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.