Friday, December 16, 2011

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Hanukkah is upon us!  For all of the general Hanukkah information you could ever want or need, click here for my 2009 Hanukkah blog posting.

This year...I've been thinking about the Hanukkah story.  You might remember that the story begins with the evil Antiochus IV (of the "Syrian-Greeks") who is looking to violently foist Hellenism on the Jewish residents of the Land of Israel around 168 BCE.

What is Hellenism?  Try here for one answer.  But my simplified response is that Hellenism was the values, beliefs, and culture of Ancient Greece.  Antiochus, a proud Greek himself, wanted to replicate those values amongst other peoples as well.

The aspect of Hellenism that I want to focus on this week is the one associated with physical beauty.  The Greeks, conscious of aesthetics, sought out people and things that were physically beautiful, and celebrated them.  Greek mathematics was partially organized around the belief that things that were symmetrical were beautiful...or perfect.  This influenced Greek architecture, and art...and even the way that people perceived themselves.  And although every culture has always offered up its own definition of what constitutes physical beauty, there is little question that our society's own ideas about beauty can be traced right on back to ancient Greece.

Beyond the question of what constitutes American beauty today, I find it fascinating that - like the Greeks - we put so much IMPORTANCE on the physical appearance of ourselves and others. 

I don't know if you heard about it...but there was an extraordinary survey published this week about this subject...and according to the survey, 32% of Americans believe that they themselves are stunningly beautiful - giving themselves an 8,9, or 10 on a scale of 1-10!

32%!  Am I the only one that thinks that number is absurdly high?

But here's the best part: we Americans don't just think that we ourselves are beautiful.  We have also deluded ourselves into thinking that we are far more beautiful than everyone else

I say all of this by way of introduction to this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayeishev.  It's the beginning of the Joseph epic (his story takes up all of the rest of the Book of Genesis!).  And, curiously, this week's Torah portion contains the following (unexpected!) description of our famous ancestor: "Joseph was well built and good looking" (Genesis 39:6).  How bizarre!  The Torah does not usually describe our ancestors (especially men) in those kinds of terms.

Interestingly, the history of commentary on this verse sheds light on the Jewish approach to beauty - which, as we might expect given the Maccabean revolt against Hellenism - is notably different from the Greek one.

Rashi (c. 1100 France) criticizes Joseph for spending too much time at the ancient Egyptian version of the spa, especially while he knows that his father Jacob sits at home - inconsolable because he mistakenly believes that Joseph is dead.  Rashi notes that the Torah's statement about Joseph's beauty comes right before Mrs. Potiphar (wife of Joseph's boss) attempts to seduce him.  Rashi suggests that the attempted seduction is God's way of punishing Joseph for being too vain. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of 19th century Germany, reads the text differently.  The vanity suggested in the Torah itself is so preposterous to Hirsch that he cannot acknowledge that Joseph's looks had anything to do with Mrs. Potiphar's attraction to him. Instead, Hirsch insists that Joseph's "splendid spiritual attainments" far outshone his beauty....and those 'attainments' were the catalyst for the attempted seduction.

Whether you agree with Rashi or with Hirsch...our tradition is clear: a value judgement is being made against vanity and the preoccupation with one's own personal physical appearance.  There is a danger, Judaism believes, in concentrating too much on the outside.  If we do so, we make ourselves vulnerable to spoiling the beautiful sparks of our souls that rest within us.

As you gather around the menorah in the coming days, and admire the beauty of the lights....consider this week's Torah portion as well....and be reminded of the pitfalls of physical beauty.  Contrary to the ancient Greeks, we Jews believe that our inner selves are always more precious and beautiful than our outer ones.

Happy Hanukkah and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor: Seventy Years Later

Earlier this week, our country marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The anniversary provides us with the chance to reflect on our national and Jewish values...particularly as they apply to the question of war.

(For a broad introduction to Jewish law and what constitutes a "just" or permitted war, click here.  And click here for the landmark Reform responsum on the specific question of whether the war in Iraq meets the threshold of a Jewishly permitted war.  That document is all the more pertinent as our country marks the formal conclusion of an American military presence in Iraq over the next few weeks.)

To frame this conversation, I want to refer you to this article, which made the rounds this past week on a number of Jewish websites, written by JJ Goldberg, a prominent writer in the Jewish press.

Goldberg starts the article by insisting that we should not be afraid to use our military strength.  He does this by articulating the two fundamental lessons (that he thinks we need to learn) from Pearl Harbor (and about the related subject of America's pre-Pearl Harbor hesitation to get involved in WWII):

1) "There are times when you can't run away from a fight, when you have to stand and face evil, when nothing will do but to struggle and win."
2) "America is the essential nation.  It is not enough to be a beacon of democracy and freedom: We must be their defender as well.  There is no greatness in solitude, nor honor in indifference."

