Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading

Advertisements

Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading

Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

Continue reading

Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile

 

17848397973_340d1ce36a_o

Credit: Come from Away

The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.

On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.

The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.

Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?

Continue reading

What Musar can Teach us About how we Talk About Israel

Each and every letter in a Torah scroll symbolizes an individual human being. Just as a Sefer Torah is incomplete if even one letter is missing, so too is all of creation incomplete if even one person is excluded by others.

So teaches a most profound idea of Musar, the Jewish discipline of ethical and spiritual development. The power in this teaching is that every single letter of Torah reflects the inherent holiness within each human individual, and likewise, the diversity of creation itself is a reflection of the Torah’s holiness.

In the wake of the AIPAC/IfNotNow standoff last month, I have been thinking a lot about this teaching as a religious response to the widening chasm in the Jewish world. Over the past weeks, I have witnessed conversations devolve into contests over who can cherry-pick the “right” biblical verse to show that “all” of Jewish thought somehow agrees with their view, or who can summon the best Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote to support their cause.

I want to share two exchanges illustrative of this divide that I have been unable to shake off: In one, an INN supporter told a rabbinical student that should this future-rabbi not make an active and vocal opposition of the occupation a central part of their rabbinate, there would be no place whatsoever in their community for this individual. In the other, an AIPAC supporter told a group of progressive Zionists that because of their critical love for Israel and anti-occupation stance, they should find a term other than “Zionist” to refer to themselves.

As these debates reverberate, a question has been gnawing at me: is there something profoundly un-Jewish about the way we are navigating this gulf?

Why? Each of these stances essentializes and condemn the identity of the person identified as opposite. Each posture creates a litmus test which says: unless you agree with me, then you’re not good enough for me.

As anyone remotely concerned about Israel can attest, these interactions are not unique or isolated. They are very much reflective of the increasing ossification within the Jewish world vis a vis Israel.

I want to suggest that the reason these exchanges (and the wider paradigms they reflect) do not reflect the best of what Judaism has to offer can be found in the very banner which INN uses to proclaim their resistance against AIPAC:

Picture1

Photo Credit: ifnotnowmovement.org/weresistaipac

I don’t know whether INN had Musar in mind when they designed their graphic, but this powerful image of a Sefer Torah constructed out of a diversity of people is actually a perfect illustration of the moving teaching about the Torah and human holiness.

It prompts some uncomfortable questions: What about all the people dismissed from that Torah? In our debating over Israel, how many people are we excluding from a life of holiness?

Too much of the discourse on Israel and the occupation seeks to exclude others. Too much of our resistance against ideas or actions which we find to be morally unconscionable is having the side-effect of expunging the holiness inherent in each of us.

One of the core ideas of Musar is that we can combat divisiveness and work to increase holiness and inclusivity by balancing our capacity for judgement (Din) with our capacity for kindness (Chesed).

Yes, our passion to rectify ills in the world must indeed come from a place of judgment. But if it is only rooted in Din, without any Chesed, then it becomes far too easy for us to diminish the worthiness of each human being as one of God’s holy creations. I see this when we reduce others to but one part of the totality of their identity, when we operate with an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality, or when we deny the lived experiences of others.

Our vision of a more perfect world must be tempered by self-reflection and an ability to acknowledge the impact of how we treat those closest to us. As Jews, we’re blessed with something of an inbuilt way to do this.

What combination of Din and Chesed does this moment in history call for?

As I see it, we have an overabundance of Din, and are desperately in need of some Chesed. What we need is a willingness to acknowledge and confront hard truths, from a posture of love, kindness, and openness to the holiness inherent in every single human being as a creature of God.

Parashat Vayikra: A Salty Paradox

There’s a certain paradox to salt: it has the power to elevate our meals to culinary heights, or bring them crashing to the kitchen floor.

