Friday, August 7, 2015

Eikev: Let Your Personal Experiences Guide You

Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, an ancient rabbi from the Land of Israel, has one teaching in all of Jewish tradition attributed to him. He said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” From this we learn that every time we read the Torah we come to it with new eyes, even those portions we have read and re-read over and over again. Each time we study Torah we will notice something new and learn something we had never thought about before. This happened to me this week when looking at our weekly portion. I noticed a verse that jumped out to me in a way that it never had before.

Parashat Eikev teaches us about the obligation that the Jewish people has to learn and to live by God’s teachings and the rewards that come with that. We are warned, yet again that failure to observe the commandments will result in punishments from God, while also being reminded that loving God and living by God’s guidelines will result in good fortune and security in the promised land, the land of Israel. Much of the wording and sentiments in the parasha are quite familiar and echo what we have been taught in other portions and what we know of Jewish tradition. Yet in the midst of the familiar, one injunction stands out as seemingly contrary to what we have come to expect. Moses tells the people:

“Take thought this day that it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the lesson of the Lord your God…but that it was you who saw with your own eyes all the marvelous deeds that the Lord performed.” (Deuteronomy 11: 2-7)

This focus on the current generation - that it was them who experienced God’s marvels and instruction, not their children - is surprising as we are generally accustomed to the idea that what happened to our ancestors in the desert happened to us all. At our Passover Seders we prompt ourselves “chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hoo yatza mi Mitzrayim,” that we are obligated to see ourselves as if we personally were freed from Egypt, and that we experienced Gods wonders. When we read about the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai we learn that the instruction was not given solely to those who were in attendance, but also to those who were not physically at Mt. Sinai, including future generations. This has led to the age old Jewish image that we were all present at Sinai.

Yet here, in Eikev, in Deuteronomy, Moses’ final sermons to the Israelite people, reviewing and repeating the rest of the Torah, here Moses stresses that he is not appealing to the people on the basis of another generation’s experience, but their own. Instead of asserting the importance of collective memory that is at the core of Jewish peoplehood, here it is one specific group, one generation that is tasked with remembering and understanding all that transpired and to use said experience as their impetus for adhering to God’s commandments and loving God. 

What, then, does this instruction mean for their children? What does it mean for future generations?

We learn in this instance that past lessons serve as motivation for our future actions. We learn that we can only act based on what we know, what we’ve learned and experienced in our lives. Yet we also learn that our experiences contribute to who we are and how we interact with  connect to the world around us. 

Therefore, it is incumbent upon each of us to utilize our own experience to deepen our love of God and our connection to Jewish tradition. It is incumbent upon us to apply our life experiences to our Jewish lives and to make our own contributions to tomorrow’s tradition and culture. And it is further incumbent upon us to pass on what we know to our children so that they may learn and experience the world in their own way, putting their own stamp on the future of our people.

This Shabbat may we be open to noticing, experiencing, and understanding all that life has to offer. May we see the world and all that is in it in a new way. And may we let our own experiences help us to deepen our connections to each other and to our shared tradition.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Light in the Darkness: June 26, 2015

In the midst of darkness
a light can still shine through.
A light unto the nations,
Though many have already found this light.
Today light beams forth from our nation.

We may not be the first
We pray we are not the last.

Out of weeks filled with injustice, intolerance, and ignorance
For a country in need of good news
Today light shines forth
America bathes in a rainbow of light.

Today Americans “become something
greater than once they were.”
Today “the highest ideals” ring true:
“love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”

Marriage is set free
“No union is more profound”

Fear loses
Hate takes a back seat
Irrational thought subsides
If only for a day

Today is bright
Today is right

Today truth triumphs
Today respect prevails
Equality carries the day
Today Love Wins

It is so ordered.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Because We Love Being Jewish

The past Saturday, January 31st, I had the privilege of attending and teaching at the annual URJ East District (New Jersey & Friends) Shabbaton. This day of prayer, study, and socializing is one that I look forward to every year since I moved to New Jersey. The atmosphere, the energy, the excitement, and the desire to learn at the Shabbaton is contagious and uplifting. 
This year, my now annual Talmud study session called “Those Crazy Rabbis” focused on a Talmudic discussion from Tractate Sota (pages 27b, 30b-31a) regarding Shirat HaYam, The Song of the Sea. The Song of the Sea, from Parashat Beshalach, the Torah portion from last week, is near and dear to me, not only for its importance in our history and our tradition, but also because it was the Torah portion I read at my Bar Mitzvah service.
While the “crazy” part of the discussion came in the Rabbis’ debate over how Shirat HaYam is to be recited (with even fetuses in the womb singing the song), the more enlightening discussion, and the one more relevant to us as liberal, autonomous Jews today, came immediately afterwards. In the Rabbis’ discussion of Job they attempt to answer the question of which is a better reason for serving God; out of love or out of fear. Before I comment on that question and the Rabbis’ discussion of it, we first need to understand why this discussion immediately follows one about The Song of the Sea. 
The Rabbinic teachings flow by association, as if they were an active conversation between two or more parties. For example, if I were to be talking to someone about Cracker Jack, that might (read: definitely would) remind me of baseball, and the next part of that conversation would be about baseball, even if it had nothing to do directly with Cracker Jack. In much the same way, since the Song of the Sea recounts the awesome powers of God that were on display at the parting of the Red Sea, the Rabbis thought about what the response to that power might be. On the one hand, our ancestors could have felt a obligation to serve God out of love for God for redeeming them from slavery with such mighty acts. On the other hand, perhaps our ancestors felt compelled to serve God out of fear of what God might do to them with such power.
This same question could be asked of this week’s portion, Yitro, as well. As the Israelites are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses ascends the mountain amidst the thunder, lighting and clouds. God’s power is on display as God utters to us the laws we are to follow in God’s name; The Ten Commandments. Did our ancestors follow God’s laws in fear of the thunder, lightning and clouds? Were our ancestors afraid of God’s powers as described in the midrash where God held Mt. Sinai above the Israelites until they agreed to accept the Torah? Or, did our ancestors choose to accept the Torah and serve God out of a love of God and a love of being Jewish?
According to the Rabbis of the Talmud, both approaches, serving God out of fear and serving God out of love, are valid and righteous. Both are authentic and appropriate ways of living a Jewish life. However, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar teaches us that serving God out of love is the greater of the two as the merit of this approach lasts for twice as long. Living a Jewish life out of a love of God and devotion to our tradition is twice as rewarding as living a Jewish life out of fear of punishment.
In our day we should not engage with Jewish life out of a fear of failing to live up to certain expectations. 

In our day we should not engage with Jewish life out of an obligation to merely fulfill a certain set of rules. 

In our day let us enjoy the freedom to celebrate and embrace our tradition because WE WANT TO, because WE ENJOY IT, because it has SPECIAL MEANING TO US, because it FEEDS OUR SOULS, and because WE LOVE BEING JEWISH.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Distinctly Jewish, From Ancient Egypt to Today

Throughout this week you may have seen on social media an article called “Hot pastrami and the decline of secular, Jewish-American identity: How deli stopped being an essential part of the Jewish-American story.” This opinion piece, written by Peter Beinart and published by Haaretz, expresses Beinart’s observation that the secular American Jewish identity is being diluted and fading away to the point where there soon may not be a singular, distinctive American-Jewish persona and culture recognizable by Jews and non-Jews alike. Even if we do not necessarily agree with his assessment of the situation, Beinart’s concern is certainly one that we must take seriously.

Maintaining a strong Jewish identity, one that is distinct from other cultures, one that stands out even in assimilated societies, and one that we are proud to exhibit has always been a hallmark of our people. Even in the darkest of times, when fear might have led to this identity being hidden in public, it continued to grow and flourish in private circles. For centuries, our religion has been maintained through study of Torah, and our peoplehood has been maintained by Jewish culture: our rituals, our holidays, our foods, our language, and all of our idiosyncrasies.

