Sunday, January 25, 2009

A New Presidency, A New Era for Judaism

President Obama, at his inauguration, articulated a critical message for our times when he called for a new era of personal responsibility in how we live our lives. In many ways, Obama’s presidency is deeply symbolic of a great spiritual shift in our society. We’re moving from expectations of easier times and self-fulfillment to expectations of challenge, and joining together to fix a broken world. It’s an era of learning from past mistakes, of affirming integrity and working together for a common good.
There is a great hope right now that the Obama era will be an era of service, of participation in national programs that engage people in all walks of life to give of themselves. It’s very possible that we’re on the brink of a galvanized society and culture, with large segments of our society helping the underprivileged and transforming the face of local communities. We can potentially emerge from economic crisis with deeper connections with our neighbors in true bonds of community.
But we if we’re going to succeed in establishing this new kind of humane era, we have to get it right. We will have to come to grips with the fact that the economy isn’t the only thing that needs to transform—it’s the very souls of this generation of America. We have to remember that our times have been shaped by narcissism. A whole generation of young people has grown up in our society with the belief of entitlement, and personal success as an expectation. A whole generation is questioning its premises about life. A whole generation is realizing that a life lived for material gain only, a life that places ‘self esteem’ over self-respect is coming up void. So many young Americans are liable to be thrown into spiritual crisis because deeply held ideas of material happiness might not come to fruition. But in every experience of crisis and loss, there is an opportunity for growth. This new Obama era can best be served in the Jewish community when we, in responding to the sense of loss and fear in an economic downturn, turn to our tradition for guidance and new directions.
Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1:14). With these concise rhetorical questions, Hillel powerfully brings together notions of self-preservation with altruism in a way perfectly suited for our times. Indeed, Hillel’s teaching can give us all assurances that we were not evil in relishing our success and material optimism in the years leading up to this crisis. It is human nature for us to want the best for ourselves and our loved ones. Our only confusion was that, as a society, we fell out of balance. Leaner times can remind us that a life well-lived is one where we go beyond self-interest and remember the Other, the less privileged. I am for myself most fully when I am not only for myself, but living ultimately for the benefit of the Other. The challenge of our time (if not now, when?) is to teach a whole generation of Americans that the wisest path in life is this ‘middle way’ between self-interest and pure altruism.
It can be said that the whole of human history has been the struggle to learn this message. Perhaps now is a uniquely timed moment in our history where its wisdom can be truly understood. After all, a generation bred on self-interest, whose eyes have been opened to compassion has the potential to serve more deeply and passionately than past generations that have not been so privileged. Many rabbinic teachings on “Ba’alei T’Shuvah,” (those who Return to Torah) affirm this idea: to have known and then moved on from errant ways makes one a greater Tzadik (righteous person) because such a person has greater self-understanding and compassion.
In the organized Jewish community, we have to be front and center in this new era of Service. We have to make it very clear to this generation that all along, for countless centuries, we have been there as a mainstay of the greatest kind of service activities. We must remind people that the heart and soul of Judaism is not just about religious ‘services,’ but about lived service as well—acting in social justice, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for each other during times of need. We need to get the word out that synagogues and Jewish communities are the perfect place to find the sacred dimension in a life of service. We must remind a new generation that a society’s success is measured ultimately not by material success or cultural prowess, but by how it serves the ger, yatom, v’almanah, the stranger, the orphan, the widow—the defenseless in society.
Adas Israel can be very proud of its wonderful opportunities to rise to this era of service. For years, we have provided outstanding opportunities for social action, caring for the bereaved and the suffering, acting for social justice, and educating ourselves and others about critical issues that make the world a better place. We have consistently worked with and supported outstanding organizations like the Ezra’s Pantry, SOME (So Others Might Eat), Avodah (The Jewish Service Corps), and many other organizations. Now, more than ever, is a time to put our service opportunities front and center in our congregational life to meet the challenges of this new era.
The prophets and rabbis of old taught us long ago that the world we long for will not come about easily and painlessly. They taught us that the messianic ideal of a world-to-come, a world justice and peace and compassion will only come after hevlei haMashiach, the birth-pangs of the Messiah. I don’t know if the Messiah is coming yet, but as Jews, we must regard all times of societal crisis as hevlei haMashiach, as Messianic birth-pangs. A successful birth of the world that we want requires that we help each other make meaning of our pain, that we transform our experience and hardships into opportunities to be the human beings we long to be. May we indeed emerge from this crisis having birthed a society that truly embraces service and responsibility. And may we merit seeing the world we long for in our lifetimes.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Finding Peace Even in the Midst of War

