Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Greatest Miracle

I am endlessly amazed by our great city. It is one of the most exciting places in the world to live. People in our congregation, people you run into any day on the streets around here, are committing to changing the world, and making it a better place. Perhaps that’s why it’s all the more shocking to realize that Washington DC is a city racked with terrible poverty and injustice. You wouldn’t know it walking around this lovely Northwest section of the District. But you only have to go a couple of miles from here, to other neighborhoods, and the city looks radically different: dangerous neighborhoods, crime, drugs, desperation. When you study the statistics, the numbers are staggering: one out of eight households in the District of Columbia struggles with hunger-related issues. The number of families on the foodstamp program in the District is at an all-time high, with 120,000 residents—one fifth of the population of this city—using foodstamps. In recent months, perhaps because of the economic downturn, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people needing food from local food banks and pantries. Some of these establishments are struggling to keep up with demands. Kristin Roberts is a community nutrition associate for DC Hunger Solutions, which is an advocacy and policy organization for federal food programs. In a recent publication from American University,[1] Roberts dispelled the myth that high demand for food only corresponds to the colder winter months. In many ways, she explained, it’s worse in the summer months because so many DC children don’t have access to inexpensive or free meal programs in the DC public school system. The problem is that bad. Hunger and dire poverty is not something just in Haiti or Africa or the Third World. It’s right here. It’s just a matter of blocks from here.

This week in the Torah, we have reached the end of the book of Genesis. We’re on the cusp of the end of the year. We have come through thanksgiving and Hanukkah. We are so grateful for blessings that we have as we reach endings and new beginnings: our lives, our health, the gifts we possess, the food on our table. In the Torah this week, we see a window into the Jewish notion of gratitude for life’s blessings. We all understand gratitude. It is one of the most noble of human responses to life’s goodness. In Hebrew, we call it Hakarat HaTov, which literally means ‘recognition of the Good.’ But in Judaism, gratitude goes far beyond a simple full-hearted recognition. As with all things, Judaism sees in gratitude a powerful call to action. In the Torah, we read the famous moment where the dying old Jacob blesses his beloved son Joseph through Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. In his blessing, Jacob says, “The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, God who had been my Shepherd from the day of my birth until this day,” “HaMalakh HaGo’el oti mikol ra,” “The angel who has redeemed me from all harm – bless these lads.” (Gen. 46:33)

In this famous and powerful blessing, we find the core of the blessing that parents have blessed sons with for thousands of years at the Shabbat table—“Yesimcha Elohim k’Ephraim v’chi Menasheh,” “May God make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.” That blessing began with Jacob’s expression of gratitude to God for having survived so much hardship, so much travail, to be reunited with his beloved son Joseph, to live to see his grandsons saved from hunger and starvation when famine had plagued the land. And yet, when we contemplate this blessings, there is something strange about it. First, Jacob recognizes God who has been his protection, but then he also recognizes the ‘malakh hago’el,’ the saving Angel. Is the angel just another way of referring to God, or is he saying he has had two protectors in his life?

In the Talmud,[2] our ancient sages teach that indeed, Jacob seems to refer to two different kinds of protection in this blessing. Rabbi Yochanan taught the following: “ Fending off hunger is more difficult than redemption. How do we know that? Redemption, explains Rabbi Yochanan, requires only the assistance of an angel, as it says, “HaMalakh HaGo’el oti mikol ra,” “The Angel who saved me from all harm.” Fending off hunger, on the other hand, requires direct divine intervention, as it says, “God who has been my shepherd.”

In this fascinating teaching, Rabbi Yochanan makes a radical claim: that putting food on your table is a greater miracle than Redemption itself! In Judaism, we typically think of Ge’ulah, of Redemption as the greatest kind of miracle. The redemption from slavery in Egypt, redemption from captivity, redemption from any kind of dire straits the Jewish people have known at the hands of tyrants and oppressors throughout our history—all of these great redemptions, according to Rabbi Yochanan, take a back seat to the miracle of ending hunger itself. Any act of redemption from oppression, says Rabbi Yochanan, is something that God could simply send an angel to carry out if God wanted. But ending hunger, this requires the direct and miraculous hand of God! The implications of this teaching are enormous.

Think about what Jacob experienced in his life. He had lived in exile from his home, and he is thankful and grateful for sending him an angel of Redemption who brought him out of harms way. But Jacob also lived through a devastating famine. All food disappeared. But it wasn’t just a rescuing angel, it was God who turned the wheel of fate itself and placed his son Joseph at Pharaoh’s right hand to set about a complex chain of miraculous conditions that saved him from that hunger. It wasn’t just one redeeming act or angel that saved him, it was a mind-boggling process of twists and turns of life’s journey that miraculously brought him and his family up from the jaws of almost certain death of starvation. And for this, he is grateful only to God. Only a God could give him a blessing of this awesome magnitude.

What’s true for Jacob is true for you and for me. There is no greater miracle than the fact that we, through forces way beyond our control or influence, are able to have food on our tables three meals a day. If you want proof that there is, indeed, a God, look no further than your full belly after any meal you have today. You and I have been blessed more than any words can say. How many countless conditions have come together to enable us to enjoy the blessings that we have at this moment? The fact that we have been born to the families that we have, in the time and place in history that we have been born into; the fact that we have had access to the kinds of education and opportunities that we have had. Any of these individual conditions have been our “redeeming angels.” But when we put it all together, this is God giving us the gift of our lives.

The vast majority of the world, as well as the people who live just a matter of blocks away from us, haven’t had these angels to redeem them. They haven’t yet felt the hand of God feeding them in the ways that they need. And so, our very essence and purpose in the world is to be the bnai Yisrael, the children of Israel—the descendants of Jacob. Our purpose is our Hakarat HaTov, our recognition, like Jacob himself, of the goodness and blessings and redemptions that we have been given so that we can be the redeeming angels for those who have not yet been blessed. Collectively, our greatest purpose is to be the very hand of God acting in the world to bring the greatest miracle of all—the end to hunger and poverty and injustice in this world.

Thank God, here at Adas Israel, we have our Ezra Pantry food collection and our partnership with SOME, So Others Might Eat. We have our Anne Frank House that provides housing for the homeless, as well as our partnership with other food collection agencies like Project Isaiah, as well as our partnership with N Street Village on Christmas Day and throughout the year. And there are many other fine organizations and opportunities as well through our congregational community, and either I or Rabbi Feinberg will be happy to talk to you further about getting involved in our Tikkun Olam, Repair the World, projects.

For the Jewish people, gratitude for life’s blessings is only the beginning. Our gratitude for our Torah, for our blessings, for God’s deliverance of us, is our motivation to take action to transform this world. May, indeed, our gratitude be our gift that we share with all those in our midst, and around the world, who do not yet feel that gratitude. May God continue to bless us with all that is good, and may all the peoples of this world come to know that goodness as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Evolution of Hanukkah

Perhaps you have heard some Jews laugh and brush off Hanukkah: “If only people knew how relatively minor and insignificant Hanukkah is,” they say, “they would never make such a big deal of it.” Have you ever heard this before: “It’s not that Hanukkah isn’t important—of course, it’s an important holiday about a miraculous victory of the Maccabbees,” they say. “It’s just that, compared to major holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach, Hanukkah can’t—if you’ll excuse the expression—hold a candle!” I grew up hearing this message about Hanukkah, that it’s a nice, pretty holiday, but it’s not that important. And implied in this is the rather guilt-provoking message: You know, Jews of America, if you were more serious about your commitment to observance, you’d know that Hanukkah is getting more press than it deserves. And more than this, the secret that we Jews have to acknowledge is that the only reason Hanukkah gets all the attention it does is because of Christmas. All the Jewish kids who were jealous of their Christian friends getting presents resulted in the mass marketing of Hanukkah right alongside Christmas. So we Jews get to feel guilty, not only because we’re not observant enough, but also because we’re just copying Christians. We can all feel guilty because, ironically, Hanukkah, the holiday that is all about resisting assimilation, has become the purest expression of American assimilation.

We have to acknowledge that there’s some truth in all of this. But it’s only partial truth. As time goes by, I see a deeper message in the American Jewish experience of Hanukkah. Hanukkah really is a beautiful holiday about miracles, about victory against all odds, about the triumph of the spirit, about lighting up the darkness. But for so many Jews today, Hanukkah has more nuances and layers of meaning. In more and more houses, you see Hanukkah menorahs proudly displayed next to Christmas trees. And I mean proudly. Hanukkah, more and more, is evolving a message that it didn’t have in generations past: it’s a way of affirming the meaning of Jewish identity in the uniquely accepting multiculturalism of 21st-century America.

Generations ago, in the old country, our ancestors proudly placed menorahs in their windows as an act of defiance and courage. The outside world, symbolized by the darkness of this time of year, was an unsafe and rejecting place of anti-Semitic violence and betrayal. The message was clear: We stood up for who we are, and despite the hatred of the surrounding nations, despite their overwhelming strength and numbers, we prevailed. But it’s different now, here in America. The menorah now isn’t so much shining out into the dark night as it is illuminating the home within. More and more Jews aren’t observant. They might not believe in God. And yet, they will light that menorah. They will sing the dreidel songs with their children, they’ll make the latkes. Why? Because being Jewish matters to most American Jews. It’s something we’re proud of. Even if Kashrut and Shabbat haven’t found a way into the family’s home observances, Hanukkah works! It is accessible, powerful, and beautiful. Its message can be seen clearly in both its particularist and universalist dimensions. Both conventional and intermarried families can fully access this wonderful way to celebrate Jewishness.

We’re witnessing the evolution of Jewish observance in America. What’s happening before our eyes, frankly, is what has happened with all Jewish holidays over the centuries: they evolve. They take on new dimensions of meaning depending on the social and cultural conditions within which the Jews find themselves. And the new, American-Jewish dimension of Hanukkah is truly magnificent. Its message is: Here we are! We have made it in America! We’re really an accepted, successful, beloved people in this wonderful blessing of a society that is America.Our lives are multifaceted. Our choices for who to be and how to be are infinitely more complex than those of our ancestors. We are Jewish, yes, but we are also secular in many ways. We have access to multiple belief systems that we hold in the cognitive dissonance of our identities. We’re more and more intermarried. And yet, despite it all, the light of who we are as Jews has not gone out. To the contrary, it burns stronger and stronger. Our Jewish heritage, while so different now from what it was for our grandparents, is something we will proudly pass to our children.

In this day and age, in 2010—5771—Hanukkah truly is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It is a cause for wild celebration. It is the shining light that reminds us that, despite dire predictions a generation ago, assimilation and intermarriage are not the death knell of the Jewish people. We are alive and well and proud to be who we are. It’s just that who we are is different now from what we were before. And this evolution of our people is good. It is a miracle. So this year, enjoy Hanukkah. Celebrate the light no matter who you are, whether observant, or secular, or not even Jewish. And while you’re celebrating, remember its message: that the spirit of this remarkable people is a light that burns brighter all the time, promising to be an ever-evolving blessing for generations to come.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Spirit of Israel

It’s very difficult to open the newspaper these days and not feel depressed and overwhelmed. I recently read how the national economy is inexorably careening toward ruin. By the year 2020, he writes, the United States will need to pay one trillion dollars a year just to keep up with interest on the national debt. The national leadership here in Washington looks forward to years of partisan politics and struggle over basic issues of taxation and healthcare. There seems to be no end in sight for on-going struggles in Israel and the Middle East. What are we supposed do to do when we come up against news like this—on a daily basis? We understand that each of us has a responsibility to do something to help our country, our society, our planet. But in this fast-paced, globalizing world, it’s all coming at us so fast. It’s hard to resist the reaction of simply going numb, into denial rather than face the onslaught of unthinkably frightening prospects for us and for the world. How can we, indeed, respond to the news of so much fear and decline in our society and our world? And, more basically, how can we possibly have hope, and find the strength to face life in any kind of positive way? Is there, in fact, any glimmer of hope at all in such a seemingly depressing world? The answer I want to share is today is, yes: indeed, there is reason for extraordinary hope and even optimism. When we learn and live by the spiritual messages handed down to us by our Jewish tradition, hope truly becomes our birthright.

In this week’s parashah, we read the extraordinary story of Jacob’s homecoming to the land of Canaan. He has spent the past decades living in exile in Haran, having run away years before from his brother Esau’s murderous wrath after Jacob stole Esau’s blessing of the first born from their father, Isaac. As Jacob arrives back home, he is filled with an overwhelming sense of dread and doom, as he approaches his destiny. Finally, Jacob must confront what he has feared his whole life—his brother, who likely will kill him for his past sins. And indeed, he learns that Esau is to meet him with a hundred armed men with him the next day. This is it. “Vayira Ya’akov me’od,” Jacob was filled with dread for what tomorrow is likely to bring. He sends his whole family and all his possessions across the river Yavok, and there, in the darkness of night, Jacob is left all alone, seething with anxiety. And there, he wrestles all night with a mysterious angel. And yet, despite the darkness and dread, Jacob doesn’t give up on this mysterious fight. He is profoundly wounded right in the groin, and still he doesn’t give up. Finally, as dawn is breaking on what might be the day of Jacob’s death, Jacob still won’t let the angel go, until the angel blesses him. And the angel finally blesses him, and says his name will now be Yisrael, for he has striven with beings divine and human, and has prevailed. And this mysterious story ends in an odd way: it says that because of Jacob’s wound in his groin, to this day, the children of Israel do not eat the gid hanashe, the tendon that is right on the thigh muscle in remembrance of Jacob’s wound. And this is why, by the way, the cut of ‘fillet mignon’ beef is not kosher down to this very day.

It’s a dark and mysterious story about dread and fear and doom and wounds that we never forget. And that strange reference to the gid hanashe—fillet mignon. Why is it important for us to remember this moment in this particular way? Our ancient rabbinic sages put forth many different theories about the meaning of that command not to eat the thigh muscle. The Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, point out that this command is important because Jacob’s thigh wound is obviously a symbol of future offspring of Jacob’s loins, born of wounds and conflicts: we must always remember the struggles and wounds that are our very essence as Jacob’s descendants—that we must never forget our ancient wounds even as we strive to transcend them. Other commentators, however, notice another level of meaning in that command not to eat the thigh muscle. Abarbanel, a medieval commentator, points out that, yes, Jacob was wounded, but let’s also notice that he overcame his wound and lived on despite all his fears! The S’forno similarly writes that we refrain from eating the thigh muscle because indeed, Jacob healed. Ultimately, he won the battle!

There’s an ancient tradition among the Jewish people: ma’aseh avot, siman lebanim: the deeds of the ancestors, the forefathers, are a sign-post of what will be for their descendants. This story of Jacob’s homecoming is a story about fear and almost certain doom, and yet—unexpectedly, miraculously--it is, when it is all said and done, a story about a spiritual victory. After that dark night, the Torah reads: “Vayizrach lo hashemesh ka’asher avar et p’nu’el v’hu solea al y’reicho,” “The sun rose upon [Jacob] as he passed Penu’el (the sight of the wrestling-match), limping on his hip.” Jacob came through the darkness and the dread and the struggle—yes limping, but alive. The sun rose and shone for him in the new dawn. The rising sun is an eternal symbol of new hope, of redemption and renewal, for him, and for all future offspring of Jacobs—despite all evidence to the contrary, despite all darkness, there was the sun, and he would yet live after all! He went forward, he limped on. He met with his brother, and his brother didn’t kill him. Somehow, he went on, however wounded he was along the way.

With this insight, some of our greatest rabbinic commentaries see a message of hope for all future generations. The Shem Mishmu’el, for example, teaches that Jacob’s wound stands as a sign-post for all future times of darkness and despair for the children of Israel: it doesn’t matter how profoundly we will be wounded. The sun will yet shine on us again and we will go forward. Rabbi Samson Rapha’el Hirsch, a great 19th century rabbi, further taught that we don’t eat the gid haneshe as an eternal reminder: despite the wound, despite the pain, Jacob kept struggling! He kept fighting. He kept going forward. He didn’t give up. And so we, the Jewish people, must live this profound message: no matter what the pain, the wound, no matter what the physical limitation, we have within us a spirit to prevail, so long as we remember never to stop struggling toward life and life’s potential for blessing and goodness itself.

Our very namesake, Yisrael, the name conferred on Jacob at this moment, means that he struggled with beings divine and human, and prevailed. Our namesake, our spiritual message to all the world is the very message that we need today in this world of so many overwhelming and depressing headlines: never give up the struggle toward life, toward the sunlight, toward blessing and goodness and justice. Never. You never know: the sun may yet arise, and life will greet us, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This spirit of survival, this very wound on Jacob’s goin, is the spirit that has sustained us and allowed us to survive through century upon century of so much pain and adversity. It is a great light that we, the Jewish people, can bring to this nation and to the world. The newspaper headlines tell us that we may yet face adversity that may even wound us. But we go on. Limping all the way perhaps, we move on toward the sunlight. When we persevere, darkness gives way to blessing. This is how the world truly works. It doesn’t matter what the darkness: be it the economy or politics or war. It doesn’t matter how much we suffer, or how much we fear we may suffer. There is a blessing for us in the future. Struggle for it. Never let go of that faith. May we bring this message, the root spirit of the Jewish people, to be a blessing not just to us, but to all the peoples of this nation, and the world. And may we find the light of blessing in this world speedily and in good time.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Blessing of the Forbidden Fruit

There is something eternally fascinating about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We are endlessly amazed by Adam and Eve’s foolhardy giving-in to temptation and eating of the forbidden fruit. In many ways, it’s the perfect story. Every time we circle back to it, there’s some part of us that wants to shout out to Eve—‘don’t do it!’ It’s an eternally relevant story because we know that we’re just like Adam and Eve. Somehow, just like them, we eat of that Tree too, despite our better judgment: we mess up, we stumble over ourselves, we fail—just missing the perfection we almost had. It’s also a perfect story because it allows us to get angry at God: what was God thinking? Why put that tree right there in the Garden and then forbid it? It’s the perfect set-up! It’s the proverbial placing-of-the-cookie-jar right in front of innocent hands and eyes, after all. And yet, despite the maddening frustration of this story, it is the perfect typology for our human condition. Plumb the depths of the Tree of Knowledge, and you unlock the key to what it means to be human.

In the Talmud in Sanhedrin (38a), there’s a story told of how God created various groups of ministering angels just as God was about to create humankind. To the first group of angels, he asked, “Na’aseh et ha’adam betzalmenu?” “Shall we make humankind in our image?” “What will be his deeds?” the angels ask. “Well,” said God, “he’ll do this and that [this good deed, and that sin], etc.” Indignantly, the angels said ‘What is man that Thou are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:5) [In other words, why bother to create such a fallible, sinning creature in your image, O God!]. What did God do? God stretched out his little finger and consumed all those angels with fire. The same scenario happened all over again when God created a second chorus of ministering angels. Finally, a third group of angels said, “The whole world is Yours, and whatever You wish to do therein, do it.” When God came to the generation of the flood and to the generation of the dispersion of mankind, whose deeds were so corrupt, the angels said: ‘Lord of the universe, did not the first [company of angels] speak justly [when they said, ‘don’t bother creating humankind?] God retorted “Ad ziknah…ad seivah ani esbol…” “Until old age…until gray hair I will put up [with humankind].(Isaiah 46:4)”

This wonderful and important midrash says it all: God has absolutely no patience even for his ministering angels who would talk good sense to God: why create human beings so very fallible, so prone to temptation, to sin, even to evil itself?! Even to the point of wiping out the world and starting over again, God here remains steadfast to one thing, to humankind just as we are, in all our fallible glory. If we put this midrash together with the Garden of Eden story of the Torah, we see that our destiny was never to stay in that Garden of perfection. The poignant irony of our humanity is that somewhere, way back in our primordial psyche, we know that we once had a taste of perfection, but perfection was never our destiny. Banishment from the Garden is our destiny. Imperfection is our destiny. Loss and separation is our destiny. And yet, somehow, that Garden, despite its flaming swords blocking our re-entry, always beckons for us to yearn to come home once again someday…

The Tanzer rebbe used to tell a story about himself: “In my youth, when I was fired with the love of God, I thought I would convert the whole world to God. But soon, I discovered it would be quite enough to convert the people who lived in my town, and I tried for a long time, but I did not succeed. Then I realized that my program was still much too ambitious, and I concentrated on the persons in my own household. But I could not convert them either. Finally, it dawned on me: I must work upon myself, so that I may give true service to God... But I did not accomplish even this.”[1]

Oy! What’s brilliant about this story, like so many great Hasidic stories, is that it builds you up, and then defies expectation. We would all like to think that the Tanzer rebbe finally figured out the great path of wisdom: mend your own soul, find your own happiness, your own inner perfection. But no: we get no satisfaction from this story. Even this great Tzadik couldn’t quite manage it. It looks like there’s nothing but utter failure for him, and for all of us—or is there indeed? Not quite. What the Tanzer rebbe doesn’t say is ever-more profound than what he does say. There’s an unspoken insight in this story that the rebbe knows, that each of us must discover for ourselves, and that insight begins when we probe the story of the Tree of Knowledge itself.

When we investigate Kabbalah, the treasure-trove of Jewish mystical insights, we learn something astonishing. R. Ezra ben Solomon of Gerona wrote a Midieval kabbalistic text known as Sod Etz HaDa’at (The Secret of the Tree of Knowledge). In this text, Ezra ben Solomon reminds us that there are not one, but two forbidden trees in the Garden: the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. And yet, while these trees appear as two separate trees in the story, they are actually one entity. They represent the two polarities of human nature itself: the Tree of Life represents what we call our Yetzer HaTov, our Inclination to goodness and altruism and compassion. The Tree of Knowledge on the other hand, represents what we call our Yetzer HaRa, our propensity to selfishness, to arrogance, to evil. Gershom Scholem, a great scholar of Jewish mysticism explains: “[The two Trees] grow from a common root, in which masculine and feminine, the giving and the receiving, the creative and the reflective, are one. Life and knowledge are not to be torn asunder form one another: they must be seen and realized in their unity.”[2]

But of course, what did Adam and Eve do? What do we all do? We can’t resist the urge to eat of the tree that’s all about temptation. We throw that harmony, that unity, out of balance. But it can’t be any other way. It’s the nature of our Yetzer HaRa, our ‘Evil Urge.’ It’s the part of us that seeks disharmony, that is tantalized by what’s just beyond our reach. But remember, this so-called Evil Urge, isn’t ultimately “evil.” It’s ultimately not separate from our so-called Good Urge. It’s the part of us that always seeks and strives. It’s the part of us that always endeavors to understand, to probe, to move beyond the apparent limits of our experience. It is the source of our lusts and desires and addictions, yes, but also of our very creativity, our drive to overcome and to transcend. It is part of what makes our humanity so noble, so much more than other creatures of this world. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, and they woke up to the condition of the human mind, a mind that experiences a world of separations and dualities: male and female, giving and receiving, good and evil. The fruit of that tree is what makes us essentially human, as beings with a mind and heart that experience such heights of spirit and insight, as well as depths of despair and travail.

This brings us back to the Tanzer rebbe. He realized, finally, that even the striving to perfect himself was a failure. Is this a depressing story? Is this a story meant to leave us in despair? No. It’s just the opposite. He realized, once and for all, that the very desire to perfect—whether it’s the world, his town, or himself—is all the same desire: it’s the Yetzer HaRa. It’s all Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree over and over again. He realized that his human condition is defined by that yearning and striving, and never quite making it. The Tanzer rebbe’s fallibility is all of our fallibility. We are all limited by our very humanity that makes life worth living in the first place. We are all defined by our magnificent minds that weave our endless stories about our striving to overcome the dualities of me verses you, good verses evil, separation verses homecoming. The story of Adam and Eve and the Tree is the first such story of duality and separation and yearning. Every other story of every other human being since then is just another version of the same Adam and Eve story. The story of your life is also a story of separation and the yearning for a return.

But the final, unspoken irony of the Adam and Eve story; the final unspoken irony in the Tanzer rebbe’s story of all our stories, is that when we eat of that tree and slip into the drama of separation and loss and yearning—in Truth, that tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and that Tree of Life, and that whole Garden, is still there, still in its natural, simple, harmonious perfection. It still lives within you. It’s just that now, you have eaten the fruit, so you can’t perceive the simple harmony and perfection so easily anymore. But that Garden never went away. It’s still there. It’s still ‘in here.’ It never left you. The deepest, most poignant message of Adam and Eve and the Garden, is that you really are okay. Despite your mistakes, despite your limits, despite your worst failures—God will stay with you ‘ad ziknah, ad seivah,’ ‘until old age, until gray hair,’—your very fallibility is your purpose. Enter deeply into that fallibility, accept it with all your heart, and the Tree of Life, and the Garden itself, once again becomes your birthright. May we all merit this great insight into our humanity. May each of us finally come to the wisdom that our eating of that fruit is our greatest blessing.

[1] Buber, Late Masters, p. 214.

[2] Scholem, On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead, p. 70.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seeing the Good

There’s a true story told by Jacques Lusseyran, a member of the French Resistance during World War II who was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald. While there, he was put in Prison block 57, a building meant to hold no more than 400 men, but which housed over a thousand men, literally pressed together with no room even to lie down. It was, of course, a living nightmare—daily beatings, brutal slave labor, and no place even to sleep with decency. Even so, explains Lusseyran, there was one old man in block 57 who managed to move around—all the men instinctively gave him a tiny bit of space, in some kind of gesture of reverence. The old man’s name was Jeremy, but his nickname was ‘Socrates,’ because somehow whenever he opened his mouth, the simplest most beautiful words and stories of wisdom emerged. Unlike all the other men, who often screamed and fought and cried out in anguish, this Jeremy, this ‘Socrates’ was always peaceful. Lusseyran writes, “He observed things of the spirit with his eyes, as doctors observe microbes through their microscopes. He made no distinction.” In other words, matters of spirit were patently obvious for him. He was not a remarkable man, a simple welder from a small village in France. But there was something about his simple wisdom, “Each time he appeared, “ wrote Lusseyran, “the air became breathable.” What made Jeremy so remarkable was that he could walk about the camp, and see all the misery that everyone else beheld, and somehow Jeremy did not blink. When all the other men were stricken with horror and terror and wanted to shut their eyes, Jeremy was not afraid to see.

