Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Is it JUST about being Jewish?...

            Every year at this time, I just can’t get over it.  I am amazed at the incredible success of Hanukah in American culture.  It’s amazing how many shops and restaurants and homes proudly display menorahs, dreidles, and blue and white decorations right alongside Christmas cheer.  And I no longer buy into the Jewish angst about the inauthenticity of Hanukah—that it’s only hyped up because of Christmas.  I have come to see that, while there is partial truth in this fear, it’s also true that Hanukah has evolved into a truly American Jewish holiday, one where Jews assert their pride in being Jewish especially in the face of Christmas.  We’re proudly Jewish, and we have nothing to hide—that’s the brilliant light in the darkness of the American Jewish experience that Hanukah has become all about, and I’m all for it!  I love Hanukah because it works:  we American Jews find personal meaning and significance in a truly Jewish ritual expression!
            I love the subject of what works and what doesn’t work in Judaism.  We can all easily point to aspects of Judaism that have “made it” in American Jewish life:  Hanukah, Passover seders, mezzuzahs, bar mitzvahs.  These have all made it because we Jews do them in large numbers, and many of us find these practices really meaningful.  And why is that?  It’s because all these ritual actions are affirmations of Jewish identity, of course.  America is a place that celebrates our cultural tapestry of  ethnic and group identities, and being Jewish is a really meaningful identity to have in this country.  
            But there’s a question that lurks behind the American Jewish success story:  is being proud of our Jewish identity really enough?  Or is Judaism about something more than that?  Of course, the answer to this depends on whom you ask.  For many of us, Judaism is certainly more than just identity.  It has a sacred core, a cannon of brilliant teachings, a system of cherished values and ethics.  But for vastly greater numbers of American Jews, Judaism doesn’t need to be more than the rituals that affirm our identity as Jews, as a medium of proudly asserting our familial heritage of being Jewish.  The deepest question that lurks for me, then, is:  for these vast numbers of proudly Jewish Americans, ought not Judaism be something more, something deeper?
            In the Torah today, we read about the extraordinary life’s journey of Yaakov, of Jacob.  In many ways, the drama and richness of Jacob’s life is in stark contrast to the paucity of information we have about his father Isaac.  Other than surviving the ultimate drama of Abraham’s near sacrificing of him, we actually hear very little about Isaac.  We learn mostly that Isaac redug the same wells that his father Abraham had dug years before.  And that’s mostly it.  But Jacob!  He has his ladder, he has epic travels, romance, love triangles, struggles with villains, wrestling with angels!  When Jacob dreams of his ladder to heaven, God even says: “Ani Adonai Elohei Avraham avicha v’Elohei Yitzhak:”  “I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac!”  Isaac seems to be chopped liver in this line; the real father of Jacob is Abraham!  Is that really fair?  In a way, yes. The Torah clearly sets up many parallels between Jacob and Abraham that it doesn’t set up with Isaac.
            Like Abraham, Jacob also went on an epic journey in his life from his father’s birthplace.  Abraham journeyed from Haran to the Land of Canaan.  Jacob journeyed from the Land of Canaan to Haran.  Isaac, he never left home.  He can’t even leave home to procure his own bride.  Abraham sends his servant Eliezar to get a bride for Isaac.  But Jacob, he goes himself, and finds his bride all on his own.  Abraham had to muster his own strength and courage, enough to stand up to injustice, even to argue and struggle with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah.  Jacob, too, must muster his own inner strength and courage.  Jacob, too, wrestles with a Divine Being at a pivotal moment in his life.  Nothing like this happens with Isaac.  He never struggles or argues with God.  So all these comparisons suggest that each Patriarch had a specific role.  Abraham is the first.  Isaac’s role was simply to maintain the traditions that his father had begun.  But Jacob, his role is not just to maintain traditions, he must be like Abraham his reaffirming the core spiritual boldness, courage, and innovation that made Abraham great.
            Our sages tells us that Isaac was just like his dad—except for one crucial difference:  he lacked his father’s originality, his panache, his iconoclasm.  And it’s not just that Jacob had the maverick spiritual boldness that Isaac lacked.  Jacob had the unique and paradoxic challenge of affirming both Abraham’s traditions together with Abraham’s innovative spirit.  We see this in another parallel between Jacob and Abraham: they both change their names—with one crucial difference.  When Avram became Avraham, God tells him that this new name is forever more to replace his old name.  When Yaakov becomes Yisrael after he wrestles with the angel, God and the Torah keep switching back and forth between the old name and the new name.  The symbolism is clear:  whereas Avraham represents a total break with  the past; Yisrael is still connected to the former Yaakov; he still maintains the traditions of his forefathers.
            But still, Jacob is an innovator, a chip off grandpa’s old block.  The Midrash points out that Jacob was the first to make a neder, a spiritual vow before God.  In making a vow, he is showing us all how we can take charge of our own personal relationship to God and to holiness, how we can forge our own commitments, and that kind of relationship to God had not been seen before Jacob.  Whereas Isaac only walked “yachdav” together with his father Avraham, Jacob ‘vayivater levado,’ he was left alone on his own path, as Abraham had been as well.
            Jacob, then, is the greatest teacher of what it really means to be Jewish.  Being Jewish is not just being like Isaac; it’s not just about accessing and digging into our fathers’ wells for commitment to tradition in each generation.  It’s not even just about celebrating Judaism as an intellectual or ethical tradition.  The truest and deepest way into Judaism is not through Isaac’s identity alone, but through Jacob’s journey itself.  Jacob’s journey is the journey of finding our own path into the tradition that we have been given.  It’s not just about affirming customs.  It’s not just about blind imitation of what our fathers and mothers have done.  It’s about living out of the core spirit of originality, of boldness and passion and connection to God and to life—which was why God chose Abraham in the first place.  Its about a willingness to face our angels or our demons even as we travel our life-path—that’s what Abraham did, and that’s what Jacob affirmed.  Even though Jacob, after it was all said and done, ended up right back in Hevron where his father and grandfather lived, he came home understanding why he was in this tradition.  And his amazing life-story is all the richer because of it.
            There’s one more example in our comparison of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that really drives this message home.  Abraham, we are told, built altars to God, and it says, “vayikra beShem Adonai,” “he invoked the Name of God.” True to form, Isaac did just exactly the same thing: he built altars ‘vayikra beShem Adonai,” he invoked God’s name.  What this means is that they both publicly called out God’s name even in the pagan world:  they taught that there was one God for anyone to hear.  Rabbi Yitzhak Twersky points out Jacob built altars, but he didn’t do it like just like Abraham. Of Jacob, the Torah says, “vayatzev sham mizbeach,” “He built…an altar,” “vayikra lo El Elohei Yisrael,” “and he called it El, the God of Israel.” (Genesis 33:20).  In the Talmud, Rabbi Acha in the name of Rabbi Eliezar explains that this new wording is also a hint in the Torah that it wasn’t just Jacob naming an altar in the way his fathers had done.  Now it was God who was, in fact, ‘vayikra lo’ who called him, El, the name of God!  Yes, you heard right:  God called him God, because he took the covenant, the tradition, the commandments, and expressed them in the deepest, truest, most original and unique way of himself.  And in that bold assertion of his own unique expression of his relationship with God through the tradition, the Talmud shows us that he was most truly in the image of God! 
In this personally authentic way, Jacob was truly Yisrael, and he shows us, his descendants, how to be most authentically Jewish for all time. Jacob also poses a great opportunity for us, his Jewish descendants in 20th-century America.  We truly ‘get’ the idea of personal meaning and relevance. And as it turns out, we’re most Jewish when we seek this within our tradition.  But we must ask ourselves some tough questions:  Is my Jewish life a technology through which I express my most authentic self?  Am I experiencing the traditions and rituals and commandments of my ancestors and living them as more than just affirmations of my Jewish identity?  Is my Judaism just about my identity, or is it the path on which I journey to discover my most authentic connection to wisdom and spirit, to life itself?  Is it just my family tradition, or is it my gateway to confronting my demons and my angels to guide me to my very best self?  If your answers to any of these questions indicate that Judaism is not fully what it could be for you, that’s okay!  You have the rest of our life now reframe Judaism, to live it as a journey to your highest Truth.  May we all learn to live not only the courage and faith of Abraham, the traditions and devotion of Isaac, but most importantly wisdom and spirit of Jacob, of Yisrael.  And may that path help us all to find the Image of God alive in each of us.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Eyes of God

 Think of any problem in the human condition. Anything. It doesn’t matter what it is. Any war. The Holocaust. The economic crisis. Terrorism. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Global warming. Crime--any crime at all. Any man-made tzuris you can think of. The ultimate solution to the problems of humanity arises out of Parashat Vayera. I know that sounds like a rather over-blown claim. But I mean it. The implications of the story we encounter are that big. I am going to take you through some well-known biblical stories, stories that many of us have strong feelings about. I’m going to ask you to set aside your previous conclusions and judgments of these stories for the next few minutes, and listen to me tell them as if you have never heard them before. I will show us how the great trials of Abraham actually present us with a solution to our deepest human problems, if only we see how it all fits together. I’m going to present a radical re-reading of our texts, an approach that I will show, is the way I believe it’s supposed to be read. According to the Torah. The solution to all our problems begins in a place that is, paradoxically, altogether deep and patently obvious: in our simple willingness to look and to see.

