Monday, September 28, 2009

Where Peace Begins

Here we are in 5770. Here we are on Yom Kippur, davening together in shul, confronting our existential fears and hopes for a new year. Today in our prayers, we ask God for all kinds of things: forgiveness, atonement, blessings, sustenance, health. In our deepest prayers, we long for Shalom, for peace: peace in our homes and families, peace among our people, peace in the Land of Israel from our enemies, peace in the whole world. If there’s any one yearning that each and every one brings to synagogue today, that all of us share, it’s the yearning for Shalom. So why is Shalom, indeed, seemingly the most elusive commodity in the world? If you look in the Torah, it would seem that violence and conflict are essential parts of our human nature. The book of Genesis is filled with stories of conflict between brothers. The conflicts begin with Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. They both brought offerings to God. God liked Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s offering. So what did Cain do? He killed Abel! God was furious at Cain, and said ‘Your brother’s bloods cry out to me from the ground!’. And then God cursed Cain, saying: ‘And now you shall be cursed, and a ceaseless wanderer on earth’ Cain was overcome with guilt and panic, and he too cried out: ‘Gadol Avoni Min’so!’ My sin is too much to bear!..and now anyone who meets me may kill me!” …

Amazing, isn’t it? Brothers killing brothers. The beginning of all war and bloodshed began with two brothers, over our petty jealousies and the pathetic desire to get on the good side of life at the expense of another. Cain, of course, stands for each and every one of us, his descendants. There’s a dark place within each of our psyches that cries out ‘Gadol Avoni min’so! My sin is too much to bear! There’s a dark part in each of us that sees ourselves as lonely and ceaseless wanderers on earth, always existentially alone and afraid for our lives, never truly at peace, threatened by a world that we fear we can’t fully trust, feeling irrationally guilty and ever on the defensive. And that darkness seems to perpetuate more violence, and more violence, and the cycle goes on from generation to generation.

So is there really any hope for us to break the chain of violence that lives in our very souls? Indeed, there seems to be: Later in the book of Genesis, there is another story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau: One night, Jacob finds himself all alone on the banks of the River Yavok. In the darkness, a mysterious ‘man’—a kind of dark angel--suddenly appears and immediately, Jacob violently launches into a fierce struggle, a fierce wrestling match with this man. They fight and struggle all night long, right up to the approach of dawn. ‘Let me go, for the dawn is approaching,’ the man says. ‘I will not let you go until you bless me,’ Jacob says back. ‘What is your name,’ the man asks. ‘Jacob.’ ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob,’ the man replies, ‘but Yisrael, for you have striven with beings Divine and human, and have prevailed.’ . . .And Jacob named the place Peniel, which means the ‘Face of God,’ because Jacob realized that he encountered the face of God that night, and yet he lived!

A strange and cryptic story! What does it mean? We know that Jacob was a man with a lot of guilt on his conscience that night. Jacob had stolen the blessing of the firstborn from his brother Esau years before. And now Esau was on his way to meet up with Jacob again the next morning. Was Esau, a wild and brutish man, going to kill Jacob and his family? Did Jacob deserve to be killed because he was a thief and a cheat?...

The power of this story is its mystery. Its images of darkness, existential terror, and wild struggle are there to sink deep into our souls as we read them. This story leads us to the places of darkness and struggle that rage within each of us—that very same dark place that leads to violence. On that night on the banks of the River Yavok, Jacob went into that violent place within his soul. In that all-night struggle, he wasn’t just Jacob anymore. In his own guilt and fear surrounding his stealing the blessing from his brother Esau, Jacob became Cain struggling with Abel once again. “I won’t let you go unless you bless me!” Jacob cries to the shadowy figure, and in that outcry, he is completing Cain’s outcry: Gadol Avoni min’so! My sin is too much to bear: forgive me, Abel! Forgive me, Esau! Just bless me, God, accept me as I am, give me peace—Shalom-- despite my guilt!...

On the High Holy Days, we seek forgiveness because we can’t seem to escape Cain’s existential dread and guilt. The brilliance of this day is that today, each of us becomes Cain. We come to know that all the violence in the world begins with us. And there is an incredible message in this journey today back to our deepest fears and guilts: when we have the courage to embrace all struggles within our own hearts and souls, then paradoxically, the struggle itself transforms into peace. The only way to find peace, to heal the Mark of Cain on our soul, as I taught on Rosh HaShanah, is not to turn away but to go bravely straight into the deepest, darkest struggles of life.

On that dark night by the River Yavok, Jacob finally faced the whole Truth of his life: Yes, he stole the blessing, and tricked his own father and brother. Yes, he is guilty of wrongdoing. Yes, he is, like all of us, the descendant of Cain. But, like Cain before him, all he wanted was God’s blessing when it’s all said and done. The deepest yearning of his soul was only for love and for goodness and for life! And so the shadowy figure blessed him. His name was no longer Jacob, which means ‘heel-grabber,’ or ‘supplanter’ or ‘cheater.’ Now it was Yisrael—‘The One who Found God Because He was Willing to Face the Struggle.’

Our brothers bloods are still crying out to us: from the Middle East, from Darfur, and from violence right from here in DC and around the world. If we really long for an end to violence, are we willing to find these conflicts in our very own hearts as much as we find them ‘out there’ in the world? Our rabbis tell us something amazing: the Hebrew word Shalom, peace, is actually the name of God. Our longing for peace is our longing for God! If we really want peace, then we have to commit to creating a place for Shalom in our lives, body and soul—b’chol levavcha, uvchal nafshecha, uv’chal me’odecha—with all our hearts, souls, and might. If we’re ready, like Jacob, to cease as lonely wanderers in a world that threatens to kill us and our loved ones, then we have to be willing to change our very own name in the world. We have to be willing to look at each and every relationship, each and every moment, with the eyes of Shalom, of peace.

