Friday, July 22, 2016

All about Invocations: Rabbi Lookstein, Balak and The RNC

It’s hard to believe, but the issue at the beginning of the week involving speakers at the Republican National Convention—at least for Jews—was the invocation. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein had been invited to deliver the invocation for the RNC and, at the last moment, demurred, saying that it had become political, and that wasn’t his interest (by the way, it’s worth tracking down the text of his invocation, which is available online). Rabbi Lookstein is best known these days as the rabbi who did the conversion for Ivanka Trump, but he’s also very well known in the Modern Orthodox world as the rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun and, even more importantly, the former head of the Ramaz day school. It was, in fact, alumni of Ramaz as well as others in the modern orthodox world who petitioned and rallied to ask Rabbi Lookstein to reconsider, resulting in outcries from some that this was censorship or that somehow his constituency was trying to mute him or make this political. Rabbi David Wolpe even suggestedin Time that it was a shame that he had had his arm twisted and was prevented from making a blessing, noting that a blessing should non-partisan.

What can we learn from this tempest in a teapot? What implications are there for us out of this refusal to speak at the RNC, even in blessing?

Yehuda Kurtzner from the Hartman Institute wrote this week online about this convention and this election as being a Hora’at Sha’ah. The Hebrew phrase refers to a moment of, as former Israeli supreme court justice Menachem Elon calls it, temporary emergency legislation. It is crisis management dealing with something new, something which no precedent could have anticipated. We know Hora’at Sha’ah best from the idea of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. We know that saving lives trumps all other halacha—one is permitted to violate mitzvoth with abandon so long as it is with the intent of saving lives. Likewise, there are other circumstances where one must put aside precedent, put aside what might work in normal circumstances, and act with great urgency.  
This week in our Torah portion Balak, king of the Moabites, summons the prophet Baalam in order to curse Israel. He sees the threat that Israel brings as it marches through the wilderness toward the promised land, and summons the prophet to use a well-worn tactic; the cursing of the people so that they may fall in battle against Moab and be unsuccessful. But Baalam and, later, God, remind Balak that these circumstances are not normal. This isn’t just a people, this is God’s people, and so normal precedents are out the window. Despite being invited (and paid) to curse Israel, Baalam instead does the exact opposite, and blesses and praises Israel. The old rules don’t apply as they would against some other Canaanite tribe; this is Israel, and Baalam can only say over them, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov—How good are your tents, O Jacob.”


So what do we learn? That, it seems, we are in a moment that could be described as Hora’at Sha’ah, where the normal rules, the boundaries that keep us intact, seem to be out the window. Normally, yes, an invitation to give an invocation at the RNC should be seen as a moment of bipartisan blessing, or a moment to be mildly subversive and speak some modicum of truth in the moment. But this is not like other times. We are in a different moment in our history, one where the usual rules and ideas no longer apply. We are in a moment of hora’at sha’ah, a moment of crisis, and we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We must act and speak with the urgency that this moment demands, and as God reminds Baalam, we must act in holiness. May this be so. Amen.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Rebellion of Hope

Earlier this week we celebrated an act of rebellion as audacious and shocking as it was 240 years ago, as a group of men declared a group of colonies in North America to be an independent nation devoted to liberty. It is easy to see hubris in their actions; a group of wealthy land (And sometimes people) owners using populist anger against taxes, issues and ideas we still struggle with. What comes across from that time period is how much hope this profoundly young, often diverse group of dreamers had in what they were creating. 

Ironic, then, that we celebrate the American Revolution the same week we as Jews read about another, that of Korach and his band. His rebellion is often thought of as an act of ego run amok or heresy or tribal feud, but I have another thought: his was a rebellion of despair. 

Israel is in the desert, now banished from the Holy Land due to their sin of the incident of the spies. This generation shall not enter the land, a whole generation dying in the wilderness. The very next thing we read is "Korach Took", and so begins the rebellion.  

It is that strange wording that tells me this was a revolt of hopelessness. Midrash Rabbah reads: it does not say now Korach contended, or assembled, or spoke or commanded, but Korach took. What did he take? He took nothing! It was his heart that carried him away.

