Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blinded by Arrogance: Balak and Today's Political Climate

This past week I had the blessing to attend the Jewish Federation of North America’s Rabbinic Cabinet Annual Meeting. Aside from having the longest name for any rabbinic assembly, it was an interesting opportunity to engage in a more political environment. Our first speaker was Norm Ornstein from the American Enterprise Institute. I’m not going to lie, he didn’t say anything that anyone following the current political climate didn’t already know: things are bad, a point reiterated by various congressmen we heard from the following day. The tribal nature of today’s politics and media make problem solving incredibly difficult, and problem solvers all the more rare. What was the most frightening thing for him was that we no longer even share the same facts. Whereas once we may have disagreed on the cause or best way to deal with a problem—poverty, let’s say—today one person says something is a problem, and the other calls that a hoax, or a cover-up. We then demonize the opposition, return to our echo chambers, and refuse to engage. The result is dysfunctional politics and dysfunctional processes.
As I said, none of that is new, and it is terribly depressing. What is new is the way he described cause and solution, and how that solution was echoed by the half-dozen congressmen we met. The problem won’t go away, he said, with a different approach by government. We can’t legislate out of this. Rather, it’s a cultural problem, and requires a cultural solution. We no longer shame those who lie; liars then get to double down and call their lies ‘truth’. We don’t punish those who run mean-spirited campaigns and then refuse to compromise. Instead we punish the moderates. We don’t have a true public forum anymore; we allow the loudest to shout others down. We grade our legislators on everything from approach to taxes, poverty, guns, but we don’t grade them on fairness, cooperation or decency. As Representative Cleaver from Missouri said, Congress has an approval rating of 10%; Satan has an approval rating of 13%. But these folks were elected and sent to Washington. They are us.

And friends, we know this is true. We realize that the political situation in Washington is merely a symptom of a greater problem. We don’t listen to each other. We don’t really, truly see each other, except competitively. And we’d be foolish to think this was new. Our Torah portion shares a strange scene. The prophet Balaam, off to meet with the king of Moab, is intercepted by an angel with a fiery sword. Except he can’t see it, only his donkey can. So the donkey tries to avoid the fiery sword guy, ‘cause fiery sword probably hurts, and Balaam just thinks his donkey’s gone nuts, so he’s whipping the poor beast, until the donkey says to him, ‘why are you beating me?’ Amazingly, Balaam’s response isn’t, “aaaah, talking donkey!” Rather, he gets into a fight, until he too sees the Angel. Then he apologizes to his Donkey and God by saying, “I am the one who sinned.”

I told you it was strange! Balaam sinned? How did he sin? He didn’t see the angel! You can’t sin when you don’t know, can you? In fact, the rabbis argue that his sin was that he SHOULD HAVE seen the angel—he wasn’t looking. He allowed his ego and arrogance to blind him. Even the DONKEY could see the angel, but he let his haughtiness get in the way.
How often do we not really see the person or group we’re talking to? How often do we not really hear them? We’re so busy yelling—YELLING—our perspective that we forget how to hear and respect the other. That doesn’t mean we respect the position, but we respect the other. Instead, we make assumptions about the other person’s intent, we attribute all kinds of negative attributes to them, or may even insult them, call them names, blinded by our own arrogance, our own assumption that we’re right and they’re wrong. On this same conference, twice I was embarrassed by my colleagues. One who reamed out a cab driver, the other for yelling at full volume at a security guard at the State Department (who really should be the last person you yell at these days). What’s the old saying that you know the measure of a man not by how he talks to his friends but by how he treats the waiter? I don’t know these colleagues well, but based on this experience, they came up short, and I had to wonder if they weren’t blinded by their own sense of position or assumption of correctness. And as I took the Metro back to my in-laws in Arlington, I found myself instead letting folks who seemed in a hurry get ahead of me on the escalator or through the turnstile. Not that I wasn’t in a hurry too, but I wasn’t going to save any time nudging them out of my way. Perhaps I was in their way, and letting them go gave them a split-second of relief from a stressful day.

Now, I recognize that’s a little thing. Doesn’t change much, doesn’t move us forward much. And there’s nothing wrong with having strong opinions—we’re Jews, after all—and I’m as guilty as the next person for getting impatient with another’s views or attitude. Or just ‘cause they root for the Yankees. But things aren’t going to get better until we start to reward the values we want to see in ourselves and each other, including remembering the decency and humanity of the Other, and responding to them with humility, rather than a sense of entitlement. It’s a start, and I would rather do that and have my eyes wide open to see others’ humanity than shove them aside because I’m too blind to see. After all, for all I know, there could be a fiery sword that way.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sermon on Chukat: Seeking Relationships

Shavua Tov Friends. Here's this week's sermon:

This past week I had one of the most gratifying and at the same time the most challenging experiences I’ve ever had.
Last Sunday I sat down with a family about a baby naming. The mom-to-be had grown up at Beth Emeth, her parents are still members of the congregation, while dad grew up in a Conservative congregation, and over a cup of coffee I walked the expectant grandparents and parents through the ritual. I know the family a little, the younger couple less well than the older couple, but as I could tell the husband was uncomfortable in our meeting.
A few hours later I got an email from the young man—can we meet? Of course! I replied, and added that I could tell something was bothering him.
We sat down yesterday and this fellow shared his experience with me, and it wasn’t good. His Jewish upbringing was, to say the least, forced. He went to religious school and high holiday services without any sense of purpose. In fact, the opposite, whenever he asked ‘why do we do this? What’s the meaning behind that?’ he was told ‘because that’s what good Jews do’.
Sadly, his experience isn’t unusual. All he knew from Judaism was boring services that failed to inspire, Hebrew School teachers who were burned out and wanted to be somewhere else, and parents who didn’t practice, and didn’t know how to answer his questions.
Now he was going to be a parent. He wanted to raise his children Jewishly, but he was struggling with his own negative experiences. He wanted to spare his soon-to-emerge daughter what he went through. More than that, he said that while his experience was so profoundly negative, he could see value in meaningful Jewish engagement, but he didn’t know how to get there. He came to me not to blame, not to complain, but to ask for help.
So we talked. He asked questions about the Torah—who wrote it, how old was it? We talked about God, about the seeming meaninglessness of prayers and what happens when services bore rather than inspire. We talked about when he has felt engaged, about exploration and ownership. We discussed Judaism as process—not as a cluster of answers but a means to explore and come to your own engagement, how to read the text deeply, and how to read the text as metaphor. We talked about how Reform can seem like a cop-out or the ‘easy way out’ when you don’t take it seriously. We talked about Shabbat and the need to unplug. We talked about the purpose of the synagogue All this in an hour and fifteen minutes.
I don’t share this to toot my own horn as a rabbi. I mean, “yay me!”; that’s nice and all, but not the point. The point, in fact for too many of our people, for too many of us, this is reality. Instead of being presented a religion based on questions, we were given answers that were patronizing. Instead of experiencing the power of ritual, inspirational worship, we grappled with archaic and ill-understood or explained ceremonies. Instead of wrestling with difficult passages of Scripture, we dismiss it as hokum. Instead of feeling challenged and engaging, we give up. And as a result, fewer and fewer young Jews are following the paths of their parents—they don’t join automatically. They don’t affiliate naturally. Those days are gone.
We see this in our Torah portion as well; we read “vayarev Moshe”: the people quarreled with Moses. And later, “Vayidabeir ha-am bay’lohim u’v’Moshe”—The people spoke out against God and Moses. The quarrel and the argument take the form that they all have in Numbers—why did you take us out into the wilderness to die?—and we might be as sick as Moses, Aaron and God are of the kvetching. But there’s another way to look at what they’re saying. Why are we meandering around, aimless, without mission? Why do you keep giving us rituals and not explaining their purpose? What are we supposed to do now that Miriam and Aaron are dead? What does all of this mean? The people are frustrated, they’re bored, they’re tired, they’re disconnected.
It would be easy for us who affiliate to blow folks like this off, despite our experiences. You join a community anyway, because that’s what Jews do. But that would be like Moses’ words to the people: “come you rebels! Shall we get water from this rock?” that would be us responding from our anger and fear and lack of sympathy. Or we could listen carefully and hear their desire for meaningful engagement. It’s not that they don’t want to affiliate—they don’t want to MERELY affiliate. They want a real connection, they want it to mean something. They want help.
This is a room full of passionate, engaged, committed Reform Jews. Those words mean something different to each of us, but that doesn’t make them an less true. We can help. We can share our passion, our stories, our engagement with seekers like this young man. When someone asks why belong to Beth Emeth, we could share our enthusiasm for this place and each other.  As we talked, the young man asked, with a sly grin on his face, “So what’s in it for me? Why should I connect?” While we hate to admit it, many of us have asked that question ourselves, and I could have talked about programs and events.  Instead, I asked him about the positive experiences he’d had, and what resonated for him. As he described them, he answered his own question. He talked about his desire, his need to engage with committed Jews, with a faith, with a sense of purpose and mission. He talked about relationships. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? He came seeking a relationship—not a program, not a service, but a relationship—with God, Torah and Israel. If we can do that, my friends, the rest takes care of itself.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Korach Sermon: are you sensing a theme?