In our day and age, we’re a little confused about Shalom, peace. We think that Peace is the absence of struggle and conflict. But our ancient sages were clearer on this: Shalom means all of it. It means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Shalom is a perfect circle: beginnings and endings, light and dark, good and bad. Peace doesn’t begin when the guns stop firing. Peace isn’t an effect of ceasefires alone. Peace is an attitude, an intention, a state of being in the midst of all conditions—when life is calm, and when life is full of conflicts and contradictions! In fact, our sages teach us that the most important place of all to seek Shalom is right in the midst of conflict itself!...

When the great Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish, died, his closest friend and study-partner, the equally great Rabbi Yohanan, was naturally despondent. On literally hundreds of pages of the Talmud, arguments between the two rabbis are recorded. So in order to bring peace to Rabbi Yochanan, many of the brightest students of the day came to Rabbi Yochanan, and he taught them a lesson on Torah. When he was finished, all the students praised Rabbi Yochanan with lavish praises, and told him ‘How brilliant you are, Rabbi Yochanan! How right you are, Rabbi Yochanan!’ And did this help Rabbi Yochanan feel more at peace? No! To this, Rabbi Yochanan cried out even more despondently: “Bring me back Resh Lakish!”[i] You see, Rabbi Yochanan wasn’t satisfied with the students because they agreed with him! What was so special to Rabbi Yochanan was that Resh Lakish challenged him.

The students couldn’t understand that the thing that made these sages great was that they welcomed the struggle from their adversaries. Each was the other’s angel with whom he could wrestle, who could make them face even the darkest places of their souls, and therefore find blessing, and ultimately inner peace!

There’s a famous Zen story about Zen master Hakuin, who lived centuries ago in a small fishing town in Japan. A beautiful young woman lived near him. One day, the young woman’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. Her parents were enraged by this dishonor. They demanded to know the father, but she refused to tell. Finally, to protect her lover, she lied and told them that the father was none other than Zen master Hakuin! Filled with rage, the parents went to Hakuin and said ‘we heard you’re responsible for getting our daughter pregnant!’ ‘Is that so?’ was all Zen master Hakuin said in response. Of course, his reputation as a great master was totally destroyed. When people passed him and said ‘you’re a despicable man,’ all he said in response was ‘Is that so?’ When the baby was born, the parents brought the child to Hakuin and said, ‘Here. You’re the father, you take care of this child.’ “Is that so?” was Hakuin’s only response. Still, for a whole year, Hakuin lovingly cared for this child, tending to all the baby’s needs. After a year, the young woman could no longer bear her guilt. She finally admitted to her parents that the real father was a young man who worked in the fishmarket. The girl’s parents came back to Hakuin begging his forgiveness and to get the child back again. Without batting an eyelash, Hakuin gave the child back to the family, and all he said was ‘Is that so?’…

As Jews, we hear this story and we think, what’s wrong with this guy? I’ll tell you one thing: if someone came to me with a baby and accused me of being the illicit father, my response would be “Ummm…No….!” I bring this story today because Zen stories, like many stories from the Torah and Midrash and Hasidic stories, are not meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically—they’re meant to shed light on our own inner world as we react to them and put ourselves in the place of the characters. So we must ask ourselves, what is this Zen master teaching us about ourselves? When the parents came to him accusing him of fathering an illicit child, what would go through your mind in that instant: “How dare you accuse me of such a thing?! Who the heck do you think you are to insult my dignity in this way?!” But instead, what did the Zen master do: he asked ‘Is that so?’. That question is not a question for the girl’s parents, nor was it a question for the town’s people who hurled insults at him. It’s an inward-turning question that we must ask ourselves! Hakuin asked himself: Is that so? Is that true? In what ways am I, indeed, ultimately connected to that girl’s, or to anyone’s recklessness? A baby is now in my care. Is it so that I am, indeed, not to play the role of ‘father’ when no one else will care for this precious life? Granted, this story really pushes things to the extreme, but it gets us to pause and to consider life differently than the ways that we’re normally conditioned to react. Whenever life thrusts a challenge, a problem, a stumbling block, an adversary, even an enemy in our face, we can ask: Is that so? Could that be True? What happens when we turn that question inward in moments when we feel attacked by someone in life?

If someone says to you, ‘You’re a liar.’ What’s our immediate, knee-jerk reaction: ‘How dare you call me a liar! I’m not a liar’ When we lash out in defense like that, then we’re being Cain all over again! Cain’s ‘How dare you!’ lash-out was so intense, he killed his brother over that reaction. So what happens if we find a way to take a deep breath, go inside, and ask ourselves, ‘Is that so?’ Could he or she be right? Can we struggle with our inner Cain, can we struggle with our knee-jerk defensive reaction, and be still long enough to listen and ask ourselves the very tough questions that our adversaries pose to us? What happens? In that timeless instant of going inside, we can search all the dark places in ourselves we would rather not acknowledge. We can wrestle with that angel within. We can search to see if there is any truth at all to the idea that we were were a liar! And then, instead of our knee-jerk defensive Mark-of-Cain reaction, we can say peacefully to the other person, ‘Tell me more.’ If they tell us something that we have found by embracing our struggle within, we can say back, ‘You know what, you’re right. I did lie.’ If, however, so meone calls us liar and we go inside and we find that it’s not true, then that doesn’t mean that then we can lash out and say ‘How dare you’! It just means that it’s time to keep wrestling—no matter how much it hurts--to keep searching for Truth, for common ground and self-understanding, until that conflict yields and transforms into blessing, and into Peace! We can say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t lie, but I see how upset you are. Tell me your experience, let’s figure this out.”… When Jacob was wrestling with that angel, the angel actually wounded him right in the groin. It doesn’t get more personal than that! What’s amazing is that Jacob didn’t say—okay, that’s it: now I’m going to get you right back in your groin! Instead, even while in pain, he said, ‘I won’t let you go until you bless me!