In other parts of the article, he seems to be implying that he takes this position because of the Jewish loss of six million during the Holocaust.  If the US had gotten involved in the War in Europe earlier...more lives could have been saved.  (Fascinatingly, see Rabbi Daniel Gordis' piece this week from Israel, in which he observes the opposite: while mourning the losses of Pearl Harbor, Gordis also expresses gratitude for it...because it ultimately got the US into the War and prevented the total annihilation of the Jewish people.  Which perspective speaks to you?)

Okay.  Back to J.J. Goldberg.

Remember, as I quoted above, Goldberg begins by seeming to suggest that the ultimate lesson of Pearl Harbor is that the US was too slow in using its force to police the Axis Powers.

But, at the end of the article, Goldberg seems to switch gears!  Writing about the aftermath of WWII, and our long Cold War with the Soviets, Goldberg acknowledges that: "not every foe is pure evil and not every compromise is 1938.  We used to understand that."

To me, that's a statement which argues for much more restraint regarding the use of force.

This question of what constitutes a "kosher" use of force could not be more important or relevant today.  Even as we are withdrawing our troops from Iraq, they remain in Afghanistan.  We remain unsure of a possible future war with Iran, or North Korea.  And even further down the line: China?

We hope and pray for a future filled only with peace.

But sadly, it seems to me that there will still be more wars to be fought, before the era of peace dawns.  And if that is the case, then we American Jews should take this moment to reconsider: Which of Goldberg's approaches resonates more with you, and the Jewish values you hold dear?  The former, which urges us to be fearless when it comes to exercising our military might?  Or the latter, which urges restraint?

What are the conditions that seem "just" to us in using force?  Saving more than X number of lives?  The lives of a certain race?  Or religion?  (Are we more sympathetic to the saving of Jewish lives?)  And how are our thoughts about Israel connected to all of this?  In what cases should America's military be used to protect Israel?  And when not?  And when should Israel use force?  And when not?

There are no easy answers here...only hard questions.  I welcome your thoughts either publicly here on the blog (commenting works best when you are browsing with Internet Explorer) or privately over email.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, December 2, 2011

Taking the Blame

There was an important news story that came out of Pakistan a few days ago….though most of us were probably too busy finishing off our turkey leftovers, and beginning our holiday gift shopping, to pay attention to it.

A week ago, American and NATO forces engaged in an operation against Taliban fighters around the infamous and amorphous border than runs between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the process, 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed.

Tensions between our country and Pakistan have been running high since we captured and killed Osama bin Laden in May….without the help of the Pakistanis – because of our concern that they might have been complicit in hiding him over these last few years.

The trouble is that we can’t just wash our hands of Pakistan.  They are an essential and strategic partner in the ongoing war against terror….particularly vis a vis the American military presence in Afghanistan. 

Which brings us back to the unfortunate loss of life that occurred in Pakistan seven days ago.

Washington has been abuzz about whether or not President Obama should publicly apologize to Pakistan for the apparent error.  As best as we can determine, the State Department is in favor of an apology, in the hopes that that would placate Pakistan, and ease the way for continued partnership in the region.

And the Defense Department has advised against such an apology, pending a thorough review of the incident that could take months, or even years, to complete. 

In the meantime, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have issued a joint statement expressing their “deepest condolences” to Pakistan on the loss.

The question is: is that enough?  Or does our president and commander in chief have the responsibility to take the blame, and publicly apologize on America’s behalf?

This is partially a partisan political question. 
But for me, there is also a relevant Jewish question on the table.  What is the inherent value of an apology?  And when should we be offering one?

The question arises, in part, from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeitzei.  The portion includes the saga of the complicated relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law Lavan.  After years and years of living together as an extended family, Jacob finally seeks to cut the cord…and settle down with his children on property that is separate from Lavan’s.  But Jacob’s departure isn’t a simple matter.  Lavan is concerned that Jacob’s departure is tied to some trickery…and he becomes paranoid that Jacob has stolen from him.  Lavan insists on inspecting all that Jacob has, to make sure that none of his stuff is hidden within.

Jacob is naturally insulted that is father-in-law so distrusts him.  He makes a speech in which he passionately reminds Lavan that time and again, he [Jacob] always "took responsibility" (Gen. 31: 39) for any of Lavan's property that was lost under his watch (particularly when he served as a shepherd of Lavan's animals).

The text is attempting to make a profound statement about ethics in general, and about the Jewish qualifications for leadership more specifically.  What happens under our watch is our responsibility.

Jacob is described as a respectable leader, and a praiseworthy individual, because he is someone who is willing to accept responsibility, and take the blame, when things happen.  Even if he did not want or choose for them to happen.  If they happened under his watch, then he knows that the responsibility rests with him.

Our commentators are quite interested in Jacob's use of the phrase I took the blame.  What does it mean in our tradition to accept responsibility for our actions?

Rashi, quoting the first century Torah translator and commentator Onkelos, offers one possible answer: "Onkelos [1st century] alternatively translates this phrase as ‘that which is lacking and missing’ as in ‘Not one person is missing from us.’  Whether something went missing by day or by night, ‘I [replaced that which was missing] by compensating for everything.’"  

