Friday, December 5, 2014

Use Your Desires

A nice teaching from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev on this week's Torah portion (Vayishlach)*.

* To my text-loving friends, the playing around he does with Jacob/Esau is really cool, but too convoluted for me to go into right here. But, it's in translation in Green's Speaking Torah if you can't read the original Hebrew. 

He teaches that, when we are trying to do the right thing, our evil urge (or, our baser desires, if you prefer) will get in the way--we'll be tempted to do something else. Go ahead and tell that part of ourself, "Don't worry--we'll get earthly reward for this, too." Basically, bribe our less righteous parts with presents and promises, so that they don't subvert us.

What kinds of rewards? Oh, I guess that depends on what/how we each believe. If you want to believe that doing this or that righteous act will give you good fortune in the lottery--go ahead*! If you want to believe that people will like you more if you are (or just act like) a mensch--go ahead! Anything you can tell yourself, true or not, that gets you to do the right thing--go ahead!

 * Spoiler Alert: it won't.

But, aren't we supposed to do the right things for the right reasons? Isn't it bad to have personal gain and ulterior motives in mind? Well, yes and no. It's not ideal for sure. But, isn't doing the right thing for the wrong reason better than not doing it at all? And, if we do this enough, we might find ourselves finally defeating those lower urges, and then being able to do the right thing for the right reasons!

Many doctors go into medicine, at least in part, to make a lot of money and buy a nice car. You know what--some of them still save lives, no matter why they started doing so. Sometimes I visit a sick person (or lead a service, or teach a class...) not because I want to, but because I have to, and I'll get in trouble if I don't. We can all think of examples--sometimes we just can't do the right thing for the right reasons. But, that doesn't mean that we can't find a way to do it, anyway.

That's the wrestling that we're all doing--pitting our higher selves against the parts of our selves which we're not so proud of. Sometimes, we can trick ourselves into letting those good parts win. And, then we'll find that we don't need to wrestle so hard, after all.

Name It

This week's Torah portion contains the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with--well, it's not clear what, exactly, he was wrestling with. An angel? A man? Something. Anyway, when the fight is more or less over, Jacob asks for the other's name, and the reply is "Why are you asking for my name?" And, Jacob never gets his answer.

But, Rabbi Y.L. Hasman* says that, actually, Jacob did get an answer. That, the angel's name is, in fact, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* This is in Itturei Torah, vol II page. 306 for anyone who wants to see the original

You see, according to many traditions, this man/angel/other was actually the yetzer ra, the inclination to do evil, or the sitra achra, the "other (dark) side" of human nature. Or, Satan*. Basically, this was evil incarnate. And, what he's telling Jacob is that the true name of evil is, "Why are you asking for my name?"

* Yes, Rabbinic tradition includes Satan, but he's nothing like the Satan of Christian tradition.

How does evil thrive? It thrives by people not being willing to deal with it. To look at it, understand it, and name it. By getting people to pay attention to something else, and deny that the evil is real, or important. What evil wants, more than anything, is to be anonymous and unrecognized. That's how it wins.

The first step in fighting any evil is to acknowledge that it's real, and that it needs fighting. When we see injustice, or oppression, or tragedy, we absolutely have to stand up and name it. We have to say that we don't accept it, and that it has no place in our world.

And, that we will fight it until the break of dawn, just like Jacob did, if we have to.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Recognizing The Good

Deuteronomy 23:8 teaches us, "Do not abhor an Egyptian." Do not hate, do not despise an Egyptian.

Why the heck not?

I don't mean to be rude, but let's think about this for a moment. This commandment was given to the Israelites in the desert, not so long after having been freed from 400 years of slavery at the hand of the Egyptians. Those same Egyptians were the ones who, not so long before, had tried to wipe us out by throwing our babies into the Nile. Pardon me for saying this, but it seems that Egypt* may have earned a bit of hatred.

* Just to be clear, we're talking about the ancient Kingdom of Egypt, not modern Egypt and Egyptians. 

But, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that, as true as that narrative is, it's incomplete. It leaves out an important part of the story. Because, before they became our oppressors, the Egyptians were our saviors. In the book of Genesis, we hear of a great famine, and of how our ancestors were near starvation*. Egypt allowed us to enter as guests, and to settle there. And, in Egypt we survived, and we thrived.

* Those Canaan days...we used to know...

Without that hospitality, our people would have died out only a few generations after having been born. Without Egypt, there would be no Jews and no Judaism*. And, by extension, there would be no Christianity, or Islam. So, Egypt truly did earn our hatred. But, Egypt truly did earn our gratitude, as well.

* And no pastrami or matza ball soup, while we're at it.

And now, we get to choose which one to focus on.