This has been true even from the earliest days of the Jewish people. As we read this week in Parashat Bo, and as we know from the story of Passover, on the eve of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, our ancestors were commanded to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood. This smearing of blood was used to identify and distinguish Jewish homes from non-Jewish homes, protecting our ancestors from the final plague: the killing of the first-born.

Throughout the ages we have maintained our ancestors’ practice. By following the precedent in Egypt and observing the commandments in our Torah, we continue to mark our doorposts to this day with a mezuzah , clearly and proudly letting people know that our home is a Jewish home. And we have even gone further, wearing bracelets, rings, and necklaces featuring a Star of David, a “Chai” (Hebrew word for life), and even a smaller mezuzah. Many Jews also choose to wear their kippot (skullcaps, also known as yarmulkes) in public due to a feeling of religious obligation, a sense of pride and identity, or, many times, both. 

Over the past few months, and especially brought to a head over the past few weeks, we have come to clearly see that rampant Jewish hatred still exists in many parts of the civilized world. In these places, such as France, our fellow Jews have had to hide who they really are and temper their expressions of Jewish identity, fearing abuse, assault, or even the loss of their lives. They are no longer comfortable wearing their Jewish jewelry, kippot, or other outward signs of being Jewish. This fear has gotten to the point where an Israeli barber has created what is being called the “magic yarmulke;” a washable skullcap made out of hair. This new “fashion statement” blends easily with regular hair and allows one to fulfill the obligation of covering the head, while remaining inconspicuous (read, safe) in public. 

In ancient Egypt, when our people were persecuted and oppressed, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what saved their lives. In today’s Europe, when our people enjoy lives of freedom in the greater society, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what puts their safety at risk. I am, as we all should be, dumbfounded by this dichotomy.

Our hearts go out to Jews all over the world who live in fear, hesitant to announce that they are Jews. Our prayers go out to God that one day, very soon, the world will become enlightened. Our actions, therefore, must be put towards embracing OUR Jewish identities and proudly displaying them for all to see. If we can maintain a singular, unique, and distinctive identity as American Jews, we can give our brothers and sisters across the world hope that one day, they may be able to proudly show off their unique identities as well.

Let us put our Judaism on display. Let us embrace that which makes us unique in the world. And, this Shabbat, let’s have a bowl of matzo ball soup, corned beef (or pastrami) on rye, and a knish on the side, to remind us of who we are and where we come from.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Show Your Marvel

On Monday evening, the Ohio State Buckeyes won the first-ever College Football Playoffs National Championship. As great as that game was, and as exciting of a victory as it is for Buckeye fans, such as my wife, the football game itself was only part of what drew people to watch ESPN. Many were drawn to their TV screens in order to watch the premiere of the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the next big superhero blockbuster to hit the silver screen. 

With the recent successes of movies like Man of Steel, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America, and the success of TV shows like Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and The Flash, we are, indeed, currently entrenched in the era of the superhero, comic book movie.  Marvel and DC Comics are both pursuing an aggressive slate of upcoming projects like Avengers, and next year’s Batman v Superman movie. 
Recently, Stephen McFeely, one of the writers of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, told The Hollywood Reporter that he often gets asked questions of why comic book movies are prevalent nowadays. His response to these questions is: 

"In some ways, we’ve become a genre that you can do well now given the world of computers and perhaps it’s also just a time in the sun. You went to the movies in the 50’s and 60’s you went to a western. So at this point, you’re going to a superhero movie. It’s taking over that same black hat, white hat myth-making surface.”