According to Rashi, Jacob took responsibility – and we can do the same – by offering up some kind of compensation…something tangible to the party that we wronged.  Not in terms of replacement value – because sometimes the things we take from others are priceless – but because compensation is an act that signifies that we recognize that a loss has happened.  And that even though we can’t go back in time and change the past, we can offer up some sort of restitution that will allow for some healing to take place…so that we can begin to make whole that which had been ruptured in the relationship.

Perhaps it is premature for President Obama to apologize this week to the Pakistani people.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do an investigation to find out exactly what happened, as the Defense Department has suggested.  But if the investigation indicates that the United States military was liable, then…Jewishly-speaking…I would humbly encourage the President to apologize.  The words “I’m sorry” carry tremendous weight.  Especially when they come from the most powerful person in the world, those words carry a certain value…Thus an apology becomes compensation…..It’s not monetary.  But it is a gesture that would indicate to Pakistan and to the world that we made an unfortunate mistake, and that we are prepared to rectify it.  By taking responsibility for it.

These are all lessons that can be easily applied to our personal lives as well.  How often have we felt bad about something that we said or did to someone else, but failed to verbalize it?  Perhaps we were afraid that an apology would make us less powerful, or appear weak.  Or maybe we were just embarrassed.

Our tradition reminds us that feeling bad about something is not enough.  The Talmud notes that "thoughts of the heart – thoughts that have not been articulated out loud – are as if they do not exist" (Kiddushin 49b). 

Words matter.  Saying the words “I’m sorry” makes all the difference in the world.  Even when it not the easy or popular thing to do, our tradition is clear: we have to step up and lead, and be role models…just like our ancestor Jacob was…and take responsibility for our actions.   

May God grant all of us the strength and courage to do so…as we say…Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Parsha and the Pilgrims

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we can’t help but think of some of time-honored values associated with our American tradition. Even as we recall the bounty that was shared between Pilgrim and Indian alike, so are we moved to think of all of those in our midst who might have less. We reach out to them – as our Pilgrim and Indian ancestors looked after each other so many years ago.

 But while I would never want to minimize the ethical notion of tzedakah – of sharing our bounty with others who are in need – this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah, challenges us to explore other important values that are embedded in this Thanksgiving season.

We begin with the fact that this week's Torah portion contains the story of Eliezer (Abraham's servant) and his search for a wife for Isaac.  The text refers to an elaborate and scripted test that Eliezer had constructed with God….a test that would prove to Eliezer that the woman who was generous with water was the worthy future wife of Isaac, his master’s son.

But our rabbis, who teach us that every word in the Torah is laden with meaning, can’t help but notice the fact that the wording in the Torah is somewhat strange.  The text goes out of its way to indicate that Eliezer ran to meet Rebekah at the well in the center of town.  Why would Eliezer have run to meet her? After a long journey in the desert, wouldn’t we expect him to be thirsty and tired? Hardly the kind of physical condition that would allow someone to run toward a stranger…

Rabbi Yehezkel of Kuzmir (19th century Poland) offers one provocative answer when he writes that Eliezer ran because he had seen the water perform a miracle!!  The water magically rose up to meet Rebekah, so as to make it easier for her to draw it out!

He goes on to wonder...if Eliezer had in fact witnessed a true miracle, then why did he and Rebekah still have to follow the 'script' that God had constructed to prove that Rebekah was the right person?  Rabbi Yehezkel's answer: "From this we can see that a single instance of proper behavior is more important than a hundred miracles and signs."

No doubt this will be music to the ears of the rationalists and humanists that follow my posts.

But I would humbly remind you that Judaism is not wholly rational and humanistic. At the core of our identity is a willingness to grapple with that which cannot be Seen or always Understood. We Jews have affirmed the existence of God for more than 3000 years. And although God cannot be witnessed in the physical sense of the word, the quest to come to know God lies at the heart of our Jewish experience nonetheless.

And let us not forget that it lies at the core of our Thanksgiving story as well.  This holiday is not just about being grateful for our food, and for being reminded of the obligation to share it with others.

Thanksgiving also celebrates the fact that the original pilgrims came to this country in search of something….not just of a new kind of political freedom…but also a new kind of spirituality…they were seeking an experience of God, or of Holiness, that could not be found in the Europe of the17th and 18th centuries. They sought it here….in this wildly beautiful and expansive land that we are all fortunate enough to call home.

Imagine what it must have been like for the people who sailed on the Mayflower back in 1620. There wasn’t just anxiety about what the New World would bring. There was also hope, which grew out of a faith that there was more in the world, and that there could be more to their lives, than the existence that they knew in England.

I think that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood, on some level, what the Mayflower’s voyage was all about it, when he wrote that:

"The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.

We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore."

On this Thanksgiving, let us not just learn from the pilgrims’ example about the importance of sharing our bounty with others. Let us rejoice in the pilgrims’ faith, and curiosity…the fact that they heard the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore” and responded to it…by packing their bags, boarding a ship, and coming here….to found this country that we are all blessed to call Home.

