Friday, October 5, 2018

Freedom To Be

In his Torah commentary Covenant and Conversation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks presents an interesting interpretation of what it might mean when the Torah describes human beings as being created betzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). A major, implicit principle in the creation story is that God is independent of and beyond the natural world. God transcends nature. So, maybe in saying that we were created in God's image, the Torah is telling us that we do, too?

That isn't to say that we're supernatural, obviously. Physically, we are just as bound by nature's laws as any other creature. But, in the sense of our own, internal natures, we seem to have a level of freedom which isn't shared with anything else in the world.

A dog, for example, will always be, more or less, what it was born to be. I have a (mostly) terrier at home, and he will always want to chase squirrels. Better owners might have convinced him to stay when told to do so, and age will eventually take away his ability to actually go after them. But, he will never stop, contemplate his existence, and think to himself, "Maybe there is a better way to spend my time than chasing that squirrel."* At his core, he will always be a terrier.

* And, yes, I'm aware that technically I can't prove this. We don't know what's going on in animals brains, etc. I'm pretty comfortable making this claim...

Human beings are very different from that. We have the ability to interrogate our deepest selves, and to try to make changes in what we find there. Those changes will almost always be incredibly difficult to make; we'll probably fail a lot more than we'll succeed. But, regardless, the possibility remains.

I was born with certain personality traits — I have a certain amount of materialism, a certain amount of bigotry and hate, a certain amount (a surfeit, really) of laziness, and so on. These will always be in there, I suspect, but I don't have to give in to them, and I don't have to be satisfied with them. I can choose to transcend them and, with enough time and effort, I may be able to change them. Maybe not completely, but somewhat. Significantly, even.

It's a lovely idea. What makes us most different from the other animals, and what makes us most like the Divine, is our freedom to be not who we were born to be, but rather who we choose to be.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Act Without Thinking.

I was going through a stack of papers, looking for an old teaching, when I came across some notes I took while listening to Rabbi Art Green* speak at a CCAR convention back in 2012. Like just about everything I encounter from Rabbi Green, it was great to read through. One bit jumped out at me, for some reason:

* It was a bit like going to a Springsteen concert**--nothing was actually new to me, but to hear the man cover his classics like this, in person, was so damn thrilling.

** I'm not really a Springsteen fan. For some reason, though, that seemed like the right analogy at the time. And, for some reason, I remember it 6 years later, and it still seems right.

I'm not sure how directly this was taken from what he said, but here is what I wrote:
A personal theology is less important than a personal religious life. It's about piety. Our tradition/piety is rooted in the open, loving study of text.  
It's like the Jews not taking the time to make provisions when they left Egypt. Don't stop to plan your escape from your personal Egypt. Just go, or you'll never get out.
I talk to so many people who, in one way or another, tell me that they're searching for something. That they want meaning, that they want to feel connected to Judaism, that they want to feel comfortable in their Judaism. And, so often, it's a sense of insecurity, a sense of not really knowing exactly what they want, or what they believe, which holds them back. They lack something, and they know that they lack it, and they want it, but that same lack keeps them from looking for it in the first place. "How can I search for religion/meaning, when I don't already have it?"

The trick in Judaism is always that we don't have to understand or believe anything before we start acting. More than that--we can't truly understand or believe anything until we start acting. Because, ultimately, we aren't a theological or doctrinal people--we don't assert facts about God and base our lives on them. We act, and we practice, and we experiment, and something grows out of that. Our belief is an inchoate sense of something which is the result of things that we do, things that we read, things that we try.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that if you want to feel more connected to your Judaism (or, I guess to anything) don't wait. Don't make preparations. Don't worry about which way to go, or what to read, or how to do something. Just go. Do something. Read anything. See what happens. Then go somewhere else, do something else, or read something else. It won't make sense, not really, at least not at first. But, with enough time, enough trying, enough openness, and maybe a little bit of grace, something might start to stir, or coalesce, or present itself. Something might start to mean something.

