Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seek Out the Light

In the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), the rabbis ask a deceptively simple question: ‘Mai Chanukah?’ ‘What is Chanukah?’ It’s almost as if they’re not sure what it is, or why we celebrate it. What they really want to do is to get to the essence of Chanukah. And so they explain that when the Maccabees were victorious over the Syrian Greeks, they found only one cruise of oil for the menorah—enough only to last one day, and it burned miraculously for eight days. This, of course, is a far cry from what we read in our siddur—that the miracle was that God empowered us, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, and a great military victory was won by the Jewish people in reclaiming the Land of Israel from its defilers. Lots of ink has been spilled explaining how the Talmudic rabbis wanted to de-emphasize the military aspect of Chanukah in favor of a more spiritualized one. As adults, we can all nod knowingly at each other, acknowledging that, while the miracle of the oil makes for great children’s books about Chanukah, the real miracle was military. We don’t need rabbinic simplifications to appreciate what we really commemorate on Chanukah.

But today, before we dismiss the miracle of the oil outright, I would like us to look again at why the rabbis had us focus on the light of that oil. They were not simply trying to cover over a military commemoration. The rabbis were much smarter than that. They wanted us to discover the real meaning of the miracle of Chanukah. You see, what happened way back around the year 167 B.C.E. was far more than a struggle against an oppressive power that outlawed Judaism and defiled the Temple. What happened was that it was the first time that there was a clash between conflicting worldviews, between two different visions for how the world should be. On the one hand, you had the Jews in the Land of Israel, upholding Torah, living for a vision of a world united in justice and holiness recognizing God as the source of all goodness and ethics. On the other hand, you had an idea called Hellenism, brought to the Middle East by Alexander the Great. With Hellenism came a different vision of one world—a world united by the values of humanism, informed by Greek philosophy and run according to the principles of government that the Greeks so famously brought to the world. Indeed, there was a military squabble in the Land of Israel, but unlike so many military clashes that preceded it in the ancient world, this clash was not just about the power of kings and territories; it wasn’t even a clash between gods. It was a clash of vision: which kind of world was it going to be, Greek or Israelite? And so, whatever the details, it wasn’t just that the Temple was defiled and that Judaism was outlawed—but an entirely new kind of phenomenon appeared in the world: the phenomenon of religious persecution. For the first time, the books of Maccabees, for example, record the memory of good, observant and pious Jews being tortured to death simply because they were observing the Torah. Simply because they upheld the laws of holiness and justice! This was never before seen in the world! Prior to this, there were enemies of Israel, of course, but they never attacked us because we were righteous! So we Jewish people were not just confronted with a military problem, we had a theological problem: How could bad things happen to good people? We never had to ask that question as a people before! And the miracle of Chanukah became our response to that question…

I once heard a wonderful story about a man whose Native American friend came to visit him in New York City. The Native American had never before been to New York, or to any big city. All day he gave his friend a marvelous tour, the East Side, the West Side, uptown, downtown. When night fell, he took him to see—what else?—Times Square, with its dazzling spectacle of lights and sounds. And as they stood there, gazing at it all, the Native American suddenly started looking up with a troubled, bewildered expression, his gaze darting here and there erratically. The man became concerned about his friend: “Are you alright?” he asked. “I just heard the call of a yellow-bellied warbler bird somewhere around here, and I’m trying to find him,” said the Native American. The man laughed, “My friend, there are many noises here, and maybe lots of pigeons, but I doubt that what you heard was a yellow-bellied…” He didn’t finish his sentence when his friend excitedly pointed “There he is!” And indeed, there on a ledge was the yellow bellied warbler! The New Yorker was flabbergasted! “How could you possibly do that!?” he asked. The Native American showed him. He reached into his pocket and scattered all his change on the sidewalk. Immediately, 150 heads turned and looked for where the sound of the change was coming from. “All these people come to the city in search of riches and bargains, so their ears are trained to listen for money. On my reservation, I spend my whole life listening for the sounds of the animals and the birds. It doesn’t matter where I go. I am always listening for their voices.”

This story has many resonances in our Jewish tradition. It was Moses who, as a shepherd leading his flocks through the desert, managed to notice a lowly bush in the distance, something that so many others might not bother to notice, and in that little thorn bush he found a vision not only of the Redemption of his people, but he also met the very presence of God. It was Rabbi Akiva who, as an illiterate and uneducated peasant yearning to learn Torah, noticed how the slow drops of water near a stream carved a hole into solid rock—drop by drop by drop. If even a rock can be penetrated one drop at a time, he reasoned, then if I begin to learn one step at a time, I can learn the whole Torah. And so, step by step, drop by drop, he became one of the greatest sages we have ever known. All because he noticed the simplest little thing that you or I might not even glance at. Something within these great men knew how to look, how to notice, how to see the wisdom in the subtlest and seemingly most insignificant of places…

Herein is the essence of the miracle of Chanukah, says the Sfat Emet. This great Hasidic commentery looks at our passage in the Talmud and explains: the number eight—for the eight days of Chanukah—is a symbolic number for our people. Eight means fullness, completeness, wholeness, like the eight days before a bris, or the eight days of a festival. And that one cruise of oil represents the light of the Jewish people—embattled, weary, persecuted, filled with so much doubt and torment because they had never seen such persecution before—so much so that all the light had almost gone out in their souls—rak nekudah achat nish’eret bahem: only one bit of light was left in them. But here, says the Sfat Emet, God helped them, ‘vnitbarchah zot hanekudah, ‘ ‘and that bit of light was blessed,’ ‘uva’u b’rega achat lechol hasheleimut,’ and it came in one instant back to its fullness, its wholeness again!’ (Sfat Emet, 1:211)

In this teaching, the Sfat Emet elucidates the incredible wisdom of the Talmud: even a military victory wasn’t enough to restore a people who had witnessed good and righteous people suffer and die because they were good and righteous. It was going to take a whole new kind of miracle. This moment was a great test of who we are as ‘Am Yisrael. Generations of our people had led up to this moment: keeping God’s commandments, upholding righteousness, lighting the lights of the Menorah in the Temple. And for what purpose? For this purpose: to train us to seek out the light. In the days of Matathias son of Yohanan, the Hasmonean Kohein, a new kind of cruel power rose against our people Israel, a new kind of darkness that we had not known before: the darkness of human evil and persecution. Innocent good people were massacred, women and children tortured to death simply because they were Jews faithful to the Torah. And indeed, a miracle happened. The miracle only started with the military victory. The real miracle was that we were willing to come back to that Temple, to rededicate it, purify it, and to seek out a way to find the light within it again—despite the cruelty of the world around us that we had never seen before. A thousand years before Chanukah, God commanded us to be an Or LaGoyim, light to the nations, to stand for Holiness, no matter who those nations around us were, no matter what they did. The miracle wasn’t that God made the oil last eight days, the miracle was that we sought out that oil, and lit that light in the first place, despite all the reasons to doubt, despite all the reasons to walk away, despite all the reasons to give up! There was so much darkness, and the light was barely a speck in our souls. But we had come so far, we learned to be a people of the light, to find a place for light when everyone else sees darkness. To find even the faintest of light in our heart, when others may never notice it. This is the miracle of Chanukah!

But the miracle doesn’t even end there. The act of finding that light works an even greater miracle: if you can find that light, however dim, then it ceases to be the faintest point of light, it instantly transforms itself to the fullness of light within our souls once again. That’s how the world really works! If you are listening for that little bird, the whole cacophony of city lights and sound melt away. In that measly little thorn bush, the fullness of Gods great presence was there, and the fullness of our Redemption from slavery could be found. In that little drop of water on the stone, the entire Torah opened up for that illiterate old peasant named Akiva. In that one cruise of oil, the entire promise that no one suffers in vain, that goodness, holiness, and justice can never be obliterated—no matter how cruel and unfair and unkind the world may seem—the light of this whole message is restored in our hearts and in our world.

