Friday, September 25, 2015

The Greatest Threat to the Jews

​As we enter this New Year, this is a time of great fear for the Jewish people.  There is great fear around the safety of Israel in light of the Iran nuclear deal.  There are many great fears about the safety and security of the Jewish people in a world of ever-increasing anti Semitism.  Issues surrounding Israel and its policies, issues about the Jewish relationship to the Obama administration, about a two-state solution are so fraught that they have become like a poison in Jewish communal discourse.  All the things we most fear are tearing the Jewish people apart.
​Over the past weeks, we have all witnessed rabbis and Jewish leaders of all kinds not only taking sides on the Iran deal, but rushing to the ramparts to defend their stance, and also bitterly attacking anyone who disagrees with them.  On the left, I have seen vitriol against right-wing Jews like I have never seen before, lodging words like "evil" and "fascist" against them.  On the right, I have seen a wholesale writing off of liberal Jews.   Some have declared that any Jew who does not agree with the Israeli government's position about the Iran deal to be a traitor against the Jewish people. I have personally borne witness to top Israeli leaders making cynical statements like "all liberal American Jews will be gone in two generations anyway, so we needn't concern ourselves with their opinions of Israeli policies."
​This is madness!  It must stop!  Today, I will not attack or defend the Iran policy.  I will not get in the fray of Israeli politics.  I won't personally attack fellow Jewish leaders.  Instead, I will speak out words of what in Hebrew is called tochachah--which means "words of loving rebuke"--against all the Jewish people.  I don't like having this responsibility to rebuke, but I am literally commanded to do so.  In Leviticus, it says "Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha," "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart," "Hoche'ach tochiach et amitecha," "You shall surely rebuke your fellow," "v'lo tisa alav chet," "so that you do not bring his sin upon you."  Those are strong words in the Torah.  Searing words that we must all sit with as we enter the year 5776.  They teach us that even feeling feelings of hatred in our hearts against our fellow Jews constitutes a deep transgression.  They teach that we must rebuke one another any time feelings or thoughts of hatred for one another arise.  Not to rebuke one another for hating our fellow Jews means that we ourselves bear whatever sins we see our fellow Jews commit.  As our rabbis teach, "Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh," "All Israel is responsible one to the other." This is why we collectively beat our chests on Yom Kippur and take responsibility for the sins that we have committed--when one Jew sins, we all are sinners.  
​There is one sin far greater than the perceived sins of our opponents on the right or the left.  And that one sin is called Sinat Chinam -- pure hatred of one Jew for another.  Our ancient rabbis teach us that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE because we engaged in the cardinal sins of murder, idol worship, and sexual abuse.  They go on to teach that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE because of Sinat Chinam--because Jew turned against fellow Jew in hatred, and therefore, hatred between Jews is equal to all the other three worst sins put together.  And so at this New Year, we must listen to the voice of the ancient rabbis which tells us that the greatest threat not only to the state of Israel today, but to all the Jewish people is not Iran; it's not Palestinians; it's not terrorism; it's not even global anti Semitism.  The greatest threat to the Jewish people today is our own rising tide of hatred for one another.
​Look around at the Jewish world today.  Not only does the political left demonize the right and vice versa.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly withdraw from the rest of the Jewish people because they reject our modern progressive ways.  Young American Jews increasingly withdraw from Israel because of the Israeli occupation.  Instead of finding common ground and solutions together, we are becoming more entrenched in our alienation from one another.  And the greatest tragedy of all is that our alienations and hatreds come from the same source:  from fear.  We are all becoming more and more defined by our fears than by our strengths or our deeper values.  
​Right before the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Jews believed that the world was about to end.  We were in a great rebellion against the Roman empire.  Messiahs of various stripes were rising up, claiming to be the one who will save the Jewish people.  Different sects of Jews arose all claiming their own path as the only truth, and that the end of the world was inevitable unless we followed their path.   In the year 2015, there are, once again, many who also believe that the world is about to end.  Whether it be fears of global climate change, fears of an Iranian nuclear holocaust, fears of resurgent anti Semitism, fears of not having Jewish grandchildren--our fears are ironically becoming the only unifying factor in our Jewish identity.
