Friday, October 31, 2014

Avraham Rocks! - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5775

(To view other posts on this parasha, click HERE.)

In this week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha, Genesis Ch. 12 - 18), we are introduced to Avraham and his wife Sarah. But who is this guy Avraham? What lottery did he win to get to chit-chat with Gcd and merit all the Divine blessings we read about in these chapters?

The Torah itself seems to simply assume he's exceptional. The narrative begins with almost no preface, picking up the thread of his life when he's 75 years old. In fact, way back in Genesis Chapter 2:4, the Midrash states that, based on an unusual Hebrew construction there, that Gcd created the world in order that there should have existed an Avraham; in other words, the entire universe was created for Avraham's sake. That's pretty fat talk. So again: What is so extraordinary about this guy?

The standard answer that is given, and the reason he is credited with being the progenitor of the Jewish People, is that he was the first person to utilize his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

...and that's great as far as it goes. But could that be the extent of it? 

Lots of people find Gcd. The newspaper is full of people who, after a dissolute life of booze and drugs and burning through enough toxic relationships, finally wise up and "find Gcd." (I am especially entertained by the ones who discover their spirituality just after they're being led away in handcuffs for some perfidious deed or other.)

Avraham rocks, and the key to understanding his greatness and remarkable contribution to humanity lies in a nuanced reading of the Torah text, as well as some assistance from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Ancients). "There were ten generations between Noah and Abraham; each one angered Gcd more than the previous one, until along came Abraham and got the reward for them all." (5:3)

The Mishnah is telling us that the key to understanding Abraham is rethinking the generation of Noah, the Great Flood, and the generations that followed.

The world that greeted Noah when the Ark settled on Mount Ararat was very different world than the one he left. Not just physically, but spiritually, psychically. This was because humanity had diffracted into the three distinct faculties that make us human.

Noah had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafet, whose descendants were to repopulate the world after the flood. They are broadly understood to represent the Asiatic, African and Caucasian branches of the human family, respectively. But these three branches of humanity also represent the three primary human faculties that dwell within each of us.

Shem means 'name' in Hebrew; the Shem branch of the family valued intangibles: the honor of a good name, ideas, ethics, intellect. They emphasized the intellectual/spiritual side of our nature at the expense of physical and emotional human needs.

Cham means 'hot,' and in that branch of the family emotions and passions dominated.

Yafet means 'beauty,' and this branch of the family focused on the physical: aesthetics, corporeality, pleasure.

For ten generations humanity fought a pitched battle against itself, head versus heart versus soul.  One or the other always prevailed, stifled the others, ran to extremes; and so humanity consistently made choices which aggravated Gcd.

It was Abraham who learned to rein in and and harmonize his faculties. Not only that, he harnessed them in the noble pursuit of fixing the world. He utilized them in the service of Gcd and of others, rather than in the venal pursuit of petty self-gratification. He was intellectual/spiritual without being withdrawn; emotional but lacking pathos; physical yet without narcissism. He was the world's first Renaissance Man, a Man for All Seasons.

We see many proofs to this idea throughout the parasha. We see physical bravery, courage and strength in his successful guerilla war against the mighty Four Kings. He demonstrates intellectual prowess in successful diplomacy with the local Amorites. 

He is a spiritual/ethical role model in refusing to profit from the booty of Sodom, and the Covenant between the Parts. 

And passion? Witness his unshakable bond to Sarah, despite decades of barrenness. He would have been within his rights to have taken another wife or divorced her, but his dedication to Sarah never wavered. It's clear from the verses that he deeply respected her and her opinions and it is just as clear that they loved each other intensely, understanding that their destinies were intertwined. 

And lastly, the verse states, "...you have walked before Me and have been perfect." (17:1) The Hebrew word 'tamim/perfect' denotes wholesomeness, completeness, balance, simplicity.

It took ten generations of human development to create an Abraham, who succeeded where the earlier ones failed. He and he alone was able to put the human Humpty Dumpty back together again. And so the Midrash states that Gcd said (so to speak), "that's the kind of guy I created the world for!"