 This is Parashat Vayera. Vayera is from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to see.’ Through the life of Abraham, we learn about when we can “see God,” and when we can’t. The stories we read today have a lot to do with the theme of guests and strangers. Abraham is the great teacher this week about the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, of welcoming guests to our homes. Abraham, we are told, is so wonderful, so committed to welcoming strangers to his home, that when he sees three strangers passing by his tent, he runs to welcome them, to do everything he can to feed them and make them comfortable—and this, even though he himself has just undergone circumcision without anesthesia! This kind of dedication to welcoming strangers, our sages teach, is what makes Abraham the father of many nations—for him and for Sarah, no one is a stranger in their home! And to make the point even stronger, our sages teach, we have the pitiful contrast between Abraham’s hospitality and Lot’s hospitality. Lot, too, welcomes the same three strangers into his home in Sodom and Gomorrah, but when the local mob wants to have their way with the guests, Lot offers them his own daughter to rape instead, in order to be nice to his guests. Gevalt! How despicable of Lot! He’s nice to strangers, but he’s willing to make his own daughter into less than a stranger, to dehumanize her, and give her to the mob. Disgusting! Thank God for Abraham! If Lot is willing to turn a member of his own household, his own family, into a stranger, thank God for Abraham, where no one is ever a stranger in his tent! There’s only one problem with this neat and tidy contrast between wonderful Abraham and disgraceful Lot: it doesn’t quite work.

 You may recall that there is someone who is not treated as well as everyone else, even in Abraham’s tent. In fact, it’s more than one person: it’s Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and her son—Abraham’s son—Yishma’el. After Isaac, the beloved son, is born, Sarah demands that Yishma’el and his mother be driven out of their home. Abraham is distressed, and God Godself tells Abraham that he should listen to his wife. And so, mother and child are cast off by our beloved Abraham. They are rendered homeless in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places her child down to die and she weeps in despair. Until finally, God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a life-giving well to save her and her son in the desert. So the question we are forced to ask ourselves is: how different really is old Father Abraham from Lot? After all, the both warmly welcomed strangers, and yet both were willing to turn members of their own family—their own children--into less than strangers, and to cast them off to oblivion!

 Well wait a minute, we might argue. At least Abraham was distressed. And it was none other than God who told Abraham that it was okay to do this, that Yishma’el would eventually be okay! According to our English Chumash, God says “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she for the [boy], I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.” Lot had no such assurances when he offered up his own daughter! Well, God didn’t necessarily say what our English translation says. If we look very carefully at the Hebrew where God purportedly tells Abraham to send Hagar and Yishma’el away, it doesn’t say that at all! If you translate the Hebrew literally, God says ‘Al yerah b’einecha al hana’ar v’al amatecha,’ literally: “Don’t do what’s evil in your eye upon that boy and your handmaiden.” God goes on, “Ki asher tomar eilecha Sarah shma b’kolah,” “For whatever Sarah shall say to you, Listen to her voice.” Let’s put this in regular English: God seems to be saying: ‘Abraham, don’t do something if you see it to be evil in your eyes. Yes, listen to the voice of your wife when she cries out that Isaac must be the heir to the Covenant; but also remember, Avraham, that your son Yishma’el--he too is your son, your seed, the father of a great nation as well.” But it seems as if Abraham either ignored or couldn't grasp what God meant by ‘Al yerah b’einecha,’ ‘Don’t do what’s evil in your eye.’ He just focused on listening to Sarah’s voice, and thought God meant that he had to do Sarah’s bidding, and so he threw Hagar and her boy out. And in that act of confusion, of rejection, the greatest lesson in the world was now set in motion...

 Think about the very name of the handmaiden, Hagar. Her name suggests the Hebrew ‘HaGer,’ which means “The Stranger.” Hagar is an Egyptian girl living in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. She’s the perennial outsider who remains a stranger even in our midst, the constant bugaboo, the fly-in-the-ointment. Her son Yishma’el “mitzachek,” he ‘plays around,’ his very presence ‘fools around’ with Abraham and Sarah’s great plans to create a new nation that worships the One True God. Hagar, the Stranger and her kid, they just don’t fit in with the program. What do you do with those nasty Strangers whose very presence undermines our noblest plans? We get rid of them. Drive them out. Surround ourselves only with people who pose no challenges to us. But in our story, God is greater even than Abraham and Sarah’s noblest goals. Hagar is no Stranger for God. And Yishma’el’s name literally means that God will hear his cries for help in the wilderness. It’s no accident that the Torah makes our heart break not for Abraham, but for Hagar in her moment of despair. It’s no accident that God opens her eyes to find life-giving waters. Judaism has long taught, through Abraham’s example, that it is through welcoming strangers into our home that we can make the presence of God appear—literally ‘to be seen’ in our lives. And the Torah teaches us that this applies kal vechomer, all the more so, to the Stranger whom we think we can never live with in our tents! In other words, it’s all well and good to have an open heart and an open mind, to welcome to your table all those who will agree with you. But what about the people in our own tents, in our own family, who do not agree with us? If we still see someone in our own tent, in our own family, as a Stranger—even as an enemy—then our work is not done! Then God is not fully seen yet in this world!

 And now hold onto your hats: this is why God had to tell Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac! According to the Zohar, his command to offer up his beloved child Isaac, is the only possible way for Abraham to ascend to the highest level of Chesed, of Lovingkindess. We have long wondered, how is this willingness to offer up his child Chesed?! The answer is that Abraham must serve, together with Isaac, as the living example, once and for all for all the world to see—how we must burst through our blind spots, and see no one as a Stranger. With his knife poised over his son, Avraham finallly saw the “ra b’einecha,” the evil in his eyes--the ultimate betrayal of his own son. What God asked Abraham to do was to be willing to see his beloved child--Isaac (but also Yishma’el!) through the eyes of God Godself: to be willing to see how everyone whom we call “Stranger” is the beloved child of God! What Abraham finally saw in that moment, with his own knife poised above his beloved child, was what God sees, every time a human being is attacked, raped, abandoned, killed. When Abraham felt that unspeakable agony of the knife poised above his own little boy’s throat—he is showing all the generations of our people what we are doing to GOD every time we call another human being a stranger, an other, an enemy. And when finally, God stays Abraham’s hand, the Torah says “Vayisa Avraham et eynav vayar,” “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw.” Now truly, Abraham saw. Now he can see: there are no Strangers. No enemies. Not even if they live in our very midst, in our very tents. And what did Abraham see, an ‘eyl achar,’ a Ram behind—a Ram to be offered in place of his child. That Hebrew word ‘achar’ hints at the Hebrew word “Acher,” which means, “Other,” or even “Stranger.” A ram for a sacrifice in biblical terms is a symbol of gratitude. It means: Thank God. Thank God, because now Abraham is Chesed, he is Kindness. And now he will never do what is evil in his eyes; now he sees that there are no Strangers.

 And there’s one important coda to this story in the Midrash, in the rabbinic stories. After Sarah died, the Torah tells us that Abraham married another woman whose name was Keturah, whose name means ‘sweet-smelling spices,’ the sweet-spiced smell of that arises from a sacrificial offering. According to the rabbis, Ketura was none other than Hagar herself. Now, her name was forever changed: she was no longer The Stranger, but the sweet fragrance of Gratitude itself, taken back, with Chesed, with Love, with healing, into the home that she had been driven out of, back now into the tent of Abraham.

 So there you have it: the solution to every problem known to humankind: look are truly see: before you is the child of God, just like your child. The solution to it all became possible in that moment of Abraham’s seeing what is evil in his eyes, and so now we must never again do what is evil in our eyes. It all became possible in Abrahams ability to see with God’s eyes, to find empathy, to find Chesed, ulitmate Kindness. Abraham’s final great trial challenges each one of us: who would you be if you walked through life seeing no one as a Stranger, no one as the enemy? How would you participate in society? How would you forevermore treat your family, your neighbors, your government differently? Our world is beset by innumerable problems from the ways in which we create strangers of one another. Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Thanks to Abraham’s courage, we can now all see the world through different eyes; through the eyes of empathy, of God’s empathy. When Abraham finally lifted his eyes and saw that there are no Strangers at that spot--the spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--he gave that place a name. He called it Adonai Yireh: God will see. What it means is that here, once and for all, may we see as God sees, and do what it right. May we all fulfill our heritage, and show the world to see with the eyes of God.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Safest Place in the World

