Saturday, February 20, 2010

You are the End of Evil

We all know that in Judaism, there’s a blessing for everything: blessings for when we wake up, blessings for when we go to sleep. Blessings for when we eat and blessings for simchas. Our ancient sages teach us that just as we bless for the good, so too, we bless even when bad things befall us. When tragedy strikes, we say ‘Baruch Dayan ha’Emet,’ blessed is God, Judge of Truth—the undeniable truth is that when tragedy strikes, we say ‘so be it,’ blessed be God. I would like us to take a moment to contemplate the implications of this notion: we bless not only the good, but we bless evil as well! When you think about it that way, it seems almost impossible to believe. We’re the Jewish people, the people of Justice! We’re all about taking action in the world to fight against all oppression and injustice! How could we possibly bless evil in any way? We have lived through centuries of persecution, of Nazis, of terrorists. We live in a world filled with violence and abuse and rape and murder and oppression of all kinds. Bless the evil?! Aren’t we supposed to stamp it out and only uphold the good?!

In this week’s Parashah, Trumah, we receive instructions for how to build the Mishkan, the sacred tent, or Tabernacle, of God’s presence in the wilderness. The parashah goes into extraordinary detail about every last stitch that goes into that Mishkan. Why so much detail? Our sages teach us that every element of that Mishkan can be seen as allegory into our very humanity—even into the mysteries of good and evil. So, for example, the Torah says “Va’asita et hak’rashim lamishkan atzei shitim omdim,” “You shall make [wooden] planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright.” The eighteenth century commentary, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim explains[1] that according to Jewish tradition, those wooden planks actually symbolize the human being. Those wooden planks are called ‘K’rashim,’ which is very close to the Hebrew word ‘K’sharim,’ which means ‘connections.’ So the hidden meaning in this text is that we human beings are the ‘kesher,’ or the connection between Heaven and earth! So every time we see those planks in the Tabernacle, we are reminded that we are to be the connection between the Divine and the earthly, between spirit and the corporeal, and most importantly—we are the Kesher, the link between good and evil! It all hinges on us, and our choices and actions, says the Degel Machaneh Ephraim! Our job in this life is to stay “mekusharim,” connected to Heaven. Don’t get caught up in ‘sheker,’ in falsehood, in lies, in evil—instead see and reconnect everything, even the evil we experience with its Source of goodness in Heaven. In other words, says the Degel, our job is “la’sot mera shebahem tov,” “to make the evil good!” In teaching about those wooden planks in the Mishkan, the Degel makes an astonishing claim, that “even the quality of evil, at its deepest source, is good!”

There is a fanciful legend told of the Baal Shem Tov, the great founder of Hasidism. Before I tell the story, a word of caveat: Hasidic stories can sometimes be wildly surreal, bringing in elements from the Jewish tradition, and also from the surrounding folk culture as well, but the message is entirely Jewish. This is one such legend: When the Baal Shem Tov was only a boy of ten, he was so gifted and so mekushar, so connected to the beauty and wonder of God’s world, that each morning on their way to school, all the children would follow the young Baal Shem Tov into the woods and into the fields to pick garlands, to sing joyful songs, and to listen in silence to the music of the earth. So perfect was their love of God’s world, that Satan decided to confound this perfection. (Yes, Satan, is a real and time-honored character in Jewish literature as well as Christianity. Unlike Christianity, however, Satan is NOT the devil in Judaism. He is merely an agent of God whose role is to get us to confront the reality of evil.) It happened that in those very woods, there lived a werewolf. By day, he was a lone woodsman. By night, he would sprout fangs and fur and howl at the moon, and collapse in exhaustion at dawn, returned to the form of a man. Satan came upon this woodsman, took out his heart, and replaced it with Satan’s own heart of evil. As soon as this happened, the woodsman became the most terrifying beast imaginable. So in the morning, when the children came to rejoice in God’s world in the field, the monster appeared at the edge of the forest, now with shoulders stretching from horizon to horizon, with fire coming from its nostrils along with smoke blotting out the very light of the sun. The children screamed in mortal panic, all except one, the young Baal Shem Tov, who calmly, gently walked up to the beast. He approached the monster closer and closer, till he merged with the monster’s very being. Once there, he lovingly reached in and grasped its heart of evil in the palm of his hand. There, he and the children beheld the heart, quivering like a bird with a broken wing. They saw that in the darkness of that heart, there was only fear and self-loathing. And the Baal Shem Tov gently placed that heart onto the ground, which opened wide and allowed that heart to sink deep into the forgiving earth. With that, monster was vanquished, and the light of the sun returned.[2]