What was the key to Abraham's success? His path began by his using his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

As the first Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish People, Abraham and Sarah blazed a trail for us. But each one of us has the potential to be an Abraham or a Sarah in our own day, to heed the Voice of Gcd; to employ our unique gifts and talents in the service of Gcd and the service of others, and so doing, leave the world a little better place than the way we found it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Up on the Roof - Reflections on Sukkot 5775

Mizrachi Family Sukkah 5775
Sukkot fast approaches, and it is anticipated with giddy glee around here. For the uninitiated, Sukkot (meaning huts; singular sukkah = hut) is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. For seven days in mid-autumn, we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled, carpeted homes, and domicile ourselves in a rickety hut with a "roof" that the stars peek through. Crazy, huh? Crazy brilliant.

Woven into Sukkot is an extremely rich tapestry of symbolism. The sukkah represents the divine cloud that enshrouded the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years; it represents the Holy Temple itself; it reminds us that our notions of security are ephemeral, that real security comes only with our complete reliance on the A-lmighty; it makes us look skyward, constantly on watch for rain, and rain/water play an integral role in the meaning of Sukkot.

Our Bubbe and Zayde loved Sukkot, positively reveled in it. (Of course they called it "Sookis" in the European pronunciation.) They had this goofy octagonal aluminum gazebo with a domed roof on the patio in the back yard. Come Succot time, Zayde would pry the roof panels off and heave the pine boughs on. Bam - instant sukkah. Then came the decorations: stringing popcorn and cranberries, pictures made by the kids in school, and the strings of little colored twinkle lights (they're Sukkah lights, don't even start...)

We grew up in the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey, where pine was abundant, so we used pine for the roof of the sukkah (the sukkah roof material is called "schach", and has to be done right to make the sukkah kosher). For our family, Sukkot just wasn't Sukkot without the fragrant aroma of the pine; without both noodles - and needles - in the soup. To this day, when I walk by a Christmas tree lot, to me at least, it's the smell of Sukkot.

Bubbe and her lieutenants were bustling back and forth from the kitchen in the house, ferrying all the delicacies of the holiday meal: the gefilte fish, steaming chicken soup, stuffed cabbages, Shake-n-Bake chicken (Zayde loved that stuff), compote. Tea. Cakes. Drinks. It just never ended. Somehow, 15 or more of us squeezed in around the picnic table shoehorned into that little sukkah. 

I think most people today go with purpose-built bamboo mats for schach. They're convenient enough, and they roll up for storage and reuse. But to me (apologies) they're a little...sterile.

For us, it's just gotta be pine schach. So every year, we go to the trouble to source fresh pine - cut it, haul it, heave it up there, and then dispose of it after the holiday passes. It's sticky work, makes a mess of the truck, and is an overall hassle. But it just wouldn't be Sukkot without it.

Why do I bother? Why not hit the "Easy Button" and cave like everyone else with the bamboo schach?

For me, at least, there's three reasons. First, it reminds me of the Lakewood I grew up in, a Lakewood that doesn't exist anymore; the Lakewood before Lakewood became LAKEWOOD, the holy bastion of chareidut.

Second, I stand in quiet opposition to the juggernaut of rigid external conformity, to the "chumra-zation" which has swept over the Torah observant world. I remember great rabbis, tremendous talmidei chachamim, who, back in the day, didn't wear the current de rigueur "uniform" - shloompy black suit, crumpled black hat, tzitzit worn out, long beard. I remember when people focused more on their pnimiut - their personal character traits, and far less on the external manifestations of frumkeit (observance).

Don't get me wrong: if your family tradition is chareidi, good on you. But that's not the only way to live a Torah life. I know of people today who escape to smaller Jewish towns like Allentown for a Shabbat or two, just to get away from the suffocating, oppressive environment of Brooklyn and Lakewood, where any deviation in behavior can brand a person an outcast, an outsider. 

Sorry. I refuse to compete in the frum Olympics, where everyone, it seems, is trying to prove to the world how religious they are, to out-frum the next guy with new and ever more clever chumras (legal stringencies). 

I don't need to demonstrate my religious credentials to anyone. I wear a (knitted) kippah srugah, not a black velvet yarmulke. And I put blue jeans on when I change the oil on the truck. (And shhh...don't tell anyone but I don't even own a black hat.) And I go with pine schach, because it's "hiddur mitzvah" - it beautifies our experience of the sukkah, and is a poke in the eye of bamboo conformity.

The last reason is because that's how Bubbe & Zayde did it. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, guides us unfailingly in the conduct of our everyday life. But overlaid on the Shulchan Aruch is a mesorah, a tradition, that we receive from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

I didn't have to look it up in the book how to make a kiddush on Friday night; I had a Zayde to teach me. I didn't have to look up how to daven (pray); I had a Zayde to teach me. It was Zayde who taught me to bring flowers home to my wife on Friday. We learned what we lived. And among the myriad other things, Zayde taught me how to build a sukkah. With pine it was, and so with pine it shall remain.