​What makes it all so difficult is that all of our fears are not baseless.  They all represent real threats, threats that we must deal with.  But if 3,000 years of Jewish history teaches us anything, it teaches us first, that all fear only leads to sinat chinam, hatred and destruction.  And second, that we must rise above our fears if we are ever going to create the world we want to live in.
​In the Talmud, in Hagigah, there is a very famous rabbinic legend known as "The Four Who Entered the Pardes," or the Orchard.  It's a strange and esoteric legend, so listen carefully: four great historic rabbis--Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Zoma, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Azzai, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah--all entered into the mystical Pardes/Orchard--a place where they could come as close to the direct Presence of God as anyone can possibly come.  Right before they entered, Rabbi Akiva issued a warning to his colleagues:  'When you get to the place of pure marble stones, don't say water, water!' as it is said in the Psalms 'He who speaks untruths will not stand before my eyes.' (101:7) [Bear with me, I will explain this].  They entered the Pardes.  Ben Azzai gazed [and presumably said "water, water" and died right there on the spot.  Ben Zoma gazed [said "water, water"] and it says that he went mad.  Ben Abuyah gazed and forever more lost his faith.  Only Rabbi Akiva entered the Pardes in peace, and left in peace.
​It is a completely trippy story, and it always reminds me of Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard who experimented with LSD in the early '60s.  There are many long and brilliant expositions on this legend across the centuries of Jewish tradition.  But I will cut to the chase and explain its relevance to our discussion today.  Whatever that mysterious place of pure marble stones was in the Pardes, it was obviously terrifying.  Only one of the four greatest rabbis of that generation left it unscathed.  Akiva warned his colleagues not to say 'water, water,' and the Zohar explains that this is a reference to the waters of Creation in the book of Genesis--that there are "upper waters" above the heavens and "lower waters" below the earth.  And the great mistake was to identify the upper waters as separate from the lower waters.  In other words, the most dangerous thing in the world is to see creation--all of reality--as composed of separate extremes, as separate polarities.  The only way to enter this world in peace and to leave this world in peace, like Rabbi Akiva, is to understand that all things in this world are one--no matter how separate and extremely polarized they may appear to us, in fact, we must never lose sight of how we are connected to everything.  Even to the things that seem the most alien to us are profoundly connected to us.
​Here's what I want us to take from this legend today. I believe that we are all in that terrifying Pardes all the time.  But it's too a scary thing for us to stay conscious of all the time.  And that place of pure marble stones?  That represents the thing that you are most afraid of.  What is your place of pure marble stones?  Fear of being alone?  Fear of dying?  Fear of suffering?  Fear of betrayal?  Fear that it's all meaningless after all?  Fear of the holocaust happening again? We all have our place of pure marble stones.  Some of us, like Ben Azai, die spiritually because our fears overwhelm us.  We see no options in the world, no choice, no hope, no path forward. Some of us are Ben Zoma:  we lose our minds, we become twisted and paranoid, seeing others as either for us or against us, and we lose our very humanity because of the thing that we're afraid of.  Some of us are like Ben Abuyah, who forever after the Pardes was known simply by the name Acher--the Other One--a name which stands for pure alienation from life, from God, from our people; it represents becoming cynical and bitter because of our fears--refusing to take action, and undermining those who might have hope.
​So what are we supposed to learn from Rabbi Akiva, the only one who survived?  I think Akiva's warning teaches us that we must go through life meeting our fear with wisdom.  If we allow our fears to get the better of us, our fears have a way of smashing our hearts and souls into extremes of separation and into polarities of thinking.  At this moment in our history, we--collectively as the Jewish people--stand in the Pardes.  Together, we stand at the place of pure marble stones and gaze into the unfathomable terrifying starkness of the reality that faces us.  What does this American deal with Iran say about the fate of the Jewish people in Israel, in America, around the world?  What does the increasing isolation of Israel in world opinion mean about our future, about our children and descendants, about our very survival?
​As we gaze at these, and so many other terrifying images about our world that frighten us so, don't make the mistake that the first three rabbis made:  don't let our fears cut us off from our seamless connection between heaven and earth; between one another, between us and God.  It is fear that distorts us, that kills our spirit, that alienates us, that drives us to hatred and to destruction.  
