Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Standing with Israel





I just got off the phone with Oren Marmerstein of the Israeli Embassy.  It’s one thing to read headlines, to debate politics.  It’s another to speak to someone who is regularly contacting his parents and family as the rockets are falling.  Many of us in our congregation have loved ones and dear friends in harm’s way during this difficult time.  This is a time for prayer and for doing what we can to show support.  Oren shared with me information that he can access at the embassy.  He watched a video from the cockpit of an Israeli fighter jet.  He could see how the Hamas target was situated right in the middle of a civilian area, with innocent people acting as human shields.  From the cockpit, the pilot was ready to launch a missile at the target, but suddenly he saw two civilians.  Immediately, he asked permission to abort so as not to harm innocent life, and his commander instantly ratified the request.  Oren told me how a standard policy of the IDF is to literally call the Palestinians in the apartment buildings shielding Hamas outposts, urging them to get away because the area is about to be attacked.  The IDF even sends text messages to warn the people of danger.  The moral strivings of the IDF compared to the cowardly tactics of Hamas are astonishing.  I’m certainly not one to white-wash the failings and shortcomings of the Israeli government or the IDF.  There are many.  But the moral strivings of our people in Israel are real and so little understood by most of the world.  One way we can support Israel is through our sharing of what we know about Israel’s struggle to do what is right in the midst of impossible circumstances.  Another way is to lend financial support to Israel.  Click here for a list of organizations that you can donate to in order to help.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Sukkot 5773: Perfectly Imperfect


Several months ago, the board at Adas voted unanimously to create a task force dedicated to inclusion in our congregation.  It would be a group that would study our building and the culture of our congregation to assess and make recommendations for how we can be more inclusive to those with various disabilities in our community.  When the board took its unanimous vote, I realized that this was a great moment for me to raise my hand and insert 'something rabbinic;' something that would help the board and the congregation celebrate this step toward greater inclusion in our shul.  I stood up and congratulated the board on its vote.  I pointed out how, in the Torah, we are exhorted over and over always to remember the plight of the Ger, Yetom, v'Almanah--the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; that a truly sacred Jewish community is one that always remembers to care for the weakest members of the society, those who might not have the ability or recognition to speak for themselves.  After I shared these words, I sat down, pleased with myself for thinking of this teaching on the spot.  
Hardly skipping a beat, board member Judy Heuman, a special advisor on international disabilities rights at the State Department,  and a leader on this new task force, raised her hand and very gently but firmly said, "I would respectfully like to take issue with the rabbi's teaching." She said that many people in the disabilities community are working hard to overcome the very attitude that the rabbi communicated:  we do not seek to be treated as powerless.  Rather, we seek inclusion and integration fully with all other members of society.  There was nothing combative or angry in her tone.  She was entirely kind and classy in her response.  But make no mistake, I very clearly stood corrected!  As soon as she spoke, it was instantly clear that she was so very right; I had been unskillful in my use of the tradition at that moment, and I clearly and publicly showed how much I have to learn about what inclusion and sensitivity on this issue is really all about.
Since then, I have done a lot of reflection on this matter.  I have come to appreciate more deeply the paradigm shift that people like Judy are seeking to create in the world.  In the process, my empathy not only for those with disabilities, but for all human beings has become deeper.  And so today, I want to share with you some of the thoughts that Judy Heuman began for me.  I will show you how a life lived with a spirit of inclusion and openness to imperfection is, in fact, the key to kindness, justice, wisdom, and happiness itself.
In the Book of Leviticus, there are all kinds of instructions about the animal sacrifices that the ancient Israelites had to bring before God in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  We are told, over and over, that the sacrifices had to be 'without blemish.'  They could not be maimed or lame animals with any kind of defect at all.  Not only that, the Kohanim, the priests who brought the sacrifices could have no blemish, or defect, or even any handicap at all.  If a Kohen were a hunchback or a dwarf, or if he had a clubfoot or any such thing, he could not approach the sacred precincts at all with a sacrifice.  In other other words, God demanded nothing short of perfection. When the Israelites went to see the sacrifices in Jerusalem, they saw only gorgeous animals and no one with any disabilities up there at the altar. Everyone and everything looked just right.
Troublesome?  You bet it is.  How, we wonder, could a God of kindness and caring be so callous and unwelcoming of imperfection, particularly in God's holy sanctuary?  The good news is that our ancient rabbinic sages also noticed the offensiveness of this teaching in the Torah. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aba bar Yudan explains: "Kol ma shepasal hakadosh baruch hu babehema hichshir ba’adam."  "Everything that God forbade us in the animal sacrifices, God permitted in each human being."  In other words, while it is true that the offerings and the priests themselves involved with the ritual had to appear to be perfect, the Israelites themselves who brought their animals for the sacrifice to Jerusalem--of them God has no such requirement of perfection.  In other words, the very perfection presented in the Holy Temple stands in contrast to the real world out here, where God expects none of us to be perfect.  The only place free of blemish and disability is the place of our offerings and yearnings and prayers--the Holy Temple.  Everywhere else in the world, we're all in it together, totally flawed, and utterly imperfect.  
Why would Judaism set up this stark contrast between the perfect and the imperfect?  The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that man, who "stands at the juncture of nature and spirit," is the subject of "...both freedom and necessity. On the one hand, he is involved in the order of nature and is therefore bound.  On the other hand, as spirit he transcends nature and himself and is therefore free.  Being both bound and free, both limited and unlimited, he invariably experiences anxiety."(n's gifford lectures, p. 210)  This beautifully captures the wisdom of the Torah here.  In setting up this ancient ritual of perfection, Judaism gave us a place to express the part of ourselves that is not limited by our physical bodies or our failing health.  It gave us a place and a way to see how infinitely we matter to God, how high our human spirit can soar, despite our frailties and disabilities.  It gave us a way to respond to that anxiety that Niebuhr mentioned in a way that affirms that there is something about our humanity, with all its flaws, that it is always, despite everything, mysteriously perfect.  
I remember once hearing the philosopher Alan Watts teach about the ancient Chinese concept of "Li," which has no direct translation into English.  Li, he explained, is the word that describes the quality of jade--when you look carefully at the stone, it has many natural marks, scratches and imperfections.  And somehow, those imperfections are what make it so very beautiful--perfect in its very imperfection.  I believe that this quality of "Li" captures what's really going on in this world, and the more truly we embrace the reality of imperfection, the more deeply we can come to know what real perfection actually means.
I once heard a  story about a chief executive of a large company who was energetic and well-respected.  But he had one embarrassing weakness:  every time he came into the company president's office to give his report, he wet his pants!  The company president was kind to him, and offered to pay for him to visit a urologist.  The next time the executive visited the president's office, he once again wet his pants.  The president asked, didn't you go to the urologist?  No, the executive said. He was out.  I went to the psychiatrist instead, and I'm cured--I no longer feel embarrassed."  That's about the long and short of it:  the greatest perfection in the world includes all possibility of imperfection.