Take a moment and go inside and ask yourself a question: When was the last time you really felt safe? I don’t mean ‘safe’ in the sense of ‘not in a war zone.’ I mean, when did you feel totally safe. Ultimately safe. Existentially safe in this life? Can you think of a time at all? Try as hard as you can to find a place, a time, a memory, when you knew that kind of safety, that kind of blissful security. If you’re anything like me, you might have a hard time locating a specific memory. Some of us may not be able to think of a single memory at all that fits this criteria. It’s a funny thing to contemplate, because somewhere inside, we feel like we must have had an experience of being cosmically safe, but it’s hard to find a memory that directly points to one experience of it. I can tell you that when I think about this question, I can’t find a particular story in my life like that; it’s more of a feeling about my relationships through my life. I’m particularly drawn back to my early childhood. I have memories of being held by my parents and grandparents, keeping me safe. I have other memories, ironic memories of feeling safe. I remember the very first time the woman who would be my wife took my hand for the very first time—it was a moment when everything else about my life felt anything but safe, but in that moment of her taking my hand, in that reassuring touch, there was a moment—however fleeting—of infinite safety. I suspect that most of us can, if we try hard, find similar kinds of memories; memories not so much of stories or anecdotes, but fleeting moments, moments of feeling close to another, moments that might have little to do with the outer circumstances of our lives, but rather more to do with a feeling of connection, of love, of spirit itself… Today is Sukkot. It’s a fitting holiday for this moment in our yearly journey: we have come through Yom Kippur. We have prayed and pleaded for our well-being—our very safety—in the coming year. We emerge humbled from the experience. And Sukkot itself arises from the profundity of the Yamim Noraim with a message of Simchah, of joy and celebration. It’s a wonderful counterpart to what we have just come through. But Sukkot is rich and complex in how it calls us to celebrate. We celebrate and rejoice on the razor’s edge between security and insecurity. If Yom Kippur weighed on our hearts, and maybe even brought us to tears about life’s insecurity, then Sukkot brings us to music and laughter in response to the very same insecurity. Like all the most profound messages of Judaism, Sukkot is paradoxical. We know entirely well that some of us might not be here this time next year to rejoice—vehayiyta ach sameach, and You shall be so joyful, despite this truth! What kind of crazy alchemy, what kind of black magic is this that our deepest existential insecurities become the silver platter on which we place our cup that runneth over? Indeed, Sukkot goes to extreme lengths to drive the message home of Yom Kippur. You think your life is so secure in your nice climate-controlled house? Well then go outside and gather some rickety wood and cloth and build a sorry excuse for a dwelling, with a bunch of leaves for a roof. You think the life you have is going to go on forever? Try to think that while eating lunch in the Sukkah, when one stiff wind can topple the whole thing right over! veHayiyta Ach Sameach! And you shall be so joyful even with all of that! Are we crazy? Actually, we’re not crazy at all… We have come through quite a few months in the history of the world. The Middle East has changed overnight. Israel’s standing in the world is all the more isolated. Here at home, our economic future looms with dreadful uncertainties. This summer in Washington, we survived an earthquake followed by a hurricane in a matter of days of each other. Last month, we commemorated ten years since the day those two towers—those two symbols of American might and strength—suddenly, so unexpectedly, came crashing down. Is it really crazy on Sukkot for us to leave our secure houses, to leave our fantasies about our own power, and to acknowledge the True Reality; to acknowledge that we’re really not running the show here, that we don’t know what’s coming, that we don’t know how much time we have left? Sukkot, in many ways, is the final acknowledgement of what we woke up to on Rosh HaShanah: that this life as we know it, is not secure. And the world around us shows us, it’s not just on Sukkot, but all year long, that it’s true. We never were in control, we never actually have perfect security in this world. Vehayiyta Ach Sameach! But you must be so joyful! Why? Because—and here’s the great and wonderful paradox of Sukkot—we may never be perfectly secure, but we can be safe! Ultimately safe! Cosmically safe! And the reason for this is because the safety that I’m talking about is not material safety. It’s spiritual safety. It’s just like those memories of feeling safe I asked you to remember. If you go deep enough inside, you can ‘remember’ feeling ultimately, spiritually safe, even if you can’t conjure a specific memory. And the reason for this is that it’s not a memory of a thing at all. It’s the memory of the knowledge of the soul. There’s that beautiful midrash about how, before we were born, we could see from one end of the universe to the other, but then, moments before birth, an angel comes and says ‘Shhh!’ and we are born not remembering all the deep soul-knowledge that we once had. Perhaps we can’t put our finger on it directly, but we know we once understood. And now in our lives, we can understand once again, just for fleeting moments—in the loving touch of a parent to a child, in the safe embrace we experience of our beloved. In those moments that flash by, we somehow know that we are so much more than all the troubles and trials and circumstances that limit us, that challenge us, that seem to threaten our security. For an instant, we come to know that somewhere, deep in our souls, there is a stillness, a peace, a Presence that no life-circumstances can touch. In fact, we discover in those moments that all the insecurities of our lives are hevel, a breath, a mere whisp of air. In those moments of feeling safe, which are really moments of true love and true connection, we understand that who we really are is beyond birth and death itself. We sit in the Sukkah to bring ourselves to remember who we really are. We are not this stuff that withers and is blown away on a breeze. We sit in that Sukkah and it doesn’t matter how beautifully we decorate it: nothing compares to the infinite beauty of our loved ones’ faces shining in the shadowed light of that Sukkah. Nothing can compare to the blessings of who we are, and what we have in each other right here, right now. We realize that however insecure and fleeting this world is, this whole passing and fleeting life of ours is a treasure because we get to spend this moment here for each other. And this achingly beautiful moment that is passing is so perfect, so joyful, because it reminds us that what we really share can never go away. VeHayiyta Ach Sameach—and so, how can we be, even in this fleeting and insecure world, anything but joyful in the face of the Ultimate Truth, in the faces of our beloveds, holding our hands, sharing our undying love. May each of us find the place where are safe this year in our Sukkot. May we come to realize that it doesn’t dwell in our Sukkah at all, but in the truest place of our souls. Chag Sameach!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Pursuit of Longing

I remember when I was a very little boy, around the age of three, my parents did a big mitzvah: they took in a woman who didn’t have a home of her own, and gave her room and board, and in exchange, she kept up the house and helped take care of me. The woman’s name was Ruthie. My parents tell me that Ruthie liked to keep to herself, with a sad, wistful, faraway look in her eye. Ruthie apparently had had a son once, a son whom she had lost, but she never spoke of him. Whenever my mother asked her about what happened with her son, she never wanted to discuss it. But one thing drove away her sadness: she loved me! I mean, she adored little three-year-old me. The sad, quiet Ruthie whom my parents describe doesn’t match my memories. All I remember is her unreserved smile, her laughter, her hugs, her loving touch, her carrying me and taking me everywhere with her. I remember feeling so safe and loved whenever I was around her. And my parents confirm this memory: she was a different person when she was with me. It was like her loving me filled up some kind of emptiness she had inside... And then there was the day that strange red car—that I had never seen before—pulled up in our driveway. I remember the grown-ups talking downstairs. I remember being told to play outside for a while. Then, the car was gone. And so was Ruthie. Later, I found out that on that day, out of the blue, Ruthie’s sister had shown up in that big red car. Without warning that day, she had Ruthie pack her things, and together they left for some state far away. Ruthie never said goodbye. The sisters didn’t say where they were going, and we never heard from Ruthie again. I don’t remember how I felt at the time, but looking back today, I’m certainly not angry with Ruthie. How could I be? I have no doubt about how much she loved me. She was not a woman of words. Even as a little child, I knew, I could feel deep down how much I meant to her. And to this day, I have no doubt that she simply didn’t know how to say goodbye. Her sister had shown up without warning. She was totally unprepared, and how could she find the words, how could she cope with such a goodbye to this little child who, for a brief moment of her life, filled a terrible emptiness. How could she express her gratitude, her love? I have no doubt that she would have, if she could have. If she’s still alive, wherever she may be, I hope she doesn’t feel regret. I hope she knows that I remember her, with love and with longing for her healing from her loss of her own little boy. I long for that with a longing that is really more that I can express in words... The Torah tells us the story of the end of Moses’ life. Moses says “V’Etchanan El Adonai,” “I pleaded with God at that time, saying, O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the first works of your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan...” But God did not grant Moses’ request. Instead, God said to Moses, “Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan…” It doesn’t take much for any of us to put ourselves in Moses’ place in this life. For each and every one of us, there is a Promised Land somewhere over across the great River of Life, somewhere where we know we can’t fully arrive to, not in this lifetime, no matter how much we crave it, thirst for it, desire it…it is beyond our reach. In every one of us, there is always a place of yearning of something more to say, to do, to accomplish. We tend to go through our lives, avoiding experiences of yearning and longing, experiences of feeling life as incomplete or lacking some kind of wholeness. The name of the game for us today is the Pursuit of Happiness, after all. We are taught to make the most of life’s opportunities, always to remember to have fun and enjoy life, not to get caught up in downer spirits. We are taught that we can always drown out the blues and the dissatisfactions of life if we get a great job, a great house, we own great things, go on great vacations, get great notoriety and ‘success’—then we can overcome that gnawing tugging of our hearts in the background—right? No. Actually, we can’t. People nowadays will shop to try to cover over that inner feeling of longing. They’ll shop until they become hoarders. Others turn to alcohol or sex or drugs or food or any manner of addiction to seek to escape that feeling of incompleteness inside that society says we “shouldn’t” have. But no amount of material possessions or diversionary activities can save us from standing on that summit with Moses, knowing that we can’t fully cross over… One of the greatest privileges I have as a rabbi is that I get to perform weddings. One of the most beautiful things in the world I get to see is the shining faces of a couple looking right at me under that Huppah: faces of such love and such pure joy and happiness. We all know, of course, that the moment we wait for at a Jewish wedding (before the kiss, of course) is the moment that the glass is broken and we shout Mazel Tov! I often get the question what the breaking of the glass means. Many of us have heard that it represents remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem even at such moments of greatest joy. That answer is true, but it’s only partially true. It’s also a ritual act that captures, perhaps better than anything else, the real kind of joy that is happening at a wedding. When a couple stands under that Huppah, it’s a little taste of perfection, of perfect happiness; the Huppah becomes a little Garden of Eden. But that perfection cannot last, not in this world. We must break the spell. With the breaking of the glass, we ‘wake up’ and remember that the love and joy of that moment, as beautiful and perfect as it is, is a fleeting flash in a world where nothing lasts. I think that’s the real reason why we cry at weddings. We are overcome by longing—a longing that is really love itself welling up within us: love for that beautiful couple discovering such happiness in a world where life so quickly passes. It wasn’t for nothing that the song goes, “Is this the little girl I carried, Is this the little boy at play. I don’t remember growing older—when did they?” That plaintive song perfectly captures what I’m talking about! It’s all about yearning, longing. We Jewish people have a unique and brilliant relationship to the fundamentally human and universal capacity to long and yearn for what could be in this life. In other religious traditions, there are different responses to human longing. Some religions teach their adherents to sublimate their longings and surrender or submit to the will of the deity. Some Eastern religions talk about tangha- “desire” and “dissatisfaction” as the essence of all human suffering, the very thing that must be “extinguished” in our human nature. But we Jews, we go in the opposite direction: we embrace this longing as that which makes us most human, and closest to God. Longing and yearning are everywhere in Judaism. It is the essence of our prayers: we long for a return from exile, back to the Land of Israel, we long to rebuild Jerusalem, we long for the Mashiach. Our texts are filled with expressions of longing. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” we pray. We pray never to lose our longing. We may lose everything else, but please, O God, not that yearning.. Longing and yearning lie at the very heart-center of Judaism. We are the people who yearn. Longing is the national genius of the Jewish people, the essential magic ingredient of our survival through the ages. We may have known exile and centuries of catastrophes and persecutions. And how have we collectively responded to these losses? With anger, bitterness and hatred? No. We have, as a people, always responded with an ever-deepening longing to come home, to repair the brokenness of the world that we can feel in the broken places in our hearts. So many of us are filled with concern for our lives, for our families, for the world. Some of us reflect today and wish our lives could have been better, that we had made different decisions, or that we could get back a happiness or contentment that we remember we once had. Any and all of these life situations are a variation on the theme of longing. And the brilliance of our tradition tells us: don’t run away from these dissatisfactions, these concerns, even that sadness. Don’t be afraid to embrace it. Embracing our longing, not fleeing from it, is the secret to healing our lives. In other words, we cannot pursue happiness until we pursue our longing first! When we say the Ashrei, we say the line “Poteach et yadecha, umasbia lechol chai ratzon,” It’s like we ritually become like Adam in Michelangelo’s Cistine Chapel—now with hand inverted palm up toward God’s open hand: “You, God, open Your hand, and you satisfy every living thing with ‘ratzon.’ “ What is ‘ratzon?’ It is usually translated as God’s good “will” or “favor.” But in the Zohar, our sages teach us that what ‘ratzon’ really means is ‘longing!’ What does this mean? That in some mysterious way, the act of embracing our own longing, is how we come full circle and satisfy that very longing! That God opens God’s hand to us, and satisfies us by giving us our capacity for yearning. And why is this so? It is because in truth, as Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, it is God who yearns for us. Our infinite yearning is the very image of God within us! Every time we feel that ache inside, it is God’s longing for us to come home. If you want to find the face of God in your life, seek the places where your life feels the most imperfect! When Moses stood on that summit and pleaded to cross over, perhaps that was the greatest piece of Torah he gave over in his entire life. He stands for us all. In his standing there, he shows us that if there’s anything that each and every one of us in this world has in common, it is a deep soul-knowledge that this world, this life we live is not perfected, not whole. Each and every one of us has within us a vast ocean of such depth of feeling, a sea of imponderable depths of love and kindness and goodness that we can’t possibly give over in this one little lifetime. We can try mightily, and still we fall short; ultimately we are misunderstood, we don’t make it. The great pathos of our human condition, is that it is not possible for any of us to live up to the potential of goodness that dwells within us. The myth that life is just about pursuing happiness ignores this truth. There is always a part of us that grieves over the love that we can’t give over—and to know this, to embrace it, paradoxically, is the only real wholeness—in Hebrew ‘Shalom’—the only real peace and joy. Why? Because our longing is our greatest motivator to action and to justice. When I know that I have more kindness within my soul than I can ever give over, and so do you, there’s a joining—you and me—and all I feel is compassion, the deepest empathy with you. And I am motivated to act out of kindness, as much as I can, for you. Even if we know that we can never do enough, even if we can’t save the world, or even one person, we can die trying. The greatest act of courage, the noblest of our humanity, is when we transform our yearning into action, when we reach out in kindness for the sake one another in this world. Every Mitzvah, when it’s all said and done, is yearning transformed into action. When we reach out fully knowing that we may never succeed—or perhaps we will—the success is not in the result, but in the action born of the longing itself for the sake of another’s happiness. The generation of Israelites that left Egypt journeyed for forty years and never made it to the Promised Land. It wasn’t their arrival, but their yearning will to journey forward—for the sake of their children and children’s children- that continues to inspire all future generations. “Lo aleicha hamlacha ligmor” “You are not required to finish the task,” say our ancient sages in the Mishnah, “V’lo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah,” “But neither are you free to desist from trying.” It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter how much of your potential you have lived up to, or squandered. It doesn’t matter if your better years are behind you, or if you have all the material trappings of success you could want. We’re all together in this. The aching of your heart that you know so well is there in the hearts of everyone you see, of everyone you know. There are no exceptions. I got my first taste of this truth so many years ago, in Ruthie’s bittersweet and unfulfilled longing for her own child, a longing that found only a fleeting respite in her love for me; a longing that motivated her to share nothing but joy with me, despite her sadness. From Ruthie, I learned that yearning and love are not different emotions, but are really two aspects of the same One Love, a love that comes from nowhere other than God. When we acknowledge this Love, this truth, we, together, make God’s dream for us come true for one another. Rabbi Heschel, as usual, summed it up best. He said: “…he who craves for the light of God [foregoes] his ease for ardor, [and forgoes his] life for [the sake of] love, knowing that contentment[--happiness--]is the shadow, not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance. For it is not the I [myself] that trembles [with longing] alone, [yearning] is not a stir out of my soul [alone] but [rather yearning is] an eternal flutter that sweeps us all.” On Yom Kippur, the day of fasting, may the hunger of our souls to be a blessing ignite our deepest passions to do what we can, in our own beautiful, limited ways, to make this world a blessing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