Salt is best when we’re not aware of it. We only notice it when there’s too much or not enough. Too much, and food tastes sharp and potent. Too little, and it lacks umph. But the right amount, precisely balanced, doesn’t just make food taste better; according to food scientist Alton Brown, it “makes food taste more like itself.” This is why professional chefs obsess over the right amount of salt, seasoning at every step along the way. It’s a technique that most of us – with our less-refined taste buds – won’t ever be able to match.

This salty paradox isn’t limited just to the foods the mineral graces – it applies to us humans, as well: Too much salt intake may eventually kill us, but our bodies also depend on it to survive; if we don’t keep up our sodium levels, we will eventually die. So much power, all within a tiny grain of sodium chloride.

Our parasha this week is also aware of the power of salt. We read of God’s commandments regarding the elaborate sacrifices to be brought up to God. Among all the minutiae, there is one peculiar instruction:

וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

You shall season (salt) your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all of your offerings you must offer salt. (Lev 2:13)

Four times in one verse, God commands us to salt our offerings, as a symbol of the “salt of the covenant”? What is this melakh brit Eloheikhah – salt of the covenant? Of all the covenants we’ve encountered in the Torah, none of them have included the use of salt.

We all know that salt has a dualistic power: the power to preserve and the power to destroy; the power to kill and the power to maintain life. It turns out that some of our rabbis of old were also aware of this power.

Rabbeinu Bachya, a thirteenth century Spanish rabbi, brought his understanding of the workings of the natural world to his commentary on this verse from Vayikra. He knew that salt can both give flavour and preserve food, and also that land which has been salted will not grow. He understood basic chemistry – that salt requires the heat of the sun to evaporate water so that it can become usable.

Casting these observations in a mystical light, he wrote that salt has two competing forces within it, each one the opposite of the other: water and fire. He believed that these forces parallel the two divine elements upon which the world is sustained: God’s judgement – din, and God’s mercy – rachamim.

Din – God’s judgement – is like fire; it is salt upon the land. Like Noah’s Flood or the salty and sulfuric destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah is clear that human actions have consequences and that at times, God exercises judgement over humanity.

Rachamim – God’s mercy – is like water; it is the salt of preservation. Like God’s compassion toward the orphan, the poor, and the widow; or the redemption from Egypt and the parting of the salty waters of the sea, the Torah is also clear that our God is a merciful God, endlessly patient, and overflowing with love.

We want our relationship with God to be one balanced between din and rachamim. We need some judgement, so that we can discriminate the path God desires of us, and so that we can know that there is something at stake in our relationship with God. But we also crave God’s mercy, for we are only human beings – imperfect and struggling to do better in this world.

So why is salt symbol of our covenant with God? For Bachya, salt is a symbol of the competing forces of God’s judgement and mercy. Too much din, and we cannot survive. Too much rachamim, and there is no incentive to act according to God’s instructions.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s idea is beautiful, but how do we bring this lofty, mystical interpretation down to the salt-of-the-earth?

Perhaps we can think of salt as a symbol for how we live in relationship with those we hold most dear. All of our relationships – with our parents; our children; our friends – require certain things to sustain them: support, guidance, a hand to hold onto. Like the salt of the covenant, each of these has a dual nature: not enough guidance, and we lose our sense of place in the world. But too much, and we feel as though we are unable to chart our own path. Not enough handholding, and we may hamper developing empathy. But too much, and we risk becoming overbearing, helicopter-like.

Somewhere between these poles is the sweet spot – where those in a relationship feel as though they are both supported and nurtured, but also have freedom and agency.

Just as this is true in our own relationships, it is true for our covenantal relationship with God. When our ancestors brought forth salted sacrifices on the altars of old, they made a supreme declaration of the depth of their love of God. To seal those offerings with salt as a symbol of the covenant was a profound way of acknowledging those same competing forces inherent in any partnership – the forces of preservation and of destruction; of judgement, and of mercy.