Yeah, I'm being vague. I can't really tell you what you're looking for, or where to find it, or what it'll look like when you do. Each person has to find this for him or herself. But, I'm pretty sure that sitting around doing nothing isn't going to help.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Holy Work

Every now and then, I get asked to contribute to the URJ's "Ask Your Jewish Question" (formerly known as "Ask a Rabbi") feature. One recently came my way:
Could you do a piece about how going to work during the 6 days of the week is part of the mitzvah of fulfilling Shabbat, and how we should also find meaning in what we do during those 6 days? Sometimes it is easy to forget that going to our jobs can be meaningful...and even a mitzvah. I get easily lost in the daily grind of my own job. Thanks for all the hard work you guys do. Best—Marie (Chana)
It's not published yet, but here's my response:
During the week, are we allowed to work, or are we commanded to work? And, is any of that work holy?
“6 days you shall labor and do all your work, but the 7th day is a Sabbath to Adonai your God: you shall not do any work…” That’s what God said at Sinai, according to Exodus 20:9-10. And, in its context, the Hebrew is probably saying that we’re allowed to work during the 6 days. That’s just a preamble to the real commandment, which is Shabbat.
But, whatever the original intent was, that’s not how the rabbis of old read it. Midrash Rabbah, an ancient collection of Midrashim (Rabbinic teachings on the Torah) reads the text hyper-literally and understands both parts to be commandments—you must work during the 6 days, just like you must rest on the 7th. In fact, we are told that “Great is work, because God’s presence does not rest upon Israel until they perform work, as it says, ‘Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ ” Holiness doesn’t come to those who sit around and wait for it; holiness comes to those who are willing to work for it! So, our tradition understands that there is, indeed, holy work to be done during the week. Anything that we do which makes it possible to experience holiness in the world is, itself, holy work. And, although not every moment of every job is easily understood as helping to bring holiness to the world, each of us can find ways to do so, at least some of the time. We can challenge ourselves by asking how our jobs, how our efforts, can not only justify our salaries, but can also make the world a bit holier.
There are, however, some rabbis who are willing to go a step further. Rabbeinu Bahai, speaking in the name of Maimonides teaches that even seemingly mundane acts can, in fact, be holy. Deeds which seem totally secular, such as commercial matters, can be done with holy intent. That’s a grounding principle of the spiritual philosophy of the Hassidic masters—the intent with which we do something has more to do with its holiness than the act itself. Anything that we do, no matter how far from holy pursuit it may seem, can be holy if we decide to make it so. By inclining our minds and our hearts towards holiness, the simplest, least obviously holy work can be filled with sanctity. After all, if there is really no place without God (and, we seem pretty sure that there isn’t!), then there is also no action where we can’t find God’s presence—God is everywhere, including in our jobs, even if it’s not always obvious how.
So, find ways to use your daily work to make our world holier, and find ways to make our daily work holy itself. Then, and only then, will we be fulfilling the full mitzvah of Shabbat!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Prophetic Teens

A few days ago, it came to my attention that some of the teens at our synagogue were upset with me. They felt that I hadn’t been publically supportive of their participation in the March For Our Lives. As you probably know, the march was organized as a reaction to the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, just over a month ago. About a dozen of our teens are joining some others from this area to head up to DC to join in what is shaping up to be a historic march. To make this trip more accessible to anyone who wanted to go, they also ran a GoFundMe, with all money raised going to subsidize the trip.

From what I heard, at least some of them feel that I should have spoken about the march and about their fundraising from the pulpit, and that I should have encouraged more donations in that way, too. There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t, but that isn’t the point—even if I was right on some level to not speak about this (at least in that forum), they are also right that I should have done so, because what they’re doing is so deeply important.

This shooting, and the movement which has been growing in its aftermath, has had a profound effect on some of our teens. For one thing, this was geographically close, which always seems to make tragedies feel more personal. But, more importantly, this shooting was close to our kids in other ways, too. Many of the students at Stoneman participate in NFTY-STR, our youth group region, and some of them also attend Camp Coleman, where some of our teens attend. A family who used to attend Beth Am send their child there. The point is that some of our teens personally know people who attend that school. Some of them were friends with one of the victims, Alyssa Alhadeff z”l. This is personal. And so, they are finding themselves deeply committed to this new, student-led effort to get something done to make our schools, and our society, safer. This isn’t just another march to these youth; this is bigger than that.