What is this story telling us? The same astonishing notion that the Degel was teaching: that even evil itself is nothing to fear when we look deeply into it. In the Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot, the rabbis famously ask, “Who is wise? He who learns from all human beings.” (Avot 4:1) In every human being being there is the yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good, and there is also the yetzer hara, the inclination to do evil. “B’chol derachecha da’ehu,” “Know God in all your ways,” says the book of Proverbs (3:6). Even the evil ways of our heart, says the Degel, are our teacher. When we come to know and understand our impulse to act out of evil, then we can transform it to the good.

Rabbi Mikhal taught his disciples that the inner desire of the Yetzer HaRa, the evil urge, is, in fact, to become good! The yetzer hara “wants to become good by driving man to overcome it and to make it good. And that is Satan’s secret request to the man he is trying to [frighten or] seduce: ‘Let us leave this disgraceful state and [return to God], so that I too may [rise up in holiness with you], although I seem to oppose, to disturb and hinder you.”[3] Our line from parashat Trumah teaches this very same truth, says the Degel Machane Ephraim. Those wooden planks are made of “atzei shitim omdim,” ”upright acacia wood.” ‘Atzei shitim,’ says the degel, is allegorical code for the aytzah, the ‘advice’ of Satan,’ –even the urging of Satan can be upright when we know how to approach it!

Hillel Zeitlin was a brilliant Hasidic master teacher who lived in the first part of the 20th century. He was an expert in multiple fields—from Kabbalah to the philosophy of Nietzsche. Zeitlin himself was murdered by the Nazi’s on his way to Treblinka, even as he was garbed in his Tallit and Tefilin. Zeitlin explains this deepest Jewish understanding of evil, that in truth, there is nothing but the light of God. As the light descends from its Source in the Divine, down to ever-more material and corporeal realms, that light becomes heavier and ever more clouded and dark and hidden. And when God’s light is hidden, we call it ‘evil,’ and those who cleave to materiality we call ‘evil,’ or ‘sinners.’ However, when a person “begins to see the divinity that is present in this material world, he repairs and elevates the evil [to its original divine source]. In other words, he elevates the divinity that is hidden in the heavy fog of corporeality, and thus returns the Godly light to its source [to goodness!].”

What does all of this mean? On the simplest level, it’s an instruction to look at your own yetzer hara, your own selfish impulses in life. Look at eating and drinking for example: eating and drinking can be gluttonous, binging, destructive behaviors, or they can become a sacred meal shared with family and community to celebrate our highest values. Look at sex. Sex can be abusive and cruel and victimizing, or it can be the most sacred expression of love, respect, and holiness. Eating and sexuality are, in their essence, good! They are about preserving and continuing and rejoicing in life itself. But in our own confusion we can either turn these to evil, or liberate these actions to the goodness that they truly are. This teaching that I bring today is not only about transforming our impulses. It extends to any and every experience of evil in the world!...

A Hasid asked the Seer of Lublin: The Mishnah says, “Man should thank God for evil and praise God,” and the Talmud adds, “with joy and a tranquil heart.” How could that be?!

The tzadik could hear that the question sprang from a troubled heart. “You do not understand the Talmud,” he said. “And I do not understand even the Mishnah. For is there really any evil in the world?”[4]

What could the great Seer of Lublin possibly mean by this cryptic answering a question with another question? Is he really denying the existence of evil?! Of course not! It’s not that this great tzadik would ignore Nazis and abusers and murderers. What he’s doing is throwing this deepest question of life back to the student, and to us all. Yes, Baruch Dayan Emet, blessed is this awesome, terrible world where we experience death and evil! Don’t deny the evil! Not at all—quite the opposite! Look at the evil. Look deeply into every experience of evil you may, God forbid, come to know! Reach deeply into that heart of evil, hold it gently in the palm of your hand, and plumb its darkness. What do you see? Do you see a world where bad things happen to good people? Do you see a world that allowed a Holocaust to happen? Where terrorists still strike down the innocent? Keep looking at it! Do you see the heart of fear and confusion and self-loathing that brings that evil about? Do you see that same fear in your own heart?