All of these insights can bring us back to Judy Heuman's astute tochachah--her loving correction of my mistaken belief.  She showed me how wrongly I had taught the Torah's insight about remembering the Stranger, the Orphan, and Widow.  She showed me how this is not a paternalistic teaching about showing pity for the weak.  Quite the contrary, it's an exhortation to each of us to remember that we, too, were once Strangers in Egypt!  And that any moment, any of us can become a stranger, an orphan or a widow.  You see, later, I watched Judy come and speak to our high school students on the subject of disabilities.  She explained that the disabled aren't some poor subset of humanity.  Rather, at some point in our lives, each and every one of us will have a disability if we don't have one already.
We are, in fact, all of us, disabled because we are limited, we are all disabled because we are physical beings, because we are human. It is in acknowledging the inevitability of our own disabilities that we all become so perfectly human together.  This, of course, is the central idea of Sukkot:  we are so joyful and spiritually perfect in a very temporary and imperfect Sukkah.
The Rabbi of Lelov once said to his Hasidim:  "A man cannot be redeemed until he recognizes his flaws and tries to mend them.  A nation cannot be redeemed until it recognizes the flaws in its soul and tries to mend them.  Whoever permits no recognition of his flaws, be it man or nation, permits no redemption.  We can be redeemed to the extent to which we recognize ourselves."(Martin Buber tales later, 187-188)
We all live in a culture that glorifies youth and perfection.  How many lives are consumed with guilt and shame over the perceived imperfection of their bodies, over their advancing age, over their flaws and blemishes and diseases and disabilities?  There is so much judgment and so much suffering over how much we feel we don't measure up to a standard of perfection--be it in our physical bodies, or in our careers or achievements or possessions.  
We're all too often very happy to give lip-service to inclusion in our society--to the handicapped, to the poor, to the elderly, so long as we try to convince ourselves that we are not them.  But any culture of inclusiveness begins not just with task forces or policies or rabbinic teachings, but with our own recognition of our own imperfection. There’s a beautiful brachah, in fact, that we are required to say whenever we see someone with a visible disability:  we say Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, M’shaney HaBriot:  Blessed are you O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, whose creatures live as many different forms.  In other words, perfection lies not in being free of disability.  It lies in the multitude of ways we are-each and every one of us--abled and disabled.  We cannot endeavor to create a society of perfect justice until we make it safe for ourselves and for others to be imperfect.
Rabbi Simcha Bunem famously required his disciples to carry two notes, one in each pocket.  In the right pocket, the note should say, "Bishvili nivra ha'olam," "The world was created for my sake."  In the other pocket, the note should read, "Ani afar v'efer," "I am nothing but dust and ashes."  We human beings are funny creatures.  A little lower than the angels, we are neither fully godly nor fully animalistic, but both at the same time.
It is in living our lives, together, and open enough to this truth, that we can rise higher and higher in every generation--higher toward justice, and higher toward our fullest humanity, higher to happiness and ever-closer to perfection--even if we can never actually make it there fully.  May God always bless us in our imperfection so that we may be a blessing to each other, and a light to the nations.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur 5773: HaMakom


When Batya and I were first married, we drove across country, from California  (where we had been living for our rabbinic studies) back home to the East Coast.  We stopped on the way for a visit to the Grand Canyon.  There was a ticketing area that exited to a wooded pathway that led to the rim of the canyon.  As we started out on the path, cranky after hours in the car, we got into one of those typical first-year-of-marriage little spats; some disagreement over a petty issue--the kind of disagreements that couples who have been married a few years don’t have anymore.  She wanted to go camping and I wanted to stay in a hotel (I have long since learned, when my wife wants to go camping--we go camping!)  The argument didn’t end quickly.  It got more and more frustrating, and we decided to stop on the pathway and stand off to the side to see if we could just finish the discussion before continuing, so as not to spoil the whole visit.  Well, the argument just didn’t end as quickly as we wanted.  It was taking way too long, so we decided just to stop the argument and proceed to the rim even though we were still cranky and annoyed at each other.  The path wound around, and led to a clearing in the woods.  We passed through that clearing and beheld one of the most astonishing things we had ever seen--this canyon, like a grand Cathedral to God on a planetary scale.  Its size and scope and wonder was beyond what I had ever imagined.  It literally took our breath away.  In an instant, not only that spat fell away, but all the other nonsense of life fell away.  There was just us before the miracle of life.  Before we even realized it, we were holding hands again.  We had no words.  No emotions other than wonder.  We looked at each other, and suddenly there were no blocks to the love we felt for each other.  I’ll always appreciate the Grand Canyon for ending a newlywed spat! (and I still owe Batya a camping trip to the Grand Canyon!) But seriously, what a place!  
In Hebrew, the word for ‘place’ is Makom.  It’s interesting to note that this word, Makom, is also a name of God--HaMakom, The Place.  It’s a strange name of God, except when you go to a place like the Grand Canyon.  But I’ll tell you something:  when it was all said and done, what made the Grand Canyon so God-like wasn’t its physical immensity, it was the fact that there, in that place, Batya and I returned to who we really are for each other.
And so today, I am going to unpack this amazing Divine name, HaMakom.  And I’m going to suggest something a little shocking:  we create HaMakom.  Yes:  we create God’s Presence (!), whenever we remember that the most vast and awesome thing there is, wherever we are, is each other.
In the book of Exodus, God tells the Israelites to build a sanctuary: “V’Asu li Mikdash, v’shachanti betocham,”  “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” God wants the Israelites to create this special place to house God’s Presence in the midst of the Israelite encampments.  This Mikdash, this sanctuary, would become the model of the Temple that would eventually stand in Jerusalem.  It’s a funny thing to ponder:  why would God, who is everywhere, need a special sanctuary?  How can an infinite God be contained in any one place?  None other than our own Rabbi Reuven Hammer wrote about this, and pointed out that the Hebrew does not say ‘Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell in it;’ rather, it says, “Build me a sanctuary that I may dwell--betocham--literally, in them,” or even more literally, “within them” (meaning, the Israelites).   Furthermore, the Hebrew word ‘v’shachanti’ which means ‘dwell,’ is also the root for the word “Shechinah,” which is another name for God--it actually is the feminine aspect of Divinity--literally, it refers to the in-dwelling Presence of God in the world, and within us; Shechinah is the Divine energy that gives us life, and that binds us together as interconnected lives in this world.  
We  can put all these ideas together in the Grand Canyon story:  What it did for Batya and me was to turn us back to each other.  It enabled us to look into each other’s eyes and see the Shekhina, the spark of God that lived betocheinu, within us, and between us. The greatest power of that Makom, that place, wasn’t really the place so much as how it made us Present for each other, and the word Presence is connected to the idea of Makom, of Presence, God’s Presence.