The message of this miracle is still so critically relevant and important for each of us in our time. It doesn’t matter what the darkness that you may know: the darkness of economic insecurity, the darkness of war and violence, the darkness of injustice and oppression, the darkness of cancer or of the death of a loved one: seek out the light. Never give up looking for it. And it doesn’t matter how faint that light is. Even if you can find only the slightest glimmering, barely even noticeable at all—even if you can only find one moment’s peace, one ounce of strength, one act of kindness, only the slightest reason to have faith that life can be okay—if you find only that tiny one thing, then you have found the fullness of it all. This is the promise of Chanukah’s miracle: Ma’alin baKodesh v’lo Yordin: the holilness, the light, the peace, the healing will only increase and it won’t decrease, so long as we simply seek to find it. As the book of Proverbs says, “Ner HaShem Nishmat Adam “ the soul of man is the candle of God. We are the light. That light is always here. It can’t ever go out. May we always look ‘right here’ for that light, and when we find it, may we light up the whole world.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Power of Membership

Why be a member at a synagogue? The answer to this question is not at all as simple as it was a generation ago. Once upon a time, belonging to a synagogue was a given in American Jewish life. There were a host of unspoken bonds that linked us Jews to one another—ethnic bonds, Yiddish language and culture, first and second-generation immigrant values and aspirations—and synagogues were our gathering place. We may not have necessarily believed in God. We may have been secular in every other aspect of our lives. We may have attended synagogue only on High Holy Days. But synagogue membership was sacrosanct. By and large, we didn’t belong to country clubs, to the uppermost echelons of professional societies, and we didn’t attend the old-boy elite universities. Shul was where we gathered and affirmed that we belonged to something important, timeless and meaningful. Shul was where we accessed our time-honored traditions, where we felt special, where we could marshal our resources to look out for each other, and for Jews around the world.

Times have changed. We Jews have made it in America. There is hardly an elite institution or cultural achievement in this society where there is not a Jewish presence and influence. Yiddish language, culture, and ethnic identity—however beloved and cherished—has fallen into the background of our lived experience. Of course, there are still many Jewish people who still proudly support synagogues because of strong family traditions, strong ethnic sensibilities, and identification with Jewish particularism in the world. But for all the Jews who belong for the time-honored reasons, there are many more Jews today who do not feel that they need a synagogue to play its traditional role for them anymore. Jews today can belong to so many movements, so many institutions, so many means of finding and expressing meaning beyond the Jewish world. Ever-increasing numbers of 21st-century Jews no longer seek meaning through ethnic identification. We’re global citizens now. Many Jews today see just as much in common with other races and religious groups as we do with our ancestral religious and ethnic group. Our prevailing societal outlook is postmodern: we can and do invent ourselves. We still love being Jewish. We’re proud of it, in fact. But in our postmodern world, Judaism is a religion that we seek to customize to our identity. We want so much to fit Judaism in with our complex values-system. New kinds of minyanim abound, each with their own particular approach and “flavor” of Jewish expression. New kinds of places are springing up where people can customize their own bnai mitzvah, hire their own rabbis, and cut-and-paste their own prayer services to match their expectations.

With all of these new opportunities, new forms of Jewish identity, new expectations and values, why indeed be a member at a synagogue? The answer is that for all the wonders and blessings of this postmodern age, for all the access we have to power and meaning in today’s world, for all the new and deeper forms of personal meaning-making and identity that are available to us at the click of a button, synagogue membership still makes a claim on our soul that nothing else in this postmodern world can. It’s just that we have to talk about the meaning of membership in deeper and more engaging ways than we used to.

To become a member of a synagogue in today’s world is an extraordinary act. It’s something we can easily choose not to do. To do so, then, is not just about giving money to receive services. It is, first and foremost, an act of faith that this institution called a synagogue stands for something important in our lives, and in the world. Synagogue membership runs against the grain of postmodern expectation. In most settings nowadays, you give your money, you click that button, and you receive instant and personalized gratification. Not so in synagogues. Synagogue membership is about something deeper. You give your money so that you and your family benefit, yes, but also because other individuals and families will benefit from the very same services that you value. Those other individuals and families may be your friends, but they also may be people whom you don’t know at all. At times, they may even be people you don’t like! To be a synagogue member is to rise above all of that, and to acknowledge: “I may not know you at all, but I am responsible to you for no other reason than the fact that you and I share a common heritage that matters in the world. I am responsible to you because--just maybe--you and I share a common destiny to improve this world as Jews.” In other words, synagogue membership is an act of faith in the power of community to transform the world.

For all its wonders, our postmodern reality today hasn’t found a way to express this spirituality of community. Yes, we can find all kinds of sub-communities—communities of like-minded individuals whose outlooks, values, interests, and talents, match ours exactly! That’s exciting. That has lots of possibilities. But it’s not community in the Jewish sense of a Kehilah Kedoshah: a sacred community united by values that transcend individual preferences. To be a member of a synagogue means that you are expressing faith that the community will not only mirror your personal expectations and preferences, but it will also challenge you to question those very preferences and expectations by force of Torah and wisdom when circumstances demand that we be challenged. To be a member at a synagogue nowadays is an expression of faith that the synagogue just may inspire us to live in new and more meaningful ways. It’s an affirmation that we just may discover insight from an ancient heritage with thousands of years of collective wisdom. It’s an act of courage that we just may encounter individuals from among our people whom we may not know or understand well, but who may be the very teachers or motivators we need to live better as Jews in the world.

On the deepest level, synagogue membership is not just an act of faith. It’s an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness. The money we give as members is as much a symbolic act of giving as it is a literal one. The money symbolizes our presence for what the shul stands for. It symbolizes that we care about what it does, that its mission succeeds. It’s an act of Chesed because it it’s not about instant gratification! It’s an act of Chesed because we know that it’s going to make a difference not just for me now, but for generations after me. We give for our membership because we know that our funds will keep the lights and heat on, even if we’re not there. It will pay the salaries of the teachers of Torah who can enrich the soul of someone else’s child, if not my own child.

Our ancient sages teach that Chesed shel Emet, True Lovingkindness, is giving with no expectation of reward. This is the essence of synagogue membership in the 21st century. We belong not because we’re in it just to get something out of it. We belong because the very act of belonging is an act of kindness and giving, of being there for others beyond our personal self-interest. Nothing else that has come along in the past 25 years can hold a candle to the power of this kind of belonging. This is a message that we must get out to the world today, and we start by being the living examples of the power of membership. To belong to a synagogue confirms that we really can transform our lives—together. And together, from generation to generation, is the only way we can transform the world.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Gateway to Heaven

Not long ago, I googled the question ‘What is prayer?’ I got some lovely answers. ‘The act of communicating with a deity,’ said one source. Another source said that ‘prayer is the practice of the presence of God.’ Lovely! Another Catholic source said that prayer is ‘…a form of … talking to God or to the saints.” What struck me as most interesting about googling prayer was that it wasn’t until the fourth page of google entries that I came to a Jewish definition of prayer. I saw lots of Christian definitions, lots of New Age definitions, Muslim definitions, Sikh definitions. Finally, I came a Jewish definition that simply referred to prayer as ‘a pouring out of the heart.’ A nice definition! A good start. We can all sense, in all religions, that prayer is some form of communication between the heart and the Divine. We all can sense that prayer is deeply personal. But what exactly makes prayer Jewish prayer? So many of us come to synagogue wondering about Jewish prayer. We open our siddur. Ancient and complex prayers are there. Words of prayer to an exalted God mixed with humble supplication on behalf of the people of Israel abound. We can all intuit that this can be a rich spiritual experience, but most of us fail to find the pouring out of the heart, the sense that we are communicating with a Divinity that we can believe in. So today I would like to begin by acknowledging that Jewish prayer is harder to define than prayer in other traditions. Jewish prayer is an outpouring of the heart, and it is communication with the Divine, but it is also more than that. Jewish prayer is T’filah, which comes from the Hebrew root ‘palal,’ which means to judge or to stand Present for someone or something, or even more, to stand in awe of someone or something. ‘To pray’ in Hebrew is Lehitpalel, a reflexive verb that means to stand in awe, or in the Presence of Yourself.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob runs away from home, fearing for his life after he has stolen the blessing of the firstborn from his brother Esau. Alone and afraid in the dark night, he goes to sleep with nothing but a stone beneath his head for a pillow. And he has a dream: a ladder extends from the Earth to the Heavens “V’hinei malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo,” and behold, angels of God rising up and descending on the ladder (Gen. 28:12). And the Voice of God speaks to him from this vision, and reassures him that no matter where he goes, God will be with him, and he will return to the Land of Israel and his descendants will be blessed. And Jacob awakens from this dream and says “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (Gen. 28:16) It’s an extraordinary moment in the Torah. His vision is all about how HaMakom HaZeh, this place: the Land of Israel, this spot—a spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—was the “sha’ar haShamayim,” the gateway to heaven where heaven and earth are linked. As the future father of the twelve tribes of Israel, it is fitting for him to be the living link to the Land of Israel, to the holiest spot in the Land for all future generations of his offspring.

The Midrash sees another dimension to this amazing vision: In the Hebrew, it says that the angels were olim v’yordim bo, rising up and descending—the Hebrew “bo” literally means, “on him.” “R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Yannai disagreed: One maintained: [The angels] were ascending and descending the ladder; while the other said: they were ascending and descending on him--on Jacob! The first view is clear. But that they were ascending and descending on Jacob must mean that some were exalting him and others chiding him, dancing, leaping, and maligning him. … it is you [said the angels] whose features are engraved on high; they ascended on high and saw his features and they descended bellow and found him sleeping. This can be compared to a king [whose image] was found sitting in his council chamber in judgment, while at the same time he lay asleep in the corridor.” (Breshit Rabbah 68:18)

It’s a strange and cryptic midrash! Don’t think of a heavenly ladder, says R. Yannai. Think of the angels going up and down Jacob’s body! And they’re not gliding angelically. They’re jumping on him, kicking him yelling ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ Up in heaven, says the midrash, the angels can see an image of Jacob’s face as the very image of humankind perfected. And here he is on earth, sleeping like a shzlub! What’s your problem, Jacob? Wake up already! This midrash hints a meaning of great depth for us that unlocks the secret of Jewish prayer, of T’filah, itself. There is a lofty, perfect Jacob in heaven, but there is also a very human and fallible Jacob here on earth. And in this dream, in this image, both natures, the lofty and the humble, exist together in the same moment…

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us the following statement: “Wherever you find the strength of the Holy One, praised be God, you find his Humility…This is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is Elohei Ha’Elohim, Va’Adonai Ha’Adonim, ‘is God supreme and Lord supreme, ‘HaEl HaGadol v’hagibor v’hanora, ‘the great, the mighty and the awesome God!’, but says right after that, ‘Oseh mishpat y’tom v’almanah,’ (Deut. 10:17-18)but [God also] upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow.” (B. Talmud Megila 31a) Here, too, just like in Jacob’s ladder dream, there is the realm of the heavenly heights, and the realm of the lowly and humble here on Earth. In Jacob’s dream, it is Jacob himself, according to the Midrash, who is both exalted in heaven and humble here on earth. Here in the Talmud, God, too is both exalted in heaven, and with the humble and powerless on earth.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, once taught that if we want to understand the greatness of God, we must understand that everything of this earth is like a mirror image of the Divine. He taught that God’s greatness and majesty IS God’s humility: they’re not separate. Where do we first meet God in the Torah? The book of Genesis says ‘V’Ruach Elohim m’rachefet al pnei hamayim,” the spirit of God hovered on the surface of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Just as the water always seeks the lowest place, so too does God. Find the lowest, simplest place, and you will find the True majesty of God!

Again and again, our tradition reminds us that the highest heights and the lowest lows bear a connection that we ourselves must bridge if we are to awaken to our highest humanity and the highest Divinity itself! Another Midrash: When Jacob wakes up from his dream, the Hebrew reads: “Vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato,” “And Jacob awoke from his sleep.” (Gen. 28:16). The Midrash playfully suggests another reading. Read it like this: “Vayikatz Ya’akov MiMishnato,” And Jacob awoke from his Mishnah!” The word ‘Mishnah,’ of course refers to the legal teachings of the Torah. So the midrash suggests that Yaakov awoke not from sleep, but from his study. The Chasidic commentary the Ma’or VaShemesh explains the meaning of this Midrash: that, of course, Torah-study is critically important for any Jew, but if we move ONLY to the lofty realm of the intellectual, the abstract, and we abandon the deeper yearnings of the heart, then we are not fully whole.

So now let’s put it all together: those angels came down and kicked and jumped on Jacob and said ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ not just from sleep. Wake up to the fullness of your condition, Jacob! Wake up to the fact that your very countenance is up there in heaven, next to the very throne of God, Jacob! But it wasn’t just that. The angels were olim v’yordim, they were going up and down on Jacob’s body: from the intellect down to the heart (and below!) and up again, back and forth! Wake up, Jacob, from the lofty realm of pure mind and reason and intellect. Wake up to the outcry of your heart! Wake up to the deepest, lowest, and most humble recesses of your soul down on earth too, Jacob! Wake up to all of it! This is prayer!

T’filah, Jewish prayer is Lehitpalel: to Wake up, to wonder at yourSelf! To pray is to be the angels olim v’yordim, going up and down, and wondering at the fact that our very countenance, our very face is up there in Heaven with God, and yet we are down here, so very limited, so very afraid and alone and fallible here on earth. We are, at once, in both places in the very same instant! And Jacob woke up and said, ‘Achen Yesh Adonai baMakom Hazeh, v’Anochi Lo Yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it,” I didn’t know that God was here, in THIS place too! God isn’t just in the heavens above, far above and beyond me. God is with me, down here, in the dark night, alone and afraid and huddling to sleep at night! God is here, in my mind, my intellect, my highest thoughts of prayer, yes. But God is also down here, baMakom hazeh, in this place, down here in the most vulnerable places in my heart. God trembles in core of my being together with me as I fear the unknown. God is down with me in my basest yearning and desires, in my rage and in my hopes and my strength and my love. God is with my highest and most noble achievements, and down low with me in my most desperate moments of failure.

So it is that in T’filah, we express our willingness to go up and down , to give Voice to each and every part of our Being, ourselves, before the Ultimate. And it is for this reason that our T’filot are so manifold and complex and textured and varied. We utter the words of the Sh’ma, and we are in the loftiest place of Awareness of the Divine, high up, with our countenance in heaven as we say those words. But then, we begin a descent into our humanity. As we say the Hashkiveinu at night, we feel, like Jacob before us, alone and afraid in the dark night, and we give voice to our yearnings to be safe and protected. In the ‘Amidah, we descend even further into our yearnings and our pain: we scream out in anger against the Malshinim, the heretics and others who speak against our people, and we don’t hold back our basest anger and rage. But then, we rise up again, to the heights of joy and gratitude for the ‘nisecha shebechol yom imanu,’ for the miracles that somehow are always around us in every moment of life, sustaining us. And even after such heights, we descend to the very precipice of despair again, as we call out ‘Shomer Yisrael,’ to the Guardian of Israel to please sustain what remnant of our people is left in this world of so much loss and devastation.

Every rung of that ladder arrays itself before us in T’filah. We’re not just ‘talking to God.’ We are awakening each level of our heart and our soul. We’re not denying any part of ourselves a chance to speak and to sing out to the Ultimate, and before our own Awareness. We’re journeying up and down the ladder to Heaven, and discovering ‘Achen Yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh,” that there isn’t any place in the world, any dark corner of our very being, where we cannot stand in wonder of the Truth that God is in this place, in our hearts, and we never even knew it! May we all find our way into T’filah, and in so doing, may each of us be the Sha’ar HaShamayim, the very gateway to Heaven itself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eternity in Disguise

We have a very strange relationship to time in our society. I once read somewhere that we use exactly the same language and metaphors to refer to time as we do to money: we save time, we waste time. We spend time, we invest time. Time is precious and must be put to good use and not squandered. It’s very interesting! Money is so concrete. Yes, there are many abstract elements in our monetary system, but by comparison, money is something based on resources in the physical world. It’s something that you could, at least theoretically, hold in your hand. Time, of course, has nothing concrete about it—but we assign it concrete status, as if the watch on your wrist actually tells you how much time you “have.” But is time, like money, something that we ever actually have at all? Strangely, the more you think about it, you realize that the answer is ‘no:’ There’s nothing material about time at all. It’s never, in fact, a commodity in our lives. And yet we all very unconsciously assume that time is ‘something’ that we can’t get through our day without. We all can sense time. We all can feel time passing—Lord knows, when we’re running late for a critical meeting or a major family event, the passage of time is agonizingly real and painful. So today I would like us to explore together this strange aspect of life known as ‘time,’ and how we as Jews, are called upon to relate to it.

In this week’s Torah reading, the life of the great matriarch, Sarah Imenu, Sarah—the wife of Abraham, the mother of the Jewish people--comes to an end. Sarah, we are told, lived to a ripe old age, 127 years old, to be exact. But the Torah expresses her age in a very unusual way. The text says, “Vayehiyu chayey Sarah me’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” And Sarah lived one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah. Why, our ancient sages asked, did the Torah refer to her years so strangely—all lengthened out like that? Why didn’t the Torah simply say that she lived to be 127 years old? The answer that our sages give us was that the Torah had to write out her age like that in order to express the fact that Sarah didn’t just live to an old age, she lived well until an old age. Rashi, the great medieval commentator says, “kulam shavim Latovah,” all her years were equal in goodness. She lived her life fully, magnificently, beautifully every year, every day, every moment of her life. In this way, she merited being the great matriarch of the Jewish people. If anyone didn’t ‘waste’ her life, it was Sarah! In enumerating her years, the Torah gives us a eulogy expressed simply by referring to the years of a human being’s life, and in this way—in defying the normal way we think about the years of a life-- the Torah is a powerful teacher to us all about how we must think about the time we have here on earth.

There’s an old story told by Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander. There was once a fellow who was so very forgetful. Indeed, his memory was so short that when he awoke each morning, he could not remember where he had laid his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he could not fall asleep, so great was his nervousness about finding his things upon waking. One evening, however, he hit on a great idea. Taking a pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. Placing his notes on the nightstand, by his bed, he quickly feel asleep, confident that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning.

And indeed he did. He woke up, took the notes form this nightstand, and read off each item in turn: pants—on chair back; and there they were. He put them on. ‘Shirt—on bed post; and there it was. He put it on. Hat—on desk; and there it sat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes the fellow was completely dressed. But suddenly a great dread came upon him.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said aloud. ‘Here are my pants, my shirt, and my cap; but where am I?’ He looked and looked and looked, but he could find himself nowhere! Reb Chanoch Henich paused for a moment and then concluded ‘And that is how it is with each of us as well.”[1]

What is this story getting at? Think about it: where am I? Where are you, indeed? I’m standing here! And you’re sitting in this chair, of course! It’s obvious, isn’t it? Or is it really that obvious? At some point, especially if I keep droning on, you may look at your watch and say ‘What time is it? When does this end, anyway? I wonder what there will be to eat when this is over?’ If you can catch yourself at that very moment, then where are you? Are you really still here? Or have you actually gotten lost in time? I don’t mean time-travelling, I mean: have you suddenly looked at your watch and mentally left this moment in favor of some other, future moment? Similarly, you could be sitting here listening to me, and suddenly you remember that you forgot to return an important email from yesterday, or you remember a fight you had with a family member last week, and you’re feeling bad about it. Again, are you really here, or are you now lost in the past? In either case, have you actually left the chair? Physically, of course not. But in every other sense—you have left this place. You’re gone. You’re missing this moment, the only moment that’s really happening!

The Sfat Emet, a wonderful commentary from the last century, derives a very powerful teaching from the opening line from this week’s Torah reading about Sarah’s years. According to the Sfat Emet, there’s an important mitzvah about time that we all are commanded to follow. In the first paragraph of the Shema, from the book of Deuteronomy (6:5), there are the words ‘v’hayu had’varim ha’eleh asher anochi metzavcha hayom al levavecha,” What does that mean literally? ‘These are the words that I command you this day upon your heart.’ The Sfat Emet suggests another way of reading this line: he says the point of the line is the phrase: asher anochi metzavcha Hayom: What I, God, command you this day. Stop there, says the Sfat Emet, and the power of all these words, of all the Torah becomes clear: What God commands upon us is ‘HaYom,’ Today! In other words, what God on high commands us to do is to be Present to what’s happening HaYom, today! That Hebrew word, HaYom, doesn’t just mean a 24 hour period the way we conventionally think of a day. HaYom means ‘right now.’ For the Sfat Emet, the one commandment that makes our True adherence to Torah possible is our adherence to HaYom, to just being Here, right now!

When that forgetful man in our story can’t find himself, it’s not that he can’t find himself in space. He can’t find himself ‘in time.’ And when it’s all said and done, each of us—you and I—we’re all that forgetful man! We can never find ourselves in time! And in our modern world, of atomic clocks and precision Swiss-timing watches, paradoxically, we’re more lost in time than ever. What time is it right now? Look at your watch. What exactly does that mean? It’s just a concept. And it’s a very stressful concept because those seconds keep ticking away. We’re always afraid of running out of time, just as we fear running out of money. But time is NOT money. Our time on earth may indeed by limited, but time actually doesn’t run out. Ever! Haven’t you noticed? There is always Now, and then Now, and then Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, Lakol Zman v’et l’chol chefetz,tachat hashamayim: et laledet v’et lamut, et lata’at, v’et la’akor natua…” For every time and for everything under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted.”