There is a tradition that each night of Sukkot, a mystical guest visits the Sukkah. Father Abraham the first night, Isaac the second night, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. But we have two other unseen guests. When I sit at the table, looking up at the pine and around at the magical glow the twinkling lights cast around the sukkah, I know, to the core of my being, that Bubbe & Zayde visit our sukkah, and get as much joy from it as we do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Basket Weaving 101 - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with a description of the ritual of the bikurim, the offering of the first fruits of the season to the priests. 

Briefly, here's how it goes down: the first, best clusters of grapes, the choicest olives, the fattest sheaves of wheat and barley, the plumpest pomegranates, dates and figs - all these are collected, thrown into a basket and taken to Jerusalem. Before the Temple priests, the citizen-farmer makes a grandiloquent declaration that broadly consists of two parts: (1) an awareness of the portent of the moment; that all of Jewish history reaches its apotheosis today in these, the fruits (literally) of our collective labor; and (2) that he, Old MacDonaldberg, has been scrupulous all year in observing Gcd's Law, especially as it relates to caring for the Levite, the needy, the disadvantaged in society. He then withdraws to the embrace and blessings of his family and the others whom his table supports.

But...what's with the basket? Did you catch the basket? We know that the Torah doesn't waste words, so why does it explicitly mention the basket? Why not bring the bikurim in any old box, crate, or wagon?

'Cause I'm thinkin'...it's really all about the basket.

First, the verbiage: the word for basket, טנא/'teneh' stands out as a fairly uncommon word in the Torah. Why use an obscure word in place of more common alternatives? (Things that make you go 'hmmm.')

Next, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that 'teneh' has a gematria** of 60. The modern Hebrew letter corresponding to 60 is 'samech', which is round, like the mouth of a basket. What's even cooler is that the ancient Hebrew samech sort of looks like a woven basket:
So let's weave a basket.

We begin with the node at the core of our metaphorical basket - that would be you. You are, naturally and properly, at the center of your own world. 

Projecting vertically from this core node is an axis that represents your relationship with Gcd above.

The first, innermost ring of weaving is your closest, most intimate earthly relationship  - your marriage. The next weave represents the relationship with your children. The next, your relationship with extended family. Then friends, co-workers, community, nation, world; something like this:



Unlike a real basket, in the metaphorical basket of relationships that constitutes our lives, the woven rings are in motion - constantly spinning around us, renewing themselves, expanding here, contracting there. All the relationships are in dynamic equilibrium in relation to the core; when one relationship spins out of control, it affects each of the other relationships as well.

And we can see graphically that the most fundamental relationship in our lives is between ourselves and Gcd. It is the central axis upon which all of our relationships revolve. If we're right with Gcd, all our other relationships can be healthy; but if our connection with Gcd is in trouble, no other healthy relationship is possible for long.

With this schema in mind, let's re-examine the  bikurim and the basket which contains them. 

The bringing of the bikurim is an act of gratitude to Gcd; small gifts to acknowledge the great gifts He has bestowed upon us. The Land of Israel. Our family's stake in the Land as an ancestral heritage. Our families, our health, our prosperity. All the goodness that is manifest in our lives.

No relationship can endure unless it is built upon the bedrock of thankfulness.The surest way to destroy any relationship is to focus on what's missing, what it lacks. 

For us Jews, thankfulness forms the center of our worldview. With every little act that we do, we make a brachah, whisper a prayer, say a thank you, amounting to hundreds of times a day. Thankfulness is embedded in our very name, Yehudi, Jew. It is a mindset in which we are in an almost constant dialogue of 'thank yous' with the A-lmighty. 

Thus, the first fruits must be delivered in the basket that represents our lives, constituted of the complex weave of relationships that define us. If you reread Deuteronomy 26 carefully, those relationships are all mentioned: self, spouse, family, community, nation. And, we declare, those relationships have been tended to and nurtured, no less than the bikurim offering itself.

Perhaps now we can understand why the bikurim must be brought in the basket. It's the fruit that protects the basket, not the other way around. 

Shabbat Shalom.