What we’re seeing—from our kids, and from the leaders of this new movement—is sacred work. And, I’m not using that term lightly, or generically. I think that we’re watching a group suddenly find themselves in the role of Prophets, whether or not they realize it. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Building Holiness

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vayikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.

That’s how this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Terumah, begins. With a commandment from God, through Moses, for everyone whose heart is so moved to bring gifts. These gifts can be gold, silver, fine linen, animal skins, and a host of other precious objects. And why do we need to bring these gifts? “v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

It’s possible that, more than any other single verse in the entire Torah, these words contain the ultimate, true essence of what Judaism is about. Of what we’re trying to do by leading Jewish lives. The ultimate commandment, our ultimate responsibility, is to take from the best of what we have, bring it all together as a community, and together try to create something. Try to create something holy, and in doing so, allow the presence of God to dwell among us. And, of course, were not just talking about physical buildings here — anything that we “build,” anything we create can, if built properly, make it easier for us to experience the presence of God. It’s pointed out by sages and teachers throughout the generations (including by myself, quite often) that the Torah doesn’t tell to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell in it. We are told to build a sanctuary so that God can dwell among us. Possibly even within us. It isn’t that God needs a house. It’s that, by trying to build something for God, we evoke, find, or possibly even make possible God’s presence in the world, and in our lives.

It’s always been a bit of a contradiction in Judaism. On one hand, God is everywhere – that’s the first thing most of us learn about God. There is no place without God’s presence. On the other hand, we build special, sacred places. We build sanctuaries in the desert, Temples in Jerusalem, and synagogues all over the world. Usually, we understand those holy places to be for us, not for God. God doesn’t need a special building — after all, God really is everywhere. But we are limited, imperfect human beings, and it’s much easier for us to think about God, to see God, to feel God, maybe even to believe in God, in some places, rather than others.

Some sages, however, are willing to go at least a half-step further. Some say that when a place is unholy, when a place is broken, when a place is vile, it’s as if God can’t, or won’t, be there. It’s as if there is actually a place where God isn’t. Or, maybe it’s not “as if.” Maybe God really won’t go to those places. In the end, I’m not so interested in the metaphysics – in the underlying, objective reality here. At the end of the day, from our point of view, God not being somewhere, and our complete inability to see God in a place, are pretty much the exact same thing. If a tree falls in the forest, and all that. And so, we’re commanded to build something holy, and in doing so, to try to bring God’s presence into our world, and into our lives.

I’ve been thinking about these verses, and this teaching, and this idea of building holiness, especially since Wednesday afternoon. As I’m sure everyone here knows, on Wednesday, 17 people were killed in yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. 17 people were murdered in just a few moments. They were: Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang. One person, whose name I will not utter, whose heart was filled with some toxic mix of anger, and hatred, and evil, and sickness, murdered them, destroyed the lives of their families, friends, and loved ones, and God only knows what he did to the survivors — they’ll be living with this for the rest of their lives, God help them.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, but with a new force and clarity, and a new import, that one of the fundamental, inescapable differences between creating something holy, and destroying something holy, is that the latter is so, so much easier. It is frighteningly easy to destroy. It is so terribly difficult to create. And it is especially difficult to create something holy. If you like pithy formulations, you can find one in Schopenhauer’s Law of Entropy: if you put a spoonful of wine into a barrel full of sewage, you get sewage. If you put a spoonful of sewage into a barrel full of wine, you get sewage. A little bit of awful, a little bit of evil, can destroy so much good.

It doesn’t matter what level of society, what granularity we’re looking at, the maxim holds true. It’s true with people in our lives — it’s easier to tear them down than to build them up. It’s easier with institutions — one troublemaker or kvetcher can undermine a place so effectively that a whole team of well-meaning, positive people can barely keep up. It’s true in politics — it’s easier to ruin people’s lives than to help them. It’s easier to point out the problems with someone else’s proposed ideas then to create a better plan yourself. And, It’s easier to kill 17 people then it is to stop one sick, awful man getting a gun and going to his old school.

