Saturday, September 2, 2017

Ki Tetze: A Lesson from Mr. Rogers

I have fond memories of Mr. Rogers TV show.  One of the lessons he taught was based on a lesson his own parents taught him.  When something terrible happens, he teaches us the thing to do is to look for the helpers, to appreciate all the people who choose to go in to help, support, and make people safe.

Out of the horrible stories and images of flooding in Houston, one bright spot are the stories of those who have helped stranded dogs, picking them up off the rooftops of cars surrounded by water, of people on horseback with deep water around them opening up the gates for other horses to escape rising water, stories of those who drove cattle over flooded roads toward safer ground.

While the analogy is not exact, our Torah portion this week reminds the Israelites if they see a fellow Israelite’s ox or sheep, really any animal or anything, that has gone astray, we must not ignore it, we must return it.  Even if the owner is far away or we don’t know where the owner lives, it’s up to us to bring the animal home and care for it until the owner claims it.

The Torah emphasizes that for every lost animal or object, “Lo tuchal le’hit’alem” – An interesting choice of words here, you may not remain indifferent to it.  Why does the Torah phrase this in the negative?  Why not say, “Take good care of it” or “Look after it”.

The great Rashi explains, that ‘do not remain indifferent’ means do not close your eyes k’eelu ain’cha ro’eh oto, as though you do not see it. 

It can be more convenient to walk on by and avoid taking responsibility for the wandering animal.  It takes significant effort to lead the animal or animals, to feed them, and care for them.  It could be easier to move on and get on with our own responsibilities.  Many Israelites were herders, they already had their own flocks to feed.

But Rashi catches us at one of our human weak points.  He reminds us how often we look away when we should engage.   Elsewhere the Torah reminds us not to ‘avert our eyes’ from those among us in need and to provide for those like the stranger, widow, and orphan – those who could easily have been or have become invisible to the rest of the community.

In these weeks before Rosh Hashanah, the mitzvah of caring for and restoring the animal to its owner, the mitzvah of not remaining indifferent, transforms into a mitzvah not only about 4 legged creatures, but about us 2 legged creatures.  The New Year is a celebration of hope for the days ahead, but even more so it is a time to make certain each member of the community is recognized, welcomed, as part of our larger mishpochah, the big family.  The Haftarah we will read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of Chana is one of the quintessential reminders of what the holiday means.  Chana, a woman in an excruciating existential struggle, pours out her soul in a quiet and fervent prayer – She ‘shouts in a whisper’ (Reb Ziskind, Yesod ve’shoresh ha’Avodah) --  and just at the moment when she needs to most to be heard and her fervent prayers validated, the priest dismisses her on account of his unfamiliarity with intense but softly offered prayers.

Mr. Rogers taught us that one way of praying is looking for the helpers, appreciating them, thanking them.  Let us be the supportive presence around the mythical Chana, the help she does not receive except through a promise from God.  This season we each have the opportunity to be a helper, to make the best use of our voices, our hands, and abilities to who is feeling lost, disconnected, unheard, anyone who is feeling like an outsider or who is flooded with pain, suffering, and loss will know that we are there to guide them into the New Year.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Parshat Shoftim: Tzedek Amongst the People