** Gematria is a Greek loan word from the same root that gives us the English word 'geometry'; basically, every Hebrew letter has a unique numerical value, and numerologists like the Ba'al HaTurim produce some amazing insights by comparing the number values of different words and phrases. But be forewarned: there are gematrias that will blow your mind, and others that are as weak as water.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Prophets and Prestidigitators - Reflections on Parashat Shoftim 5774

A charismatic preacher comes along and says, "The 'Lawt' hath spoken unto me, and I speak unto thee in His name." Should we believe him? How do we know if he's telling the truth? What proof should we demand? Is he merely psychotic (like the disheveled soapbox 'messiahs' that roam the streets of Jerusalem)? Is he a crass opportunist like Shabbetai Zvi, or...is he really the conduit of Gcd's Word, like a Moses or a Nathan or a Samuel, a person who demands our attention and respect? 

Intriguing question.

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, deals with this very problem. But, whoa, horsey, let's back up a bit.


In Shoftim, Moses lays out the basic framework of Jewish leadership. He deals with the Cohanim/Levi'im, the priestly tribe, administrators of the Temple and the trustees of the sacred treasures of Judaism; with the king, whose power is delimited and whose high station never places him above the law; with the Judge/Rabbi, through whom justice is administered and Torah law applied to novel situations; and with the prophet, the holy soul through whom Gcd speaks to Israel and functions as the conscience of the nation.

As an aside: there is an interesting balance of powers between these positions of leadership. Two are hereditary, and two are meritocracies. Two deal with matters spiritual, and two deal with matters temporal. They are all interdependent and yet exclusive. Think of it - 3,000 years before the drafting of the US Constitution, the Torah understood the need to diffuse and balance power among different "branches" of government.

In the gestational period of our national being, we had, in the person of Moses, all four leadership duties rolled in to one man: Moses was king, prophet, judge/rabbi and High Priest. In his lifetime, he delegated the Office of High Priest to Aaron and the priesthood to Aharon's descendants. He also established the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of 71, as well as the system of lower and appellate courts. But here Moses, as he nears death, is telling us that in the future, these four poles of leadership would be distinct and separate.

Let's return to the question of our prophet. The verse states: 
And when you shall ask in your heart: how do we know if the prophet really speaks in Gcd's voice? Here's how you know: when the prophet claims to speak in Gcd's Name and the matter doesn't happen or come to pass - then you can be assured that Gcd didn't say it, that the 'prophet' willfully lied to you. Don't be afraid when he threatens doom. (Deut. 18:21,22)

We must say that the Torah's answer (wait and see) is not terribly helpful. It could take decades to vindicate this guy; great for the judgement of history, but pretty darn useless for practical decision-making in the here-and-now. Furthermore, the commentators bring cases where genuine prophets predicted things that didn't come to pass: the famous case of Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh. The Ninevites did teshuvah and their city was spared. Or Jacob, whose death-bed prophesies were not fulfilled (according to some) because his children were not deemed worthy enough.

OK, what about performing miracles, signs and wonders? Ooh! That's impressive. Sorry, the Torah is not thrilled, as we learned earlier in Chapter 13. The performance of miracles, taken on their own, signifies nothing about the veracity or the divine favor of the miracle worker. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A cheap trickster, a master of prestidigitation. Don' be a sucker.

What about the sine qua non of Judaism, the performance of the 613 mitzvoth? Perhaps a good predictor of the trustworthiness of our prophet and the source of the sounds in his head is his encouragement to the Jews to keep the mitzvoth? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. 

But sadly, this yardstick is also not absolute. We see later in the Torah that at moments of great national crisis, verified prophets have deviated from the 613. Elijah the Prophet established a private altar on Mount Carmel to confront the priests of Baal, in violation of an explicit commandment not to do so. Abraham, after a lifetime devoted to uprooting human sacrifice and other monstrous pagan rituals, wakes up one morning intent on offering his only son as a crispy burnt offering.

The commentators struggle mightily with this question, and the answers are all over the map.

I would like to suggest my own approach to the problem.

First, we are being shown what not to seek out in a prophet of Gcd: don't be conned by skillful orators, dynamic personalities and charismatic leaders. Louis Farrakhan is one of the most spellbinding and electrifying speakers that I have ever heard. His ability to hold an audience of thousands on the edge of its seat for three or fours hours is freakishly Hitlerian. And I make that comparison deliberately. Given the chance, he would impose his view of black supremacy on America like Hitler's Aryan supremacy myth on Germany. He is a dangerous man.

(If you've never heard him speak, here is a three minute clip of Farrakhan on the recent race riots in Ferguson, MO.)

