting from our existence as separate beings. How to bridge the chasm between Self and Other? Ideas, images or sensations can’t do it, because they are constructs and projections in one’s own mind. Connection is possible, however, through love. To be in another’s living presence, to encounter “the face of the Other,” using the terminology of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, is a transcendent phenomenon. In fact, maybe the very definition of love includes the notion of transcendence: going beyond the confines of the ego to meet the other person in the fullness of their individuality, irreducible to personal wants and desires, to feel what she feels, and experience what she experiences. Love takes place not entirely within the Self, not entirely within the Other, but by extending, reaching into the space between Self and other. The existence of Love and the existence of God are equally preposterous. Both are objectively unverifiable powers. Both entail a leap of faith. For Levinas, the only way we have to experience God is through our loving encounters with other human beings.

The moment you rise above your own concerns and imagine what it’s like to view the world, including your own behavior, from the vantage point of another person is the moment you have fulfilled the commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, inasmuch as existentially, we are alien to each other since we can know objectively each other’s reality, maybe it’s more apt to say that at that moment, you have fulfilled the commandment: “love the stranger as yourself.” It is as if you have taken flight and can look down from above at your interior landscape, the other person’s inner landscape, and the ground between you. To perceive all of reality from outside your own mental preoccupations is a transcendent experience and a spiritual gift. At such times, a wellspring of compassion surges up from your heart: for you, for the other, and for the human condition.

Which brings us to the last application of “you shall love the stranger”—applying the commandment to ourselves. The depth of the psyche is unfathomable. Thoughts incessantly come and go in our own heads with no discernable pattern; emotions can shift within seconds without provocation; we are a morass of internal contradictions. One could spend a lifetime in therapy and still only scratch the surface of self-understanding. In this context, “loving the stranger” means accepting with humility that we don’t always have a handle on what drives us, let alone what generates behavior in others. The admission of our own limitations is a cause for wonder and celebration, because it makes the art of living a grand adventure. Realizing that it’s perfectly normal to make mistakes and act foolishly, that hurting other people is an inevitable facet of taking part in family and community life, that we’re all flawed creatures, just trying to make our way through life the best we know how, means we can spend less mental and physical energy protecting our egos and more of it owning up to our responsibility. We begin to treat ourselves and others with compassion, and maybe a little bit of humor thrown in.

Sunday, October 2, 2016: Rosh Hashanah Sermon: Seeing Ourselves in Others

Judaism is a love-based religion. In three different ways, we are commanded to love. Famously, in Leviticus, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout the Torah, “you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Finally, in Deuteronomy, “you shall love Adonai your God.” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev said: “A person’s love for God can be determined by the love she bears toward others.”

It is not difficult to love your neighbor as yourself because in many ways your neighbor is like yourself. He belongs to the same nation, the same social class, or the same political persuasion. What is difficult is loving the person who is different. That’s why the Torah reiterates the commandment to love the stranger 36 times (but “love your neighbor” only once).

Unfortunately, we’re apt to greet outsiders with more suspicion than generosity. The ones marginalized from the mainstream to begin with are routinely denigrated these days: Muslim Americans, Mexican immigrants, transgender people, Syrian refugees, and others. The practice of reducing entire classes of people to a single stereotype pervades public discourse. We objectify them. They are no longer living, breathing souls who feel and suffer as we do but flat projections of our own fears and anxieties.

In his recent book Not in God’s Name, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks chronicles the process that leads inexorably to genocide. Mass atrocity does not erupt spontaneously. It is the product of a gradual breakdown in moral sensibility that begins, innocuously enough, with a division in the mind between “us” and “them.” Once we mentally and emotionally detach from others, the next step is to blame them for our problems. Our prevailing preoccupation becomes to remove them from society. Their hardship and misfortune are of no concern to us. From here it’s a short leap to stripping them of their humanity altogether.

The recent upsurge in antisemitism worldwide, as well as increasing hostility against foreigners in our own country, are both gravely worrisome. Why now? Massive immigration, the globalization of the economy, the rise in terrorism, and increasing ethnic and cultural diversity within populations—these are some of the potent forces currently fraying the fabric of Western civilization. When people feel threatened that their standard of living and way of life are under siege, they tend to look for a scapegoat.

Social and economic instability has always constituted a breeding ground for xenophobia. Such was the condition of Weimar Germany in 1920’s and 30s, and such are the circumstances in 2016 in the United States. Lest you think it alarmist to suggest a comparison between today’s political climate and the environment that gave rise to Nazism, consider the following observation from a Holocaust survivor who attended one of this year’s political rallies. “It’s not so much what the speaker said at the podium, it was its effect on the crowd, working them up into a frenzy,” she said. “History is repeating itself, and again it’s our inattention to real cues that is so frightening.” In light of this grim warning, we can appreciate all the more Judaism’s insistence on loving the stranger. Not only during periods of prosperity, but especially when under stress, we as a society must guard against the impulse to demonize any members of the human family.

More than any other occasion, Rosh Hashanah proclaims the common bond of humanity among all peoples on Earth. Other festivals celebrate important episodes in Jewish history (the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, etc.). Rosh Hashanah alone commemorates an event of universal import: the creation of the world and the concomitant emergence of the first human being. On Rosh Hashanah, all humanity—indeed, all living creatures—stand together in judgment before their Maker. Rosh Hashanah anticipates the day when the entire world will unite under the glorious sovereignty of the Almighty.

In addition to upholding universal fellowship, Rosh Hashanah specifically focuses on the plight of the foreigner. Many commentators wonder at the selection for the traditional Torah portion. Surely, on this exalted occasion, we would expect a suitably lofty scriptural reading. Why not the obvious choice: Genesis 1, the magnificent account of Creation? What we get instead is Genesis 21. Abraham, at the behest of his wife, Sarah, expels Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, leaving Ishmael to die of thirst. (Hagar is the Egyptian handmaiden, and Ishmael is the son Hagar bore Abraham.) Why did the Rabbis deem this sordid tale of domestic strife and rejection worthy for recitation at the very outset of the year?

It’s instructive to compare the readings on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah, two consecutive chapters in the Torah. In both, Abraham is bidden to sacrifice his son to death (explicitly, with Isaac, indirectly, in the case of Ishmael); the child himself is passive, likely unaware of his fate, and helpless to change it; his life is saved only through the intervention of God’s angel. The plots may be similar, but the tone of the narrative is completely different. Genesis 22 reports the drama matter-of-factly, almost callously. We have no idea what Isaac feels as he’s led to the altar to be slaughtered, and we can only guess at Abraham’s state of mind while he lifts the knife. By contrast, Genesis 21 drips with pathos. “When the water was gone from the jug, Hagar left the child under one of the bushes, went off and sat down at a distance, for she said: let me not look on as [my son] dies, and… she burst into tears.” There is no question toward whom the Torah intends to arouse our sympathies. Rabbi Sacks observes: “we are awed by Abraham and Isaac, but we identify with Hagar and Ishmael.” When Hagar weeps, we are meant to weep alongside her.

God, too, weeps for the outcast. The name Ishmael literally means “the one whom God hears.” Although Ishmael is not destined to inherit the Covenant, the Torah goes out of its way to emphasize God’s special concern for Ishmael. The angel comforts Hagar in her distress by saying: “Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy… and [God] will make him a great nation.” Let’s not forget the significant detail that Hagar comes from Egypt, the very nation that subsequently assails Israel. More relevant to our own age, Ishmael is universally recognized as the forefather of the Arabs. Given these associations, the first day Rosh Hashanah Torah reading delivers an extraordinarily forceful message: God sends blessing upon all people, not only those whose destiny diverges from ours, but even our enemies.

One of Torah’s remarkable features is that, far from idealizing its heroes, it exhibits their flaws along with their virtues. One cannot remain indifferent to Sarah’s harsh conduct toward Hagar. The wording is deliberately crafted to elicit our disapproval. For example, the text describes Sarah’s actions as abusive: “and Sarah tormented Hagar,” using the same verb (anah) elsewhere reserved for describing Egypt’s oppression of Israel: “and the Egyptians tormented the children of Israel ruthlessly.” Indeed, Midrash relates the two cases: because Sarah enslaved the Egyptian, Hagar, Egypt eventually retaliated by enslaving Israel.

During the High Holiday season, we are supposed to look inward. Introspection is the crucial first step of teshuvah. The Torah invites us to examine the crosscurrents of our own motives by identifying with the psychic struggles of its protagonists. Sarah’s hatred toward Hagar, the foreigner, seems to be instigated by feelings of jealousy and competition. (cf. Genesis 16:5) Underneath her jealousy is fear, fear that Ishmael threatens the legitimacy of her beloved son Isaac as heir to the Covenant. These all-too-human emotional reactions—animosity, jealousy, competition, and, above all, fear—are the same impulses driving the backlash against foreigners today. Like our foremother Sarah, we Americans fear for our own status and security, as well as our children’s.

Abraham’s motives are more entangled than Sarah’s. He clearly loves his son Ishmael. When Sarah insists upon Ishmael’s banishment, the text states that “Abraham was greatly aggrieved,” but he gives into her demand anyway. Similarly, pressures from family members, peers and leaders can sometimes compel us to act against our better judgment, especially when they tap into pre-existing inner conflicts of our own.

Each of us comprises a multitude of inconsistencies. Some of our traits are admirable, others contemptible, and many fall in between. We are all xenophobic to some degree. It is basic human nature to feel threatened by outsiders. At this time of year devoted to moral scrutiny, our tradition challenges us to root out our own prejudices. Tikkun olam begins with tikkun ha-nefesh. To change the world, we start by changing ourselves.

Throughout Jewish literature, Abraham and Sarah are singled out as exemplars of chesed, lovingkindness, for their generosity toward the stranger. They open their tent on four sides, to welcome desert wanderers from every direction the compass. That’s why, in the designated reading for Rosh Hashanah, their cruel treatment of their own resident alien is so extraordinary and ironic. It goes to show that there is a streak of distrust and fear in the best of us.

“Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah,” declaims the Talmud. “One for the thoroughly righteous, one for the thoroughly wicked, and one for the beinoni, those in between. The fate of the first two groups is written and sealed immediately, but the fate of third remains suspended until Yom Kippur.” We are, all of us, beinoni. Just as Abraham and Sarah once fell short of the virtue of chesed with which they are identified, we too will sometimes fail to live up to our own ideals. But Rosh Hashanah calls to our highest selves. Throughout this day, in the liturgical themes and the scriptural passages, Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our affinity with all people on Earth and our special obligation to “love the stranger.” May we rise to the summons of this season. May compassion in our hearts dissolve all our inner anxieties and fears. May an abundance of chesed overcome hatred and bigotry in our society and throughout the world.

September 22, 2015: Kol Nidre Sermon (Forgiveness)

I float in shallow waters. Puffy clouds drift lazily against the deep sky’s backdrop. Blue herons and Canadian geese fly low overhead. Egrets graze among the reeds. I withdraw the paddle, let the kayak drift, and inhale deeply. Somewhere out of sight a chain saw starts up. The buzzing seems to enter my brain. “How long is this going to go on? Stop already!” Then I think: “These are only sound waves. It’s my judgment, that’s all, that breaks the peace.” And I let it go.

Atonement is letting go. “At-one-ment:” to feel at one, to be at peace. Atonement means accepting who we are, as we are—including all our imperfections. In her book There Is Nothing Wrong With You, Zen teacher Cheri Huber, writes: “If a voice—your internal critic or another person’s remark—is speaking from a place of judgment, it has nothing worthwhile to tell you. Everything you need to know will come to you in compassion.” This perspective may be Buddhist, but it also comes close to the basic meaning in Judaism of kippur, or kapparah, “atonement.”

The great twentieth century theologian, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, defines kapparah as the removal of past transgression. He quotes Rashi, who says: “whenever the term refers to sin, kapparah connotes erasing or wiping away.” King David, after committing adultery by sleeping with Bathsheba, begs God to restore him to his former state of innocence, before his degradation. “Be gracious to me, God. Blot out my willfulness, and wash me clean of my iniquities. Purge till I am whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51) This is the very psalm we read at the Tashlich ceremony, when we symbolically cast our transgressions into the water in the form of bread morsels and watch the stream carry them off, out of sight.

God grants atonement as an expression of boundless love. Justice demands that King David remain a marked man for life on account of his sexual misconduct, like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, or like registered sex offenders today. Instead, divine love wipes away his immorality, so much so that the very progeny of the illicit union, Solomon, inherits the throne after him. This is exactly the side of God’s nature over which the prophet Jonah takes God to task. Jonah is enraged by God’s unreasonable compassion, in pardoning the people of Ninevah. “I knew you would renounce punishment,” he cries, “because you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness”— hurling God’s own epithet back at God as if it were an insult! Jonah is correct to take umbrage. Forgiveness is antithetical to truth, justice, and common sense.

There is another aspect to repentance besides the obliteration of transgression. There is another dimension to Yom Kippur in addition to atonement, as indicated in the verse from Torah: “On this very day shall atonement be made for you, in order to cleanse you of all your sins; before God you shall be cleansed.” (Leviticus 16:30) Apparently, repentance consists of two separate steps: atonement, and cleansing. What is the distinction? According to Rav Soloveitchik, only God can grant atonement, but human beings must cleanse themselves through the hard work of psychological and moral self-examination. Atonement is a spiritual experience, whereas cleansing is a rational process that entails analyzing our behavior and our motives, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, making amends to those we have harmed, and paying the penalties for our misconduct.

To achieve teshuvah gemurah, complete repentance, atonement and cleansing are both necessary. Transgressions don’t occur singly in a vacuum, but pile up into patterns of misbehavior. Our misconduct eats away at us little by little from the inside, until we cannot be free of it, even if we want to, even if we feel tremendous shame and express remorse for what we have done. Beset with debts, a person might go to one friend to pay off another. He soon finds himself unable to repay either of them. He moves away to another town, where we can look people in the eye again and start over. He cannot see—or won’t admit—that “wherever he goes, there he is.” It is not enough to regret particular actions. We must also renounce the pathway and the lifestyle that led to them in the first place.

Cleansing goes further than atonement. When we ask God to pardon us, we seek to leave our sins behind us and move on. When we engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh, a thorough and honest moral inventory, we take hold of our sins, incorporate them, and embrace every facet of ourselves, virtues as well as shortcomings. The Rav writes: “cleansing is a springboard for increased inspiration. It does not entail reinstating the individual to her former status. It must activate a new one, or else the misdeed itself serves no purpose and is superfluous. It must energize an ever-ascending spiral in her spiritual state.”

Life without lapses is not only impossible but undesirable. We ought not to lament our missteps but appreciate them for the lessons they teach us. In fact, Cheri Huber goes so far as to say that on the path to moral improvement, there’s no such thing as failure. “She compares our journey to that of an infant learning to walk. “At one point should he have condemned himself?” she asks. “All of the times he pitched over on his head or fell back on his bottom? They may have been unsuccessful attempts according to the definition of walking, but they were an inevitable part of the process of learning to walk.” (There Is Nothing Wrong, page 160)

The perspective that sees the potential benefit of wrongdoing—and, remember, the Hebrew word cheit, for sin, simply means “missing the mark”—explains the paradoxical Talmudic statement: “in the place where the fully repentant person stands, the completely righteous person cannot stand.” (bBerachot 34b) That’s right! The one who learns from her mistake ends up with greater self-awareness and more maturity than if she had never stumbled to begin with. Imagine for a moment that you were perfect, whatever that could possibly mean. You never offended anybody. You never did anything you regretted. Nothing and no one ever annoyed you. You would probably be dead! So, the next time something or someone agitates you, take a deep breath and ask yourself: what am I supposed to learn from this?