Before you point the finger of blame at God for creating such a world, remember who YOU are! You are the Kesher, the link between God and this imperfect world, between good and evil! YOU ARE the very way that God ends evil in this world. The deepest question of life is NOT ‘why did God create evil?’ but rather, ‘How could we just give up because there is evil?’ The point of life itself is not to become dark and embittered because there is evil in the world, but to ask, ‘What must I do now?’ What can I do to end persecution, murder, abuse, injustice in this world, and in my own heart? This is what it means to be a Jew, a Light to the Nations, an ‘Am Kadosh—a people who bring holiness to the world by transforming the evil in our hearts into its truest essence, which was always goodness. May we indeed transform our hearts to this goodness, and therefore transform the world.


[1] Sefer Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parashat Trumah, Dibur HaMatchil, “Va’Asita”

[2] Adapted from a story told by Gerald Fierst, Tikun Olam: Stories to Heal the World. Copyright ©1994

[3] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters. Vol 1. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. P. 145.

[4] Ibid, p. 318

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Peace is the Presence of Justice

There is an ancient tradition among our people that our name, Yisrael contains within it a vision of our role among all the nations of the world. When God bestowed that name, Yisrael, onto Jacob, it was because his descendants were to be the people of “Yashar El.” The Hebrew ‘yashar’ means ‘straight.’ We are the people of ‘godly straightness.’ This world is filled with crookedness, jealousy, and hatred, and we are to be the ones to ‘straighten’ it all out.

In Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah reveals an extraordinary series of laws that lay the foundations for building a society of justice, where the stranger, the widow, and the orphan are never forgotten. It provides a framework for thinking about an ideal society where none are oppressed, where the powerful never again victimize the dispossessed. Mishpatim begins with the words “V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem, “And these are the laws that you shall place before them” (Exodus 21:1). The commentary, the Sfat Emet, asks the question: why does this chapter begin with the word “and?” It should just say, “These are the laws.” The Sfat Emet explains: Think what has just come before in the Torah. It was none other than the Ten Commandments that God gave on Mount Sinai before the Israelites. “V’eleh hamishpatim,” “And these are the laws,” that you must now uphold, now that you have received the Ten Commandments. The Sfat Emet goes on to explain: The Ten Commandments represent the laws that refer to humankind’s relationship to God. The Mishpatim, the special laws and statutes that follow here in our parashah, refer to laws that must be upheld between person and person. In the Ten Commandments, we learn how to be holy before God. In the Mishpatim that follow, we learn how to build a society where we act out that holiness between one another, and straighten out this world.

Psalm 29 contains the famous words: ‘Adonai Oz L’Amo yitein,’ “God will give strength to God’s people,” ‘Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom,” God will bless God’s people with Shalom, peace. The ancient rabbis of the midrash explain that the Hebrew word ‘oz,’ ‘strength’ also means Torah. Building on this teaching, the Sfat Emet explains that we only Truly receive Torah, when we adhere to these mishpatim, these laws, that are there to build Shalom, peace between one another. To put it another way, we are not really fulfilling the commandments of the Torah if we are not putting peace among the people of Israel as our highest goal.

We begin our work of being a light to the nations, of straightening out the world, by living the mishpatim, by enacting the Torah’s vision of being a people at peace with one another. Put another way, Shalom, peace, can only come to the world when Israel learns and models how to live in peace with themselves, free of injustice and oppression within the ranks of our own people. It’s a beautiful vision of the deepest meaning of peace itself—and what it means to be Yisrael.

But we all know that peace, and straightening ourselves out, is no easy task. We have learned in our American society through countless struggles for rights and freedoms and civil liberties, peace is not just the strength to end fighting, but the courage to live in harmony with difference. Martin Luther King said it beautifully: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.

Last month, Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of a group called Women of the Wall, was called into a Jerusalem police station for questioning about her groups ongoing prayer services at the Kotel haMa’aravi, or the Western Wall. She was interrogated, fingerprinted and told that her case was being referred to the Israeli attorney-general for prosecution. Hoffman later said that the meeting was clearly meant as an intimidation. Hoffman’s questioning comes only two months after a different Women of the Wall member, Nofrat Frenkel, was arrested after she and other women stood at the Wall, garbed in tallitot, read from a sefer Torah on Rosh Chodesh, the New Month. Yes, you heard correctly: the very practice of egalitarian Judaism that we practice right here in our congregation every Shabbat, could get you arrested at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. In response to these developments, the Conservative Movement, under the leadership of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, called on Israel’s Ambassador, Michael Oren, to take action against this injustice. The Israeli embassy responded that Israel is committed to upholding its democratic and pluralistic values. And, if egalitarian Jews want to pray, they can move several yards down along the wall to a section known Robinson’s Arch, which was designated to host egalitarian services.