There is an old Yiddish joke about the atheist in the community who goes to shul regularly. He is outspoken about his objection to God and religion and so someone challenges him- what are you doing at services? He responds: Goldstein goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Goldstein.
Schmoozing, chatting, catching-up with each other are all important parts of participating in Jewish community.  I believe though the story is flawed.  The story proposes an either/or but the truth is that we are at shul both to talk to God and to talk to each other.  Since God created us all in God’s image, having a dialogue with our fellow community members is an act of prayer that honors the way God gives us each a voice, a perspective, and special gifts to share.
We do not function as Jewish islands, cordoned off in our personal prayer bubbles.   Rabbi Baruch Zeilicovich, a colleague of mine here in New Jersey, taught that chayim, the Hebrew word for life, is in the plural – meaning that we are a community minded people, a family.
Our parsha this week focuses on how we organize ourselves, specifically to make sure there is justice in the world.
The famous words ring out ‘Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…’ Justice, Justice you shall pursue…
But our palace of justice is not an ivory tower, it is our shul, our town, the Kiddush table, the classroom.
How do we create a community that functions well amongst people of so many different backgrounds and personalities?
As Tevye teaches us, “It’s not easy!”
To follow from Rabbi Rachel’s teaching last week about the importance of mitzvot between people, bein adam le’chavero, R. Alexander Ziskind of Grodno helps us by teaching that the way to holiness and relationship to God starts first with encouraging us to implement two mitzvot:  Love your neighbor as yourself (ve’ahavta li’re’acha kamocha) and ‘B’tzedek tishpot amitecha’, Judge your neighbor fairly & thoughtfully.  Tzedek here is not book justice, it’s the way we strive to create harmony amongst people, not unanimity or complete agreement, but harmony. 
Reb Ziskind explains that we achieve this harmony by creating empathy – that we share in each other’s simcha, and we journey with others in their sorrow.
The teaching ‘Judge your neighbor thoughtfully’ is so critical for us in sharing our space and time with each other.  We cannot always know the context that informs how a person is feeling.  If we cannot find a way in to discover the context, what’s happening in someone’s life, then b’tzedek tishpot is about avoiding assumptions about why someone is feeling or acting the way they are.  Tears can be tears of joy or sadness.  One person’s closed eyes are meditation and the other’s are distraction or fatigue from a tough week. 
And so we see that justice – tzedek- amongst us is about creating a sense that we’re in it together, that we’re looking out for each other, and supporting each other, and that sometimes our ‘job’ is to help shape and change and other times our work is simply to be there, in the spirit of the song, “Don’t walk in front of me I may not follow, don’t walk behind me I may not lead, just walk beside me and be my friend and together we will walk in the path of Hashem.”

Friday, August 11, 2017

Parshat Ekev: Miracle Clothes, Miracle Shoes & Shabbat

When we love a piece of clothing, or a pair of shoes, we face a dilemma.  We want to wear these things whenever it’s appropriate, but we also want them to last. 

And when the item finally does wear out, in my own experience it’s usually someone else who breaks the bad news that it’s time for me to part with it, and, eventually, and reluctantly, I do.

Clothing and other things wear out, and so do we.  We fight back against fatigue with caffeine, the occasional nap, and otherwise.  John is one of my former coaches at UFC Gym, a man who is strong, and does endurance and strength races.  I told him I started to drink more water each morning and less caffeine and that it helped me to feel better.  I expected him to wholeheartedly endorse my new habit.  He smiled and said, “Yes, I do drink a glass of water first but then I need my coffee.”

Shabbat is a time each week we face the reality that we all get worn out, tired, and need a re-fresh.  This Shabbat though we read something in Ekev, our parshah, about the way our clothes did not wear out over the 40 years in the wilderness, and our feet did not swell from the rigors of walking countless miles – meaning that our shoes held together, too.

So how come our clothes no longer miraculously survive decades of use?  How come our feet hurt at the end of the day?

As Rabbenu Bachya emphasizes in reflecting on these miracles, God changes the way nature functions.  Others emphasize that the clothing the Israelites wore when leaving Egypt grows with them over time.

Curiously, Moses says nothing about the people themselves! 

Judging by their rebellious behavior throughout the journey, their nerves are frayed, strained, even broken.

And it is for that reason that God gives Shabbat to our ancestors in the wilderness and to us.

Shabbat is not a miracle cure.  In fact, it’s not necessarily even restful.  A friend in college woke up late in the afternoon one Saturday and said, “I feel like I slept right through Shabbat.”  And I wondered whether a full day of sleep, of restorative rest, would fulfill either the letter or spirit of our weekly holiday.  And I concluded that it would not.  While our tradition says, “Ha’shena meshubachat”, on Shabbat ‘sleep is praiseworthy’, Shabbat is a form of rest and renewal that is more active.  Shabbat can leave us feeling physically tired at the same time as we recharge our neshamah, our spirit, for the week ahead.