Peace is only possible when we transform our relationship to our adversary and turn them from an enemy into a teacher, when we transform our own struggle from one directed at the other person, to one directed inwardly, to our own Shadows and to our own demons. If I reject the other person outright, I have lost an opportunity to meet someone who may very well be the kindest and most important teacher of my own Truth whom I have ever met!

The message I teach today is not a pacifist teaching. This is not a ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ sermon. My understanding of the Christian notion of ‘turn-the-other-cheek’ is that it takes martyrdom and passivity in the face of an attacker and raises it up to a holy level. ‘Turn-the-other-cheek’ takes the experience of being a victim and equates it with ‘bearing the sins’ of the other person, and in so doing, you become saintly. What I teach today is the opposite of ‘turn-the-other-cheek.’ When we welcome the struggle with the other person, we are the opposite of a victim: we can never be victimized again. We actively engage in conflict constructively and use that conflict as a tool, a gift to transform the dark places in our own souls, so that we become Yisrael, the embodiment of Peace right in the midst of the struggle.

How do we know when our work is done? The 23rd psalm said it best: ta’aroch lefanai shulchan neged tzorerai: Prepare a beautiful, peaceful banquet table before me right in the presence of my enemies! My cup runneth over with gratitude! Everyone in our life whom we perceive as an enemy—even those who may be out to kill us!—can point us back to ourselves, can point us to the path of peace in our own soul. What’s the stronger way to stand up to attackers in the world—when we’re full of rage and hate and on the defensive, or when we’re at peace? The answer is clear.

After that night of wrestling, when the sun rose over the River Yavok, Jacob—now Yisrael—went out to meet his dreaded brother in person after so many years. And lo and behold, Esau didn’t try to kill Jacob after all. The brothers embraced and wept. They met each other’s families, and they offered each other gifts. When Jacob offered Esau gifts, Esau demurred, “Yesh li rav, achi.” I have much already my brother. I don’t need such gifts. But Jacob pressed him: No, take it: To see your face is like seeing the face of God! “Kach na et birchati,” take my blessing, Jacob said …”ki chanani Elohim v’chi yesh li chol.” Because God has been gracious to me, and I have everything! Did you hear what Jacob offered Esau—birchati, blessing!? Take my blessing! It was Jacob who stole that blessing from his adversary all those years ago, but Jacob is now Yisrael. He is free! He’s at Peace! The great commentatary, the Sfat Emet explains, when Jacob said ‘Yesh li chol,” I have all, what he means is that he has found Shalom, true Peace in opening to all of it—the light and the darkness, the past guilts as well as the yearning and the love. He now knows he doesn’t need to lie or cheat or steal to have God’s blessing. He knows he is a blessing because he can look upon the face of his adversary, his enemy, and see nothing but the face of God!

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Peshischa relays the following teaching: “Our sages taught: ‘Seek peace in your own place.’ You cannot find peace anywhere save in your own self. . .When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world.”[ii] We live in a world beset by so much war and violence. It’s true: there are real enemies, real attacks, and a real necessity to defend ourselves. That’s the way of the world, for now, and it goes on as it must. But the greatest wisdom of our Torah teaches us that conflict and war are not the ultimate ways to end war in the world once and for all. The only path that will truly end war in Israel, in the Middle East, all around the world, begins nowhere other than in your very heart.

At the end of our prayers each day, we say the famous words: Oseh Shalom biM’romav, May God who makes peace in the Heavens above; Hu ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, May God bring peace upon us, v’al Kol Yisrael, and on all Israel, v’al Kol Yoshvei Teivel, on all human beings, v’imru, Amen. The Baal Shem Tov once taught that God’s greatest majesty is God’s humility, the highest place in the Heavens above is equal to the lowest, and simplest place here on Earth. R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl once taught: “Believe with complete faith that God surrounds and fills all worlds, God is both within and beyond them all.” When we say, “May God make peace biM’romav, in the heavens above—those majestic Heavens above are none other than the humblest place within our very own heart of hearts. When find peace in our own hearts, this IS how God sends peace from the heavens above! In the year 5770, may we indeed take this Torat Shalom, this Torah of Peace to heart. May we end all wars ‘right here,’ thereby bringing peace to us, to all Israel, and to all the world. Amen.

[i] Bava Metzia 84a

[ii] Buber, Late Masters, p. 264

Monday, September 21, 2009

You Never Know!

Today is Rosh HaShanah, the New Year. We always associate the New Year with renewal and new hopes for the future. Isn’t it strange that, in the midst of this hopeful spirit, our tradition would thrust such disturbing images and stories upon us? Take, for example, the Torah reading on the 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah—the story of the binding of Isaac. You remember the story: God tests Abraham and tells him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering, and Abraham complies, leading his son on a three-day journey to the top of Mount Moriah, where he binds up his sons hands and feet like an animal to be slaughtered. He places his son on a wood pile, and lifts up his knife, about to cut his own son’s throat, until an angel calls out: Abraham, Abraham! And at the last moment, Isaacs life is spared. So imagine with me being Isaac at that moment of horror: hands and feet bound, on the wood pile. Your own father with knife raised high in the heavens glaring in your eyes, about to take your life! It’s truly unthinkable. The worst horror, the worst kind of betrayal. How does one ever recover from such a trauma. The Torah says so little about Isaac, nothing about what he said afterward, or how he felt. We know he didn’t return home with his father after that day. We know, of course, that Isaac went on to marry and to father the twin sons Jacob and Esau. But what kind of darkness lived in Isaac’s heart after that trauma?...

