Sunday, August 31, 2014

#BlogElul Day 5: Know

This afternoon, after watching Return of The Jedi with the boy (Original Theatrical Release, thank you), I had a rite of passage I've been doing since 2011. I had my Fantasy Football League Draft. 

I like Football and continue to be a Patriots Fan (while slowly allowing the Philadelphia "Iggles" to colonize parts of my brain once reserved for memorizing American Vice-Presidents), but I hardly consider myself Fantasy Football material. And my scores reflect that fact; I almost always come in 6th or 7th (out of 12) every year. I don't know who the best tight ends are, or the running back who's going to give me the most points. Nor am I likely to watch every football game ever, or devour reams of data from Sports Pages and websites, in order to come to a better conclusion. For me, I play because it gives me an excuse to keep in touch with my buddies from Cape Cod. The game itself is incidental. 

And yet, I have plenty of knowledge that is unessential. I can quote whole movies, know far too much about the making of certain sci-fi films (and toy lines, and fantasy books, and comics, and...) than is healthy, and my study of comics borders on the talmudic.
This isn't to say that I disdain learning (I'd be in the wrong gig if that were so). I love studying text, exploring different reading strategies, and gnawing on a bit of something. ""My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work..."" writes Arthur Conan Doyle in "The Sign of Four", and it's true. If I'm not engaged in learning of some form or another, whether it's Judaics, or history, or the career of John Byrne, I feel antsy. 

And there are so many more ways to cultivate knowledge, be it meaningful or esoteric. The Internet, as has been written (again, and again) is a bottomless font of information. While many have gnashed their teeth at the loss of knowledge that the internet has created, I disagree. We have not lost knowledge, we have lost the skill to differentiate good knowledge from bad, to do good research and exploration. Not just to separate out good and bad sources, but to see the difference between an article on climate change and, say, an article on the latest blockbuster movie. Once those topics were categorized differently; today, with social media increasingly our source, and Buzzfeed and Upworthy and Huffington Post (and similar sources) putting out clickbait, everything begins to flow together. 

But I recognize that not all knowledge is useful. While it might please me to know when Groot was introduced first (back in the 1970s, when he was a bad guy and could talk), just as it pleases someone else to know the whole background behind the Island on "Lost" or the stats of the entire 2014 Kansas City Royals, that knowing doesn't necessarily grow me as a person.  What does is the sharing of that knowledge with others, or the opportunity to use that knowledge to create connections or build community. I will never be a fantasy football expert, but through it I spend time with friends hundreds of miles away. Knowledge of Judaism comes with the territory, but it is useless ephemera, trivia, unless it helps others create a sense of meaning for themselves and others. 

Doyle writes in another Sherlock Holmes story ("The Five Orange Pips") "'A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library where he can get it if he wants.'" I admit, some of what I love to study belongs in the lumber-room, but hopefully I can keep my attic well stocked, especially if its contents give me the wherewithal to help create meaning. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#BlogElul Day 4: Accept

"It's Not Fair."

This lament of childhood never really goes away. It informs so much of what we do, with a notion that "fairness" means "equivalence" and "equal treatment" in all situations. At least that's what way say. Of course, what we mean is that we get special treatment (or at least no one else does).

The issue of fairness drills down to the core of our being, especially when we ourselves are suffering. We feel as if the Universe--God--is specifically targeting us with hostility and aggression.

In the prayer unetaneh tokeph, we read that "prayer, repentance and charity ease judgment's severe decree". This is not how it is worded in the rabbinic literature; there, we are told that prayer, repentance and charity cancel the severe decree. But we know that the decree cannot be cancelled. Life isn't fair. But we have resources to help us accept, but also sustain ourselves spiritually. Community, acts of loving kindness, prayer: these may not change our situation. They don't make it more fair. But they help us through, support and sustain us.

Friday, August 29, 2014

#BlogElul Day 3: Bless

 “If God Would Go On a Sick Leave: A Poem of Peace”

Nowhere is there more prayer.
The Nuns at the Holy Sepulchre.
The faithful at Al Aqsa Mosque.
The worshippers at the Wall.
The call to prayer at dawn and dusk
Warbling from the citadels.
The church bells,
The Persian trills,
The passion spilled over texts
From every major/minor religious sect.

