Thursday, September 13, 2018

a prayer for the wounded; a prayer from the wounded

A Prayer For the Wounded; A Prayer From the Wounded
Rosh Hashanah 5779

Shana tovah,

My sisters and brothers, I want to thank you for inviting me to join you for these days, especially for these days when, if you’re like me, you know it is important to be here but perhaps you’re not sure why; you know you want something out of it, but perhaps you’re not sure what.  Even my father, am avowed secularist who never belonged to a synagogue, would make it his business to be in synagogue for the High Holy Days.  Why? It was important.

We come for a variety of reasons.  Maybe for comfort, maybe for inspiration.  Maybe it’s to remind ourselves of who we are; or to discover who we might be; and maybe it has something to do with that awesome Out There or that intimate In Here we don’t understand but sometimes name “God.”  

And let’s be honest – these are, to say the least, crazy times.  No matter what your politics, and no matter where you look, what we see suggests that things are more weighted this year, and that the work of Rosh Hashana -  to hide? To regroup? To change? To change the world? – is even more urgent.

So we come with all of that on our minds, not sure exactly what we want but hoping for some guidance, and what do we find?

A great big book.

A book written in a foreign language, and with a translation no less alien.  And while there are differences from page to page it can be hard to tell them apart, or to find an arc, or narrative, or sense of direction.  It’s not surprise, then, that Jews are constantly coming out with new editions of the Machzor, the High Holiday Prayer book: Maybe if we get the book right, we’ll get the we’ll get the praying right.

Or maybe not.  The late Abraham Joshua Heschel said that we were getting it backwards, “We don’t need a revision of the text, we need a revision of the soul.” 

That sounds like an overwhelming challenge, that we must revise our soul before we can begin to make sense out of the prayerbook, but what he meant, or part of what he meant, was simply that the work of encountering this book begins with an act of attunement, of being willing to open ourselves up to the magnificent strangeness of the liturgy.

Shall we try?

Let’s take one of the most common Jewish prayers, the Sh’ma.  It’s said in almost every service, so perhaps you are familiar with it, but if not that’s ok.  It is named for the opening line – “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad” – “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai is One.”  But as some of you know, there is more to it than that.  It is made up of three different passages from the Torah: To love God, to follow God’s teaching, and to remember that God is the liberator of slaves.
 In that passage on the Teaching, it says, “V’samtem et divrai eileh all l’vavchem v’al nafshechem” – “Place them, these my words on your heart and on your soul.” (p. 77)

That sounds very nice as it rushes by, but what does it mean?

We are not the first to wonder.  Almost 2,000 years ago rabbis asked the same question, and one of them answered by way of a play on words.  Don’t read it as samtem – place them – but sam tam – a perfect medicine.  These my words are a perfect medicine for your heart wounds. 

Does that make you roll your eyes? 

I must be honest with you: if all this meant was “Torah is good for what ails you,” I don’t know what I’d do with it.  I’m suspicious of what sounds to me like simplistic piety, and I certainly don’t have any access to a vision of a world in which everything is made nice by Bible verses.  If someone tells me that all I need to do is have faith in “God’s word” they’ve lost me.  But our teacher here is much tougher-minded than that, and he offers a parable to explain his vision of the world:

“Imagine a father who wounds his child.” Why? As a punishment? Out of anger? The author of this teaching, this midrash, doesn’t say. He goes on, “The father then gives his child a poultice to put on the wound, and says, ‘My child, keep this on you, and you’ll be fine – you can eat, and drink, and go swimming, whatever you like. But it won’t heal the wound, and if you take it off you’ll be in danger.’”

That’s us, the midrash suggests. Each one of us has been dealt a blow that threatens not our flesh but something deeper, and in need of some sort of medicine to keep the corruption at bay. 
But what is that blow?  What do you think?  Is it lust?  Greed? Desire?

By way of an answer, this anonymous rabbi turned to a story way back at the beginning, and since we’re celebrating the Creation of the World – even if we don’t believe in it – it’s appropriate for us to turn back to that story, too. 