The ancient rabbis of the midrash, the rabbinic stories, try to capture the nature of Isaacs emotional and spiritual scars. They teach us that when Abraham placed his son on that altar, all the angels wept tears that fell down from the heavens and implanted themselves in Isaacs eyes so that, years later, his own eyes would grow dim. And indeed, we know that Isaac eventually became blind. Was his blindness, indeed, a kind of somatic reaction to his having seen what no child should ever see?...Indeed, Isaac stands for that part of our own soul, within each of us, that can feel betrayed by life. His blindness is our own not wanting to look upon life when we experience life as betraying us, when life does not meet what we hope or expect it to be…

What a puzzle this God of the Torah is! The same God who brought such deep trauma upon Abraham and Isaac is also the God of Redemption and justice and compassion, the God who rescued us from oppression and slavery under Pharaoh, and led us out of Egypt to the promised land. But even this glorious liberation is a double-edged sword. In the book of Deuteronomy, God tells us that the new land of Israel “lo k’eretz Mitzrayim hi,” it is not like the land of Egypt, a land watered all year long by the flooding of the Nile, like a perennial vegetable garden. The Land of Israel, on the other hand, is a land “limtar shamayim tishte mayim,” that soaks up water only from the rains of the heavens. Israel, in other words, is a land entirely dependent upon God, and God’s will alone to sustain its abundance. It’s a land that can have years of rain and green and abundance, as well as years of drought and death. In Egypt, you can rest secure that, almost always, abundance will come from the yearly swelling of the Nile. But the Land of Israel, where there’s no guarantee of abundance, this land we call Eretz HaKodesh, the Holy Land! Indeed, it’s holy because you can never completely rest secure in its abundance! It’s the Holy Land because you never escape the undeniable Truth that you’re not in control!

We would all so very much like our religion to be a bouquet of teachings that instantly soothe the soul. We all want only joyful, uplifting stories and messages from our Torah, from our tradition. But somehow our Torah and tradition regularly refuses to play into any such facile simplifications of Truth and Reality. Instead, it’s as if our Torah speaks to each of us, saying ‘You want to understand the meaning of blessing, goodness, and holiness? You want a life and a world of peace and joy? Then you must first deal with this: Betrayal! Violence! Tragedy! Loss! Powerlessness! We can’t look away. The only way to understand the peace of God is to have the fearlessness to walk through that valley of the Shadow of death that lurks right in our very own souls. There’s no way around the challenging Realities of life, the only path to God is right through our worst nightmare.

For so many of us this year, even if we intended to avoid that dark valley in our souls, we can’t get away with it now, as this so-called ‘Great Recession’ seethes and wreaks havoc on so much that we have come to expect. All of our plans for retirement and growth and optimism are now so distant as we are deeply contracted in fear of what the future may bring. Who among us hasn’t tried to push away fearful visions of being homeless and desperate and powerless during this past year? In having those thoughts, we are like Isaac bound on that altar, powerless before his father. Who among us hasn’t walked around desperately looking for signs of hope, anything at all to hold onto, trying to escape our fears? In that fear, we are our Israelite ancestors in the Land, praying fervently for rain to come and to end the drought in the land. So is there any hope at all? Indeed, there is! All those harsh stories in the Torah are there to show us the way home, the way to peace and to blessing that we so yearn for during these times of such uncertainty…

Perhaps you’ve been to a wedding or a bar mitzvah, or at a communal meal here at shul or at someone’s home on Shabbat, where we say the Birkat Hamazon, the traditional Grace after meals. Perhaps you recognize its jaunty little melody, Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, Hazan et Ha’Olam Kulo b’tuvo b’chein v’chesed v’rachamim…It’s fun to sing it and join in with everyone, pounding on the table, and to have a good time. But perhaps you didn’t realize that, when you actually read the words, it’s one of the most chutzpadic blessings in our tradition. Here’s how it works: you’ve just finished a nice good meal, your belly is stuffed, and you use that feeling of being satisfied to express gratitude, but you do it in a totally Jewish way: you imagine yourself to be an Israelite who has just returned from exile to the Land of Israel. Your feeling of being sated in your body is symbolic of the Land of Israel in its abundance. So it’s a kind of embodied wish-fulfillment for you and for all the Jewish exiles returned to the Land, in all its blessing from God. And what do we say when we’re metaphorically returned from exile to the Land of Israel? Tamid lo chaser lanu, v’al yechsar lanu mazon le’olam va’ed! We have never lacked, nor shall we ever lack food, sustenance forever and ever! And about God, what do we say: Hu heitiv, Hu Meitiv, Hu Yeitiv lanu, God was good to us, God is good to us, God will always be good to us! Yeah right! Dream on! Where indeed do we get the chutzpah to say such things when our very Torah and our very history attests to the fact that God has put us through such ordeals, that the ‘good land’ that we bless has indeed betrayed us; that this life that God has given us has so often left us powerless and out of control? How could we have the chutzpah to express such faith and confidence in Abundance in a world where Great Depressions and Recessions, and all manner of murderous violent destructions are possible?

It’s important to note that our ancient rabbis never thought that we were totally powerless on the Land: our own moral behavior, according to our ancient sages, determined our standing on the land. As the book of Deuteronomy teaches, if we’re good and do mitzvot and remain faithful to our covenant with God, then God will provide the rain its proper season and the land will yield its abundance. And so it’s all up to us: if it’s not going well, it’s our own fault! It’s Jewish Guilt 101. But don’t worry, the ancient rabbis were also very sophisticated. They recognized that this nice system didn’t exactly work out so neatly, and that in every generation, bad things happen to good people. And despite this Truth, the rabbis still instructed us to affirm, every time we eat a meal, to celebrate a God who is, was, and always will be good and beneficent. What gives? How can we both recognize that loss and bad things happen that make us out of control, and still celebrate that God is infinitely good and blessing us?...