Since the war has broken out in Gaza, many people have come to me expressing their deep concerns and anxieties about this war and about Israel’s future. I have heard many expressions of confusion, ambivalence, anger and frustration : ‘There’s nothing good that can come of this war.’ ‘This is just another outbreak in the cycle of violence.’ ‘Once again, the world isn’t giving Israel a break when Israel has no choice but to make war where innocent civilians have been deliberately put in harm’s way.’ ‘How is this going to make things better in the long run?’ ‘Too many innocent people are getting killed in the cross-fire, whether deliberately put in harm’s way by Hamas or not.’ In all of these expressions, I’m finding, once again, Jewish people in this country angry and feeling a sense of being isolated and hopeless in the world. Time and again, people ask me, ‘Rabbi, what should we do?’
And here’s my answer. To every expression of dismay and frustration, of sadness and fear, of anger and resentment—yes, I feel these things too. I feel both the plight of Israel, and I grieve at the loss of innocent Palestinian lives because of this terrible war and struggle. But I also go deep inside and I notice what is happening in my soul in reaction to this war. I see my fear and anger. I notice my desire for justice along with feelings of hatred for Hamas and for their allies in the Islamic world. And then I notice what those thoughts and feelings do to me. They tie me up in knots. They make me walk through the day with an undercurrent of fear and mistrust of the world. Those thoughts negatively affect the way I deal with people I encounter throughout the day. Eventually, I notice that when I react with anger and fear because there is war, the result is that I am at war. In my struggling and protesting against the Truth--that there is a very tragic war--that war is not just across the planet. It’s right here, in my own soul, in my own life, in every encounter I have with others right here at home as well. In a well-known Midrash, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi says,

‘How great is peace, for even if Israel practice idolatry but manage to maintain peace among themselves, the Holy One, blessed be He, says, so to speak, "I have no dominion over them"; for it is said, Ephraim is united in idol-worship; let him alone (Hosea 4:17). But when their hearts are divided, what is written? Their heart is divided; now shall they bear their guilt. (Ibid10: 2). So, here you learn how great is peace and how despised is discord (Breshit Rabbah 38:6).

It’s a strange and provocative Midrash. In the ancient mindset, idol worship was the lowest possible sin, a total betrayal of our love and devotion to the One True God. But here, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi teaches that greater even than idolatry itself is a people not at peace with one another, a ‘heart divided’ against itself. This midrash is a teaching about the importance of peace within the Jewish people. But embeded in this teaching is a very powerful wisdom that applies to each of us as individuals in how we relate to all people and circumstances. This world contains the inevitability of war and struggle. Each and every one of us longs for peace. If indeed we want to transform this world, then we must begin by ending the war within ourselves, within our own hearts.
The Truth is that this war is happening. It is the result of factors and conditions that have been in place for decades, if not centuries. Every time we rail against this war in our hearts, every time we fill our minds with anger and resentment at the fact that this war and its results are happening, all we are accomplishing is creating more war in our own lives, in our own hearts. I am not suggesting for a moment that we take on a passive and hopeless response to this war, that we throw up our arms because this war was inevitable. Not at all. I am only suggesting that we can do far more good in the world for Israel, for peace itself, if we begin from a place of being at peace with ourselves about the Reality of Israel’s circumstances, and the Reality of the world itself. Yes: Israel is in an impossible position. Yes: the Palestinians and much of the Islamic world feels victimized by the presence of Israel in its midst. Yes: war and the death of many innocents is unavoidable in Gaza and beyond right now. Yes to all of it. Why do I willingly say ‘yes’ to all of it? Because it is the undeniable Truth. It is Reality itself.
I have a choice, and so do we all in the face of Reality. We can be clenched up and angry and full of rage and hatred. Or we can be at peace with Reality, in all its terrible tragic Truth at this moment. Which choice will yield a better response to war and injustice in the world? There are those who believe that we won’t act sufficiently if we are not angry and worked up. I disagree. I believe that when we are at peace with ourselves, then we have the greater presence and poise and courage to speak out skillfully and with wisdom even against our detractors.
The 23rd Psalm is perhaps one of the greatest teachers of living life with an inner sense of peace that I know. It contains the words, ‘Ta’aroch lefanai shulchan neged tzorerai,’ “You (i.e. God) prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” It’s a stunning image: calmly, joyfully setting the table for a lavish feast even as our foes are right there poised for attack. It’s an image that is meant to confound our normal way of seeing the world. In the face of our enemies, we would naturally want to brandish our weapons, not set a table for a peaceful feast. But this peaceful response to a world of enemies is the more courageous act.
I don’t believe that this Psalm, or anything that I teach in this essay, is a call to pacifism. I am a great admirer of non-violence when it is the most just and appropriate response to circumstances. However, in circumstances like that which Israel faces today, the only appropriate response is war. But even with this Truth, I call upon each of us to ask ourselves: might we indeed be able to make a greater difference in the world as Jews, as supporters of Israel, when we end the violence in our thoughts, and in our hearts, even in the midst of this war? How might we see our enemies, and ourselves as Jews, as supporters of Israel, if we are not angry at the world, at the Palestinians, or at other Jews who disagree with us? Yes, there would most certainly be grief, pathos, and even a deep yearning for justice. But might indeed we be better able to act for justice and peace without rage in our own souls toward the world?

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: "The world is maintained by three things, by justice, by truth and by peace." Rav Muna said, "These three actually are one. If justice is present then truth is present and this makes peace. And all three are found in the same verse, as it is written, "Judge with the justice of truth and peace within your gates." Wherever there is justice there will be peace. And wherever there is peace there is justice. (Tractate Derekh Eretz)

If we yearn for peace and justice in Israel and in the world, then we must first embrace the Truth: A war may rage right now in Israel, with little that we can do to stop it or help Israelis and innocent Palestinians in harm’s way. What we can do now is to know and to accept this tragic Truth, and ceaselessly look for peace in our hearts and in the world; ceaselessly look for every opportunity to bring about justice for Israel and the world. With peace in our hearts and Truth in our minds, we can have the courage to stand for justice, to speak out for Israel and for peace, in whatever way we are called, whenever the opportunity arises.