Genesis 4:1-8
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gained a male child with the help of the LORD.” She then bore his brother Abel. Abel became a keeper of sheep, and Cain became a tiller of the soil. In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the LORD from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The LORD paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. And the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you distressed, and why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do right, There is uplift. But if you do not do right Sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, Yet you can be its master.” Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

I have to tell you that this is the midrash (Kiddushin 30b) that led me to fall in love with reading Rabbinic texts, because look at what it is saying: “Why did Cain kill Abel?  Because he was angry.  Why was he angry? Because his sacrifice was rejected.  Why was his sacrifice rejected?  We. Don’t. Know.” 

Just as we don’t know why the father in the parable wounded his son, we don’t know why God rejected Cain’s sacrifice.    We’re all taught as children that there must have been something wrong with it, or with Cain, but there’s nothing in the Biblical text to that extent. 

Now, the proposition that Cain might offer a sacrifice, and that it would be perfectly good, and nevertheless God doesn’t accept it is grossly unfair.  It’s even scandalous.  But I am here to tell you that that doesn’t matter, not to the rabbis and not to us.  Our only question is, is it true?
Is it true that sometimes you can offer something of yourself to the world and it gets rejected?  That you can try and do everything you think you’re supposed to and still things don’t work?  That the recognition that you most want is withheld?

This is what it means to be human, the rabbis said.  That’s what it’s like to live in the world: sometimes what we most want doesn’t happen.  And while the pain that causes is bad enough, the problem is what that pain and the subsequent ego-wound did to Cain, and what it might do to us.
So I ask again: Is that true? Is it true about us?  Does our experience of a painful world sometimes make us smaller than we’d like to be, angrier than we’d like to be, more defensive or more offensive than we’d really like to be?

Is it true about others?  Do we see that in the world around us: lashing out or closing off against others when the real threat is the one that’s inside the self?  Would the world be a better place if we all had that sam tam, that perfect medicine, on our hearts and on our souls? 
Maybe this is what Heschel meant, about changing ourselves so that we can encounter the prayers.  That we can look at that page, at that piece of the Sh’ma, and think – yes, I have a wound right here, and I could sure use a bandage.

What would happen if we had a way of reminding ourselves of this, that we’re struggling with an ego wound, and maybe it would be a good idea not to allow ourselves to be led astray, not to lash out?
If we were able to remind ourselves that others, too, are struggling with their wounds – would it change the way we encountered them?

Even if we don’t know what to do with words like “God” or “Torah”, even if we don’t believe anything about them, would that make a difference, do you think, if every now and then – once a week, once a month, even a couple of times a year – when we came to the Sh’ma and saw those words, we took just that moment to bring to mind our struggle. 
Would we be better able to be in the world, to be the kind of people we need to be?
And now see where we’ve come – we thought we had to change ourselves to meet the prayer, but we find that in meeting the prayer, it changes us in return.  Perhaps, even if that’s the only thing we payed attention to in this whole big book, that would be enough?

Is that enough?  Given the challenges facing us, however you define them, can it make a difference?
I think the answer – I think the answer offered by Rosh Hashanah, in particular – is yes.  Because if the Torah taught offers us Cain as a warning, it also offers us Abraham as a possibility.

In our Torah reading we encounter Abraham, today and tomorrow; in some ways he’s the “hero” of Rosh Hashana. We’ll spend some time tomorrow talking about those stories - and you should know right now that they’re not easy and they’re not pretty, though perhaps that’s alright for Rosh Hashana, to focus on the difficult.  But just as we look to the first humans to find out about our humanity, we look to the first Jews to find out about that part of our identity.

Abraham, we say, is our Father, and even if he was not perfect, God used him to bring this whole enterprise into being.  Why did God pick him?  At first we don’t see him do much on his own – he goes where God sends him, he takes care of his clan – until just before our reading. 

The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!”

