Friday, May 20, 2011

Lag B'Omer: For Hope and Faith


I'm curious: have you paused recently to do a personal mental health check in?  (It's always a healthy thing to do periodically.)

I raise the question now for two reasons....First of all: for the graduating seniors that are part of our Etanu community, now is an obvious 'season of tension' as you navigate the transition from college life to "the real world."  Job/graduate school/new living arrangements/etc all have to be dealt with.  It's only natural to feel anxious during this transition (or possibly even sad if things have been particularly difficult).  The inventory provides a more formal mechanism to enable you to monitor how you're doing.

More broadly, I raise the question of how everyone is doing, and feeling, because we Jews have always associated the springtime with....sadness.

It's strange: springtime is all about re-birth, hope, and happiness.  Well: that's true in our wider Western culture.  It's just not true for Jews.

The four and a half weeks following Passover (a period that we're about to reach the end of this weekend) have always been a period associated with grief and mourning in Judaism.  Instead of celebrating we're supposed to be un-celebrating during this time of year.  Traditional Jews let their hair and beards grow out (so as to not worry about their physical appearance), and they avoid scheduling weddings (so as to not subject their guests to the happiness of a celebration) - all in order to mimic Jewish mourning practices!  Because....we are supposed to be sad right now.

Why?  Here are a few traditional reasons:
  • Some rabbis suggested that this is the season when our ancestors were most affected by the destruction of the Second Temple (in the year 70).  Just as the barley and wheat were making their initial appearances, our people were reminded that there was no temple where they could bring the biblically-commanded agricultural sacrifices. 
  • Others associate this season of loss with a famous story in the Talmud, which notes that Rabbi Akiba – the great second century rabbi, lost thousands of students to a devastating plague during the first few weeks after Passover. 
  • Others read that story as code – that his students didn’t die from plague, but rather heroically died in the Bar Kochba Rebellion: the last courageous stand of our ancestors before falling, once and for all, to the Roman Empire.
  • Speaking of the Romans, contemporary anthropologists remind us of the ancient Roman belief that the spirits of the dead returned to earth every springtime.  Thus Romans avoided marriage during this season.  (We might have copied the practice from them!)
On top of all of these "traditional" reasons for Jews to be sad around now, we have some serious things going on in our world...none of which is particularly comforting or hopeful:
  • The economy is still pulling down far too many in our community, even as economists insist that there are verifiable signs of recovery. 
  • We still live in fear of terror – and we continue to wage two wars overseas - even though Osama bin Laden has been killed. 
  • We watch in disbelief as yet another year goes by in which Israelis and Palestinians fail to find a way to talk to one another, and make progress on the significant list of issues that continue to lie before them – blocking the path to peace. 
  • We live in a state of frustration and concern because the partisan divisions that affect our state and federal governments are preventing our leaders from compromising and making the hard but necessary decisions about our fiscal future. 
  • And we live with regret that leaders like former Gov. Schwarzenegger and former IMF Managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn made terrible choices, violating promises they had made to their families, while also failing to live up to the expectations we had of them as worthy role models for our children. 
Like our ancestors of old: even as spring blooms all around us, we are weighed down by sadness and despair.

Yet our tradition provides a small measure of relief: the 33rd day following Passover (known as Lag B'Omer) has always been a day of joy and release.  It is a day on the Jewish calendar that gives us permission to not be weighed down by our own personal troubles, and the tzorus of the world around us.  Instead: Lag B'Omer is a day to reconnect: with the people that are important to us, and the incredible natural beauty that surrounds us.  Weddings and all manner of celebrations are permitted on Lag B'Omer (even haircuts!).  DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY is the message of the day.  
Here's the good news: this Sunday is Lag B'Omer!  

My hope and prayer to you: as we all embark on the beginning of our summers (and - for our graduating seniors: the beginning of the rest of your lives!), is that you never lose hope.  That you always have the ability to experience the world with open eyes and open find beauty everywhere: in the presence of friends and loving partners, in nature, and in the satisfaction of helping others.  In doing so, I hope you'll come to appreciate that sadness and suffering are not absolute.  Lag B'Omer is a passionate reminder from our tradition that no sadness is forever.  There is always a break from whatever troubles us.  A new beginning is always around the corner.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, May 13, 2011

63, 24, 3...HIKE!

I've always been intrigued by the custom of football quarterbacks to call out random numbers before screaming HIKE! to start a play.

Low and behold: those numbers aren't totally random - they are part of an elaborate team code, so that the QB can tell his teammates what the play is going to be, without giving it away to the opposing defense. (Don't trust me on this because I know nothing about football. Read more about it here.)  Enjoy this satirical interview with Peyton Manning about it:

Of course, football players actually take this stuff very seriously. They need this system of codes in order to be able to communicate with one another. It allows their community (if you will) to function.

I've been thinking that Judaism is pretty similar. We also have code numbers that help to define who we are/what we're about. The numbers of our code help to tell the story of who we are as a people...where we've come from, and where we're going.

This season on our calendar, in particular, is filled with code numbers.

