Thursday, January 17, 2019

Stop Waiting For Pharaoh

Earlier this week, I came across a teaching I found a few years ago, but had completely forgotten about. I used it at our Board meeting last night and again with some students this morning. I really love it, so it's probably worth sharing a bit more widely.

It starts (as always) with this week's Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach. We're at the part of the Exodus story where our people are finally leaving Egypt. This Torah portion begins, "When Pharaoh sent the people out of Egypt…" Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen (Itturei Torah III 108b, if you’re following along at home) says that those words are meant as a criticism of us. That kind of makes sense if you think about it; why mention Pharaoh here, at all? The Torah easily could have said, "When God freed us from Egypt," or, "When we left Egypt." Why give Pharaoh top billing a this seminal moment?

Actually, it was because God wanted to remind us that it was Pharaoh who, in a way, actually set us free. I mean, God was obviously behind it — God was the driving force behind Pharaoh's decision — but, ultimately, we went free when Pharaoh said, "Get out." But, that wasn't what God had hoped for.

The 10 plagues are usually understood to be an escalating set of attacks on Egypt and Pharaoh, staged in order to convince him to set us free. But, according to Tzadok HaCohen, at least part of God's motivation was to impress us, the enslaved Israelites, with God's power. And, God's hope was that, impressed and inspired by that power, and knowing that God, and all that power, was behind us, we would find the strength to free ourselves.

It's an amazing thought. What if, after the first or second plague, we had just got up and left? Rather than go to Pharaoh and ask for permission, what if we just packed our bags and walked out?* I mean, what could the Egyptians have done about it? If they tried to stop us, God could have stepped in. We had the ultimate trump card, the ultimate reinforcement lying in wait. The only reason we didn't go free earlier is that we didn't try to.

* One kid this morning, before I even got to this teaching, asked why our people didn't just sneak out during the plague of darkness which, according to the Torah, didn't affect our people, just Egyptians. That sure would have made for less dramatic but more comical episode — the lights come on to find the Egyptian people looking around going, "Did anyone see the Israelites? I swear to Ra, they were here a minute ago…"

As always, this teaching isn't really about the Israelites or Pharaoh; it's about us. It's about the way that we tend to underestimate our own power, and instead look to others to lead us, or to save us. It happens in religion, for sure — people want their rabbi (or, I imagine, their priest, Imam…) to take care of their religion for them. To speak to God for them. To show them exactly what "the right way" to do something is when, in actuality, they could just try doing it for themselves.

It happens in society when people look to political or civic leaders, or official organizations, to address some major need, or to right a wrong, rather than just getting up and doing it themselves.

I could probably think of a dozen more examples, but I'm short on time, and I think you get the idea (at least, I hope you do).

Salvation, redemption, freedom, whatever you want to call it — we might not have to wait for it. It might be waiting for us.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Wearing Black


Rabbi Chanina taught, “I have learned much from my teachers. I have learned more from my colleagues than my teachers. But I have learned more from my students than from all of them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 7a)

Confession time—I’ve never really loved that quote. Or, to be a bit more precise, I’ve had to do some (typically rabbinic) mental gymnastics to make it work. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I love the idea of learning from my students. But, mostly for me, that’s meant learning because I’ve had to prepare well to teach, or because they’ve pushed me to think more carefully. There aren’t many times when a student has, in a direct way, taught me something.

Today, we were talking about death and dying with our 5th grade class (students and parents together). As part of it, the kids wrote down all of the questions that they could think of. Then, I had each kid pick one of their questions, and then each student had to try to answer it with their parents. The idea was to show that, especially on this topic, wondering out loud together is at least as important (and at least as accurate) as listening to a so-called expert.

One of the kids asked an unusual question (“unusual” in that I’ve run this program a dozen times, and never heard this one before). “Why do we wear black when someone dies?”

“Good question! You all answer first—why do you think we wear black?”

One little girl raised her hand.

“Well, black is the absence of color, so maybe we’re trying to show the absence of the person that we’re feeling?”

You know what? I don’t know if that was the reason, but it sure is now.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Responding not to love, but to pain

Last month, I had the chance to attend a 2-day convention of Rabbis who are involved with Social Justice. I was just glancing through my notes from that event, and I came across an idea from some speaker, but I didn't write down who shared it. Which is a shame, because it's a beautiful, powerful idea, and I'd like to give her or him credit. Anyway...

The point that this speaker made was that, in justice work (as well as in other realms, I'd add), we often put too much emphasis on love. We are moved towards justice because we love the other. We are compelled to help the needy because we love the one in need. Or, so we say. It's a potent idea, but it falls short because of a difficult, not often acknowledged complication.

There are a lot of people whom I don't love.

I'm not just being sarcastic; I'm being quite honest. There are a lot of people out there towards whom I don't feel love. There are the people that I know whom I dislike, of course. But, there are literally billions of people whom I've never met, to whom I don't have the faintest connection (beyond the proverbial "7 degrees" by which we are all connected). I can say that I love them. But, can I look you in the eye and tell you that, really, I love them? I understand that my Christian friends and colleagues might approach this differently, and might understand love as a more basic, fundamental aspect of existence. But, to me, to someone who relates to love as a deep, personal, actual relationship with another, I can't honestly claim that I love people I don't know.

But, I can honestly tell you that I respond to their pain. 

When I see a child suffering on TV, I don't know that child, so I can't really tell you that I love them. But, I can see that they're in pain, and I can be moved by that pain. In my experience, that's an honest claim--I am moved by pain, even when I don't know that one that is in pain. The truth is, that I'm even moved by the pain of people I hate. I can honestly say that I don't wish pain on anyone, and if I saw someone I actively disliked in pain, I'd be moved to try to help them. My love has limits; my response to pain doesn't seem to.

The trick, of course, is to actually see the pain. To be willing to look--both in the sense of being willing to watch and read and listen to the hard stories, which I want to avoid, because they cause me pain, as well as to acknowledge that, whatever else I think, that pain is real. That acknowledgement keeps me from saying "you deserve it" to someone who doesn't agree with me on politics, or religion, or whatever else. That's part of the power of pain, and of responding to it--pain doesn't know of tribalism, or of politics, or of identity groups. Pain, and the humanity of the one in pain, precede these categories, and so it affects me before I can wall it off with a sense of "otherness."

I don't want to get too overtly political, but it's impossible here. So, let me just dive in. To take one current example, I'm sure that many/most people reading this aren't in favor of building a wall along our southern border, and that some of you are. I guess there's an intelligent debate to be had about that practical policy question. But, whatever you think about walls, or The Wall, or immigrants, or refugees, we have to be able to recognize the pain of the real people who are involved in this. The pain of people who are running for their lives is real, and it must be acknowledged, and it must be responded to. And, the pain of people who fear for the jobs or their lives (even if I firmly believe that their jobs and their lives aren't actually in danger from these immigrants) is real, too, and it must be acknowledged, and it must be responded to.

I'm thinking as I'm writing, as I often do when I blog, and I think I just got to the point. Even if I disagree with the cause or the philosophy or the belief which is behind your pain, I can't honestly deny that you are in pain. And, if I'm human, I'll want that pain to end. I may not be able to make it so, but I want to try.

I want your pain to end. That, just maybe, is the wellspring of justice.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The One Who Sets Me Free


A bit of a long, somewhat rambly exploration of God’s nature, and the reason to be religious. What else is there to do on a Friday afternoon…?

Nehama Leibowitz was a 20th century Torah scholar — one of the greats of her generation. Her commentaries on the weekly Torah portion were some of the most interesting, challenging pieces we read in rabbinical school, and are remarkable (among other reasons) for their combination of traditional text-learning and modern, thoughtful approach. She’s worth checking out if you want a bit of a challenge.

Early in my career as a rabbi, I often used her teachings — sometimes for sermons, more often for adult education. Over the years, I’ve turned to her less and less, partially because I realized that her dense, esoteric teachings tend to appeal more to rabbinical types than to laypeople, and partly because I tend to overuse my favorite sources (as I’m sure that any of our regulars will attest to), and then, after a while, try to find other sources to keep things fresh. Anyway, I was studying with a new friend/colleague today, and we decided to look at some of her teachings.

She always finishes with “Questions for Further Study,” and one of those questions for this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, concerns a tiny linguistic variation, which might hint at a larger, philosophical idea. In Exodus 6:6, God says:
I am Adonai, Who is bringing you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
And then, in the very next verse, God says:
I am Adonai your God, the One who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
There are two differences here. First of all, the second verse adds “your God” to God’s name. And, there’s a subtle shift in the Hebrew which I tried to (hopefully accurately) capture as the difference between “Who is bringing you out” and “the One who brings you out.” Why the difference?