The paradox of salt requires our attention to detail. I am inspired by great chefs, who constantly salt, then taste, then pause to reflect: “am I elevating this, or am I destroying it?” If we bring this care and love, then just like salt with food, our partnerships and covenants will bring out the best in each other, and our lives will be full of flavour.

Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon at the link below (begins around 49:30).

16992393_10104954589325153_5118893753468193630_o


 

I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaim loudly, as Moshe did: “hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.”

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves.

Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

I was engrossed in watching the HBO television series Westworld. It is a window into a not-so-distant dystopian future, where wealthy humans live out their lavish fantasies in a wild-west theme park. The park is populated with lifelike androids who believe that they are human, but in truth, are pre-programmed with elaborately written storylines. They exist solely to meet the desires of the guests. They are slaves who don’t know they’re slaves.

“In one eerie scene, an unconscious [android] who is being repaired wakes up [in our world] … She’s trembling, panicked… with no idea where she is or what’s happening—she’s never seen anything except the [western] frontier set,— and when she stumbles into an empty gray warehouse… Her knees buckle, and she gets hauled away…”[i]

While the sci-fi elements are intriguing, I find Westworld to be at its best when it reflects more on the nature of our own humanity. The programme is ultimately about vulnerable citizens struggling to overcome atrocities and cope with their history. It is about a people who believed to their core that they were in control of their own narrative, who come to grips with the dark reality that others have a different story in mind for them.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves:

The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)

Our ancestors believed themselves to be free and safe – they lived and prospered on the shores of Egypt’s Nile.

How do we know who we are? Another way is by the stories others tell about us:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…” (Ex. 1:8-10)

Our people believed themselves to be one thing: people welcome in a place of safety and prosperity; They came to learn they were something else: Perceived insurgents. Outsiders. Unwelcome. Not the same.

Our rabbis teach that when our text says that Pharaoh didn’t “know” Joseph – אשר לא ידע את יוסף – the Torah isn’t speaking about mere recognition. “The usual rendering, ‘to know,’ hardly does justice to the richness of its meanings.”[ii] This new Pharaoh did not feel an emotional connection to the Israelites. He was ignorant and indifferent. He did not recognize us as bound up in each other’s fate, as his predecessor had. And as a result, suddenly, we became outsiders.

The miraculous stories that followed – as God revealed Torah to us, and as we became a people over 40 years in the desert – all have their start in this existential awakening. To be sure, in a unique phrase, found only once in the entirety of Torah, Pharaoh –  the arch-villain himself – refers to us as “the nation of the descendants of Israel – עם בני ישראל” (Ex. 1:9). Defined by someone else and cast as a foreign nation, we were labelled as different. Once we were together, now we were distinct. Once we were free, now we were slaves.

I wonder: did our people see this coming? Did they anticipate the ascendance of a new Pharaoh who didn’t see them in the same light? Or, like our misfit android from Westworld, was it a sudden realization of other-ness? Our text is silent about this.

But the unfortunate truth is… we don’t have to look far to wonder what it must have felt like.

Writing in The Atlantic in December 2016, Emma Green’s provocative headline calls out to us: “Are Jews white?” She notes that this US presidential election has “reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America.”[iii]

She paints a complex picture of who we are which is at once paradoxical: we are a group that “was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, [that] in the space of two generations, [became] one of the most successful, integrated groups…” And yet at the same time, we are seen today by some as racially impure, “a faux-white race.” A majority of religiously motivated hate-crimes are committed against Jews each year. Still at the same time, we are seen by others as “part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of colour.”

Jews do not fit neatly into typical racial categories, says Green. And while over time, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent became more integrated into American society – a process scholars refer to as “becoming white,” – it wasn’t our skin color that changed, it was status.

What happens when that status is called into question, as it seems to be today?

