Sunday, July 31, 2016

Pinchas 5776/2016: To whom will we offer a cup of water?

I was waiting for the flight home from Israel, waiting in the departures area at Ben Gurion airport.  There were hundreds of people there:  Americans, Israelis, people who looked to be religious, others, like me, with just a kippah.  A man with a bright smile, dressed in a fairly religious looking fashion, was making eye contact across the row of seats where I was sitting, and saying something to everyone in the seats.  He made eye contact with me and said, “Yehudi, atah rotzeh kos mayim?”  This translates to, “Fellow Jew!  Would you like a cup of water?”  I said, “Lo todah”, no thank you.

I don’t recall anyone ever offering me anything, checking in on me, or otherwise paying attention to me at an airport.  As in many places, people there tend to keep to themselves, checking phones, typing on the computer, snoozing, or talking to the folks sitting to their right or left.

I was thinking about this story after studying the part of parshat Pinchas we read today, the part that lays out the sacrifices our ancient brothers and sisters brought to the Temple in Jerusalem during the 7 days of Sukkot, a total of 70 sacrifices over the course of the week long festival.

And ringing in my head at the same time are the words of the prophet Hoshea (6:6), “Chesed chafatz’ti ve’lo zavach,” “For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”

Aren’t the sacrifices meant to train us to live with self-awareness and responsibility?  We must take the initiative to acquire and participate in the offerings.  As a people we must choose to hear and respond to God’s words, and if we love God with these gifts then we will be more likely to also love God by treating other people with the respect and dignity they deserve, and also hopefully reaching out to others as the kind gentleman reached out to me.

Time and again, though, the prophets warn us our sacrifices are in vain since they noticed disrespect and injustice around them.  They say, in effect, focus on the moral principles in the Torah first, and let the ritual aspects enrich our Jewish lives through both the discipline they demand and the beauty and insight they can help us achieve.

The Torah, to be clear, does not distinguish between ritual and moral mitzvoth.  There is no scale in the Torah itself that suggests love your neighbor as yourself is any greater a value than the nation’s responsibility to furnish the 70 offerings for Sukkot.

But later authorities, prophets and Rabbis, especially after the destruction of the Temple, an event we will remember on Tisha B’av in 3 weeks; they will argue that after the destruction of the Temples, which happened despite adherence to the rituals, perhaps the mitzvoth ben adam la’chavero, the ways people should relate to one another, are in fact more important, and in fact causeless hatred – disrespect, lack of empathy – that animosity between people toppled the 2nd Temple and not the military might of the 10th Roman legion.

We can synthesize these reflections by first making an assumption, an assumption I hope we can all agree upon, the assumption that God gives the Torah to the people for the better – that they, that we, will benefit.  We will grow in holiness, and in taking responsibility for our behavior, for being good stewards of the world that surrounds and nourishes us, for being teachers and leaders in the tradition of our ancestors. 

And we find this assumption grows not only toward ourselves, as the people of the covenant, but to others as well.  Rashi brings down a Midrash on the opening words of the verses laying out the 70 offerings, “The [offerings] of the [Sukkot] holiday are 70 with respect to the 70 nations of the world…[in the days of the Holy Temple] they offer them protection from adversity.”(Rashi to 29:18) 

But tragically, while studying the Torah and internalizing its teachings can give us a sense of identity and purpose, neither the Torah nor its teachings can protect us from harm, from the evils the world and its people carry out.  While we participate in Jewish life, in prayer, in education, in any way we express our Judaism, and as we strive to grow as thoughtful, caring, and active in creating this world in God’s image, we operate knowing that the unknown is so much greater, and often scarier, than the known, that the shalom we seek – the peace, the wholeness, the blessing – is elusive. 

Our tradition points out and emphasizes just how elusive this peace can be in the opening verses of this week’s parsha when God promises Pinchas, the title character, a brit shalom, a covenant of peace – the ‘vav’ in that word Shalom is cut in two, there is a break in the vav showing to us how zealotry in acting for God can in fact lead to suffering rather than salvation.

We’ve seen this too often this summer, and most recently in the violent way terrorists entered the church in St. Etienne de Rouvray, in northern France, and murdered Father Jacques Hamel and left other parishioners critically injured.  The perverted zealousness of the Islamic State terrorists appears to have no boundaries and although Muslim communities in France and elsewhere denounce these attacks, they sadly continue as do protests against the State of Israel a place where its Arab citizens fare well in comparison to other countries in the region.  And we must demand during this election season that  both sides of the political spectrum here must make the campaign about real plans for thoughtful leadership.