The great paradox at the heart of the Jewish relationship to time is that we’re really making the best of our time in this life when we question the solidity of the concept of time itself! This doesn’t mean that we’ll be forevermore late to everything, or that we’ll never again get anything done. Somehow, miraculously, when we question that solidity of time itself, things manage to get done even better than before, because we’re not stressed about time anymore. This is the essential meaning of Shabbat itself. While, all other six days of the week, we’re constantly checking our watches and mentally living in the past or in the future, Shabbat is an opportunity to put away your watch and live with no time at all. Shabbat is all about basking in the eternity that flashes in this moment. And somehow, our people have managed to survive for thousands of years even without worrying about the time for one day a week. So today, you can put away your watch. What time is it? It’s just Shabbat. Just for now, there is no past and no future. Just this! Imagine if you could live your life with that kind of freedom! How liberating that would be! This is the promise of Shabbat! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best in his book, The Sabbath: “What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the heart? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time…There is no quality that space has with the essence of God…the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.” [2]

When we look at our watches and become stressed because we’re late, or we feel guilt because of time we have wasted—the reason why we are really feeling that pain in our souls is because at that moment, we’re in the disguise, and not in the Reality of this moment. When we lose ourselves in projected pasts or futures, we have abandoned our True Selves. We have left Eternity. We have left God! The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked, “Where is God? Wherever you let Him in!” If we’re never Here, Now, then we can never find God!

So this is the real reason why the Torah lengthens out the years of Sarah’s life. She, together with Abraham, was a great teacher of Torah because her days, her moments, were full. She lived a life endeavoring to let God in by allowing the Present Moment to be. Perhaps it’s this quality of being Present that distinguishes all the great figures of the Bible. When God calls to Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Moses—what is their response? Hineini! The Hebrew word Hineini means: Here I am! They were NOT lost like the forgetful man in our story. When they say Hineini, they’re not telling God where they are in space. God certainly knows that! What God really means when God calls to them is: Are you Here, Now? Our Patriarachs and Matriarchs indeed were able to say yes, Hineini. And it wasn’t JUST on Shabbat. They were ready and able to say Hineini: I am Here, Now, all the moments of their lives. Sarah was able to do it one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. We may not be able to quite be that Present yet in our lives, but this Shabbat of honoring the life of Sarah Imenu, may we indeed learn from her example. May we embrace the practice of Shabbat, and of discovering moments of seeing through the disguise of eternity, and just bask in the glow of that eternity in this very moment. May we indeed always be able to say Hineini in that eternity, and once there, may we find peace and the Presence of God.

[1] Hasidic Tales, Translated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 2004. P. 191

[2] The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 16

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Face of God in the Face of the Stranger

The name Avraham means ‘exalted father of many nations.’ Avraham lives and acts in the primordial history of our people, and all the peoples of the world. His life IS Torah. His actions serve as the template upon which later commentaries and code books would canonize sacred law and righteous behavior for all generations to come. Watch him closely, emulate his every act, and you too will be a tzadik, a righteous human being. Just look at him in parashat Vayera. He has just circumcised himself, showing his commitment to God, and is recovering, in pain, in the heat of the day. Looking up, he sees three strangers approaching in the distance. Without skipping a beat, he leaps up—and even the text of the Torah is filled with quick action-verbs: he runs from the entrance of the tent. He bows. He hastens to the tent to summon Sarah. He runs to the herd to get a calf to be served, and then he waits on his guests. He is all flurry and action for the sake of total strangers. Watch him! Notice his total alacrity and eagerness to welcome guests. Here, he teaches us the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, of welcoming guests. Avraham is a virtuouso, a master of gemilut Chasadim, of acts of lovingkindness. If you want to know just how good he is, compare him to his nephew, Lot.

Jump ahead just alittle bit in the pararshah: the strangers (who are, in fact, angels of God about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah) head out to those evil cities, where they are greeted by Lot, who lives there. At first, it would seem that Lot had learned well from uncle Avraham: he bows low, he welcomes the strangers, begs them to come into his home for hospitality . But, there’s the little problem that this is Sodom and Gemorrah: the local residence come pounding on the door, demanding to have their evil way with the guests. Lot, ever the well-meaning host (?...), begs them not to attack his honored guests, so what does he do? He offers them his virgin daughters instead so that the residents can have their way with the daughters instead of the guests! There are two words we can say in response to this story: Oy gevalt! What happened? Lot seemed to be doing so well! He seemed to be similarly mastering the art of Gemilut Chasadim, of lovingkindness and welcoming strangers. So how did he fall down so profoundly in his human dignity?

The answer, of course, was that Lot himself was corrupted by Soddom and Gemorrah. And it all goes to show you how great Avraham was: nothing could lessen his sense of uncompromising goodness, justice, and kindness! In all of Judaism, Avraham is always a paragon of Chesed, of kindness, love, selfless altruism. And so it is with Avraham in mind that I would like to explore today the meaning of this powerful, central Jewish value of Chesed, of lovingkindness. Throughout our tradition, our sages are very insistant that we understand that Chesed is not just a matter of doing the nice or right thing by another human being. Chesed is different from proper manners or social graces or even just social or societal expectations of being a good host, an upstanding citizen, or a generous donor. Chesed runs deep. It is the Chesed of Avraham, and his offspring Isaac and Jacob that foments a bond with God through the generations of the Jewish people, enabling our on-going survival. It is, in turn, God’s chesed for us that enables us to escape suffering and persecution from generation to generation, whether we deserve that rescuing or not. Chesed has a faithful, undyingly loyal quality to it, and Avraham embodies it.

It is Pirkei Avot that identifies Chesed as one of the three pillars upon which the whole world stands, along with Torah and worship. We need to be really clear about what Chesed means to be the worthy descendants of Avraham, or else we risk becoming the destructive descendants of Lot instead!

There’s an old Chasidic story told about the the parents of the Baal Shem Tov, who would one day grow up to be the founder of Chasidism. The story goes that one Shabbat, a stranger happened upon his parents meager home. The stranger was a very shoddy looking wanderer, carrying nothing but a staff and a knapsack-- in violation of the Shabbat prohibitions, no less! The beggar loudly wrapped on the door, and the Baal Shem Tov’s father opened the door, and the beggar rudely pushed his way into the home. “Good Shabbes. I’m hungry. Give me something to eat! And I need a place to stay,” said the beggar. With nothing but warmth and kindness, the young couple immediately prepared the Third Meal for Shabbat for the beggar. The beggar ate and rested. All through the afternoon and evening, the beggar was as rude and brutish and as course and callous as could be, and he gave not even one word of thanks or appreciation to the young couple. Even after Shabbat had ended on Saturday night, the couple continued to feed the beggar another meal, and still, not a word of thanks or gratitude from the beggar—only gruffness and total selfishness. He spent the whole night at the couple’s home, and the next morning, he woke up to find that they had prepared a hearty breakfast and even had money for him to make his way upon leaving their home. Upon seeing this act of generosity, the beggar at once revealed himself to the young couple. “I am Elijah the Prophet,” said the beggar. “I have come to test your hospitality, to see the quality of your giving. Because you were gracious to me and never once commented on my insulting behavior, nor shamed me in any way, you have passed my test. God is pleased with my findings, and finds you worthy of a son who will illumine the eyes of all Israel.” That son, would, of course, be the great Baal Shem Tov himself.

It’s a classic story from our tradition, and a great lesson to us all about hospitality. For any of us today, the act of opening up our home to strangers is difficult. But the ability to do so is crucial. The Torah tells us to love the stranger no less than 30 times! As difficult and as challenging as the act of opening our home may be, to open our home is to open our heart: and this heart-opening is the essence of Chesed, of lovingkindness itself. But it’s only the beginning of what Chesed means in Judaism. It goes even deeper!...