We have been considering two necessary sides to repentance: forgiveness versus judgment, acceptance versus improvement, or, in Rav Soloveitchik’s vocabulary, atonement versus cleansing. One entails eradicating our transgressions and reversing our status to an original stage of innocence. The other calls for transforming our transgressions into assets, which catapults us to a higher level of self-awareness and moral maturity. Which comes first? The Rav seems to regard atonement as the starting point from which to mount the real objective, which is cleansing. For him, the goal of repentance is to change our ways.

Perhaps, though, it’s the other way around. Perhaps self-scrutiny is merely a precursor to self-acceptance. After all, the work of self-improvement is endless. A lifetime in therapy is only enough to scratch the surface of our inner drives and motivations. At a certain point, we reach the limit of our capacity to understand ourselves, and we must yield to the unfathomable mystery of the psyche. That is the point of forgiveness.

Humans are ultimately enigmatic beings. “Who can ever know the depth of her own errors?” exclaims the Psalmist. “Therefore, God, cleanse me from all invisible faults.” I never understood that line: how can we repent of faults we don’t even know we have? But the other day hearing the psalm at services, with this sermon already swimming around in my head, I realized that the lesser part of forgiveness is for the behavior we comprehend, and the greater part of forgiveness is for everything we cannot know. Imagine that someone offends you with a rude remark. Later, you learn he had just received devastating personal news. In an instant, your anger dissolves into compassion. But what if you never were to find out the hidden information? That is the point of forgiveness.

I want to stray from my prepared remarks for reasons that will become obvious. I decided at the 11th hour to subject this sermon to my mother’s red pen… My mother has always been my best editor going back to reports for 5th grade Social Studies… She turns to me and says “it’s confusing… I can’t follow it…” Well, this was just a few hours ago, she must have seen the distress on my face, and so she immediately reversed herself and said: “You know, leave it be, it’s just fine.” That is the point of forgiveness. When turn to someone and say: it’s okay, you’ve done enough now, you can let it rest, that’s the very definition of forgiveness.

A Christian colleague asked me last week: “so what do Jews think about perfection—is it something that you strive for, or is it hopelessly out of reach?” I thought for a moment. We have Shabbat, of course, when we cease all creative activity, but we cannot stay there forever. Heschel beautifully describes the dialectic: “Six days a week, we wrestle with the earth, but on the Sabbath, we care especially for the seed of eternity planted within the soul.” (The Sabbath, p. 13) So, I replied to my friend: “Both, actually. God did not complete the work of Creation, but left us with the task of perfecting it. Every other commandment buttresses Tikkun Olam, Judaism’s supreme injunction to repair the world. But at the moment of candlelighting on Friday evening, we let it all go. On Shabbat, nothing needs improvement, because the world is already perfect, just as it is.”

Since only one day out of seven is spent at rest, you might conclude that Tikkun Olam takes precedence over Shabbat. Not necessarily. Even when the Jew is working, she keeps Shabbat ever present in her mind. As Heschel puts it: “The Sabbath is not for the purpose of recovering one’s strength in order to become fit for the forthcoming labor. It’s the other way around. Labor is the means to an end, and that end is the Sabbath.”

The same principle applies to teshuvah as Tikkun Olam. Just as the struggle to right the injustices of society has no endpoint, so too we will be engaged in the work of rectifying our relationships till the day we die. Nevertheless, there comes a point in both endeavors where we must pause, and say: “everything is okay, right here, right now.” Or, in the words of Cheri Huber: “There is nothing wrong with you. You are good, exactly as you are.”

Yom Kippur is such a time. If Shabbat is a weekly day of wholeness and contentment, then Yom Kippur all the more so, for it is called “the Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Rosh Hashanah, last week, was the Day of Judgment, but today, Yom Kippur, is the Day of “At-one-ment.” The period for judgment, criticism and blame is over and done. Now is the time for, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. All the ways that you disappoint yourself—let them go. All the ways you fail to live up to others’ expectations—let them go. The grudge you are nursing because someone wronged you in the past—for goodness sake, let it go already! With every confession you recite this evening—tap gently on your heart. Remember: the soul within you is pure.

I float along, reveling in the sensuous warmth of sunlight on my arms, even as a soft breeze caresses my face. A faint buzzing comes from beyond the shoreline trees, but it merely mingles with the song of the birds and rustle of the leaves. I am at one.

September 13, 2015: Rosh Hashanah Sermon (Living in a World of Terror)

ROSH HASHANAH EVENING: Living in a World of Terror

We live in a world of chaos, destruction, and evil, much of it caused by humankind. Every day, the morning newspaper confronts us with some new atrocity. “ISIS traffics women as sex slaves in public markets,executes suspected homosexuals, accelerates the razing of ancient sites.” The nuclear deal with Iran stirs up such passionate anxiety, because it has repeatedly cried to annihilate Israel. And then there is the greatest menace of all, imperiling the survival not just of one people but of the entire human species. In an ominous op-ed piece entitled “The World’s Hot Spot,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently contended that the twin calamities of climate change and overpopulation are driving the bloody conflicts in the Middle East and precipitating the refugee crisis. Our assaults against ourselves overwhelm the mind and dismay the soul. Have we past the point of no return?

We are not the first generation to suppose that we confront imminent ruin. As Jews, we know a thing or two about living under the “sword of Damocles.” Since our people’s birth as slaves in Egypt, we have endured exile, if not the risk of extermination. Witnesses to the destruction of the Temple were unable to imagine how the Jewish religion could ever survive the loss of its vital hub, and many contemporaries thought the world was about to end in apocalypse. Fast forward to our own day and age—for which I need hardly mention the Holocaust. When the Dalai Lama first met a delegation of leading Rabbis in the 90s, he asked them: “what is your secret?” His people were forced to leave Tibet only fifty years ago, but no other nation on Earth has survived through centuries of persecution and dispersal, as the people of Israel have.

Rosh Hashanah, in particular, shines an annual spotlight onto the precariousness of existence. Its most troubling prayer demands: “who shall live, and who shall die?” As a child attending synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey, on the High Holidays, I would listen to my grandparents—and my parents after them—commenting on the dwindling ranks of the old-timers in the front pews, each year a few less. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is, above all, a meditation on mortality. “The human being’s origin is dust, and her end is dust”—that part taken directly out of the first chapters of Genesis. “She toils for bread her whole life long. She is a broken shard, the withering grass, a shriveled flower, a passing shadow, a fading cloud, a vanishing dream.” The central question becomes: how can we transcend the curse of Adam and Eve?

The Unetaneh Tokef is the product of the Middle Ages, an especially grim period for the Jews, when marauding Crusaders annihilated entire Jewish villages overnight and without warning. The poet responds to the unpredictability of violence with the pious proclamation that vexes so many of us: “Behold the Day of Judgment! On this day, … You decree the fate of human creatures and inscribe their destiny!” At a recent Beth Shalom discussion group, one participant offered a striking insight:“Don’t read the Unetaneh Tokef as a statement of faith,” she suggested. “Read it instead as a protest, a yearning, a longing…” If only the bad guys did get their just desserts, and good ones did live happily ever after, like in the movies! We human creatures seem to have an innate need to establish a cause for what happens, even where none exists. “So strong is the compulsion to make sense of the world that a great many [otherwise] rational adults will sometimes invent the most far-fetched reasons to justify [the tragedies that befall them]…,” says Harold Kushner in his book When Children Ask About God. (pp. 80-81) That’s a good thing, because it attests to the durability of our deeply ingrained feeling for fairness and harmony, despite the chaos all around us.

The Unetaneh Tokef is embedded within the third blessing of the Amidah, known as Qedushat ha-Shem, “sanctification of God’s Name.” For centuries, the phrase qiddush ha-Shem was synonymous with martyrdom. Some went to their deaths willingly, such as the legendary author of the Unetaneh Tokef itself, and some were killed involuntarily, such as Daniel Pearl, the civil rights workers in Mississippi, and others whose stories are detailed in the Eileh Ezkerah section of our new Reform Machzor. Surely, these individuals did not set out to become martyrs, any more than the three American youths who made international headlines set out to become heroes when they boarded the high-speed train from Brussels to Paris last month.

Mother Theresa once purportedly stated: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Likewise, when the Talmud discusses qedushat ha-shem, it illustrates the concept not with heroic self-sacrifice—though Jewish history affords plenty of cases of that—but with everyday examples: “When you speak gently to others, when you maintain honest dealings with your fellows, then people will say: ‘praised be the God of Israel, for instilling honest and compassionate behavior.’” Thank God most of us will never be forced to make split-second, life-and-death decisions. But holiness is not reserved for extraordinary times and circumstances. The Jewish way is to bring holiness into the mundane—to elevate every single interaction, conversation, and gesture.

The Unetaneh Tokef itself provides a softer prescription, short of martyrdom, for sanctifying the Name of God every day. “Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah cause the evil of the decree to pass away.” The dire decree, imposed upon every human being, is death, of course. We cannot avoid the decree, but we can cause the evil of the decree to pass away. We cannot avoid our end, but we can attach ourselves to that which is without end. We touch the Eternal whenever by attaching ourselves to God’s Name. And we attach ourselves to God’s Name by engaging in teshuvah, tefillah or tzedakah.

Repentance, prayer, and good deeds. Each element deserves an entire sermon in its own right, as indeed I have given in the past. What strikes me most about the formula this year is our tradition’s curious and pervasive tendency to assume responsibility upon ourselves, almost to the point of self-blame, for the evils of the world in general. One reason the communal confessional on Yom Kippur is recited in the first person, plural—not “for the sins I have committed before you…” but “for the sins we have committed before you”—is that, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, “although some maybe guilty, all are responsible.” Likewise, in a recent talk that Rabbi Arthur Green delivered on religious extremism, he mentioned in the same breath the rape of Yazidi women at the hands of ISIS militants, along with the knife attack against participants of the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and the burning of a Palestinian family in their home, both perpetrated by Jewish fanatics. Some listeners took offense at the comparison, but Rabbi Green’s response was quintessentially Jewish.

We must combat cruelty on two fronts, within and without, and the two aims do not cancel out one another. In Rabbi Green’s own words: “When you look at what ISIS is doing to residents in the territories they’ve conquered, first you have to thank the Zionists for having rescued the Jews from Kurdistan and brought them to Israel years before ISIS came along. But then, we have to do everything we can to resist those people. Now, there are elements of the Jewish people for whom resistance means we must become as tough and fundamentalist as they are. But to me, resisting them means, in part, not becoming like them.”

In the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic first swept through the gay community, self-help guru Louise Hay came out with the national bestseller, You Can Heal Your Life. The book contended that physical disease was an outward manifestation of underlying spiritual “dis-ease.” “Let go of anger and resentment, and replace them with forgiveness, compassion and love,” she urged. Hay infuriated critics who accused her of “blaming the victim” for his illness, but her message nevertheless resonated with thousands who knew they would likely die within weeks of diagnosis. Hay’s counsel to look inward in response to mortal peril mirrors Rabbi Green’s inclination, in the wake of Islamist brutality, to examine similar tendencies on the Jewish side, or, for that matter, the indictment of Israel by the Rabbinic sages who said: “the Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among the people”—even though the Rabbis knew full well that no amount of local resistance on the part of the insignificant province of Judea could have stopped the might of Rome, the greatest superpower on Earth at the time.

Although I reject Louise Hay’s spectacular claim that curing illness is a matter of healing the soul, I have no doubt that many who embraced her teachings braved their situation with a stronger sense of empowerment. The Mi Shebeirach prayer ends with the words: “bless those in need of healing with refuah shleimah, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.” Shleimah means “complete”—a complete healing—and is related to shalom, the word for peace. Even when renewal of the body is no longer possible, renewal of the spirit is always possible. Isn’t that what we all want: a peaceful death, a sense of wholeness and completeness when our work on Earth is concluded?

The Unataneh Tokef does not guarantee that teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah will prevent disaster. Rather, these practices ensure composure and instill resolve to face adversity, no matter how grave. When we read of the latest instantiation of climate change, from President Obama’s recent visit above the Arctic Circle, say, where entire Alaskan villages must relocate miles upslope because of inundating seas, what is demanded of us? First, that we reassess our own patterns of energy consumption, then, implement ways to reduce it. When we view pictures of Syrian refugees streaming into Europe, how should we respond? First grieve; then act—perhaps by contributing to a relief organization such as HIAS, the Jewish group that advocates for, protects and resettles refugees nationally and internationally.

We are not helpless victims. That is Judaism’s frontline response to calamity. Even when we cannot change outside circumstances, we can still change ourselves. The injunction that overarches the entire High Holiday season, uvacharta bachayyim, directs us to choose life, no matter what. As one recent correspondent put it: “My first instinct upon seeing any news report of violence and mass killings is to ask myself: how are we connecting to each other? What are we doing, each of us, to look one another genuinely in the eyes and see ourselves reflected back? What energy do we bring to our communities? Who are we excluding, physically or psychologically, on daily basis? It takes each one of us to seek to understand the core of our own motivations and emotional responses, to be vulnerable and open with others, knowing that all of us feel betrayed, undermined, or rejected at times. And yet, we can find love and contentment, maybe at first in fleeting moments, and only later, by changing our patterns, we can create love through us and cultivate compassion. We can fear one another, or we can love one another. The choice is ours, everyday.”

We occupy a terrifying world. Every instant finds us a hair’s breadth away from annihilation. We construct a life of seemingly secure surroundings and familiar routine, of work and play, of money and material comforts, but, in fact, we have much less control over what happens to us than we care to admit. An email, a phone call, just opening the newspaper in the morning is all it might take to pierce the veneer of order and security. The basic function of the High Holidays is to rouse us from our complacency and instill a sense of urgency. “Sleepers, awake from your slumber, you who waste away your years in vain pursuits that neither profit nor save!” cries the Shofar.

What does profit and save us? When we have the courage to turn inward and see the violence that fills the world reflected within ourselves. When we nurture the compassion to see the divine image reflected in every encounter with every human being. When we respond to random evil with a simple act of goodness. Do we want God’s reputation to be left in the hands of jihadists and religious extremists? No! God is counting on us to redeem the holiness of the Divine Name, and, in so doing, to redeem ourselves from insignificance.

Our lives are precarious, our future is uncertain, and our days are numbered. Here are two pieces of wisdom with which to leave you: one from the Native American tradition, and one from our tradition. Unlike the Western mind, which views life as a line that extends from point A to point B, the Native American views life as a circle. The circle itself may expand as we progress through life, but at any given moment it is boundless and complete. Therefore, the Native American wakes up in the morning and says: “today is a good day to die”—not with morbidity, but with the serenity that comes from knowing that there is nothing more she needs to accomplish in order to be whole. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer used to admonish his students: “do teshuvah, return to your goodness, one day before you die.” “But Master,” replied a disciple, “how are we to know the day of our death?” “Therefore, return today, lest you die tomorrow,” said the Rabbi, “and so you will spend all your days in teshuvah.”

Shanah tovah.
In the coming year, may you spend every day, every moment of every day, in shleimut, in fullness and joy.