And this is what God meant: build a sanctuary, so that you can use it to find My Divine Presence within you, within each other.  The place, the space doesn’t matter as much as the Presence, the  moments, the times we spend truly together.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught about this unique quality of Judaism: we’re not a people who specializes in grand edifices and ornate architecture; rather, we live in the “architecture of time.”  In his book, The Sabbath, Heshel writes, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space...The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is [Yom Kippur,] a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn...”  Another great Jewish thinker, Albert Einstein, developed similar, and very Jewish notions of time when he formulated his theory of general relativity.  He came to see that space itself is inconceivable without the medium of time; that one is not possible without the other:  it is more correct to talk about ‘spacetime’ rather than these features as separate entities. Once Einstein was asked to put his theory of general relativity into layman’s terms:
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.
In other words, time itself is entirely relational.  Where you are is dependant upon when you are, and when you are is dependant upon who or what you’re with.  To put it yet another way, this moment is the whole universe.  And the whole import and grandeur of the cosmos is present right here in every moment that we share  together. That’s what HaMakom really means!   Grand Canyons, synagogues, our homes-- they’re really just metaphors, reminders of the infinite vastness of this moment that we’re together.  
These ideas are what Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, two more great Jewish thinkers meant.  And they took these ideas even further.  Buber, in his famous book, I and Thou, describes the uncanny experience that happens when I am fully present for you (Thou).  In such moments, when we’re really noticing the miraculousness, the preciousness of each other--in that very meeting, in that encounter, there is the Shechinah, the Presence of God, and the infinity of time.  Levinas, similarly, described what he called the  ‘Face to Face’ encounter:  when I truly behold your face, when I really open to what your presence means to me in the moment, your presence matters more to me than myself, you are my everything; all time, all space collapses into who you are for me in this moment, and all that matters is how I can be there for you, and do what is right by you.  The beginning of all ethics, all morality, all of God’s Mitzvot--they all begin in this moment, in this place, with your Face right here in front of me.  As Jacob said to Esau after all their years of fighting finally ended:  “Ki al ken raiti panecha, kir’ot pnei Elohim” “To see your Face is to the see the Face of God.” (Genesis 33:10).  And, as the ancient rabbis taught,  whenever two Jews face each other, ‘Shechinah shruyah beineihem,’ the Presence of God hovers over them; or even more literally--the presence of God is HaMakom, what is happening in the spacetime between them.
All of these great 20th century Jewish thinkers seem to distill the core message of the Torah:  The only way that time is really measured is through our relationships, and the only place to be is with each other. Our time in this life is not what’s ticking on your watch; it’s not measured in how many emails you have to return by tomorrow; it’s not measured by our accomplishments or accolades.  The only time that matters is the moments we bring our full awareness to life, to the face, the eyes of the Other:  to our beloveds, our colleagues, our children.  And even to strangers.  This is the point of Judaism.  It’s not about buildings or programs or books or legal rulings or rituals or services.  These things are just things.  They are all tools to bring us face to face with each other; because it is only by truly beholding your face, that I can find the light of God’s presence.
For example, Tzedakah is not just an abstract obligation to give money to worthy causes.  Tzedakah is all about HaMakom--how deeply you reach across the divide that separates you from the Other in this moment, in this Place, to heal and repair and nurture our relationship, and our world.   Of course, we should keep writing checks to worthy causes.  But always remember that all check-writing, and all money is--like the Grand Canyon--just a metaphor, a ritual that extends the way we are called to live our lives with and for each other, moment by moment, in every place we go.  Batya has a beautiful practice of Tzedakah that she does as often as she can.  Whenever she’s walking down the street and someone asks for money for something to eat, she looks them in the eye and smiles and asks, “What would you like to eat right now?”  And they tell her.  And then she finds the nearest cafe or Starbucks or supermarket and goes and buys it for them.  Her intention is to empower these people, to allow them the dignity to choose to eat what they want.  I witnessed her do this on a cold street last winter.  The man asked for a sandwich.  Without skipping a beat, she went to the nearest cafe and ordered him warm panini sandwich and cup of hot coffee.  The look on that man’s face when she put that warm meal into his cold hands--the look of such vast, infinite gratitude--made me realize that I was at the Grand Canyon, in the Presence of God, right there on that cold city street.
HaMakom is also what happens at a Shabbat dinner table.  Yes, we have beautiful traditions like candle-lighting, Kiddush, and Motzi over the challah.  But always remember that candles and wine and challah are not the point of Shabbat dinner.  Those things are just vessels, tools for us to use to enter into the Grand Canyon of time and timelessness otherwise known as Shabbat.  And what is Shabbat?  Shabbat is the moment we see the light of those candles reflected in the eyes of those we care about.  Shabbat is the sharing of the sweetness and satisfaction not of wine and bread--but of this precious time and place of being with these miracles, these faces, these human beings who are here with us, and here for us, right here and right now.
Hamakom is also what happens at a shiva house.  We traditionally say "HaMakom yenachem etchem..." May God's Presence, experienced here through our caring presence, bring you comfort and healing.
And finally, what is a syangogue?  It’s not a building.  In Hebrew, it’s called a Beit Knesset--literally a House, or a Place that houses our Coming Together.  The point is not the building, or what’s in it.  The point is us, here and now.  Nothing more.  In a matter of days now, we will begin a major renovation of this building.  It’s going to be gorgeous and so exciting.  But don’t be fooled.  It’s not a building for the sake of a building; just as Judaism is not a religion for the sake of its own laws and ideas:  Judaism exists for Jews.  The beauty of this building is only here to function as a Makom, a Place that expresses time--Jewish time, times of relationship, of encountering each other truly, fully, with all our hearts.  The Charles E. Smith Sanctuary will remind us of the grandeur of our love and connection to each other and to the miracle of Life.  The Gewirz Beit Am will remind us of the intimate connections to one another, and to a spirit of Shechinah, of a love that binds community together; the Beit Midrash will bring us literally face to face, in Havruta--as two human beings facing each other, responding to our shared quest for meaning and insight.  And the name of our innovative new learning program in that Beit Midrash?  What else, MakomDC!
Life really is so precarious and precious, and none of us know how much time we have left.  But now is a moment to recall that this  synagogue, that all of Judaism, is here to help us to find HaMakom:  to treasure this Place and time that we have.  When we understand that we always have HaMakom, we no longer  need to grasp desperately to life’s fleeting moments of  pleasure; we no longer desperately try  to “save” time so that we’ll be able to do what matters later.  Rather, we cherish HaMakom simply by noticing that the living beings in our lives, right here, right now--they are our whole world, our whole lives.  In their eyes, in their touch, in their smile, and even in their pain, there is all the time in the world, and everything that ever mattered since the beginning of time and space itself.
 In this New Year, may we embrace the time that we have--not as some abstraction that is measured by a clock; but as the time that lives eternally in this Makom, in this Spacetime that is here/now--wherever this space happens to be in our lives.  May this be a year of noticing the miracle of Life and its blessing, always here before us in this moment; and in the face of our beloveds, may we truly find the Face of God.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rosh HaShanah 5773: Are We the Victims?