Lusseyran relates one teaching in particular of Jeremy’s that struck him: “For one who knows how to see,” Jeremy said, “things [here] are just as they always are.” “At first I did not understand,” wrote Lusseyran, “I even felt something quite close to indignation. What? Buchenwald like ordinary life? Impossible. All of these crazed, hideous men, the howling menace of death, these enemies everywhere, among the S.S., among the prisoners themselves, this wedge of hill pushed up against the sky, thick with smoke…the electric fences, all of this was just as usual! I remember that I could not accept this. It had to be worse…Until finally Jeremy enabled me to see…”[i]

The Torah tells us the famous story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. God calls to Abraham and says ‘Take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on one of the mountains that I will show you.’ Abraham rises early in the morning, takes his wood and knife and fire and his son on a three-day’s journey, climbs the mountain, lifts the knife, and almost sacrifices his son were it not for a heavenly voice that calls out to forbid him from harming the child. We have long wondered about the brutal betrayal that this story seems to pose to us: how could Abraham even think to heed God’s command—even if it is a test—and show any kind of willingness to slay his own child? What kind of a God, we wonder, would demand this kind of willingness as a test of faith and loyalty?

This story is truly a horrifying one. In fact, it’s there, in the Torah, to horrify us, to shake us to our core, to question our fundamental beliefs about life, about God. We’re supposed to struggle so profoundly with this story until finally we come to realize the nature of the test: it’s not Abraham alone who is tested, it is each of us who are tested! And here’s the test: like Jeremy, like those inmates at Buchenwald, can we look at our worst possible nightmare and not blink? Can we find the peace within ourselves so deeply that we are not afraid to see?...

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, before we read the Binding of Isaac, we read the story of Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, and her son Yishma’el (Abraham’s first-born son). The story goes that when Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Yishmael be banished from their household. With great trepidation, and yet with God’s directive, Abraham sends Hagar away with her son in to the desert. After wandering for days in the desert, mother and child run out of water and out of hope. Hagar lays her parched child down to die, and she goes off and weeps in utter despair. But then, a heavenly voice calls out to Hagar, “Mah Lach Hagar?” “What’s with you Hagar?” God has heard the cry of the child. Lift him, for he will be a great nation. And God ‘unclosed [Hagar’s] eyes’ and behold there was a well right there, and she hadn’t even noticed it before! Isn’t that amazing? She was so despairing, she didn’t even notice, as she placed her child down to die of thirst, that a well was right there in front of them! Despair closed her eyes. Despair can do that to all of us—it can close our eyes and utterly blind us to the life-giving waters that we need.

It was with this insight in mind, that Rashi and the Bekhor Shor, two great medieval commentators, pointed out something brilliant in that story of the Binding of Isaac. If you look carefully at the Hebrew of God’s command to Abraham about his son, it says “v’Ha’aleyhu Le’olah,” which literally means, “bring him up there for an elevating.” In other words, God never literally says ‘slaughter him,’ God just says ‘bring him up for the offering.’ But the expression was vague enough to be totally unclear to Abraham. Trapped in the uncertainty of God’s command, he sets out with his son and the accoutrements for the unthinkable—for child sacrifice—but look what Abraham says to Isaac when Isaac innocently asks him, “Father, I see the fire and the wood, but where is the ram for the offering?’ Abraham says “Elokim Yir’eh lo haSeh le’olah, bni.” “God will show us the ram for the offering, my son.” In other words, ‘we will see a ram, my son, mark my words.’ Abraham knew all along that God would not kill his child. Unlike Hagar, who closed her eyes in despair, Abraham never closed his eyes. He never blinked. As much as it looked like the unthinkable, the death of his child, was becoming imminent, Abraham was not afraid to see

Reb Meir was a Hasid of Reb Mordechai of Lechovitch. He was also the occasional business partner of Reb Gershon, who was a devout Misnaged—he hated the Hasidim and their radical teachings. Reb Meir was always inviting his misnaged friend to join him on his many visits to his rebbe, but Reb Gershon’s hatred of Hasidism was so strong that he could never consent to visiting his partners rebbe. Not wishing to hurt the feelings of his friend, he would find many reasons to explain why travel to Lechovitch was out of the question. It once happened, however, that separate business matters brought both men to Lechovitch on the same day. Discovering that his friend would be in town at the same time as himself, Reb Meir once again invited Reb Gershon to visit his rebbe. Seeing no way out that would not be offensive to Reb Meir, Reb Gershon agreed.

When the two men arrived at Reb Mordechai’s house, they were ushered into the rebbe’s dining room, where he was just beginning to eat his dinner. Reb Meir urged his friend to speak to the rebbe, to ask a question, to say something, but Reb Gershon—the cranky Hasid-hater-- was suddenly in a state of pure ecstasy, and he couldn’t even speak as he stared at the rebbe. After a few minutes, they left the rebbe’s house. Reb Meir said to his friend, “What just happened to you in there?” Reb Gershon said, “I saw the rebbe eating with the holiness of the Kohen Gadol [the ancient High Priest of all Israel]!” Shocked, Reb Meir turned from his friend and ran back into the house to his rebbe. When he arrived he said, “Rebbe, here I come to see you as often as I can, and never have I seen the way you serve the Holy One, Blessed Be He. And yet my misnaged friend comes for a minute, under duress, and he sees the miracle of your eating. Is this fair?”

The rebbe said, “It is not about fairness, my friend. Your friend is a misnaged; he has to see the Truth with his own eyes. You, on the other hand, are a Hasid; you have to trust even what you cannot see with your eyes.”

I bring all these stories today: the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald, the story of the Binding of Isaac, the story of Hagar, the story of Reb Meir—because they all have one thing in common: they’re all about seeing. They’re about what we see, and what we cannot see. They’re all about trusting, and not being afraid—that even when we can’t see it, this world, this Reality of ours, as nightmarish as it appears, is ultimately good. Some of us, sometimes like Reb Gershon the misnaged, can see that good directly. Most of us are like Hagar, and we despair of ever ultimately seeing the good. But Reb Meir, and each of us, is called upon to see with Jeremy’s eyes, and with Abraham’s eyes—to see beyond the nightmare.