October 3, 2014: Kol Nidre 5775 (Israel: Principles of Discourse)

Three Jewish mothers get together for lunch. As they are being seated in the restaurant, one takes a deep breath and gives a long, slow "oy." The second answers with another prolonged sigh: "oy." The third interrupts impatiently: "Girls, girls, I thought we agreed that we weren't going to talk about our children!”

So what’s our unmentionable, our elephant in the middle of the room? What is the one essential topic of Jewish discourse that we don’t know how to broach? A few weeks ago, a congregant advised me: “Don’t talk about Israel. What’s the point? You’ll just stir up trouble.” Another e-mailed me: “I feel sorry for you that you’re going to have to talk about Israel from the Bimah on the High Holidays.” A third observed: “Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!” Nor are we the only congregation, nor I the only Rabbi, struggling with how to dialogue meaningfully and constructively on Israel. In a recent article entitled “Muzzled by the Minority,” Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote: “North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.” Indeed, just since I completed the first draft of this sermon, several articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have appeared, each describing strife in some American Jewish circles over this summer’s war in Gaza. Two weeks ago, the beloved Rabbi of a large suburban synagogue near Chicago resigned over the issue after seventeen years of devoted service to his congregation.

Despite the risk, I have decided to use the highest-profile occasion of the Jewish calendar to offer heartfelt reflections. Israel is on all of our minds, including my own. Furthermore, many of you look to the Rabbi for spiritual guidance. I have confidence that the trust and—I’ll say it—love that has developed over the past two years between us (you, my congregation, and me, your Rabbi) have developed and solidified to the point where they will not rupture by what I am about to express, even in this difficult area.

How did the American Jewish community get to this point, especially since we as a people are famously argumentative? You’ve heard the old saw: “two Jews, three opinions!” Indeed, machloqet, entering into disagreement, is the defining feature of our religion since the Rabbinic era. The Talmud is built upon impassioned debate. Hillel and Shammai, the greatest sages of them all, famously argued for three years over an arcane point of law and still never reached consensus. Prospective converts in my Introduction to Judaism class are often surprised to learn—and, furthermore, find it refreshing—that unlike the Christianity that they grew up with, in which adherents must subscribe to a single dogma, Judaism encourages a wide range of convictions. You don’t even have to believe in God to be a good Jew, so why is Israel such a difficult subject?

In his classic work The Rabbinic Mind, scholar Max Kadushin devised the term “value concept” to denote the dominant themes that pervade Jewish discourse. Examples include: “tzedek (justice),” “hesed (lovingkindness),” “Torah,” and—yes—“Israel.” These are the fundamental captions of Jewish vocabulary that all of us employ in our conversations with each other. Jewish value concepts bind us together as a distinct culture, and yet no two of us mean precisely the same thing when we invoke one of them. Take the word “Torah.” When you say “Torah,” you might believe in Holy Scripture as the word of God on Mount Sinai transcribed verbatim by Moses. Your neighbor might refer to the work that began as several different oral traditions, was later redacted, and became the primary source of guidance and inspiration for Jews throughout the generations ever since. For another Jew, “Torah” might signify, expansively, not the Hebrew document at all but the summation of human wisdom accrued since the beginning of civilization until the present day, including all of science, ethics, and philosophy. Although the word varies in meaning, one really can’t be Jewish without some connection to, or personal notion of, Torah. According to Kadushin, the Talmud abounds in contradictions because the Rabbis did not attempt to develop a logically consistent set of beliefs. Rather, they were interested in “expressing and responding to the differences of human personalities.” (The Rabbinic Mind, page 2) Rabbinic culture cohered not because people thought alike but because people had license to think differently within the basic parameters delimited by Jewish value concepts.

What are our fundamental value concepts that underlie our discussions about Israel? Foremost is the land itself. Just as being Jewish entails a relationship with Torah, it also implies an attachment to eretz Yisra’eil. The land of Israel has been inextricably associated with the people of Israel ever since Abraham. In the words of Hatikvah, “so long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sang, so long as the eye looked eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope was never lost—the hope of two thousand years.” We kept alive the dream of return in our daily worship, praying the lines: “gather us from the four corners of the earth; have mercy and bring us back to Jerusalem.” When the Dalai Lama first met a delegation of leading Rabbis in the 90s, he asked them: “what is your secret?” His people were forced to leave Tibet only fifty years ago, but no nation on Earth has survived exile through centuries of dispersal and persecution, except for Israel.

I’ll never forget looking out from the window seat as a twelve-year old, glimpsing the brown shoreline when it first appeared above the distant horizon of the sea, watching it get larger and larger as the plane approached, eventually making out buildings, then sunbathers on the beaches, my heart swelling with joy and anticipation. How to explain the thrill of homecoming, when I had never set foot in the country before? Many of us feel a visceral, inexplicable, quasi-mystical sense of belonging and love for the land itself.

A second, distinctly modern value concept entwines every consideration of Israel—namely, the Holocaust. Our collective Jewish psyche will forever bear its indelible scar. As a defining marker, the Shoah rivals, if not supersedes, the first momentous event of Jewish history, yetziyat Mitzrayim. Just as Torah imposes a religious obligation to “see ourselves,” every day of our lives, “as if we personally went forth from Egypt,” so too the martyrs of the Holocaust charge us with the sacred task of inculcating in our children from generation to generation the message of “never again!”

What are the dreadful lessons of the Holocaust? For a number of us, “never again” means “never again will we Jews render ourselves vulnerable, defenseless, and at the mercy of adversaries out to destroy us.” Belatedly after World War Two, much of the world came to recognize the imperative to establish a Jewish homeland. That the modern State of Israel was founded on the heels of Nazi genocide feels nothing short of miraculous. However, seventy years later, anti-Semitism intensifies anew, not only through the incendiary proclamations of the Hamas charter and Islamist leaders throughout the Middle East but even at peace rallies in the West. Apparently, Europe’s shame at having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in its midst is wearing off. For these reasons, memory of the Holocaust ensures that Israel’s security remain a top concern.

However, “never again” has an additional, universal application: “never again will we sit idly while a group of human beings—any group—is marginalized, persecuted and threatened.” Thus, many Jews cited the Holocaust when they positioned themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and rallied against the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. Closer to home, our unhappy legacy as victims of atrocities, from Pharaoh to Hitler, admonishes us lest we cause the suffering of others. “Do not oppress the foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9) When some of us criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, we are not “self-hating Jews.” Rather, we act according to the loftiest prescriptions of our tradition, as well as with full awareness of our age-old experience of persecution.

The notion of am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel—as distinct from eretz Yisra’eil, the land of Israel—yields a third pertinent value concept. We involve ourselves with the State of Israel’s concerns for the elemental reason that so many of our fellow Jews live there or plan to make aliyah (move there), including our own loved ones, members of the Beth Shalom community, and some of you here tonight. Israel has now surpassed the United States as the country containing the largest Jewish population; in a few years, one out of every two Jews in the world will live in Israel. Its security entails the fate of six million of our sisters and brothers. The Rabbinic dictum, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh, “all of Israel is responsible one for the other,” directs us to stand up for our own kin before we advance the interests of others. A key principle of tzedakah ranks commitment in concentric circles. One must tend first to one’s family, then one’s community, then the Jewish people generally, and, finally, all of humanity (to which in our day we might add: the natural world). (cf. http://shma.com/2011/10/ creating-a-tzedakah-standard/) Therefore, when the news and social media attack Israel, we take it personally. Loyalty impels us to come to her defense as we would for a close relative.

However, kol Yisra’eil areivim zeh bazeh confers an additional obligation: to be responsible not only for the safety and wellbeing of fellow Jews but for their actions as well. Many of us shudder if the culprit of the latest public financial or sexual scandal seems to bear a Jewish-sounding name, lest his offense reflect upon us and upon our faith. Hoche’ach tochiach et amitecha, exhorts the Torah, “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk,” (Leviticus 19:17) implying greater license to censure one’s own relation than a person with whom one has no connection. Some contend that because Diaspora Jews lack Israeli citizenship and have not endured the hardships of war, they do not have the right to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. However, this argument disregards our close affiliation with each other no matter where we live. We are all one people the world over. We share in each other’s suffering, and we partake of the same destiny.

It is instructive that in the Holiness Code, “love your neighbor as yourself” follows closely upon the heels of “you shall surely reprove your kinsfolk.” Reproach must be grounded in love. It is precisely our devotion to Israel that underlies any disapproval we may express. Once again, the analogy to Torah as a value concept is relevant. One might decry certain passages that one finds repugnant, such as the verses in the Book of Numbers that condone the utter destruction of Israel’s enemies, but being Jewish means that love of Torah resides deep within and complete detachment is impossible. Likewise, one might deplore certain Israeli operations and modes of conduct, but love for am Yisra’eil precludes turning one’s back on fellow Jews.

So far, the examination of three value concepts—the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the somber legacy of the Holocaust—has focused on the substance of our conversations on Israel, but what about the manner of discourse itself? Returning to the example with which we started, the Talmud sets forth the exemplars of upright disputation: “Any argument for the sake of heaven is destined to endure… What is an argument for the sake of heaven? This is the one between Hillel and Shammai.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) The key characteristic of meaningful and constructive dialogue is described by the phrase lesheim shamayim, literally, “in the name of heaven.” Heaven represents the source of ultimate Truth that transcends human understanding. The operative value concept is humility, which Max Kadushin termed yir’at shamayim, “awe of heaven,” the idea that we bow in reverence before the unknowable. As the Talmud asserts elsewhere: “The disciples of Hillel were kindly and humble. They would teach both the words of Shammai and the words of Hillel, and, not only that, they would give Shammai’s position preeminence over their own.” (bEruvim 13b)

Humility, the acknowledgement that each of our perspectives is limited—on Israel, or on any significant topic for that matter—engenders tolerance and respect for one another. We recognize that our own subjective ties and experiences shape our own mindset, and we acknowledge that different ties and experiences may produce divergent worldviews for other individuals and, certainly, for other groups. If we were to construct a composite narrative of what is happening in Israel by compiling all of the undisputed facts plus all of our personal opinions, even then, we would still fall short of telling the complete story.

If we could find a way to dialogue about Israel without splintering our beloved community, no conversation would have to remain off the table. My highest vision for Beth Shalom is that we be a holy community: judging one another lechaf zechut, that is, ascribing to one another only the best of intentions, forgiving one another’s limitations, and grounding all of our interactions in our basic caring for one another. As we prayed together in the invocation just a few minutes ago: “How fine it is to gather, people with firm beliefs, together with people with questions in their hearts, in the house of a God who values deeds of caring and justice far above the recitation of creeds.” Many of us hold solid opinions when it comes to Israel, and many of us harbor strong doubts. If you believe that the land of Israel is the inalienable inheritance of the people of Israel, a claim rooted in the Bible, justified by ancient precedent, and cemented through thousands of years of joint association, you are welcome here. If you maintain that above all, we must staunchly uphold solidarity with Israel in the face of anti-Zionist and especially anti-Semitic rhetoric, you are welcome here. If you fear for the safety of loved ones and fellow Jews living in the State of Israel, who have endured repeated attack since its founding, and before, you are welcome here. If you are sympathetic to the plight and suffering of Palestinians, you are welcome here. If you grieve for victims on both sides and mourn the devastation of war, you are welcome here. If you are outraged by certain decisions of the Israeli government, you are welcome here. If you worry that the moral fiber of Israel is eroding, or that Israeli society is losing its sense of national purpose and direction, you are welcome here. If you wake up every day in awe and gratitude for the privilege of living in the age that witnessed and experienced the miracle of Israel’s rebirth sixty-six years ago, you are welcome here. If you fear that Israel will not be around in another sixty-six years and are willing to go to any lengths to prevent such a tragedy, you are welcome here. If you hold several of these sometimes contradictory concerns simultaneously, you are welcome here. Above all, if you express the truth of your own heart and the yearning of your own soul, you are welcome here.

The principles that govern how we talk about Israel apply to speech in general. We are about to utter many words on this Day of Atonement. If our expressions of atonement are to signify anything, we must adhere to the value concepts that bind us together as Jews. Just as love for am Yisra’eil, the people of Israel, informs every discussion of eretz Yisra’eil, the Land of Israel, and medinat Yisra’eil, the State of Israel, may our underlying love and concern for each other here, in this community, ground every prayer we are about to recite and every vow we are about to undertake. Just as the Holocaust casts a shadow over Israel, now and forever, may we remain aware of, and compassionate toward, our own and each other’s brokenness and suffering throughout the coming day and the coming year. Finally, may all of our utterances be lesheim shamayim, for the sake of heaven and in the name of heaven. May our ongoing humility be the gateway to forgiveness—for ourselves, for our community, for all Israel, and for the world.

September 24, 2014: Rosh Hashanah 5775: Vision, Action, Celebration

The modern Hasidic master Netivot Shalom writes: “There are multiple gates in a person’s life. Each new day is an opening, and each month—a larger portal. Then there is the grand gateway of Rosh Hashanah, the threshold of an entire year. What is a gateway? It’s the border between past and future; a place to pause and contemplate where it is you are about to enter and why you are going there.” On a global level, the world may feel more turbulent than ever before, but here at Beth Shalom we are enjoying a period of stability. Our lay leaders and staff are conscientious and devoted. Gan Shalom and our religious school are thriving. Our committees—Adult Programming, Till and Tend, Mitzvah, Chevra Kadisha, the Gathering, and many more—are providing us all with rich resources, support and guidance. Our membership is expanding vigorously; we are approaching two hundred families for the first time in years, and they include beloved friends who are returning. Just take a look around at the most tangible, recent symbol of our prosperity—our beautifully remodeled sanctuary, the product of strong vision, committed volunteers, and successful fundraising to which many of us contributed. Today, we can afford to pause on the threshold of the new year and take stock of who we are as a community and where we are heading.

Every summer, the Board and Rabbi set overlapping goals for our endeavors. This year, our primary objectives are threefold: to envision the future of Beth Shalom, to reinvigorate social action, and to celebrate our community. The priorities can be summarized under the headline: “see! do! party!” Now is the time to examine our future, strengthen the work in which we are engaged in the present, and celebrate the achievements of the past (because those successes made us into this thriving congregation). The triple framework corresponds to the fundamental activities that the High Holidays enjoin upon us—teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah.

Let’s look first at teshuvah, which pairs with vision. Teshuvah entails reminding ourselves of our true intentions and correcting course when we have deviated. But there’s more to it. As Ron Wolfson writes in his book Relational Judaism: “Most of us look at others and see [only the mask]. Great people see through the mask and see others for who they are. The greatest of the great see others for who they are capable of becoming.” (p. 95) Wolfson’s observation on leadership applies equally well to each of us as individuals. Although the first stage of repentance requires breaking through layers of denial and returning to our true selves, a higher level of repentance involves “returning” (in quotes) to our augmented selves. To come back merely to the person we recognize today would be to sell ourselves short; a loftier goal is to envision the one we might yet become. We shift the baseline from present reality to an exalted reality that we haven’t realized yet. Vision is not the same thing as seeing. Seeing is descriptive; it describes things as they are Vision is prescriptive; it describes things the way they should be.

How do you envision Beth Shalom fifty years from now? Here’s a simple exercise for which, if you wish, you can close your eyes… Consider your ideal congregation, the synagogue of your hopes and dreams, the community that would make you feel proud to be part of, or else would make you want to join…. What are the three words that immediately come to mind to describe it?... Focus on the first word. What can you specifically do, what action can you take, to help bring Beth Shalom into alignment with this attribute?... I invite you to email me after the holiday your three-word list to describe the image of your ideal community. In the coming months, conversations are to be organized among all Beth Shalom members so that we may formulate a joint vision of our future together. Expect to be contacted and engaged. Like the great prophets of old, we seek a community that embodies and upholds the basic values of our tradition—tzedek u-mishpat, chesed ve-rachamim, justice and righteousness, compassion and caring.