Nowhere is there more prayer than Jerusalem,
Thanks be to God, Hamdilala, Baruch Hashem.
And yet,
I'm starting to think that it's You and not them,
God, what's the point of prayer?

If there's nowhere where
There's more prayer,
And terror reigns
Then, Who's to blame?

If suddenly, without a whisper goodbye,
Jesus, Allah, Adonai,
The three men they admire most
All took the last train for the coast,

And the Moslems got up from their knees
And the Christians put down their rosaries
And the Jews stayed their hands from kissing
Their mezuzahs,
And everyone looked up,
And realized something's missing...

God is missing.
Stop the praying! No One's there,
They'd arrange a party to search everywhere.
They'd look for God
But there'd be no Presence
In Holy Books or stars and crescents
Or steeples and crosses.
People'd be at a loss,
Is He ever coming back?

They'd be so distraught,
Their searching for naught,
There'd be nothing on high
So they'd turn to on low,
There'd be nothing above
So they'd turn to below,
And they'd finally see there,
In the face of the other,
A semblance of sister,
The eyes of a brother,
They'd turn and they'd lean
Upon one another.

You see, every group can't believe that they're the ones chosen,
Every group can't believe that the Holy Land's owed them,
Sometimes faith in You, God,
Builds insurmountable walls,
And everyone falls.
Everyone falls.

How wise are the secularists for whom the dead aren't martyred
But, quite plainly, murdered...

This might sound like an absurd,
ungodly thing to say,
A truly heretical supplication to pray,
(I say this only out of the deepest respect)
But if for a few days, God, You'd just give it a rest,
If You'd take a sick leave and just go away
And let Israel work this out without You in the way,

God, for that kind of peace,
You're a small price to pay.

 (Rabbi Zoë Klein)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

10 Books

List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way and tag 10 people to do the same. Don't over think it. They don't have to be the "right" books or great works of literature, just books that have impacted you in some way. Then tag 10 friends plus me so I can see your list.

As you might imagine (English Major, Rabbi) I love reading and I love books. I love poetry and storytelling. I love thoughtful books and I love stuff that's just fun. 

I don't usually go for these kinds of memes, but I figured 'what the heck'. 

1. And To Think That It Happened On Mulberry St. by Dr. Seuss. When I was a little child this book fascinated me. The whole idea of storytelling, that telling the story made something real. Can't say I have a good grip on reality as a result, but...

2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. yep, all of 'em. Even the last couple that are out of chronological order (and I will continue to read out of chronological order rather than renumber them like some kind of savage). Fantasy with a message. The idea that our actions and choices matter. That all creation means something. Powerful ideas in the mind of a 5th grader. 

3. The Tanakh JPS: Read this from cover to cover in 6th grade (well, I skipped a bunch of Leviticus, but the joke was on me, as my bar mitzvah portion was Lev. 6). I was living in Israel and wanted to understand the land better. Combined, it had a deep influence on my sense of what it means to be Jewish. 

4. Iron Man Vol. 1 Annual #9: My first comic book that I bought with my own money, at Thayer Pharmacy. Here's a smart guy who uses his smarts to help people, has had trouble in  his life, but he's neither brooding nor angsty, but having fun with life. It, along with Iron Man: Crash (the first Graphic Novel done with computer generated art) started me on a lifelong love affair with Comic-style storytelling

5&6. I and Thou and Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber and

6&7. God In Search of Man and The Sabbath By Abraham Joshua Heschel and

8. Sages and Dreamers By Elie Weisel

These three authors probably did more to formulate my theology and my Jewish identity than any other, except maybe Bialik and Ravnitsky's Book of Legends

9. On The Road Jack Kerouac: That sense of adventure for a teenager has now morphed into that sense of living life to the fullest and seeking inspiriation for the adult. 

10.  Collected Poems by W. B. Yeats: Still the most influential poet in my orbit. More than Amichai, or Donne, or Whitman. 

What are your 10 books? 