The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt reminds us that the vast majority of American Jews benefit from white privilege, and yet, yet Jewish identity is shaped by many “exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination… there is this sense of shared struggle … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”

We think we are one thing, but society treats us as though we are something else. It is the paradox of modern Jewish existence.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves. Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

 Throughout our history, a great pendulum has swung between outside forces who sought to tell us who we are, and moments of great creativity where we have asserted for ourselves who we are and what we stand up for. Today, we live at the nexus of those poles, pulled in opposing directions. Emma Green’s question of “Are Jews white?” is not so much a question of skin colour, but of identity and authority: who gets to decide who we are, and how we know who we are?

There are those, like Pharaoh, who want to write our story for us. To tell us who we are and what is our supposed destiny. I do not believe that our response to them should be to adopt an insular approach, closing ourselves off to the rest of the world in the hopes that our problems will just disappear.

Why? Because we are also living in a time of great Jewish resourcefulness, a new golden age of Jewish expression which proclaims loudly what it means to be Jewish. We must continue to discover and to rediscover the beauty of our own uniquely Jewish stories. This is the most profound response to those who would seek to tell us who we are.

As much as the question, “Are Jews white?” is a question of self-awareness, it is also one of empathy, mutual responsibility, and the ability to see beyond ourselves. As Green noted in a follow-up to her essay, “Asking, ‘Are Jews white?,’ is [also] a way of questioning the lack of racial awareness among some American Jews.”[iv]

So this is also a time be aware of those even more vulnerable than us; those whose stories others also seek to impose: undocumented immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ+ community – both Jewish and not, black people generally, along with Jews of color from all communities. And our Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues.

*          *          *

The android in Westworld, who awoke in our world could not at first cope with her destabilizing realization. She collapses on the floor, unable to function. It is only later, once she accepts the truth of her existence, that she begins acting with agency, striving to take control of her own destiny.

The Israelites awoke to the reality that they were no longer the same people; perceived as outsiders.

This is a moment of existential awakening. We find ourselves in a stark reality, unfamiliar to many. Will we collapse onto the floor, unable to function, with the hopes that we will reawaken in a blissfully naïve alternate universe? Or, will we confront this strange, new world head-on, with agency?

I do not suggest that we – like our Israelite ancestors – need to flee our homes in hopes of miraculous salvation. What we must leave behind is the notion that we are free of the oppression of others seeking to define who we are and who we can be. The past year has shown us that we are not yet living in a post-racial or post-ethnic world. Our ability to combat discrimination and oppression requires that we awake to this new world, just as we have done so many times before.

We must bring to this world what we know about ourselves. We know what discrimination looks like. We know it feels like when others would rewrite our stories. The Jewish response must be to do what we have always done: to assert our truths with an even stronger voice, and to help others to raise their own voices.

Perhaps that the secret to why this parasha is called Shemot – names. At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaimed loudly, as Moshe did: hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.

 


[i] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/the-meta-politics-of-westworld

[ii] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, pg. 318

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/are-jews-white/509453

[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/12/jews-whiteness/509606

Parashat Ha’azinu: Leonard Cohen, Moses, and the End of it All

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival [1]

 

Why do human beings write and read poetry?

Why does poetry work?

Writing in The Atlantic, Andrew Simmons argues that poetry has a particularly important role today: it teaches us how to write, how to read, and how to understand any text. It gives us a healthy outlet for surging emotions. It can foster trust and empathy, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in reading other forms of literature. [2]

My teacher, Rabbi David Kasher, says: “It’s true, we don’t ‘need’ poetry. We can get by communicating in prose, and take care of the basic functions of human life.” [3] We could just say what we mean, couldn’t we? Save paper. Save time. Just get to the point.

But that would be missing the point of being able to speak and read, wouldn’t it?

Rabbi Kasher goes on: “The fact that we write poetry is a testament to our search for something more. Some kind of hidden beauty, some kind of deeper meaning.”