Vision leads to action. As soon as we articulate of our noblest aspirations for Beth Shalom, we place upon ourselves the obligation to work toward fulfilling them. As private citizens, many of us already give our time and money generously to worthy local and global causes. We also donate freely to Jewish philanthropies, such as the Jewish Federations of North America, Hadassah, New Israel Fund, and others. Furthermore, Beth Shalom currently offers an array of volunteer opportunities throughout the year: participating in the CROP Walk (coming up in a few weeks), staffing the interfaith winter homeless shelter, serving Christmas lunch at the Shalom Center, the Homeward Bound walk in April, the Habitat for Humanity Women’s Build in May, and so on. What’s new for the coming year is that our recently formed Tikkun Olam “think tank” is developing social action initiatives that are focused, systemic, and embrace all members of the congregation. Just as the High Holiday liturgy places tzedakah at the fore of our consciousness (along with teshuvah and tefillah), we will be integrating social justice into every aspect of Beth Shalom programming (and, by the way, following the lead of the Till and Tend Committee, which has already raised awareness and successfully changed our patters of energy consumption community-wide).

Here’s another bit of introspection. Please answer the following question to yourself: “what is it that keeps you up at night the most?” The worry that preoccupies you—you don’t have to exit the Beth Shalom community in order to address it. Again, I’d like to hear from you. Email me your top concern, and together let’s find like-minded members who want to undertake the same challenge. Lest you consider the thought exercise academic and the invitation pro forma—just a few weeks ago, Deb Myerson asked me and Didi, our education director, to investigate Jewish resources for allowing pupils with special needs to participate fully in religious school life. With our encouragement, her request expanded into a proposal that the Board has quickly embraced, to form a new Beth Shalom Inclusion Committee charged with making our community welcoming and accessible to members and visitors of every age group, regardless of physical, mental or emotional limitations and challenges. If a member of Beth Shalom cares passionately about a cause and approaches me with her vision, then it is my job to help her find a way to develop and implement it as part of her Jewish practice.

The contemplation of humanity’s endless list of intractable problems—violence, bigotry, genocide, poverty, environmental degradation, and on and on—could easily paralyze us with despair. Why set out to perform tikkun olam, to repair the world, when the needs are so vast? It turns out that this Rosh Hashanah, 5775, ushers in the so-called shmitah year, literally, “the year of release.” The Torah redresses the environmental and economic evils of society once every seven years with two, sweeping stipulations: all land shall lie fallow, and all debts shall be cancelled. These commandments promote a conception of human beings living in harmony with each other and with the Earth. But are they realistic? How could the most basic economic system function, let alone today’s complex global economy, if agriculture and commerce ceased for even a single day? Indeed, many Biblical scholars believe that ancient Israel never actually enacted the utopian provisions of shmitah. Rather, like Shabbat, upon which it is modeled, shmitah serves to curb the innately human drive to “wrestle with the world and wring profit from the Earth.” (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 13) Shabbat and shmitah teach us that because only God holds ultimate dominion over the human being and the Earth, we may exploit neither.

Why does the Torah demand that we pursue the unachievable goal of absolute social and environmental justice? Recently, in her drash entitled “something is better than nothing,” Aviva Orenstein quoted the Rabbinic adage: “it is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to be idle from it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21) One can turn the saying around: “to be free, you must be engaged in the task.” Our continual efforts to improve the world, even when we know our impact will be limited, are the mark of human agency and endurance—characteristics that set us part from all other living creatures. Besides, sometimes we do make a difference. For example, the Bloomington Friends of Israel recently met to plan fundraising for Israelis who suffered under this summer’s Hamas rockets. Rather than donating to a large philanthropy such as Magen David Adom, for which the proceeds amount to a drop in the bucket, they are researching and identifying a specific school, hospital, or township for which the contribution can satisfy a particular need.

The story of the starfish will have this evening’s final word on Tikkun Olam: “Once a man was walking along a beach littered with thousands of starfish stranded by the low tide, when he came upon a child throwing them back into the sea, one by one. ‘What are you doing?’ the man asked. ‘I'm saving the starfish,’ the child replied. ‘Why waste your time? There are so many you can't possibly rescue them all, so what does it matter?’ The child picked up another starfish and tossed it back into the water. ‘It mattered to this one,’ he said.”

We should measure our progress not by the number of starfish still lying in front of us but by the expanse of clean beach stretching behind. From time to time, we ought to pause on our journey to celebrate how far we’ve come. The coming year marks a conspicuous milestone. In May 1965, 43 Bloomington families and six individuals voted to establish the University Jewish Community. In the decades since, hundreds of others joined them to develop it into the thriving Congregation Beth Shalom that exists today. Two of the original four UJC officers are among us this evening: Joe Belth, vice-president, and Fran Weinberg, secretary. The Fiftieth Anniversary Planning Group has begun organizing and coordinating a variety of programs and activities, which will culminate in a gala dinner currently scheduled for May 16, 2015. Besides—of course—creating a grand opportunity to simply have fun, our goals include: to honor our ancestors, promote our history, strengthen existing relationships among us, build our community for the future, and recognize that Beth Shalom is bigger than any one of us. The last point—that each person takes part in, and benefits from, relations that transcend the individual—aligns celebration with tefillah, worship (the other element among the three High Holiday prescriptions). Both prayer and celebration are forms of praise, in which we express gratitude for our blessings. So, let’s take a moment for a final bit of introspection. This time, please identify one idea for our festive semi-centennial commemoration that you consider essential. What, in your mind, does every good party need? You guessed it: please send me your suggestion after the holidays. There’s nothing that I’d rather see more than my inbox flooded with emails.

If the ideals of shemitah, the seventh “year of release,” can animate social action at Beth Shalom, then the yovel, the fiftieth “year of the Jubilee,” can frame our anniversary celebration. The Jubilee features the same laws as for shemitah, plus one additional provision: all indentured servants are set free and return to their original landholdings. You just heard it! All Beth Shalom volunteers: go home! Actually, no—quite the opposite.

The primary concern of the Jubilee year is encapsulated in its ringing rejoinder: “proclaim liberty throughout the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof”—literally, ringing, because these words are inscribed upon the Liberty Bell. The Hebrew term for “liberty,” deror, occurs in only two other instances in the entire Bible, in contrast to the much more common words, chofesh and cheirut. Scholar Nechama Leibowitz sums up the difference. Chofesh and cheirut are negative attributes in relation to some obstacle—such as freedom from oppression, or freedom from work and obligations. Deror is a positive state of being that does not depend upon external circumstances. When we take a vacation (chofesh in modern Hebrew), going for long walks on the beach with no worries and no responsibilities—that’s not freedom, that’s escape. When we voluntarily give of ourselves to others, devoting our time and energy to worthy causes, even with their concomitant worries and responsibilities—that’s the true freedom of deror.

Celebration entails obligation. The recognition of past accomplishments motivates us to build upon them for the future. Thus, celebration leads full circle back to vision. Celebration, action, and vision are the intertwined practices that continuously link past, present, and future. No sooner do we achieve one goal than we are on to the next. In the words of Israeli songwriter Yoram Taharlev: “In this place toward which I am walking, there were people long before me.
They left a path;
they left a tree;
they left a stone for my feet. And what about me?
Shall I leave anything behind?” Here is my prayer for the shmitah year commencing this evening throughout the Jewish world and for the Jubilee year within our own community: may the age-old prophetic visions of a just society, the accomplishments of our Jewish forebears throughout the generations, and the devotion of Beth Shalom members since the day of the incorporation of the Bloomington Jewish community until today guide, sustain and inspire our efforts, so that at the centennial, may our successors celebrate with pride Congregation Beth Shalom’s continued strength and endurance, and remember us with gratitude.

February 21, 2014: Holy Gatherings (Vayakhel; Berman Family Celebration)

This week’s Torah portion is entitled Vayakhel, which means “and he convoked:” “Moses convoked the children of Israel and said to them…” The verb vayakhel, “and he convoked,” comes from the noun, kahal, which means “congregation.” Rashi comments: “he does not gather people with his hands, rather, they are gathered through his words.” (Rashi on Exodus 35:1) I take Rashi to mean that although the leader can convene people together forcefully (“with his hands”), if they come against their will they will not cohere into a congregation. However, if they are gathered of their own accord by means of praise, blessing, and thanksgiving (“through words”), then they cohere into a kahal, into a congregation.

We have gathered together to honor the Bermans, to bless their union of fifty years, and give thanks for their granddaughter, Lexi. It is the epitome of a kahal. We pursue our activities as individuals throughout the work week. Of course, sometimes we pool our efforts to labor for a common goal, such as, here at the synagogue, teaching our children in religious school, or, outside the building, volunteering on behalf of a social or environmental cause. However, on Shabbat we gather for a different purpose: to pray and to bless, to raise our voices in song, to inspire and be inspired, to console and be consoled, to share our sorrows and our joys together. On Shabbat, we form a qahal. We are not coerced; what propels us is our own desire to join in celebration, in blessing, and—yes, I’ll say it—in prayer.

The children of Israel came together to hear the instructions of Moses, so that they might build together the Mishkan, the dwelling place for God’s presence on earth. In Pirkei Avot, the sages teach: “when two or more persons sit together and words of Torah pass between them, the Shechinah dwells among them; but if two or more individuals meet and do not exchange holy words, they are regarded as a band of scoffers.” (Pirkei Avot 3:3) Whenever a group of individuals assemble, they have a choice, simply by the words they pass back and forth to each other, about the type of assembly they create. If their language is banal, or worse, derisive, then they make up nothing more than a throng, a rabble, with no higher purpose or constructive intention. However, the converse is also true. If they speak “words of Torah”—meaning, if their language to one another is considered, thoughtful, caring, and ennobled—then they create a dwelling place for God’s holy presence. That is what we have done here this evening.

My blessing and prayer for each of us: whenever we meet another person, may the Shechinah dwell between us and the other. May every one of our meetings constitute a qahal. May we always come together with holy intention. May all our gatherings be like this gathering—joining together in appreciation and gratitude.

February 14, 2014: The Broken Tablets (Ki Tissa)

The Healing Power of Brokenness

Ten years after leaving an abusive relationship, a woman reports that the break up was the best thing that ever happened to her. At the time, though, she didn’t know how she would go on living, because he had convinced her that she couldn’t make it on her own without him. Eventually, and with the support of old and new friends, she picks herself up, works her way through law school, and opens a family law practice so she is in the position to help others in similar circumstances.

A person reflects on his cancer diagnosis: “It was a wake up call. Sure I had heard of many tough situations - health challenges, people passing, and more - and thought, ‘Wow. I feel so sad for that person,’ and then I’d stop thinking about it and continue with my own preoccupations. Suddenly, I realized that each day was a precious gift for spending with my family and for pursuing a lifelong dream to compose music, which I had abandoned as a teenager.”

A man’s wife dies only a few years after they were married, and he feels as if his own soul flew away. However, he made a promise to her that he was going to live for both of them, in accordance with supreme Jewish commandment: “I have set before you life and death… therefore, choose life!” Recently, he confesses that he is a better person because of her death—more open, more compassionate, less wrapped up in himself.

Suffering is not uniformly distributed, but it is widely distributed. I don’t know why divine wisdom necessitates that human beings must feel pain, but I do know that we hurt twice over when we compound our suffering with the self-pity and resentment of “why me.” If we dwell on God’s indifference and cruelty for allowing misfortune to happen to us, then we also cut ourselves off from the comfort and strength that spiritual nourishment can provide us in order to surmount our difficulties.

Ironically, we are psychologically constituted in such a way that our greatest opportunities for growth tend to occur when we are devastated. On the verse: “You return the human being to dust, and You enjoin: shuvu bnei adam, return you mortals,” (Psalm 90:3) the Midrash comments that teshuvah, the will to return to God, arises precisely at the moment when the spirit is crushed. After all, why mend our habitual attitudes and behavior when life is smooth sailing? Only when the wind is knocked out of us do we find ourselves wide open to the possibility of change. Thus, the Psalmist writes elsewhere: “Adonai is close to the brokenhearted; Adonai will deliver those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:19) Reb Menachem Mendel of Kotsk reiterates: “Nothing is more whole than the broken heart.”

Almost by definition, spiritual awakening entails a mortal blow to the ego. “There is violent beauty in revelation that the soul loves but the ego fears as death,” observes religious scholar Andrew Harvey. (Frankel, Sacred Therapy, page 40) In other words, something within us must die in order to for something else to be born. This spiritual principle underlies one of the most compelling interpretations of the richly layered second Amidah blessing, mechayei ha-meitim, “we praise You, God, as the Power who revives the dead” (which is why, in my personal davvening, I retain the traditional wording, rather than follow the route of classical Reform Judaism by changing the words to expunge the reference to resurrection). Life consists of overlapping cycles of death and rebirth—leaving behind old friends and acquaintances and gaining new ones, moving from one job, occupation or location to another, changing personal status, even watching our bodies physically progress through the successive phases of aging. As Rabbinic pastor and psychotherapist Estelle Frankel writes: “moving through life, we will continually embody and disembody life structures. We will shed old skins and grow new ones. The first vessels we embody, by necessity, must shatter in order to make room for the continual growth of the self.” (Sacred Therapy, page 43)

For Frankel, the myth of the broken tablets symbolizes the inevitable stages we go through in our spiritual development. “The first tablets, like the initial visions we have for our lives, frequently shatter, especially when they are based on naively idealistic assumptions. Our first marriages or first careers may fail to live up to their initial promise. We may join communities or follow teachers and paths that disappoint or betray us. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and contradictory aspects of the real world. Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to recreate our lives out of the rubble of our failures. Ultimately, we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones.”

Frankel’s words are reminiscent of the poem cycle Songs of Innocence and Experience, the crowning literary achievement of the great English author William Blake. Blake delineates three possible stages during the course of a human life: innocence, experience, and then back to innocence. When an infant is born, everything she does is new, exciting, and joyful; at the same time, she is spared from pain by her parents and protective environment. Sooner or later, however, she must grow up into adulthood and confront the cruelties of the wider world. At this point, she passes into the state of experience; she becomes realistic, if not cynical and embittered. Many never emerge from this second stage. However, if she is receptive and motivated, she may pass into a new stage of innocence, in which she recaptures the wonder and gratitude of being alive. At the same time, this is not the same as her original, Pollyanna innocence, ignorant of experience; it is a mature innocence informed by experience, tempered by experience, and incorporating experience.

The Talmud sets forth the following myth of the broken tablets. When Moses comes down from the mountain the second time, bearing the replacement set of commandments, he finds the Israelites gathering up the fragments of the original set and placing them with devotion at the bottom of the ark. Rather than clear away the debris, Moses carefully lays to rest the second tablets on top of the layer formed by the pieces of the first, as on a soft cushion. (cf. bBaba Batra 14b) The image of the new resting upon the old, of the complete work supported and upheld by the broken pieces, is a reminder that the way forward lies not by fleeing our brokenness or circumventing it, but entering directly into our brokenness and travelling through it, so that we may emerge out the other end into wholeness.

To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway: “we are stronger in the places that were once broken.” We have all been shattered; we have all been wounded at some point or at various points. May we find strength precisely in the tender places; may we find a way to piece together our fragmented experiences so that we too may regain the sheer wonder and joy of being alive—the excitement of embarking on the grand adventure of life—not by rejecting our past, but by reclaiming it.

February 3, 2014: Remarks at Bloomington Courthouse Steps at Keystone Pipeline Rally

I’m not here to speak about why the Keystone pipeline should be opposed—others can do that, and have. Instead, I’d like to address something else: what do you do to bolster courage, to stoke the flames of passion and commitment, when the road is long, when we are so little and the challenge is so great?

Last week a professional commitment happened to take me to Southern California. I once lived in California for fifteen years. So I know—even without reading that the current drought exceeds in severity any in recorded history—that late January should be bursting with new growth, the grasses should be tall and thick by now, and the hillsides should be clothed in green. Instead, Simi Valley looked more like Death Valley, barren fields and dust, dead leaves crunching underfoot from California live oaks that should never drop them. The ridge of high pressure stalled off the Pacific Coast fending off the winter rains is part of the same polar vortex that swirls over Indiana.

Just as weather patterns are all interconnected, human beings are all interconnected. The oil that flows through the Nebraska pipeline from the Alberta tar sands fuels automobiles on the streets of Beijing, and those emissions warm the same atmosphere that blankets Nebraska. Rabbinic literature tells the story of a group of people traveling in a boat. One passenger takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. The other passengers start yelling at him. "Why should this bother you?" the man responds, “I am only drilling under my own seat." (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6)

If a single individual action affects every other passenger on life raft Earth as she rides the ocean of empty space, then so does a single voice raised in protest. When people gather on the courthouse lawn in Bloomington, Indiana, their voices join with vigils taking place right at this moment, in Union Square in lower Manhattan, at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco, on the green in Woodstock, Vermont, along the planned route of the pipeline in Vermillion, South Dakota, in front of the White House, and at hundreds of other locations across the nation. Yes, there are countervailing voices too, we know that—the voices of the drillers who drill under their own seats, who deny that the entire ship is in danger, including their own seat. So, yes, we know that Obama’s veto pen is wavering in his hand, because he hears those other voices loud and clear, and the rallies this evening throughout the United States will make sure that he listens to these voices as well. However, even if the president is convinced to shelve the Keystone Pipeline project permanently, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere worldwide continues to increase exponentially. Only a defensive battle will have been won. The ongoing effort, the achievement with greater long-term significance, which is the ultimate goal, is not merely to reduce the rate of destruction but to reverse the destruction.

How do we maintain our strength and commitment over the long haul? This very question was posed to one of the great American warriors of our age, a man who exemplified the power of the individual to change society, a man who, if he thought something was worth standing up for, he did it himself, a man who, just weeks before he died, was spotted on the waterfront of his hometown scooping litter into a plastic bag. The little story that Pete Seeger liked to tell is the parable of the teaspoon brigades (and it also features sand!) Here it is in his own words.

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it's got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, ‘People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.’ Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years -- who knows -- that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, ‘How did it happen so suddenly?’ And we answer, ‘Us and our little teaspoons.’ (Huffington Post, January 28, 2014)

We will never know everything. But I think if we can learn within the next few decades to face the danger we all are in, I believe there will be tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, of human beings working wherever they are to do something good.”

That’s what Pete Seeger wrote: “if we can learn within the next few decades…” But that was a few decades ago! So, has time run out? Is it now too late to stop global destruction? Who knows when we will have crossed the line of no return? We are not omniscient, any more than the oncologist who tells the patient you have x number of months. Like the cancer patient, our job is to face the diagnosis with honesty, with truth, and with courage, not to deny it, not to try to run away from it, but to make the best choices with the life that we have today, choices that extend life, that enhance life, the life of this planet, the only life that we know, the only life that we have ever been given. Unlike the cancer patient, we are not fighting for ourselves alone, but for our children and grandchildren, that they may endure and thrive, and with them, all life on Earth.

December 27, 2013: Pharaoh's Hardened Heart: the Exception that Proves the Rule (Va'era)


Rick (not his real name) was admitted on New Year’s Day after a night of binge partying. “I guess I wasn’t too steady on my feet when I walked into the middle of the road,” Rick tells me. “They say I flipped over the windshield of the car that hit me. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.” When I peruse the medical records, I see that Rick has landed in the hospital three times during the past seven years from injuries or overdoses. “I know I’m an addict, but sometimes the urge to use is so strong, it blocks out everything else.”

And Adonai said to Moses: “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put in your power. I, however will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21) Beginning with this verse, ten times, the Torah tells us that God intends to harden Pharaoh’s heart. Ten times, God afflicts him and his people with plagues. Can God be so cruel, so sadistic, that He hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to punish him for it? The enigma has baffled and disturbed students of the Torah for centuries. Biblical commentator, Umberto Cassuto, articulates clearly the age-old theological dilemma as follows: “if it is the Lord who hardens the heart of Pharaoh, then the latter cannot be blamed for this, and consequently it is unethical for Pharaoh to suffer retribution.” More basically, the story seems to contradict the fundamental Jewish doctrine of free will. As Maimonides puts it: “If God were to decree that a person should be either good or bad, … what room would there be for the entire Torah?” (Hilchot Teshuvah 6:4)

There is no shortage of justifications claiming that Pharaoh actually deserved all that he suffered. Many interpreters point out that before God sent any of the plagues, Pharaoh had already transgressed seriously enough to warrant them, when he ordered that all Israelite male infants be thrown into the Nile. Others cite the subtle but significant shift in language midway through the plagues. Each time God reverses the first few plagues, the text reads: “and Pharaoh hardened his heart,” but after the sixth plague, the plague of boils: “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” From this literary detail, Maimonides makes an astute, psychological observation about human nature. Although when we transgress initially, it may be voluntary, once we transgress over and over again, it becomes habitual. The behavior takes on a life of its own, and becomes nearly impossible to break.

The problem with these explanations is that they seek a rational basis for rejecting the position that the Torah plainly maintains: Pharaoh has been robbed of his ability to choose his behavior. They are reminiscent of the slew of rational conjectures that seek to explain away the plagues themselves. The Nile turned to blood, for example, because of the red tide, a fungus that in turn killed the frogs. When the frogs died, the lice came to feed upon the corpses, and so on. However, the import of all these signs and wonders lies precisely in their supernatural transcendence, and any attempt to naturalize them misses the point. The plagues are miracles. Pharaoh’s hardened heart needs to be viewed in the same vein as the plagues. That is to say, like the plagues—and all the other signs and wonders that God fashions in Egypt—Pharaoh’s hardened heart is also a subversion of the natural order. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is the exception that proves the rule.

Ten times (once again ten!), the Torah reminds us that the purpose of all the signs, wonders and plagues of Egypt is knowledge of God, beginning with: “Thus says Adonai: By this you shall know that I am Adonai.” (Exodus 7:17) Awareness of the Divine is an elusive thing. The 19th century Eastern European Rabbi, Joseph Caro, writes the following about our general incapacity to perceive God’s presence in the world: “People are fools, for everything that seems to them the usual course of nature, they will pay no attention to. They have eyes, but will not see, unless God creates something totally new upon the earth. Then, they will hop and skip like a ram, on the hind legs of their reason, saying: Look! Now, sure, Adonai is God!, as they exclaimed at the Red Sea. Only then do they believe, whereas the insightful sage will say, aren’t these mighty waters that have been flowing for thousands of years a greater testament to the power of their Creator? What could the [circumstance] of the waters drying up for a few hours at the Divine command possibly add to that?” (Arthur Waskow, Torah of the Earth: Volume I, pp. 194-195)

The divine act of hardening Pharaoh’s heart is no less a wonder in the moral universe than the divine act of splitting the sea in the natural world. The natural world and the moral universe lie very close to one another. Rabbi Caro chides us with his reminder that God surrounds us in the everyday wonders of nature, if only we opened our eyes to them. Well, maybe God surrounds us just as surely in everyday acts of human kindness, such as when people exercise their free will to smile, to listen compassionately, or to lend a hand, if only we opened our hearts to accept them. We sit bolt upright and cry foul when God shuts up Pharaoh’s heart, but that’s only because we take our moral freedom for granted.

The fundamental doctrine of Jewish ethics is encoded in the second half of the classic paradox formulated in Pirkei Avot: hakol tzafui ve-hareshut netunah, “everything is foreseen, but permission [to choose] is given.” (Pirkei Avot 3:19) We certainly have plenty of excuses for wrongdoing besides pinning our “villainy upon the spherical predominance of sun, moon, stars, and planetary influence,” as Shakespeare puts it. (King Lear, I, ii, 125-130) “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” “they were a bad influence on me,” “I needed the money,”… More sophisticated exculpatory defenses, especially in a legal context, might invoke psychological, social, or genetic predispositions. However, the entire ethical and Halachic edifice of Judaism rests upon the principle that all such determinisms are fundamentally false.

If so, then how do we reconcile the two halves of the aphorism from Pirkei Avot, “permission to choose is given (hareshut netunah)” with “everything is foreseen (hakol tzafui)?” Perhaps they refer to two different time periods—the present and the future. Perhaps the statement means that in olam hazeh, the age in which we live, God has voluntarily set limits to God’s own power, vowing not to interfere in human affairs just as God has chosen not to interfere with the “Laws of Nature,” but at the end of days, God will reassert Divine omnipotence (in both the natural and moral order). Translating the word reshut as “domain” instead of “permission,” note that hareshut netunah could just as well mean “the domain is given:”—this world is our domain to act freely, but in olam haba, the Next World, God will retract our freedom.*

Alternatively, perhaps the tension between “everything is foreseen” and “permission to choose is given” lies entirely in the present, within this world. Perhaps the paradoxical formulation operates like a Zen koan, inviting us to meditate upon our freedom of choice, teaching us not to take our moral autonomy for granted, not to throw it away, not to confuse it with random, instinctual, or coerced behavior. Translating the word tzafui as “observed” instead of “foreseen,” note that hakol tzafui could just as well mean “everything is observed.” Freedom of choice demands that we observe, watch, and remain on the lookout for opportunities to open our hearts and turn them to good. After all, a hardened heart is not always the expression of willful rebellion. Sometimes our callousness simply stems from apathy.

I told Rick that I couldn’t predict the future, but that if he continued down the path he’s on, chances are that one of these days he would wind up in the morgue, not the hospital. He nodded his head in agreement. “But it’s not inevitable,” I continued, and the two of us spent the rest of the pastoral visit strategizing on the structures he would put in place to support his recovery once he left the hospital. His heart was open and receptive—at least for the moment. Actually, that’s where free will always has to operate, for all of us—in the moment. Rick and I concluded our conversation by reciting the Serenity Prayer. I would like to conclude now with a serenity prayer of my own: “God, grant us the wisdom to appreciate Your underlying presence in the moral as well as the natural order, the courage to open our hearts to change, and the serenity to observe and celebrate the prevailing moments for exercising our God-given freedom of choice.”


* The Aleinu prayer, recited three times daily, includes the following powerful eschatological vision: “We therefore hope in You, Lord our God, that we shall soon see Your glory, to remove the abominations of the earth and all idolatry destroyed, to perfect the world under the kingdom of the Almighty, and all humanity will call upon Your name, to turn to You all the wicked of the earth.” I have intentionally tried to preserve in translation the grammatical ambiguity of the Hebrew text. Who will remove the abominations of the earth, God or human beings? Who will destroy idolatry? Who will perfect the world? Will God turn every human heart to Him (just as He once hardened Pharaoh’s heart), or will every person on Earth of her own accord be inspired to turn her heart to God? Which outcome would be more miraculous? The syntax is vague—perhaps deliberately so.

November 26, 2013: Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Remarks at St. Thomas Lutheran Church


Psalm 104 presents an idyllic image of nature in harmony with itself. “The springs gush water into ravines; they flow between the hills and give water to all the beasts of the field, the wild donkeys, and the birds nesting by the waters and singing among the branches.” But more than an image of nature in harmony with itself, Psalm 104 presents nature in harmony with humanity. In this picture, the lion is not a fierce and dangerous beast to be feared; he is merely one of God’s many creatures, including human beings, who “seek their food” from their divine Provider. It’s just that the lion seeks his food by night, then goes home as the sun comes up, yielding the daytime as the domain for people. It is now people’s turn to go out to work and labor for their own sustenance. In this picture, Leviathan is not the arch-symbol of chaos, evil and everything anathema to civilization and order, the way he is usually depicted throughout the Bible. Rather, he frolics in the seas right alongside the ships as they cross the surface to and fro. Here, all forces of Nature come together in balance. Human beings do not dominate. They do not even occupy center stage. “How many are the things You have made, O God! The earth is full of your creatures.” And we humans—we fit within the overall the picture, not ruling over our fellow creatures, but going about our business as they do and among them.

The significance of Thanksgiving as an opportunity to express gratitude for the bounties of the harvest is familiar. However, we forget the other theme of the celebration, which in many respects was much more fundamental to its original purpose. The Pilgrims established the first Thanksgiving to thank their Creator for having sustained them so far, to be sure, but they were much more concerned with how they were going to endure the harsh winter that lay ahead for them in an unfamiliar, threatening environment. For them, giving thanks was secondary to beseeching the Lord’s protection and throwing themselves upon His providence—because they knew deeply that their continued survival did not depend upon their own power. The Puritans conscientiously based Thanksgiving upon the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, which they called the “Feast of Tabernacles” (having encountered Jewish ritual practices both through their own intimate knowledge of the Old Testament as well as during their ten-year sojourn in Amsterdam, where they came into close contact with the thriving Dutch Jewish community prior to setting sail for the New World). Like Thanksgiving, Sukkot also emphasizes the twin themes of celebration and dependency. “Open Your hand, and [Your creatures] are satisfied with good. But hide Your face, and they are terrified.” The paramount preoccupation of Sukkot in ancient Israel was water (as it still remains in modern Israel to this day)—would the rains come in their proper season, ensuring sustenance for another year?

In the modern world, I fear that we have lost our humility with regard to the forces of Nature. We consider Nature’s bounty as an entitlement rather than as a gift. We think of the environment as our servant rather than as our helper. We seek to dominate and master our world, rather than live as one constituent part within the whole of it. Ironically, we are more dependent upon Nature than ever. The greater the human species’ influence on climate on a global scale, the more extreme the ferocity of Nature’s backlash in the form of super-hurricanes, super-typhoons and rising sea levels.

So today, let us evoke both aspects of the Thanksgiving celebration: gratitude for the richness and abundance of the Earth, as well as acknowledgement of our human limitations, lest we destroy the very blessings for which we give thanks. “It is absolutely necessary for us to get over the idea that man is God,” said an American spiritual leader several generations ago, and his warning has become all the more relevant in the 21st century. Let us hold fast to the psalmist’s vision of a humanity that plies the seas alongside all the other living things, small and large, of human beings going out by day to bring forth bread from the earth even as our fellow living beings go out for their own nourishment, of people living among all life forms of the Earth, rather than exploiting them. Then, indeed, the glory of God will endure forever, and we will live to chant praises to God.

September 13, 2013: Kol Nidre sermon


“You know what? Thanks for nothing! I’m tired of putting up with your nonsense.”

A dozen words articulated—mere sound vibrations in the air. What was your emotional reaction just now? Surprise? Shock? Shame? Anger? Or maybe you realized it was merely an oratorical ploy to grab your attention, and not genuine. If so, think on the last time you unsuspectingly opened your inbox and were caught of guard by a hurtful email or someone lashed out at you unexpectedly. Did your muscles tense up? Did a knot form in the pit of your stomach? Did tears well up in your eyes? Did you fantasize about striking back? Did you stay up night endlessly reviewing imaginary conversations with your antagonist? Now consider the last time someone called you out of the blue to say: “you’re terrific! You’re wonderful. I love you.”

Here’s another message, this time sincere: “I feel so lucky that we found each other, and I have come to care for you a great deal in the past year. I can’t think of a better place for me.”

“Actions speak louder than words.” Perhaps, but words by themselves speak loudly. The day after Yom Kippur, and beyond, will afford unlimited opportunities to translate words into action. Now is the time, on Yom Kippur, to concentrate on words. The essence of teshuvah is verbal confession. Our tradition demands that we express out loud our regret and articulate through speech our resolve to change. If words counted for nothing, then our earnest supplications in synagogue all day long would be hollow.

The very first chapter of Genesis attests to the potency of speech. And God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” At every step, Creation majestically unfolds in patterned call and response: vayehi, “let there be,” vayehi chen, “and it was so.” Baruch she-amar ve-hayah olam. “Praised be the One who spoke,” declares the morning liturgy, “and the world came into being.” We, too, have the power to create worlds through words. With words, we also have the power to destroy them.

Do you remember the old childhood ditty: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never harm me?” The ditty is false. Names do break bones. Jewish tradition ranks lashon hara, literally “an evil tongue,” among the gravest offenses. Maimonides writes: “bearing tales is a severe sin and causes death… Who is a talebearer? One who collects information and then goes from person to person, saying: ‘this is what so-and-so said,’ ‘this is what so-and-so did.’ Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 7:1-2) Maimonides bases the equivalence between slander and murder on the juxtaposition of two key commandments in the Holiness Code: “do not go about as a talebearer, and do not stand by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16)–that is to say, if you traffic in gossip, then you will be responsible for your neighbor’s lifeblood. You may not be slaughtering her body, but you are massacring her soul.

Strikingly, even when aspersions are true, they are venomous. Maimonides cites the Biblical character of Doeg as an example. Within earshot of King Saul, Doeg mentioned that the priests of Nob had sheltered King David—which was true. The problem was, Saul was already violently predisposed toward David. Doeg’s statement was enough to send Saul over the edge into a frenzied rage. Saul ordered the slaughter of the entire village of Nob, including women and children, in revenge for the priests’ kindness toward David. (I Samuel 22)

Truth is not always the only consideration governing proper discourse. The Talmud records the following dilemma. It is mitzvah to greet the bride on her wedding day saying things like: “how lovely and graceful you are!” But what if she is ugly? Even so, declare the sages (following the opinion of Hillel), you must praise her, because “your mind should always be commingled with others.” (bKetubot 17a) What a beautiful definition of empathy: “your mind should always be commingled with others.” Sometimes, it is better to remain in the wrong when to be in the right causes harm or injury.*

How often our words wound others through thoughtlessness, insensitivity, or self-righteousness, even without malice. All the more so, when we’re incensed at a perceived wrong, impetuously fire off an email and hit send before considering the consequences. “Speak when you’re angry, and you'll make the best speech you'll ever regret,” quips one writer. Pay close attention in a few minutes when we recite together the al cheits, the long confessional of our transgressions, and note how many of them involve speech. The Rabbis responsible for compiling the list knew that keeping kosher and observing Shabbat were easy commandments to follow in comparison with guarding the tongue! If we were to fully absorb their admonishment, we would be terrified to ever open our mouths!

Nevertheless, the gift of language is the crowning glory of our humanity, with immense capacity for effecting good as well as evil. In tomorrow’s Avodah (worship) service, we read: “every word that we speak in truth is the Name of God.” In light of the Talmud’s directive, we might amend the statement: “every word that we speak in truth and compassion is the Name of God.” Because the Day of Atonement is devoted entirely to words, rather than deeds, it offers us a unique opportunity to focus on our speech. Today of all days, we should avoid gossip and idle discourse, which demean ourselves as well as our listeners. More importantly, we should strive to express both compassion and truth, despite the inherent contradiction between these two ideals.

The recitation of Kol Nidre (a few minutes ago) at the outset of Yom Kippur enables us to freely confess our transgressions over the course of twenty-four hours with scrupulous honesty but without shame. Kol Nidre is both one of the most well-known and one of the most problematic Jewish prayers. For one thing, although it reads like a legal formula, the declaration has no juridical standing whatsoever. Furthermore, the text is jumbled to the point of incomprehensibility. “All vows, obligations and promises that we have vowed, sworn, and imposed upon ourselves from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—may it come upon us for good!—we regret them all and we renounce them all; they are null and void.” Are we talking about vows that we have sworn in the past or ones that we might impose in the future? Does it make sense to disavow something while simultaneously praying “may it come upon us for good?” Is it possible regret something that hasn’t yet occurred? (If you were feeling sorry for a promise that you were contemplating, wouldn’t you refrain from making it in the first place?)

The textual confusion evinces Kol Nidre’s turbulent, controversial history. Almost all of the central prayers in the prayer book derive from the Bible or the Talmud, but the first reference to Kol Nidre did not appear until centuries after the Talmud’s completion. The medieval rabbinic authorities waged a concerted campaign against its inclusion in the sacred Yom Kippur liturgy on several grounds. For one thing, the annulment of previously undertaken obligations provided fodder to anti-Semites who cited it as proof of the Jew’s deceit. More to the point, it undercut Judaism’s own fundamental set of values, which places the fulfillment of one’s word among the most serious ethical responsibilities. ** Ultimately, Kol Nidre’s enormous appeal among the masses overrode rabbinic objections. The sage Rabbeinu Tam reluctantly admitted Kol Nidre into the Machzor but blunted its contradiction with Jewish ethical concerns by stipulating that its wording contain the additional phrase “from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur.” *** (Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holidays, pp. 114-116)

To this day, Kol Nidre’s haunting melody captivates its listeners and sets the tone for the entire sacred day that follows. As one poet describes: “it is a song draped with the veil of grief, a night song dying away in the innermost recesses of the penitent human heart,… a song of absolution so fraught with terror and yet so rich in mercy.” (Hammer, p. 116) The combination of terror and mercy reflects the latent power of promises as a vehicle for both evil and good. We want desperately for our Yom Kippur confessions to signal lasting resolve and for our expressions of remorse to make a difference. However, we doubt our words. We remember all too well the many times in the past when we proclaimed: “this time, I’ll act differently,” only to fall back into old behavior. Kol Nidre gives us license to declare our intention to turn—however feeble, however fickle. “All obligations that we impose upon ourselves—we regret them and we renounce them” means: “over the next twenty-four hours, we will say many things that we know we don’t mean and make many promises that we know we can’t keep, but we will affirm them anyway.” “May they come to us for good” means that maybe, just maybe, we’ll take baby steps this time to follow through on our intention. Yes we have stumbled before; so what? We pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and try again.

Before we can ask God to forgive us, we must be able to forgive ourselves. In his psychoanalytic exploration of Jewish worship, Theodore Reik contends that Kol Nidre stirs us so intensely because it evokes powerful unconscious conflicts. Deep down, we all have the compulsion to break taboos. When confronted with “no, you may not!” part of us inevitably rebels. We want to overcome our destructive urges, and at the same time we want to continue to yield to them. Reik illustrates our internal battle with the story of a child who breaks some crockery. When his mother says: “will you be a good boy and promise never to do it again?” he answers, “Bubi wants to be good, but Bubi can’t be good.” Reik concludes: “So it is with us. Our Kol Nidre formula is the formal counterpart of the child’s sincere admission with its naïve antithesis of two simultaneous and opposing tendencies: ‘I want to be good, but I cannot be good.’” (Herman, p. 118) ****

The Kol Nidre’s formal renunciation of vows is symbolic of breaking all commitments, flouting all communal and religious authority, and defying God. Giving voice to inner rebelliousness liberates us from it for the rest of the sacred day. Admitting at the outset that we will never once and for all overcome our temptations paradoxically relieves us from constantly struggling against them. Having already articulated that our words and promises are null and void, we can from now on throw ourselves wholeheartedly into verbal confession and expressions of resolve. We are no longer striving for holiness but wholeness. “Kol Nidre is indeed a release, but not from technical vows: it releases us from all that binds us to our imperfect selves—the self-imposed limitations that keep us from fulfilling our ideals of who would like to be.” (Hammer, p. 119)

The most powerful faculty we possess as human beings is speech. Even the president of the United States, the single most influential person on the planet, finds himself stymied in the deployment of military force, but rhetoric abounds. The diplomatic crisis currently embroiling Congress and the world may demonstrate that in many cases words speak louder than action after all. Certainly, in our own lives, the most common weapon we pick up in order to strike another is the tongue. Netzor leshoncha meira, “guard your tongue from evil,” and the verse continues: sur meira va’aseh tov, “turn from evil and do good,” baqeish shalom veradfeihu, “seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34: 14-15) Our words have immense capacity to heal as well as wound. On this Day of Atonement, may we seek peace and pursue it through language. May we pursue peace through the compassionate manner that we address each other and through the fervor and sincerity of our verbal confessions. May we pursue peace by respecting and valuing our genuine expressions of resolve to change, even if we may stumble again in the future. And, at the end of the day, may we find peace, the peace of wholeness, acceptance, and forgiveness.

* Compassion takes precedence over truth under some but not all circumstances. One is obliged to tell the truth under oath in a court of law, for example, as well as when failure to disclose information might endanger the wellbeing of another.

** Compassion takes precedence over truth under some but not all circumstances. One is obliged to tell the truth under oath in a court of law, for example, as well as when failure to disclose information might endanger the wellbeing of another.

*** We often think of the traditional liturgy as “fixed.” The history of Kol Nidre attests to the evolution of prayer in response to the demands of its worshippers.

**** In terms of the Freudian structural model of the psyche, the Kol Nidre ritual symbolically exorcises the tension between id and superego. In Rabbinic parlance we might say that it lays to rest the perennial battle between the yetzer tov and yetzer hara, the so-called “good inclination” and “evil inclination” that comprise the human heart.

September 4, 2013: Rosh Hashanah Evening sermon


Let’s explore the three central themes of Rosh Hashanah: remembrance, judgment, and sovereignty. We call Rosh Hashanah “New Year’s Day,” but its oldest name is Yom Ha-Zikaron, “the Day of Remembrance,” from the following reference in Leviticus: “in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe … [a day of] remembrance marked by the blast [of the Shofar]...” (Leviticus 23:44) Later, Rosh Hashanah became known as Yom Din, the Day of Judgment, as intimated in the couplet from Psalms: “Sound the Shofar on the New Moon! It is a statute for Israel; a judgment [day] for the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 81:4-5; bRosh Hashanah 8a-b) Finally, although Rosh Hashanah was never officially called Coronation Day, its liturgy is unusually replete with descriptions of divine majesty, such as in the Amidah: “we know, Adonai our God, that Your sovereignty, Your power and Your awesome Name reign supreme over all that You have created.”

The primary processes of Rosh Hashanah overlap. Sovereignty and judgment go hand in hand, as the solemn Untaneh Toqef prayer highlights: “this day all who walk the earth pass before You like bnei maron… You bring everything that lives before You under review, and You determine the life and decree the destiny of every living creature.” (The translation of bnei maron is uncertain, but most scholars consider the term a corruption of the Latin word numeron, meaning troops—we pass before the gaze of the supreme Commander like Roman soldiers.)

Furthermore, judgment is an outgrowth of remembrance. Rabbinic Judaism relates these two concepts through the operating metaphor of a book. It conceives of sefer ha-zichronot, the Book of Remembrances, in which all human deeds are recorded. A Beth Shalom poet imagines sefer ha-zichronot as follows: “a chapter for every year, each filled with exquisite detail of everything that has taken place, from earth-shattering to mundane, the generous and loving acts as well as every embarrassing, unkind, or pig-headed moment. Nothing left out, nothing glossed over.” The Talmud also introduces the image of sefer ha-chayyim, the Book of Life, into which we fervently pray that we may merit to be inscribed.

In classical Judaism, God is the Subject who performs all three actions highlighted on Rosh Hashanah: God remembers, God judges, and God is crowned the supreme Ruler of all creation. Those of us who are alienated by depictions in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy of God’s absolute agency—particularly male depictions!—might find Hasidic interpretations instructive, even inspiring. According to Hasidic thinking, divine sovereignty and human humility are the obverse of each other. Declarations about God are really statements about us.

God’s preeminence serves to remind us simultaneously of our inherent nobility and our inherent weakness as human beings. In a typical Hasidic parable, the king’s son has wandered so far away from the royal palace that he no longer remembers that he was once a prince. Thus, we too have forsaken the spark of divinity embedded within each one of us, and our primary task on Rosh Hashanah is to recover and reignite it. We are all “children of the Most High,” to proffer an interpretive translation of the obscure phrase bnei maron cited earlier. (cf. bRosh Hashanah 18a)

On the other hand, God’s supremacy also produces the opposite realization: that our power as human beings is limited. The concept of the heavenly Book of Remembrances underscores the fallibility of human memory. Similarly, referring to God as “Judge of all the Earth” (Genesis 18:26) is the Torah’s way of pointing out the biases and blind spots of all human judges. Awareness of human frailty is paradoxically empowering. If we remember that mortals are fallible compared to the one, true Judge, then the condemnation of others will matter less to us. We will have the courage to make unpopular decisions because we believe in them. If we hold to the conviction that every single deed is registered in God’s eternal memory—or, in non-theistic terms, unalterably woven into the fabric of the universe—then we will perform mitzvot even when nobody will ever find out about them. Conversely, we will refrain from indulging our destructive urges even when we think we can get away with it. We will be motivated not by public recognition but simply by the desire to do what is “right and good in the sight of Adonai.” (Deuteronomy 6:18)

We have discussed how Hasidism reinterprets God’s sovereignty, remembrance and judgment in a manner that strengthens ethical behavior. Actually, some sages go further, taking the responsibility for remembrance and judgment out of God’s domain and placing it squarely in human hands. It’s not so important that God remembers our actions and God judges us; what matters is that we remember our actions and that we judge ourselves. “God already knows the secrets of all living things,” proclaims the Yom Kippur liturgy. “Only let our words reach our own ears; let our thoughts enter our own hearts.”

Perhaps the most ambitious affirmation of the individual’s capacity to decree her own destiny is presented by the 20th century Hasidic Rabbi Netivot Shalom. He writes: “the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah, and every person, if she chooses, writes herself into the Book of Life.” What can Netivot Shalom mean by this astounding assertion? For one thing, it is not humanly possible to guarantee life for the upcoming year. Besides, who wouldn’t choose life, if given the chance?

In order to shed light on Netivot Shalom’s pronouncement, let’s turn to the insights of historian Yosef Yerushalmi, who explored the close connection between memory and meaning in his groundbreaking study entitled Zachor. According to Yerushalmi, people establish their identity and their place in the world by remembering past experience. The people of Israel ensured their survival throughout the millennia by preserving collective memory. “Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction zachor, “remember!,” felt as a religious imperative,” writes Yerushalmi. (p. 9)

Through continual reenactment and ritual, we relive in the present the pivotal experiences of our formative history. Any other nation’s concern for or indifference to crucial episodes in Israelite history is immaterial. For example, it makes no difference that the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt remains uncorroborated by any extra-Biblical source.* What matters to us as Jews is that we were slaves, God delivered us, and we stood together at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Memory is not the same as history. The episodes of the past do not by themselves cohere into the story of who we are. Rather, we build our own story by molding our memory of past events into a meaningful narrative—even if they may not have “actually” happened the way we remember them.