The first version, “Who is bringing you out,” is using the phrase to talk about something which God is doing, at this very moment. But, it’s only at this moment. The second phrase has a bit more of a sense of God’s identity. “Bringing you out” isn’t just something which God does at some given moment. “Brings you out” is something which God does, regularly. Or, more to the point, it’s part of who God is. It’s like the difference between “I’m going to play baseball” and “I’m a baseball player.” The first describes an activity of the moment; the second says something about identity.

God is “bringing you out from Egypt” at this moment. But, more importantly, God is the God who, regularly and reliably, “brings you out from Egypt.” The first speaks only of the current moment; the second also hints at a future promise.

And, that might explain the other difference — the inclusion of “your God” in the second verse. Because, it’s only when we recognize God as the One who will, in some ongoing way, take us out of Egypt, that God becomes “our God.” We don’t follow God because God freed us once. We follow God because God frees us. Always.

I’m putting a (possibly too) fine point on this because it speaks to something fundamental about how I see Judaism, and (I guess) all religion.

Some people promote religion based on what it has done — you should be religious because of what God did for us. You should be religious because of what religion meant to your parents, or to theirs. You should be religious because of something which happened when you were young. And so on. I’m not going to argue the logic or morality of this. Instead, I’m going to argue the effectiveness of it. Or, to be more precise, the lack of effectiveness.

Look, I can give you all sorts of history-based reasons to be religious. I might even believe some of them (although, many would be hollow arguments coming from me, to be honest). But, I won’t bother, because I don’t expect that many of them would be particularly effective. People just don’t get involved in religion because of abstract arguments and “should’s,” which are just thinly masked guilt trips. People get involved in religion if religion brings something to their lives. Arguably it’s always been this way, but especially in our modern (postmodern, to be precise) world, this is the reality. People are not going to get deeply involved in and connected to their religion simply because someone tells them it’s a good idea, or because they have some historical, or genetic, or vestigial obligation to do so. People are going to get deeply involved in and connected to their religion if, and only if, it has a profound impact* on them. Only if they believe, even if it’s metaphorically, that God sets them free.

* EK—if you’re reading this, I changed that from “profoundly impacts them” for you…
Is this selfish? Is this just a religious version of “what have you done for me lately?” Maybe. Probably. Yet, I guess that it is. But, I think it’s fair, and it’s honest. The various versions of “you should” that people use to try to get other people involved religion just don’t work, at least not for most people I encounter (and, from the bit I read about it, not for those who are my age or younger, generally speaking). Either religion speaks to me in my situation in a deep and meaningful way, or it’s just not going to be compelling enough to me to spend my time and money on it.

Maybe I’m comfortable admitting all this because I do believe that religion, and God, have had an enormous, positive impact on me. And, that they can for many others, too. That, although I highly doubt that God literally set our people free from Egypt, I know that God has, metaphorically, but nonetheless transformatively, set me free in many ways.

My God is a God who sets me free. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Good Enough

My family has often joked that our official motto is "Good enough." We didn't really mean it as self-praise, but maybe we should have. It turns out that "Good enough" might be a good motto for Chanukah, too.

There aren't a whole lot of laws around lighting the Chanukah menorah (especially as compared to just about everything else in Judaism). But, one of them is that the candles should be large enough (or, there should be enough oil) to ensure that the lights will stay lit until at least a half-hour after nightfall. But, oddly, if the light goes out before that 30-minute mark, we aren't obligated to relight them.

There's no obvious reason for this. On Shabbat, once you've lit the candles (and said the blessing) it's forbidden to light any new flames, so it makes sense that we can't relight a Shabbat candle if it goes out. But, why not Chanukah? There's no prohibition against lighting a flame or anything like that during this holiday.

According to Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlov, it's a reminder about our own limitations. The reality of the world is that, very often, our attempts fall short. We have the best of intentions, and we try to do something helpful, or necessary, or holy. We try, but we fail. And, if we're normal, well-intentioned people, we feel bad about it. We may even beat ourselves up about it. 

But, Nahman teaches, God sees our intention, and God cares about our intentions more than God cares about our results (B'nei Yissachar, Kislev 3:11). God knows that our limits and imperfections were given to us; the only thing we can really control is our effort, and our intention.

Light a candles that can last into the night. Light a candle that should last into the night. A candle that will last into the night, guaranteed? Can't promise that. Can't, and don't have to. 

That's good enough for God. That's good enough.

Chag Chanukah Sameach--A happy Chanukah to you all!


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.