Saturday, July 20, 2013

Va'etchanan: Casting a Vision For Others.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re walking down the hall at work, or at the gym, or you’re in the street in the neighborhood, and someone you know fairly well asks “how are you?” We all know that you’re supposed to respond some version of “I’m fine, how are you?” In fact, I’ve discovered around here that some people skip talking about themselves entirely and merely ask back “how are you” as if it really just means “hi”, or a manly nod. My guess is, most of the time, you observe these rules of engagement, but have you ever turned to the person—perhaps after a particularly bad day—and said, “do you really want to know?” or even just taken a deep breath and gone into it? How does the other person respond? Sometimes, I’m sure, they offer a receptive ear and a comforting word, but just as often, I’m sure they’re looking for the escape hatch. Once, at a conference, I had a colleague ask with full ‘pastoral care’ voice—he put his hand on my shoulder and asked “how are you?” and before I could say anything he was off and running.

You know I frequently preach and teach on our obligations to one another, how we should engage with people recognizing them as betzelem elohim, created in God’s image. But let’s face it, frequently we encounter a huge obstacle: the other person. People are disappointing. They frequently live down to our expectations. Whether it’s asking ‘how are you’ but not really caring, or otherwise demonstrating that they don’t really care for our well-being. Perhaps they cut us off, or minimize our work or efforts, or don’t listen to us. Perhaps they appear to be sympathetic or helpful, but for their own gain. Or maybe they just ignore us. Too often it seems that, no matter our intention, we frequently find ourselves engaging with others who just aren’t there. Marisa had a poster in college that read ‘People Ruin Everything’. Sometimes, it seems, that poster is true.

So what do we do? We can’t control others. And while hiding in a cave might sound tempting, it’s kind of hard to work, raise kids, and live our lives in isolation. And besides, as I reminded someone the other day, that’s not what Judaism is about. There’s a reason we have the concept of minyan: we’re meant to live our lives in connection to one another. This is nice when it works, but not so much when we offer our hand out in love and support and find it pushed away.

This week, Moses is confronted with the same challenge. Israel has disappointed him for two generations; he has guided them, shepherded them, protected them from their worst instincts, but his time is running out. He won’t be there anymore. What can he do? He gives them a vision of themselves that is different. He warns them against Idolatry, reminds them of the Decalogue, and gives them a number of commandments, to be sure, but after all that he invokes words that we say every night: “Listen Israel, Adonai is your God, Adonai alone.” And “you shall love The Eternal God with all your heart, your soul and might...” The Shema and the V’ahavta. Moses presents Israel with an image of themselves as God loving, moral, teaching their children to walk the correct path, letting God and God’s commandments guide their actions and thoughts (“you shall bind it as a sign upon your hands, let it be for frontlets between your eyes”). Moses doesn’t just warn or exhort, he paints a picture of who Israel should strive to be. He does what one writer suggests we should do for each other: “what would it be like if we had a vision for each other…” That is, if we could see not just the person as they are, but engage with them as if they’re the person they want to be. I don’t mean imposing some abstract notion of what we want out of them or what we want them to do for us, but deep listening, shema yisrael, and responding to the person within.

This past week as I was driving my son home from camp he referred to one of his friends (lovingly, if that’s possible) as a ‘loser’. I explained to him that he shouldn’t use those words, that it’s hurtful, and chastised, he said he would try. Then I said something that surprised even me. I said, “and I know you will, because I know you mean it when you say you try.” The boy is six, how much can someone expect of a kid that age? And yet, in that moment, I gave him a vision of who he wants to be—someone who treats his friends well, and who takes his word seriously. More than that, I showed him that I take him seriously.

What’s the result going to be? I don’t know.  I can’t know. None of us can. But I wonder, if when we’re disappointed by the people we encounter, if we think we’re not being taken seriously, perhaps we should try to cast a vision for that other person, engaging them as they want to be, as they ought to be. Voice a real confidence in them. Perhaps that will help them hear us better, and ask ‘how are you’ from a deeper place.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The 9th of Av, or Why I don't mourn the Temple

As you know, my son’s birthday is in July. Last year we sent out invitations to his bunkmates for a typical kindergartener’s birthday bash—pizza and ice cream cake at a moon-bounce place. One of the responses I got was from a parent who wanted to make sure I knew that we had scheduled Elishai’s birthday on Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, a major fast day, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. While I think there was good intention in that email, there was an element of ‘gotcha!’ in it as well. What rabbi would schedule a kid’s birthday party on Tisha B’av?  I replied that we did, in fact, know, and would understand if his child didn’t attend. 

I was thinking of this story again this week. Tisha B’av is this Tuesday, and I’ve seen all kinds of stuff from the Reform movement about the day and how to recognize and commemorate it, which surprised me. I guess I just didn’t think that Tisha B’Av was a day that we as a movement engaged in. Personally, I won’t be commemorating it. I won’t be reciting Lamentations, as beautiful as the trope may be, and I won’t be fasting. Not because I forgot, or out of liturgical or ritual laziness. My lack of observance is on purpose, and with reason. 