#BlogElul Day 2: Act

"First tell me this: is there some secluded spot in the vicinity where I can go to pray?" Rebbe Nachman asked. He had just arrived in Breslov, the town whose name the Breslov movement has borne ever since. 
"I know of a place that would be most suitable," the Hasid replied, "But it's quite far from here."
"Far?" the Rebbe exclaimed. "What do you mean by 'far'? Far from the mind...or from the heart?"
Rebbe Nachman later taught: When your heart yearns, distance is no obstacle.
From The Gentle Weapon
 To Act is to make a conscious choice. When we act we are not merely being instinctual, or somehow sleepwalking as we do with so many of our behaviors. To act is to listen deeply to our hearts, to our souls, to our inner selves. To act is to brush away all the stories we tell ourselves, move aside all the self-made barriers. To act is to see the brokenness of our world not as a given, but as a choice. To act is to recognize the Divine in each person, including and especially the person who challenges us the most. To act is to reveal our real selves in the world, our most sacred selves,  the self most responsive to God's call.

To act is to hear and head God's call from the wilderness.

Are all actions correct? Are all choices equal? Does acting necessarily lead to justice? We hope, we pray, but we also know it leads to error, to misunderstanding; we know we miss the mark. We know our actions sometimes harm rather than help, despite our best intentions. It is this knowledge that keeps us from acting, keeps us from choosing, holds us back.

When your heart yearns, distance is no obstacle. 

What would our world look like if we allowed our hearts to yearn?

What would our world--our communities, our relationships--look like if we chose to act?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#BlogElul Day 1: Do

For a few years I've participated in the BlogElul project. I'm happy to do so again. This is the first of the series, building through the last month of the Jewish year toward Rosh Hashanah. 

This past weekend we finally, FINALLY showed my son Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We had waited until after his birthday, as it's a pretty scary film (what with the whole torture scenes, man-eating snow monsters and Luke having his hand chopped off), but it was wonderful to share the film with him finally.

It was especially instructive a few days later as I was trying to teach him  how to ride his bike.

He's been resisting for a while. My son is a perfectionist, and he wants to do it right the first time out the gate, every time. If he can't do something perfectly, he doesn't want to do it at all, and that has been true for riding his bike without training wheels. Nothing seemed to work, including my father teaching him, cajoling, or buying him a new bicycle. In fact, when he's sure he can't do something, he digs his heels in and tries to PROVE IT, going out of his way to not even try. I was ready to give up as well. But I didn't. I looked online for resources, gathered my patience, tried some new techniques (including putting him on his smaller 'loaner' bike and having him just coast down the driveway), and turning his moments of frustration and disappointment into fun (when he'd stomp off exasperated I'd chase him and turn it into a game of tag).

We tried again on Monday, and wouldn't you know it? After about a half hour, he was riding his bike. The smile on his face as he realized he could really do it.

Then he fell. Not hard; he landed on his feet, and I saw on his face that he was ready to give up again, when I quoted the scene from Empire to him. It took a few minutes, but he got back on and, wobbly, rode back up the hill to our driveway.

So what does this have to do with Elul, or Rosh Hashanah, or with anything worthwhile?

There are a lot of voices in the world telling us that we CAN'T. That there's nothing to be done for the brokenness in our World, for the antisemitism and bigotry we see sweeping the globe, for pollution and Climate Change, for the spread of disease, for Israel, for Gazan children, for anything. We are told that if we can't do it exactly right, we shouldn't bother doing it at all.

None of those voices are Jewish voices (at least, not authentically Jewish voices). We can, we must. We may make mistakes. We may do it 'wrong'. We may fail. But if we don't try, then it will be true, as true as if it were a decree from heaven above.

Sefer HaChinuch quotes the Talmud to say that "the Sages taught that four things tear up the decree of judgment against a man: charity, outcry, a change of name, and a change of one's actions...and he should make all his ways worthy." All of these require effort, real effort. All of these require imagination. All of these require us to silence the voices that tell us that we can't, we oughtn't, we shouldn't. All of these lead to Salvation for our world, but only if we put ourselves forward, like we're riding a bike.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Blog Hop About Blog Writing!

I had the privilege of learning with and from Lisa Friedman while at Camp Harlam. An incredibly dynamic educator and programmer, it was a joy to 'talk shop' with her (and talk about other things as well!). We'd been following each other on Twitter for a while, so it was nice to make the relationship 'real'.