Both Avraham and the Baal Shem Tov’s parents teach us the same lesson: If you go through life thinking that you love God, but simultaneously you fear the stranger, then you really don’t know what it means to have a real relationship with God in the first place! In Ultimate Truth, the only way you can enter into a real relationship with the Divine is by entering into a relationship with the stranger. The stranger and God are NOT separate at all. They are one and the same! The punchline to Avraham’s story and the chasidc story of hospitality are also the same: the strangers were angels or emissaries of God themselves—really not separate from God at all! So Chesed is not just a kind act. It is an action that flows from a very deep Awareness of where we find the presence of God—in the least likely of places! But True Chesed goes deeper still even than this insight…

Another story: this time about the life of the Baal Shem Tov himself. The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, as he was known, travelled extensively in his lifetime. Once, he visited the Jewish community of Constantinople. There he met another childless young couple, who this time showed him great kindness and hospitality. And the Besht was not a rude guest. He was a wonderful guest. ‘How can I ever thank you for your wonderful generosity?’ the Besht asked the couple. “If you could put in a good word to favor us with a child,” the young couple said, “ we will be forever grateful.” After a moment’s pause, he said, ‘God will favor you with a son.’ And indeed, this came true. But what the couple didn’t realize is that the Besht brought about this miracle by uttering the un-sayable, ineffable Name of God! To utter this name is considered a very grave sin! Scarcely had the ineffable Name passed his lips that a heavenly Voice came down and informed him that he had forfeited his place in Olam HaBa, in the World Come! Imagine! This greatest of Tzadikim had lost his chance to sit eternally at the right hand of God for the sake of this young couple! But instead of reacting with despair, the Besht clapped his hands together joyfully and burst out “Blessed art Thou, O God, for your mercy! Now I can serve you out of pure love, since I may not expect a reward in the future world!” And the p.s. to the story : his loving joy was so pure, that God pardoned him of his sin and he eventually went to Olam HaBa anyway!

What does this story mean? Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah says it best: “Al tihyu Kaavadim hamshamshin et haRav al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” Do not be like a servant who serves his master in order to receive a reward. “Elah Hevu ka’avadim hamshammshin et haRav shlo al mnat lekabel p’ras,” Rather be like a servant serving his master with no intention of receiving a reward. (Avot 1:3). Let’s take this message in today: this is not a platitude. This is an entire orientation of the heart and soul, and if we can find it within ourselves to live this way, this can not only transform our lives, it can transform the world.

Probably the most extraordinary thing about Avraham in our Torah reading—something that most of us fail to notice—is that time and again, Avraham’s acts of Chesed, of kindness, are total failures! Think about it: the strangers happen upon his tent. He scurries to and fro and prepares a sumptuous meal for them of all the finest and choicest of cakes and meats and delicacies that he has to prepare, and it’s all for naught! His guests eat what he has prepared alright, but it’s all a sham! They’re angels of God! They actually don’t need food at all. And then, notice Avraham’s next act of kindness: he learns that God is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, and Avraham gathers his courage and argues with God for the sake of the possible innocent people who might still reside in the city. He argues and argues with God, bargain from 50 down to even just 10 possible righteous souls, trying with all his might to save a city from destruction. And again, of course, it’s for naught. Despite his ultimate, and risky act of audacity before God, the city is destroyed. In both instances—the guests and Sodom and Gemorrah—no one actually benefitted from his Chesed, from his selfless acts of kindness!

And herein is the deepest lessen of what Chesed really means. To live and to act in Chesed is never about the other person. To live and act in Chesed is entirely about you! It's all about your unconditional love in action. How much can you give to the stranger, no matter whether the stranger benefits or not from your giving? This is the dfference between Lot and Avraham. Lot’s Chesed, unlike Avraham, was not genuine. All of the kindness he showed to his guests was to impress them, to elicit good will and positive validation from them! In his own twisted way, his offering of his daughters in place of them was a pitiful attempt at impressing his guests. Avraham’s thought was not about how he could impress his guests, or God, or the citizens of Sodom and Gemorrah. Instead, he saw a need, he saw potential suffering, and with no thought to himself, he responded with everything he had. This was all that mattered to him. This is Chesed.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once had a beautiful way of teaching True Chesed: when the baby cries,” he said, “ and the milk in the nursing mother lets down…that is Chesed.” It doesn’t even matter if it’s your own baby, the breast just responds by giving. This is Chesed. Can we live our lives this way? Can we walk through life with minds and hearts so wide open, so sensitive to what’s arising that we can give and give and give to relieve the suffering that we see around us—without the slightest thought about how it is received? Just take a look at what they do on the bereavement committee here at Adas Israel: when someone dies, they gently care for the body, they wash the body and lovingly prepare it for burial—even though that person is now deceased and cannot personally thank them—this is what we call Chesed shel Emet, True lovingkindness. Can we live our whole lives with this intention of giving of ourselves? Can we give tzedakah to the filthy homeless beggar on the street even if, indeed, that beggar may use the money we gave to buy drugs or alcohol? Can we give for the pure act of giving itself? Can we welcome the rude and ungrateful guest into our home, even if they’re unkind to us?

Chesed is not just about doing the nice, right thing. Chesed is a lifetime practice to shape and deepen our character, to transform us from needy, ego-centric ‘takers’ into nobler human beings who stand tall in life with no need for approval or validation or reward. Just imagine with me for a moment what that would feel like—living each and every day without the slightest need for others to express approval or to validate us. We would all finally be free! It would be a life of joy. There would be no more suffering. There would only be the spaciousness in our hearts and souls and lives to give. This is the point of living a life of Torah, of being a true child of Avraham. To expect nothing from this life but the opportunity to learn and to respond, to listen, and to take action, to love and to bring about healing. This is Chesed. This is joy. This is Torah.

We may not be there yet, at this moment, in our lives, but we can set the intention today to consciously walk the path of Avraham Avinu, of Avraham our ancestory, our teacher. Every moment that we live with no thought of reward or approval is a triumph. May our Chesed itself be its own reward. May we transform the world by transforming our hearts.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Evolutionary Judaism

I love Conservative Judaism. It is a great blessing to the Jewish world. I believe in its message and its wisdom. I know it has real limitations, yet it is poised to address the needs of the Jewish people in the 21stcentury. For decades, our movement has wisely embraced tradition while acknowledging the importance of change as generations go by. Most significantly, I appreciate Conservative Judaism’s embrace of honesty, truth, and intellectual integrity. When we study texts of Torah, we don’t suspend disbelief. We don’t ask our adherents to check their critical thinking at the door. We invite our communities to apply their intellectual vigor and the breadth of their learning from many disciplines—Jewish and non-Jewish-- to discern the meaning and the context of our teachings. We are Halakhic: we uphold the binding quality of a Jewish law that has brilliantly grown up over our 3,000 year heritage. We respect that tradition, and seek to change those laws and practices judiciously, only when careful investigation of modern circumstances clearly warrants a response in our practices. The clearest example of this process of tradition and change is the advancing role of women in Conservative Judaism over the past 30 years. Our tradition, of course, had been non-egalitarian. With the progress of our modern society, our movement endeavored not to dismiss the ancient laws and traditions outright, but to look carefully into the underlying principles, values, and teachings of mitzvot and obligation. With love and respect for the traditions themselves, we found new ways to uphold established notions of obligation and yet find new places for women alongside men in congregational life. This is a brilliant and precious approach to Judaism! Our values aren’t just about intellectual integrity, but also about pluralism, a spirit of welcoming, open-mindedness, and most importantly, of wisdom. We seek the wise middle ground between progressive values and conservative respect for the traditions of our ancestors. Our modern-day society is so often overwhelmed by messages that promote self-absorption, of “pick and choose” religious practices and spirituality. This makes our approach to Judaism all the more important.

