Thursday, August 2, 2012

A little hiatus...

Sorry about that little hiatus. Vacation and sermon writing and...

Oh, who am I kidding? I've been cheating on my blog with Twitter and Facebook and Jewish Values Online (though to be fair, that's all I've had time for recently).

So here's my last sermon about Penn State, the IOC and the need for admonition. Expect more on the olympics at the high holidays, by the way.

This past Wednesday was an exercise in my least favorite part of parenting: discipline. We were supposed to have chicken dinner at the JCC pool. Instead we had the opposite of that. Elishai, while we were on vacation, got a little punchy, literally. After a year of communicating more and more effectively without resorting to physicality, E decided this vacation to communicate through fisticuffs. So Wednesday, after repeated smacks by him and repeated warnings by us that if he continued, we were going to pack it up, and like little bunny foo-foo, he had to get in one more bop. So, up he was scooped and home we went, with a long, firm conversation about the consequences of our actions.

To say that he was most displeased would be an understatement. Oh, did I get the sulky Kindergartener routine. And really, can you blame him? No one likes to be disciplined. No one wants to reflect on their poor decisions or bad choices, or their repercussions. No one wants to be called on their actions, whether you’re five or 50. Look at the response at Penn State to the Freeh report and the punishment meted out by the NCAA. While the new leadership has accepted the lumps and is trying to move forward, countless alumni and boosters continue to refuse to accept the truth: that there was a colossal failure of leadership leading to real harm, and that the school and especially the football program must suffer the pain of discipline. One comment I saw from a booster claimed that this was their 9/11. I don’t know what he meant by that, but it seems to me that there is a strong desire to avoid the ugly facts and portray themselves as victims instead.
I think there’s an element of that with regard to the IOC in their refusal to observe a moment of silence at the 27th summer Olympic games for the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich attacks that killed 11 Israeli athletes. Many have claimed it’s a statement of anti-Semitism, of cowing to the wishes of Arab states who don’t want to see Israel honored in any way, or a more overt anti-zionist sentiment. I think it’s just arrogance.  Jacques Rogge and his associates made a decision to not honor the memory of those killed in 1972. It was a bad decision, but they decided that admitting it was a bad decision was worse than holding the line and insisting blithely that they had too packed an opening ceremony. More to the point, to remember the 11 who died would be to also remember that their security wasn’t tight enough, that the IOC didn’t do enough to protect their athletes and an event that is supposed to bring nations together for sport. A reminder of two failures is too many. Better to skip it.

The truth is, though, most of us don’t like doing the disciplining either. It’s painful. It’s exhausting. It’s disappointing. It’s embarrassing. I listened to myself talking to my son and my inner teenager was rolling his eyes at me: “here you go, another lecture from dad.” While others may rejoice in schadenfraude, the reality is that most of us would rather not have to call people on their errors. And in this week’s portion, there’s an element of that present as well. The Book of Devarim, of Deuteronomy opens with Moses recounting the story of Israel’s liberation and wandering. He could have glossed it over, accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. Moses doesn’t do this, but recounts again and again Israel’s failure—with the Golden Calf, with the spies—and his own failure in the wilderness of Zin and the waters of Meribah. Much has been made of this being Moses’ last statement to Israel—more than that, this is his last opportunity to discipline his children, to hold them accountable. Indeed, the rabbis imagine this in two discreet ways. The first, Rashi (and others) describe this scene as a speech where all of Israel was present, and where Moses rebuked all of Israel, enumerating all the places God’s anger was wrought. Alternatively, Rabbi Simcha Bunem argues that Moses spoke to each person individually, according to their age, personality and level of understanding. In both cases, Moses calls Israel out, disciplining them with love and respect, but also with need. As Rabbi Pinchas Peli writes: "Moses realizes that only a leader who had risked his own life and brought much good to his people has the right to rebuke them for their shortcomings. He must have wanted to say these "words" earlier, but he waited for the right moment. That is why the biblical narrative puts so much emphasis on the place and time of Moses' speech." Even Moses is reluctant to admonish his people, but criticize he must; only then may they enter the Land under Joshua’s leadership.

Proverbs  28 reminds us that  "He that rebukes another shall in the end find more favor." There is no joy in being disciplined, whether for a childish act or one of great seriousness and harm. But also, there is no joy in rebuking or correcting either, a moment that tests  the spirit of every person. But without loving discipline there can be no learning, no growth, no entering the Promised Land, and as Elishai learned Wednesday, no chicken dinner at the JCC. May we all learn to listen and learn to share, and in doing so may we do God’s will. Amen.  

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