The embassy is referring in this letter to an area of archaeological excavation adjoining the Western retaining wall of the Temple mount. The area normally charges admission to view the excavation, but after a 2003 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, it is open for egalitarian prayer services until 10:30 in the morning. Voices for Conservative and Reform Judaism are quick to point out that, while indeed this site does exist for egalitarian services, the Robinson’s Arch area (as this excavation is known) is only available in the morning, as opposed to the Kotel, which is open 24 hours a day for prayer. Furthermore, it lacks prayer equipment like arks and Torah-reading tables (which worshipers have to bring in for themselves), and it has no indoor facilities. Rabbi Andy Sacks, director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, rejects Oren’s letter because it suggests that Robinson’s arch is a perfectly suitable alternative to the Kotel. It’s not, says Rabbi Sacks. It’s a severely restricted space for religious use. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of Reform Judaism added, “The wall as it’s been understood by the Jewish people does not mean Robinson’s Arch. It just doesn’t.”

Israel is a country beset by problems and threats to its very existence from the Palestinians, Iran, and world-wide anti-Semitism. It is all too easy to ignore a problem like this one, when existential concerns rightfully must be addressed first. And yet, we can’t afford to ignore the problem of pluralism in the Jewish state. There are many who have argued that pluralism is a nice value, but hardly critical at this moment in Israel’s reality; that the Women of the Wall and Conservative and Reform Judaism are a small minority in Israel, and that their values are an American import into Israel and therefore not relevant or even legitimate in the discourse of Israeli society. I couldn’t disagree more with this assertion. I would argue that the cause of pluralism and freedom of religious expression are not only critical to the ideal of a Jewish state, but are, in fact, essential to the very survival of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world.

So long as there is no viable and just place for all legitimate religious expression of the Jewish people in the Jewish State, then there is no peace, no Torah, no light to the nations. Pluralism is not an American import onto Israeli society. Pluralism is an essential need of the human spirit to thrive and to grow in this world. We all should care very deeply about the status of pluralism in the Jewish state, if indeed we love our Jewish people, our state of Israel, and our Jewish heritage—if indeed, we think we should be Yisrael, a people who can straighten out this world.

We all know well that pluralism is not an easy road. The Women of the Wall have stated categorically that they want the right to pray in the women’s section at the Kotel and not in some other designated site along the Wall. That’s a tough stance, one that they and we all need to be willing to question. The fact of women reading Torah and wearing tallitot goes against Orthodox interpretations of our tradition. If indeed we uphold pluralism, we will need to ask ourselves: is it pluralist on our part to deny Orthodox Jews the right to separate genders at the Kotel? We all know that peace involves compromise. If we strive for peace, perhaps we should, instead of demanding full egalitarianism at the Kotel, demand that the Israeli government make Robinson’s arch a fully accessible egalitarian site for prayer 24 hours a day? As much as we fight against the Orthodox strangle-hold on Israeli society, we must be hyper-vigilant about advocating for a non-Orthodox strangle-hold on Jewish life in Israel as well. Let’s envision a Jewish state where not only Orthodox congregations can thrive, but all denominations and expressions of Judaism receive equal and fair support from the Israeli government, where the status of Jews converted, married, or buried any Jewish denomination has a place in Israeli society, where Jews of any background or walk of life can find a full expression of their Yiddishkeit and Jewish identity. Where the inherent value of Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-movement, and secular humanist Judaism have a place, a role, a function to enrich the life and peace among all of our people, in Israel and around the world.

True peace, true Shalom, involves learning to fulfill the Jewish value of Ahavat Yisrael, love of all Jewish people. It’s a vision where all can uphold the Mishpatim, the laws that make for a just society, one that recognizes—with love--all of our differences, including our different interpretations and ways of fulfilling Torah. Let’s do everything we can to support Masorti Judaism and pluralism in Israel, and let’s also do everything we can to uphold everything that is sacred to Orthodox and secular Jews in Israel while we’re at it. Let’s see if we, the Conservative Jews, instead of fighting against our own people, can provide a vision for how all Jewish people can live in peace with one another. Adonai Oz lamo yitein, may God grant us the strength, the Torah, the wisdom to achieve this vision; Adonai yevarech et Amo baShalom, and may God therefore grant us peace.