In contrast, a true prophet of Gcd will be quiet, unassuming, humble; pious and modest in their personal behavior. No G5s, no mansions, no stretch limos or celebrity meet-and-greets. As the conscience of the nation, the true prophet will speak truth to power in a still, quiet voice, connecting only with those who are spiritually sensitive enough to hear it. 

The second lesson is that sometimes there is no ready-made answer: we have to start thinking things through for ourselves.

For forty years in the desert, Moses did all the cogitating for the Jewish People, all the intellectual heavy lifting. Have a question of law? Ask Moses. Need a dispute resolved? Find Moses. Missed offering the Paschal Lamb for reasons out of your control? Moses will ask Gcd for the answer.

Moses is saying; Look, I can't give you a simple rule on how to know who is a true prophet and who is a charlatan. You're going to have to noodle it through on your own. You can't rely on me to solve all your problems anymore; I'm not going to be around to pack your lunch and wipe your nose. There is a reason the very first blessing in the weekday amidah is "You graced humanity with knowledge, and instructed mankind in discernment; please continue gracing us with your wisdom, discernment and knowledge."  Your head is not merely a hat rack - think! Open your eyes and your ears. Use your head and your heart. 

What's his track record? That's one factor. How are his character traits? Another factor. Miracles? Another factor. Weigh all the factors. Don't be seduced by bling. And depending on the time and place, different factors may weigh differently.

In Moses' cryptic answer is a profound truth: Don't abandon reason at the doorstep of belief. The Torah says that the prophet's predictions must come true. Truth - capital "T" truth - has many facets, but they must somehow all fit seamlessly together. 

In providing a non-answer, Moses is demonstrating his abiding faith in our ability to eventually figure it out on our own.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rickety Rope Bridge - Reflections on Parashat Eikev 5774

Several people have asked that I post the drash I gave yesterday in shul. Here it is. - Y/

*************
There is something very special about Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy.  Unlike the other books of the Chumash, where we find Gcd speaking to - and through - Moshe to the Jewish People, this book is Moshe’s last will and testament. It is Moshe unchained – Moshe in his own words, his own living legacy; a series of orations delivered over the final weeks of his life to that eager and impatient generation, standing as they were on the east bank of the Jordan, chafing at the bit to begin the conquest of the Land of Israel.

If you listen closely during the Torah readings, this difference in voice can be heard in the ta’amei hamikrah, the cantillations used to sing the Torah verses in public. Devarim just plain sounds different. The difference is nuanced, but it’s there.  

And just as the rest of the Torah was written not for only for the generation that received it, but for all generations, in all times and in places, so, too, is Moshe’s last will and testament directed not only at the specific generation of Joshua. Its wisdom is transcendent, independent of time and place; and that’s why Gcd wanted Moshe’s words appended to His own.

Moshe’s message in this week’s parasha is as timely today, this week, right now, as it was 3286 years ago when he first spoke it. The words jump off the page and grab you by the lapels. He’s so on the ball you’d think Moshe had a current subscription to the New York Times.

Moshe’s message resonates with us precisely because of troubled times in which we live.

In Europe, we are witnessing an emboldened Jew-hatred at levels not seen since the 1930s. England, where Jew-hatred used to be more subtle and refined, now openly boasts “Israel-Free” cities. And here in America, Judaism is under a threat of a different kind: we are euthanizing ourselves, committing spiritual Hari Kiri.  It seems that the good-hearted American Jew will champion every cause under the sun - every cause, that is, except his own survival and self-interest.

And then we have the situation in Israel. For the last two months, the entire Jewish world was united – first in worry and angst, then grief and anguish – over the abduction and murder of our three teenaged sons and the Gaza War against Hamas which followed. But all of that was against a generalized backdrop of worry about Israel.

Israel, the first sprouting of the promised Messianic redemption, is under siege in international forums around the world. Israel has been in a state of war since 1948. The Home Front Defense Ministry estimates that Israel has some 200,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges and capabilities aimed at her.    

Then we have the Syrian crisis. The bloody and intractable Syrian civil war threatens to spill over to the Golan at any time.   

And ISIL. Having conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State threatens the stability of the Kingdom of Jordan on our eastern border.

And then there is the over-arching existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

Many of us are understandably scared and worried about these developments.