It’s a bit of an aside, but there is a debate about Creation, at least as told in our Torah. The majority of commentators hold that God created the world out of nothing. But, there are a few who contend that God actually had some raw material to work with — that there was some primordial chaos which served as the raw materials of Creation. I actually lean more towards the “Creation out of chaos” view. In part because it’s actually truer to the text, I’d say. But, more importantly, it reflects an important teaching. Chaos is the natural state of everything. Chaos is the given. It took a Divine effort to hold back the chaos, to bring in some order. And, it’s not over — the chaos is always trying to creep back in. So, it takes an ongoing Divine effort, or at least a divine-sized effort, to keep it at bay. Sometimes, it seems, nothing can.

But, that’s exactly why we’re needed. That’s why God needs us. Again, I don’t pretend to be able to really explain the metaphysical reality. I don’t know if God can’t continue to hold back the chaos, or God chose to let some chaos through for us to deal with, or maybe if God just got sick of being the only One fighting the fight. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just know that, a very long time ago, God came to us and said, “Please. Take what you’ve got. Take the best of what you’ve got. Take it from anyone who’s got it, and from anyone who’s heart so moves them to give it, and build something. Build something holy.”

It’s hard. It’s so damn hard. It’s hard to know what our gifts are, and where they can best be used. It’s hard to work together, to coordinate our gifts, to jostle over who gets to work on one part and all that. It’s really hard to work with people we may not like so much sometimes, and especially to recognize and appreciate their gifts. It’s hard to sustain the effort, especially when the walls of our building project seem to be crumbling against the chaos from the very moment we put them up. It’s hard, but it’s the only way. If the only way to build something of value. It’s the only way to build something holy. It’s the only way to make a place for God in our world, or in our lives.

Vayidabeir Adonai el Mosheh leimor: dabeir el bnei Yisrael vyikchu lee terumah m’ate kol ish asher yidbeinu leebo, tikchu terumatee. The Eternal One spoke to Moses and said: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…v’Asu lee mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham--And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Cain yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.

This is a version of the sermon I gave on February 16th, 2018

Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Grow In Kindness

Yesterday, I was having lunch with two of my oldest and dearest friends. I've known them both since our early High School years, so we go way back. While paying the bill and figuring out the tip, one of them joked that his simple mental math skills, never his strong suit, have actually started to get worse.

"Well, you have to realize something," I ventured. "We're 46. That means that, in every conceivable facet of our lives, we've peaked. This is it. We'll never get better. Physically, mentally, whatever--we're as close to perfection as we can ever dream of getting. Hopefully it's a gentle slope, but it's all downhill from here."

At that point, they wondered why, exactly, they decided to spend time with me. But, they didn't actually argue...

But, I did thrown in an exception. I said, "Except, I guess, we can grow in kindness*." Maybe a bit pretentious for the moment, but I was trying to find a bright side.

* "To grow in kindness" is not my phrase, but I can't remember from where or from whom I'm stealing it.

I didn't tell them this background, but on the drive to see them, I had been listening to a podcast from "Crooked Conversations." This one was a conversation between host Ana Marie Cox and ABC News’ Dan Harris about meditation. Apparently, Harris has become a pretty well-known evangelist for meditating, and he's been effective in part because he's not what most people think of as a typical meditator--very few mentions of "psychic energy" or "souls," and more curse words than most of these types of books deliver. Worth checking out if you're interested in meditation, but get turned off by the ethereal, new-agey tone of a lot of those books.

