Rabbi's Bulletin October 2017

EAT YOUR BREAD IN GLADNESS, AND DRINK YOUR WINE IN JOY

 

Yom Kippur is the most ethereal of Jewish observances. On the holiest day of the year, we symbolically shed the trappings of our material selves. The reason for fasting is not so much to afflict ourselves but to elevate ourselves above the earthly plane of existence. As much as humanly possible, we abstain from physical needs and urges. We don’t eat; we don’t bathe; we don’t engage in sexual relations; if we could, we wouldn’t sleep or go to the bathroom, either. On Yom Kippur, we yearn to leave our bodies behind and soar like the angels. It’s the closest we ever come, this side of death, to merging with the Infinite and abiding in God’s presence as pure souls.

Sukkot is exactly the opposite. On Sukkot, we indulge the physical pleasures we denied several days earlier. The Sukkot rituals provide a feast for the five senses: touching the bumpy surface of the Etrog and imbibing deeply its sweet fragrance, running our fingers along the hard fronds of the palm branch and listening to the rustling sound as we wave it, enjoying the breeze in our hair and the sun on our skin as we go outside to the Sukkah for a delicious meal. The sexual imagery of bringing together the Lulav and Etrog could not be clearer—the union of male and female—nor more appropriate to the harvest season, which celebrates the bounty and mystery of creation and procreation.

Rabbi Sue Silberberg points out another dichotomy between the two occasions. The demands of Yom Kippur are individual and internal, including remorse for past misdeeds and the personal pursuit of reconciliation and forgiveness. Sukkot directs us outward, toward one another and all of nature. Like the tent of Abraham and Sarah, the Sukkah welcomes the entire community, and the stranger besides, and its permeable covering admits the surroundings and the sky.

“Vehayita ach same’ach” is Sukkot’s primary directive, “you shall do nothing but rejoice.” What an incredible commandment! As Rabbi Sacks writes: “Joy, not happiness, is a central Jewish value. Whereas happiness may be a state of mind of the individual, joy is something we must share together. ‘For seven days, you shall eat and rejoice’—says the Torah—‘you, your sons and daughters, together with the stranger, the orphan and the widow among you.’ Joy is communal. It is never experienced in solitude.”

As I frequently remind my Introduction to Judaism students, ours is not a monastic religion. We are not meant to dwell on a mountaintop in solitary communion with the Spirit; we have been placed here to engage in the challenges and delights of this life on Earth. If we spend the Day of Atonement purifying our souls, it’s only so that we may re-emerge, cleansed and restored, and re-engage in the work and pleasures of the everyday world. We do not seek ultimate reward in some heavenly realm after death; paradise is to be found here and now.

 It’s a shame that many American Jews short-circuit the festival season by observing Yom Kippur only. In its exposition of the liturgical calendar, however, the Torah makes clear that the one-day holiday of Yom Kippur is a prelude to the weeklong festival of Sukkot. Relieved of regret, embraced despite our human shortcomings, we are invited to rejoice deeply in the richness of being alive, the sheer physicality of it. The real prize is to awaken to others, to the world at large, and to life itself. Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it (the scriptural “Wisdom Book” assigned to Sukkot): “Go eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your actions have long ago been approved by God.”

 

Rabbi's Bulletin February 2017

We Live for Times Such as These

“There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” Apparently, the new ruler forgot the wise counsel Joseph offered the previous administration, advice that saved the Egyptian people from starvation and the land from ruin. But that’s not enough to explain his hostility toward Joseph’s descendants, the Israelites—why he now sought to enslave them. The narrator’s remark must be pointing to a deeper ignorance.

“Joseph the Tzaddik” is considered the pillar of righteousness in our tradition. He represents the moral foundation that underlies exemplary, principled behavior. “A Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” indicates a leader unmoored from scruples and indifferent to suffering, whose vainglory led him to oppress an entire people. “To know” becomes a recurring motif in the Exodus narrative. The ensuing contest between Moses and Pharaoh unfolds for one main purpose—so that “Pharaoh may know that I, Adonai, am God; the Earth belongs to Me, not to you.”

For Jews, this divine pronouncement, issued at the first liberation, endures as both an ongoing hope and an implicit mandate. Our hope—that the future of the Earth belongs to God and not to any single despot, no matter how powerful. And, our mandate—that it is up to us to hold fast to the precepts of our faith: to love not only our neighbors but the stranger among us, to pursue justice, and to care for the Earth that has been entrusted to us.

We engage Jewish practice—study, prayer, and service—precisely for times of challenge and struggle. There comes a day when we’re not just practicing the dance but dancing, when it’s no longer a dress rehearsal but the actual performance. In 1951, well before the Civil Rights Movement was underway, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words, in an essay entitled, “To Be a Jew, What is It?” “At a certain point, we have to face our existence in terms of sharp alternatives: we either surrender to the might and threat of wrongdoing or persist in the earnestness of who we are.”

According to the Midrash, upon hearing Pharaoh’s harsh edict: “if it is a boy, throw him into the Nile, but if it is a girl, let her live,” the men separated from their wives. They said to themselves: “why should we bring children into this cruel world, only to suffer?” The women, affirming life, would not succumb to fatalism. They rebuked their husbands: “your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. He decreed only against the males, but you would abolish male and female offspring. His intention was for this world only, but yours impacts this world and the World to

Come. His objective may or may not come to pass, but yours will surely take effect.” What did the women do? They plied them with food and drink, until, in their husbands’ state of reverie, they seduced them! The first example of civil disobedience in recorded history is credited to the Israelite women.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s eerily prescient speech on the evening before his assassination is well-known for its closing lines. He’s been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. He may not get there himself, but he knows that as a people, we will get there. What’s not so familiar is what he says earlier on:

“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the whole sweep of human history unfolding in a panoramic view before me, and the Almighty asked me, ‘Martin Luther, which age would you like to be born in?’ strangely enough, I would turn to Him and reply, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Dr. King was grateful to be alive when he was, during an era of division and struggle, because he knew that God’s hand was at work in the world precisely then, and the seeds of Redemption were taking root at that very moment. What good is a candle at high noon? However, in pitch darkness, a tiny flame may cast its beam for miles around.