The Hebrew term for gratitude is Hakarat HaTov, which literally translates as "recognizing the good." You see, there is always good around us, and there is always bad, as well. We can choose which one we want to see. Hakarat HaTov means learning to see, learning to notice the good that is in the world around us, rather than the bad. Gratitude is a choice which we can make, and gratitude is a skill we can develop — a muscle we can build. Opportunities for anger and bitterness abound in our world, but opportunities for joy and thankfulness live side-by-side with them, every moment of every day.


Let us learn to recognize the good in our world. Let us learn to recognize the blessing our lives. Let us learn to turn away from anger and resentment, and to turn towards love, and towards thanksgiving.

[This is a version of the teaching that I gave at our Community Interfaith Thanksgiving Service on Sunday, November 23]

Friday, November 21, 2014

A World In Need of Tikkun

As the week ends, it's hard for me not to notice, not to feel, how broken our world seems right now. Just days ago, innocent men were slaughtered in Israel while praying. Just yesterday, early in the morning, another person entered another school with a gun in his hand, and shot three people, one of whom remains in critical condition. Our world seems very much in need of Tikkun — of fixing.

Tikkun Olam — fixing the world. It a term which gets thrown around all the time in the Jewish world, usually as a description of Social Action. But, it's important to take a moment and remember, or to learn for the first time, what the term really means, and where it comes from. Although the term is much older than even this, it began taking on its current usage in the late 15th century when a group of mystics in northern Israel began creating what we now know as Kabbalah. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the founder of this new school of thought, developed the new image of creation.

Realizing that, if God is everywhere, if God is everything, then there would have been no place for God to create the world, Luria imagined that before creating anything, God had to perform an act of tzimtzum, or self-contraction. God had to compress God's self, just a little bit, in order to make some space around the edges for something else to be. Then, God sent out spheres of perfect, divine glass, each one filled with divine light, into the void — this was the perfect world which God intended to create.

But, like hot glass plunged into cold water, these vessels couldn't survive in the void, and so they shattered, sending out shards of glass and sparks of light into the emptiness. And this is the world we live in — a world of brokenness and dispersion. Our job, we are told, is to perform an act of Tikkun whenever possible — to repair one tiny piece of the world, and to restore it to the form it had before it broke apart.

This image contains within it a stark contrast between the world as it was meant to be, and the world as we find it now. This — this world around us — is not what God had intended. This isn't the world that God had in mind. And, this is not the only way that the world can be. For at least one precious moment, our world did exist in absolute perfection. All the pieces of that perfection are still with us; someone just has to put them back together again.

That's our job — to repair the world. To put it back together so that it once again resembles the world which God had intended, all along. But, if we're going to do that, then we have to remember that that better world, that more perfect world, really did exist. And that it really can, again. And that this really is our goal.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches that Judaism is an antidote to a progressive sense of numbness about the world. He was mostly talking about the good stuff — the human tendency to stop paying attention to something, or to at least stop paying full attention, once we've become used to it. It's the difference between the first and last bite of a delicious dessert — one is overwhelming in its wonderfulness, and its realness. One just kind of is. Through attention, through kavannah, through practice, we have to train ourselves to never let what is extraordinary become ordinary.

But, we can also apply this teaching to that which is wrong, that which is bad in our world. We have to also avoid becoming numb to that which we rightly despise.

It's so easy to get numb, to get cynical. To just write off this world as hopeless, and people as deserving what they get. To not be willing to see that, as far away as it might seem, there is a better world out there, just waiting to be re-created. Just as we have to cultivate our sense of thankfulness and wonder, we also have to cultivate our sense of outrage, and our awareness of wrongness. We have to refuse to accept that "this is just the way things are." We have to refuse to ever fall victim to "well, what can I do about it?"

We have to train ourselves to truly believe that God does not want a world in which people are slaughtered while at prayer. That God does not want a world where people are shot while studying. Or in which people go to bed hungry night after night, while so many of us never experience a belly which is anything less than full. Where children die, or anyone dies before their time. God does not want this.

And we shouldn't be willing to accept a world like that, either. It has to offend us, down to every fiber of our being, that that's the world in which we live. We have refuse to rest until the world that we see matches the world of our dreams. Until we live in the world of God's intention.

That's why Shabbat is so precious. Shabbat is not just a chance to put up our feet and avoid our work. Shabbat is a chance to see the world as it might be: an island of wholeness and perfection, even if necessarily artificially so, in a sea of brokenness. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches, it's not so much that we’re not allowed to work on Shabbat, it's that we have to act as if there were no work to do, nothing to fix or repair, because everything is just as it should be.

That's why I get so frustrated when people talk shop in synagogue on Shabbat. Why I don't want people to talk about what their committees have to do, or something that isn't going as they like in our shul, or in their jobs. We're supposed to allow ourselves a day of not worrying, and of not planning, and of not fixing. We're supposed to allow ourselves that in part because we deserve that much. But, in part because we have to remember that everyone deserves that much, and more.