God Doesn't Give Us More Than We Can Handle

It has been two and half years since my little girl, my youngest, Meirav, was diagnosed with Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes. In some ways, it seems like centuries ago, since that terrible day when she was rushed to the hospital, having trouble breathing, her skin, ashen. It seems like another lifetime now, the moment the doctors told us that our beautiful, perfect little girl had an incurable disease; a disease that would require insulin dependence and constant monitoring to keep her alive—for the rest of her life. I’ll never forget those images of those early moments and days in the hospital: my little one hooked up to all those tubes and wires in intensive care; her cries in fear and pain; the doctors, nurses, technicians frantically working around her; the look in my wife’s eyes as she steeled herself to be strong for her and for us all; my wife’s hand holding Meirav’s little limp hand in her palm. The ensuing days, trying to get my mind around this sudden new reality; the nurses teaching Batya and me how to manage this incredibly complex regimen of insulin, of blood-monitoring, of administering injections into our own child’s arm. It was all so overwhelming—Meirav’s fears and my constant attempts to sublimate my own fears. I remember, only in fleeting memories now, the despair, the moments of darkness, the sense of being betrayed by my hopes and prayers that God would protect my children from illness, from disease of this magnitude. But I wasn’t spared, as so many of us, despite our prayers, are not spared such things. That was two and a half years ago. Two and half years of us learning, together with Meirav, how to manage this disease. The frightening moments when she can feel her blood glucose plummeting, or soaring dangerously high. Learning to avoid disaster day by day—a process that is truly more of an art than an exact science. Two and half years later, Type 1 “Juvenile” Diabetes is the “new normal” for the Steinlauf family. But there’s a big difference between this moment and those first overwhelming and nightmarish moments. Today, I’m fine. So is my wife. And so is Meirav. In fact we’re all fine, and happy. And even more importantly, I no longer feel betrayed by God. In fact, despite everything, my faith at this moment is vastly greater than it was before. I don’t usually like to talk about life experiences as “testing” us, but if we choose to look at this experience of my child’s diabetes as a test of faith, then I would like to believe that my family and I have “passed” that test. And on this day, I would like to talk about how I can stand here before you, with a joyful and abiding faith in life’s goodness, despite everything. Back in my old synagogue, I knew an amazing woman, whose two young children suffered from multiple health problems. And she shared with me a saying that gave her lots of strength. She often said, over and over, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” And I was so happy that this woman had that belief to hold onto, to give her strength. But in all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much I agreed with that statement. After all, I can think of all kinds of people who are dealt more than they can handle: the mentally ill who are homeless, children who are abused and then die or are killed, people who die of starvation. In my experience, I have seen just too many people who couldn’t make it. But today, I think I understand what that saying really means. It’s not a simple platitude that denies the harsh realities of life. It is, instead, a statement of faith in life itself. It’s a statement that, in truth is not so much about God as it is about our very selves, our very souls—even when the worst thing--the unthinkable--happens, there’s a truth to the fact that we can handle so much more than we think we can. I share these stories this Rosh HaShanah for several reasons. First, among us in this synagogue right now there are so many with stories parallel to mine. So many of us bear stories of our children, or our parents or loved ones, and our brave struggles to hold onto faith despite so many hardships. In fact, every one of us faces in our lives the prospect of loss, of fearing for our loved one’s safety and well-being. I tell my story, as well, because there are fears and insecurities that we all share together: what’s going to happen to our livelihoods in this economy? What kind of future do our children have in a world that is changing so fast—and so much of that change is not for the good? And then there’s Israel. What prospects are there for our people and our homeland now, with the chances of a viable peace process looking so grim as events develop in the UN and in the middle east? We’re all together in this moment, beset by so many fears, so many possible nightmares. It would be nice, indeed, to have faith that there’s a God up there, who despite all these possibilities, is never going to give us more than we can handle… In the Torah, there’s a poignant moment when Rivka is pregnant with her twins, soon to be born as the rival brothers, Jacob and Esau. “Vayitrotzetzu habanim b’kirbah,” “But the twins struggled in her womb. She was plagued by a violent and difficult pregnancy. And so Rivka went before God and asked, “Im ken lamah zeh Anochi?” “If this is so, why do I exist?” Such a heartbreaking question! Such words that express so much suffering, pain and grief. And God answers her and says that two nations are in her womb, nations that will always struggle, but the older shall serve the younger. It’s quite an answer, but I have always been struck by the fact that it doesn’t quite answer Rivka’s actual question! I don’t hear in her words just a request for a prophecy. I hear the plaintive tones of a woman bowled over by her life, at the end of her rope. Lamah zeh Anochi—Why am I?! I hear the prayer of a woman who wants assurances from God that it’s okay, that she’s okay, that God will care for her. But God doesn’t give her an easy and straightforward answer in this story. God doesn’t promise that her path will be an easy one. God doesn’t give her any one thing to believe in, any one crutch to hold onto about herself, even though her request was deeply personal. Instead, God gives her the message that she’s part of a bigger unfolding story. Instead of a belief, God gives her something more valuable. God sets her feet on the path toward having faith in life’s unfolding path itself. As miraculous as the Voice of God was that spoke to her, it was not enough to impart the truest kind of faith in Rivka. The only one who could give Rivka real faith, was Rivka herself… You see, in our Jewish perspective, there is a difference between “belief” and “faith.” When we ‘believe’ in something, we’re always believing in a concept, a thought, a story about our life. In some religious traditions, there is a requirement or an expectation to ‘believe’ in a set of ideas or stories in order to be considered a true “believer.” Beliefs, of course, don’t just need to be religious. Beliefs can also be arrived at through reason and logic and deduction. But at its core, a belief is an intellectual exercise. It’s “up here.” Faith, on the other hand, is of a different order. Faith is about trusting an inner ‘knowing’ that runs deeper than ideas or concepts. If belief is a mental decision, faith is borne only of experience itself. Beliefs may defy logic. Faith transcends logic. Beliefs live in the intellect. Faith lives in the spirit, in our very souls. Rivka went to God in search of words to believe in; instead, she got a life-path that gave her faith that she was part of something far greater than anything she had ever dreamed about herself before. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed this insight most eloquently. He said, “Faith is not a feature of man’s mentality…It’s essence is not disclosed in the way we utter it, but in the soul’s being in accord with what is relevant to God…[in] our being carried away by the tide of [God’s] thoughts, rising beyond the desolate ken of man’s despair.” The writer Alan Watts said it even more succinctly: “Belief clings; faith lets go.” What does this mean? It’s not only life’s blessings, but sometimes it’s the worst of all experiences--even the experience of our own children suffering, our loved ones dying—these are sometimes the only things that can shake us to our core, that can bring us to let go of who we were, to let go of our arrogance, to let go of our expectations of ourselves, of others…of God. Sometimes it is only when life breaks our heart that we are broken open and finally able to find a deeper Truth within us that we never could have found before. I know that in my life, I have known moments of ‘lamah zeh Anochi,’ moments of such despair and darkness. At those moments, I couldn’t possibly find a way to believe that God was giving me something that I could handle. It was only after I clawed my way out of those moments that I discovered that I survived it, and was changed by it. How did I survive it? How was I changed? I don’t know. I have no idea. All I can say is that something carried me through those experiences—not a belief, not a concept, nor a story, not something outside of me at all. It was, in fact, my very brokenness that revealed a strength inside of me, a strength that could not come into existence without the brokenness itself. It was my brokenness that forced me to find new answers, to seek and notice all the wonderful and caring people and resources around me to help me find the light again. I have found that this strength born of life’s nightmares is not just a raw life-force. It’s a healing strength, a caring strength. A strength that inexorably brings me from despair to hope, from darkness to light, from confusion to clarity. It’s a strength that’s bigger than I am. Another name for that strength might be kindness. It might be compassion. It might be love itself. Or maybe, just maybe it’s God. But it’s not just God. It’s me. It’s my deepest essence, my deepest Truth. My Highest Self. It’s me in the image of God. William James once said “…if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. … we … find, beyond the very extremity of … distress…sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push though the obstruction, never pass those early critical points.” He was onto this idea! ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle’ doesn’t mean that God will necessarily spare us from tragedies and loss and pain. It doesn’t mean that if people suffer, they “should” handle it better because God gave them that suffering. God forbid! What it really means is that if you fear that you can’t handle even the worst nightmare, even the unthinkable—you might just be wrong. We look around at the world: we see so much violence, war, murder, anti-Semitism, children stricken with incurable diseases, people who are homeless and dying. And in our intellectualized realm of “belief” we conclude that we’d never handle any of that if it, God forbid, happens to us. But perhaps the very purpose of this life is for us to get over these beliefs about ourselves. Maybe there’s more within us than we can possibly imagine. Maybe there’s more kindness out there in the world than we give it credit for after all. Lamah Zeh Anochi—Why am I? Maybe God avoids easy answers to that question until we discover for ourselves that we are, in fact, so much more than “Anochi” --than what we thought we were in the first place! We can handle it—even if we lose our dearest treasured ones, even if our whole world comes crashing down on us, even if we must face death itself—because somehow, against our better logic, each of us is destined, sooner or later, to discover that there is a light within our souls that shines brighter than any darkness. A few weeks ago I took my daughter for a special father-daughter outing to the Natural History Museum. As we walked through the crowd, my daughter noticed a boy in a wheelchair being pushed by his father. The boy was a couple of years older than my daughter. Gaunt and pale, his legs were withered and small in his wheelchair. Later, Meirav said to me, “I feel bad for that boy.” I said to her, “Are you so sure that boy is really so sad? Maybe he’s having a perfectly wonderful time.” I went on to explain to her that so many amazing people come up to me and say with total care and good-will, and the most serious concern, “How is your daughter?” And I didn’t need to say anything further: Meirav smiled when I told her this. I smiled back. “You know, and I know, that you’re great. Maybe that boy was having as a good a time in the museum as you were.” You see, during the past two and half years since those difficult first days, we have not only learned how to manage a disease. My child has learned to appreciate the miracle of her body. She has come to find such strength, enough to want to reach out to other children and help them find their strength. My family and I have learned that there are so many people in this world—doctors, amazing nurses, people devoting their lives to helping, to being there, to finding a cure; there are so many miracles of medicine, of modern technology. We have come to see how many miracles keep my daughter alive and thriving day by day, moment by moment—miracles that are so much greater than anything we could have imagined. So indeed, we are great, and my faith is deeper now than anything I could have dreamed of before. I share my story this Rosh HaShanah because Meirav’s and my personal journey of faith is a perfect reflection-in-miniature of the Jewish people’s journey of faith through the centuries. Yes, our people know so many fears right now. And yet, we know that somehow, something miraculous and beyond our ken has carried us through thousands of years of loss and difficulties, of pain and anguish—and has brought us again to reasons for joy and to the deepest of wisdom and strength to sustain us for generations. Yes, Israel’s predicament seems intractable right now, and yet we know that, despite everything, our homeland has risen up to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and shining success-stories of this earth in our time. We might not know what concept to believe in right now that will give us answers to reassure us; and yet, more importantly, we can look into the soul of our people—the most miraculous surviving people of all time—and know, in a way that transcends reason, that we will overcome our difficulties in Israel and here at home. We can know that we will yet—as parents and children, husbands and wives, as friends, as citizens of this earth— we can and will survive whatever it is that will come, we can and will thrive, and we will yet be a shining light to the nations with a light that shines forth—so powerfully, so mysteriously, and yet so surely—from each of our hearts.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Chosen People?

We Jews have a lot to be proud of. We have a long and ancient history. We have been beacons of justice and ethical teachings for countless generations. We have survived more attempts at annihilation than we care to number. And despite everything—exile, civilizations rising and falling, ever-shifting politics and locales—we have survived and have been successful beyond anyone’s imagination. There’s a very special feeling that we have about our identity as Jews. Yes, it’s pride. But it’s also gratitude and wonder, and a deep feeling of a collective heritage and destiny in this world that we share. And there’s also a phrase that often gets quoted and bandied about: we’re the “Chosen People.” Many of us associate our special feeling of Jewishness with that “chosenness.” How could we not—there is so much that feels special about being Jewish. But for obvious reasons, the “Chosen People” expression also engenders a lot of resentment from other peoples, both non-Jewish and Jewish. Does it really mean that we think that God made us inherently better than everyone else? This week’s Torah-reading has one of the core references that have given rise to the idea of the “Chosen People.” It says, “And God has affirmed --‘Hayom’—today--‘L’hiyot lo l’Am Segulah—to be God’s ‘Treasured People.’ So the original expression is ‘treasured,’ not exactly ‘Chosen.’ But the Torah then goes on and says, “God will set you--‘Elion al kol haGoyim’—above all the nations—‘Lit’hilah, uleShem, Ul’tifaret’—in praise, in fame, and in glory, and you shall be an “Am Kadosh,” a Holy People to the Lord Your God. When you hear words like that, it’s hard not to think that we have a religion with a superiority complex! In all fairness, all religions understand themselves to bear ultimate truth. All religions see their own adherents as possessing a special role and destiny. And so Israelite superiority in the ancient world is one aspect of this teaching. Luckily, however, we have the wealth of the Jewish tradition to turn to that can give us some more insight into this teaching. The good news is that anyone who takes the idea of the Chosen People to mean that we Jews should think that we’re inherently better than everyone else, is confused. The great 18th-century Rebbe, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev discussed this very line, and brought to light some very interesting insights that we don’t necessarily notice on the surface. He said, yes, it certainly says that we Jews are a people treasured by God. It certainly places us over the many idol-worshiping nations of the ancient world as morally superior. But there are some interesting hints of other dimensions to this text as well. When it says, for example, that we will be superior to the other nations in praise, in fame, and in glory, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev notices that those three adjectives are in an interesting order. If we are indeed some kind of superior class of supermen and superwomen, wouldn’t our fame be renowned, and first in the series of adjectives to describe us? But it’s not. “Fame” comes second, not first. Levi Yitzchak explains that what makes us so special to God, so treasured, so holy, isn’t that we’re smarter or better than anyone else. Take a look at the ancient Israelites at the moment that these lines were originally uttered. They were finishing their 40-year wandering in the desert. Over all the long years, they had really messed up. They made massive mistakes. They endlessly lost faith, they had complained, they were regularly willing to give up and run back to slavery in Egypt. They made the Golden Calf. They even mounted a full-scale rebellion at one point against Moses and Aaron, and their leaders were only stopped when God opened the earth and swallowed them up. Not a good track record, and certainly not people distinguished as on a higher plane than all others. But at that moment, as they were poised to go over the River Jordan into the Promised Land, they made it. Despite all their failings and sins, they had climbed back up. They found a way to rekindle their faith. They were devoted to the Covenant with God, and were brave enough to face their new lives in the land. The great 19th century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch noticed that the word “Hayom,” meaning ‘today,’ keeps appearing again and again at this section of the Torah. He explains that we truly became a treasured people ‘hayom,’ on that day, after all the 40 years were over—because we were willing to take responsibility for our past and for our destiny right then—even before we entered the land, even before we had anything, while we were still in the wilderness. Hayom, on that day, we owned up to ourselves. We made T’shuvah, we returned to the best in our humanity. In our willingness to get real with ourselves, to make T’shuvah, to honestly Return, this is what makes us an ‘Am Segulah, a treasured people to God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains: you know why the Torah uses the word ‘Tifaret,’ ‘Glory’ to describe us? Is it because we’re just so great? No! The only real Tiferet in the world, the only real glory is when we human beings are willing to embrace even our worst sins, our worst mistakes, our most shameful moments. And instead of running away from them, we bravely go into them. And we learn from them. And we use the insight from these experiences to be the very cornerstone of our strength, of our faith, of our bravery. That turn-around, that transformation, is what is truly glorious. And this is why, according the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, those three adjectives are in their unique order. The last and final word is Tifaret, glory. Glory comes last in the series, because true glory comes at last: when we can transform even our greatest failures into the sources of our greatest success. In this way, glory comes last, but certainly not least. The thing we thought was the least worthy part of ourselves—our guilts, our shames, our mistakes—this can be our crowning jewel. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak describes how God uses our past sins that we have transformed as a garment that God proudly wears. When we really make T’shuvah, that’s when we become the glory of God! So indeed, God did choose the Israelites. God did set them above all the depraved and immoral idolatrous nations of the ancient world, and bestowed upon them the merit of inheriting the Land of Israel. But that chosenness is not a badge of honor that we get to wear no matter what. It’s God’s banner, worn when we are willing to be like our ancestors in the desert. Just like those ancient Israelites, we have all made some bad mistakes in our lives. We all have so many things we wish we hadn’t said or done. We have things in our past that we’re ashamed of. But Hayom, on this day, we can go inside and transform our past to become our greatest strength.. Rosh HaShanah is just a week and a half away. On that day, we will say ‘Hayom Harat Olam,’ this day is the birthday of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, we will remind ourselves, over and over, that we certainly are not more special than anything else in this miraculous world that is treasured by God. But like our ancestors before us, we become a people, we become a treasure to God, when we own up to our lives. We get to be a shining example to all the nations of the world that our humanity and this world is not hopeless. Even if we have made a mess of our lives and this world, we can always turn it all around Hayom, today, right now, when we turn our hearts around and face the Truth. This year, may we embrace the Truth that if we are chosen for anything, it is teach all the peoples of this world how we are all the treasure of God.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Never Lie To Yourself

This is a very special weekend here at Adas Israel. This is the weekend where we will have our Garden of the Righteous ceremony, which honors the memory of Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust. This year, we honor the memory of Jose Arturo Casstellanos, an El Salvadoran diplomat, who used his influence to issue visas to Jews imperiled by the Third Reich. Castellanos, incredibly, is credited with saving 40,000 Jews from almost certain death from the Nazis. We are, of course, so honored that his daughter, Frieda and granddaughter, are with us. And we are so awed by his amazing story. Once again, we can marvel at this quality we call ‘righteousness,’ this unbelievable courage to risk everything, even one’s own life, for the sake of strangers. The purpose of our event is not just to tell the story of a hero, but to inspire us all, to impart the message that this kind of righteousness is, in fact, something that we are all—as Jews, as human beings—called to in this world. But how do we do it? How could we ever find within ourselves that kind of strength and courage to live as righteous human beings?
The answer to this question is, in many ways, the very essence of Judaism. And it is also the essential theme of this week’s parashah: Kedoshim, the spiritual and literal heart of the Torah. It begins with the words Kedoshim tihiyu, You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy. It’s quite a charge to the Jewish people when you think about it. We must embody, through all our generations, a uniquely Godly quality called Holiness in our every word, our every gesture, our every decision, our every action. But what is Holiness? In many ways, the meaning of that word is ineffable. Holiness is the quality that makes God, God! And our charge is to live out that Holiness, even though we are imperfect human beings. Our rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions use lots of textual allusions in these lines to reveal a deep truth in this Divine charge: that Israel is like a bride marrying the Groom, who is God. And so, as a people, we are wedded to that Holiness. In our very love for God, like a bride for a groom, we lovingly uphold the inner essence of our Beloved in our lives. So whatever Holiness ‘is,’ it’s all about separating ourselves from the world—just a little bit—just enough so that when we go about our day, there’s a little piece of the Godly in our every action. In essence, so that the eyes of God behold the world through our own eyes; so that the Hands of God move through our hands. It’s a beautiful teaching: the result is that we are called upon to be a people not quite the same as the rest of human society; we are called upon to be not mundane, but just a little elevated in our compassion, in our sense of justice; and separate from the world in our care and concern. But, of course, this is no easy task to accomplish. It takes a lifetime of practice. And our whole system of mitzvoth and study are there to get us to that lifetime of practicing Holiness.
In essence, the whole rest of parashat Kedoshim parses out specific examples of commandments where we can act out this Godly quality of Holiness. Case in point: the Torah tells us “uvekatzrechem et k’tzir artz’chem,” and when you reap the harvest of your field, “lo tichle pe’at sad’cha lakatzir,” “do not reap the corner of the field, [but leave it over for the poor].” It’s a beautiful commandment that creates a society where those who have nothing are remember by everyone else. The corner of every field belongs not to the landowner, but forever more to the poor. But our sages noted an interesting inconsistency in this commandment. When the command begins, God addresses the Israelites in the plural—uvekkatzrechem—when you, plural, harvest; and then it shifts to the singular and says ‘lo techaleh’ do not reap. Why this shift from plural to singular in one sentence? The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, explains this shift with a mashal, a story: there was once a very poor village making plans for the celebration of Simchat Torah, and for the celebration, there was not enough schnapps, or alcoholic beverages to go around. So what did they decide to do? They sent around a barrel to every household, and asked each householder to contribute one glass of schnapps for the communal pool. The first householder thought to himself, ‘Since everyone is going to contribute, I’ll just put in a glass full of water. It’s not like anyone is really going to notice!’ Well, guess what? Everyone in the village had the same selfish thought. And what dismay there was on Simchat Torah when they discovered that they all had a barrel full of water instead of schnapps to celebrate!
So what’s the moral of the story? There is indeed a mandate on us all collectively as the Jewish people to be holy, to leave the corners of our fields for the poor. But don’t assume, just because the mitzvah is in the plural, that you “cut corners” for yourself. To be Holy means that you take the responsibility deeply, profoundly to yourself. In that subtle shift from the plural to the singular, therein is the essence of Holiness, of righteousness itself: it all rides on how much I can see how everyone, the plurality of us all, rides on me and this one decision I make right here, right now. That’s Holiness! That’s Righteousness! Take care, Israelites, our tradition teaches. Don’t just “forget” to leave the corner for the poor. Don’t figure out clever and deceptive ways to get around the injunction. The stakes are just too high.
After the Torah commands us about the corners of our fields, the injunction ends very clearly, very powerfully with the words, “Ani Adonai Eloheichem!” I am the Lord your God. And, of course, that’s a nice way to punctuate the command. Don’t be selfish or untrue, because I’m God. I said so. Don’t think you can get away with shirking this because I, God, know the Truth. As 21st century Jews, we can read this injunction, and we can understand why ending it with ‘…because God said so,’ might be very motivational for our ancestors. But perhaps that lacks a motivational power for many of us today. But before we right it off as having no more force, take a moment to consider the power of this statement in its context. The Torah reading began with the words ‘Kedoshim tehiyu,” You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy. And so remember what we said a moment ago: To be Jewish is to be Holy, to be ‘wed’ to God, yes. But even if you don’t know what to believe about God, we can all agree on what is “Godly:” it’s that apartness, the elevatedness, that practice of abstracting from our experience just enough to see and act with eyes and hearts and hands of compassion. So that little statement “Ani Adonai Eloheichem” isn’t just “I’m God and I say so.” It’s a way of saying ‘Remember who you are.’ ‘Remember your real purpose in this life.’ Don’t fall into the trap of being merely human. Yes, we’re human, but we have a spark of the Godly that lives in potential in our every action, in every moment.
Ani Adonai Eloheichem. There’s the potential for the Godly, the Holy, the Righteous in this very moment, in this very decision. Remember! Holiness happens in our realization that this moment, this choice, is actually bigger than you are. There’s an ethical imperative right here, right now. Holiness comes down to this one choice, this one realization: are you going to turn to selfishness, or are you going to face your responsibility to the world in this moment?
Another way of understanding this choice of Godliness, of Holiness is that it all comes down, quite simply, to the Truth of this moment. Are you going to face the Truth, or are you going to lie to yourself: that’s okay, everyone else will be contributing the schnapps. Oh, it’s okay, everyone else is going to leave the corner of their field. That’s okay, everyone else will pay their taxes honestly. That’s okay, I’m sure someone else—maybe in a better position than me—that someone else will save the Jews. Here’s what it means to be Holy: to be holy is to commit ourselves, body and soul, never ever to lie to ourselves.
And there it is: what is the righteousness that makes for a great man, a hero, like Jose Arturo Castellanos? It’s the righteousness of a man who refused to look away from the Truth. It’s the righteousness of a man who understood that there was an ethical imperative in this moment, in this choice, that was vastly greater than he. It’s the righteousness of a man who would not, who could not deceive himself. Why? Because Ani Adonai Eloheichem: because he understood that to be fully human is to rise above the mundane, to be separate and elevated above even his own complacency, above his own self-centered impulses. There is something so inspiring in this, and so beautiful that we Jews can celebrate this essentially Jewish imperative to Holiness, to Rigtheousness, reflected back from the heroism of a non-Jew. It gives us hope that the Holiness that lies at the heart of our Torah, is a Holiness that one day we can share with the all the human beings of this earth. Tomorrow, we will join together with Jews and non-Jews, Americans and Latinos, all races and creeds to celebrate this righteousness, this Holiness that can overcome all darkness and evil. May we indeed be inspired by the heroism of Castellanos, may his memory inspire us to affirm the Holiness of our Jewish souls. May we, like Castellanos, never again lie to ourselves. May we face the Truth, no matter how difficult that Truth is to face. And in that Truth, may we find the Face of God showing us the way to preserve life, to uphold justice, and transform this earth to a place, once and for all, of peace.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gold in the Walls