There’s a story told about a young Chasid, a young student, who approached his rabbi with a problem. He said ‘Rabbi, no matter how hard I try to draw close to the Kadosh Baruch Hu, to God, in my prayers, I’m blocked. I know you taught me, rabbi, that we must ‘Ivdu et HaShem b’simchah, we must worship our Creator with joy, but I can’t find the joy. There is just so much suffering in this world, so much hardship, so much loss, so much that I can’t accept. What can I do?’ His rabbi replied, ‘There is one man who can teach how to overcome your obstacle,. You must go and see Reb Zusya of Hanipoli. He can show you how to find the joy even with all the hardship of life.’ The young Chasid trusted his rabbi, and so he set out on the journey to find this Reb Zusya. After a lengthy trip, he arrived at what he was told was this great teacher’s address. As soon as the young Chasid beheld Zusya’s home, he understood why his rabbi sent him here: it was the most miserable little hovel he had ever seen in his life. Here was a man who understood hardship and the worst kind of suffering. When the young Chasid knocked on the door and was bid to come in, what he beheld astonished him even more: the conditions of the inside of the hovel were worse than the outside, and this Reb Zusya who stood before him was a man in abject poverty, near starvation, who had clearly been battered by illness and difficult times his whole life. ‘Reb Zusya, thank you so much for welcoming me,’ said the young Chasid. ‘My rabbi has sent me here because he said that only you could teach me the wisdom of learning how to accept the terrible suffering of life, and still find joy and closeness to God.’ ‘He sent you to learn what from me?’ asked Reb Zusya. ‘…To learn how to accept life’s suffering with joy.’ Reb Zusya laughed. ‘Young man, I’m so sorry to disappoint you, but I really have no idea why your rebbe sent you hear to learn such a lesson from me. I have nothing to tell you about such matters. You see, God has been very good to me my whole life. Maybe you should go and learn from someone who has had some real misfortunes, God forbid.”

Reb Zusya was not a meshuga. He was not in denial of life. Not at all. In fact, he was totally the opposite of being in denial. He was one of the greatest and wisest teachers among our people because he truly understood the message behind all those challenging stories and messages of the Torah. He understood the fundamental chutzpah of the Grace after meals: that when we behold our lives from our hearts, and not from the fear in our heads, we can see a world transformed. When we behold this world through the deepest part of our souls, we no longer have eyes for lack and for loss. We can see the goodness and the brachah, the blessing of life, of all of it.

It’s very easy to misinterpret the story of Reb Zusya. Zusya isn’t just showing us that if we think about life and its misfortunes differently, then we’ll all be okay. The message I bring today is deeper than that: it’s that life really IS blessing. There really IS abundance. It doesn’t matter how bad it seems to be: Life really IS okay!...

I would like to come back to Isaac, the son who was bound and blinded by the sight of his father’s knife raised above him. Isaac is a typology, a figure of blindness who’s life experience we associate with darkness and hiddenness, of not seeing and not knowing. In his life’s career, he digs wells deep into the dark earth of the Land of Israel, probing the earth and the dark, shadowed places of the soul. His life of not seeing and searching in the darkness comes full circle when he is a blind old man, and while he favors his son Esau and plans on giving him the blessing of the first born, his other son, Jacob is more deserving of the blessing. And so Jacob tricks his blind father and dresses like Esau in order to procure his father’s innermost blessing. And this deception deeply confounds Isaac: “The voice is the voice of Jacob,” Isaac says, “ but the hands [the touch, the feel of him] are…of Esau.” The great modern Bible teacher, Aviva Zornberg, points out that in this moment, Isaac can’t decide which son is before him. Isaac is in an ultimate state of his own uncertainty: those angel’s tears from heaven are now completely blinding him to a place of total not-knowing. Isaac’s whole life has been leading up to this moment: in his not-knowing that is so total and complete, he becomes the embodiment of total acceptance of his own inability to really know, and from that place, his Truest, and innermost blessing can emerge. And what is that blessing? A total message of infinite abundance: “May God give you/Mital haShamayim, Of the dew of Heaven, u’mishmanei ha’aretz, and the fat of the earth,/v’rov dagan v’tirosh, Abundance of new grain and wine/…um’varach’cha baruch, blessed be those who bless you.” The Mei HaShiloach, a great Hasidic commentary, points out that even the trope, the musical cantilation of this moment hints that Isaac discovered, to his surprise such joy in his not knowing: “Kasher Kilah Yitzhak l’varech et Ya’akov”: the trope is long and drawn out, like Isaac is reluctant to let go of this moment of acknowledging so much blessing.

The rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Metzia 42a) teach this lesson: “Rabbi Yitzhak said, Blessing is found only in that which is hidden from the eye… The School of R. Ishmael taught: A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power, for it is said, y’tzav adonai itcha et habrachah ba’asamecha : The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden thing.(Deut. 28:8)” What do they mean by this? They mean that we can never see True Blessing in life if we try to find it with our mind’s eye: if we use only our capacity for thinking, for reasoning; if we look from our fears, and our perceptions of economic decline and fears of future loss. When we do that, we’re not really seeing. We’re just blinded by life’s apparent hardships the way Isaac was. The secret to finding blessing in life is not just shifting how we think about life. It’s in having the courage to relinquish control, to acknowledge that we don’t know, that we can’t know what will be and—like Zusya—have eyes only for the blessing of what is.

The trick in life is to learn the lesson of the Land of Israel and the Birkat HaMazon: that we were never ultimately in control of how much money or food or health comes and goes in our lives. Never. Yes, we can manage our funds and our diet and our medications, but it is arrogance to think that we’re in control of these ultimate factors of life. Yes, it seems terrifying to let go of that sense of control, like looking up at a knife ready to kill us. But here’s the great secret to all of Torah: It’s all okay! That knife didn’t kill Isaac. Somehow, he lived! How? Why? Who knows?! You can never know! It may certainly look like the ultimate nightmare looming in front of you, no doubt. The nightmare may come to pass, but then again, you can’t ever know if it will or not. It’s hidden from the eye! When we really accept this Truth, what’s left? Only everything…

When he finally gave up trying to figure out what was in front of him, Isaac realized that the blessing of his innermost being was just so much bigger than he was, it just flowed from his lips, it moved right through him. He realized that this moment is all we have ever had and all we ever will have. And--have you noticed?--we have all the money, all the food, all the health we need right now to be able to experience this very moment, the greatest blessing in the whole world, this Life that we have now. This moment might not feel good, or the way we had hoped. We may be painfully aware of how we now have less. But look deeper: every loss you have ever known before made other blessings—perhaps later on in life—possible. Today’s experience of loss IS blessing—that’s the promise of Torah—it’s just hidden from the eye!