In this three weeks period, let’s follow the example of the generous gentleman who made the offer of a glass of water.  In place of causeless hate, let us offer ahavat chinam, loving-kindness without expectation of reward or return.  While we must stand strong and take the fight to our enemies, we ourselves are not the soldiers to do this and violence in speech and action tends to only breed more of the same.  As MLK taught us, we will meet brute force with soul force.  And like the protestors of the 1960s, we will prepare and be thoughtful in our approach – like our ancient brothers and sisters we will make the sacrifice of our time and energy to reach out, to branch out, and extend our message to the community before Tisha B’av and long before we gather to usher in a New Year.

Let’s take a moment to think now, to whom will we offer the glass of water this week?

Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, July 29, 2016

Dvar Torah: Balak 5776/2016: Great Expectations

Our expectations help to define our experiences, and in the big picture, our lives.

I want to share a story that reinforces this idea -- the story of a man, who will remain nameless, a man who was living down in Florida and noticed a store front that advertised ‘$100 cruise vacation’.  What a great deal.  He walked in and asked if the offer on the storefront was real.  The clerk behind the desk said it surely was real.  The man handed over the one hundred dollars and asked when the cruise vacation would depart – the clerk said, right now if you’re ready, please step through this way.  He crossed through the main desk and as he did the clerk took a baseball bat and knocked him on the head.  When he regained consciousness, he found himself floating on the ocean, in an inner tube, floating out there in the middle of the wide ocean.  He looked around and noticed someone else floating in an inner tube – he paddled over there and called out to the other, “Hey over there, do they serve a dinner on this trip?”  The other called out, “They didn’t last year.”

This story reminds us to be wary of our assumptions and of our expectations.  What seems like a good deal at first can quickly turn out to be anything but a good deal.  It is of course ridiculous to think that a full-fledged cruise vacation could ever cost $100, but we also know from recent history that even full-priced cruises are subject to Noro Virus, engine failure, and, in the case of the Costa Concordia and others, can be even worse tragedies. 

And expectations at full-price set the stage this week when King Balak, King of Mo’av, brings out Bil’am the magician to curse the people of Israel.  Mo’av fears the Israelites will rout them as they did to the Amorites, and Balak supposes Bil’am may be able to prevent the disaster.  In our reading today, we chanted the third and final oracle Bil’am speaks regarding the Israelites, and it includes the familiar words Ma tovu ohalecha Yakov mishkenotecha Yisrael – How beautiful are your tents O, Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. 

While later Jewish tradition paints Bilam as an evil sorcerer (kind of like Aladdin’s Jafar), and later Jewish tradition demonstrates that his words, however they sound, show evil intent, it’s pretty clear here that he’s offered now, for the third time, abundant blessings to Israel rather than curses.

The Or Ha’chayim, Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe Attar, tries to explain that Bilam’s blessings really are curses but Balak simply cannot hear the curses in the nicely phrased poetic words.  With due respect to the Sages, the point of the story here is to show the divergence between what Balak expected and what Bilam actually did.

Balak says to him, “I called you to curse my enemies and instead you have blessed them three times over!” (Numbers 24:10)

Bil’am frustrated Balak’s expectations, not once, nor twice, but three times over.

Think about a time when each of us has faced a similar dilemma.  We take a car to get repaired, and then either the repair itself fails or something else breaks down soon after compelling us to return to the body shop.  Or more poignant for us, when we receive news about a health test or diagnosis – what do we hope to hear?  Can we ever be prepared for bad news?   Why is it that people may even struggle with hearing good news when fully expecting the opposite?

I recently heard from a hopeful parent – she and her husband had been for many years seeking to adopt a child, and were prepared and ready to adopt this summer when they learned just yesterday that the birth mother decided to keep the child instead of giving the child up for adoption.

During this election season we are subject to candidates and parties who raise our expectations.  We often hear, “On my first day in office I will…” and fill in the blank.  We all know that legislative priorities are important but that creating and guiding legislation through the democratic process often takes longer and involves compromise. 

