Friday, January 10, 2020

Fear Blinds Us


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This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the last Torah portion the book of Bereshit, Genesis, tells the story of Jacob’s death. Jacob, our ancestor, knows that the end is near, and so he calls his 12 sons together for one last time.

Jacob has had a terribly hard life. He had to run away from the home he loved, in fear for his life*. He had to bury his dear wife, Rachel. He spent many years believing he had lost his beloved son, Joseph. Now, he’s sick (and, according to tradition, he was the first man to ever become sick before dying, so I match that he must have been confused and fearful, and undoubtedly in pain). And, even worse, he’s finishing his life in the land of Egypt. He and his family were saved from starvation in Canaan, true, but he is living his last days in a kind of exile from his home, and from our holy land.

 * The fact that his flight was of his own doing didn’t make it any easier for him.

As his sons gather around him, he begins addressing them by saying, “Come together, that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come.” (Genesis 49:1). According to a midrash (an ancient rabbinic story), as those words imply, Jacob was intending to tell his sons their future. But, the Shechina, God’s closest presence, departed from him in that moment, and he was no longer able to prophesy.

Why? Why did he lose access to God, and to prophecy? Many sages give the simple, obvious answer that God just didn’t want him telling anyone the future. Because, the future is always meant to be unknown. But, Rabbi Noah Farkas reads it differently. He proposes that it was something inside of Jacob himself which pushed away the Shechina, and which took away his ability to see the future. It was his fear, and his brokenness.

His fear, and his brokenness, kept him away from God, and took away his ability to see the future clearly. That’s the truth. Our fear, and our brokenness, can keep us away from God, and can take away our ability to see the future clearly.

There is so much to fear, right now. In general, the world seems to be on fire, and on the brink of something much worse. You just have to open the news to know what I’m talking about. That’s true for everyone, but is particularly, acutely true for those of us in the Jewish community. The rise of anti-Semitism, and the recent rash of terrible, horrific attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, have all of us worried, most of us afraid, and some of us panicked.

The danger is real. The physical danger, to be sure, is real. We’d be foolish and na├»ve to not be worried. But, arguably, the real danger is different. It may not be as scary, but it’s more present. More likely. We’re in danger of losing our ability to dream, our ability to be brave. We’re in danger of losing our ability to see a future that’s worthy of us, and of our heritage.

The truth is that, in all likelihood, we are safe. Physically, at least. I’m not suggesting that we do so, but if we were to drop all of our security measures, odds are we’d make it through this Shabbat, and every foreseeable Shabbat, with no problem. We know that the 24 hour national, worldwide, new cycle makes the world seem more dangerous than it really is — every time anything happens, anywhere, we hear about it, endlessly, for days and weeks, and so it starts to feel and seem as if that horror is happening everywhere, all the time. It’s not. I’m not minimizing the horror of the attacks which have happened when I say that, on whole, the world is still a very safe place, especially for those of us sitting in synagogues tonight. Most of us are not in any real physical danger, thank God.

But, if we start acting as if we are, if we start acting too strongly out of fear, if we start pulling back, if we start leading with defense, and putting up walls around our community, and barring our doors, if we huddle and shelter rather than reaching outward, then we’re hurting ourselves. We’re damaging our ability to create holiness in our lives, and in this world.

Of course, actual, physical harm would be unthinkably horrific. Please don’t hear me saying otherwise. But I firmly, deeply believe, that that kind of harm is incredibly unlikely. It probably just won’t happen to us. But, what will happen if we stop trusting other people? What will happen if we stop trusting each other? What will happen if we let ourselves be cowed into living our lives through the lens of fear? Especially since a lens of fear always becomes, sooner, rather than later, a lens of suspicion, and of hatred. What kind of world can we build, when we believe we’re living in a world like that?

We have to ask ourselves not just how do we survive, but why do we survive? What are we here to do?

I think that our job is to bring holiness into this world. I’m not always exactly sure what that means, and am really sure how, precisely, we can do it. And, I know that people will have wildly different answers to that, and myriad different ways of bringing holiness to life. Many won’t even use those words, although I’d argue that they may still be engaged in holy work.