Last month, an angry group of Jewish teenagers, some as young as 13 years old, brutally attacked and nearly killed a 17 year-old Arab boy right in the middle of Jerusalem.  The Jewish kids were shouting “Death to Arabs.”  While the Arab boy was in critical condition in the hospital, one 15-year-old Jewish suspect said, “For my part, he can die.  He’s an Arab.”  Israel’s vice prime-minister, Bogie Ya’alon, courageously spoke out in response to this attack, deservedly labelling it an act of “terrorism.” These developments are a tragedy.  They are tragic in a way that is deeper than political, ethnic, and ideological divisions.
   We all may remember the reports and images a few months back of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men spitting at women and little girls because of their dress, or because they were walking on sidewalks that they had forbidden to women.  Last June, the Sephardi Chief rabbi of Israel declared that Reform and Conservative rabbis--that I--am no better than a terrorist because I am seeking to destroy the Jewish people.  These developments, as well, are tragedies of an order that transcends mere differences of religious opinion and practice.  All of these are tragedies of the human spirit, and they’re happening to our people in our Jewish homeland.  And all of these are happening in a wider middle east beset by intense anti-Israeli and anti-American violence and hatred.
Today, I present these tragic developments not to further our despair, or to fuel our own angers and hatreds.  Quite the opposite.  Today, I want to offer a remedy, a way out of this spiral into hatred and violence in Israel.  I will show how Israelis really can overcome these tragic developments and maintain their moral high ground.  Finally, I will show us today that we here in the States really can stay proud and inspired by everything that Israel is.  It just takes some honest acknowledgment--for all Jews everywhere--of some deep-seated  beliefs that we all share, beliefs that hinder pride and hope; beliefs that can contribute to these tragedies.
When we reflect on the modern State of Israel in the world, we identify one idea that always seems to hover, in many forms, around any and everything about the Jewish State.  The concept can be summed up in one word:  ‘victim.’  
The story of Israel in the world has long been one about victims and victimizers, of oppression, and then hope rising out of that oppression.  We Jews were victimized for centuries, most recently in the Holocaust and by Arab aggression.  But we’re not alone in our sense of victimhood.  For the Arabs, and for their supporters, especially in Europe, it is the Jews and the Israelis who are the aggressors and the victimizers.  And within the Jewish State, the religious-secular divide falls along victimization faultlines.  The religious often feel threatened and besieged by the secular heresy, and the secular Israelis feel victimized by Jewish religious oppression.
At least in our setting here in Washington, I can safely say that we here, no matter our political persuasion, all can agree on a few matters:  we agree that Israel is unfairly portrayed  and cast in world opinion; we agree that, despite fringe outbursts like those teenagers, there is no equivalence between our sentiments and the generally-accepted anti-Jewish sentiments rooted in the elite power-structure of Arab-Muslim societies...and that the response to anti-Jewish incitement is not more violence, but education and engagement -- and that difference is profound;  we agree that antisemitism is still at play in the world against us and against Israel; ; we all want peace that brings real security and a real end to the conflict with the Palestinians and, until that is achieved and even when that is achieved, we all want a strong Israel capable of protecting itself against the real threats it faces because – most importantly – we don’t want to be the victim of anyone or anything ever again.
But now that we know what we generally agree on, why can’t we do more to fix it?  Today, we’re not going to point any fingers of blame on anyone or on any side.  And we’re not going to guilt ourselves either for all the ills of Israel.  We’re just going to become more aware of how we all, as human beings, share deep and often unquestioned beliefs about victimization.  
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a Jewish woman who lives in New York with a very loose affiliation with Judaism.  She told me she was concerned that her son, who was going to a very elite prep school in Manhattan, wasn’t getting enough of a Jewish identity.  So what did she decide to do to fix the problem?  She took him to Washington, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Now, the Holocaust Museum is an extraordinary resource in the world.  I believe that its existence and its work are critical  not only for the Jewish people, but for the whole world.  That being said, think about it for a minute:  a Jewish woman who wanted to give her son his first real taste of Jewish uniqueness, what it means to be a Jew in the world, and her impulse was to begin the story with the Holocaust.  Consider for a moment what her choice reveals about her own sense of what it means to be Jewish in the world.  It begins with the nightmare of genocide, of the ultimate victimization.  I think that we’re all, consciously or not, very much like her.  All of us Jews here, in Israel, around the world, have a tragic conflation of elements in our minds:  we have automatically confused past victimization with who we are--as Jews, even as individuals!  No one will deny for a moment that we have been victimized repeatedly for many centuries.  But history is not identity.  History most certainly can shape our identity, but it doesn’t have to define it.
The Talmud# tells us a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who was travelling with his rabbinic colleagues 2,000 years ago on Mount Scopus.  They came to the top and looked upon the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans.  All the rabbis wept, except for Rabbi Akiva, who laughed.  How could you be laughing, they asked him.  How could you be crying, he responded!  Because the Romans are victorious and our nation and our Temple have been destroyed, they said.  Well, that is exactly why I’m laughing, Akiva said.  He then explained:  there is an ancient prophecy that that Jewish people will yet flourish and grow old in Jerusalem even after the Temple is destroyed.  Now that it’s destroyed, I know that this prophecy will come true!  And the rabbis responded, ‘You have consoled us, Akiva.  You have consoled us.’
Now this story is not just a poignant story about destruction and Akiva grasping at straws for hope.  Rabbi Akiva here embodies the deepest spirit of the Jewish people, and who we are in the world, despite the reality of destructions and persecutions and genocides:  we are a people that survives.  This is the refrain over and over in our  Biblical prophecies:  no matter what nightmares we may experience, we will see the light of day again.  And these aren’t just religious ideas of abstract belief.  These are also facts.  We’re one of the oldest surviving peoples in the world.  We have been persecuted non-stop, and yet no one can destroy us.  That’s the message of Judaism.  That’s the message of history too.  The Akiva story is really all about how you can choose to look at history.  You can let destruction define you, or you can find resolve and strength in our traditions, in our past survival, and in what we stand for as a people.  In other words, in every moment, we can choose to see ourselves as victims or not.  And as the generations and centuries go on, we have to keep choosing anew.  
The Akiva story shows us very clearly that it was always all too easy to conflate past experience with our identity.  But Akiva laughs and shows us not to fall for that.  We have a role to play in the endgame of the human race, and if we get a little clarity about that, we can see that we’re not going anywhere.  Akiva’s wisdom began centuries earlier, in the very words of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy: “I call heaven and earth to witness before you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse,” “Uvacharta Bachayim,” “therefore choose life that you may live, you and your descendants.”#
Jews really were victims in the past.  There are countless proofs to this truth.  But if we keep looking, we were also countless survivors.  The message I bring today isn’t just a half-empty or half-full message.  My point is that each of us, right now, can find all the proofs we want on either side of the victim issue, to back up our choice of being victims or not.  The point of being Jewish in the world is that we are the ones who “bocher bachayim” we choose the path of life, of light, of hope.  That’s our job, our purpose.  That’s what being a holy nation is all about.  
I choose to found my Jewish identity on the rich ground of a three-thousand year old tradition, one of justice and kindness.  It’s a tradition that really is a light to the world.  It’s the message that life has meaning and that the possibility of joy never vanishes, that darkness and death never triumph over the human spirit.  That’s what Jewish identity means to me.  I invite us all to choose that identity on this New Year.

I also cherish the memory of every victim of the Shoah, and of all the many persecutions and terrorist attacks that we have endured through the centuries.  I choose to learn the lessons of history, to fight hatred and antisemitism wherever it arises, and to ensure a safe future for my people here and in Israel.  But past victimhood is not who I am.  If I am anything as a Jew, I am the response to that victimhood.  I am the affirmation of life’s potential for renewal.  If I am anything, I am the laughter of Akiva, which is also the name of our ancestor Isaac--Yitzhak, (literally, laughter) the laughter of life miraculously arising when all hope is seemingly lost.  I invite us all to be that laughter as well.
Finally, I invite us all to be the ones to imagine the story of an Israel that is free of victim identities.  What if we stopped projecting our nightmares about potential destruction onto Israel and the world around us?  Now, we all recognize and appreciate the seriousness and sobriety of debates happening right now  inside Israel about attacking Iran.  We respect and support that the elected government of Israel bears immense responsibility – indeed, the ultimate responsibility – to protect its people for any and all nightmarish possibilities. At the same time, it really is possible for us, as individuals to walk the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv today with no feeling of oppression or fear of victimization -- even as terrorists and hostile neighbors still reside on all sides.  It really is possible for us to be free of gnawing angers and resentments and fears in the backs of our minds about Israel.  It really is possible--indeed, it is essential-- to hold nothing but a feeling of gratitude and celebration for Israel’s strength and bright destiny, even in the most fraught and tense of times.  If you’re like me, you might, at first, react to these ideas and call them foolishness.  That’s okay.  Keep envisioning it; try to move right past our assumption that this is a dangerous pipedream.  Now, we can ask ourselves this question:  Can we absolutely know that we will be destroyed if we willingly let go of our fears of being victims?  I know what you may be thinking:  Yes!  Of course we would be destroyed:  it’s lovely to decide to relax and be peaceful; but if our enemies don’t make that decision, that’s just suicide.  I hear that fear, and I choose to believe that the opposite will happen.  Imagine with me who we would be, responding to terrorism and threats from hostile enemies with no fear and no anxiety, with no feeling of impending victimization or doom.  
What would that be like?  I’ll tell you what it would be like:  we would respond with clarity, with strength, with balance, with a sense of urgency and care, with all our judgment unclouded by hatred or fear, ready to effect real justice, undaunted in our search for peace.  We would be free of a victim identity, and we would be truly fulfilling the dreams of all the founders and pioneers of the Jewish State.  The very essence of Zionism itself arose as a reaction to centuries of victimization of our people around the world.  The core of our Zionist dream--   which is the sacred purpose of Judaism as well--is that we will live in our Jewish homeland once and for all, never living as victims to anyone.  The real meaning of being an Israeli, and a Jew, is that we are never victims.  Not ever.
One thing I feel sure of:  those Israeli teenagers who attacked that Palestinian boy did so because they felt themselves to be the victims of the Palestinians.
A friend once said something that really stuck with me. She said ‘victims can be the most dangerous people.’  The more I think about it, the more that’s true:  so much bloodshed in history has been caused by those who believed that they were the victims of those whom they killed.  
The root of the problem lies in conflating victimhood with identity.  But there is another way.  Uvacharta bachayim:  it’s about choosing to be free.  It’s about choosing to see all the ways that we are so strong, so blessed, and so purposeful.  We are the people who bear a vision of the world as a better, more just place; a world of holiness and kindness.  We’re part of the solution to all the problems of this world.  That’s our destiny, and we’re not going anywhere.  

Sunday, September 16, 2012

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/celebrating-the-jewish-high-holy-days-where-is-the-pleasure-this-season/2012/09/13/49a29f5a-fd2f-11e1-a31e-804fccb658f9_story.html

Kosher Deceit?


At what point did deceit become kosher in our society? It's true that American political campaigns have a long and ignoble history of finger-pointing and aiming low and twisting the facts. But there's something new afoot. The degree of deceit that is acceptable to us is now vastly greater. Ads and campaign speeches and interviews are full of bold-faced lies. What's new is that in the name of winning and of power, any degree of manipulation of truth is now acceptable.
News media organizations that specialize in spinning facts to reflect a political agenda are now mainstream. On the Internet, we can build ourselves up by finding arguments in favor of any idea, despite the validity of the facts. Candidates have figured out that facts matter less than the need to appeal to people's baser fears and angers in order to get votes.
We're living in a time that goes overboard with relativism. We have developed a postmodern mind-set after the violent upheavals of the 20th century, one that rightly mistrusts absolutist ideas and values. At its best, our current wisdom understands that our experience of truth itself is highly subjective. We understand the dangers of those who claim to know the truth, and then demonize all who disagree with them.
Our modern-day wisdom can just as easily lead us into a trap. A healthy skepticism of claims to the truth can slip into moral relativism and apathy. In my teaching, I regularly encounter well-meaning and brilliant learners who express surprise that not all perspectives are equal on all issues. I have encountered many others who bristle at the notion that Judaism values hierarchies of values and ethics. When all opinions are equal and all moral playing fields are level, why should anyone speak out against politicians ignoring the value of truth?
In the Jerusalem Talmud, a midrash teaches that when God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, God simultaneously gave Moses 49 ways to declare something pure and 49 ways to declare that same thing impure. This teaching seems to suggest that truth itself really is malleable, that all playing fields really are level. In fact, it suggests the opposite. While it's always true that we can find just as many reasons to sanctify as to demonize any issue or people, the Torah itself is meant to be the medium by which we find our experience of the truth. Moses may have received all possible truths at Sinai, but in each generation, we must study and investigate and treat all issues with the respect of those who found their truth and came before us. It may be that today we declare something "pure" which in previous generations was deemed "impure," but we make this decision with humility and the greatest of care. Inherent in this teaching is the notion that we must be on guard against apathy and moral relativism because truth can be so very subjective.
Each day, when I daven, I take very seriously the way we end the three paragraphs of the Sh'ma. We link phrases together and say "Hashem Eloheichem emet." The Lord your God is truth. The word "emet," "truth" appears over and over after that: it is emet that God is the God of our ancestors, it is emet that God took us out of Egypt, etc. When we bless the Torah for an aliyah, we say "Asher natan lanu Torat emet," we bless God who has given us the "Torah of Truth." In the Babylonian Talmud, we find the famous statement, "Truth is the seal of the Holy One, Blessed be He," and in Rashi's commentary, he explains that the word emet is composed of the Hebrew letters alef, mem, tav - the very first, the middle, and very last letter of the Hebrew alef-bet. And, as Louis Jacobs explains, wherever there is truth, God is present.
Wherever there is deceit, God is absent.
We have come a long way in our current society from these insights. Our Jewish heritage wants us to understand the sacredness of truth itself. In seeing the truth as nothing short of the divine presence, we have become a people of learners, who actively seek understanding of all aspects of our world. Our American society today has become defined not by truth-seeking, but by cynicism. We have warped the wisdom of truth-as-subjective experience and turned it into a weapon against unsuspecting voters. As Jews, we must be the champions for the value of truth in all things - in our political discourse, in our communication, in our policy-making.
When it's all said and done, the truth will always win. But we, as Jews, can play a critical role in ensuring that the truth for this country is one that reflects justice and all that is good and holy in our humanity.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A very special wedding in Washington DC


Alan and Michael, it is with such joy that we stand here beneath this Huppah, celebrating your joining together.  It’s a joy, of course, for the two of you.  It’s a joy for your family and friends and community gathered here today.  It’s a joy for me as your rabbi who loves you both a lot.  And I want to add that this moment is also a very special joy for Adas Israel Congregation, and for all the Jewish people.  This is the first official gay wedding  in the 143-year history of this congregation!  This congregation was visited by President Ulysses S. Grant at its opening.  Golda Meir made an official visit.  Yitzhak Rabin had his child’s bar mitzvah here.  The Reverend Dr. Martin Luthor King jr.  came  here.  And now to that auspicious list, we can add that Alan and Michael were married here! 
I really mean it:  this is a great moment for the Jewish people.  And it's all the sweeter because of who each of you are.  The two of you are just about the nicest, kindest guys anyone will ever meet.  You're not actually standing here because your only thought is to make a statement.  You're standing here because you're two human beings who love each other with all their hearts.  You're two human beings who, when you first met, had your very first conversation about kindness and caring and thoughtfulness and gentleness--and how important it is to each of you to find those qualities in a life-partner.  You're standing here at this moment not because your intention is to make waves; you're only here because you're bashert--meant to be--for one another.  And where else to get married, but  in your shul where you daven!  Alan, your Jewish journey has been a lifetime journey of commitment and faithfulness.  Michael, your Jewish journey has also been one of many years, one that you chose, with love, to commit your life to.
   And so the real reason you're here is your shared yearning for commitment, for kindness, for faithfulness to each other, to your heritage, your people.  How else can you affirm that love, that sacredness, that holiness, then in this sacred dwelling space we call a Huppah right here in shul.
 It's very fitting  that we celebrate this moment as we begin Vayikra, the book of Leviticus in the Torah.  As we ended the book of Exodus, the first great Huppah, the Mishkan, the tent of God's dwelling love, was completed--and it was completed by the loving hands of all the Israelites--by everyone of all ages, of all walks of life, of all orientations--everyone had a role in creating that tent of holiness, as you create that sacred Place of Holiness for each other and for the Jewish people right here and now. 
There's a poignant moment, as the Mishkan is completed.  The clouds of God's glory descend upon the sacred tent.  And Moses, ever the humble and unassuming man, was afraid to enter the tent.  And so as we begin Leviticus this week, it opens with the word "Vayikra," which means that God literally "called" out to Moses, saying in essence, 'Yes Moses, come into this tent.  You are indeed worthy of being right here, in this most sacred place, together with me in my loving presence.' 
Alan and Michael, at this moment, we are all beholding two of the kindest, most unassuming men in the world, not unlike Moses himself.  And through all of our hearts, the voice of God calls to you--Vayikra--in just the same way, saying:  'Come forward to this Sacred Place, this Sacred Moment, because indeed you are not only worthy to be here, but there is no greater goodness, no greater holiness than for our people to welcome you here to this sacred place of Kiddushin, of sacred matrimony.'  And so Alan and Michael, we all truly say with all our hearts, Bruchim HaBaim, welcome.  Welcome home to your people, your God, and your tradition, and most importantly, to  each other.  Today, with so much pride, so much nachas, we declare your love to be sacred.  May your lifetime of joy together as loving companions continue to be a blessing and an inspiration to us all for many years to come in happiness and good health.  

True Holiness


The headlines are full these days of stories about what people are doing in the name of religion.  And I needn't tell you that these are not necessarily good stories.  Most of them are shocking, horrifying, disturbing.  There are stories about people attempting to impose their particular religious values on everyone in our society.  Stories of fundamentalism gone wild, fomenting violence and hatred.  Stories of oppression and murder in the name of God or of holiness.  It's happening in the Middle East movements toward theocracy.  It's happening in Israel with those who want to force women to the back of the bus.  It's happening right here in America.   I know so many people, good, thoughtful, amazing people who have had it.  They're throwing in the towel on religion.  And I can't say I blame them.  Were it not for a couple of conditions, I might be one of those people who want nothing to do with a religious life.  I might be one of those who think that traditional observances lead to no good.
            But I'm not giving up on religion.  I still believe that a religious life can not only lead to good, but it is the best hope we have in humanity of repairing this world.  Yes, the headlines may be full of extremists perverting religion toward their aims,  people who oppress in the name of holiness.  But in this talk today I will show us how true holiness is something that the most reasonable among us can embrace.  I will show us how, if more of us understood what a religious, holy life really means, fewer of us would throw in the towel.  In fact, we would live our lives more deeply as our best selves.
            As we complete the book of Exodus today, the Israelites fashion the Mishkan--the portable, magnificent tent that serves as an earthly "house" for the indwelling of the Divine spirit among the Israelites.  It is the place where the sacrifices are offered, where the priests serve in purity, and the Levites sing to God.  The detail about this construction is unbelievable.  The Torah wants us to understand how everything, even the tiniest elements of this complex structure were carried out exactly according to instructions by the Israelites.  The age-old question here is why such exacting detail?  Yes, of course, we understand that the Mishkan was important.  It's where the worship of God is centered.  But such detail! 
            We begin to get an answer to this quandary at the end of the construction process.  The Torah says, "K'chol asher tzivah Hashem et Moshe, ken asu bnai Yisrael et kol ha'avodah," "Everything that God had commanded Moses, the Israelites carried out all the work."  "Vayar Moshe et kol hamelachah, v'hinei asu otah ka'asher tzivah HaShem, ken asu, vayivarech otam Moshe."  "And Moses saw all the handiwork, and behold they had done it all as God had commanded, and Moses blessed them."  Does this description ring a bell--the idea of doing work, completing the work, seeing the handiwork, and offering a blessing?  It's an echo of Genesis!  God looked upon all the work that God had done in the six days, and God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy.
            The Mishkan is the Creation of the world--in miniature!  The Midrash Tanchuma says it explicitly:  Just as God spread out the heavens like a curtain, so too the Israelites made curtains of goat's hair.  Just as God separated the heavenly waters from the lower waters, so too the Parochet, the inner curtain separates the Holy of Holies from all else.  Just as God gathered the waters from the dry land, so too we gathered up the water in the copper basins of the Mishkan.  Etcetera, etcetera.  In building that Mishkan, we are showing that we have the power to be just like God! 
            There's one more key element about all the detailed emphasis on the Mishkan.  The Mishkan isn't the first group building project of the Israelites.  There was another product of Israelite handiwork, and it wasn't a good thing.  It was, of course, the Golden Calf, the ultimate abomination, an act of avodah zarah, of idolatry.  Our sages explain that the building of the Mishkan was really an act of Tikkun, of repair and healing from the damage wrought by the Golden Calf.  So let's put it all together: by showing us exactly how to build the Mishkan, God is showing us how to use our hands, our skills, our talents NOT for idolatry, but for Tikkun Olam, for Repairing the World, literally by building the whole world as God had built it--albeit in miniature--together as a community. 
            In other words, God showed us, after the sin of the Calf, how to be holy.  The sages ask a question:  when the Torah says that Moses blessed them after building that Mishkan, what blessing did Moses say?  And the blessing that Moses gave is one that you probably have heard, but not realized it.  If you have ever seen the movie, Fiddler on the Roof, there's a very cute scene when Tevya's son-in-law, Motel the taylor, gets a new sewing machine. They're so excited about the "new arrival" that they bring the rabbi in to bless the sewing machine.  They ask, 'Rabbi, is there a blessing for a sewing machine?'  The Rabbi responds, "There's a blessing for everything!"  And he goes to the sewing machine, and in correct Hebrew he says 'yehi leratzon she'tishrei hashekhinah b'chol ma'aseh yadecha'  'May it be your will that the Divine presence rests in all the works of your hands.'  Guess what?  That, according to the sages, was the blessing that Moses said over the Israelites upon building the Mishkan!
            And that's really what holiness in Judaism is all about:  it's all about what we're doing with our hands, our actions in this life.  Are we building the world up as the partners of God, or are we destroying the world with our hands and actions, making golden calfs and all kinds of idolatries?  It's a pretty simple definition.   If only life were as simple as that...
            I have absolutely no doubt that every religious fanatic who wants to manipulate the political system to impose their will on others, who wants to use religion as a tool to silence dissent--they genuinely believe that they're using their hands, their actions to do the will of God.  In fact, you could argue that this whole notion of holiness as taking action to partner with God in making the world in God's image--that's the root of religious fanaticism! 
            And you would be right, except for one thing:  you have to understand the significance of Mishkan in contrast to the Golden Calf.  When the Israelites saw that Moses was taking too long in coming down from Mount Sinai, they freaked out.  They were terrified.  And from their fears, they cried out, "Asei lanu Elohim,"  Make us a God!  By contrast, the tablets of the 10 Commandments, which Moses smashed on the Golden Calf, were called "Ma'aseh Elohim,"  "The work OF God." They're exact opposites.  That which is Holy is OF God.  That which is idolatrous, is 'Make-us-a-God,' it's our impulse to MAKE GOD according to our will!  When those tablets were smashed, we lost our direct link to something directly made by God.  The best we can do now, is follow God's instructions to a tee, and make the Mishkan in the manner that God creates. 
            On the one hand, there is the Golden Calf, something that you could even say came from our misdirected good intentions, but that ultimately represents our own projections of what we want God to be.  That is the essence of what is NOT holy.  On the other hand, there is the Mishkan, an act of our humble recognition that the world we build represents something far greater than ourselves.   The Golden Calf, albeit well-intentioned, is an act of arrogance and insecurity.  The Mishkan is an act of humility, repair, and hard-earned wisdom.  Both the Golden Calf and the Mishkan represent our people acting to create a center of religious life in our world.  The calf emerges from our deepest place of fear.  The Mishkan emerges from our deepest place of love.
            That's the difference.  And all too easy to get confused, and to fall into idolatry, when your real intention is to be holy.  That's the core idea of the Torah.  Holiness is the way that we can repair the world.  But never forget:  holiness is dangerous!  To play with holiness is to play with fire.  Used correctly, it can transform the world for the better.  Use it without wisdom, and it can become a weapon more dangerous than bombs, a weapon that destroys souls.
            People who use their religion as a weapon to silence others, to limit other's rights, to build up their own power, to wield authority--these people might genuinely believe that they do God's work.  In fact, they are building a Golden Calf.  They are, in fact, saying 'Asei lanu Elohim,' 'Make us a God,' a God who will convene to their will, to their arrogance, to their fears. 
            But there are so many others in this world, good people, who use their power to act in different ways--to pursue justice, to stand up for the oppressed, to relieve suffering, release the bound--these people are continuing the work of building that Mishkan, of acting in holiness.  These people are doing 'Ma'aseh Elohim,' the True work of God. 
            It's important to point out that the masters of Kabbalah teach us that true holiness requires both a sense of love and fear, in proper balance.  And that's significant.  There are times when we must be willing to be fierce about our values.  We must, at times, be willing to take political action, or to use the media, to serve the cause of justice.  But our sages teach us, the proper balance of motivations of our actions is always to incline toward the side of love instead of fear.  And that means that even if we want to manipulate the political system or the media toward our aims,  and that impulse comes from our willfulness, then we need to think again about our actions.  In other words, our sense of  humility should overcome our fierceness whenever possible.
            This is a very difficult balance to find.  Sometimes, we're not sure if we're acting out of holiness or from our idolatrous arrogance.  But the rule of thumb is, if you're worried about being  arrogant and manipulative with your religious beliefs, you're more likely to be on the right track.  And so the root of the truest holiness is this:  it's wisdom transformed into action.  True holiness is any action that we do that is borne of our own hard-earned mistakes, from our humble desire to Repair the World.  To truly be holy is to live our lives each day doing the work of buildnig the Mishkan, of building this world as a Ma'aseh Elohim, as the work of God, not of ourselves.  Holiness is to live so that the shekhinah, the Divine Presence dwells in all the works of our hands--at work, with our beloved, with our children, our friends, with strangers.  So long as we live humbly, using our actions to increase justice, to relieve burdens, to bring kindness, to end oppression, then we're getting holiness right.  May we all come to  embrace the true meaning of holiness in our lives.  May our example light the way for others who are confused about what holiness means.  May we overcome our own human arrogance, and may we truly build this world to be a home for God.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jewish Guilt: It's Optional


I would like to talk today about guilt, a subject that we Jews are self-proclaimed experts on.  Why is that?  'Jewish guilt' is something that we all joke about, something that we all feel bonded over.  There are many theories as to why we are so good at guilt.  One of my favorites is that we, more than many peoples of this world, feel the particular weight of our history.  For us, the past looms large--in the Torah, in our wandering through the world; through our struggles with Crusaders and Cossacks and Nazis through the centuries, we have more than our share of baggage to lug through the generations.  We also know that we're a part of a very special people, with very high expectations of ourselves--and that alone is enough to make us quite neurotic.
It's clear from the Torah that guilt was around even in the earliest days. As we finish the Book of Genesis today, we find the brothers of Joseph burdened by their past mistreatment of their brother, and full of fear of Joseph's retribution.  We are told that once their father, Jacob, has died, the brothers are particularly terrified of Joseph.  They join together and plead with Joseph, they even fib, saying that before he died, their father Jacob had said that he wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers.  Hearing his brothers talk this way, the Torah tells us, 'Vayevk Yosef b'dabram eilav,' "And Joseph wept hearing them talk like this."
Why did Joseph cry?  Most of us hear this story, and we think that Joseph is crying because, even after all these years since he revealed himself to his shocked brothers, they still don't trust him.  They still think that Joseph has been bearing this grudge against them all these years, and the only reason he didn't attack them was that his father Jacob was still alive.  Now, with their father dead, the brothers feared that they had no more protection.  And so Joseph cried because he saw how they never believed that Joseph had forgiven them.
But in the Midrash, there's a hint that Joseph's tears are not just his hurt that his brothers still don't trust him.  The Midrash says "Vayar Achei Yosef," "And the brothers saw that their father had died..."  What did they see now that caused them to fear?  They saw that when they returned from the funeral of Jacob, Joseph stopped at the pit that they had thrown him in to say the blessing that one is obligated to say at a place where a miracle happened to him...When they saw this, they said "Now that our father is deceased, we fear that Joseph will hate us and avenge all of the evil that we did to him."
So this Midrash is pointing us to something very interesting:  it's not that they didn't trust that Joseph had forgiven them before.  But now, says the Midrash, the brothers SAW Joseph looking down at that pit that they threw him in all those years ago, and this, just after he buried his father Jacob.  And what are the brothers feeling at that moment?  Guilt.  Horrible guilt. They felt guilt because they knew that their past travesties shortened their father's life. They felt guilt because they all remembered what Jacob had said to Pharaoh when he first met Pharaoh.  Jacob had said, "M'at ura'im hayu shnei y'mei chayay," "Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the span of my fathers during their sojourns."  They all knew that Jacob died younger than his forefathers.  He died younger because he lived for so many years with a broken heart--broken because he thought he had lost his beloved son Joseph. At that moment, standing at the pit, the brothers panicked because they realized that the final consequence of their dastardly act all those years before had come to pass:  their father died too soon.  And Joseph knew it.  Joseph knew that if the brothers hadn't been so cruel, they would not be burying their father.  In short, the brothers were wracked with guilt.  And it was in seeing this guilt that was so destroying his brothers, in seeing that, Joseph cried.
But in all their guilt, the brothers failed to truly understand that Joseph was a Tzadik, a righteous and very great man.  Joseph's response to his brothers' guilt is one of the greatest and most powerful lessons in the Torah.  He says "Have no fear!" "Ki hatachat Elohim Ani?" "Am I a substitute for God?  Besides, though you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result--'lahachayot 'am rav'--the survival of many people."
Once again, Joseph jolts his brothers with his unbelievable forgiveness and kindness.  'Hatachat Elohim Ani,'Am I a substitute for God?  In other words, he is saying, Do you really think that I'm in a position to play God with you, and to punish you for your wrongs?  All I can tell you is that we experienced what you did to me as something terrible at the time, yes.  But look what it did, it put me in a position not only to save your lives, but countless lives.  'Elohim chashvah letovah,' God intended all that for the good. "V'atah, al tir'u," So now, don't be afraid," said Joseph.  "I will sustain you and your children." And then, in a rare literary and descriptive moment, the Torah adds, "vayinachem otam vayidaber al libam," "And Joseph comforted them and spoke [kindly] to their hearts."
Joseph was crying because he saw how guilt was tearing apart his brothers' hearts, and led them to project their worst nightmares onto their brother Joseph.  But Joseph comforted them by telling them that their guilt, and their subsequent fears--while natural--were not necessary.  Joseph was telling his brothers a message that we all need to hear:  if you're tearing yourself apart over something that you feel that you did wrong, something terrible, even something that you feel is unforgivable; just remember one thing:  we're not God.  We think we're such experts on what was supposed to happen and what was not supposed to happen.  Some of us are so sure that we 'shouldn't have' done whatever we did, that we will spend the rest of our lives punishing ourselves.
But Joseph was coming from the deepest wisdom of our tradition.  To this day, whenever we experience something bad that happens, something like death, or any terrible occurrence, we say 'Baruch dayan ha'Emet,' Blessed is God, the True Judge; or we can translate it as 'the Judge of Truth.'  What it means is that the Truth, which sometimes plays out over many years, even over many generations, is the Ultimate judge of our actions.  We may think we ????so sure that we did the wrong thing, but we can't absolutely know that it 'shouldn't have' happened.
Now of course, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't recognize our wrong actions, or that we shouldn't attempt to make amends in every way that we can.  No, the brothers did a terrible thing.  And it did cause unspeakable heartache for their father, and it did shorten his lifespan.  What Joseph is trying to say is that guilt itself is optional.  To this day, many of us actually believe that we should make ourselves feel guilty, that we should punish and berate ourselves--because only then will we be truly penitent.  But Joseph shows his brothers that the only thing guilt does is that it destroys our souls, and it makes us paranoid.
Joseph understands something that is truly mystifying to the rest of the brothers:  think back to something in your life, something that you feel truly guilty over.  In the moment that you did wrong, could you really have done differently, given what you knew, or how you understood things, or how much insight or understanding you had at that time?  If we really go back and remember, most of us (at least those of us who are not mentally ill or sociopaths) will realize that we couldn't have done it differently.  Joseph understood this insight so deeply, that even as he watched his father die as a result of all his grief, he felt no grudge against his brothers for their past wrong.  He simply didn't bother.  All that he cared about was what he had with his brothers here and now. Now, his brothers understood their wrongdoing.  Now, they were alive.  Now, he was in a position to save life, to save 'am rav--countless lives.
And so, Josephs tzedek, his righteousness, is a great teacher to all of us who sit here now, weighed down by whatever guilts we may know.  His tzedek shows us all that if we feel guilt, we can welcome it as an important teacher to us.  It shows us where we feel that we have done wrong, where we have made a mistake, where we need to make T'shuvah, to become better.  We can acknowledge it, we can make amends, and once we have done that, we're done with it. It's no longer necessary because we're not God.  It's not our job to berate ourselves or others over what we feel guilt about.  Our job is simple:  to strive to be like Joseph:  to learn from the pain of the past, but not to be defined by it.  Our job is to derive wisdom from the past, not to be chained to it; our job humbly seek to move forward with the insight we have gained. No matter what wrongs we have done, each moment that we're alive, we have so much power to do good.  May our guilts and our past sufferings indeed be our teachers.  May we teach forgiveness by learning first and foremost how to forgive ourselves.  And may we, like Joseph before us, use our forgiveness lahachayot 'am rav--for the sake of life, the lives of countless others.