What is the hidden beauty, the deep meaning in these words:

I’m the little Jew

Who wrote the Bible

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

But love’s the only engine

Of survival

Your servant here, he has been told

To say it clear, to say it cold

It’s over, it ain’t going any further

And now the wheels of heaven stop

You feel the devil’s riding crop

Get ready for the future: It is murder

These words, penned by one of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, are the lyrics to his song, The Future. Cohen is something of a modern-day prophet. It’s not just the heavenly wisdom which pours forth from his poetry and music; wisdom which simultaneously is inspired by our rich textual tradition, and itself inspires others with its ability to peer into the depths of the human soul.

Were it only that, he would still be counted among the greats of music and literature. But more so, it is that he lives his life so remarkably in tune with our spiritual calendar. “I am ready to die,” Cohen confessed this week in a revealing interview where he candidly shared what it means to be approaching the end of his life. It is serendipitous that he shares this the very week when we read of Moses preparing for his own death.

Update: Cohen thankfully now says: “I think I was exaggerating. I’ve always been into self-dramatization. I intend to live forever.”

“For some odd reason… I have all my marbles, so far… So I am extremely blessed… At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable… The big change is the proximity to death… I am a tidy kind of guy. I like to tie up the strings if I can. If I can’t, also, that’s O.K. But my natural thrust is to finish things that I’ve begun.” [4]

In his song, The Future, Cohen ponders some anxious questions that I think must have been going through Moses’ mind, as he readied himself to abdicate his role as leader; as he prepared himself to die. Uncertain about what is to come for his people; apprehensive of how stable things will be.

Our own poet-prophet, Moses, is putting his house in order, this week in parashat Ha’azinu. In his last message to the Israelite, perched on the edges of their Promised Land, Moses crafts a poetic farewell, trying to tie up the strings before ascending to the top of Mount Nebo to die. In fact, his message is also referred to as Shirat Moshe – the song, or poem, of Moses. When you look at the text in a sefer torah, you can see how it is formatted differently, in poetic stanzas.

Moses is told by God to write down this shir – this poem – and to recite it to the Israelites. In it, he recounts the toilsome journey through the desert, and warns Israel not to reject God in the future:

God found Jacob in the land of the wilderness, in an empty howling chaos /

He circled him, watched over him, guarded him as the pupil of His eye.

Like an eagle who awakens his nestlings, gliding down to his young /

So did He spread His wings and take him, carrying him along on His wings.

(Deut. 32:10-11)

Moses could have communicated these ideas in prose – simply saying that God protected Jacob in the desert when times were hard. But then we would miss the fact that Jacob, whose other name is Israel is a metaphor for the Jewish people as a whole. All of us are seen as having a deeply personal relationship with God. We would miss the penetrating imagery of God seeing us as “the pupil of His eye” – always in focus, entering with the light of the universe. We would miss that God is portrayed as a protective eagle, caring for us as the majestic bird cares for its young.

When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them: Take to heart all the words with which I have warned you this day. Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching. For this is not a trifling thing for you: it is your very life; through it you shall long endure (Deut. 30:45-16)

This is surely an emotional time in Moses’ life, filled with uncertainty. Told by God that he is about to die without entering the land of Israel, his personal mission will remain incomplete. Strings untied; house not fully in order. He must be searching for some of what Andrew Simmons was writing about in The Atlantic: trust, empathy, and certainty that the Israelites have heard all that he has said. This is why our parasha begins with the word Ha’azinu – give ear! Literally, make sure what I am saying is resonating in your ears, because I’m not going to be around much longer; you won’t be hearing my voice anymore.

When Moses is instructed to record and share this poem, The Talmud interprets it to be not simply the words of our parashah this week, but those of the entire Torah[5] The whole Torah itself is a poem! The 19th Century commentator, the Netziv, unpacks what it means to call the entire Torah a poem:

Surely the entire Torah is not written in the language of poetry, he says. Rather, it is that Torah shares two features with poetry: its nature and its richness.