To us, Moshe conveys a message of hope and encouragement in this week’s Torah portion:

Vchi Tomar Bilvavcha/Perhaps you will say in your heart: my enemies are more numerous than me; I’m overwhelmed and worried about how we will survive their attacks. Hamas. Hezbollah. Islamic Jihad. Fatah. ISIL. Iran.

Do not fear them! (Moshe says.) Remember what Hashem did to the most powerful military machine on the planet, to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt. In the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from their hand; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from Og king of Bashan, and Sichon king of the Amorites; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from the Syrian Greeks; in the same way that Hashem fought for you in 1948 and in 1967, and again in 1973, against all odds and against all the prevailing wisdom; so shall Hashem your Gcd do to the people whom you now fear.

Don’t cower before them; for Hashem our Gcd is in our midst, the Great and Awesome Gcd.

OK, so maybe I paraphrased a little…

But the intent of Moshe’s words are clear. Don’t fear; to the contrary, take heart. Don’t be overwhelmed by the troubling news, for there is also much good news, and much to be grateful for.

I was blown away this week by news of a social media campaign organized by StandWithUs.com.  Individuals from all over the world have taken to writing the words I Stand With Israel on the palm of their hand and then taking a picture of their hand together with the passport of their respective country. To date, thousands of people from 136 countries Stand with Israel. (There are only 196 countries on the planet.) Even people in Pakistan and Iran sent in pictures. May Gcd bless them and strengthen them.

Wow. So don’t be afraid, take heart. Yihyeh tov – it’s going to be OK, it’s all going to work out.

Like the famous teaching of Rebbi Nachman of Breslov: Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod, VehaIkar Lo Lefached Klal.  "The whole world is a narrow bridge; but the main thing  is not to fear." We find ourselves walking a dangerous rope bridge over a gaping canyon, but the trick is not to look down. Keep moving forward and look ahead; Gcd is saying: ‘keep your eyes glued on me’ - look up to the mountain tops – as the verse in Psalms 121 famously says, whence our help will come.

The seven weeks between Tisha B’Av & Rosh Hashanah are called the shiva d’nechemta – the seven weeks of consolation. The consoling, inspiring message of this week’s parsha to us is: Don’t despair! Keep your chin up! Blessing and salvation beyond our wildest imaginings are in the offing.

May we all here today merit to see the day when Gcd’s supernal light floods the world with radiant goodness, with abundant love and with the blessings of peace.


Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places - Reflections on Parashat Va'etchanan 5774


In this week's Torah portion, Moses makes a very mystical (dare we say delphic?) promise:
Guard [the mitzvoth] and do them, for they are your wisdom and insight in the eyes of the peoples, that when they hear of these laws, they will say: what a wise and discerning people is the nation of Israel! For what other great nation has the One True G-d so close to them, as is Hashem our G-d, when we call out to Him? And what nation has a more just code of laws than this Torah which I place before you today? (Deut. 4:6 ff)
Moses is saying that the extent to which we keep the Torah is the extent to which we will be respected by the other nations. 



Say what? Our common Jewish experience, throughout our history and right up to today, has been the exact, polar opposite. The nations don't respect us; they despise us. And the more we cling to our holy lifestyle and values, the more we assert out unique weltanshauung, the more we insist on the right to merely exist, the more scorn, ignominy and abuse they heap upon us. 

Boycott. Divest. Sanctions. Blood libels. Jewish soldiers kill Arab babies for sport. The world would be at peace if the UN hadn't created the State of Israel. Hitler should have finished the job. Israelis are Nazis. Jews commit genocide. Jews commit war crimes. Israel is an apartheid state. Jews own Hollywood. Jews own the newspapers. Jews run the world. 

I'm not feelin' the love.

So we must ask: did Moses get it wrong?

Let's sharpen the question: We have a stirring prophecy from Zephaniah, a prophetic contemporary of Jeremiah. He foretold that, "At that time I will bring you, and at that time I will gather you in, and I will give you renown and praise among the Nations, when I bring you back from your captivity before your very eyes, says Hashem." (Zephaniah 3:20) 

We expand on this idea in our morning prayers: "Show us a good omen, and gather in the exiles from the four corners of the earth, that the Nations of the world will recognize and know that You are the One True G-d."

News flash: almost half of the world's Jews have already been gathered in to the Land of Israel, and if current trends hold, the majority of the world's Jews will be in Israel within about ten years. The diaspora is over, doomed. We are witnessing, indeed living, the era of the ingathering of the exiles - that much is clear. But...where is the miraculous epiphany among the nations that's supposed to accompany the Great Return? 