Moses focuses on the physical -- miracle clothes and healthy feet.

Shabbat attempts to reprogram our perceptions, primarily our perception of time.

We usually talk about time as though it’s a physical thing or product – with expressions like to make time, to have time, to waste time.  It sounds like all time is the same, one thing, and that we can create more of it as needed – if only!  Shabbat reminds us that all time is not the same and it is a precious resource.  Time is a gift, and time is holy, more holy than things.   Without time, the world as we know it does not exist & we end up like Alice in Wonderland.

This Shabbat we can begin to appreciate in a fresh, new way the gift of Shabbat by following the inspiration of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel – on Shabbat we appreciate that the sun, the moon, the people we love, the trees, flowers and everything – we appreciate that it all exists, and we don’t have to add anything to it.  For one day, as our Rabbis teach, we convince ourselves (as much as is possible) all our work is done, all tasks completed, and we take together one, long, deep breath…ahhh!

Clothes and shoes wear out, but Shabbat never does.  As the great Achad Ha’am taught us, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”  In a nod to our ancestors, let’s take our shoes off while it’s still warm, let our feet feel the texture of the grass, or sand, and take us back to that moment at the end of a week of creation, when God, on the very first Shabbat, stops, looks around at everything that had been created, and says, “Hineh tov m’od, it is all very good.”

Friday, August 4, 2017

Va'et'chanan - The Shema: A Vision of the world now and the world as it could be

The internet buzzes with rumors about an upcoming new iphone or other smartphone.

70 years ago David Ben Gurion and 10 others led the way in writing Israel’s Declaration of Independence – setting out a vision of what they hoped would be the spirit of a nation reborn.

We’re always curious about the future.  We want to know what is going to happen before it does.  It’s comforting to have at least some idea of what to expect.

Within ourselves, it’s especially challenging to look ahead – each of us as one among 7.5 billion people on earth.

But as a Jewish community we face both the present, and the unknown ahead as a community, as a family.

This week we confront our perception of the present as we read in our parsha the words that define us, “Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-henu Ado-nai Echad.”  ‘Hear Israel, Ado-nai Our God, Ado-nai is One.’

This is the one statement of faith that all Jews regardless of background or observance agree upon.  These are the words we say every morning when we wake up, every night when we go to sleep, and in the last moments of life itself – we affirm the belief in One God of the Universe who unifies everything and is the Source of everything we see and know.

But then, at the end of every service, we sing the words of the prophet Zechariah as part of the Alenu prayer.  “Bayom hahu yiyeh Ado-nai echad uShmo echad.”

“On that day (in the future) God will be One and God’s Name will be One.”(14:9)

The Shema is definitive.  We believe, we know that God is One.  It’s the basis for our worldview that we are all deeply connected through time and through the Torah and its teachings.

But Zechariah seems to say the Shema is an aspiration, it’s a hope, it’s a dream, it’s just a hint like the iphone rumors swirling around.

There are great Jewish thinkers who explain this apparent contradiction.  The great Rashi, Radak (David Kimchi) explain Zecharia’s prophecy is about the other peoples of the world, that Zehcariah foresees a time that others will recognize the One God of the Universe.

But I see here another lesson, a lesson rooted in the idea that we are partners with God in creation, that creation is ongoing, and that our work is ongoing. 

Before prayers, the Kabbalah teaches we say ‘I am saying this prayer for the purpose of unifying the Holy One and the Shechinah’ – this means, our prayers, our words, our mitzvoth, our actions, contribute toward creating the unity that we seek – they contribute toward making God’s Name One in the world.

So many things challenge our ability to see unity and holiness around us.  Surrounded by so many people, we can still feel lonely.  Overwhelmed with news and information, we can still feel we haven’t found truth.  Moving so quickly in the car and our routines, we may miss the colors and contrasts, the art that is there already in nature.