And as we eat our turkey on Thursday, may we too pause long enough in our feasting to give ear to the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore” that speak to us. What are the dreams and possibilities that we yearn for in the weeks and months ahead? And what oceans are we willing to cross…what journeys are we willing to go on…to achieve them?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Aspiring to a Life on the Ladder

My daughter, now five, definitely qualifies as a “picky eater.”  We have about ten or fifteen go-to foods in the house that she loves, and is happy to eat in quantity.  But getting her to try something new and – God forbid – actually like it…is virtually unheard of in our house.

At first, Amy and I thought there was something wrong…either with her, or with our parenting.  But we soon came to discover that a lot of kids are incredibly picky, or “discerning,” eaters.

In fact, today, most pediatric nutritionists believe that parents have to expose their children to a new food more than 20 times before there’s any realistic chance that the child might try it.  20 times!  Of just putting it on the plate, and hoping for the best.

The more I’ve thought about that statistic over the last few years…the more I’ve concluded that there is something fixed in our human nature regarding regularity, and routine. 

We get stuck doing what we do…We’ve always done it this way…And it is so hard to imagine ever doing it differently.  Change, in other words, is incredibly hard.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha, seeks to shake things up a bit….by arguing against our inherent defense mechanism of retaining the status quo.  We grow, our tradition asserts, when we take the risk of leaving the comfortable and familiar.  

That's reflected in the story of Abraham - which opens by informing us that God commanded our patriarch to start his journey as a Jew by leaving Ur…his homeland, the only place he ever knew. 

Why – we wonder – does Abraham have to leave his home to begin the journey that will ultimately create Judaism?

Rashi, the great Torah commentator of medieval France, suggests that great benefit…or substantial positive change in our lives…only comes about when we have the courage to pick up our bags and start walking…away from that which we’re used to, and towards a destination that is fraught with uncertainty.

There are some in our tradition that suggest that Ur, Abraham’s homeland, was somehow tainted…That there was something stale in the air that would have prevented Judaism from flowering there…and so God had Abraham begin travelling toward the Land of Israel.

But I think there’s a larger metaphorical point to be made here.  It’s not that there was anything wrong with Ur.  It was merely an awareness on the part of God that we can only become our best selves when we switch things up…when we physically move ourselves, or alter our routine, to give ourselves the chance to become something, and someone, different.

Thus the brilliance of this week’s Torah portion, which seeks to teach us that all we have to do is start moving.  Not just in a physical sense – though that’s an easy way to live out this value, by getting up and exercising…or by getting up and moving to a different town or city. 

But we can move in other ways…by changing the way we think about something, or by changing the way we talk about someone or something.  Even the slightest change can put a process in motion that could result in a major difference in our lives for the better.

To start moving is to begin walking the path, being on a journey…rather than remaining fixed in an unmoving spot.  The Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler was an advocate of moving…of being open to going on the journey.  He once wrote that: "The meaning of our life is the road, not the goal.  For each answer is delusive, each fulfillment melts away between our fingers, and the goal is no longer a goal once it is attained." 

To live a meaningful and fulfilled life is not to reach or achieve certain goals, according to Schnitzler.  It is, rather, to remain committed to always going…always journeying…always seeking and moving toward a fuller and richer sense of self….a more meaningful way of looking at, and acting in, the world.

In the 19th century, the Chofetz Chayyim brought this approach to life as he contemplated the mysterious image of Jacob’s ladder, which is described in Chapter 28 of the Book of Genesis.  The Chofetz Chayyim wrote that: "Jacob dreamed of a ladder standing on the ground and reaching to heaven.  This means: We never stand still.  We either ascend, or we descend."  

For the Chofetz Chayim, and for Abraham’s grandson Jacob, the ladder is just a dream…an ideal that we can, and must, yearn for: a vision of our lives in which we would be empowered to always keep moving…to never get stuck on a rung…but to always be exploring, experimenting, and even risk-taking.  Sometimes we are blessed to ascend, and sometimes we are forced to descend.  But the path toward a more fulfilling life is the one in which we never stand still for too long.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 28, 2011


To all of the non-baseball fans out there, I wanted to make sure you knew about last night's Game Six of the World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals.  Commentators are already declaring the Cardinals' victory, which forces a Game Seven tonight, the greatest World Series game of all time!!  Read the local St. Louis coverage of the game here.

One of the things that caught my eye in reading all of the coverage of the game this morning was the fact that the Rangers' staff had already started preparing their locker room for the World Series victory party (which would have taken place had the Rangers won the game....which they literally on the verge of doing).  But alas, the Cards won.  And so, the hanging of plastic sheets over TV monitors and computers (to protect them from champagne) proved premature and unnecessary.
I love baseball (RIP 2011 Philadelphia Phillies).  But I never understood why locker room celebrations had to be marked by an excess of champagne and beer (televised live of course).
Either the Cards or the Rangers are going to win tonight's game, and the Series.  And one of them is sure to be doing some serious celebrating.  But at the risk of being a "party pooper," I want to devote this week's Etanu to the question of celebrating responsibly.