Two psychologists named Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons recently wrote a book called “The Invisible Gorilla.” In it, they describe numerous experiments that seem to prove that the way we perceive reality is not as absolute as we think it is. The most amusing experiment involved asking subjects to view a short film where a group of people are passing basketballs back and forth between each other. The subjects’ assignment is simply to count the number of basketball passes and report what they counted. At the end of the experiment, they are asked, ‘Did you notice anything unusual while watching the film?’ Fifty percent of the subjects said no. That’s pretty amazing because if you watch the film again, right as the people are passing the basketball around, someone in a gorilla suit ambles right into the middle of the room. The gorilla pounds its chest a couple of times, and then slowly ambles out of the room. The fifty percent who didn’t see the gorilla were usually incredulous. And yet, they just missed it because they didn’t expect to see it. Our minds often don’t see at all what we don’t expect to see. Fifty percent of the time, any of us are like Hagar. We’re blinded by expectations, by our fears, by our despair itself.

But what’s amazing is that Abraham while was walking up that mountainside with his son, he, too, couldn’t see—visually—any sign of hope yet for his son. And yet, there was something in him that kept his eyes open in search of that ram. Something in him, as Reb Mordechai showed us, trusted even what you or I might not see with the naked eye…

Back to the story of Jeremy in Buchenwald: our author, Jacques Lusseyran, could not imagine why Jeremy would say “For one who knows how to see, things [here in Buchenwald] are just as they always are,” until finally Jeremy enabled Jacques to see. Lusseyran writes, “It was not a revelation, a flashing discovery of the truth. I don’t think there was even an exchange of words. But one day it became obvious, palpable to me in the flesh that Jeremy the welder had lent me his eyes…With those eyes, I saw that Buchenwald was not unique, not even privileged to be one of the places of greatest human suffering. I also saw that our camp was not in Germany, as we thought…in this precise place and no other. Jeremy taught me, with his eyes, that Buchenwald was in each one of us, baked and rebaked, tended incessantly, nurtured in a horrible way. And that, consequently we could vanquish it, if we desired to with enough force. Jeremy had always seen people living in fear…It was always, it was here [too], the same spectacle. Simply, the conditions [here in the camp] had been completely fulfilled…a masterpiece, a perfect sickness and misery: a concentration camp.”

What indeed did Jacques Lusseyran see when he looked at Buchenwald with Jeremy’s eyes? Yes, he saw Buchenwald. He saw the starvation, the suffering, the brutality, the death everywhere. He saw the same nightmare that everyone else could see. But he could also see something that only a very few—Jeremy, Abraham, Moses, King David, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luthor King Jr.—could see. He could see that the nightmare of Buchenwald, or the nightmare of Abraham’s world of child sacrifice, was not the final nightmare of this world that God has created. Lusseyran looked at Buchenwald and saw that it was not just one particular place. He saw that there are people—the Hagars of the world—who create and recreate Buchenwald everywhere they go. Everywhere they see enemies closing in, they have eyes only for the darkness, for the suffering, for the reasons not to trust. And even though God is giving us wells flowing with life-giving water everywhere, in every moment, we’re blind to them. We can’t even see the gorilla in the room because we have so conditioned ourselves never to expect to see beyond our own projected nightmares and despairing beliefs about the world, about life, about God.

It seems so difficult to believe or even hold onto this message of hope—that this world of ours is indeed good. No matter how we read it, the story of the Binding of Isaac disturbs us to our core, as does every aspect of the Holocaust; as does every story of misery we tell ourselves. The story of Jeremy ends simply and tragically. One day, Jeremy came to Lusseyran and told him that this would be the last time they would see each other. That was it. Several days passed, and someone told Lusseyran that Jeremy had died there in the camp, in Buchenwald. That’s what it was like in the camps. People died every day. That’s how it is for us here in our world too. Is this a reason to despair, to close our eyes to this world? Certainly not. For Lusseyran, Jeremy showed him a profound vision of the Truth: “the discovery that God is there, in each person, to the same degree, completely in each moment, and that a return can be made to Him.”

Jeremy and Abraham and Reb Mordechai, and all the great spiritual teachers of the world share with us this message that each of our souls thirst for like those life-giving waters that saved Yishmael: that the nature of this world—in each and every moment—is so vastly more amazing and beautiful and extraordinary than anything that our little eyes can see. Our minds are structured only to see, to perceive, that which we have been conditioned to perceive. For most of us, that conditioning is all about fear and mistrust. But look deeper! Right now, there are countless blessings that are keeping you alive, sustaining you, bringing you from moment to moment! Yes, there are enemies and threats and problems and injustices that we must work against in this world, but keep looking more deeply. In this moment, this life of ours, is nothing but miracles unfolding for us. If you don’t see what I’m talking about, keep your eyes and your heart open, keep looking till you find the miracles that are all about you, all within you, within each of us.

We must never shut our eyes. We must never be afraid to look. What’s really there is, believe it or not, is kind. What’s really there is the potential for justice. What’s always really there is the potential for infinite goodness. What’s really there, beyond what we see merely with our eyes—is God! When that Divine voice called to Abraham to put down his knife, he lifted up his eyes, and behold, there was a ram with its horn stuck in the thicket. Abraham had told his son the Truth. He had trusted the goodness that even his eyes could not yet see—God would really provide a ram to be seen! When Abraham left that fateful spot there on the time of Mount Moriah, he named the place after his experience: ‘Adonai Yir’eh,’ which literally means: God will appear. God will be seen. May we all learn this, the deepest wisdom of this story, of our tradition. It is the light that we, the Jewish people, must bring to the nations of the world itself: that despite all apparent proof to the contrary, we must always look. We must always see. We must never give up—even when there is violence, betrayal, and death. We must keep our eyes open and never despair, for indeed, Adonai Yir’eh—God will be seen. The goodness, the kindness is really there, even more deeply and truly than the apparent nightmare that we may behold. That goodness is always right here. Right now. In this year, may each of us truly look and behold this Truth, and may we, like Abraham, be a blessing to the world.

[i] Jacques Lusseyran, “Le Monde Commence Aujour-d’hui,” translated by Noelle Oxenhandler . Appearing in Parabola Volume XI, No. 2., p. 25.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sacred Pluralism

There is a Hasidic story told of a great master named Reb Zusya, who lived two centuries ago. Once Rabbi Zusya came to an inn, and when he saw the innkeeper, he looked right into the innkeeper’s soul and saw long years of sin. For a while Zusya neither spoke nor moved as he sensed all the terrible things that this innkeeper had done in his life. But when he was alone in his room which had been assigned to him, the shudder of vicarious experience overcame Zusya in the midst of singing psalms and Zusya cried aloud: “Zusya, Zusya, you wicked man! What have you done! There is no lie that failed to tempt you, and no crime you have not committed. Zusya, foolish, erring man , what will be the end of this?’ Then he enumerated the sins of the innkeeper, giving the time and place of each, as his own, and sobbed. The innkeeper had quietly followed this strange man. He stood at the door and heard him. First he was seized with dull dismay, but then penitence and grace were lit within him, and the innkeeper woke to God.

It’s quite a story. There’s a lot to unpack here. Zusya is typically a larger than life figure who reveals astonishing truths through his outrageously selfless behaviors. In this instance, he sees all the innkeepers sins and depravities as his own. He becomes the ultimate exemplar of the famous commandment ‘Ve’Ahavta Lere’echa Kamocha,’ You shall love your neighbor as yourself—literally, as yourself in this instance. Why would he do this? It’s not that he was pretending. Zusya was so lofty in his connection to Heaven that he couldn’t help but see the innkeeper’s heart as his own. No matter how depraved the sins of that innkeeper, Zusya looked into his soul and found only himself.

Reb Yaakov Yitzhak of P’zhysha, also known as the Yehudi, “The Jew,” was another master rebbe of the late eighteenth century. He taught the following: “Everything can be tested in some particular way to discover whether it is any good. And what is the test for the man of Israel? It is Ahavat Yisrael—the Love of the People Israel. When he sees the love of Israel growing in his soul day after day, he knows that he is ascending in the service of God.”[1] In other words, the Yehudi wants us to know that each of us, the Jewish people, are tested by God in this life. And the test is this: can we love our Jewish people, even as they disagree with us? Can we love them even as they live their lives in a way that is totally anathema to what we believe is right? The Yehudi teaches that until we can do this, we are not passing the test! To love the Jewish people is to live with an attitude so courageously open-hearted, so tolerant of other perspectives that, like the ancient sage Hillel, we are willing to teach our students the view of our opponents even before we teach our own positions. To pass this test, we must live, as our highest value, the dictum, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh baZeh,” “All Israel, all Jewish people are responsible, interconnected with one another.”

In May of this year, a young Israeli woman named Noa Raz was attacked by an ultra-Orthodox man at a bus stop. Noa is a Conservative Jew. That morning, while davening, or praying at home, Noa donned her Tefilin, her leather phylacteries, and the straps made a tell-tale mark on her arm. The Orthodox man questioned if she had indeed donned the tefilin. At first, she tried to evade his question. When he pressed her, she answered ‘yes.’ Immediately, he physically attacked her, kicking her and screaming words like ‘women are an abomination,’ and ‘desecration.’ Thank God, Noa escaped without any physical harm. Later, she commented on the experience: This is not a story about a man attacking someone at a bus station,” she said. “It’s not even a story about violence against women. It’s a story about religious violence…. The problem does not only lie with that man, the attacker. It lies with those who educated him, with his leaders who shamelessly and violently talk out against any religious practice that is not Haredi [ultra-Orthodox]…”

Indeed, Noa Raz is not mistaken. Somehow in that ultra-Orthodox man’s background and education, the wisdom of Reb Zusya and the Yehudi, the wisdom of Ahavat Yisrael, of all Jews interconnected with one another, has failed to penetrate a wall of anger and fear and even violence. By now, most of us have seen the constant attacks on the Women of the Wall, the group of women who seek only to daven at the Western Wall in the way that they wish—as egalitarian-minded women who wear kipot and tallitot. Perhaps we have seen the images of the Orthodox Jewish men hurling chairs over the divider at the women; or we have read how Anat Hoffman, a leader of the Women of the Wall, was arrested by Israeli police for simply carrying a sefer Torah from the Wall to the official “Conservative” section of the wall at Robinson’s Arch. And it’s not just about women. This summer, legislation was put forward in the Knesset that would place all authority for conversion anywhere in the world solely in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox, effectively disqualifying and nullifying the validity of any stream of Judaism that is not ultra-Orthodox. What is happening in Israel? Where is Zusya’s wisdom of seeing every Jew as ourselves?

These experiences of such frustrating and disappointing news are just another in a series of such reports that lays bare a profoundly disturbing reality: that Jews in Israel, and around the world, are growing apart: Jews attacking other Jews because of religious beliefs; Jews rejecting other Jews because of their lifestyles, or because they are intermarried; Jews attacking other Jews over political squabbles about Israel, or issues here at home. And saddest of all: Jews giving up on their own people and heritage and Jewish future, because they have simply had it with bitter squabbling, corruption, judgment, and nasty politics – yet we are all Am Yisrael, and like it or not, we are aravim zeh bazeh, our souls are interconnected with one another.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) famously asks about why God destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era. “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? …Because during the time it stood, ‘sinat chinam,’--baseless hatred--prevailed. This is to teach you that sinat chinam-baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all three [greatest] sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, combined!” If we look deeply into the current reality of the Jewish people in Israel and at home, it would seem that the greatest sin of all, hatred: Jew-against-Jew, the sin that brings on the destruction of the Jewish people itself—is rearing its head once again.

Of course, we Jews have always argued with each other. It’s probably what we do best. Ask two Jews a question, get three opinions! Argument, disagreement, makes us who we are. The Mishnah radically claims, however, that it is how we argue that can be the very salvation of the Jewish people and the world. Argue LeShem Shamayim, ‘for the sake of Heaven,’ says the Mishnah, and we become a Light to the Nations. Argue and attack one another for petty rivalries and power-grabs and hatreds, and our greatest blessing, our capacity to embrace disagreement, can become our very downfall: our Light turns to darkness. To be a Jew is a great test: can we lift up one light, one heart, one Torah--through multiple voices and multiple experiences?

Here’s another way to explain the test: to be a Jew means my ability to say this: See that Jew throwing a chair at another Jew? Yes, it’s disgusting. Not only because it’s an act of violence. It’s disgusting also because he’s throwing that chair at me! But it goes even deeper than that: That man throwing that chair is also a Jew! He’s connected to me, a part of me! In what ways am I responsible for his throwing that chair? And even deeper: In what ways do I attack, and do my own version of throwing chairs at other Jews, or at any other human beings? That woman victim of violent intolerance--her heart is my heart. But much more disturbingly, that chair-thrower, his heart too is my heart! This is Ahavat Yisrael, the love of the Jewish people! Think you can do that so easily? Can we indeed see each other through the eyes that Zusya saw the innkeeper? To be a Jew is, indeed, a radical test!

But we must also remember that this radical spiritual test is ultimately the root of the great radical experiment of democracy itself. It is the spiritual core of what makes pluralism not just a useful value, but a sacred value—a profoundly ancient and Jewish value! The claim of Judaism is that when the Jews master the art of Ahavat Yisrael with one another, then they can be a Light to the Nations of the world, for how to practice Ahavat Olam, pluralist love of all peoples of the world. It is the essential teaching that no one among our people deserves to be abandoned. No matter what they believe, no matter how they choose to live their lives. To be a Jew means that we see all our people as our family.

But our times are complex. Family doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Ultra-Orthodox Jews see women davening with tefilin and carrying the Torah, and praying right beside men, and they see in this the dissolution of everything they believe “the family” stands for. Over here, we can clearly see the error of the ultra-Orthodox view: these women and egalitarian men—people just like you and me--we are renewing and growing together with Judaism, as we find wonderful ways to make the tradition speak the language of a new world! If anything, we are saving the Jewish people! But many of our ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters can only see us through the eyes of fear! And guess what: as soon as we look at our own people through the eyes of fear instead of love, we are failing that tricky test!

What is true in Israel is equally true for us here in America. During these difficult times for our community here, we must ask ourselves a tough question: are we really practicing Ahavat Yisrael here? Are we seeing our fellow Jews with whom we disagree with eyes of love or eyes of fear as well? Are we willing to strive for empathy even with those who disagree with us about intermarriage, Israeli politics, homosexuality, the role of women? Perhaps we feel the urge to metaphorically throw chairs at our own people because we fear that if their opinions are received by the world, this will be a betrayal of “the family?” If indeed, our aim is to silence dissent and an honest voicing of opinion within our own community on any of these issues, then we too are failing the test of Ahavat Yisrael. We’re failing because we are looking at our own people not through the eyes of love, but through the eyes of fear. If, indeed, we want to see an end to the intolerance we despise in Israel, then we had better begin by ridding ourselves of our intolerance within our own hearts and minds as well!

Intolerance is so insidious because it begins in such subtle ways. It begins when we surround ourselves only with people with whom we agree—on anything: politics or religion or culture. It begins with all the little condescending and judgmental remarks we make with a smile on our face with our friends at dinner parties and at the office—about those ‘idiots’ on the other side of the political spectrum, or those ‘maniacs’ with their barbaric or insane views on religion. Have you ever done that? And because we have the smiles and approval of those around us, we feel empowered to reject and disapprove of them even more. And some of us will go so far as to dehumanize ‘them,’ and deem them worthy of abandonment and even violence. This familiar scenario is sad enough when it occurs among any groups of humanity. It is beyond tragic as it rears its head more and more among and within Bnai Yisrael, the Jewish people! There’s only one way to break the chain of intolerance and fear among the Jewish people and in the world, and it begins with each of us.

There’s a Hasidic story told of a reb Mottel of Kalshin, a businessman who spoke fluent Polish , who was asked to go before an anti-Semitic Polish government official and to ask him to repeal a law that was threatening the Jews of Poland. Reb Mottel was terrified. He thought it was certain death to ask such a thing of this anti-Semitic Polish official. Reb Mottel’s Rebbe, Reb Yitzhak of Vorki summoned Mottel and told him a story: “When Moses went to Pharaoh to demand that he free the slaves,” the rebbe said, “do you think Moses was unafraid?” “No,” Reb Mottel said. “Of course he was afraid, how could he not be?” “Exactly,” the rebbe said. “He was afraid that Pharaoh would kill him. It was for this reason that, in the Torah, God says ‘Bo El Par’o,’ ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ It says ‘come’ and not ‘go’ to Pharaoh. Why? Because what God meant to say was ‘Come with me to Pharaoh: I, God, will always come with you when you plead the cause of your people. Reb Mottel lost his fear with this story. He went before the Polish official, and the evil decree was repealed.[2]

The message of this story is not that God will magically be with the Jewish people and prevent despots ever from hurting us. The point is that when we shift our perspective from ‘going’ to our adversary, to ‘coming to’ our adversary—when we let go of our fear inside ourselves—then, and only then, is all Redemption of the Jewish people, and the world, possible! The great test that we are all being called to in this New Year is: can we ‘come to’ all of our people no matter what they say, or who they are, or what choices they have made? Can we strive to see how all those with different perspectives on God, on Judaism, on Israel, on politics, are all ‘coming with God,’ no matter how much they challenge us? Can we find the strength inside to understand that even those Jewish people who live differently than we, and who are proud to speak out and argue for their beliefs are, in fact, arguing LeShem Shamayim—for the sake of Heaven, for the Love of God, or for the Love of the people Israel—can we ‘come to them’ even if we fear that their position is a foolish one? Of course, there are limits to our pluralism as well--Jews who try to convert Jews to other religions, or Jews who give money directly to anit-Israel terrorist organizations, such Jews are not working toward a future of the Jewish people. But short of these extremes, all other Jews deserve our love, support, and commitment. On this day, if we want a future for our children and their children as Jews, we must be willing to make the effort to come together. The Jewish people of the State of Israel have to figure out how to make this work. And we can help them do it—right here in this synagogue. You see here in America, a synagogue like this one is the only place where Jews of all walks and stripes can come together, despite differences, and call themselves ONE community! Adas Israel is one of the few congregations in the world where pluralism is lived. We can see this in our multiple services of different styles every Shabbat. Right here, every week, every day, we practice a kind of multi-faceted Jewish life that can be an inspiration to Jews everywhere. A synagogue like ours is not just a place of prayer and life-cycle celebrations. It’s a place of Jewish people coming together to do nothing less than change the world—by facing even those who are different from us within our own people, and eventually inspire other people—beyond the Jewish community--to live by the same pluralism.

This is why, in the coming year, you will see new kinds of experiences at Adas Israel. You will see special “Three Pillar conference weekends” where the whole community is invited, with all our different perspectives and backgrounds, to study together, to join together to effect Tikkun Olam, or Social Justice, and also to explore and strengthen, our connection to Israel, as well as our potential to take action for Israel’s sake, together as one community, with many faces. We will sometimes disagree, but we will really hear one another, and speak not from fear, but from love of our people. When our purpose is grounded in Sacred Pluralism, then we can teach each other, the Jews of Israel, and the whole world what it means to come together celebrating difference rather than trying to erase difference.

In this year, 5771, may we take this leap of faith, this leap of courage, this leap of trust and of love for the sake of our People of Israel. May we pass this great test of our people, overcome sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and seek to heal the fractures and rifts that have been tearing us apart. May we stand together to combat intolerance and injustice in the land of Israel—and may we accomplish this not through fear or hatred, but through Ahavat Yisrael—through our deepest knowledge that their destiny is our destiny. May we overcome our fear of one another here at home, so that we may shine as a Light to our brothers and sisters in Israel. And together, may all of us, the people of Israel, finally serve as a Light to the Nations.

[1] Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, vol. 2 p. 232.

[2] Adapted from Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales, p. 51-53.