At the end of each day, we have to ask ourselves not just what we do to survive, but what we did because we survived. Not just whether we are still in the world, but how the world is better for my having been in it.

May we never have cause to fear for our lives. May we never have cause to fear, at all. But, when we do fear, may we have the strength to live in holy defiance of that fear. May God’s closest presence never depart from us, and may we always live with our eyes open, looking ahead to a future, to a world redeemed.

This is a version of a sermon given on Shabbat, January 10, 2020

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Lockdown Drills

Here's an email I just sent to the principal of my daughter's school:
Ms. Holloway,
My daughter, Talia Rosenberg, is an 8th grader at Walker Middle Magnet. Today, I received the notification from you that there is another Lockdown Drill this morning. I'd like to take a moment to express my opposition to these drills.
Although school shootings are horrific, and far too common, it's also clear that they are statistically low on the scale of actual threats to our children--the odds of any one of them actually being in an active shooter situation is miniscule. But, the effects of drills such as these are being scrutinized, and it's unclear if they actually provide any benefit, even in the unlikely event of an actual incident. There is, however, mounting evidence that there are real and significant negative psychological effects on students who participate in these drills. In short, we're quite possibly having a meaningful negative impact on our kids by ineffectively training them to deal with something they are unlikely to ever face.
I'm sure you've seen all of this research (and more), and I have a feeling that you aren't in control of how often, or whether, you perform these drills. And, I'm also sure that, were you to announce an end to them, you'd face an enormous backlash from some of the parents. So, I do understand that, even if you agree with my position, you're in a tough spot. That being said, I thought it was important for you to hear from at least one parent who feels this way.
Wishing you a safe day, and a happy holiday season.
Jason Rosenberg
It's not an original thought, but there's a culture of fear which pervades our society, and it's not harmless. We're being trained, in subtle and not so subtle ways, to move through the world as if it were a place of constant danger.

There is of course, danger in the world; anyone would be a fool to suggest otherwise. But, I think it's also manifestly true that the world is often described, and treated, as if it were far more dangerous than it actually is. We could skip the vast majority of the precautions we take in life, and be just fine.

That wouldn't be a problem--better safe than sorry, after all--but we have to realize that every measure that we take to make ourselves safer also has unintended consequences. And, we have to at least think about balancing out those consequences with the actual benefit that we get.

It's an easy target, but how many billions of dollars have been spent, and continue to be spent, on increased airport security since 9/11, and how much safer are we, actually? How much better off would we be as a society if that money were spent on, say, food for the hungry, or enrichment programs for the underprivileged, or, if you're more conservative than I am, tax reduction? What is the real opportunity cost of the expanded TSA?

I remember reading, years ago, about a report on child safety. It seems that because of a perceived increase in child abductions (which was largely fueled by an over-zealous, and more nation-wide media) parents were keeping their children indoors at far higher rates. But, as a result of this, childhood health was plummeting, because kids were spending less time riding their bikes and playing games on their friends' lawns, and more time watching TV and playing video games. We made our kids safer from a barely-existent threat, and gave them diabetes in return.

We have a sheriff's deputy outside our synagogue whenever we have kids in school, or whenever we have services on Shabbat. What message does that send to a person who is trying to attend synagogue for the first time? What does it say to a person of color who is entering our building, and who may have a very different relationship with law enforcement than I do? What is the cost, both financial and personal, of having armed security outside our building, and what actual benefit do we get from it?*

* I've actually asked a few of our (wonderful) deputies this question. Each time, I've been told that there is close to zero benefit in terms of actual safety. Maybe there is a deterrent factor for the random bad-actor, but there is no meaningful increase in security against a determined assailant from having 1 or 2 deputies on duty.

Of course, we need to be prudent. We need airport security. We need to keep our neighborhoods safe. We need to have serious, mature discussions about what measures, at what cost. I just wish we'd actually have those discussions a bit more, and a bit more calmly than I've usually seen them take place.