Some have suggested that champagne use be curtailed in baseball's postseason....Major League Baseball has asked teams to make sure that non-alcoholic choices are available...But I am going one step further.  I want to go on the record today to say that there is something wrong with the public glorification of excessive drinking - even when a team has just won the World Series.

I am deeply concerned about the mixed messages that we send our kids (and adults who continue to struggle with making healthy choices about alcohol) when network television broadcasts our larger than life heroes celebrating with champagne.

I'm not suggesting that Judaism is "dry" and believes we should be too.  Our tradition firmly accepts that there is a time and a place for enjoying alcohol moderation.  Adults in our community are invited to enjoy a little bit of wine during kiddush on Shabbat.  And we're invited to have four cups of wine on Passover (seders can get long and boring, after all).  But maintaining that sense of moderation is key.  Our tradition never allows or encourages binge drinking.  And it certainly never endorses alcohol-induced irresponsible behavior like drunk driving.

Judaism's approach to alcohol comes from several different places in the Torah, including in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach.  The portion is famously known for the story of the Great Flood...of Noah and his family (and all the animals) hunkering down on the Ark for 40 days and 40 nights....until eventually the rain stopped, they could get off the boat, get on with human history.

Except...there's a strange post-script to the story (Genesis 9:20-29).  According to the text, the very first thing that Noah did when he got off the boat was plant a vineyard.  (One commentator suggests that it was because Noah had an unhealthy dependence on alcohol, and desperately needed wine after the Flood.  And so, before planting fruits or vegetables, he started taking steps so that he could ultimately drink.)

Later, when he finally drank the wine, there is a bizarre incident with his sons.  It involves Noah being naked.  It's way strange.  The text isn't clear if something sexual happened...or if Noah just got so drunk that he became immodest/didn't realize that he was stripping...

What is clear is that the Torah is teaching us that alcohol (especially when we abuse it) has the power to make us do things that we don't even realize in the moment that we are doing.  And that is terribly problematic when it comes to a Jewish way of life.  Our ethics demand that we are constantly aware of our actions, and that we are always striving to make good, healthy, safe choices.

This strange incident with Noah and his sons teaches us about the danger that we put ourselves (and others) in when we lose control, and give up the ability to evaluate our actions/interactions with others.

So: to the Cardinals or the Rangers...whoever wins conscious of your behavior, and of what kind of message your champagne party is sending to impressionable Americans who are watching on TV.

And for the rest of us: a reminder that drinking requires a tremendous amount of maturity - to be self aware to know when we are approaching our limit, to know when we are potentially putting our bodies in harm's know when we absolutely should not be getting behind the wheel of a car, or hooking up with someone that we hardly know (or trust).

For anyone that has struggled with alcohol, the good news is that there are amazing resources to help!  Click here for the website of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) or click here to find AA meetings around the country.  Everyone should also know about JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others)...the Jewish response to Alcoholism.  Click here for a directory of their local meetings.

Hoping you'll keep all of this information in mind...And that the next time you have occasion to celebrate...that you do it responsibly.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Release of Gilad Shalit: Finding (and Fulfilling) Our Purpose in Life

Hopefully by now you've heard about the big news from Israel this week about the release of Gilad Shalit, after being held for five years as a hostage by Hamas.

In exchange for his release, the Israeli government agreed to release more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners - many of them convicted murderers and terrorists.  (It's so important to remember that, even as we rejoice in Gilad's safe return, many of the families of the victims of other acts of terror are suffering - in knowing that the murderers of their children are being freed.  Do take the time to click here to read the short but poignant reflection written by my good friend Rabbi Micah Streiffer about Gilad Shalit and our friend Marla Bennett z"l (who so many in San Diego knew and loved).)

The transaction of 1000 terrorists for one soldier presents a pressing moral question.

I'd like to briefly examine it through the lens of this week's Torah portion, Parshat Breishit - the very first portion of the Torah. 

Breishit of course tells the story of creation.  And one of the things that the text goes out of its way to emphasize is that every single thing in the world was created for a particular purpose.  Light was created for Day.  And Darkness was created for Night.  Rivers were created to flow.  Etc.  Etc.

And according to the Torah, the essential purpose of humanity is to tend to our relationships with our loved ones.

How do we know this?

Because Adam (the first person) is never expected to live a solitary existence.  From the moment Adam is created, God is conscious of the fact that Adam needs a partner (thus explaining the existence of Eve).  Adam is not whole until he enters into relationship with another.

To be human is to constantly be compelled to do everything in our power to care for the ones we love.

In light of the Gilad Shalit situation, I have been thinking about the families that I know that suffered the devastating and horrible loss of a child.  And how that suffering can never fully be relieved because there is nothing that we can do to bring that child back.