On Shabbat, we create a world which looks, as far as is possible, like the world of our dreams, and then we leave that dreamworld and head back out into the work-world, we’re both refreshed, but also refocused and recommitted. We have to remember that children in the Sudan deserve to run around and laugh in the back of their sanctuaries, challah crumbs and grape juice (or their equivalent) falling all over their clothes. That parents deserve to have their children — all of them — around their tables, and to never be fearful of the sound of an incoming late-night text. That Jews deserve to gather to pray without security outside their door. As do Muslims, and Christians, and Hindus, and Wiccans. That we all deserve to live a life without pain.

Let us take this Shabbat, and enjoy every precious moment of it. Let us refuse to become numb to the blessings in our lives and then, when Shabbat is over, let us refuse to become blind to the empty spaces in the world around us, so desperately in need of being filled with blessings of their own. Let us refuse to become numb to the shards of our broken world, calling out for repair.

[This is a version of the sermon given by Rabbi Rosenberg on Friday, November 21, 2014]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The People Who Hope

As some of you know, I was in a TV news clip yesterday, talking about the horrific terrorist attack in Jerusalem. A few people commented that they appreciated my hopeful message, so I wanted to take a moment and expand on it, because I do believe it's a key, beautiful Jewish teaching.

History is long. Very long. And, if looking at that history, particularly Jewish history, teaches us anything, it's that anything is possible. Not every thing is possible right now, in this moment. But this moment won't last forever, and neither will the circumstances which surround us. Our people's history is a testament to the possibility of achieving what is currently impossible, and my favorite formulation of this idea comes from Samson Raphael Hirsch, which I talked about a couple of years ago in this blog:
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the godfather of what we now call Modern Orthodox Judaism, noticed that the first born Jew, Yitzhak, was named after laughter. His parents, Abraham and Sarah, had grown so old that when God tells Sarah she’s going to have a baby, she laughs. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, at her age (and, frankly, she’s more concerned with Abraham’s age than hers!). So, when she eventually has a baby, she names him after that laughter. That’s because, Hirsch teaches, from our first moments, our people’s history has been so ridiculous as to be laughable. Our patriarch and matriarch didn’t have a child until they had reached a ridiculous high age. The idea that we could survive 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering the desert, conquer a hostile land, establish a kingdom — it’s laughable. Survive 2000 years of exile and dispersion — and not just survive, but thrive? Laughable. Revive a dead language? Drain the swamps, make the desert bloom and create a modern state out of almost nothing? Survive the death camps and outlive Hitler? Become one of the great military powers of the world at the same time that those who remain outside of Israel become a thriving, vibrant people? Ridiculous, and utterly hopeless.
That’s who we are — we are the people who regularly do that which is so impossible as to be laughable. We are the people who never lose hope, no matter what.

You certainly don't need to turn to Judaism to see this lesson; it's all around us. Imagine telling someone, 200 years ago, that the US and England would be closest allies. Imagine telling someone 75 years ago that France, Germany and Italy, to name just a few countries, would be joined under a single currency, and would also be allies.  I'm not saying that we're only 75 years away from making peace with the Palestinians — I have no idea how long it might take. Truth be told, I seriously doubt it will happen in my lifetime. But, I don't know that for sure. And, even if I am right, my lifetime is really just a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. To think that that which is impossible now is therefore impossible forever is a pretty egotistical way to look at the world.

That which is impossible now is regularly accomplished in the future. And, after that, it starts to seem as if it was inevitable, all along.

None of this takes away from the pain of the moment. None of this makes an intolerable situation any more tolerable. But, it does give us hope. If our people can move from slavery to freedom, if Israel can move from a dream to reality in a single lifetime, then nothing is impossible.

Not even peace with the Palestinians.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Praying In Sports

I started to write this, I remembered that I'd actually written about it once before, not that long ago. It's kinda long and rambly, and not exactly what I wanted to say today, but if you're really interested, you can read it here.

Anyway… Somehow, in our Talmud class yesterday, we found ourselves talking about people who pray during sporting events. It's a pretty easy target — most people I know, religious or not, love to pick on people who do this. "Do you really think that God cares about the outcome of a football game? Doesn't God have bigger things to worry about?"

Actually, I do think that God cares about the outcome of a football game.

Now, if you know me at all, then you know that "God cares" is a metaphorical term for me. I don't mean it literally. I don't believe for a moment that God cares about things the way that you and I care about them. I don't believe in a God who has a personality, preferences, moods, or even an independent, verifiable existence, while we're at it. But, in a symbolic, poetic way, I do believe that "God cares" about certain things. It's not all that different from if I said, "Mother Nature cares if you litter." You would never think that I meant that in a literal, human-ish to kind of way, but you'd probably understand what I meant by it, more or less.