Ten years ago last week, I stood on the bimah of the Plum Street Temple with my classmates on a perfect Saturday morning. In that breathtaking room, filled literally to the gills, each of us stepped before the ark, and received the blessing—and the charge—of the rabbinate. I was fortunate enough to have both my teacher David Ellenson and my father ordain me. It was among the three most powerful moments of my life, and before my son was born, the most humbling.
Let me give you a little context. I had known my entire life that I wanted to be a rabbi. I tell people that I made up my mind when I was 15 and attending the Reform Movement’s Kutz Leadership Academy, but that’s only partially true. I began thinking about it when I was 11, and by the time I was 13 I truly couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was, to use a Christian term, called. The Still Small Voice within me told me that for this I was created. Which meant that, until that moment On May 30th 2003, every fiber of my being was pointed to that day, in that direction. And as I stood on that bimah and waited my turn, I knew it would be transformative. I expected the ruach elohim, God’s presence, to permeate me, empower me. Instead, as I felt my father’s hands on my head, as I heard the words of that blessing, I felt smaller than I ever had. And that feeling has never left me. Not for one moment of my 10 years in the rabbinate.
Why do people go into leadership? Why do they step forward instead of backward? Why would someone choose to speak out or speak up? Is it about ego, about loving the sound of their own voices? Is it because they have some kind of agenda? In our most cynical moments, each of us has had those thoughts, haven’t we? And in this week’s portion, we hear something of that alienation, that suspicion. Vayikach Korach: Now Korach, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty representatives of the Israelites; chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, with fine reputations. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”
 Listen to Korach’s accusation—who do you think you are Moses? What self-interest are you pursuing? What agenda do you have? Who do you think you are? What’s your angle? Korach and his cohort assume ill intent on Moses and Aaron’s part. They assume Moses and Aaron are imposing some alien vision, some hostile intent upon the congregation. We’re already holy, and God is in our midst. We don’t need what you’re selling.
 Why do people go into leadership, when there is so much doubt, when there are so many questions, when there’s so much skepticism? Why do these people step forward? Each would answer in a different way, but I would guess that there would be a common thread, one that stands counter to Korach’s assertion, his boast of present holiness. For as Yeshayahu Leibowitz reminds us, Leviticus 19 proclaims that Israel will be holy, future tense. Israel is not yet holy, but open to the possibility. We are challenged to be holy, we aspire to be holy, but to claim that we are already holy, to accept the status quo, to hang a sign proclaiming ‘Mission Accomplished’, is to sell ourselves and our community short.
 Real leaders lead not out of self-interest, but because they believe in the community. They accept the challenge, they respond to the call, because they aspire for all to go up, for the whole community to move forward, toward holiness. This doesn’t make them perfect; quite the opposite! They’re still human beings, who make mistakes, who get upset or hurt or angry, who have trouble hearing clear signals instead of noise. But, in the words of Carey Nieuwhof, they don’t ask “Why is this happening?” “How come this doesn’t seem to happen to other people?” “What I have I done to deserve this?” “Is this ever going to end?” Instead they ask the hardest and most essential question of community and leadership: What does this experience make possible? Which doesn’t mean they don’t get scared, or get it wrong. But it does mean they move past self-interest and toward the sacred.
Deuteronomy Rabbah reminds us that a community is too heavy to carry alone. Too often we try to do so, and we think either only we—I—can do what needs to be done, or the exact inverse—it’s someone else’s problem. But as my teachers Terry Bookman and William Kahn remind us: God created the covenant with the Israelites not simply as a means by which to keep them by His side, but also as a model for how they can be with one another.” We installed a new board tonight. Their success depends on us—our love, our support, our truth, our assumptions, our graciousness, our responsiveness. They step forward to share the best of themselves, may we respond in turn. Amen.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Not my Sermon from Shelach Lecha

So this isn't the sermon I gave two weeks ago. Same themes, but I decided to speak extemporaneously about my experiences rather than read from the script. Since that means I don't have a script, I make you suffer through this instead.