..."In a shocking development, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, addressed a rare joint session of the General Assembly and Security Council, stating simply: 'Oops! We were wrong. The Land of Israel does indeed belong to the People of Israel, bequeathed to them by the Gcd of Israel. (I don't know why we didn't make that connection before...) Anyway, no hard feelings, right? and...could I get that gefilte fish recipe? I've secretly loved that stuff for years.'"

Not.

Jews have been trying to get non-Jews to like us since forever. 'Why do you hate us?' we ask in different ways in every generation. Like immature, moody teenagers, some Jews try to get recognition and acceptance from society by modeling the behavior of the pack. If we dress like you, talk like you, eat your food, buy into your values, laugh at your jokes (even when we're the butt of them), then maybe you'll like us, right? But, alas, it hasn't worked.

Some Jews sought an economic solution to Jew-hatred. Socialism declared the capitalist to be the common enemy, and the Jewish and gentile proletariat would unite to fight the ills of economic inequality. Only that didn't work either. Stalin's bloody purges of the 1930s effectively cleansed the Communist Party of the many Jews that were instrumental to the initial success of the Communist Revolution. The purges were, in essence, a Red pogrom.

Others sought a political solution. If only Jews had their own country, then we would stand as brothers, shoulder to shoulder, with the nations of the world in dignity. Then we'll be worthy of their love. 

Some delusional Israelis still cling to the vain belief that one day, Jews will sit in the shuks of Damascus, Beirut and Amman, drinking Turkish coffee, passing around a hookah and playing sheshbesh with their adoring Arab neighbors. We see how well that's worked out: rockets and missiles raining down on our heads, and murderers popping up out of tunnels in our backyards.

We've been looking for love in all the wrong places.

The truth is that Moses and Zephaniah were not wrong; we moderns merely misinterpret them. 

When this conundrum was posed to Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he answered as follows: Are we naive enough to think that, as we Jews return home, the Nations of the world will roll out the red carpet in a spontaneous outpouring of love? That the Arabs will pick flowers for us, and Europe will knit us quilts and cozies?

Of course we will have vexing new social, political, economic and diplomatic challenges; in light of the fact that we've been out of the game for 2,000 years, it's only to be expected. But these are good problems to have; they are the problems of self-governance.

Rabbi Soloveitchik famously wrote that there are three unique perspectives to understanding and interpreting the history of Western Civilization: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. All three have staunch adherents who are unshakable in their faiths; but the three worldviews are mutually incompatible, meaning only one can be true in the end.

The nations are genuinely alarmed at the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. The fulfillment of the prophetic verses of Zephaniah - by definition - demolishes the pillars of the other faith systems. The consequences of this reality are too frightening to bear, so they must fight us. 

But their ferocious hostility to Israel and the Jewish People, the very fact that they oppose our presence on the Land, the absurdity of their arguments, the monstrous lies they disseminate; within all that hot mess is an implicit, reflexive recognition of our worldview, of Torah, and of the G-d to whom we cling. 

"...that the Nations of the world will recognize and know that You are the One True G-d." Their thunderous objections are the very recognition of which Moses and Zephaniah speak. That recognition won't come in the form of kisses and hugs (who ever said it would?) but in a grudging resentment; an unarticulated respect that can never be openly conceded.

To be sure, there are many gentiles, especially among the Evangelical Christian communities and the persecuted Arab Christian minorities, as well as some isolated Muslim voices, who recognize the Hand of G-d in the success story that is the State of Israel and the improbable survival of the Jewish People. Gcd bless and strengthen them and may their numbers grow.

But most follow the money: 1.5 billion Muslims on one side of the scale versus a mere 15 million Jews on the other - yep, we're throwing our lot in the Arabs, we're backing the heavy favorite. The British, for example, have been prostituting themselves for petrodollars since the 1920s; they've been thoroughly co-opted. Is it any wonder that in England today the most common baby name for newborns is Mohammed?

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. When we Jews are loyal to our mission - when we keep the mitzvoth, and love the Lcrd our Gcd with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might - we consistently beat the odds.

So don't fret too much about the haters; the louder the objections, the more certain we can be that Gcd and history are on our side. 

Shabbat Shalom.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

G-d Drives a Chevy Malibu - Reflections on Parashat Devarim 5774

I knew a man, a holocaust survivor, who became a very successful jeweler in America after the war. He sent his kids to the finest schools, his daughters to the most sought-after ballerinas for personal instruction. He spared his children nothing. 