The relationship between Shema and Bayom hahu, between our statement of faith and Zecharia’s commentary on it, is a motivation, a call to action, that where there is loneliness we have the ability to create chaverut, fellowship and friendship, where there is a surplus of information, we remember that truth is elusive and we should be open for ideas that are different from our own, and where we move too fast, there is time, especially on Shabbat, to appreciate the miracles we see in each other’s eyes, and in the color and life around us.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Acharei Mot: The Most Important Room in the World

Try to imagine you have a room in your house that you leave locked all the time except for one hour each year. 

In that space, you must keep an item, something that represents who you are, who you aspire to be, something that if it became lost – you could not imagine living without it.

Take a moment to picture that space.  And more importantly, take a moment to picture what is inside it.  Is it one thing?  Many things?   Is it something that is tangible or something that is intangible?

In the opening verses of our Torah portion this week, God instructs Moses to instruct his brother Aaron how to enter the Holy of Holies, the space in the Mishkan and Later Temples where we find the Ark of the Covenant.  The High Priest only enters this space once a year on Yom Kippur.

God says, “Be’zot yavo Aharon el Ha’kodesh…”  Be’Zot is a strange word here, meaning ‘with this’, or ‘in this way’ or ‘thus’.  ‘In this way’ Aaron shall enter the Holy Place.

Our ancestors noticed this word and suggested that since it is an unexpected word here, then the explanation for this word is also beyond its literal reading.

The Gematria, the numerical value of Be’zot, is 410, equivalent to the number of years the first Temple stood.

The most Holy site for the Jewish people contained within it the most Holy object.  For the Jewish people at that time, the Temple and the Ark were like the Holy Places in our homes and the Holy Items in our homes that we envisioned a few moments ago.

However, by the end of the 410 years, the Ark was gone.  And we have no idea where it is. 

(“Then it shall come to pass, when you are multiplied and increased in the land in those days,” says the Lord, “that they will say no more, ‘The ark of the covenant of the Lord.’ It shall not come to mind, nor shall they remember it, nor shall they visit it, nor shall it be made anymore.(Jeremiah 3:16))

When the exiles returned and built a smaller 2nd Temple, there was no Ark inside it.  When Herod raised a hill in Jerusalem and one of the most glorious Temples in the ancient world on that hill, there were priests and sacrifices, Levites singing song to the pilgrims, but not Ark.

The Holy of Holies was empty and still the priest went in once a year to seek atonement and forgiveness for the entire people.

And so, I share that when I tried this exercise, I saw nothing in the once a year space.  I saw the people I love, and, I saw myself. 

I believe this is what the priest saw as well, or at least what he projected.  He saw the faces of every Jewish soul and asked God for mercy and forgiveness on their behalf. 

It was a chesed shel emet he did, an act of complete loving kindness, because without the Ark it was an even greater act of faith.  Nothing tangible.  No spot above the holy winged beings carved on the cover where the sins were collected.

And when we think of Aaron this way – it makes it easier for us to understand why Aaron is called a ‘rodef shalom’ one who seeks peace – He puts his life on the line in an act of complete giving on behalf of millions of people he doesn’t know and may never meet.

Aaron’s example reminds us how important chesed is, loving-kindness, how fundamental are gentleness, empathy, listening, self-reflection and humility.  Without these things, we risk falling into the same trap Aaron himself did at Mount Sinai when he helped create the golden calf.  In that moment they placed things first instead of people.  They danced around an idol – an idol made up of ‘stuff’ of ‘things’.  They needed reassurance from something they could see and touch, except, in the end what glittered was not gold, and it was melted down, and it disappeared.

Let’s make that room we envisioned.  And let’s visit it more than once a year.  Actually, let’s live in that room, but why?  The ‘why’ is that when the rest of the house falls down or disappears, when we don’t recognize who we are or why we are, when it’s too painful to pray or when we do celebrate and the celebration gives way to ‘real life again’ – this room, this space, will still be there and strong, a source of hope because it contains only what’s most important to us and nothing else.