Lisa invited me (and some other colleagues, including my friend Rabbi Rebecca Schorr) to do a 'blog hop'. Being the dunce that I am, I had no idea what that means. Still don't, but I"m going to give it a try and to answer the questions asked.

1. What am I writing or working on? 

This being the month before the High Holy Days, you might expect that I'm working on sermons, and you'd be right! I usually have a few rules regarding High Holy Day sermons: I try to stick to themes surrounding spirituality and personal struggles, as well as social justice issues, rather than political topics, though I have used sermons to launch projects for the congregation (notably our partnership with Family Promise and our work last year with the Religious Action Center and Gift of Life. There will be some of that, including the role out of a new educational initiative (which I can't talk about yet) but also some discussion of the ever-changing situation in Israel and the implications for us.

In addition to sermons, I'm working on some liturgical materials (finally revising our Selichot service, for example), getting curricula up and running, including for adult ed and confirmation, and generally gearing up personally and spiritually for the coming of the new programmatic year.

As for blogging, I have done #BlogElul in the past and probably will this year as well, but mostly you'll see my sermons and other reflections here.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre? 

This question is hard to answer; I think my perspective is unique, and our community's experience is pretty unique as well, but I don't know that separates my voice especially from others. My hope is that my work--social media, blogging, bulletin articles, teaching, sermons--become a stepping off point for more and deeper learning on behalf of the individual: a question that generates more questions and more conversation.

3. Why do I write what I write

I have always written. I used to write more poetry, and I find that this often gives me an outlet for those creative impulses. Less selfishly, I hope that I can bring a point of interest or clarity or some sense of value to a series of conversations--about Jewish practice, identity, meaning and engagement--that have been going on for millenia.

4. How does my writing process work? 

I tend to let ideas live in my head for a while. I start chewing on sermon topics weeks in advance and often fully visualize what it will sound like when I deliver it before I start typing. Which doesn't mean that it comes out fully formed--often what sounded good in my head looks lousy on the page and sounds worse when spoken--so there's quite a bit of editing and revising. And, in truth, the sermon itself is never done until I deliver it, often never looking at the notes and speaking extemporaneously. The blog allows me to capture those ideas in a more meaningful way.

So, who to nominate? I'm going to tap three classmates: Alan CookBenjamin Sharff, and Joshua Garroway (who doesn't blog but does sometimes respond on social media). Would love to see how they respond to these questions.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Parashat Re'eh: See the choice

This past Shabbat I witnessed a miracle, the kind of miracle that only happens at Jewish camp.

This past Shabbat, the 10th graders were leading services at Camp Harlam. The first torah reader stepped up, a tall girl with short shaggy hair and glasses, and a hush went over the congregation. This girl, we learned, has one Jewish parent, one non-Jewish parent. She was raised with nothing. She had never celebrated bat mitzvah. As a teenager, she took an interest in Judaism on her own. She found a synagogue and started attending by herself. She found out about camp Harlam and went for the first time ever this summer. And when her unit was called upon to lead services, she volunteered to read Torah. Some of her friends taught her Hebrew in thirty hours. The others ran to the art shack to make her a tallit—her first, made with spare fabric and yarn of white and blue. The Israeli staff helped her pick out a Hebrew name for herself. And on a clear sunny day, standing in the woods, with a stick as her yad and a giant stone as her shulchan, she recited the blessings and read three verses of torah for the first time in her life, trembling the entire time. There were tears, oh, how there were tears! How could you not cry with this young woman who chose to make Judaism and Torah a part of her life?

Was it the best torah reading ever, or the most beautiful tallit? Could it have been ‘better’ with more time and practice? Honestly, who cares? In that moment that girl, that young woman, affirmed a choice and linked herself to Israel in the most profound way. To quote one of my favorite movies, she took her first step into a larger world. Surrounded by her community—her Jewish community—she made it clear who she was and what it meant to her, and in doing so inspired an entire camp community, with ripple effects that continue to resonate.  For it wasn’t just her choice—in her choosing, she inspired those around her to lift her up, to act in a holy and sacred and supportive way, to be with her lovingly.