First, Torah has the nature of poetry: it speaks in a fragmented language that demands our active engagement. In a poem, ideas are not fully explained the way they are in prose. Poetry is not literal. We need to discover why one rhyme means this, while another rhyme means that. We have to make notes in the margins. We read Torah the same way: this is the foundation of the millennia-old enterprise of Torah commentary. We turn it over and over again, to piece together the fragments of meaning.

Second, Torah has the richness of poetry, as it is adorned with all kinds of literary artistry, in a way that isn’t done with prose. One who studies an idea expressed in poetic form becomes connected to it on a deeper level than to an idea expressed in prose. The Netziv writes that the illuminating language of the poem and its unique grammar is far sweeter than to one who simply comes to read it quickly and extract the main idea.

This is the way of the whole of the Torah: we go deeper than a surface-level reading, to discover that every word may contain secrets, mysteries, and hidden delights.

When Leonard Cohen writes that he is “the little Jew that wrote the Bible,” of course we are not meant to understand this literally. The delight in hearing him croon these words is in our ability to unpack the mystery behind them – what does he want us to know about his life and his view of the world? How does he understand what it means to be a Jew? How does he see the future? We are given license to share these words – they belong to him, but he has gifted them to us, as so they, too, are our portion.

We sense the secrets hidden inside; ideas that cannot be expressed in everyday language. With each read, with each listen, we uncover more delights.

The same is true for Torah. What does it mean to refer to God as a protective Eagle? Or as a treasure vault? To refer to the Torah as drops of nourishing dew?

This is why the Torah ends poetically; a reminder that all of the Torah should be read and reread, approached with a desire to uncover the layers and discover new unseen delights each time. We can resist the urge to read every word literally, instead bringing a passion to get closer to it, to unpack its mysteries, and to discover its meaning for our lives.

Poetry allows a message to resonate long after the mouth which gave voice to it is no longer with us.

Leonard Cohen shared a snippet of a “sweet little song” that he has been working on, one that he wasn’t sure he would be able to finish before he dies. As he approaches the end of his life’s journey, it seems Cohen is less apprehensive than Moses; his writing less anxious than his previous vision of the future. Like Moses’ journey, and like our own lives, not every loose end might be tied up… but that doesn’t mean we abandon the quest for meaning. The poetry is still there, if we would but listen to it:

Listen to the hummingbird

Whose wings you cannot see

Listen to the hummingbird

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the butterfly

Whose days but number three

Listen to the butterfly

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to the mind of God

Which doesn’t need to be

Listen to the mind of God

Don’t listen to me.

 


[1] Leonard Cohen, The Future

[2] www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/04/why-teaching-poetry-is-so-important/360346/

[3] www.parshanut.com/post/98312914296/the-poetry-of-torah-parshat-haazinu

[4] www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/17/leonard-cohen-makes-it-darker

[5] Babylonian Talmud: Nedarim 38

Tokho k’Voro: Matching our Insides and Outsides • Yom Kippur 5777

This is my sermon from Yom Kippur 5777 at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY

I had a dream last week. I was walking down a long, dimly lit hallway. As I moved past different open doorways, I noticed a large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall. I passed by the mirror, and glanced into it. What I saw bothered me. I looked into my eyes, at the face in the mirror – and while I sensed that it was my reflection, the face was not mine. It was a startling and haunting feeling – to not recognize my reflection; to look at myself, but not see myself.

I woke up in a panic. I reassured myself that it was just a dream, caught my breath, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I remembered it vividly, and tried to brush aside the memory as an errant nightmare.

You do not need a degree in psychology to suss this one out. It is no surprise that my mind was clearly on this season of introspection; this season when we are meant to look ourselves in the eyes and come face-to-face with who we are.

We all have a vision in our minds of what we look like – our ideal version of ourselves. Studies show that for many, this representative image – this avatar – probably looks to be around 25 years old, at the height of our youth. Wise, and beloved by many, with seemingly limitless abilities.

And then one day, we walk by a mirror, catch a glimpse not of our idealized avatar, but of our real self, and we say: “Who is that?!

Continue reading