No denial is necessary of the realities of the world to experience brachah, True Blessing. Yes, we’re in a recession. Yes, people do experience lack and hardships in the world. Yes, we live now with less than we once had. Yes, the future contains many possibilities. And Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov said it best: Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od: the whole world is a very narrow bridge; Veha’Ikar Lo Lefached Klal, and the point of life is not to be afraid at all. Just take this one step on the bridge. Look at that, we’re okay! Now take this step. Now this step. Notice how wonderfully, miraculously solid that bridge is under your foot—despite your fears. In this one step, the blessings don’t stop coming: the air we breathe is here for us, the sunlight, the strength in our bodies, the lifeblood in our veins: no matter what happens in the world, all the blessings that we need are always here for us. In this time of uncertainty, may this message of Brachah transform our hearts, and transform the world. Adonai Oz L’Amo Yitein: May the blessing of strength be our portion. Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom: And may the innermost blessing of our hearts be a blessing of abundant peace, and let us say, Amen.

The Importance of Keruv

I would like to teach us all a very important value in Jewish life known as Keruv. Keruv literally means ‘to bring close,’ ‘to draw near.’ Throughout our history, the word “keruv” has meant the endeavor to bring close all those among are people who are, for whatever reason, feeling far away from the community. Keruv is a beautiful Jewish value that is all about welcoming. It’s the heart and soul of what has sustained us as a community for generations.