It never ceases to amaze me how deeply passions run about Israel. And I don’t mean just among members of this congregation. I don’t even mean among Jews alone. It’s amazing how the whole world seems always so impassioned, so hyper vigilant, so ready to scream and yell and battle over the fate of Israel, the Jewish State. Why is that? Why is the media so focused on it? Why do so many people, everywhere it seems, have such definite, absolute opinions about who is right and who is wrong in Israel? Why is the whole world so quick to polarize over this place? At times, it really seems as if there’s something supernatural going on, something particularly energizing about the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. And maybe this really is so. If you read the Torah, there’s no doubt about the particular spiritual power of the Land of Israel. It really is a unique focal point of the world. According to our ancient tradition, things happen in that particular place that don’t quite happen in that way anywhere else.
Case in point is the subject of this week’s Torah-reading: the Metzora, the ones afflicted with Tzara’at, that strange affliction that not only causes a white, scaly outbreak on the skin, but also on one’s clothes, and even in the walls of one’s house. And particularly, it seems, the houses of the Land of Israel are uniquely susceptible to contract this disease. Remember, last week we learned what this disease is really about: it’s obviously not just an illness. It’s a spiritual affliction that is the physical manifestation of a spiritual degradation. Tzara’at is the result of spreading Lashon Hara, evil speech, hateful, twisted, and corrupt ideas that can corrode the human spirit, and undo the very fabric of decent society. Engage in calumny, gossip, slander, hate speech, and you will be zapped in the Land of Israel with this disease. Speak unkind and careless speech within your family, and the very walls of your home will begin to rot away with this Divinely-sent affliction. A home afflicted is obviously a very powerful metaphor for the destructive nature of hateful speech: the house, the home, the safe-place—even this can be fodder for the spreading of the worst and lowest behaviors of humanity. So take care, Israelites, even in the privacy of your homes, and never spread hate or evil, no matter where you are!
But this idea of a house afflicted has even deeper implications about the moral power of the Land of Israel, implications that have resonance even into our own times: the Torah says, “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you la’achuzah, as a possession, and I inflict tzara’at, an eruptive plague ‘b’veit eretz achuzatchem,’ in your house in the land you possess…” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, brings in an interesting Midrashic interpretation of this verse. He explains that the Israelites, when they came into the Land of Cana’an, actually inhabited the houses that had belonged to the ‘Amorites, the pagans who had been on the land before. He explains that the ‘Amorites concealed treasures of gold within the walls of their houses during the Israelites’ 40-year wanderings, because they knew that the Israelites would eventually come, dispossess them, and chase them from their homes. So they hid them. Why did they do this? Because they knew what God had told Abraham all those years before: that one day his offspring would come and inherit the Land. They knew that once their own sinfulness reached the critical breaking point, then the Israelites would arrive and they would be expelled from the Land. So they hid their gold in the walls knowing their time of expulsion was near, but they were ever-hopeful that eventually, even the Israelites’ sinfulness would result in their—the Israelitess’-- expulsion—at which time the ‘Amorites could return to their old houses, and get their gold back from inside the walls. But, with the hindsight of history, we know that the ‘Amorites never did return to the land, because their pagan sinfulness was so great, they were completely wiped out.
But it was good news for us! Even when our walls were afflicted, we had to rip down those walls, and lo and behold, we, the Israelites, discovered gold in those walls for us!
Embedded in this story, like the gold embedded in the walls, is the notion that the Land of Israel is not like other places. It has a moral reckoning for its inhabitants: if your immorality and sin become too great—the land will vomit you out…Our sages even see this warning embedded in the Hebrew of our Torah reading: there’s a funny repetition of the Hebrew word ‘achuzah,’ which means ‘possession.’ It says ‘When you come into the Land that I [God] give you la’achuzah, as a possession’…and then it talks about tzara’at in your house in ‘eretz achuzatchem’ in the Land of your possession. Why use the same word twice in the same sentence? Because, our sages explain, God wants us to know that we possess this land not by our own power, but because God gave it to us. And furthermore, if we start to claim absolute possession and ownership over the land, as if it’s ‘achuzatchem,’ as if it’s our possession—that’s when our very houses will start to rot with disease! It’s as if our tradition wants us to remember that “our” very land, “our” very houses on that land, they didn’t originally belong to us at all. It’s only when we humbly recognize this, then we can find the gold in the walls…
But wait a minute. There’s a disturbing paradox in this teaching, isn’t there? It’s only when we Israelites are arrogantly spreading evil speech that our houses get afflicted with this disease, and then, when we rip down the rotting walls—we’re getting rewarded for our arrogant speech with gold! Is that fair? Is that right? Why would God allow us to be rewarded for our evil speech in the land?
The answer comes when we consider the nature of our so-called ‘reward’ of gold. That gold in the walls, it was once the priceless treasures of those poor old ‘Amorites, now long gone from the Land. It represents their hopes and dreams of their future return to their homes. And now we get their gold. We even get their houses. It’s a reward, indeed. But put yourself in the place of that humbled Israelite, afflicted with a Divine punishment for their own arrogant words; now finding gold from someone else expelled by God from my own house for their arrogant sinfulness, now lost to this land and to history. As shiny and valuable as that gold may be, it doesn’t feel like much of a reward, does it. If you’re anything like me, that gold, even that house, feels kind of sickening. It feels tragic. And it leaves us in a tail-spin.
And this, I believe, is the very point of this teaching. Like so many of the wisest teachings of our Jewish tradition, it’s there to disturb us, to discomfit us, to bring about a dark uneasiness deep within our souls about our moral standing in the Land of Israel, and in the world: We Jewish people, look at our place in the Land of Israel. Look at our homeland, the very homes we live in. It is such a blessing. It is such a miracle. It is such a gift of God. Indeed, the Land is ours to possess! But take care and remember: this Land was once the possessions of others. Remember your own arrogance on that Land. Remember that as soon as you make an idol of the land itself, of your house itself, you literally bring down that house, you bring down the holiness of the Land, and you endanger your very place on the Land. Let the rotting disease on the walls, and the shining gold within stand as an eternal reminder of this truth.
No wonder there are such eternal passions surrounding the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. It’s a land that bears scars of loss, of moral struggle, and of our highest yearning for redemption. Isn’t it amazing how the deepest struggles in the modern state of Israel directly reflect some of our most ancient struggles about the land: different peoples claiming the land as their own; the Jewish people with our sense of our holy and God-given connection to the Land; the collective guilts and angers surrounding accusations of one people dispossessing another people. These themes and messages are not just current events. These themes have been defining the moral struggles of the Land literally since time immemorial.
We all yearn for a solution, once and for all, for the problems and challenges that beset our people in the Land of Israel. This is why our passions flare so fiercely. But our tradition wants us to understand that the Land of Israel, like it’s very name, Yisrael, mean’s ‘struggle.’ Struggle with God. Struggle for truth. Struggle for what is right and good in a place that is inherently and deeply complex. Embedded in the land is indeed the purest and most precious of gold—the gold of spirit, of insight, of Torah, of moral excellence. But that gold always comes with a price. It always bares the scars of those who have failed to live up to its worth. This is what it means to live in the Land of Israel—not to be free of struggle, but to lift that struggle up, and see it as a struggle toward goodness, toward holiness, toward humility, compassion and justice. So long as we look upon the walls of our homes in the Land of Israel, and see in the very walls a message that humbles us, that drives us not toward polarized hatreds but toward wisdom and justice, then the struggle of our Land, the struggle of centuries, is truly worth it.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ice Cream Breakfast