While I would certainly agree with McFeely that todays visual effects have the power to bring the worlds of the comic heroes to life in ways that earlier generations could only dream about, I would have to say that modern technology is not the only reason people flock to comic book movies and shows. 
Day in and day out we see on the news and read online about horrific events taking place across the world and close to home. In this, the information age, we are more inundated than ever with knowledge of just how much evil exists in the world. Evils that we might choose to ignore at times, but evils nonetheless that do not go away just because we cannot handle them. 
The superhero genre gives us a temporary escape. We immerse ourselves in worlds that are also full of evil but, at the same time, feature heroes who keep that evil at bay, make the world safe, and foster the feelings of freedom and protection that all people dream about. DC and Marvel are producing movies and TV shows about extraordinary individuals who are saving the day from unspeakable evils because that is what we need right now. We need heroes, marvels to behold and to inspire us.
In their oppression in Egypt, our ancestors sought a similar hero to free them from their burdens. This week in our Torah, Moses emerges as that wonder. Finally agreeing to be God’s messenger, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, are instructed by God to proceed to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and demand the freedom of the Hebrews. At the same time, God also knows that it will take more than a mere demand to convince Pharaoh. As such, God tells Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh will need convincing:

The Eternal One said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Show your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.
(Exodus 7:8-9)

Our heroes were issued the challenge, “תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת (t’nu lachem mofeit),” “show your marvel.” God knew, just as we do, that it takes a marvel, a wonderful or astonishing person or thing, to initiate true change in the face of oppression.

This weekend, our country devotes itself to honoring one such marvel of recent history, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was the epitome of a hero who stood up for what he believed in, inspired others to join his cause, and proved that equality was a goal for which many had strived. Dr. King’s work and his words still echo to this day as a call to action against many of the troubles our world faces today.

In the face of renewed feelings and tensions concerning racial inequality, we hear Dr. King say:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And in response to those who have acted violently in protest, we implore as Dr. King implored:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

In the face of renewed global terrorism we consider Dr. King’s words from a 1967 speech at Marietta College:

"When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”

And for each and every time we hear about a terrible tragedy, we seek comfort from Dr. King’s charge:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

In our broken and hurting world we maintain our hope for a brighter future, but hope, alone, is not enough. Rabbi Tarfon taught us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena—
 “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” 
(Pirkei Avot 2:16)

It is up to each of us to bring some hope back to the world, to be that light unto the nations that our prophets urge us to be. We all have the power to be everyday super heroes, to bring reality closer to the world of the comic books, to make our fantasy play out in reality. All we need is someone to inspire us. So now I challenge the world, our country, our community, and you:

“תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת” 
(t’nu lachem mofeit)

“Show Your Marvel!”

Friday, January 9, 2015

God Imperfect; World Imperfect

These days it seems more and more apparent that we live in a broken and imperfect world. With all of the crises in the Middle East, the ever-growing list of victims of preventable gun violence in our country, and, especially, this week’s terrorist activities in France, we are all left dumbfounded as to how so much evil could have been permitted to exist. An obvious question that people of faith are likely to be asking in the wake of all of this violence and hate is, “where is God in all of this?” And, of course, the corollary question is sure to be asked, “how could God let all of this happen?” While these are certainly valid questions, at this moment in time, we are not well served, nor are we comforted, by answering these questions directly. We can never know God’s true plans or absolute nature. We can only speak to humanity’s experience of, and relationship to, that which is divine. 

As we seek to understand God in our own lives, we find infinite guidance through the written words and eternal teachings of our Torah. We begin the book of Exodus this Shabbat, reading about Moses’ first interaction with God. After approaching the Burning Bush and accepting God’s mission of freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, Moses asks God one of the most pivotal questions in the Torah:

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is God’s name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.’"
(Exodus 3:13-14)

God’s response to Moses, the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, is one that comes with a variety of translations and, therefore, a variety of meanings. The common translation with which we are familiar is reflected in numerous editions of the Bible and even immortalized by Cecil B. deMille’s The Ten Commandments; “I AM THAT I AM.” The Midrash teaches us that the meaning of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh comes to be found in the variety of names we use in reference to God: 

R. Abba b. Mammel said: God said to Moses: ‘You wish to know My name. Well, I am called according to My deeds; sometimes I am called “El Shaddai (Almighty God)”, “Tz’vaot (Lord of Hosts)”, “Elohim (God)”, “Adonai (Lord)”. When I am judging created beings, I am called “ Elohim",’ and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called “Tz’vaot". When I suspend judgment for a person's sins, I am called "El Shaddai,” and when I am merciful towards My world, I am called "Adonai", … Hence “I AM THAT I AM” in virtue of My deeds.’ 
(Exodus Rabbah 3:6)

According to this teaching, God’s essence is to be learned from God’s actions in the world, with each name referring to a different action or characteristic of God’s being. Therefore God is what God is, depending on how we as humans refer to God. If this is so, what are we then to learn, or, for that matter, teach about how the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) relate to and address the same, One God. In light of recent events, and of the countless instances of radicals from all three religions acting “in God’s name,” one might draw a conclusion that referring to God by the name of Jesus, or Allah, or, heaven forbid, Adonai, might insinuate that God’s nature is evil, violent, and vengeful. Thankfully we know this not to be so and, as such, we know that as instructive as the above midrash is, God’s essence goes beyond mere absolutes; “I AM THAT I AM” is too rigid of a translation and too definite of an answer for a people whose eternal quest is to struggle with God’s being.

Another midrash, found in the Talmud, approaches Moses’ question from a different perspective: God’s surprise that the Israelites even needed to know God’s name.

Then the Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, ‘Alas for those who are gone and no more to be found! For how many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name of El Shaddai, and they did not question my character, nor say to Me, What is Your name? I said to Abraham, Arise, walk through the land in the length of it, and in the width of it,’ for I will give it to you: yet when he sought a place to bury Sarah…had to purchase it for four hundred silver shekels; and still he did not question My character. I said to Isaac, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you: yet his servants sought water to drink, and did not find it without its being disputed…still he did not question My character. I said to Jacob, The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants: yet he sought a place to pitch his tent and did not find one until he purchased it…nevertheless he did not question My character; nor did they say to me, What is God’s name?
(Sanhedrin 111a)

This midrash teaches us that just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God personally, so too did God expect the Israelites, hundreds of years later, to accept God for the deeds of the past, not questioning God’s existence or, for that matter, which god was coming to their rescue. Instead, what God is faced with, and what Moses will come to lead, is an Israelite people who have not experienced God’s actions in the world. They had no personal interaction with the God of their ancestors. They are bound to ask for God’s name as proof of God’s identity, essentially questioning of God, “what haveYou done for me lately.” For the Israelites of Moses’ generation, God is not an absolute and “I AM THAT I AM” is not a convincing introduction.

Grammitcally speaking, “I AM THAT I AM” is a less-than-accurate translation of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The word ehyeh is a verb conjugated in the imperfect aspect. This means that it reflects an uncompleted, ongoing action, that can exist either in the past, present, or future tense. As such, a more accurate translations would be “I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE,” “I AM BECOMING THAT WHICH I AM BECOMING,” or some combination of the two. By God’s own description, we can understand God as the divine entity whose nature is in a constant state of flux. God’s essence is fluid and determined by our experience of and relation to God; God’s becoming is determined by our doing. God is imperfect because we are imperfect.

Therefore, we must not look to God when trying to comprehend all of the evil and hate in our world. Instead we must look inward and ask ourselves: How can we help to bring perfection to the world? What can we do to help God become the gracious and merciful being that God strives to be?

Rabbi Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, said in response to Wednesday’s attack “We must give hope to all of society. It is one of our jobs as Jews to give hope and be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations.” We are a light to the nations when we promote freedom for all races and faiths. We are a light to the nations when we engage in meaningful discussions with those who are different from ourselves. We are a light to the nations when we promote acceptance of others, not just tolerance. 

Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” We can come to understand God only by understanding each other. By celebrating our differences and by learning from our similarities we can come to understand each other. By embracing the all that is unique in the world, we can help to save the world. To take poetic license from a reading in our prayerbooks by Edmund Fleg:

We are Jews because for Israel, God is not perfect; we are perfecting God.
We are Jews because for Israel, the world is not perfect; we are perfecting the world.