The religious imperative zachor, “remember!,” applies just as strongly to our personal histories. How we choose to create meaning from experience either inhibits or fosters our development. Consider a major event in Beth Shalom history, the firebombing of the synagogue thirty years ago. We can dwell on the negative aspects of the incident, or we can develop a perspective that promotes our communal aspirations for solidarity and cooperation. Thus, one Beth Shalom member recollects how the disturbance drew us closer to each other and to our gentile neighbors: “all the memories are positive—of helping hands coming together to rebuild our sanctuary and how ‘by chance’ the Torahs were all saved.” “Memory is among the most fragile and capricious of human faculties.” (Yerushalmi, p. 5) It is impossible—thank God!—to remember everything. We fulfill the spiritual task of zachor when we focus on vital experiences and arrange them into a narrative that defines and enhances our core values.

Fascinatingly, all the holidays in the Jewish calendar commemorate seminal events in the collective history of the Israelite people, with the exception of the High Holidays. Instead, the High Holidays summon us to remember the essential experiences in our own lives. On Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance, we recall not when our ancestors were enslaved in Egypt, when they crossed the Sea into freedom, and when God revealed the Torah to them; rather, we call to mind when we were trapped in prisons of despair, when we crossed our own barriers and surmounted our own obstacles, and when we received our own revelations of clarity and insight. According to one model, the last step of forgiveness takes place when “we have amended our grievance story so that the memory of the incident that used to cause us hurt and resentment is now situated within the larger context of our overall history, which emphasizes all the good that has come out of it—the new insights, the new growth, and the new opportunities.” (Frederic Luskin, Ph.D., Forgive for Good) Actually, constructing a personal narrative from the memory of experience in a manner that inspires and empowers us is not just the hallmark of forgiveness but the spiritual mandate in all areas of our lives.

Now let’s return to Netivot Shalom’s earlier pronouncement: “the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah, and every person, if she chooses, writes herself into it.” He continues: “every person on Earth was sent to this world with a unique role to play and a unique purpose to fulfill. If she commits herself to her particular assignment from now on—that is the process by which she writes and seals herself into the Book of Life.” Netivot Shalom concludes darkly: “As for those who avoid their set purpose, what role do they have left in the world?” We might soften his final intimation by saying not that people who fail to pursue their destiny are better off physically dead but that they are already spiritually dead.

According to Netivot Shalom’s conception, our great task in life is to discover and complete the individual mission that God has designated for us. Others put it differently—that our great joy in life is to invent our individual mission. It is interesting to ponder the different nuances between determining our lifework and discovering it. Either way, we realize our life purpose by enacting the story of who we are and where we are going. In light of Yerushalmi’s contention that memory and meaning are interwoven, we can recast sefer ha-zichronot, the Book of Remembrances, as personal narrative. Judgment becomes not so much a matter of condemning our transgressions but distinguishing those actions that conform to our personal goals from those that conflict with or deny them. The reward of being inscribed in the Book of Life is the opportunity to continue to fulfill our mission on earth. The Book of Life simply picks up the story where the Book of Remembrances leaves off.

Today we stand at the threshold between past and future. Today we turn the page to a new chapter. This is my prayer for all of us on Yom Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance. May the shofar blast remind us of our fundamental nobility, goodness and worth as human beings, as well as our inherent limitations and imperfections. May the shofar calls to “do what is right and good,” regardless of disapproval or praise. May the shofar summon us to judgment, not in order to be punished, God forbid, but in order to discern our primary purpose in life. May the shofar motivate us to fill the blank pages that lie before us with deeds that give meaning to our personal narrative. Leshanah tovah nikateiv. May we write ourselves into the Book of Life.

* The only Egyptian hieroglyphic discovered to date that references Israel, on the Merneptele stele, has them residing in Canaan, not Goshen.

August 23, 2013: Forgiveness (Ki Tavo)


The Talmud states: “the Day of Atonement does not effect atonement for transgressions between a person and her fellow until she appeases him.” Thus, now is the time designated by our tradition to seek forgiveness from those we have harmed; by Yom Kippur, it is too late. (Of course, it’s never too late: but if not now, when?)

Here are some thoughts and suggestions about forgiveness.

1. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily feel good, at least initially. Forgiveness can stir up old hurts, resentments, and shame, which is why we shy away from the process to begin with. It’s easier to simply avoid issues, to live with low-grade grudges. Maybe we’ve gotten used to a certain level of detachment with another person, and it’s not worth it to bring up old resentments. So why engage in the process of forgiveness—besides the fact that our tradition demands it? Forgiveness is short term pain for long term gain. Through forgiveness, we affirm that our relationship with the other person matters, and we acknowledge that it will endure.

2. Seeking forgiveness and granting forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. It may be useful to seek forgiveness precisely from those who we feel owe us an apology. Almost always when hard feelings arise, both parties have hurt each other. It is exceedingly rare that only one party is fully responsible for the tension between them. If each one waits for the other, neither will approach, and alienation will persist.

3. When you seek forgiveness, try to be specific. It’s lovely to tell someone in a general way that you are sorry for anything you might have done to distress her, but it’s even better if you can recall a particular instance of misbehavior. That’s one reason why Rosh Hashanah is called Yom Ha-zikaron, “the Day of Remembrance.” It’s important to remember past episodes if you want to atone for them. On the other hand, atonement, like all spiritual processes, need not be perfect, nor should it be perfect. Start somewhere, anywhere. If you can’t remember or are unaware of how you injured another, you could invite her to call to mind grievances she may still harbor against you.

4. And when someone seeks your forgiveness? In the words of Maimonides, “it is forbidden for a person to be cruel and not grant pardon. Rather, when the offender requests forgiveness one should forgive with a full heart and a generous spirit.” (Hilchot Teshuvot 2:10) Elsewhere, Maimonides writes that if a person refuses to forgive you, you must seek forgiveness a second time. If the person refuses to forgive you again, you must seek forgiveness a third time. If, after three times, the victim persists in her refusal to forgive, you are absolved, and the transgression now rests upon her. (Hilchot Teshuvot 2:9) Judaism, in contrast to classical Christianity, considers the granting of forgiveness a commandment, rather than an act of generosity that we perform out of good will.

The requirement to forgive raises some questions: what if we suspect the offender’s apology is insincere or we think it’s only words and he’s not about to change?** What if we still hurt? What if we are afraid of being hurt in the future? Here it is useful to distinguish between forgiving someone and trusting someone. We may be willing to forgive in the sense that we can let go of our anger and desire for retaliation for the past offense, but we are not yet ready to trust, in the sense that we will not place ourselves in the same position to be injured by him again. Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. This brings us to the fifth point:

5. Forgiveness is not a one-time event, but a process. As Sol Schimmel writes in Wounds Not Healed by Time, “forgiveness is multidimensional in that it includes feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. It is a process that unfolds over time, involving vacillation betweeen thoughts and feelings that are conducive to forgiving and thoughts and feelings that reignite resentment and hurt. It is simplisitc to think of a binary choice between either forgiving or not forgiving. Each of the dimensions of forgiveness or non-forgiveness, the emotional, the cognitive, and the behavioral, can vary and progress at different rates. Anger, hatred, compassion, and love are not all-or-nothing emotions.” (p. 46)

In other words, don’t think that just because you’ve formally or ritually granted or received forgiveness, everything’s fine, and you should go on as if nothing happened to begin with. Depending upon the nature and extent of the original offense, there will be continuing repercussions—though, hopefully, they will reduce over time, and old memories of hurt will be replaced by new ones of reconciliation.

6. Finally, be gentle with yourself. Seeking forgiveness requires the courage to revive old embarrassments and painful feelings. Both seeking and granting forgiveness entail empathy, that is, a willingness to view the situation from the other’s perspective. Forgiveness is an emotionally taxing process. Give yourself credit for the mere willingness to make yourself vulnerable.

Relationships are always works in progress. Forgiveness itself is a work in progress. We may be clumsy at asking for forgiveness; we may be clumsy at granting it. Occasionally, we might feel we’ve made matters worse. If your motives are genuinely motivated by humility and good will, you cannot fail. The joy in living comes from continual self-improvement. We will continue to hurt each other—because that’s what human beings do. Hopefully, we will continue to forgive each other as well, because to ask for forgiveness and to grant forgiveness are among the most ennobling and compassionate actions that we as humans can perform.

** Sometimes, we might want another to change in ways that are contrary to his nature or his values. In that case, forgiveness might mean accepting him for who he is, even though he disappoints us or does not live up to our expectations of him. In any case, we’re supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.

August 16, 2013: Our Challenges Belong to Us (Ki Teitzei)

During this season of introspection and moral reckoning, how frustrating it can feel when we notice the same personal challenges surfacing over and over! “Here I go again!” we say to ourselves, with a mixture of despair and amusement. “I thought I already put to rest [my resentment at this person / my preoccupation with this issue / my struggle with this behavioral pattern / …]!” When it comes to character improvement and spiritual growth, we seem to find ourselves on an eternal treadmill.

In typical Hasidic fashion, the modern sage Netivot Shalom psychologizes the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“when you go out”):

“When you go out to wage war against your enemy…” (Deuteronomy 21:10) Why does the Torah specify “your enemy?” Because every person on Earth was sent to this world with a particular purpose to fulfill and a particular enemy that is unique to her alone. What is the sign that identifies your particular enemy? When you notice one particular issue around which your Yetzer Hara (“evil inclination”) continually rallies and strengthens—that’s your particular enemy. Your life’s work is to combat and subdue your particular enemy. A day on which you have done nothing to engage your Yetzer Hara is not a day worth being alive.

We often wish we could run away from our personal struggles. However, Netivot Shalom counsels the exact opposite. It is our unique constellation of personal issues and challenges—and the progress we make to overcome them—that gives substance, definition and meaning to our lives.

July 5, 2013: Transcending external circumstances and cultivating the inner landscape (Matot/Mas'ei)

We are approaching Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which commemorates ancient calamities in the history of our people. (This year, Tisha B’Av falls on July 16.) Jewish tradition inversely relates the period leading up Tisha B’Av in the religious calendar to the period after the death of a loved one for an individual. That is to say, the rituals of national grief intensify as the date of Tisha B’av approaches, whereas the stages of personal grief diminish as the moment of burial gradually recedes into the past, and the mourner’s acute despair gives way to lingering melancholy. Specifically, from the first day of Av on, observant Jews avoid parties and celebrations, just as the bereaved traditionally avoids revelry for a full year after the death of her parent. The week of Tisha B’Av corresponds to sheloshim, the thirty days immediately following the death of any close family member, during which Jewish law forbids activities such as haircuts and ironing clothes. The day of Tisha B’Av itself corresponds to Shiva, the week of intense mourning after burial. In both cases shaving, bathing, wearing leather or jewelry, and sexual relations are prohibited; mirrors are covered, and the practitioner sits on low benches or stools. However, some interesting anomalies render the parallel between national and personal mourning inexact. For example, one must refrain from commerce during the week of Tisha B’Av, whereas one is encouraged to go back to work immediately after the conclusion of Shiva. And, of course, one fasts on Tisha B’Av, but meals of consolation are sanctioned and even encouraged throughout the week of Shiva.

What can the customs and practices surrounding Tisha B’Av teach us concerning personal grief and the Jewish attitude toward the human psyche in general? In his essay entitled “Avelut Yeshanah and Avelut Hadashah,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the giants of 20th century American Jewish thinkers, discusses two types of responses to circumstances and events: cognitive and emotional. Avelut Yeshanah, which translates to “ancient grief,” is primarily a cognitive response. We know intellectually that the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in the year 70 CE, but it’s difficult to get worked up about an event that took place close to two thousand years ago. Therefore, Jewish tradition imposes a regime of increasing austerity, culminating in the fast of Tisha B’Av, in order to simulate and perhaps even induce an emotional response of grief. On the other hand, Avelut Hadashah, “new grief,” requires no prompting. It is, in Rav Soloveitchik’s own words, “a primordial, instinctual, spontaneous response of man to evil, to the traumatic confrontation with death, to the impact of catastrophe and disaster. It is an existential response, not one that evolves by the application of artificial stimuli.” In the case of individual grief, the laws and customs of Jewish tradition pursue the exact opposite course: gradually cooling the searing bitterness of despair and replacing it with more sober, contemplative reflection. Thus, whether she feels like it or not, the individual mourner must eat, she must recite Kaddish, and, shortly, she must return to work—all activities that force her out of isolation and into the company of a compassionate and caring community. She begins to recognize her connection with all her fellow human beings within the larger cycles of life and death, as opposed to viewing herself as a victim singled out by a cruel God (or cruel fate) to suffer.

Both Aveilut Yeshanah, the ritualized national mourning associated with Tisha B’Av, and Aveilut Hadashah, the personal mourning practices after the death of loved one, underscore the bedrock Jewish principle of free will. Free will is often conceptualized with regard to behavior—the maxim that we are always free to determine our course of action. Judaism goes further by applying the concept of free will to the internal human landscape as well: we are always free to choose our emotional reactions to circumstances and situations. Sometimes, says Jewish tradition, it is beneficial to bring about feelings of sadness, such as with the observance of Tisha B’Av or, similarly, on the groom’s wedding day, when he tempers his joy under the huppah (the wedding canopy) by breaking the glass. At the other times, we must rouse ourselves from misery and self-pity, such as on the seventh day of Shiva, when the mourner opens her front door, emerges from the house and takes a walk around the block, symbolizing her conscious commitment to reengage the world and reaffirm life despite her personal tragedy.

Common to all of these responses is the basic assumption that the human being is capable of mastering her feelings. Preeminent social scientist Daniel Goleman popularized the term “emotional intelligence,” in his groundbreaking book of the same name, to denote the cognitive mind’s ability to intervene and manage feelings constructively, instead of being hijacked by them. The genius of Jewish practice is that it has long recognized that our internal emotional state is not at the mercy of external events. It is a testament to the dignity and worth of the human being that we are capable of transcending our circumstances, whatever they may be, and cultivate inner peace and joy.

June 26, 2013: Remarks at Rally for Marriage Equality

Some say: the government has no business extending legal rights to gay people, because that’s a violation of “church and state,” and the secular values of equality should not encroach upon religious family values. However, belief in the worth and dignity of every human being is not only a secular value; it is a statement of religious faith. My own convictions, as a man of faith, are grounded in the Torah; they stem directly from the Bible. It is the Bible that tells me that every human being is blessed with the capacity and the right and to sanctify her or his love in a covenanted relationship with another human being, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of categories for which we don’t have names yet, because it is the Bible that proclaims that God created the human being—every human being—in the divine image. We all have a right to our own religious views, but, please, don’t impose your religious view upon my religious view.

I believe in the Word of God. I believe in the Torah as the source of Truth. Leviticus says: “man shall not lie down with man.” Leviticus also says, only one chapter later; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” What privileges one verse over another? What gives the preacher the right to extract one piece of Scripture above the rest? What litmus test shall we apply when one directive contradicts another? A wise student of mine recently answered this way: “The correct passage, the correct interpretation, the correct reading is always the one that is the most… just.”

