Friday, September 23, 2016

Dvar Torah: Ki Tavo - Sharing is Caring?

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don't hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
6. Don't take things that aren't yours.
7. Say you're SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
11. Live a balanced life - learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
12. Take a nap every afternoon.
13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup - they all die. So do we.
16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first workd you learned - the biggest word of all - LOOK.”

The number one rule Fulghum learned in Kindergarten – share everything.

Sounds like a wonderful idea.

The Rabbis are not so sure.

They teach us, there are 4 types of people, exemplified by 4 statements about the way we think and relate to others with regard to our possessions.

What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.  This is average and some say it’s the way of the people of Sodom.

What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.  This is a simpleton.

What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.  This is a reverent person.

What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.  This is a wicked one.

According to the Rabbis, ‘share everything’ is the virtue of only a simpleton, someone disengaged, disconnected, often translated as ‘ignorant’. 

The reverent one, the Chasid, is considered such because he or she offers his or her things to others but does not expect anything in return.

I read a recent parenting article that suggested a similar lesson – That it is a better parenting technique not to expect siblings (or friends) to share what they have but to give them space to negotiate when and how they will share what they have – empowering them to make the decision.

(Let me pause here for a moment.  What do you think of this teaching?)

And so we find support also in our parsha that sharing everything, at least to start, is not always the best way to operate.

This week, as our parsha concludes, Moses, according to a tradition, hands over the Torah to the people, but according to this Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 938) Moses hands over the Torah to his brothers and sisters the Tribe of Levi.  The others, the rest of the people, are not so happy about this.

They approach Moses and say, “Hey Moses, Our teacher,” (I added the Hey for effect)  We also were at Sinai, and the Torah was given to us, so why are you giving the Tribe of Levi authority over it?  And then the Levites will say to us tomorrow:  (Again I add for effect) Na, na-na-na-nah  The Torah wasn’t given to you, it was given to us!  - But Moses was happy about this…

Why was he happy?

He was happy because at that moment he knew that all the people of Israel are seeking to be closer, and wanting to love God. 

Once again, the lesson here is that to get to the point we all want to take part, that we all want to share in something special, first we may require going without it to make sure it’s what we really want.

We soon will welcome in a New Year together, and when we begin to think about our hopes and expectations for the New Year we can take a page from these two teachings, one from the Rabbis on the words of our parsha, and one from our Rabbis about the way people think and act in general.  We can take a page that reminds us to think very carefully about what we are seeking as we make the turn of teshuvah.  Are we dreaming, are we realistic, a little of both?  Are the ‘things’ we’re hoping for actual items or are we really searching for intangibles like peace of mind, strength, patience, clarity of thinking, and inspiration? 

We still have time to sort through our thoughts – and I invite you to join us Sunday evening at 7 for Selichot, a time when we’ll join together here in a smaller, intimate setting, in the round, to meditate, sing, pray, reflect, seek healing and take that necessary deep breath we need to clear away for a moment the cares of the day and begin to imagine what tomorrow could be.

And although I’’ve suggested I disagree with Robert Fulgum about share everything, I will promise Sunday evening that we’ll have milk and cookies – good for us, and good for the soul.  Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Parshat Shoftim - What is justice? - 15th year after September 11, 2001

When I was 8 years old I had the chance to visit Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, Prinsengracht, number 263.  In light of this season of remembering September the 11th, I want to share some well-known words Anne Frank wrote in her diary.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank’s immortal words ask us to have faith that ‘peace and tranquility’ will return again.

She does not though ask, at least in this passage, for justice.

She does not seek the destruction of the enemy, or tribunals.  She simply holds fast to a faith that the world will restore itself, that hate will transform to love, that cruelty will transform to gentleness. 

Sadly this vision is not yet realized.  15 years after September 11, 2001 we continue to mourn the murder of 3,000 people, the tragic loss of so many first responders, and the sickness and death of many who worked at the site in lower Manhattan and contracted diseases as a result.

Much of the past 15 years has been a search for justice and search for rebuilding. 

But what act of justice or rebuilding can make up for even one life? 

Is there really a compensatory justice?  Or is the effort a way to prevent future attacks?

Today we take a moment to consider the pursuit of justice the past 15 years.  The United States military went into Afghanistan to pursue terrorists, searched for and took out Osama Bin Laden and others.  There is more security at airports.  For a time there was even a terrorism threat message coded by colors.

But as the Talmud teaches, a life is a world, and only God can create or recreate a world.  We can only keep memories alive, tell the story, and make sure that we not only do not forget but also teach the values of tolerance, thoughtfulness, and peaceful ways to resolve conflict.

We also look around, our country, our world, and we wonder perhaps justice is so imperfect, not in is philosophy, but in its application, that we just have to get used to the efforts of judges and courts to do their best, as we always do, and that the hope for tzedek – for justice at all levels, is something that is a striving, a hope, a goal that we work towards whether we work in the legal field or not.  It is a human striving, for creating a world that every day reflects the kind of world God hopes we can create.

Our parsha teaches us how tenuous the line be justice and injustice can be, and how we must be able to believe in the justice system first – Our ancestors, like us, were wanderers – Like us they did not always know what the road ahead would be for them, what the future would hold.  But they did not have the resources, things like DNA, photo, and video that could help establish evidence in a court room.  And so the ancient justice system was based on witness testimony, and that testimony alone could establish innocence or guilt.