I want to point out three things about this passage, particularly as it was read by the rabbis:
1)            Our sages understood from the fact that we read of the strangers right after reading that God appeared to Abraham that Abraham went to greet the strangers while God was talking to him; that he had actually put God on hold, as it were, to attend to the human beings before him.
2)            They imagined that he didn’t just happen to see strangers, but that it was his practice to sit in a tent open on all four sides, actively looking to see who might need hospitality.
3)            And, based on the text preceding this, they imagined this particular event happening just as Abraham was recovering from his own circumcision, his own most intimate wound.

What were the rabbis telling us about Abraham? 

While the ego-hurts that come to us as our birthright can make us want to lash out or close ourselves tight, to protect ourselves in our vulnerability, Abraham found a way to open himself up to the stranger even at his most vulnerable.   Rather than protect himself he extended himself.  Wounded by life – as we all are – the Abraham of the Rabbis’ mind found that poultice, that perfect medicine, that allowed him to turn to those potentially scary strangers, at least at this moment, and that welcome made all the difference in the world. All the difference to the world.

My sisters and brothers:

We have come here from all kinds of backgrounds and for all kinds of reasons.  But all of us would like to see the world better in the coming year, and ourselves better in the coming year.  And what the Tradition has to offer us is this: Cain was wounded, Abraham was wounded, and we are wounded, too.  But the difference between Cain and Abraham was in their ability to deal with that blow, turning to fear and anger and violence, or opening the heart even more.  We know which way we want to go, and which way the world needs us to go.

Let’s close by returning to Heschel.  By following his advice, we have already begun the work.  By opening ourselves up a little to the prayers and the texts and the teachings, we have allowed them to work a little bit upon us, to change us just a touch.  In spite of our hurts, we have become just a little more open.  We have begun to sense that sam tam, that perfect poltice, and having done that we can begin to share it and ourselves with others.  Sweeter than honey, it is; may it be yours throughout the year.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

when wisdom fails

A site run by two of the generally wiser rabbis I know ran one of those "Isn't it a shame that liberals couldn't be civil to Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Can't we all sit down together and compromise?" essays. Here's my response (tl;dr - "No").

 Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not someone whose politics I disagree with. She is a willing agent of a corrupt regime that threatens the liberal (in the old sense) order not just in America but globally, and in that capacity she lies on behalf of that regime to the American public. "I'm sure there are fine people on both sides" may be appropriate for a disagreement among people of good will, but as we have seen it represents moral vacuity when applied to wickedness.

 I'd add also that for those of us who are straight, white, cis-male, and fairly well-off, thinking of Trump and his enablers as Beit Shammai to our Beit Hillel is an affordable luxury. I don't have to worry about my rights to marry, or adopt, or have autonomy over my body. I don't have to worry about the police demanding my papers, or killing my daughter, or sending my relatives from abroad to an internment camp.

Like Trump's chief of staff John ("the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War") Kelley I can make an idol of "compromise", but compromise about the personhood of some is not wisdom; it's failure. Better to take a page from Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail:

 "I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."

Thursday, February 16, 2017

sorry not sorry

Jews have a substantial traditional literature on how to deal with making a mistake, on how to repent for hurting others. Though we may not always act on our knowledge, we know what we're supposed to do when we've said something cruel to or about someone else. More recently, we've also developed a body of wisdom on how to respond to hate speech.

Let's be clear: When David Friedman referred to supporters of J Street as "not Jewish" and "worse than kapos", he was engaging in hate speech, no less than if a non-Jewish politician had referred to members of AIPAC as Nazis. Now, with a plum political job in reach, Friedman is making a public show of what is supposed to be seen as “contrition.” 