My grandmother had a good death. One that any of us would hope for. She was 99 years old. She had seen her children, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren grow and flourish. She never lost her mental abilities, or her wicked sense of humor. She lived her life devoted to her family and her people. One of the greatest lessons of her amazing century of life came at the very end itself.
My Grandma lived her life with great simplicity. She neither had riches nor required them. She never craved extravagance. Whenever a milestone, an accomplishment or a special event came up through the years, she and my grandfather always marked the occasion in one special way. They would sit down together and have a little vanilla ice cream in a glass of ginger ale . By the time Grandma died, she hadn’t had this treat in many years, maybe not since Grandpa died 20 years ago. But that final day of her life, she told the woman caring for her that she was having a craving: could she get a little vanilla ice cream with ginger ale? It was first thing in the morning, but her health aid, ever the angel she was, went and got this treat for her. Grandma had her vanilla and ginger ale float for breakfast, and asked for second, and even third helping. Not long after this, she simply closed her eyes and died.
It is absolutely clear that my grandma knew that this was it. She knew it was her time. She knew that she had lived a beautiful life, and since it was ending, why not celebrate it?
I like to say that we all learn Torah from one another. I believe that ‘Torah’ is not just the Five Books of Moses. “The Torah” is actually a mirror that we hold up before ourselves that shows us the infinite uniqueness of our own souls. We can find infinite Divine wisdom by studying the Torah. And we can find infinite Divine wisdom by studying each other, by truly listening to one another, by being students of one another. Grandma gave me Divine Wisdom through her good death. She taught me that death is not anything to be afraid of. She taught me that each of us has our time in this life. For some of us, it may be a century. For others, something shorter, for some—too short. But whatever time we have, it is so very precious. We all know that it is precious, in our reflective moments.
But Grandma went beyond this insight. She understood that sometimes, it’s good to have ice cream for breakfast. More than good. Ice cream floats at 8:00 a.m. are sometimes essential; they are what make us truly human when it’s all said and done. Our humanity is at its best when we mark life’s passages through our ceremonies and rituals that direct our minds and hearts to life’s sweetness, to life’s amazing brilliance—so rich, so incomprehensible, so beautiful because it passes so quickly: it could be a hundred years or vastly fewer. When it’s all said and done, length of years cannot compare to quality of years.
We often attempt to fill our lives with entertainments, riches, and extravagant distractions. We’re afraid to face life’s transience. But grandma seemed to know better. She knew that life’s not an impending loss to be avoided. It’s a gift to acknowledge by tasting its sweetness while we have it. I am so proud to be Lucille Klayman’s grandson. I am proud to live and represent her beloved Judaism. Like Grandma, Judaism also teaches us to pause in the midst of life each and every day--in gratitude and wonder--to taste life’s sweetness through our rituals and ceremonies that remind us of life’s gifts.
The Shabbat after her funeral, my family gathered together for Shabbat dinner. And guess what we all had for desert that night? Batya and I have a new tradition now to mark milestones together with our children: vanilla ice cream with ginger ale. In this way, we are blessed by the memory of Grandma’s good death—a sweet treat to remind us that God blesses us, as God blessed Grandma, by keeping us alive, by sustaining us, and by bringing us to the blessing of this moment. May we all be similarly blessed, as my Grandma was. May we all be blessed not only with a century of life, but a life where we know how each moment truly is a sweet blessing.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mobs and the Potential for Good

Last week, President Obama delivered a message when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down from his place of power. Obama said “while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history -- echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.” These are beautiful and inspiring words of our president in the face of extraordinary change in the middle east. As Jews, we have watched the images on television, read the reports in the newspapers, and we heard Obama’s remarks. And we can’t help but have a terribly ambivalent reaction. This isn’t just any popular uprising for the sake of democracy. These are Arab countries. This is Egypt. Mitzrayim. This was our sworn enemy with whom we entered into an uneasy yet solid peace agreement decades ago. These countries can profoundly threaten the safety of the State of Israel. On the one hand, it is the common folk marching for justice, for their rights—something so very close to our Jewish souls. On the other hand, how many of those common folk would applaud and do anything to obliterate the Jewish State? What’s worse is that we’re all too aware of the threats of the mobs, particularly mobs of our enemies. We Jews bear the painful scars of mobs of crusaders, of Cossaks, of Nazis, of the mobs in Iran. We know what peril lies in mobs who have no love for the Jews or for Israel.

Indeed, in our own experience, we know from the dangers of mobs going awry. This week’s parashah is defined by the evils and dangers of mob mentality. I’m speaking, of course, of the mob of Israelites who feared when Moses didn’t come down from the mountain. The Israelites who demanded that Aharon fashion a god of gold who would go before them. The Israelites who said ‘Eileh Eloheicha, Yisrael’—this is your god, O Israel! –to the Golden Calf. God is enraged at this brazen act of idolatry. “Ata, hanichah li,” “Now, let me be,” God declares, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them. But it is at this intense and horrifying moment that something fascinating happens: Moses steps up and intercedes on behalf of the sinful Israelites. He argues for the sake of their survival. He reminds God that the Egyptians would note that this God of Israel is evil, who rescues the Israelites, only to destroy them in the desert. He reminds God of the favor incurred by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: of their loyalty and his covenant with their descendants. With this, God relents God’s anger. It’s an incredible moment: here we have the classic angry God of the biblical account. Only now, this angry God is surprisingly willing to be ‘talked down,’ by Moses.

When God says ‘hanicha li,’ “Let me be,” to Moses, and when you think about it, it’s a rather strange thing to say. God is God. God is all powerful. Why in heaven or earth would God say ‘Let me be’ to a human being, as if he were being restrained? In the Talmud,[1] we find a extraordinary teaching of Rabbi Abahu that illustrates the power of this moment: Abahu says, “this teaches that Moses took hold of the Holy One, blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, presents a different perspective on this. Rashi explains: “Here God created an opening, and informed [Moses] that the matter rested on him; if he would pray, God would not destroy them.” Either way you look at it—either it’s Moses taking a hold of God’s “garment,” or God using a figure of speech to prompt Moses—this is a moment of empowering Moses to rise to his greatest nobility of spirit, to defend his people, to speak the worthiness of the people of Israel before God. And miraculously it works!

It’s especially miraculous when you compare this moment to other moments of Divine wrath in the Bible. When God wipes out the world in the great flood, there’s no discussion at all. Noach doesn’t even have a chance to speak up. When God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, at least he gives Abraham a chance to defend the potential innocent of the cities—to no avail, of course. There isn’t anyone worthy of saving there. But at this moment, the great sin of the people in worship ing the Golden Calf, there is something altogether new in the world. God says ‘hanichah li.’ Those Hebrew words, ‘Let me be,’ can also literally be translated as “Let me down:” Talk me down! In a sense, it really is an opening: God is saying, ‘Go for it, Moses. Now you can bring down my rage at them, even though they certainly don’t deserve it, I’m willing to be talked down. I am willing to forgive them, if you are truly willing to believe in them!

There’s a wonderful midrash where God literally says this point. “Whenever I win an argument with my children, as at the time of the Flood or of Sodom and Gomorrah,” says God, “I lose. Whenever I lose an argument, I win.” What this means is that at the Flood, and particularly at Sodom and Gomorrah, God won the argument, but in the ultimate sense, God loses. The rabbis of the Midrash are quick to recognize on a visceral level what we all feel when we encounter the destroying God of the Bible: God loses when people die at God’s hand, even if the victims deserved the punishment. When we human beings, however, win in the argument against God, when we talk even God down so that life itself is preserved, then ultimately God wins. God, the rigid judgmental God of old, wants to lose the argument! Our Torah reveals that God wants more than anything to lose so that the human spirit can express faith in itself to overcome our propensity to evil.

The mob of Israelites committed the worst kind of sin in the Bible: idolatry itself. And yet, God wants Moses to recognize their potential for holiness despite this sin. The reason for this is because here, unlike the Flood, unlike Sodom and Gomorroah, there really is the potential for the good. Moses speaks this potential, showing how they are the descendants of the covenant, how they bear a connection to something greater than their present limitedness, and when we human beings can own this sense of our potential, the destroying angry God willingly recedes.

It’s hard to resist comparisons between the ancient and the modern. Today, it’s not the Israelites, but the Arab peoples and the Egyptians who are the crowd whom we fear can become a mob. And now, the Egyptians have overthrown their Pharaoh. When Obama, and much of the world, and a real part of ourselves looks on this moment, we see indeed the potential for holiness in this act. But going from a mob to a holy people isn’t easy. Moses had to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments to remind them how badly they had strayed. And indeed, in the middle east, the idolatries of Muslim Fundamentalism, of Israel-hatred and anti-Semitism often run rampant among the mobs. The precarious transitions of power can so easily be turned on an evil path. But then again, the people acted not out of hatred or a desire for violence, but out of a genuine desire for rights, for freedom, for justice in their land.

On some level, I can feel the presence of God hanging over the middle east at this moment, saying ‘hanichah li,’ ‘Talk me down.’ There is so much potential for this to go bad. And yet, God waits for the world, for us, and for the Middle Eastern peoples themselves to see and live by the potential for the good that is in this moment. We can only imagine how difficult it was for Moses to speak out on behalf of the Israelites’ potential. Like God, Moses too must have felt betrayed and filled with doubt about the Israelites goodness. And yet, he overcame his rage and doubts, and stood up for their potential. At this moment in history, we are like Moses. God has given us the opening. Can we rise to see the potential for real democracy, for a healthy and just society in Egypt and elsewhere, despite all our reasons to retreat into fear and defensiveness because of the people’s and the states’ shortcomings? Can we, like God in our Parashah, be the people of infinite compassion, despite everything, and applaud a genuine desire for the kind of democracy and blessings that we have here and in the State of Israel? Can we see past our ancient enmities, and be willing to join with the best among these people in a shared search for a more just and compassionate world? The potential is there. And the God of Israel, and of all people’s is waiting only for us to acknowledge this shared potential. May we find that potential fulfilled together. May we overcome our fears, even as we seek to do what we must to protect ourselves. And together, may the children of Israel and the children of Yishma’el join together to make the world a holier place.