​You see, there is something about the figure of Rabbi Akiva in Jewish consciousness. He is a great rabbi not only in his brilliance and his wisdom, but in his fearlessness and indomitable spirit.  It was Akiva who, at the age of 40 as an uneducated peasant, noticed that drops of water bored through a stone at a well, and realized that Torah could similarly pierce his heart drop by drop, step by step, and so he began learning to read at 40, and in a few years became the greatest scholar of his generation.  It was Akiva who saw the ruins of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and laughed when all his colleagues rent their clothes and cried--because only he could see that now with this destruction, there were infinite new possibilities to rebuild spiritually as the Jewish people.  Where everyone else saw despair, he could see hope.  Where others saw destruction, he saw potential.  Where others saw death, Akiva saw life.  Where others saw fear and went to pieces, Akiva found peace and the seamless presence of God.
​If ever there was a time for all of us, the Jewish people, to walk in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva, it is now.  As Akiva showed us, there is no reason to deny that we are in the Pardes.  There is nothing keeping us from gazing at the place of pure marble stones.  We must face what we fear most.  We must deal with the realities of the Iran deal.  We must face the existential threats to the Jewish people and to Israel's security head on.  We must be strong and courageous.  We must stand up for ourselves and the safety of all our people in every way that is reasonable.  But most importantly, we must heed Akiva's warning:  don't let our fears destroy us.  Here's a rule of thumb--in whatever action you take in response to the Iran deal, or on behalf of Israel, or the Jewish people, go inside and ask yourself:  are my actions coming from a place of fear?  Go inside and look at your own place of pure marble stones, go to your deepest fear.  Is that fear distorting my perceptions?  If your actions are in any way connected to reacting TO fear rather than acknowledging and transcending the fear, then you're getting it wrong.  Fear only leads to more fear.  Demonizing the other only leads to others demonizing us.
​Akiva was eventually murdered by the Roman authorities.  As they literally flayed his flesh in the presence of his students, he started saying the Shema.  His students stood in wonder and said, "Rebbe, even now [you can say the Shema]?" Akiva answered, all my life I wondered how I would fulfill the command to love the Lord our God b'chol nafshecha, with all your soul, and now as I die, I can finally fulfill this!  He died as he prolonged the word, "Echad" the last word of the Shema -- that God is One.  The man who taught his colleagues never to forget the Oneness of all Creation at the place of pure marble stones, at the place of greatest separation and fear:  he lived this wisdom of seeing the oneness--the possibility of God's presence, of spiritual transcendence--even to his own dying breath.
​If Akiva's life and spiritual triumph stands for anything, it is in realizing that even the moments of greatest despair and apparent hopelessness, there is always the same One Divine Presence that is always there.  In every moment of darkness, there is always something that can be done, however small that moves toward the light.  In every separation, even in every loss and in death itself, there is always the possibility of transcendence.  And Akiva's nefesh, his soul won.  The Romans and all they stood for are now long gone.  And the Jewish people and all we stand for are still here, two thousand years later.
​One final point about Akiva.  He wasn't afraid to do tochechah, to rebuke his students and colleagues.  Once (Nedarim 40a), one of his students was critically ill, and the rest of his students didn't go visit him because the student was obviously dying and their was no hope left and therefore no hope for him to survive.  Instantly, Akiva rebuked them for not going to visit their fellow student and praying with him anyway.  True to character, he rebuked his students the moment they gave up the possibility of hope.
​Like Akiva, we must rebuke those on the right who write off liberal Jews as traitors because they don't agree with Israel's official government stance.  We must rebuke those on the left who write off Israel as a hopeless apartheid state.  We must rebuke the ultra-religious for writing off their Jewish brothers and sisters as lost.  And, we must rebuke those of us who are giving up hope in Israel, in the potential of the Jewish people to come together as one and find reasons for hope step by step, drop by drop.  Like all other great leaders -- Moses, Martin Luther King, Gandhi--Rabbi Akiva showed us that there is nothing ever to despair, no moment to let fear win, so long as we never forget the power of our unity, and the Oneness that keeps us together.  May we overcome all that separates us in the coming year, and find new pathways to security, justice and peace--together--for all our people, and for all the world.  Amen.

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