"I regret use of such language," Friedman said during his first hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The inflammatory rhetoric during the presidential campaign is entirely over. If confirmed my language would be measured," he added. Friedman went a step further by saying that there was "no excuse" for his choice of words. (source: Haaretz)

Has he reached out to those he’s hurt?  Has he tried to undo the damage by saying not just, “I shouldn’t have used that language” but, “I was wrong – these people are Jews, are not enemies of the Jewish people or the Jewish state, and while I disagree with them profoundly I see them as caring, decent people”?  Has he, in fact, done any of the things that the tradition demands of the penitent? Well, I know I’m still waiting for my call.

Or has he done any of the things that we’d demand of even a juvenile who’d painted a swastika on a JCC?  Has he spent time with those he’s attacked, learning about who they are, what their experience was, so that he might come to empathize with them and understand the pain he has caused and explore his own bigotry?  Please.

To those who believe that Friedman should be the American Ambassador to Israel because they approve of his language, or at most think it’s no big deal, well, it’s a free country.  But to those who might suggest that he has in any way apologized? That’s insulting.

Monday, November 14, 2016

the jewish task in an age of trump

For a long time, my favorite line from the liturgy has been a reference to God as every day renewing the work of Creation. There was a hopeful to it, a promise that nothing had to be simply because it had always been but that each day we had a chance to start again.

What is only now becoming clear to me is what that actually meant, that nothing exists on momentum alone. Even the most basic civic commitment, even the most rudimentary ethical standard, even the most elementary consensus as to standards of rational discourse, all of these have been shown to be if not illusory at least astonishingly fragile. Rather than taken for granted, they must be rebuilt every day, tended and protected.

This rebuilding, this regular maintenance of the fundamental pillars of a just, kind, and healthy world is both an urgent need, and the responsibility of everyone who wants to live in such a world. And that suggests that a Judaism worth engaging in must be actively participating in this work.

I’ll put it this way:  Everything we have seen about the president-elect, from his early career to the beginning of his candidacy to his first acts following the election suggest that a his election and the forces his election have unleashed pose an existential threat to the American experiment and to global society. Any institution that pretends moral authority, that claims to present eternal truths, that presents itself as important, must be engaged in fighting this threat. The only question for Jewish institutions is to determine what our role in this struggle will be.

At the very least, those of us involved in Jewish education can resolve that our greatest role is to nurture wise, kind, and caring students, students who will use what tools we can give them to help build, every day, those pillars of society we took for granted for too long. Students who will be call us to be their partners, every day, in renewing the work of Creation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

this is what we are here for

This is the email I sent to the students in our MA program. If you're a teacher, it's for you, too.

Hi, my friends... If you are like me, you are probably dealing with some strong emotions, perhaps apprehensive about what lies ahead. I don't want to project my own feelings onto you; I know I'm feeling somewhat at a loss.

I want to remind you, though, of some of the great blessings you have - not in general, not in the abstract, but right here, right now:

First, you are able to give your students an enormous gift by providing them with a calm, loving, non-reactive presence. Be there for them.

Second, as Jewish educators, part of our work is to help our students grow into wise, loving people. Is there more important work than this?

Finally, you have as your colleagues some of the biggest-hearted people I know - in the field in general, and in this program specifically. We are all here for each other. Please feel free to reach out to me or to your classmates if you feel a need, and let your classmates and your coworkers know that they can reach out to you.

This is what we're here for. I'm proud to be with you.



Tuesday, October 18, 2016

a day like purim - yom kippur 5777

(A d'var torah given at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Center, Philadelphia)

For a people as entranced as we are by word play, it is surprising that it took until the late middle ages for someone to notice the similarity between “Yom Kippur” and Purim,

תיקוני זוהר תקונא עשרין וחד ועשרין
פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה ולשנויי ליה מענוי לענ
and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that someone would get around to making the pun

ר' צדוק הכהן מלובלין - פרי צדיק שמות פורים
ואיתא בתיקוני זוהר (תיקון כ"א) פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה וכו' וכן אומרים בשם הרבנים הקדושים זללה"ה דפורים בחינת יום הכפורים ונקרא יום כפורים היינו כמו פורים ובאמת נרמז בתיקוני זוהר כנ"ל. וכמו ביום הכפורים עיצומו של יום מכפר כן ימי הפורים עיצומו של יום עושה מחיית עמלק
That “Yom Kippurim” is “Yom k’Purim” – a day like Purim.