Al pi shnay e’dim or shlosha edim yakum davar – a case can be valid only on the testimony of two witnesses or more…

Fifteen years after 9/11 it’s important to ask ourselves, to ask ourselves to think like witnesses and to offer a loving and honest critique of where we’ve come to all these years after the tragedies in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and with Flight 93 that fateful day, to look and to witness whether in that time we’ve set up our Jewish communities to provide more help and support to those in need, to cross the aisles and meet the people we don’t know and forge stronger connections, to reach out to people living nearby us – people of all backgrounds and religions and get to know them, are we creating moments when it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable, are we praying regularly?  Not praying only for things or for people but tefillah in the sense of self-reflection, appreciation of the world and its blessings, prayers of gratitude.

Are we creating the world that Anne Frank, during one of the darkest chapters of human history, the world that she believed was possible?

Prayer for the Town of Oyster Bay 9/11 Memorial Service 2016

I am in love with Ocean
lifting her thousands of white hats
in the chop of the storm,
or lying smooth and blue, the
loveliest bed in the world.
In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self. (Mary Oliver)

In the same spirit, the ancient poet of Psalm 93 writes about the voice of the waves that crash against the shore, Mikolot mayim rabim…that the Divine spirit of love and memory rings out above those sounds, even above the crashing sounds of breaking glass, and metal, and the sounds of horror and disbelief we remember from 15 years ago, even as if it were yesterday.

We continue to mourn with the families who lost loved ones that day, with the families of first responders – keeping our police and fire and EMS crews in our prayers as they work day and night to protect us, we mourn with the workers who contracted illness after working at the site, and pray for their healing.

And we also remind ourselves that we should not think of 9/11 as a historical event, something that happened at one time but as representative of how tragically we must still work together to overcome prejudice, intolerance, and suspicion in our world – to ensure that we can celebrate the wondrous diversity around us and how we can come together in unity to support one another.

15 years after Sep 11, 2001, let us commit to doing 15 acts of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, and may we then fulfill the teaching I share from my tradition, mizvah goreret mitzvah, that one good deed leads us to do another, until the world is overflowing with deeds of kindness and compassion like the waves that flow onto the sand.  Amen.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why do we observe Tisha B'Av?

Rabban Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiva went to Jerusalem.  They reached the Temple that was in ruins and saw a fox emerging from the ruins of the Holy of Holies.  The others started to cry but Rabbi Akiva laughed.  They asked, “Why are you laughing Akiva?”  He replied, “It was prophesied (Book of Lamentations) that foxes would haunt the Temple Mount, and it was also prophesied that the ‘old men and women will yet dwell in the streets of Jerusalem’.  Now that the first has happened, we know the second, the redemption, will happen, too.”
They replied, “Akiva, you have consoled us, you have consoled us!”

We have an ambivalent approach to mourning the Temple.  In our Siddur, we changed the language in our Musaf service from ‘we will offer sacrifices at the Temple’ to ‘We once offered sacrifices…’ but we also kept “May the Temple be rebuilt soon and in our days.” 

We support the State of Israel as a democracy and the evolution of our faith from priesthood and offerings to prayer, tzedakah, and community building.  I suggest we’d find it strange to see rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of its rituals with the inevitable political and religious fallout from the actual rebuilding.

So why then do we observe this holiday of Tisha B’av, even granted that other national tragedies occurred on the same day in history?

Why observe this holiday that in many communities is even less familiar that Shemini Atzeret or T”u Bi’shevat?

It’s a holiday that according to writer Simon Yisrael Fuerman (Tablet Magazine) probably was familiar to many only from a classic Allan Sherman song, “Why did she go and fall in love, I haven’t seen her since last Tisha B’av.”

One way to see Tisha B’av’s relevance is as a day long Tachanun – the weekday prayers when we ‘lean in’ on God for support.  We’re soaked in tears, we’ve had too much, we’re done, we’re cooked and we can’t go on without a source of strength from outside ourselves.

There are two pieces of the Tachanun that have always spoken to me and that bear on our experience of Tisha B’Av – giving us two ways to reflect on this upcoming moment of remembering sadness, destruction, pain and loss.

The first is “We do not know what to do…” Va’anachnu lo nedah mah naseh…We search, often in the dark, for answers, what to do, how to do it, why me?  Why us?  Why now?  The 9th of Av is a day of recognizing our humanity, recognizing we don’t have all the answers, that we’re searching, hoping, praying for inspiration – but often that light bulb just doesn’t pop up over our heads.

The second is “Remember compassion in the midst of anger” Bero’gez ra’chem tizkor…Around us there is so much anger, stress, crankiness, edginess, and impatience.  It feels like the world is on edge.  There are 7 billion, 442 million, 886 (or so) people on earth flying past each other at digital light speed, car horns blaring, lives exposed on social media more than we’d care to realize [even for those of us who are not on Facebook].  And so we ask God to remember compassion for each of us when thing don’t work out the way we hoped, when we’re lonely and lost and angry with ourselves, angry with God.  We ask God to help us be gentle, not backing down or giving up – but patience in strength and endurance.

The 9th of Av makes the evils of the world more real to us because we choose to confront them through the lens of our lived experience, to shed tears at what we’ve lost while never forgetting how far we’ve come against all odds.

And if we find ourselves laughing like Rabbi Akiva, then let’s laugh, release the tension, notice the irony, and live with things unfinished and in disorder, at least for a day.