One reason is that I don’t support the theology behind it. That may sound like a minor matter, something very abstract, but I believe that it’s more serious than just some academic matter. You see, most people think it commemorates the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, then by the Romans in the first century. In fact, it commemorates the destruction of the Temple, place of animal sacrifice and symbol of a hierarchical Judaism. I don’t mourn the Temple’s destruction. Do you want Temple sacrifice back? Do you want your relationship with God to be predicated on killing things, or to be that patronizing? I mean, barbecue is delicious, but do you find nourishment for the soul in wanting the return to such practice? Not only that, but let’s talk about those who want a return to the Temple? First, elements of the settler movement, that harass Palestinians and stymie the peace process. Then there’s the Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to integrate into Israeli society, don’t even recognize it as a Jewish state, harass their own community members for joining the army, and just this past week, as they have for years, created a mob-scene to block Women of The Wall from praying at the Kotel. Do you want to be associated with those folks, who are interested in an undemocratic Israel and an unegalitarian Judaism? Me neither.  
As I said, there are those, including Reform Jews, who want to validate the practice for a liberal audience. Some want to see it as a metaphor for the problems that plague Israel or Jews in North America. Others see it as a kind of performance art: One rabbi recently wrote: “For centuries, we have re-enacted the experience of witnessing this destruction in order to maintain a visceral connection to the physical place itself.” And truth be told, I have seen the 9th of Av celebrated at Camp in a very unconventional fashion that worked as a powerful teaching tool for those kids about loss, connection, and community. But I will tell you that even in that moment there was some ambivalence as to whether we should acknowledge the day at all. We certainly didn’t have the kids fast. 

So in a progressive setting, if the 9th of Av is a metaphor, what would that metaphor mean? Agonizing over Jewish independence? We have a sovereign state of Israel, who without a doubt has it’s threats—external and internal—but is also strong, sophisticated, modern, and progressive. No, it’s not Sweden on the Mediterranean, but it’s also doing pretty well for itself. Do we need pain to connect to a thriving Jewish State? Do we need to reenact destruction to work against an imagined end of Judaism as we know it? Do we need more liturgical or ritual opportunities to shry gavult over how we’re doing, or our co-religionists are doing elsewhere? Or is this another opportunity for us to do what we’re already good at doing, in the words of Al Vorspan, “Start Worrying: Details to Follow”? 

Again, this isn’t to say that there aren’t challenges; I’m not so Pollyanna to think that we aren’t at a crossroads as a people. However, the challenges require thoughtful action, not nostalgia for a past none of us want. And within those challenges are opportunities to create meaningful Jewish community and engaging Jewish experiences. And I think we as a people are simply very good at—and well-practiced in—freaking out. Part of Lamentations read: ““Panic and pitfall are our lot Death and destruction. My eyes shed streams or water Over the ruin of my poor people.” We’re good at panic and pitfall; the challenges before us call us to be attentive, optimistic, and inclusive, and if we don’t get better at that, then we really will have a reason to cry. But ours is a theology of empowerment, of autonomy, of active engagement in the world and with each other. How does Tisha B’av fit into that, except in a way that is trivial or superficial? 

Theology matters, metaphors matter, and rituals matter. But some theologies, rituals and metaphors can’t be redeemed. I want to rejoice in a sovereign state of Israel old enough to be a grandparent, and tackle the challenges of egalitarianism, peace and security head-on. I want to recognize that there is, as Kohelet writes, a time to mourn, and a time to rejoice, and not over-emphasize the former over the latter. And I want to recognize that some rituals served their purpose, and now should fall away. The rabbis teach us that, before the fall of the Temple, the 9th of Av was the happiest of days. Perhaps it’s time to return to that, and, to quote Rabbi Danny Syme, rejoice in a Judaism that continues to flourish and thrive. Amen.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Torah For Today

I didn't give a traditional sermon this past week: instead I handed out some texts and lead a discussion around Parashat Mattot. See below for the content! What does it make you think about?

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the Eternal has commanded: If a householder makes a vow to the Eternal or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips. –Numbers 30:2-3 The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition
He shall not break his pledge: “he shall not profane his word,” he shall not treat his word as being unholy. - Sifrei Mattoth 8
Has crossed his lips: Literally, “has come out of his mouth.” Vows and oaths made in the name of God are endowed with self-fulfilling powers regardless of the consequences. Once expressed, words are binding, even when the expression does not correspond with the intention. –Etz Hayim (emphasis mine)
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state But rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” –Victor Frankl
“We all bring to the community our ripened fruit, the experiences and ideas we have developed in our lives, the patterns and rhythms that define us. The challenge is to be open to new ideas and experiences (budding fruit) without rejecting the ripened fruit of our past.” –Elie Kaunfer. Empowered Judaism
“Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
“It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone…
“Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that  communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and  working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because  a community must be composed of  children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class( the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or  gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
“That is a community.” –Rabbi Alana Suskin
"Relationships and community are the vehicles through which we find meaning. It does not make much difference if you are driving that fancy car or moving into that fantastic new home if you are alone and without a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It is not theology which binds us. rather, it is relationships.” –Rabbi Richard Address