And then I think of the Shalit's.  And about the fact that even though the circumstances must have made them realize that getting Gilad back was extraordinarily unlikely...that they devoted their lives over the last 5 years to making it happen.  They never gave up hope.  They couldn't imagine doing so.  Because, as parents, their chief purpose in life was to do everything they could to bring Gilad back.  That's just what we do.  It's how God made us human.

And so, in that sense, there's nothing terribly complicated for me about the transaction that Israel agreed to.  A parent, or a country, can't really give up on one of their own.  It's not how we were created to be.  We're human.  God endowed us with a DNA that dictates our concern for our own.  It's our purpose in life.

What about you?  On this Shabbat I challenge you to look in the mirror.  Who do you see in the reflection?  What is the reason you (in particular) were put on this planet?  What is the unique purpose that you have?  And what, if anything, are you doing to fulfill it?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Sukkot: Challenging the Way We Think About the Other Religions of the World

Sukkot is the perfect time of year for us to think about those who are religiously different from us.  The very nature of the design of the sukkah (a walled structure that is also open) hails visitors and guests of all backgrounds to come in, and join the occupants for a meal.

The long-honored custom of ushpizin (of ritually welcoming guests into the sukkah for hospitality) also encourages diversity.  Check out this attempt at an interfaith ushpizin ritual.

The non-permanence of the sukkah also suggests that the holiday is a time for us to meditate on breaking down boundaries/divisions, rather than establishing new ones.

This theme is also played out in the Haftarah reading that Jews around the world read on the first morning of Sukkot (this past Thursday).  According to the prophet Zechariah, one of the things that might happen at the end of time is that: "The survivors of all the nations of the world who came against Jerusalem [and the Jewish People] shall annually go up to worship the Sovereign God of Heaven's Hosts and celebrate the festival of Sukkot" (Zechariah 14:16).

Some might read this passage as suggesting a fervent belief by our ancient Biblical ancestors that their religion was superior to all of the other religions of the world.  And that, at the end of time, everyone else would realize the "error of their ways" and come to embrace Judaism as well.

But that would be a significant mistake.  The passage doesn't say anything about everyone needing to be Jewish.  It only suggests an immense value in having all of the people of the world do something (in this case, celebrate Sukkot) together.

Behind that statement is an assumption that we are more alike than we are different.  And that whatever surface level religious beliefs might distinguish us from each other, at the end of the day we are all seeking a Higher Power and a worldview that will enable us to do Good in the world.  And that, occasionally at least, it would be an awfully healthy thing if we were able to figure out a way to become friends with one another.

Off the top of my head, I would say that the Olympics are the closest we come in our society to actually pulling this off today.  Once every four years (okay, every 2 for a Winter Games, and every 2 for a Summer Games), the whole world (regardless of race, religion, or political philosophy) comes together to celebrate, and compete in, Sport.

The bad news is that we have 287 days to go until the London Summer Games.

And, pending some other domestic or world crisis (God forbid), the only thing we have to distract ourselves with on television until then is...the Republican primary for the 2012 presidential election. of the dominant news stories coming out of that race thus far has been....the candidates' religion!

Watch this video from Chris Matthews' show on Hardball (Oct 13, 2011).  It covers the basic background surrounding the suggestion by Rick Perry (and others associated with the Republican Party) that Mitt Romney (and, by extension, Jon Huntsman) are not qualified to be President because they are Mormons.

Some conservative Christians would discriminate against Mormons because of their religious beliefs.  And some would discriminate against Catholics as well.

JFK's Catholicism has long been documented as an important component of the 1960 Presidential Campaign.  But in 2011...we're still talking about this?  Are people really going to cast their vote because they are suspicious of a candidate's religious affiliation?

I know...I'm naive.  But it is so hard for me to believe that Americans are fixated on some one's religion in this day and age.  Yes: I get that a person's religion informs their politics (my Judaism informs my politics, anyway).  But - if I were ever to run for office - I don't think I would ever want someone to vote for or against me, just because I was Jewish.  Voters should back the candidate that shares their overall values, and has a vision for the future of our country that they agree with.

So: my hope and prayer on this Sukkot is that the lessons of the holiday reach all of those in this country who would seek to use religion to divide us.  Sukkot is a holiday that teaches us that our world will be better, and stronger, if we can find occasions when we can all join together: celebrating that which unites us...rather than that which pulls us apart.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Yom Kippur Sermon 5772: The time to forgive with compassion is Now.

It wasn’t a good year for Masataka Shimizu.  He earned terrible marks for his leadership of the Tokyo Power Company, as the March nuclear disaster engulfed the Fukushima Dai’ichi reactor in Japan.

In short order, experts concluded that Shimizu’s faulty leadership was responsible: for the accident’s environmental impact, which will equal that of Chernobyl; for the tainted food and water, which even resulted in the detection of plutonium in Tokyo’s tap water…and for the human impact - whereby 50,000 families permanently evacuated their homes.  They all must now start over again, because TEPCO couldn’t fulfill its obligations to the Japanese public.