Ultimately, freedom means the refusal to take marching orders from the power structures in which we are embedded. Liberation occurs the moment we allow our own moral convictions to dictate our thoughts, emotions and actions. It doesn’t matter who happens to lead the nation. Our authority resides in our faith—as ones who, like the Israelite women, fear not Pharaoh but their God. 

Rabbi's Bulletin January 2017

WHAT JUDAISM HAS TO SAY ABOUT GUNS—AND FEAR

At a crucial moment in history, the Rabbis realized that the study of Torah, rather than armed struggle, would ensure Jewish survival. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,” became the enduring call of Hanukkah. The Rabbis were prescient; the Roman Empire has long since vanished, but we Jews are here, still promoting the paths of peace and non-violence.

Weapons may sometimes prove necessary, but they are never beautiful, says the Talmud. Even in the modern state of Israel, where the casual tourist cannot fail to notice the ubiquity of army-grade weapons on the streets, the religious principle of tahor haneshek, “the purity of arms,” strictly limits their use to the immediate defense of life. Consequently, the incidence of gun violence in the civilian sector is among the lowest of developed countries.

In the wake of the election, the Beth Shalom Board and leadership have been carefully considering when we, as a religious institution, and I, as a Rabbi, ought to take a stand on issues of contemporary concern. One thing’s for sure: our tradition mandates that we bring our values into the public arena. We do not relegate Jewish life to areas behind the mezuzah—the home, classroom and synagogue—but wherever we go in the world. If we fail to confront pressing social (and environmental) challenges, not just as American citizens but as Jews, we neglect one of the three foundational pillars of Judaism, “deeds of righteousness” (the other two being “Torah” and “prayer”).

Any advocacy the synagogue or Rabbi undertakes must be driven by core Jewish values. The Jewish precept behind gun safety laws is one of the most basic: piku’ach nefesh, “the preservation of life.” For its sake, Jewish law stipulates that we must sweep aside nearly all other commandments and considerations. We break Shabbat in order to rush the wounded to the hospital, eat nourishment on Yom Kippur when sick, and may steal food if it’s a matter of starvation. Nothing is more sacred than human life, not even God, because the human being is the very image of God.

In the name of piku’ach nefesh, Rabbinic authorities enacted a number of rulings over the centuries that have direct application to guns. For example, the Talmud forbids a homeowner from keeping a, wild animal or wobbly ladder at home, pursuant to the verse: “you shall not bring blood upon your house.” (This injunction contradicts the common saying: “ladders don’t kill, people do.”) From another commandment, “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” the Rabbis derive the prohibition against selling a weapon to an angry person. If you do, you bear responsibility for any ensuing bloodshed. By the same reasoning, the decree extends to all who are tempted to inflict harm: the mentally ill, depressed, suicidal, and so on. From the verse: “you shall take utmost care over your lives,” the 18th-century authority Rabbi Ezekiel Landau ruled that hunting for sport, as opposed to sustenance or safety, violates Jewish law. The inviolability of human life dictates that, absent a real-and-present need, you may not intentionally place yourself in a hazardous situation.

By the same token of piku’ach nefesh, Jewish law explicitly authorizes the right to self-defense. Many invoke self-defense to justify owning guns. However, it is crucial to distinguish between the considered assessment of real-and-present danger versus an illogical response to perceived threat. Gun sales spike nationwide after every mass shooting, despite the fact that owning a firearm in America increases the chances of dying by gun violence nearly 300 percent, as confirmed by study after study. We may feel more secure with a gun, but we end up reacting imprudently, in ways that ironically escalate conflict and risk.

We live in an age of fear. Fear fragments communities and unravels the social fabric. Fear and weapons go hand in hand. In a perverse variation of the saying “build it and they will come,” one Rabbi puts it this way: “the more weapons, the more fear; the more fear, the more people feel the urge to possess weapons.” To live in constant fear is the mark of a cursed society. At the end of the Book of Leviticus, the long litany of imprecations culminates with: “you shall flee from the sound of a wind-blown leaf as if it were a sword; you shall stumble and fall, though no one pursues.”

What would constitute the opposite of armed conflict and perennial fear? To meet one another with generosity and open-heartedness. To assume goodwill, absent hard evidence to the contrary. Consider Jacob’s confrontation with his brother after their twenty-year separation. Jacob certainly had reason to be fearful; after all, the previous time together, Esau threatened to kill him. Looking up, he sees Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. Were Jacob to gather his troops and gird himself with weapons, who would blame him? Instead, he sends away his family and retinue, and approaches, alone and unarmed. We know the rest. Esau runs up, flings his arms around his neck, and hugs him. Jacob’s non-combative disposition enables Esau to respond favorably. Moreover, it seems that Jacob’s earlier fears were largely the product of his internal anxiety (and guilt).

My hope and prayer for ourselves, this community and this country: may we identify and subdue our own irrational fear-driven impulses. May we cultivate, instead, responses based upon goodwill and compassion. Just as Jacob said to his brother Esau, “to see your face is to see the face of God,” may we search for the trace of God in the faces of one another. May we uphold piku’ach nefesh and the elemental injunction of Judaism: “choose life!” Above all, choose life.