We all have choices: every day presents us with a myriad of them, and it’s up to us to decide—consciously or unconsciously—what we’re going to choose, blessing or curse. That’s how our portion begins this week: See, I give you the choice: blessing and curse. Sometimes it’s not clear in the moment which is which; sometimes our worst instincts or our woundedness lead us astray. But as Yehuda Leib of Ger writes: “Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. Each day, they are given the choice anew.” Our intentions, our efforts, our choices give us the opportunity to live as if every moment of every day is a miracle, if we but open ourselves to the possibility.

We look around the world right now, from Missouri to Europe to Israel, and we see people making the darkest of choices, acting as if they are compelled to do evil. They are not, we are not. We are not powerless, but are given the choice: to exert power and violence over others, to instill mistrust and fear, or to lift up blessing, to reaffirm our commitment to one another. You see, the choice is ours. How do you choose? 

Israel, antisemitism, what can we do?

Lately I've received voices of concern from congregants and others: we watch what's going on in the world, especially in Israel and Gaza, with increasing antisemitism in Europe and the US, and we ask ourselves: "what can we do?"

Each of us wishes we had a magic wand to make it all go away. Sadly, we don't, but that doesn't mean we must stand idly by. Indeed, as Jews we have an obligation to seek justice for all and root out hate wherever it hides. 

So after giving it a think, here's some suggestions: 

Support Your Local Jewish Community

"How does that help Jews in Ashkelon or Berlin?" you might ask. The answer is: Many local communities have efforts in place to help communities in Israel hit hardest by the war. Many local Federations (including the Jewish Federation of Delaware) are supporting the effort Israel Under Fire (see previous link). The Reform Movement is working on the project "Stop The Sirens". The Jewish National Fund and Hadassah also have efforts to support communities under fire. Finally, investing in Israel Bonds becomes not an act of charity but investment in Israel's future, especially at a time when that future is not just under attack from rockets, but the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement. Finally, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces is a great way to support Israel boys and girls defending their country, as are programs to write letters to Israeli soldiers. 

Likewise, supporting through local communities also gives those communities the ability to support Israel locally in the media and fight antisemitism on a local level through local programming, such as inviting shlichim (emmisaries from Israel), speakers, youth programs, music and culture, and other ways of getting the word out. 

Stay Informed

Find some good news sources and stick with them. I tend to follow
Haaretz (center-left; Israel's paper of record)
Times of Israel (center-right with many diverse voices)
Jerusalem Post (center-right aimed at English Speakers)
ynet news (the website for Yedioth Achronoth, Israel's daily morning paper)
Tablet Magazine: American/International Jewish News Source

Try to find a diversity of sources--include Slate and The Economist for some different perspectives and voices. 

All of the aforementioned also have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (as does the IDF and Americans For Peace Now): add them to your own. Likewise, follow Social Media voices that tend to be informative and helpful. I follow Jason Miller, Menachem Creditor, Israel News Now, and a few others (heck, follow me--I try to repost and retweet stuff that is informative and helpful where possible). 

If you want to try to live the experience to gain greater sensitivity, download the Red Alert App (also available for Droid). Designed for Israelis to warn of an incoming Missile Attack--put it on your phone and see how often it goes off. Ask yourself: could you get to the shelter in time? 

Speak Out

Your voice matters. Write letters to the editor. Call your senators and congressional representatives. Write the White House. Write to state government, including Attorneys General offices, local representatives and the governor's office (especially on issues of antisemitism). Post on social media. Speak to your friends. And that goes for everyone: I'm sick at heart over Gaza and its people EVEN AS I fear for Israelis in the south, or Jews in Denmark or Philadelphia. If you have a nuanced view, share it (most Israelis do too). But share your support. Engage in dialogue. And report antisemitism where you see it (The ADL has a way to do so on their main page. Any hate crime, really). Speak out, stand up to it. Remember, silence equals consent, and if we don't encourage our friends and family (and drum up the gumption ourselves) to speak out, rather than ignore or laugh off, then we will see hateful speech turn to hateful action (Great article on this by Deborah Lipstadt). 