Well, whatever you mean if/when you say "God cares," then it's probably fair to say that God cares about everything. God is, pretty much by definition, unlimited. Infinite. Encompassing all things. If God cares about anything, and God cares about everything. Do we really think that, literally or metaphorically, God has a limit on attention span or bandwidth?

I think it's pretty ridiculous to claim that praying can actually affect the outcome of a sporting event. I think it's pretty ridiculous to imply that God takes sides in these things (well, maybe, maybe not). But, as a devout non-literalist, when I ask for things in prayer I'm trying to express a need. I'm trying to express my sense of dependence on something, or some One, outside of myself. I'm trying to remind myself to be humble about what I accomplish, and to not take what I have for granted.

And, I'm pretty sure that I can do all of that, even during a football game.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Hope

I posted this on Facebook, but I wanted to take a moment and expand on what I was thinking.

A few days ago, 106 retired generals, Mossad directors and national police commissioners signed a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to engage in a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. They say that it's realistic to pursue what everyone that I know called, until recently, the obvious and almost inevitable framework for peace: a return to a modified version of the '67 borders with negotiated land-swaps, a reasonable resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem and so on. Not only is it realistic, they say, but it can be pursued without putting Israel's security at risk.

It's important to note what they're saying, because many who are against negotiating with the Palestinians will make an argument that is a bit of a red herring here. Many will say that there is no realistic chance for peace because the Palestinian leadership doesn't really want peace. That they engage in a peace process only as a tactical way to engage in the larger battle against Israel. Therefore, we shouldn't negotiate at all.

And, you know what? They might be right. It's a very reasonable reading of recent history to suggest that the Palestinian leaders have no real desire for peace. What they want is nothing less than the total annihilation of Israel. I actually tend to think this way — it seems pretty clear to me that the Palestinian leadership has been an impenetrable barrier to peace for long as I can remember. It doesn't matter what Israel offers or says, because there isn't an honest partner who is listening. As much as I am disgusted with Netanyahu's approach to settlements and such, I don't think he's actually made peace less likely in the near future, because there was no chance of it to begin with. To use an inappropriately lighthearted metaphor, how ardently I pursue Heidi Klum has nothing to do with whether I will ever go on a date with her, because she just isn't interested in me. I can be the sweetest suitor in history, or I can be an obnoxious jerk; either way, we're not having dinner.

But, what if I'm wrong*?  What if there is a chance for peace? What if there's a silently growing groundswell of peace-lovers among Palestinians, which only needs an opportunity to actually show itself? What if, given the right conditions, more moderate leadership might actually find a foothold?

* About the Palestinians. I'm pretty sure I'm right about Heidi Klum.

What if, even if there isn't a chance now, even if there isn't a chance in the near or mid-term future, there's a chance for peace somewhere down the line? What if Israel's actions now will have no bearing on the possibility of peace in my lifetime, but will have a very large impact on whether we can achieve peace in the next generation?

And, this is where I get back to that letter, what if we have nothing to lose by trying? I mean it when I say that I firmly believe that nothing that the Israeli government can offer will bring peace in our day. But, am I sure? Of course not. How could I possibly know that? Even if I had inside information, which no one reading this does, I couldn't be 100% sure. And, if it's true that we can pursue that faint possibility of peace without harming Israel's ability to defend itself, then why, in God's name, wouldn't we do that? What can be lost by seeking peace, even when it's exceedingly unlikely?

And, that brings me to the other point which I vaguely referenced in my FB post--the surety with which most of us talk about this issue. As anyone who knows me knows, I resist any attempt to be sure when uncertainty is called for. To making our world seem simple and understandable when it's actually complicated and inscrutable.

If you say to me that there is no chance for peace, if you say to me that Israel can't even explore peace without putting itself in grievous danger, then I'll just point you to this letter. Because 106 men and women who dedicated and risked their lives in defense of Israel disagree with you. 106 people who, I can only assume, care more deeply for Israel than I can possibly imagine, think that it's possible and advisable. I'm not saying that, based on this one letter, Israel should drop all concerns and enter into negotiations today, without any planning or care. These generals aren't guaranteed to be right, any more than the naysayers are. But, it seems pretty clear to me that anyone who claims that there is no chance for peace and absolutely no way to explore it safely is speaking based on their biases and presumptions, not on an analysis of the facts. Because 106 experts would like to disagree with you.

That feeling, when I read that letter? That's hope. And, to quote a favorite movie, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best thing. At least for today, when I think about Israel, I feel a sense of hope, for the first time in a long time. HaTikvah--the Hope.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.