The Jewish value of Keruv goes a long way back in Judaism. It seems that many of the great biblical figures were also especially concerned with Keruv. And their lives and stories teach us much about how to draw other people Karov, close to Judaism.
There was Aharon, the High Priest, the brother of Moses, for example. Our tradition tells us that he just had a magnificent talent for Keruv. When the Mishnah talks about Aharon, it says that he was Ohev Shalom v’Rodef Shalom, Oheiv et haBriot, umekarvan latorah: that he loved peace and pursued peace, that he loved all of God’s creatures and brought them close—mekarvan (the same root as Keruv)—to Torah.
King David was known to inspire countless others with his deep faith and devotion to God, and his piety brought the Israelite nation Karov, close to God.
And so what we learn from our biblical teachers is that Keruv, in its essence, is an act of Chesed, of lovingkindness: it’s inherently an act of human beings reaching out to other human beings, and offering them the gift of Torah, of connection and of community; and any good Jewish community worth its salt engages in some kind of Keruv.
The idea has made it squarely into modern times: the notion of Keruv is what inspires the Chabad Lubavitch Jews with their “mitzvah mobiles” that you may have seen on street corners, where they ask you “are you Jewish” and offer you the chance to put on tefilin or wave a lulav and etrog.
And in progressive Judaism, Keruv has been around for a long time as well. In modern times, Keruv has become more and more associated with reaching out to unaffiliated Jews who do not belong to synagogues. And this is the idea behind so many introduction to Judaism classes and other adult education programs designed to offer a way in for Jews of all backgrounds that have become a staple of modern synagogue life.
And in recent years, a whole new idea has made it into the world of Conservative Judaism: an idea that we wouldn’t have dreamed of 50 years ago: to broadened the definition of Keruv to include outreach to intermarried Jews and blended families of Jews and non-Jews.
When I say that we wouldn’t have dreamed of this 50 years ago, some of you understand very well what I mean, and others aren’t so sure, I’ll explain: remember the movie or the play Fiddler on the Roof? How Tevya, the kind-hearted dairy man, desperately tries to hold onto tradition as his daughters test his devotion to tradition:…his first daughter breaks convention by marrying for love and not through an arranged marriage; his second daughter marries a radical young man not from their community and leaves home; and finally, remember his third daughter Chavaleh? She falls in love with a non-Jewish boy.
At first, Tevya tries to dissuade her. He tells her, ‘A bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together?’ She responds, ‘We don’t see it that way.’ When finally, they do marry: remember what Tevya says? He says, “If I bend the tradition that far, it will break!” and with that, Chavaleh becomes dead to him. It’s a heart-rending moment as a family is torn apart, never to be reunited, as Tevya and his family go off to New York, and never see Chavaleh again.
There are different, passionate reactions to this story. Some people who see the show may abhor Tevya’s hardened response to his daughter. Others may feel his heartbreak. Still others may pity Chavaleh or perhaps shake their heads at her foolishness, or burn with anger on her behalf—but as we all know, there is not a dry eye in the audience at this moment.
Keruv is a powerful issue that is becoming all the more real and relevant to us, all the descendants of the Tevyas and Chavalehs a century later. In fact, Tevya’s struggle has become all the more pronounced here in the New World.
There are so many ways that our precious Jewish heritage is assaulted by modern ways, by assimilation, by the fast pace of life in this new world, this world of technology and progress, of so many competing values and enticements to our children for how to live their lives. The Jewish community has struggled to preserve its rituals and traditions, its sense of community, its focus on Torah and Mitzvot when fewer and fewer Jewish people interested with each passing generation.
The black cloud of the Holocaust came and sealed the point that our very existence in the world is under threat by the nations of the world. We Jews, the remnant of Israel, learned in the years immediately after the Holocaust that we must “circle the wagons” and build every bulwark we can against assimilation and intermarriage. For decades, American rabbis would stand just in my position here now--on high holy day pulpits--and harangue against intermarriage and interdating: some even saying that any Jew who intermarries is finishing Hitler’s work.
Those were tough words. Heart-breaking words. Words of desperation that implied that some Jewish people were Hitler’s accomplices because of whom they love. It is tragic that some rabbis took the rhetoric that far. And needless to say, many intermarried Jews and their families walked away from Judaism upon hearing such words and never looked back.
On the other hand, not all rabbis and Jewish leaders were that tactless and heartless. Most were simply passionate Jews who would do anything to protect our people and to see our precious heritage survive to another generation. I grew up hearing those messages. And I took them to heart. And to this moment ,I deeply appreciate and am guided by the loving intentions behind those sentiments.
I was very much influenced by the belief that every time we heard of another intermarriage, it was quite simply, the news that another branch on the Jewish family tree had withered and fallen off, and so we must nurture and water that tree to prevent more loss of our people to that withering.
And the demographic evidence in many ways supports that view: the latest information of the National Jewish Population Survey shows that a full third of Intermarried Jews have completely divorced themselves from Jewish life and the Jewish community. And so, the predominant attitude for years has been that if our sons or daughters plan to intermarry, we must do everything in our power to get the non-Jewish partner to convert, lest that couple and their future children be lost to us.
But after I was ordained from the Seminary and began to work in congregational life, I began to encounter something altogether unexpected. I began to meet children in religious school who had a non-Jewish parent, children with strong Jewish identities, who loved being Jewish, and who were encouraged to love their Jewishness by their non-Jewish parents! I began to meet non-Jews who were regular attendees of services. Shabbat regulars who were spouses of Jews, or even single people who just loved Conservative Judaism, but who weren’t Jewish! And some of these people could even read Hebrew and follow along with the service! What was this phenomenon?!
I discussed the possibility of conversion with some of these individuals, and some of them “took the plunge” in conversion; but others simply weren’t in that place in their lives, or had good personal reasons not to convert at all—and yet they came to shul. They supported their spouses and children whole-heartedly in their Jewish life. The Seminary quite simply didn’t prepare me for this population, and yet, there they were.
As I got to know some of these individuals, I began to see how hard it was for some. Here they were, with so much love in their hearts for their Jewish family members and the Judaism that they cherished, and yet they got the feeling that they were merely “tolerated” by their family synagogue. They felt like second-class citizens, not really a part of the community.
Many of these non-Jewish individuals endured years of cold shoulders in other synagogues, or belonged to other synagogues that didn’t count them as family members or list them in the directory along with their Jewish spouses. Here at Adas Israel, we’re ahead of the game in that we treat everyone in the household as a member of the synagogue community, but many in our community still feel the hurt from decades of feeling on the outs from their family’s synagogues.
I began to look at things in new ways was when I started to read the literature on Keruv that is being collected by the Federation for Jewish Men’s Club’s, under the leadership of Rabbi Chuck Simon. You see, over at FJMC, they have been doing a lot of thinking about the results of the latest National Jewish Population Survey—especially the results about intermarriage in this country.
Here’s how it breaks down: if you did not send your child to a Jewish day school, and if you did not send your child to a Jewish summer camp; if your child is not involved in Jewish youth groups,or any form of Hebrew High School; if you are not a regular attendee of synagogue services, then you statistically have at best about a 50-50 chance that your child will marry another Jew. Statistically, the more your child is involved in any or all of the activities I mentioned, then the chances of intermarriage decrease. If you are intermarried, or one spouse is a Jew-by-choice, then the statistical chance of intermarriage increases.
Now these are all just statistics. This formula doesn’t necessarily apply to any one family. But this information can really give us pause to think: either we can use this information to shore up our resolve to fight against intermarriage tooth and nail, or we can do what the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs is spear-heading. We can face reality head on for what it is. The evidence speaks for itself. Decades of haranguing against intermarriage, decades of alienating Jews who fall in love with non-Jews, decades of circling the wagons simply hasn’t worked. It just hasn’t worked! Between 1979 and 1990, the intermarriage rate among American Jews jumped from 28% to 41%, and by 2000, the rate climbed to 46%.