His heart wasn't hardened, wasn't made indifferent; rather, Korach panics. He sees only doom, only an endless night of torment. In fact, the midrash goes on to say that the reason Moses has the contest of leadership in the morning is to give Korach and his band a chance to catch their breath and repent; to admit that they went overboard and step back from their grief. But he cannot. The sin of Korach is not the rebellion; it is that he lets his feelings of powerlessness lead him and others to misery. 

Does this sound familiar? There are many voices right now telling us that there is no hope, that there is only despair in darkness. Voices the demonize  and search for easy solutions. Voices of bigotry hard and soft; the slander against religion or race, and fear mongering, those who will tell you you're either with us or against us. 

There is much to despair in the past week--in the past two days-- including and especially the loss of a voice of Hope against despair, the voice of Elie Wiesel. He taught us that despair is not the answer but a call to action, that hope is a gift we give to each other, that Injustice requires action, and that the greatest of sins is indifference. Wiesel reminded us again and again--through his teaching and testimony -- that, in his words, We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.

Korach was paralyzed by fear and anguish. He could not see a way through despair to work for others. He stands as a warning , especially in this time when we might ourselves give into the voices of darkness around us. There are many who memorialized Wiesel this week; we do best honor to his memory when we choose action and hope. May we be deserving of hisel memory. Amen. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sermon from 5/6/16: Words Words Words

I want to begin by asking a question: if tomorrow, you were bereft of the power of speech, save only one phrase, or even only one word--what would that phrase or word be?

I’m not talking about being struck dumb or having a stroke. You would have a choice--if the world was reoriented such that you could only say one thing, if you were to undergo a modified, enforceable vow of silence, what would you choose to say?

It’s a hard question to ask, and even harder to answer. Would it be a word of wisdom? Some aphorism to inspire those around you? Would it be a purely utilitarian phrase, a practical sentence? Would it be a favorite line from literature, or film, or a primal yalp? Would you declare your own name, as Groot does in Guardians of The Galaxy, or a nonsense word, as Hodor declares in Game of Thrones? Or, bereft of choices, would you choose to sit in silence?

So now let me ask a follow up question: whatever word or phrase you chose--how often do you say it now? How often do you say that specific phrase? If these are the most important words, the ones you cannot live without, the ones you MUST KEEP, how often do you say them?

Like any commodity, when we have a great deal of something, we tend to forget that thing’s real value, it’s real worth. We take for granted our ability to speak, to write, to share our thoughts through language. Of course there are other ways to express ourselves: body language, movement, art, music, mathematics. But for the most part, we say words. We say a lot of words. The best words, to quote a presidential candidate who likes to use his words in their most weaponized form. We use our words carelessly, thoughtlessly, not thinking about the impact they might have on others. Or, sometimes even worse, we overthink our words, trying to craft our speech so carefully so the other person can read between the lines. But perhaps, in our talking, we don’t really pay enough attention to what we’re saying, or how we’re speaking. Or how we’re listening.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic master, was very focused on one idea, that of hitbodedut, of clinging to God. For him, the best way to achieve this was talking to God, and he would encourage his followers to practice this every day.

He said: even when one cannot speak at all, or says only a single thing--it is also very good!!

He also said: even if a person can only say one thing, he should be resolute and say that thing over and over again, endlessly. And even if he spends many, many days saying nothing but this thing--that too is good! He should be strong and courageous, and continue to say that thing countless times until God takes pity on him and opens his mouth, enabling him to elaborate on his words.

The Rebbe also said: The spoken word is very powerful. Why, with a whisper it is possible to prevent a gun from firing. Understand this. (from Likutei Morhoran II #96)

So: how are we doing with our words? Are we treating our words as powerfully as they are? Do we understand their importance? Are we whispering to stop the weaponry around us? Are we repeating what must be said to elevate the world? Are we speaking strongly and courageously? Might we speak more appropriately if we knew we only had a handful of words to say, or perhaps only one?

For me the answer is yes. It is unquestionably yes. And because of that we need to remind ourselves of the power of our words. We have a presidential candidate who uses words as he uses people--as if they’re disposable. We have a child killed in our community whose family--already reeling from the tragedy of her death--is dealing with people speaking around and about them--even setting up fake charity accounts using their names. And we all know too many people and too many circumstances where words spoken have done far, far more harm than good. There’s a reason the 1980s band Depeche Mode wrote that words can only do harm.