Still, we must always strive to meet high expectations with the best of ourselves.  God asks us in the wilderness to take upon ourselves laws and practices that are neither easy nor convenient, especially for people on the move.  God does this knowing that once we settle in the Holy Land we will likely get too settled, too comfortable and the urgency of nation-building and the first exciting part of the journey, the honeymoon period, will end and we will regress. 

In fact, in the same parsha we read today the people regressed the moment after Bilam praised the people and showed how we would triumph over our enemies.  It turns out the “enemy” is within – we might one day overcome Amalek and Kenites, but the danger of falling back on old patterns, of looking to other gods to worship, statues, local deities, idols – all these easily accessible divinities are easy and less demanding than the invisible God of the universe who not only asks for our faith and trust, but also for us to live a life of justice and compassion.  As we’ve seen in bloody reality lately, this demand is tragically flouted by many religious extremists.

But to ask a significant amount from the people then and now is the only way to encourage us to strive, to stretch and to grow. 

And what better time to re-emphasize this message than as the 3 weeks leading to Tisha B’Av get started this Sunday with our observance Sunday of the Shivah Asar B’Tamuz fast, the fast that recalls the sieges of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of both Temples, destructions that our tradition remembers not as the result of overwhelming enemy force but as the result of our people not striving earnestly enough to live up to one of the most significant and central expectations God sets for us – Ve’ahavta li’re’acha kamocha, you shall care for your fellow human being as yourself.

And, of course, we should never purchase a $100 cruise vacation.

Shabbat Shalom.






Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dvar Torah: Beha'lotcha 5776/2016 -- Becoming the Leaders We Can Be



A Jewish school I know of in another state made it clear at the beginning of each school year that its early childhood students, particularly girls, should not come to school wearing colorful, poofy princess dresses – for reasons of safety on the playground and for convenience in the classroom.  And despite this annual announcement, over the course of the year there would inevitably be numbers of girls who decided to put on the dress (say ‘yes’ to the dress?) anyway. 

When I look at my own dress clothes, fairly straightforward, small burst of color here and there, it tends to feel drab, even gloomy, when compared to the bright colors of a princess costume and the even brighter smile on a child’s face when she wears it. 

There’s also something that’s similar, in both cases, whether in a princess dress or a suit, a military uniform, a doctor’s white jacket, in every case, even with all the training and experience of a professional, whether princess or professional or in any leadership role in life, in all our roles we are playing a part.  Each part has a lingo, various scripts depending on the situation, an expected voice or tone, and in many cases a uniform.

Uniform does not make or break the role, after all, some police, for example, wear plain clothes, but if a business person would go into a high level negotiation meeting in a clown suit, then, I suspect everyone would be scratching their heads, scratching their heads about identity, and the assumptions, beliefs, and ultimately the trust that comes from a sharper sense of identity.

There is a profound crisis of identity across political, religious, and social lines that make leadership challenging in the early part of this 21st century.  In the political arena, it is less clear what a democrat or a republican is or is not.  The lines between religious denominations are grayer then even before.  In a time that TV commercials suggest we ask our doctor about a certain treatment plan, for example, we may take on some of the doctor role ourselves.  It’s a muddled and complicated picture of identity, roles, and assumptions that makes leadership harder since it’s less clear who is the leader, who is the group that requires the leadership, and what’s the relationship between the two.

Today, we heard about two Israelites Eldad and Medad, who have cameo roles in the Torah, just here in chapter 11 of Numbers.  When God’s spirit fills Moses and 70 elders, they offer prophecy, and then God’s spirit leaves them and they stop offering prophecy.  Like a car, when it has fuel it can move, but when it’s empty it’s two benches with a roof. 

Two men, Eldad and Medad, continue to offer prophecy even after the spirit leaves the others, and they make these prophecies in the camp rather than in the Mishkan, the Holy Place.

Joshua, 2nd to Moses, asks Moses to denounce them or hold them.  Joshua seems to think they are acting out of order, but Moses, again, puts things into perspective for Joshua saying, “Would that the entire people of God be prophets, if God would but place God’s spirit on them.”

We recall Moses mentoring Joshua in a similar way at Mount Sinai, when Moses comes down from the top and hears the people partying by the golden calf, Joshua says to him, “I hear the sound of war in the camp!”  Moses responds, “I don’t hear the sound of strength, or weakness, just the sound of song.”

In both moments, Joshua takes a hard line regarding identity, the description of sound in one, and the identity of prophets in the other.

And in both moments, Moses reminds him that his first impressions are incorrect, that he must step back, and see reality in context.

Context, after all, is a necessary element for evaluating leadership.  The high level business person just might choose to put on a clown costume if her company is negotiating a deal on importing clown clothing for Barnum and Bailey.

As we are living in a time when all manner of identities are grayer, less well-defined, then the way we identify anything depends upon a cumulative evaluation of spoken words, dialogue, writing, and the way a person or group chooses to act in a variety of settings, whether in peace or conflict.

We might react the same way, for example, to Joshua if a small group of people declare themselves to be prophets, but the Meshivat Nefesh, Rabbi Yochanan Son of Aaron Luria (Alsace, born 1440), explains Eldad and Medad did not want to be prophets, did not want the status, in fact, they wanted none of it and tried to escape until ha’kavod radaf acha’rey’hem, the honor chased after them, and they achieved the merit of being prophets all the time, like Moses.  And as a result, their lives changed forever since they had to maintain purity, and would have to live more often away from their families to do so. 

Leadership, though, is not something reserved for people who fit certain roles in which leadership is expected.  It is a way of thinking and living.  Tablet Magazine writer Liel Leibovitz says it best, quote, “As Eldad and Medad…show us so unequivocally, we all have within us the engines of our own greatness. All we need to do is start them and see change coming, not from above but from within, sustainable and real and sweeter than we can imagine.”

If each of us can summon the courage to lead, to find our voice, to take a stand for our beliefs, we will find the energy to do it – working on behalf of ourselves and others breeds more energy for doing this work rather than sapping us.

And there are times, even if it’s not a deal about clown clothing, that we must change the uniform, change the language, and even the usual approach like the girls who put on princess dresses when running, climbing, sliding, and doing a day’s learning in the classroom.

A distinguished American, whose statue and picture I saw several times when at the Capitol in Washington this past week, put the choice to wear a princess dress against the rules in a lasting expression, “A little revolution now and then is a good thing.”  That distinguished American, Thomas Jefferson.







Dvar Torah: Behalot'cha 5776/2016 - Responding to Fear



Vayhi binsoa ha’aron vayomer Moshe, Kuma Ado-nai ve’yafutzu oy’vecha mi’panecha…

We recite this pasuk, this verse, as we take out the Torah to read and study.

We equate the Torah moving from one place to another with taking the Torah from the Ark, the aron, and carrying it around the sanctuary for everyone to see and touch.

Why at this moment does Moses say, “Advance O Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, may Your foes flee before you!”?

At this moment of hope for the Israelites, finally we will be moving from Mount Sinai, at this moment of beginning for every Torah service for us, why is there talk of enemies and war?

We know that our enemies in the past have taken Torahs, stolen them, burned synagogues down, trampled and defamed the Torah itself. 

The Torah itself cannot be a shield, but the people of the Book can be a shield, can keep and grow its influence whether under oppression or, please God, through many generations of peace ahead, peace to study, to live, and to sing out our prayers in full voice.

As I’ve said many times before, we live in a climate of fear.  There is a sense that danger is around the corner – whether in the car, and we’re wondering whether a driver is texting and not paying attention, or the lone-wolf terrorist, the more rapid spread of disease via airplane flights, and now the uncertainty about the future of Europe as one of the Union’s biggest names pulls out, there is a sense of fear that infuses our everyday life and thinking.

Of course, my parents hid under desks during potentially nuclear air raid drills, and nuclear missiles were armed and ready to fly from Cuba in 1962.  Fear is nothing new, but at least back then the battle lines were a bit clearer, we believed we knew who was the ‘us’ and who was the ‘them’.

The beginning of the Torah service Vayhi binsoa that is part of our Torah reading tomorrow is a reminder that we must not let fear drown out the Presence of God, of hope, of joy in our hearts.  Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, explains Moses says Kumah Ado-nai, Stand up God, be Present God since at the moment the Ark of the Covenant moves the Shechinah, God’s indwelling Presence, disappears from above the Ark itself. 

And so when Moses says Kumah Ado-nai, he is asking just as we do for God to be present, for there to be the possibility of courage, of vision, and of insight that can help us put our reality into a new frame, a frame that does not dismiss the possibility of danger, rather, a frame that accepts danger and evil as part of this imperfect world and gives us the strength to bring blessing and be a blessing for each other no matter what danger appears on the horizon and no matter, as the Shadow said, no matter what evil lurks in  the hearts of men…