And, I sure wish my daughter's school would stop pretending that scaring her is making her safer.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Tearing and Repairing -- Yizkor, 5780


Tearing and Repairing

Yizkor, 5780
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
            Among the many rituals which Judaism has for times of mourning, one of the better known and more visible of them is the cutting of the Kria ribbon. Jews everywhere, and many non-Jews, as well, know when they see someone wearing a small black ribbon, torn and pinned to their clothes, that this person has suffered a loss; someone dear to them has died. However, many aren’t aware that the use of a ribbon in this ritual is a relatively recent innovation. Throughout most of Jewish history, and still in many parts of the Jewish world today, the practice has been not to wear a cut ribbon or piece of cloth, but rather to make a tear in the clothes which we were already wearing. A collar, maybe a lapel, is torn on a piece of clothing which the mourner can wear throughout the period of their mourning.
            When we use a ribbon, it’s easy to take it off at the end of that time. But, what do we do if we have actually torn our clothes, when the time of our mourning has passed? We are told to mend the tear, which is, among other things, a reminder that morning is not meant to continue forever. But, Rabbi David Stern points out that the Babylonian Talmud, the ancient source of rabbinic law, has some specific instructions about how we are to make that repair.
            We are allowed to use a herringbone stitch, or a cross stitch. But we are not allowed to use the stitching of the skilled tailors of Alexandria. Apparently, they were so good at their craft that, when they were done, the tear would disappear completely. There would be no evidence that anything had ever happened to this piece of cloth.
            A beautifully, but imperfectly, repaired tear is the perfect metaphor for Judaism’s understanding of grief. We are, indeed, instructed to not mourn forever. Depending on who we lost, we mourn for a week, a month, a year. But, inevitably, mourning must be followed by something else. We must get back to our lives. We have to move forward.
            But, at the same time, we never, ever fully move on. Or, maybe more to the point, we never go back to the way things were. How could we? Our world has been changed, and we know that it can never change back. Life will never be what it was when some of its spaces were filled with the presence of the person we loved.
            That’s not to say that there isn’t healing. Of course there is. The pain, which may have been so very acute, does soften. At the very least, it becomes bearable, where once it may have seemed impossible to bear. We learn to live in a world which looks so much the same as it once did, but has been irrevocably changed. We learn to live without the person who meant so much to us. We learn to live, and we do live.
            But the scar – the scar remains. An ever present reminder of what we had, and what we lost. Some scars might be visible, to us and to those who love us, all our lives. Some fade with time, almost to the point of imperceptibly. But, it’s always there. Always a reminder of the love, the loss, and that pain.
            Would we have it be other than this? Would we, given the chance, choose to heal fully? To no longer feel the pangs of grief, and the loneliness of absence? What would it mean for the pain of loss to fade away completely? What would it mean to no longer feel grief, even in the slightest, we think of a loved one who is no longer with us? What would it mean for the tear to be sewn so perfectly?
            When I think of my grandparents, when I think of the few friends I have lost, well before their time, when I think of my father who died in this season, just a few years ago, it hurts. Thank God. Grief is the residue of love, and that sharp sliver of pain is a reminder of how much this person meant to me. Their memory always brings some sorrow along with the joy, precisely because I love them.
            God forbid we can’t move forward. God forbid the pain of the loss is as great today as it was those years ago. God forbid we can’t sew up the tear in our lives. We thank God for healing, and we thank God for the lives we been able to lead since the terrible day when they first left us. But we also thank God for the scars which are left, which provide us with a constant, enduring reminder of the place they held in our lives, and the dearness of their presence.
            Blessed are You, Adonai or God, who tears and sews.
            Zichronam Livracha—may their memories be a blessing.
           

Behaving Like a Jew -- Yom Kippur, 5780


Behaving Like a Jew

Yom Kippur, 5790
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

Behaving Like a Jew, By Gerald Stern
When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
--I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
           
“Behave like a Jew.” What does it mean to “behave like a Jew?” It means, at least in part, to be open to all of the pain in the world. It means to be maladjusted to the world as it is — it means to refuse to be complacent, to refuse to acquiesce to the reality that there is agony in this world. It means to never look at suffering, wherever we might encounter it, and accept it with “that’s just the way it is.” To behave like a Jew means to realize that every animal that dies should, in theory, be a heartbreak for me. And that, all the more so, every person who dies, every person who suffers, anywhere in the world, should be, too. That’s what it means to behave like a Jew.
            I have to say, although I hope it would go without saying, that when Stern talks about “behaving like a Jew,” I don’t think he means as opposed to how a non-Jew would act. I don’t think he’s saying, and I most certainly don’t believe, that Jews are kinder or more moral, or have a greater responsibility to be so, than people of other religions, or of no religion at all. I think what he’s saying, and what I most certainly am, is that behaving in this way is a fulfillment of the highest ideals and aspirations of our tradition, as I’m sure it is in many other traditions, as well.
            Of course, it’s an impossible aspiration. None of us live this way, really. We couldn’t possibly. Refusing to accept any pain or suffering, of any living creature, anywhere in the world? Letting ourselves, demanding of ourselves, that we share in all of the pain? Impossible. It would be paralyzing. It would destroy our souls. Our ability to compartmentalize, to put on blinders, to look away from the worst parts of the world, is essential for those of us who want to actually live in this world. Can you imagine what it would be like if we truly responded to every tragedy in the news as if it had happened to our own family? The world would stop as each and every one of us fell to our knees, crying in endless despair at the sheer weight of the horror in the world. Thank God we have the ability to turn away from this, when we have to.
            But, we have to occasionally be willing to open ourselves up to the fullness of the world’s pain. If we don’t, we may swing too far in the other direction. We may accept our indifference as normal, as right. We might become satisfied with a world which is good enough, at least from our safe, comfortable spaces. If we don’t, at least on occasion, look with clear, wide open eyes at the fullness of the world’s pain, we will allow ourselves to become numb, and to become unconcerned.
            Religion’s job is, in part, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. A religious life should give us the impetus, and should give us the courage, to be fully openhearted, without limit or condition. To feel all of the pain. All of it. To, at least for a moment, at least for this moment, on this holiest day of the year, to see it all. To feel it all.
            We don’t, because it would be awful beyond imagining. But, I suspect that we also resist doing this because we understand, maybe not consciously, but on some level, what it would demand of us if we were to do so. What would my life look like if, every time I saw someone suffering on the news, it struck me as if it were a close member of my own family that I was looking at? How much would I have to give of my time, of my energy, how much would I have to give of my money if that was what I really felt? If a dear friend of mine, if a family member, was truly in desperate need, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do, nothing I wouldn’t give, to ease their pain. We say that, if we go back far enough, we’re all related, one to the other. We say that all of humanity is one family. But, we don’t act like it. Not ever, and certainly not when tragedy strikes. We react and we respond. Of course we do. But, not enough. Not as much as we could, not as much as we should. I know I don’t. I’m sure none of us do.
            But, as I stand here today, on this sacred day, don’t I have to confess to you, don’t I have to admit to myself, that when I turn away, when I file away someone else’s pain in the box labeled “not my problem,” that I am ashamed. I’m ashamed because part of me, maybe the best part of me, knows that it is my problem. Precisely because I have seen it. How could the suffering of a human being, any human being, not be my problem? I’m ashamed because I know that turning away from anyone’s pain, that being indifferent to the suffering of any single human being, anywhere in the world, no matter who they are, is a sacrilege. Torah teaches us that to be a Jew is, at its best, to be responsible for it all. To refuse, adamantly and passionately, to be indifferent. It is to open my heart as wide as I can. Wider still. To be a Jew is to acknowledge that your pain is my pain. Your suffering is my suffering. Your plight is my concern. Wherever and whoever you are. To be a Jew is to refuse to accept indifference or callousness. It’s what we should expect of ourselves, and what we should expect of each other. We should be horrified when we realize that we were, in fact, indifferent to someone else’s suffering. We should be appalled when someone around us closes their eyes and hearts to another’s pain. When we drive past the beggar, when we pretend not to see the person crying, when we turn on the news and flip past another story about another group being oppressed by one set of leaders while being ignored by another. We can’t be content. We can’t say that this is good enough. We have to cling to our belief that our world needs better.