But they can do so much more than that when we let them. The word of appreciation, the word of apology, the word of gratitude or praise or affection can change a person’s whole experience, even reorient their world. And, if we believe Reb Nachman, perhaps those words can even bring us closer to God. May it be so: May we learn to open our mouths that we may only speak the words most important to us, the words that bring us to holiness.

And in case you were wondering: if I were reduced to only a handful of words, I would choose nothing more dramatic or inspiring except the words I try to speak to those around me in different ways as much as possible. I would choose I love you. May this be our blessing. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 14: Praise

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Link replaced with text due to brokenness.

Thanks for following my poetic exploration of the Exodus! A happy holiday to all who celebrate.

Blog Exodus Day 13: Accept

Brief Eden

Related Poem Content Details

For part of one strange year we lived 
in a small house at the edge of a wood. 
No neighbors, which suited us. Nobody 
to ask questions. Except 
for the one big question we went on 
asking ourselves.
                         That spring 
myriads of birds stopped over
briefly. Birds we’d never seen before, drawn 
to our leafy quiet and our brook and because, 
as we later learned, the place lay beneath 
a flyway. Flocks appeared overnight—birds 
brilliant or dull, with sharp beaks
or crossed bills, birds small 
and enormous, all of them pausing 
to gorge at the feeder, to rest their wings, 
and disappear. Each flock seemed surer than we 
of a destination. By the time we’d watched them 
wing north in spring, then make 
an anxious autumn return, 
we too had pulled it together and we too moved 
into what seemed to be our lives.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 12: Discover

Discovery Of The World

Your name has been entered in all the books.
The ticker-tape leaps, the orators
Flip coins for their first try at you.
The gamblers eye you as they would an ace.

They have heard of the hollow of your back
And of your recent discovery of the world,
How you have ten fingers, perfect if small,
And ten toes as agile as ten fingers.

And they are already standing on your doorstep.
They are dressed up to look like candy,
Their eyes can open and shut like dolls,
Their hands are cold, cold as cold cash.

What great plans they have for you,
For your questions and your spindling legs!
Your mind clack-clack and muscles clack-clack
Going and gone under the auctioneer's hammer!

So that your eyes, in which the sky could be lost,
Must at last narrow to scan the face of evil:
For early, so early, too early
The bargainers have seized upon your name.
--Naomi Replansky

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 11: Rejoice

Wet-weather Talk

By James Whitcomb Riley

It hain't no use to grumble and complane;

It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.— 

When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, 

W'y rain's my choice. 

Men ginerly, to all intents— 

Although they're apt to grumble some— 

Puts most theyr trust in Providence, 

And takes things as they come— 

That is, the commonality 

Of men that's lived as long as me 

Has watched the world enugh to learn 

They're not the boss of this concern. 

With some, of course, it's different— 

I've saw young men that knowed it all, 

And didn't like the way things went 

On this terrestchul ball;— 

But all the same, the rain, some way, 

Rained jest as hard on picnic day; 

Er, when they railly wanted it, 

It mayby wouldn't rain a bit! 

In this existunce, dry and wet 

Will overtake the best of men— 

Some little skift o' clouds'll shet 

The sun off now and then.— 

And mayby, whilse you're wundern who 

You've fool-like lent your umbrell' to, 

And want it—out'll pop the sun, 

And you'll be glad you hain't got none! 

It aggervates the farmers, too— 

They's too much wet, er too much sun, 

Er work, er waitin' round to do 

Before the plowin' 's done: 

And mayby, like as not, the wheat, 

Jest as it's lookin' hard to beat, 

Will ketch the storm—and jest about 

The time the corn's a-jintin' out. 

These-here cy-clones a-foolin' round— 

And back'ard crops!—and wind and rain!— 

And yit the corn that's wallerd down 

May elbow up again!— 

They hain't no sense, as I can see, 

Fer mortuls, sech as us, to be 

A-faultin' Natchur's wise intents, 

And lockin' horns with Providence! 

It hain't no use to grumble and complane;

It's jest as cheap and easy to rejoice.— 

When God sorts out the weather and sends rain, 

W'y, rain's my choice