Though maybe it’s not that surprising after all; It’s hard to imagine two less similar holidays.  We are – or so the liturgy tells us, engaged in a matter of life and death, facing the many, many, many things we’ve done wrong and the urgent need to fix what we’ve broken.  It is the day when we are told that things matter very much.

 Purim, on the other hand, is a time of play, a day when practically nothing matters: we party, we dress up, we give free rein to our most impious urges in what can be viciously funny purim shpiels. 
The imaginative play isn’t just the icing, it’s integral to the idea of Purim, because it is the subversive power of the imagination, as satire, as mockery which allows is truly revolutionary. For whatever real power tyrants and oppressive systems may have, it is built on the myth that they matter: that they are indeed powerful, and that power is, if not deserved, real and entrenched.  That’s why bullies and dictators hate satire and mockery, because it reminds them that they are not in control over the imagination, and so  it threatens tyrants; it threatens established systems: Purim is the festival of nothing has to be.

If Purim cleans the slate, Yom Kippur is a time in which we prepare rebuild, to make things better, to mend what we’ve broken.  And here’s the thing: the imagination is central to this as well.
First of all, if we want to be agents for good in the world, to act effectively, or to judge actions wisely, we have to be able to look at the consequences of actions – who’s involved, who’s implicated, where the ripples might be.  This is what I think is meant by Rabbi Shimon’s answer when asked for the most important virtue: “ha-roeh et hanolad”, which is usually translated as “foresight” but which really means “to see that which is aborning” : not prophecy, but to have the imagination to see the world as pregnant with possibilities.

Second, in order to understand the import of those possibilities, one must understand what they means to people, and that requires empathy.  But as anyone who’s tried to anticipate what another will like or not like knows, you can’t ever really get into the head of an other, precisely because people are so radically other.  Empathy, too, is an act of the imagination.

But, as we’ve been reminding ourselves all day, we haven’t been doing that work, not the fixing and not the empathizing.  We know that, and yet we don’t change.  What stops us?  For me, and perhaps for you, it’s largely the belief that I can’t. We feel ourselves stuck, bound with the bonds of habit and guilt and – especially as we get older – a kind of moral despair.  In order to do teshuvah, we must be able to – yes – imagine ourselves as different, as better. 

Yom Kippur is a “day like Purim” because so much of its work depends on the imagination.  And, as with Purim, the imagination becomes a central part of the observance.  Today, we too have a “shpiel” – the Avodah service, where we imagine ourselves in a different place, a different time, as different people.  And, over and over and over again, the liturgy invites to imagine ourselves as forgivable.
But that’s not just Yom Kippur, and not just Purim where the imagination is such a central part of the practice:

·         On Pesach, we are famously told that we each have to imagine ourselves as having made the passage from slavery to freedom
·         On Shabbat, the idea of “prohibited activities” provides an opportunity in which to imagine the world as good, as good enough that we don’t need to change it.
·         The blessings we might say on food, or actions, or experiences suggest that imagine the event as an extension of the Infinite into the world
·         And when we pray, those words we didn’t write and don’t feel and don’t believe, are a framework in which we can imagine ourselves as spiritually mature.

Here’s the punch line: Judaism not a practice of faith, but a practice of the imagination, in which we’re invited to be imaginative and even playful, because it’s in that playful mind and heart that we can explore possibilities; it’s the imagination, I’m here to tell you, that is the central religious faculty.   On Yom Kippur, the day like Purim, we begin to focus that faculty. To bring it to our view of the world, of others, of ourselves – so that we can move away from these “playing fields of the Lord” and out of the shul: caring for others, caring for ourselves, seeing the fruit of our imagination blossom, and finding the joy of play in the joy of a rebuilt world.