This past Tuesday, Jews around the world marked Yom Ha'Atzmaut - Israeli Independence Day...the 63rd birthday of the State of Israel!
  • For more on Yom Ha'Atzmaut in general, click here.
  • For information about attending our San Diego communal Israel celebration this Sunday, click here.
  • For news about Israel's observance of Yom Ha'Atzmaut this year, click here.
  • Here is Prime Minister Netanyahu's official Independence Day Greeting:

The number 63 signifies for us an affirmation: that after 2,000 years of dreaming, a State of our own has become an established reality.  And yet, 63 is also a cautionary warning: that Israel continues to face significant challenges that threaten its long term safety, security, and ultimately its existence.   This week is a chance for us to celebrate 63 amazing years, but also to recommit ourselves to continuing to support Israel so that it will remain strong long into the future.

This season isn't just about counting the years of Israel's existence.  It is also about counting the days - the days in between Passover and Shavuot, in connection with our custom of counting the omer.  Today marks the 24th day, which is three weeks and three days of the omer.  (Check in periodically until Shavuot - the uncounted 50th day - by clicking on the humorous Counting the Homer website, in honor of Jewish fans of "The Simpsons" everywhere.)

Finally, this week's Torah portion (Parshat Behar), teaches us about the ancient custom of counting the years in cycles of seven.  Just as God rested on the Seventh Day of creation (hence the invention of Shabbat), so too does the Torah indicate that our farm land should get to rest every seventh year.  We shouldn't plant seeds during the seventh year.  And we don't get to harvest/pick food from the land during the seventh year (if the foods were grown in Israel, according to a literal interpretation).

This might appear, on the surface, to be the least relevant of the counting customs mentioned in this posting.  None of us, in all probability, are farmers.

Nonetheless in this age when we should all be striving to become more ecologically conscious, surely we can buy into the idea that there are environmental advantages to letting our land lie fallow occasionally?  Click here to see how this practice (called shmita in Hebrew) falls within the wider context of Jewish environmentalism.  For those that want to keep track for the future: we are currently in year 3 of the seven year sabbatical cycle.  (Year Seven is the Year of Rest for the land.)  The next sabbatical year will be in 5775 (2014-2015). 

63, 24, 3 -- code numbers that help to tell the story of our people: a history of the modern state of Israel; an ancient practice of mindfully counting the days between two of our most important holidays; and an annual system of counting that reminds us of our ultimate responsibilities towards our planet.

What about in your own story...what are the numbers that are significant to you or to your family?  Who is responsible for keeping track of birthdays and anniversaries?  Years since a loved one passed away?  Years until a younger relative becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah or graduates from college?

Numbers are code - they help to tell the stories of our lives.

As always: I'm standing by, eager to hear your's.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Brown

Friday, May 6, 2011

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue

Well, of course we have all been transfixed this week about the news concerning the death of Osama bin Laden.  No doubt we all feel a sense of relief that this heartless terrorist is no longer able to threaten the lives of innocent civilians, as well as our brave men and women in uniform.

I have had a number of conversations with congregants in the last week.  Many of them have expressed a bit of frustration: they aren't sure how they are supposed to be reacting to this (unexpected?) news.  Should they be rejoicing like the revelers in this video:

Or is something subdued more appropriate for this occasion?

A more subdued reaction would be Jewishly appropriate, if we think about it in terms of the fact that a human being died here.  Jews don't typically rejoice when a person has died.  We believe, after all, that every human being was created in the image of God - that every person has some essential spark of divinity in them that makes them non-completely- and-totally-evil.  That God weeps, on some level, for the loss of every person - and therefore, so should we.

(This is the basis for our Passover Seder practice of dipping our pinkies in the wine for each of the Ten Plagues: to lessen our joy by recalling the suffering of the Egyptians.)

Do you think that God is saddened by bin Laden's death, as God would be by every other human being's?  Or, was he so evil that he becomes an exception to this principle?

Certainly we've had other exceptions over the course of Jewish history.  The Book of Esther, for example, notes that following the deaths of Haman and his sons: "That was on the 13th day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the 14th day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking" (9:17).

What about a Jewish basis for actively opposing bin Laden's killing?

There has been a minority strain in Judaism surrounding the issue of pacifism.

In terms of a more specific analogy from the Jewish past to compare bin Laden's killing to, we might recall the execution fifty years ago of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.  (Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt explores the comparison between these two here.)

Hannah Arendt, in her famous chronicle of the Eichmann trial, notes that: 

"The President [of Israel] also received hundreds of letters and telegrams from all over the world, pleading for clemency; outstanding among the senders were the Central Conference of American Rabbis [the CCAR - the Reform rabbinical organization], and a group of professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, headed by Martin Buber, who had been opposed to the trial from the start, and who now tried to persuade Ben-Gurion to intervene for clemency."

The CCAR's position on this matter is news to me!  I am trying to track down a more detailed statement about their position on this.  If I find it, I'll post it here.  Buber's position (given his well known liberal political credentials) is less surprising to me.

We can see, from all of this, that there are clearly options on the table here - in terms of different emotional reactions to the death of someone like bin Laden.

How have you reacted?  (As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts publicly here on the blog or privately over email.)

Are you overjoyed (as in the Purim story)?

Are you relieved, but not overjoyed (as in the Passover story and our seder custom of removing wine from our glasses)?

Or are you actively opposed to what happened (as Jews in the past have been because of their pacifism, antipathy toward the death penalty, etc.)?

However you are feeling, you should definitely make it a point of checking out the New York Times website.  Click here to see their interactive feature that allows people to graph their own reactions, and add comments about how they are feeling.  Chart yourself and/or see what others have posted.  It is fascinating.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown