Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of the World (and Year) as we know it (and I feel fine)...

Folks have been asking for my most recent sermon dealing with the so-called Mayan apocalypse. I had been sending them to be put up on the Beth Emeth website, but seeing as how we're in the midst of a migration, I'm going to start updating here as well. You'll find this sermon below.

Before I post it, with only a few hours left in 2013, here's hoping for a sweet (secular) New Year filled with wonder, hope, the promise of new beginnings, blessings, health and joy. Or, to quote Counting Crows, maybe this year will be better than the last.

So I’m glad to see that we all made it through the end of the world. That Mayan calendar, grist for so many apocalyptic and humorous mills, has turned out to be, in fact, nothing to worry about. We’re still here, the aliens didn’t show up, and I still have to pay off my college loans. I wish I could say it was all one big joke, but between survivalists in Russia going bonkers, a school district in Michigan closing, and both NASA and NOAA having to post online guides about how the world was not, in fact, going to be hit by a rogue planet or asteroid, self-destruct, be swallowed by the sun, or slip off its axis, and at least one online dating company using it as fodder for an ad seemingly to encourage their users to have one last meaningless hook-up, well, it seems like quite a few people went a little nuts. 
This is not, of course, the first time we’ve seen such apocalyptic nuttiness. We survived Y2K, the Heaven’s Gate cult committing suicide to ride the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997,  various fundamentalists’ predictions of self-destruction, and more than a few Christian ‘scholars’ talking about the book of Revelations or some other silliness on the History Channel. 
Where does all this come from? Some of it is the anxiety of our age: much like Godzilla gave voice to the fear of an Atomic War in the 1950s and zombie movies reflected in the ecological and political crises of the 1970s, these brushes with Eschatology—the collapse of civilization—all reflect the angst of the moment. Books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or many of the current slate of television shows, or the films Melancholia and  2012, imagine a world  self-immolating, and that speaks as much about our fears of real environmental and societal upheaval as a real belief that some big rock that looks like an Oreo may predict our doom. 
But some of it is also a very non-Jewish notion of how we experience the world. We heard it in the words President Obama used at the memorial service in Newtown CT: God has called his children home . For so many religious people—this world is a place of pain to be schlepped through, then escaped. The goal is to leave this world and achieve the peace and happiness that only comes to us when we shuffle off our mortal coil. If we achieve anything in this world or do anything just or kind, it is in the hopes of earning eternal reward of some variety. Judaism is unique among all the religions in that our goal is not the world to come. Or rather, it’s not our priority. Our priority is this world. Any given day may be our last day on this world; nevertheless we are obligated to live each life responsive to our sacred obligations and to those created in the divine image. Or, to paraphrase Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, we are not trying to escape this world to reach God, we’re trying to bring God to our world, to infuse our world with holiness. This idea is best summed up by the words of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Hillel’s student: “If you are planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” 
I can’t think of two more radically different ways of seeing the world. One as a place filled with pain and those barely capable of doing the right thing without the prospect of eternal reward or punishment over the horizon. The other a place described by God as “tov”, good, and filled with those who might be partners in creation and revelation, if we would just heed God’s voice. 
This week in the parasha, Jacob, having come at last to Egypt to see his lost son Joseph, is introduced by his son to Pharaoh. It is a strange scene: Pharaoh asks “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years, but days…. Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: "How many are the days of the years of your life?" And in putting the question "How old are you?" in these words, he reveals the deep impression the dignified behavior of Jacob has made on him.” There is no doubt that our world is troubled, but if we saw each day as full of importance and meaning, if we planted more trees, and spent our time accordingly, l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, repairing the world for God’s sovereignty, perhaps we’d be less worried about zombies, or monsters, or aliens or asteroids or calendars that look like cookies. Kein Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown CT

An hour ago, my son, who's in kindergarten, got off the bus as he always does. He greeted me with his typical salutation--making his fingers into a gun and going 'pew pew'. On our way back to the house he told me about his day and what he learned. We shared a snack, went over the things in his folder and the lunch menu for next week, and now he's watching a cartoon while he waits for us to light Chanukah and Shabbat candles.

All totally mundane activities, no different than any other. Except for the events of today at the Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Others have shared words of wisdom: of prayer, of parenthood,  on politics and gun control. As they say, all are the words of the Living God. I cannot match their words. But I am mindful of this week's portion. As Israel debates sending Benjamin to Egypt (with Simeon already in captivity and Joseph supposedly dead), Judah says, "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way that we may live and not die--you and we and our children. I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever." (Gen. 43:8-9)

Judah, himself having experienced the pain of losing two of his children, understands Jacob's anxiety of losing another son. So when he says "I shall stand guilty before you forever", his words are sincere, and not rash; he knows what is at stake, what kind of pain and loss and terror is experienced.

Friends, we are Judah: we are responsible, the guilt of this, the pain, the responsibility is upon all of us. An accounting is required of all of us. And we must begin to understand that our responsibility ends not at our doorstep, or with our own family, or our own choices, but with the choices of others as well.

Jacob is ready to be bereaved: having lost Joseph, he expects to lose Benjamin. Judah is responsible but hopeful; he knows that survival requires real efforts and real care, an accounting who's reward or punishment is eternal. We must be Judah, for the alternative is too painful for us to bear.

The Rabbi Speaks: Chanukah

Here's the script from last week's "The Rabbi Speaks" on Chanukah.

Last week, while on my regular stop into the Comic Book Shop on Marsh Rd., I found myself looking at the kids’ racks. Elishai, my son, who’s in kindergarten, has been on a big kick practicing his reading, and loving comics and superheroes, was hoping I’d bring him home something. So along with my usual pulls, I grabbed a Green Lantern book to share with my kid. 
Later that night, after dinner and homework, we settled into reading his new comic, and we discovered that it was in fact, a Chanukah book. Here was Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, helping aliens named Mattathias, Judah and Maccabee of the Hammer tribe defeat other aliens of some distant planet, all while the Green Power Ring holds out for eight days with only a single day’s charge. Latkes are consumed, lights are lit, and the universe is saved. 
 My son, obviously, loved it. Here was a Chanukah-specific holiday comic book where the festival of lights appeared not as an effort in tokenism in an otherwise Christmas-themed story, nor merely as a paean to diversity to satisfy some focus group, but with its own integrity. And the fact that this was being sold in a comics shop, rather than some cheap freebie created for distribution in a Jewish school or synagogue or JCC, made it all the more amazing to me. Of course, Jewish themes have appeared in comics for decades—anyone who’s taken my class at the JCC or read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay knows that Jewish writers and artists essentially began the medium. But rarely were those themes so overt, the exception being ‘serious’ graphic novels like Maus and ‘A Contract With God’. Yet here was kid’s comic, a ‘normal’ comic with a proudly Jewish theme, well written and well-drawn, meant for a popular audience. 
I’m old enough to remember when Chanukah first started appearing in the public sphere, and it was usually cringeworthy. In the school ‘winter concert’—and I remember when they were Christmas concerts—the band would throw in ‘Rock of Ages’ or “I Have a Little Dreidle” or if we were really lucky, ‘Ocho Candelikas’ around ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. If there was a special Christmas episode of a TV show, the one designated Jewish character would get a throwaway line about Chanukah. Slowly, though, you started seeing Menorahs in McDonald’s commercials and in places of business and government, Chanukah candles for sale at Target, and the like. Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song might be nearly 15 years old and pretty trivial, but it set off a rash of popular musicians writing Chanukah songs.  Sometimes this made for strange combinations; at some point someone has sent you the picture of Hams on display at Walmart advertised as “delicious for Chanukah”. This year one Tablet writer wrote about seeing an explicitly Jewish Star of David Christmas tree topper advertised “for interfaith families” in the Skymall Catalogue.
All this fills me with wonder, but also gives me pause. It is amazing to me that my son now grows up in a world where, yes, he is aware that he’s in the minority, but the idea of a Jewish comic book is normal for him. More to the point, for most of his classmates, Judaism is rarely as strange or exotic as it was for my non-Jewish friends when I was a child. But especially at the holiday season, when perhaps we as Jews are even more aware of our minority status, the idea that Chanukah is becoming increasingly homogenized, worries me. 
Chanukah as we experience it now is a sweet little holiday: we eat some fried stuff, light some lights, exchange some gifts and call it a day, but has gone through tremendous upheaval. To use Arthur Waskow’s language, The Book of Maccabees makes it clear that, in addition to being a rededication of the Temple, it was originally a ‘rerun’ of Sukkot for the Maccabean rebels who, in their war with the Assyrian Greeks were unable to celebrate the festival. Since that first Chanukah it has evolved at various stages to be a celebration of Jewish imperial might and Jewish independence, a story of martyrdom and eternal reward for those who maintained faith unto death, a commemoration of God’s power and how one can maintain faith and light even in times of darkness and hiding, a political statement for early Zionists longing for Jewish sovereignty, and now a Winter Solstice holiday celebrated along Christianity’s great holiday. Until recently, it never held the power in Judaism of, say, a Rosh Hashanah or a Passover, nor was it ever meant to.  A post-biblical commemoration filled with small presents and games and fried food, it has achieved much greater standing than ever.
And for many Jews and non-Jews alike, this is problematic, or even, dare I say it, a ‘shande’. For conservatives who see a ‘war on Christmas’, and even liberals like Garrison Keillor of A Prarie Home Companion, Chanukah has become a target, a way to vent their spleen over the loss of religiosity surrounding Christmas. After all, it’s not just Jews going to the movies and out for Chinese these days. And for Jews, there is the fear that these two very different holidays—Christmas and Chanukah— will minimize our differences in ways that make meaningful interfaith dialogue even more difficult, as non-Jews get confused over the meaning of Chanukah and more Jewish-star tree toppers and Chanukah bushes confound a landscape.  Who hasn’t been asked whether Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas and had to use every facial muscle to prevent the eyeroll of doom? 
It’s clear, however, that there’s no turning back. We’re long passed the point of tokenism or euphemism, of occasional characters or a Festivus for the Rest of us. We are beyond the age of giant menorahs in Times Square and White House Chanukah parties and Peter Yarrow songs, and Blues Clues Chanukah Books and the occasional page 18 article showing a Jewish family playing Dreidle. There are Pandora and Spotify Chanukah channels, sexy Chanukah songs (seriously, Michele Citron, look it up), latke recipes in every cooking magazine, and every imaginable appearance in popular culture, to say nothing of the fact that you can buy a chanukiah—a really nice one—at most department stores, even in Delaware. Chanukah is clearly here to stay, not just as a Jewish holiday but as an American experience. 
So how do we make it meaningful? By remembering that, if Chanukah is to avoid being a Christmas-equivalent, we still give the holiday its due. Let Chanukah have integrity all its own, emphasizing the values as distinct from the values of other holidays at this time of year. The word Chanukah means dedication; we call this holiday ‘Chanukah’ because we remember the Maccabees rededicating the ancient temple, defiled by those bent on assimilation at all costs. Remembering this, we can rededicate ourselves to our highest values; to allow the light of the holiday and its hopefulness to banish the darkness of cynicism. 
The Green Lantern has an oath. The one we’re familiar with goes In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight Let those who worship evil's might, Beware my power, Green Lantern's light. But the original read  ..and I shall shed my light over dark evil. For the dark things cannot stand the light, Just as Green Lantern’s oath declares that light shall banish the darkness of evil, may we come to see Chanukah in a new light, not as a “Jewish Christmas”, but as a truly American holiday.