Anyway, one of the points that Harris makes is that, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, most of us assume that our personalities are more or less set in stone. Certainly, once we become adults, we are who we are. If not completely, then awfully close to it. Oh, sure, we can learn things, in terms of knowledge, skills, and the like. But, our basic, core personalities, our personal qualities, are really not malleable any more (if they ever were). We're as generous as we're ever going to be. We're as kind, as forgiving, as patient as we're ever going to be. And, maybe more to the point, we didn't get to choose these qualities, any more than we chose our height or our hairlines. I might wish I were kinder, but that's just wishing. I can pretend to be kinder, I guess. But, at my core, kindness is something I have (or don't have) in some predetermined measure. There just isn't much to do about it.


The entire point of a spiritual life, the entire point of spiritual practice, and the entire point of a meditation practice (which, he's eager to point out, doesn't have to be a spiritual meditation practice) is that we actually are able to change. And, we're able to change deep, important, fundamental parts of ourselves. It's not easy, by any means. It takes dedication, determination and not a small amount of constancy. But, bit by bit, slowly but surely, it is possible, without any doubt whatsoever, to change who we are. If we want to, and if we are willing to do the work, we can become kinder. We can become more generous, more forgiving, more loving. More patient. More open-minded.

I've been seriously engaged (albeit sporadically) with mindfulness practice for a number years now. It's getting close to a decade, actually. And, there are times when it feels like it hasn't really had an effect on me--that it isn't "working." But, there are also times when I think I can see a change. That, although I am far from perfect, my work has made me more patient. More understanding. More generous. I think I'm a better person than I was 5 years ago. I think I'm more worthy of admiration (my own, anyway) than I was. There's no false modesty when I say that I've got a long way to go. I am not, in any way, claiming to be adequately kind, or exceptionally generous, or in any sense a paragon of virtue. I've got a lifetime of work ahead of me, and I'm sure that, when it's all said and done, I'll leave this earth a deeply, deeply flawed person. But, I sincerely hope, and somewhat expect, that I'll be less so than I am now. And, I like that direction.

The podcast is a good listen--two smart people talking, openly and honestly, about some very personal stuff (including drug addiction and recovery). Give it a go--I'd love to hear what you think.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Freedom is Caring

During my sabbatical, I've been spending some time with Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik's Torah commentary. For those who don't know, Soloveitchik was one of the giants of the 20th century, and he more or less created what we now know as Modern Orthodoxy. He never actually wrote a Torah commentary, but one of his students gathered various teachings of his which related to various parts of the Torah, and assembled them into a single work. It's a pretty fantastic bit of Torah.

In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, we get the Passover story, including the commandment of the Paschal sacrifice. It is, according to at least some sages, the only sacrifice which is closely tied to the idea of chavurah, community. One sage even asserts that this one particular sacrifice can only be offered by a group, never an individual. This one offering, so closely tied to freedom, can never be an individual act.

But, a chavurah, a community, is more than a group. It must be bound by something. And, that something is chesed. What's chesed? It's usually translated as "kindness," but it also has a sense of communal obligation about it. Loving responsibility. That, Soloveitchik teaches, is what freedom is really about. The ability to display chesed.
The ceremony of the Passover meal, centered around the paschal lamb, aims at the emergence of the new chesed community--for chesed is the characteristic mark of the free man...the birth of the chesed community--of a nation within which people unite, give things away, care for each other, share what they possess--is symbolized by the paschal sacrifice...[God] simply wanted the people--slaves who had just come out of the house of bondage--to emerge from their isolation and insane self-centeredness into the chesed community, where the little that man has is too much for himself.
To emerge from our insane self-centeredness. What a phrase. And, what a great definition of freedom. The ability to emerge from our insane self-centeredness.

As you may know, during my sabbatical, I've also been focussing a bit on Social Justice, and on trying to find ways, and partners, to work towards a world which cares more for the oppressed and the marginalized. And, although I don't know that Soloveitchik would have liked this application (he was speaking about the Jewish community here, not the world community), I still found his words resonant with the world of Justice. And, quite dissonant with much of the hatred and anger, and with the treatment of "the other," that I see in the news.

What is freedom? Freedom is defined, and symbolized, by our ability, and our willingness, to emerge from our insane self-centeredness, and to instead live within a nation built on caring for each other.

Cain Yehi Ratzon--May that be God's will.

Shabbat Shalom.