I believe the proclamation of Psalm 19: “the teaching of the Lord is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the Lord are enduring, making the simple wise; the precepts of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart.” I believe in the perfection, infallibility and eternality of Truth. It’s only we humans who are imperfect, fallible, and temporal. As the Holy Scripture of one of my sister religions puts it (and I hope the Christians in the room won’t mind my quoting the New Testament): “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Today, we celebrate a great victory for equality. Today, we make history. But let’s not kid ourselves that we are now liberated. Like Southern Jews who celebrated the great Passover festival of Redemption even as their African American slaves served them the Seder feast, we, too, only partially grasp the concept of right and wrong. We don’t know what we don’t know.

When Dr. Martin Luther King stated: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice,” he didn’t mean that someday, the entire world would come to embrace his vision of justice. He meant that all visions of justice, including his own, were necessarily imperfect and incomplete, but that over the long haul, they progressed and converged upon one end point. Moral truth is like the North Star, a guidepost by which to navigate the ocean of life, but ultimately unreachable, not because it is so far away, but because it lies entirely above the earthly plane. So today, even as we celebrate our great milestone, let us retain the humility, not only to acknowledge that we still have a much longer road to travel before we achieve full equality, but also to admit that we don’t even know yet what full equality might someday mean to future generations.

June 7, 2013: Korach's Holiness (Korach)

The story of Korach is conventionally interpreted as a dire warning against insurrection. Korach, Dothan and Abiram, and 250 chieftains of Israel rise up against Moses, Aaron, and the priestly class. Their actions prompt several outcomes: the earth opens up and swallows Dothan, Abiram, and Korach’s followers (Numbers 16:32-33), and fire goes forth from Adonai and consumed the 250 chieftains. [The second outcome is reminiscent of an earlier episode, in the Book of Leviticus, when Aaron’s firstborn sons, Nadav and Abihu, offer unauthorized “strange fire” upon the altar. The Torah employs the exact same words to describe what happens to them: “fire came forth from Adonai and consumed them.”] (Literally criticists posit that that the final text contains several originally separate narratives woven together.) Most commentators view these consequences as divine punishments, but I do not. In fact, I consider Korach’s stance not only irreprehensible but paradoxically sanctioned by Torah.

It is said that the Book of Psalms expresses the full range of human emotions and needs, from exhilaration to despair, and every sentiment in between. I believe the same holds true of Torah. Hafoch bah ve-hafoch bah de-kulah bah, proclaims the Talmud: "turn it, and turn it, for it contains all within it." (Pirkei Avot 5:25) If this is the case, then Torah must express both the official, pious declarations of faith and obedience as well as outbursts of defiance. Torah must leave room for Korach, because he, too, articulates legitimate principles. There are circumstances when we need to challenge authority, even the time-tested pronouncements embedded within the Torah scroll itself.

All of us can point to scriptural passages that we know in our hearts to be fundamentally immoral, but we don’t walk away from them. We confront them and argue against them. Disputation is a form of passionate engagement—every bit as much as agreement, perhaps more so. Only indifference betokens lack of love. One of the hallmarks of my Rabbinate is the insistence that Torah is vast enough to embrace all perspectives. My job is not to convince you of my point of view but to help you find a home for your own orientation within Torah.

The text itself justifies the interpretation that Korach’s actions are not inherently wrong. Moses challenges Korach and the 250 chieftains to a contest of the firepans. They are to bring incense, Aaron will do the same, “and Adonai will make known who is God’s, who is holy, and whom God has brought near (hiqriv) to Him.” (Numbers 16:5) What happens? The text doesn’t say that God chooses Aaron or that Aaron wins the contest. The text merely says that fire goes forth from Adonai and consumes the 250 men. (Numbers 16:35) (Note, by the way, that Korach’s own fate is not recorded.) Cryptically, the text adds that the firepans of those who perished should be hammered into sheets as permanent plating for the altar, because “they have become holy.” (Numbers 17:3) Commentators have long puzzled over this verse: if Korach’s uprising were so heinous, why would the firepans become holy and placed as a permanent fixture in the Holy Sanctuary?

It appears that Adonai does make known who are his, who are holy, and whom God brings near to Him—and they aren’t Aaron and the priests! They are Korach and the 250 chieftains! Korach and the chieftains are the ones who became holy (as indicated by the firepans), and the chieftains are the ones whom God brings near (hiqriv), in the sense that they exhibit such passion for God that it costs them their lives. Fire consumes them; they sacrifice themselves (hiqriv) as their own burnt offering. [The same can be stated concerning Nadav and Abihu: Nadav and Abihu also sacrifice themselves as their own burnt offering.] (Note that le-haqriv has two meanings: “to come near” and “to sacrifice.”)

As a final embellishment, the text concludes that the hammered firepans that become incorporated into the Mishkan are to serve as an everlasting ot. JPS translates the word ot as “warning”—a warning to future generations not to follow the example of Korach. However, ot properly means “sign,” and it usually denotes the Sign of the Covenant. For example, concerning Shabbat, the Torah states: ot hi le’olam, “it is an eternal sign” of God’s love for the Jewish people. Perhaps Torah calls Korach’s firepans an ot—just as it labels Shabbat and circumcision—to indicate that passionate displays of anger and rebellion have a permanent place within the Covenant between God and humanity, along with conventional expressions of loyalty.

I am not alone in maintaining a redemptive view of Korach’s actions. The great Rav Kook declares as follows: “the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy. Challenges to tradition are necessary because they stand as perpetual reminders of the danger that religion can sink into corruption and complacency. Plating the altar with the firepans of the rebels is meant to remind us of the legitimacy, indeed the potential holiness, of the impulse within each of us to rebel against the stagnation and complacency that can infect religion.” (Eitz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 866)

May adherence to religion—or any other authority for that matter—always allow room for confrontation. May faith always admit doubt. As Korach himself declares: “All the community are holy, all of them, and Adonai is in their midst.” (Numbers 16:3) May we elevate all our acts of contrariness to holiness and divine intention.

May 31, 2013: The Error of Misperception (Shelach Lecha)

We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well. (Numbers 13:33) The Holy, Blessed One said: I’ll grant them that they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but who’s to say that you can’t look like angels in the eyes of others?... In this world, because they sent out agents of flesh and blood, it was decreed that they wouldn’t enter the Land, but in the world that is coming: ‘I am sending My angel to you who will clear the way, and all of a sudden, you will come into My temple.’ (Malachi 3:1) — Bemidbar Rabbah 16:11

What grievous transgression did the Israelites commit that they were banned from entering the Promised Land? The Torah relates the divine decree in this week’s portion: “for as many days as you spied out the land, forty days, that’s how long you will bear the consequences, forty years, one year for each day.” (Numbers 14:32, 34) The spies had returned from the Land with an ill report: “the land is full of men of enormous size! We saw Anakites there. We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well. We cannot rise up against them, because they are much stronger than we.” (Numbers 13:31-33) (To this day, the word for “gigantic” in modern Hebrew is anaki.)

The sin of the spies was the error of misperception. “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have been in their eyes as well.” A particularly insightful Midrash expounds: “The Holy, Blessed One said: I’ll grant them that they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but who’s to say that you can’t look like angels in the eyes of others?” (Bemidbar Rabbah 16:11) I always thought of the occupation of the Land of Canaan as a tale of conquest, but the Midrash suggests a different idea: maybe the Israelites were meant to enter the land not as conquerors but as angels, agents of peace, like the malach’ei ha-shareit that we greet on Shabbat evening. The Midrash concludes: “in this world, because they sent out agents of flesh and blood (meaning the spies), it was decreed that they wouldn’t enter the Land, but in the world that is coming—quoting the Prophet Malachi: ‘I am sending My angel to you who will clear the way, and all of a sudden, you will come into My temple.’ (Malachi 3:1)” The grammatical shift from third person to second person is dramatic and purposeful: “they looked like grasshoppers in their own eyes, but you could look like angels in the eyes of others; they couldn’t enter the land, but you will come into God’s temple.” Thus, we realize that the Midrash is not merely commenting on the behavior the spies but directing its admonishment squarely at us.

Now we can elaborate upon the spies’ grievous transgression: they viewed the future with doubt, they treated others with suspicion, and they confronted the world with hostility. Whenever people prejudge each other as inimical, they are bound to worry about who is stronger and who is weaker, who wins and who loses. Their punishment is self-imposed. “One year for every day” accords well with the so-called “negativity bias,” whereby it takes twenty (forty?) positive, constructive interactions to make up for one hurtful act against another.

We need not follow the example of the spies. We can choose to look forward to the future, to meet others in good faith, and to greet the world with hope. We can decide to be angels to each other, that is, messengers of encouragement and comfort, “clearing the way” for mutual recognition and empathy. It is always possible to connect with another, because we all share every human emotion in some measure.

At a recent concert entitled “every day is Shabbos” performed by Nava Tehilah, the Renewal group from Jerusalem, the lead singer interpreted heichalo, “God’s temple,” as a metaphor for the innermost point inside each of us that is always connected to the Divine. If so, then our Midrash’s assertion: “all of a sudden, you will come into God’s temple,” points to the recognition of the “the greater, nobler potential of our inner nature.” (Rabbi Ron Aigen, Hadeish Yameinu, p. 163) My experience is that such shifts in perception can occur instantaneously at any moment—if we are open and attentive to them. After all, the Midrash says: “in the world that is coming,” and the world is always coming into being.

The story of the spies is tightly interwoven with the law of the tzitzit. Concerning the four-cornered fringed prayer shawl, the Torah commands: “u-r’item oto, you shall see it… velo taturu, and you shall not go astray after your own urges” (Numbers 15:39) –echoing the exact words that introduce the immediately preceding narrative: “Moses sent [the spies] latur, to spy out the land… And he said to them: [go and] see, u-r’item, what kind of land it is.” (Numbers 13:17-18) The text’s precise terminology proves that the juxtaposition of the account of the spies and the commandment for the tzitzit is no coincidence. Velo taturu: we are not to “spy out;” instead, u’ritem oto: we are commanded to “see.” What is the difference between “spying” and “seeing?” It is a difference of perception—how we encounter the people and circumstances in our lives—either with cynicism and distrust, or with optimism and openmindedness.

When you come right down to it, Jewish religious practice in general affords not rose-colored glasses (because it does not shield us from suffering) but something more valuable—an inexhaustible reservoir of spiritual energy that enables us to wake up and face life all over again. In other words, the act of putting on tzitzit when we get out of bed is a spirited salutation: “Good morning, World! I greet you with joy and hope. Today, I will meet each person as a messenger of peace, I will treat conflict as an opportunity to clear the way for greater understanding, and I will celebrate moments of connection and beauty. Today, I choose to see the good.” May we bless each new day with such joyous intention.

March 15, 2013: The Chatat Offering (Vayikra)

There are two competing theologies about the basic meaning of sacrifice: one is called “Substitution Theology,” and the other is called “Communion Theology.” In Substitution Theology, the sins of the sacrificer are transferred onto the sacrificial victim through the laying of the hands. Instead of offering his own self as atonement for sin, he substitutes the animal, another life, for his own, hence the term “Substitution Theology.” This theory is Christian in its orientation, because that’s the death of Jesus functions in Christology: Jesus died on the cross as atonement to take away the sins of the world.

There is strong evidence that Substitution Theology is not driving function in the Levitical system. For one thing, it wouldn’t make sense to bring an animal laden with sin into the sanctified precincts of the Mishkan’s courtyard. In fact, there is one place in Leviticus where the sins of the people are explicitly transferred…. Azazel. (cf. Leviticus 16:21; Hertz p.483) and he is sent in the opposite direction! Also, there is a subtle, but crucial, distinction in the ritual of semicha for the Azazel: two hands, not one! (cf. Lev. 1:4; 3:2; 4:4)

What about Communion Theology? In Communion Theology, semicha signifies ownership, belonging, attachment, and identification. Remember the basic meaning of qorban: “coming close,” achieving intimacy, or communion. And this is also the root meaning of atonement, “at + one + ment,” being at one with the Creator, especially after alienation through transgression. There is evidence that atonement was achieved in the Levitical system through confession and teshuvah, much as today; the offering sealed the individual’s coming clean, but did not effect it.

So if sacrifices didn’t wipe transgression clean from the individual, but merely came at the end of the process of teshuvah, what did sacrifices wipe clean, and in particular, the so-called chatat, sin-offering, wipe clean? Answer: the residue of impurity that is deposited in the Mishkan everytime someone, anyone, sins. It wasn’t enough for the individual to be absolved; the sanctuary itself needed to be purified from the residue of transgression. For this reason, Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, and leading exponent on Leviticus, prefers to translate chatat not as sin-offering, but Purification Offering, because the sacrifice purified the sanctuary from the defilement of transgression. Transgression was like dirt; it accumulates, it builds up over time. Like vacuuming and dusting your house, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to get rid of. The Shechinah could tolerate a modicum of filth, but eventually, the Mishkan could become so polluted that God would be forced to depart, abandoning the people to Exile, an existential tragedy.

One the deepest problems in religion, perhaps the deepest problem, is the conundrum of theodicy: how can a just God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why do the wicked go unpunished? The pious answer is that the righteous will be rewarded in heaven, and the wicked will be punished in the next world. But the Priestly writers of the Levitical system offer a different answer: there may not be a correspondence between wrongdoing and punishment on the level of the individual, but there is always correspondence between wrongdoing and punishment on the level of society.

Jacob Milgrom dubs the theodicy of Leviticus as “the priestly Picture of Dorian Gray,” after the novel by Oscar Wilde. In the novel, after Dorian is granted eternal youth, he embarks upon a career of increasing evil. Oddly, his evil acts do not affect his youthful appearance, but his portrait, hidden away, becomes increasingly ugly and grotesque. In just this way, according to the Leviticus, an individual’s sins may not show up on his own countenance, but they will most certainly pollute and disfigure God’s sacred dwelling place.

Note that embedded in the priestly outlook is a notion of collective responsibility, that whenever any person transgresses, we are all culpable, and bear the consequences. In this answer to theodicy, the punishment for wrongdoing occurs directly in this world, not in the next, only it happens to all of us, not necessarily to the individual who committed it. Think about it. If a person cuts in line at the register, he might get away with it, but the guy at the end of the line is late for his appointment. If a shoplifter succeeds in stealing merchandise, she may get away with it, but we all suffer in the form of higher retail costs. If energy-producing industries go unregulated, they may get away with it, but we all suffer with the resulting pollution. So there is justice, only it’s justice at the macro level. The wider the view, the more readily apparent it is that no misdeed goes unpunished. (cf. Milgrom, Leviticus, page 33)

It’s this kind of unbiased fresh reading of Leviticus, I think, that can reveal to us enduring messages that are as relevant to us today as they were to the Biblical authors, perhaps more so. May we take inspiration and guidance from them.

Recognizing that on the level of collective responsibility, if not always on the individual level, all transgressions have ensuing punishments, there is no alternative, indeed, all deeds have consequences, for worse or for better, let us always remain aware of how our actions affect others and the world as a whole, that we do not live in isolation, but rather in a vest web of interactions that encompasses not on the world but the Shechinah, the Presence of God, as well. Let us rededicate ourselves to making a clean home where we periodically purge the impurities that inevitably build up over time, where God will desire to dwell, and where we will want to dwell as well. It’s always nice to come home to clean house, and here I don’t mean just dusting and vacuuming, I mean cleaning house in the spiritual sense as well. In fact, let that be our kavvanah is we clean house in preparation for Pesach next week.