And yet, with all of this praise, and all of its importance, Conservative Judaism itself faces many challenges. Our society is advancing at a blinding pace—new technologies, new ideas, new ways of thinking about connection and the world arise every day. A new generation of Jews is coming into the mainstream, and those Jews speak a completely different religious and spiritual language than their parents and grandparents. By and large, today’s younger Jews are not engaged by an exploration of Jewish history and through critical scholarly readings of biblical texts. The Jews of the 21st century are not interested in conceptually-based “movements” in Judaism at all! They are looking for something more immediate and compelling from Judaism.

I believe that if any expression of modern Judaism can respond wisely to this new generation of Jews, it’s the Conservative approach. Our thoughtful, historical, contextual view of Judaism is the perfect foundation for evolving with the new generation of Jews in our society. Our unofficial motto is “Tradition and Change,” and this essential approach is what we’re hungering for today—it’s just that we have to embrace tradition and change in new ways.

For most Jews today, Judaism is a collection of religious “folkways.” At key life-cycle moments and on major Jewish holidays like the New Year and Passover, we come to synagogue to find connection with family traditions. The Judaism that Jews today encounter in synagogue cannot just be an intellectualized endeavor. It’s not enough for me, as your rabbi, to explain the rational underpinnings of Kashrut. Most Jews today feel perfectly Jewish without keeping kosher at all, so a rational justification for it is interesting at best, but not personally compelling.

Conservative Judaism today is poised to heed its own message: “tradition and change” really means “Evolution.” When anything evolves—animals or ideas—it both transcends and includes what has come before it. Conservative Judaism is “Evolutionary” Judaism! The beauty of the Conservative Movement in the 20th century was that it was a great academic journey into the meaning of Judaism as an evolving civilization over thousands of years. It's time to take it to the next level. We’re ready to teach that Judaism is vastly more than “folkways” or even just a type of “identity.” What Jewish people need these days is not just Jewish distinctiveness, but a Jewish experience that can help us engage more with life, with society, with our families. Jewish people today are not anxious so much about Jewish survival in America; they’re seeking a traditional wisdom that can teach them how to be a better spouse, a better parent, a better friend, a better boss. We’re looking for a spiritual tradition that shows us how to take better care of ourselves and each other in a very complex and confusing world.

Conservative Judaism now must show our people how traditional mitzvot and rituals and observances can deepen our character, enrich our spirit, provide meaning, and relieve stress in a world of such uncertainty. We want to know how Judaism’s wisdom can give us insight into our human nature, to guide us in our difficult life decisions, and to provide relief from some of our deepest sufferings. Our people today are genuinely open to the possibility of keeping Kosher, but not because it was once a healthy diet choice in ancient times. We want to know how Kashrut can deepen our character as human beings. How can it relieve stress? How can keeping kosher make us a better citizen of the world? How can Kashrut make us engage better with life, with society, with our family, our non-Jewish business associates? How can it make us live with deeper wisdom in all aspects of our life?

The role of a Conservative congregation today is to promote the idea that our traditions and rituals are NOT just folkways, they’re meaningful and transformational! Our job as a Conservative synagogue is not to force observance on our members, but to create the conditions where our members can discover the power of observance to touch their lives, their souls—not just their intellects. We need to get the message out there that we don’t want our members just to come and pay homage to an ancient ritual, but rather to find deep personal significance in the words, the melodies, the rhythms of these rituals and practices.

The measure of our success is not how many bodies we can get in the doors on any given Shabbat or holiday or religious school program. Rather, success must be determined by how our members are when theyleave the building! Are we more ALIVE than when we came in? Are we more engaged with life, with our souls, are we kinder and more compassionate? Are we inspired to act for justice? Are we wiser and more sensitive as a human being, and not just as a Jew? The great challenge, the wonderful journey ahead of us is: can we create a synagogue community where we transform people's lives THROUGH tradition, and not in spite of tradition? Can we provide access to meaning without watering Judaism down, or simplifying it? Can we trust our members enough to know that they are more than willing to rise to the ways that our tradition challenges us to grow morally, personally, and spiritually? These are the great questions that we have yet to address fully in this new century, and in our amazing congregation. I am more than eager to join with you all and to begin to address these questions. And may these questions lead to more questions. In seeking the answers, may we grow and evolve joyfully for generations to come.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Being the Earth

It’s hard not to love the character of Noach. He’s always depicted as that dotty little old man who builds the ark, and collects the animals two by two. His ark graces the walls of countless nurseries and preschools. It might come as a surprise the Noach doesn’t quite come off so well in the Jewish tradition. Rashi explains that Noach was only a tzadik bedorotav, which means that, while he is called a Tzadik, it was only in relation to his generation (which, of course was all wanton sinners) that he looked good at all! The midrash (the rabbinic story) in Tanhuma goes even further, and calls Noach a ‘sinner,’ because he did not publicly speak out against the sinners of his generation, and only retreated into the safety of his ark. Pretty harsh words for poor old man Noach! But this is all very strange, because if you look at the literal text of the Torah, it says that Noach was Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah bedorotav, that he was a righteous and whole-hearted man in his generation. In fact, no other figure in the entire bible is given such a glorious epithet next to his name. Why, indeed, are there so many voices in our tradition who want to denigrade Noach’s accomplishments?

A lot of the trouble comes from the fact that Noach appears very early in the biblical account, and to rabbinic eyes, Noach pales in comparison to a much more central Tzadik to the Jewish people, namely Avraham. Exactly the same descriptive words used for Noach are also used for Avraham: Hithalech lifanai v’heyeh tamim: God says to Avraham, ‘Walk before me, and be tamim, whole-hearted. ‘ (Gen. 17:1). So what’s the difference, our ancient rabbis wondered, between the two men? Obviously, Avraham is a much more active figure than Noach ever was. It was Avraham who set out and walked the land of Israel, who withstood tests of faith, who battled kings, who made a foothold in the land, who stood up even to God for the sake of the potential innocent lives that might be lost in the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah! There isn’t even one instance of Noach standing up for anything in the story. God tells him to build an ark, so he builds an ark. He saves the animals, himself, and his family, at God’s command. And that’s it. Of course, Noach doesn’t come across as well in the rabbinic imagination!

But then again, if you look carefully throughout the ancient rabbinic texts, there are other, less well-known opinions about Noach and his righteousness: In the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 108a) there’s a dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish. Rabbi Yohanan makes the standard argument that Noach was only righteous in his own sinful generation, but not any others. And Resh Lakish says, no. You’re reading it incorrectly. When the Torah says that Noach was a righteous man bedorotav—in his generation-- it means that even in his own terrible and sinful generation he was righteous, all the more so in later generations! Rabbi Oshaiya then explains: Resh Lakish’s view may be illustrated by a vial of [fragrant] …oil lying [in a foul-smelling place]: if its fragrance is sensed even in such surroundings, how much more so amid spices!

Now it starts to get interesting! Not everybody was convinced that Noach was a self-serving man in a cruel world. Maybe, say the likes of Resh Lakish, Noach was one of the greatest tzadikim, greatest righteous men, we have ever known, even as great, perhaps, as the likes of Avraham himself?! This morning, I would like us to look again at this man Noach, this Ish Tzadik Tamim, this righteous, whole-hearted man, and see if indeed we have had not yet fully learned his particular kind of righteousness. I believe that, in fact, in our world of today, we are finally ready to really understand and to take in the significance of Noach’s greatness and his righteous. Only today, in this world of global warming and ever-increasing environmental catastrophe, can we really grasp the message of Noach’s life.