The simple reality is that intermarriage is here to stay. It’s a fact of life for modern American Jews. It’s a force to be reckoned with. And it’s not going to go away no matter how much some of us kick and scream. And what’s more, synagogue affiliation in general is shrinking. The younger generation is intermarrying at high rates, and they are not participating in Jewish life.
The folks over at FJMC are saying something that we desperately need to hear: the way we’ve been going hasn’t worked. If we keep on this path, we’re going to keep losing Jews. We need to rethink our approach. We need nothing less than a paradigm shift in how we do Keruv. We need to move beyond just “tolerating” non-Jews in our communities to actively welcoming intermarried families and go even beyond that—to a place of real acceptance of non-Jews in our midst.
Why? Because the face of the American Jewish community has changed whether we like it or not, and that face includes non-Jewish faces among half of our people. To shun Jews who have intermarried is to eventually cut ourselves off from half of our people.
If our community is to survive into another generation, we must accept the reality that half of our children will marry non-Jews. We must understand that our children, by and large, are not actively trying to thumb their nose at their families or Judaism when they get engaged to non-Jews. No. We simply live in a heterogeneous, open society, where our children live and work with people from all backgrounds and creeds. Love just happens. We all know that.
We can do our best to impart to them a love of Judaism, and of the Jewish people. We can hope that they will find a Jewish spouse with whom they can joyfully share the traditions of our people with their children. But we have all come to live--as Tevya himself did—in a society where Jewish marriage is not a given. And we must accept that. And if intermarriage touches our family, as it has most of us here, then we must NOT shun our children, but we must embrace them with open arms. Because when we do, we keep a door open to our children and to their spouses, a door open to the richness of our Jewish life and heritage that we have been shutting to them for far too many years.
And so Keruv represents the beginning of a discussion about how we truly integrate our intermarried families into the fabric of Conservative Jewish life. Think about it. It’s remarkable that any intermarried families have chosen to affiliate with a traditional-minded synagogue like ours, when there are other options in the Jewish world, where intermarriage is more easily integrated in other movements. But we have families who are here, who belong to our movement because they are intellectually and spiritually drawn to the wise middle ground of Jewish life that Conservative Judaism stands for. They are drawn to our tradition of balancing tradition and modernity.
And we will need to find a way to balance who we are as the Conservative Movement with the needs of these families. And what a tight-rope act that promises to be! Because on the one side, we have the needs of non-Jews more and more in our synagogues. But on the other side, we are HALAKHIC, we respect Jewish law that obligates and permits only Jews to participate in Jewish ritual. Also, we proudly affirm that the center of Jewish life is in the home, and we celebrate as a community those Jews who have made a commitment to entirely embrace Judaism as their family identity.
That’s quite a challenge to our intermarried families. And do you know what the Keruv experts are finding? That, in fact, our non-Jewish family members respect us all the more for proudly upholding our laws and ritual boundaries and communal standards.
Real integration of non-Jews into the fabric of our community means that we must not be afraid to challenge our non-Jewish members about their participation in synagogue life and in giving and in reaching out, about their own spiritual journeys, to learn from Judaism, to consider conversion if it’s right for them. And we must respect their boundaries if they are not in a place where conversion is right for them.
And, at the same time, we must not be afraid to challenge ourselves, to take a look at our committees, to investigate what kinds of roles non-Jews can play in our committees while respecting the boundaries and standards of Conservative Judaism. We must take a look at our activities and our rituals, to investigate how we recognize non-Jewish family members while upholding the boundaries of our sacred practice. We must think about our membership, to look at how we can attract new families into our warm community, and into the challenge of Conservative Jewish life.
The great key to this critical paradigm shift in Conservative Jewish life is, as the Bratzlaver Rebbe said, “Lo Lefached Klal.” Don’t be Afraid! We will not be teaching our children in religious school that intermarriage is as desirable as Jewish marriage. On the contrary, we will teach about the Kedushah, the sanctity of a fully Jewish home life. Only now, we will be sensitive in our language and emphasize the joy of Jewish life in the home so that all families—Jewish and blended—can see that a journey of greater and greater Jewish home observance leads to rich rewards for families and communities.
Don’t be afraid! A new paradigm of Jewish life is not a weakening of the bonds that have held us together. It is not a free-for-all with no limits or respect for what we have always been. It is an affirmation of our strength. We have nothing to fear. We proudly stand for a 3,000 year old heritage; a rich universe unto itself of learning, of community, of connection, of wisdom, of culture, of music, of thought, of joy that we are strong enough to share with all human beings. The more we proudly open up to the world and celebrate who we are, the more we lovingly allow others into our celebration, the more we will be strengthened.
You see, the beauty of Keruv, is that is NOT just for intermarrieds and their relatives, it’s for us all. Like I said before, in its essence, Keruv is about Jews and Jewish life. It’s about bringing us all Karov, close to one another. When we build a culture where we’re all proud of who we are, where we joyfully welcome all into the celebration of our Jewish life and tradition, then we are all brought closer together. When you really take a good hard look at it, Keruv is a win-win proposal.
The whole Jewish world is waking up to the reality of non-Jews in the fabric of Jewish life, and Adas Israel, I am proud to say, is on the cutting edge of this wave. We are under the able guidance of our own Steve Lachter who is our Men’s Club interface with the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, as well other amazing leaders in this field like Marion Usher, and members like Eyal Rosenstock (who is working with Gan families and other young intermarried families to link them together and with the greater community). There is a whole committee of committed members coming together who want to grow our Keruv initiative. Under their able leadership, we will be expanding our programming and hopefully reaching out to many more families in our shul and around the community. We will have a special Keruv Shabbat, discussion groups, speakers, and more( Information on Keruv is available in our new Lifelong Learning Catalogue, and will be forthcoming in our chronicle and other announcements.) We hope that you will get involved and lend your support to this ground-breaking effort.
We must face the future proudly. There are some extraordinary human beings, Jewish and non-Jewish who are poised to contribute magnificently to Jewish life in our synagogue, and across this country.
And I wouldn’t exactly say that we are in uncharted territory: in fact, the very message of openness and proud resolve goes as far back as Abraham himself, the first Jew—who was a Jew by choice in the very ultimate and best sense of the term! When Abraham set out for the Land of Israel from Haran, the Torah tells us that Abraham set out with Sarai Ishto, Sarai his wife, v’et Lot ben achiv, and Lot his nephew, v’et kol rechusham asher rachshu, and all their property that they acquired, v’et hanefesh asher asu, and the souls that they had made.
And that’s a very strange expression: the souls that they had made. What does it mean to “make” a soul? The Midrash explains, that Abraham and Sarah were very special people. Their tent was, in fact, open on all sides, and they lovingly accepted anyone who came their way into their tent. And the rabbis explain, by welcoming all human beings in to our community, it gives them the opportunity to be created anew, and made part of our Jewish family.
The time has come for us to fulfill our destiny as the children of Abraham, and to ensure that our tent is open on all sides; to remember that all human beings are created, as the book of Genesis says, b’Tzelem Elokim in the image of God, and thereby worthy of being welcomed into the joy, the simchah, the holiness, of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people—in any way that they can be. If they convert, then this is a joy, but if they don’t, then they still have a meaningful place of honor and respect ba’asher hem sham—to paraphrase the book of Genesis—as they are—karov eileinu, close to us, and among our people, no longer pushed away.
In the months and years ahead, you’ll be hearing more about our progress in the realm of Keruv. Our board, our ritual committee, our arms, will all be contemplating how we joyfully affirm who we are while ensuring that everyone has a place in the tent.
In the months and years ahead, may we all be blessed with the courage to approach our Jewish life with Chesed and Rachamim, with love and compassion, and may our hearts indeed be proud and strong and open to teach our children and our fellow community members about the joys and fulfillments of Jewish life. And may our community be known among the people of Israel as the Talmidav Shel Aharon Hakohen—the students, the disciples of Aharon the High Pirest: Ohev Shalom, v’rodef Shalom, Loving peace and wholeness, Oheiv et habriot umekarvan leTorah, loving all of God’s creatures, and bringing them all to the wisdom, the joy of Torah. Amen.