Japan might be half a world away.  But surely all of us have survived nuclear disasters of one kind or another in our personal lives.
For example, I am still grappling, years later, with unanswered questions about the friend who repeatedly lied to me, and about the family member who callously said horrible things about me to my face.  Both individuals’ words ruptured my relationships with them…in one case, permanently.
The Fukushima Dai’ichi incident is a sad analogy for our personal lives.  All of us are haunted by disasters in our past.  They begin as moments of anguish.  But they turn into seasons that stretch on, in which the hurt of being wounded prevents us from picking up the pieces, and going on with the rest of our lives.
Today is Yom Kippur: a day on which forgiveness is sought and granted.  

The Torah describes today as the Sabbath of Sabbaths: a day of rest in which time stands still.  When we forget the other obligations of our lives, and concentrate instead on seeking forgiveness for ourselves, and – as we shall specifically explore tonight: granting forgiveness to others as well. 

We will confront hard questions…questions about whether there are sins that are unforgivable.  And how it is that we are supposed to “move on”, when we have been hurt so deeply that we can barely get out of bed, let alone turn the page on a painful chapter of our life.
But before all of that, I want to begin by acknowledging what Judaism takes for granted: that none of us is perfect.  All of us have made mistakes.  And according to the Jewish value of teshuvah – of repentance – we must seek forgiveness from those we have wronged.

Yet our rabbis cautioned that forgiveness is a two way street.  We seek forgiveness for that which we have done wrong…and at the same time, we forgive those who have wronged us. 

Thus we read in the Talmud: “Whose sin is forgiven?  The sin of the one who forgives others.”  Our tradition believes that our ability to attain forgiveness is contingent on our willingness to absolve others.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells the story of Linda Kenney, a woman who almost died at the hands of her anesthesiologist after he made a mistake during a procedure.  Upon leaving the hospital, her husband immediately engaged a lawyer to sue the anesthesiologist for everything he had.  But Linda and her husband were caught off guard by the handwritten apology that they soon received.  In the letter (and you can just hear the hospital’s lawyers groaning in the background), the doctor takes full responsibility for the errors that he made!

Over time, the doctor’s wish to apologize to Linda in person had the desired effect: the Kenney’s decided to forgive him.  And from that forgiveness came the joint establishment, with the doctor, of a new organization devoted to helping doctors and patients deal with trauma resulting from medical errors.

In telling Linda’s story, Telushkin teaches us that her capacity to forgive made her more righteous…and thus more deserving of being forgiven by the ones that she had wronged in her own life.  

There are certainly situations in which Judaism advises against forgiving: like when a murder has been committed.  Murder is unforgivable because the victim cannot do the forgiving.

Gossip is also unforgivable, because, like murder, it is not un-do-able.  Our reputation can be assassinated when an evil gossiper spreads terrible lies about us.

And of course there are pre-meditated violent crimes that are considered unforgivable too: violations like rape, other kinds of sexual and physical abuse, kidnapping, and even mugging.  When a criminal commits these heinous acts, he obliterates the innate and precious trust we have of our fellow human beings. 

But putting those exceptions aside…on this Yom Kippur we come to terms with our own shortcomings.  And as we do so, we can channel that awareness into the realization that everyone else is also flawed.  Even as we seek to accept our own shortcomings, I would challenge you to take this season to become more accepting, and forgiving, of the flaws in others as well.

Forgiveness, of course, is not something that should be offered automatically!  Even when we consider a situation that doesn’t involve an extreme example like rape or murder, Jewish law dictates that forgiveness should only be granted after the offender has done teshuvah, or fully repented. 
There are three basic steps to doing teshuvah, and we should be familiar with them – so that we ourselves can repent, and so that we can judge whether others should be forgiven.

The first step towards Jewish repentance is cheshbon nefesh: an accounting of our soul, that enables us to be self-reflective about our actions.  This is the critical first step of repentance because without it, we would never even REALIZE that we had done something wrong!

Consider two of this year’s most public sinners, and the way they handled their chesbon nefesh.
First, we have former baseball superstar Roger Clemensample evidence to the contrary.  Clemens continues to maintain his innocence, and thus he has never apologized.  He does not seem to have received the memo about cheshbon nefesh!

And on the other hand, we have former congressman Anthony Weiner.  The congressman does not deserve any rewards for his wildly inappropriate use of Twitter.  But give him an ounce of credit: at least he resigned and apologized.  He took responsibility for his mistakes by doing a cheshbon nefesh, even though the damage of his transgressions had already been done.  

Maimonides emphasized the criticality of an apology, and so it is the second necessary ingredient for repentance.  Maimonides wrote that: “It is…praiseworthy for the penitent to confess…and announce his sins, and reveal…the transgressions he committed against his neighbor.  He should say to them: ‘Truly I have sinned ….But now I am turning, and repenting.”

Anthony Weiner apologized.  And so did our friend Masataka Shimizu, who even went on an apology tour…visiting several shelters throughout Japan to meet with, and apologize to, displaced families impacted by TEPCO’s mismanagement of the nuclear disaster.   