But despite his fabulous wealth, he always drove a Chevy Malibu, lived in an unassuming house and never wore heavy jewelry himself. To look at him in his K-Mart clothes and unfashionable eyeglasses, you'd never guess he was a millionaire. 

I went to Hebrew school with his kids and would occasionally come over to hang out. They were constantly pleading with him to buy designer clothes, to live in a grand estate, to buy a Mercedes. 'We're embarrassed to be seen in this junker of a car,' they would whine. But he was deaf to their pleas.

His was not petty miserliness. He knew something from the War, something about life, that his pampered kids couldn't understand. "You are a Jew. Don't flaunt your money," he would try to tell them, "no one has to know what you have except you and Gcd." But weaned as they were in a culture of conspicuous consumption, they were as deaf to his pleadings as he was to theirs.

In this week's Torah portion, Devarim, Moses begins orating his Last Will and Testament to the Jewish People, and one gets the sense, like my childhood friends, that Old Man Moses and the Jewish people are taking past each other.

Moses begins with a sweeping historical overview, pointing out all the places where the Jewish people messed up along the way. Then Moses says (kind of out of nowhere), "And the Lcrd spoke to me, saying: It is too much for you hanging around this mountain (Mount Seir, the ancestral home of Esau/Edom); turn yourselves to the north (tzfonah)." (Deut. 2:2-3)

The Kli Yakar on this verse says, don't read it as tzfonah, northward; rather, read it as tzfunah, hidden, secreted away. Huh?

He explains: the Edomites and the Ishmaelites, Europe and Arabia, will always feel cheated by you. The Arabs/Islam, because Father Isaac, not Ishmael, received the spiritual heritage of Abraham; Europe/Christendom, because Father Jacob, not Esau, received the blessing and birthright from Isaac. They nurse their grudge, and when you flaunt your success, you only inflame their hatred and jealousy. Rav lachem, it is too much for you; you have too much. Tiptoe around Edom, Gcd is cautioning, with your gifts secreted away. Don't advertise your wealth and success among the nations. It is enough that I know what you have, your hidden treasures, your concealed spiritual beauty. 

The greatest gifts of the Jewish People are not in what you see, but in that which is hidden from the eye. It is in our modesty, in the broadest sense of that term. The stuff that never makes the news; the stuff we don't brag about. 

The true might of the IDF is not in its equipment capabilities and battalion strengths, it's the unrelenting acts of kindness rendered by the IDF to non-combatants. The real story in the Gaza Campaign is not what you're being fed by the media, but in the everyday acts of goodness and common human decency that occur every day and go unreported, because they don't fit the media narrative of the Hamas David to the Israeli Goliath.

Like the field hospital the IDF set up at the Gaza fence to treat injured Arabs:
http://www.breakingisraelnews.com/18745/idf-opens-field-hospital-treat-wounded-palestinians/#cVdRO8qr2sDdmmJL.97

Like the continued flow of food, water and medical supplies into Gaza from Israel despite a state of war:
http://mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/peace/humanitarian/pages/israeli-humanitarian-aid-continues-10-jul-2014.aspx

Or like the soldiers on a bus headed to the frontlines, who recorded "The Wheels on the Bus" (including the hand gestures) so the little ones back home wouldn't be afraid:
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=736715849734532&set=vb.296217673784354&type=2&theater

We live in an "olam hafuch", an upside down world, where truth is banished and the lie is king; where celebrities are knaves and nobles are ignored; where the evil prosper and the righteous suffer. Why are we surprised that Israel is demonized and Jews are portrayed as heartless monsters?

And even now, in the run up to Tisha B'Av, which on its surface commemorates every pogrom, massacre and exile ever visited on the Jewish People, there is cause for hope. A hidden treasure lies buried in Tisha B'Av, as the Talmud states that the Messiah is born on Tisha B'Av. In other words, the very seeds of our redemption are planted in our darkest moments of despair.

We probably won't ever convince CNN or the BBC or al-Jazeera of the righteousness of our cause. But we don't have to. We must but continue to follow our inner light and continue to do that which is right; we must connect with one another and search out the sparks of goodness and kindness in the midst of the rockets and terror. If we can do that, "as a father carries his child over difficult terrain," the A-lmighty's Protective Hand will most assuredly continue to hover over us. (Devarim 1:31)

Shabbat Shalom.