Let’s think about what happens in this flood story. It is nothing less than de-creation! Quite literally, the process of creation itself that was set up in the Genesis Creation narrative is undone step by step, as the ‘flood gates’ of heaven are literally opened up, and the world is reduced again only to the spirit of God hovering upon the waters. Only this time, of course, there is that ark, a little micro-habitat of that former created world, with Noach and his family, floating in those waters. What can strike us when we consider this story in its broad strokes is that it’s not a Jewish story particularly at all. Our ancient rabbis didn’t like the description of a ‘Tzadik’ for Noach because he predates Avraham and his particular story of a founding a Jewish people with a connection to the Land of Israel. This story is way more universal. Noach is not a Jew, in particular. If he is anything, he is a second Adam, founding a whole new line of human beings in the world. There is nothing particularly Jewish about his life or his behavior, save his obedience to God’s command to build an ark.

The Sfat Emet, a great 19th century Hasidic commentary pointed out something very interesting about Noach, that his very mission and role in the world was signified by his name. The name Noach is related to the word ‘menuchah,’ which means ‘rest.’ Noach’s role is to come into the world ultimately, says the Sfat Emet, to bring about menuchah, rest itself, ‘lachzor kol echad leshorsho,’ to bring everything back to its source; to realize that ‘ain lo chiyut me’atzmo klal,” that he has no life-force at all on his own. In other words, Noach teaches us the righteousness NOT of struggling against the course of nature or against God’s plan, but to allow it to be, just as it is. (Sfat Emet 1:67)

Talk about a not-Jewish-sounding idea! When we think about Avraham, he is regularly getting involved, regularly ‘making souls,’ calling people to the service of God, making peace, struggling for holiness. He even accuses God of injustice before the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and says, ‘hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat,” ‘The Judge of all the earth shall not mete out justice?!’ We all know and love the Jewish brand of righteousness: it’s called chutzpah, it ‘s all about marching alongside the oppressed and starting revolutions! Now suddenly, here is the Sfat Emet , declaring Noach to be righteous BECAUSE he didn’t protest, and just allowed the flood to be! Herein is the deeply troubling core of the Noach story. His apparent passivity, his apparent lack of a moral outcry deeply troubles not just the rabbis, but all of us to this day. How can we possibly abide a ‘righteousnes’ that is all about ‘surrender,’ of just letting things be? If we abide this approach, we fear that this is what allows evil to happen in the world, that allows Nazis to run rampant, that allows all manner of injustice to prevail!

But then again, there is the text, right in front of us, saying that this man Noach was an Ish Tzadik Tamim, a whole-heartedly righteous man—this was the man who allowed the flood to be, ‘et ha’Elohim hithalech Noach,’ who walked right alongside God’s destructive plan without hesitation or question. It’s deeply morally disturbing, this kind of passivity. But the question we must reconsider in our time is: was Noach REALLY passive after all? Let’s take a quick tour of some the midrashic descriptions of Noach’s life and career:

According to one midrash, Noach deliberately spent 52 years building that ark ever so slowly because, as the Torah makes perfectly clear, the society of his day was hopelessly corrupt, cruel, and violent. There was no place for him to speak up. No justice. No forum to be listened to. And so, he built that ark slowly so that the wicked people of his generation would take note of his actions and repent of their ways (Pirkei deRabbi Eliezar 22). To no avail, of course, so when the flood came, Noach and his family spent the whole 12 months at sea never sleeping a wink, feeding the animals and birds(Tanhuma 58:9). And it wasn’t just feeding the animals. According to the Talmud (Sanhedren 108b), the ark had three levels: a deck for the family, a middle deck for all the animals, and then a lower deck for all of the animal droppings. Can you imagine?! Noach and his family spent an inordinate amount of time just shoveling that stuff down to the lower deck. And why did they save it all? Rashi explains (Gen. 6:13) that after the flood cleared, the land had lost 12 inches of topsoil from the flood, so when Noach landed, he got right to work using the all the animal compost to work the land, dutifully, tirelessly. He was a true man of the earth, of the soil. Rashi even explains that he invented the plough, and that, “before his time, people would plant wheat and the earth would produce thorns and thistles.” But Noach, ever diligent and hard working, single-handedly regenerated the earth.

The Torah itself tells us that when Noach was born, his father gave him that name, saying “This one will provide us relief [y’nachameinu] from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the Lord placed under a curse.” Of course, he was referring to the curse of Adam when he was expelled from the Garden of Eden, who was now to toil and suffer by the sweat of his brow on the land. Noach is the one who, by his very birth, would point us the way to healing that sense of a cursed relationship with the land, with the earth itself. It is in this way that he is a Tzadik Tamim, a whole-hearted righteous man, because through his life, through his relationship of allowing the world to be, he shows us all how to heal ourselves, how to return to our source, and our relationship to the earth itself!

Rabbi Leib Saras once taught the true meaning of a Tzadik, of a righteous man. He said “A Tzadik is not a person who preaches Torah, but rather lives Torah. Not his words, but his actions should teach Torah to the people. I visit Tzadikim not to listen to their interpretations of Torah, but to observe how they conduct themselves from the time of their arising in the early morning until the time of their lying down to rest at night.”

If we compare Noach to Avraham, yes he will appear to come up short. But it’s not a fair comparison. Avraham’s very role in the Torah is to be a teacher of righteousness through direct action. There was no morality in Noach’s society, and so Noach could only teach righteousness by his example. All he could do was hope that others would listen and follow. Noach’s presence teaches us that there are other kinds of righteousness in life that are also equally important, namely, the righteousness of acceptance, of moving inexorably with the flow of nature itself. No matter how much cruelty and wickedness surrounded him, Noach remained TAMIM, which means ‘whole-hearted,’ but it literally means ‘simple-hearted.’ He remained close to the earth and the animals and nature and resisted the corrupting influence of the society around him. In this temimut, in this simplicity, he was righteous and a teacher to us today! No matter what environmental catastrophes resulted from human wickedness, he kept moving forward, creatively finding a way to sustain life despite catastrophe. He never lost his faith, or his faithfulness. He didn’t board the ark until the floodwaters forced him to, always holding out hope that his human bretheren might repent of their ways. When there was nothing left of the world but the ark, he still didn’t lose his faith and resolve to preserve life itself. He gave and he gave and he gave, even when there was no apparent hope of a reward.

When we talk about the modern environmental crisis, we always talk of the need to ‘save the planet earth.’ But this isn’t exactly right. No matter what we do to the earth, ultimately, the earth will be fine. The earth has survived countless catastrophes in the past. The earth will survive. The real question is: will we survive? Noach is the perfect teacher for our time because Noach IS the very embodiment of the earth itself. In his survival, he teaches us all how to survive: it can only happen through tzedek and temimut, through righteousness and simple whole-heartedness itself. No matter what terrible things happen to or around Noach, he always finds a way, he always regenerates, and returns himself and the Earth to its source.

When Noach emerges from the ark, God sends a rainbow as the sign of a new covenant, and God promises never again to destroy the world by flood. And on our end of the deal, we are asked ultimately to BE the children of Noach. We are called by that rainbow to Be the ones, like Noach before us to bring the earth back to rest, to repose, to return the earth to its source, to make the world into the Garden of Eden once again.

And we accomplish this by emulating the simple righteousness of Noach. We are to BE the earth itself. We must live our lives in tune with the rhythms of this miraculous world. We must be simple and whole-hearted, working with the world in all its challenges and limitations, always giving and giving for the sake of the earth and for one another, never expecting a reward. Perhaps the environmental crisis about us can remind us to awaken to this deep calling to be a little more Noach—to be simple lovers of this earth, of each other, of all that is. May we all activate this righteousness of temimut, of simplicity within us all, and in so doing, may we regenerate this earth and return it to its source, to peace.