 (If you want the actual sermon, you can find the recording of it here). 
There’s a famous joke about a man who’s just got a brand new sports car. He takes to a coastal highway, opens up the throttle, and speeds along, but while driving alongside a steep hill, he hits a sharp turn too fast, and has to jump out of his car as it plunges into the rocks below. Even then, he’s dangling, cartoon-like, from a branch on the side of the mountain. “God!” He cries, “Please help me!” He’s startled when a voice responds, “here I am, my son.” Oh, thank God!” He cries again. “Save me, God. I’ll do anything!” “I’ll save you,” Replies God. “you only have to do one thing.” “Yes, anything!”  “Let go”.
We all know the joke. What makes it funny is thinking about our own reactions. How many of us, clinging for dear life to the side of a cliff, would trust a voice and let go? Would you trust the voice? Or would you trust your own eyes and experience: that voices do not defy gravity, and that the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your doom is your hands on the branch?
The same question is raised by our Torah portion. In Shelach Lecha, Israelite spies enter the land, scout it, and return to inform Israel that, while it is a good land, it’s occupied, and the residents are veritable giants, or so it seems to them. Despite Joshua and Caleb urging the People to trust in God, the Israelites despair and actually turn around to go back to Egypt, back the way they came. It’s such a catastrophic response, such a terrible lack of faith, that the generation that left Egypt is cursed to die in the wilderness, rather than enter the land promised them. What’s curious, though, is how the portion ends—not with Israel’s banishment, not with death and more death as described throughout the verses, but a peculiar mitzvah, a singular commandment. Last week’s portion ended with the commandment to wear tzitzit, or fringes on the corners of our garments. The text reads:
The Eternal said to Moses as follows: 38Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. 39That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. 40Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God. 41I the Eternal am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God.
Wait, Fringes? Why fringes? I think we could all agree that this is a strange commandment. Rabbinic and proto-rabbinic texts, like Josephus, suggest that it was the tzitzit, the fringes, so seemingly arbitrary, that finally caused Korach, Dathan and Abiram to throw his hands up and rebel a few verses later. That one more oddball mitzvah that had no rhyme or reason pushed them over the edge. Scholars believe they were the pockets of antiquity, used to tie signet seals or other important objects to one’s cloak. Others suggest they were a form of ethnic differentiation: dressing in a way that separated them from others. But what do fringes have to do with Mitzvot, or sacred obligations? What do fringes have to do with the rebellion of the spies, or Egypt for that matter?
Apparently, everything. Let’s look again at our Israelite ancestors. Despite being liberated from Egypt, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, building the Mishkan, the tabernacle, eating manna along their journey, witnessing untold miracles, and being brought to the cusp of the Land, Israel still didn’t appreciate their relationship with God, or their own holiness. They were still a slave people, still ready to go back to Egypt whenever the going got tough, and no amount of blessings by priests or fancy rituals or awe-inspiring miracles were going to change the way they saw themselves: as grasshoppers. They didn’t see with their faith; they saw with their eyes and heart, they saw through the lens of FEAR. And Fear will always lead us backwards, always lead us backward.And that’s as true today as it was then. Are we really any different?  “Everybody on earth deals with fear” says the lawyer in the movie Defending Your Life. “Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything. Real feeling, true happiness, real joy, they can't get through that fog.”
Special effects are nice, rallies and speeches—words-- may give us warm fuzzies, but at the end of the day, they don’t change us or our condition, they don’t reduce our fear. We need those tangible reminders—an embrace, a memento,  a cloak with a thread the color of the sky as the sun sets—blue and purple and green all at once—that would remind us, to follow not our eyes or our hearts, but God. To put it another way: when our inclination is to ‘go back to Egypt’; that is, to turn in fear. We cling to the ledge because we think there is no alternative. The Israelites—and we—need a physical reminder to trust in God, WHO LED US OUT OF EGYPT. That is, a physical reminder that we can't go backward, only forward; we cannot hold on forever, we need to let go of the past and have a little faith. Ibn Ezra says that if we do so, we will be holy and our rational soul will not be stained by the polluted lusts of the heart. Israel thinks it's acting rationally; really it's being irrational; driven by fear of the future, of the unknown. They are full of fear. We need reminders not to be afraid. No, that’s not quite right. We need something to hold onto that says “I acknowledge your fear, and while holding onto me won’t give you the answers, I’ll remind you why you’re here, and that will help you get through your fears.”
Because that’s the missing piece, isn’t it? When we’re afraid, it’s because we’re not sure what to do, not sure of our role, or of our relationships. When we’re afraid we don’t know who we can trust. We curl inward, instead of outward. But when we remember that we have a mission, a purpose, a reason—when we remember we are valued and holy—then the fear moves backward, and our sense of meaning forward. Fear moves us to think only of ourselves; we need reminders to think of others, to move from a focus of “my” needs to “our” needs.
So, what are your fears? What sends you back to Egypt? And what are your Tzitzit, the tangibles that reassure you and reaffirm you? What forces you to cling for dear life to the edge? Is it fear of loneliness, of change, of not mattering? For me, it’s fear of failure. And I know I need my tzitzit—real and metaphorical—to remind me of my sacred obligations. And when I hold onto those personal tzitzit, I remember my family, my circle, my congregation and my community, my world my God, and I am renewed. The challenges aren’t any less challenging, the object of my fear isn’t any less daunting, but for a moment I can move outside myself. I can stop listening to my eyes and the racing of my heart. I can let go.
Teach us, O God, to always look toward our personal tzitzit, to see in each person a reminder of You, and so be led back to You and your Torah, lest our hearts lead us astray. Amen.