            When thinking about our responsibility, about our need to respond to the pain of others, it’s impossible for my mind not to turn to politics. And, it should. This is a deeply political thought, for a deeply political moment. Not politics in the sense of any particular policy, party, or candidate. But, politics in the sense of understanding that each and every decision that we make, as individuals, as a society, as a nation, has untold impacts on those around us. We are obligated to never be satisfied with the suffering of anyone, never to be silent in its face. All the more so, when the politics and policies which I support are the cause of that suffering.
            I passionately support Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself. That must never make me anything less than heartbroken to see the suffering of a single Palestinian. You might be in favor of strong immigration enforcement. We must never be anything less than horrified, devastated at the site of a person suffering because of that policy. If you believe in strong borders, I can respect that. If you are unmoved by the sight of families being pulled apart, of children in cages, if you are undisturbed by innocents being denied medical care, of people sleeping on cold, wet concrete, if you are indifferent to a parent burying a child, in an inner-city, at our border, in Gaza, then you are lost.
            To choose a policy which leads to suffering is, probably, in the end, unavoidable. To be comfortable with that? To be satisfied in a world in which people suffer? To be satisfied in a world in which our decisions, justifiable as they may be, lead to that suffering? That’s inhuman. That’s profoundly, deeply, fundamentally, un-Jewish.
            Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Leviticus 19:34) teaches that the Jewish people was formed in exile, that our Torah was given to us outside of the holy land, specifically so that we would develop a sensitivity to others. And he also teaches (Deuteronomy 1:13) that establishing a system of perfect justice was a prerequisite for entering the holy land thousands of years ago, and it remains so, today. Being sensitive to others, being open to the pain of others, is literally the foundational trait of Judaism. Being satisfied with less than perfect justice will always keep us from full redemption. 1000 years ago, Maimonides taught that not being kind to others is enough to allow us to be suspicious about whether someone is truly a Jew. This is who we are. This is who we’ve always been. We care for others. All of them.
            Today is Yom Kippur. Today is the day in which we open ourselves up to all of the ways in which we have failed, all of the ways in which we have fallen short. And, each one of us is surely guilty, at some point this past year, at some point in each and every year of our lives, of a failure of compassion. We have cared, but we have not cared enough. We have allowed ourselves to be appeased, we have allowed ourselves to accept the presence of suffering in our world. I know it’s not realistic, and I know it’s not possible. But, today I have to look at myself as if I am responsible to give, and to work, and to speak out, without limit, without pause, until the last tear is shed in our world. Today I accept that I am responsible for it all, because if I accept that today, then I might be more moved to act tomorrow.
            I will never fully live this. I know that. I will never be able to be this caring, this open, this good. But, if I let myself, for at least today, believe that I should be so, maybe I’ll push myself more this year. If I allow myself to understand what my best self is capable of, and what my best self is responsible for, maybe I’ll be a bit more like him than I otherwise would. Today, I do not accept my acceptance of pain. Not one bit.
            I talked last night about the idea of chet, a word which we usually translate as “sin,” as really being about missing the mark. I said that maybe, in our generation, we can best understand this not as “transgression,” but as “falling short.” Not being bad, so much as not being enough. Have we actively sinned? Have those of us sitting here today gone out and done terrible things to others? Probably not. Not most of us. But, have we responded to as many needs as possible? Have we been as caring, as openhearted as we should be? No, surely we haven’t. In that way, we’ve fallen short. Today, we don’t accept that. Today, we open ourselves up to that pain, and to those failures, and we use that as a goad to drive us forward. To drive us to be better. Today, we can’t care enough.
            Al chet shechatanu l’fanecha—for the ways we have fallen short abusing our power. For the ways we have fallen short through cynicism and scorn. For the ways we have fallen short by hardening our hearts. For all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, lead us to atonement.