Nonetheless, teshuvah is not fulfilled simply by doing cheshbon nefesh, and apologizing.  Real teshuvah happens when the penitent proves she’ll never repeat the same mistake again.

The staff at Fukushima Dai’ichi won’t have the ability to do this teshuvah because their plant will never come back online.  We’ll be cleaning up there for decades to come.

But consider another Japanese example: Toyota made a number of manufacturing errors over the last year or two.  It did cheshbon nefesh, and offered its apologies.  Only time will tell if the company has really changed…whether it is taking its responsibility for safety seriously, or whether it will cut corners again to make more money by producing cars on an ever larger scale.

On this Day of Repentance, like God, we sit as Judges against the ones who have harmed us.  As they ask for forgiveness, we must discern whether they have been self reflective, offered apologies, and truly changed.  And if they have: we must re-embrace and forgive them.  Our tradition is clear.  So long as we have not been the victim of an unforgivable sin, and so long as the offender has done teshuvah: then we are obligated to forgive.

The trouble is….that’s easier said than done.

I return, once again, to the imagery of a nuclear explosion.  Think about the word “meltdown.”  Doesn’t that word convey the whole range of emotions that we experience when the people we care about most do terrible things…that don’t just hurt us, but actually call into question the future viability of the relationship?  There is the pent up blast of anger and rage that is eventually released in a furious confrontation!  And then…the disturbingly quiet aftermath that is as depressing as nuclear winter.

Our upset doesn’t go away after a single day, week, or year.  For some of us, the hurt is so deep that we become convinced that we will never be able to get over it.

The question is: what are we supposed to do if the person that we are really, really, angry with comes and seeks forgiveness before we’ve cooled down?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, writes, that during the months, years, or even decades that we remain angry – it is as if we are holding a white hot club in our hands…always waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike back against the one who wronged us.  But of course, Kushner writes, those moments never come.  The only thing that comes of all that anger is that we wind up metaphorically burning ourselves, by holding onto the anger for so long.

Seneca, of ancient Rome, suggested that “anger will cease and become more controllable if it finds that it must appear before a judge every day.”

He notes that one we way can cope with our anger, and ultimately find the strength to forgive, is by acknowledging the pain that lies within us, and talk about it.

Some of us do that in therapy, or in a private conversation with clergy.  Others do it by practicing the Jewish art of musar in a casual support group, where we can learn how to be self reflective by listening to one another.

Sometimes, forgiving becomes easier if we just practice saying the words “I forgive you” out loud.

One Jewish tradition suggests that we take on the spiritual practice of reciting the following meditation each night, just before saying the Shema and going to bed: “Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me, or who sinned against me – whether they did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely.”

What a beautiful practice: naming our anger out loud…and then letting it go.

Even if we don’t actually mean it: by getting into the habit of offering forgiveness each day, we prepare ourselves for the moment when it will actually count.  When another person will approach us.  When we hold the power in our hands to release them from the guilt they suffer for what they once did to us.   

Our obligation to forgive is a serious one.  And yet Jewish Law allows that if a person comes to us the first time begging for forgiveness: we can ignore them!  After all…they hurt us so deeply – it can’t possibly be reasonable to expect that we’ll forgive them the first time they come apologizing.

And even if we brush them off a second time a few weeks later…our tradition is compassionate.  The pain we carry around is real.  Letting go is not easy.

But if the person comes to us a third time…we have no choice.  We must forgive.  However much it hurts us.  However impossible it seems.  As long as they haven’t raped, murdered, mugged, or lied about us to others…then we must forgive.  And if we don’t, then we are in the wrong.  For we have shamed the one who has come to us in authentic repentance.  And now, we must go to them, and beg forgiveness for being stubborn.

It is fitting that on Yom Kippur afternoon we read from the Book of Jonah.  In that story, God discovers abundant compassion to forgive the people of Nineveh for their transgressions, for they repented, and changed the way that they lived.

In contrast: it was Jonah who was stubborn, for he could not find it within himself to forgive.  He was convinced that the Ninevites were monsters.  He could not open his eyes to see that they were just flawed and imperfect – not unlike himself.

Jonah failed God’s test, not because Jonah didn’t trust God.  But because he was so stubborn that he couldn’t trust in the possibility of good within others.

This is the very task that lies before us today, and in our lives.  It is the task that the people of Japan must confront, as Masataka Shimizu continues his tour of repentance.  And it is what you and I are called to do at this very hour as well.

Yehuda Amichai wrote:

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

Would that we were immortal!  Would that time stood still every day of our lives as it does on this Sabbath of Sabbaths!  Would that the length of our days was unending, so that we could put off the task of forgiving others until tomorrow.

But the sun will set on this day, and Yom Kippur will be over.  And we will be left with the unavoidable realization that our presence on this earth is finite.  The clock is ticking.  The time to forgive with compassion is: Now.