Go To Israel

Okay, this might be out of many people's price range, but seriously, if you have the means, go. Rethink that vacation in the Bahamas and plan to go to Israel. This is especially important after so many airlines cancelled their flights this year. Make the plan, and go. It doesn't just support their economy--it shows the world that we are not afraid. 

These are just some ways to get involved and help. Do you have suggestions for others? Feel free to share!

*(There, are, of course, other issues in the world too. If you're concerned that this focuses too much on Israel and not enough on issues like Ferguson, ISIS, Ukraine, Climate Change, Boko Haram, etc. I hear you. Many, many of the suggestions above apply equally well to those issues, especially regarding advocacy. And the Israeli press is often more responsive to the situation in the Ukraine and Syria than the US press. So feel free to adapt these techniques for those issues too!). 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Passing of Robin Williams

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

― Alan MooreWatchmen

Even while I'm at camp I'm not completely immune to the news. Robin Williams' death is both shocking and, sadly, not entirely unexpected. We have known for years that the actor and comedian, brilliant as he was at his craft, struggled with depression, self-medication and addiction. 

Wilmington's Jewish community has suffered a rash of suicides this year, all of them young people, each one more tragic and gut-wrenching than the next. When a celebrity dies in such a manner there is hope that more attention will be paid; the cynic in me doubts it. 

The truth is: depression is neither weakness nor failing. It is an illness that must be taken seriously. It doesn't define the sufferer; yet we approach depression with fear of contagion and a sense of taboo. There is nothing Jewish about this; the psalms speak of walking in valleys of deepest darkness (psalm 23). Elijah, after his confrontation on Mt. Carmel, appears to have a depressive episode, and pleads before God at Horeb to take his life, as relief from his despair. Likewise Jonah and Saul. Each person's experience is unique; therefore, each person is going to need different kinds of support, and different techniques to deal with the symptoms: medication, therapy, meditation, reading, writing, being surrounded by loved ones, acting. But all of those techniques tread the symptoms; too often we act as if they can be a panacea. It is not enough to wish they knew they were loved; as Molly Pohlig points out beautifully in this post on Slate, "At my lowest, love cannot save me. Hope, prayers, daily affirmations—none of these can save me. Therapy and medicine are what matter, and those don’t always work either."

What is needed is to create the space to speak openly, lovingly, about those who suffer depression, to see the person suffering and not merely the illness, and to offer them the strength that when they do walk through the valley of deepest darkness, they are able to come through.

If you are suffering, reach out to a teacher, a friend, a clergy person. And if you feel you have no one to reach out to, The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Parashat Devarim: Words Words Words

How lonely sits the city That was full of people! She has become like a widow Who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces Has become a forced laborer! 2She weeps bitterly in the night And her tears are on her cheeks; She has none to comfort her Among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; They have become her enemies.…
 These words open the book of Lamentations, the scroll recited on the 9th of Av, the day of disaster for the Jewish people. The day Jerusalem fell twice, the Jews of England were expelled in the middle ages, the Jews of Spain expelled in 1492, and the day Germany declared war on Russia, ushering in World War One. The words recited, in the plaintive Lamentations chant, give voice to the heartache of a people utterly ruined, a people full of mourning, full of anxiety for the future, a people who have experienced such tragedy it is amazing they can find words to describe it.
It is ironic that we anticipate this book, this holy day, with parashat devarim, the portion of words. In it Israel stands on the shore of the Jordan, their future bright and shining before them. The disasters of the desert, the endless tragedy of slavery is behind them, and before them the land promised to their ancestors, and with that land God’s blessing and protection. Just as this generation hadn’t tasted the bitter fruit of slavery, so too they cannot imagine the defeats to befall their descendants.
Moses can, however, and he has words for Israel. Many, many words. Moses begins his last charge to the people, for Israel won’t have the benefit of hearing Moses any longer. And boy, does he let ‘em have it! Again and again Moses rebukes Israel, reminding them of mistake after mistake, rebuking them with love. Rabbi Simcha Bunem argues that Moses spoke to each person individually, according to their age, personality and level of understanding. It’s not that Moses wants to criticize them;  the rabbis imagine Moses as reluctant to admonish his people. But he has to; the mistakes they’ve made in the past—idolatry, disloyalty to God, faithlessness—die hard. They have to hear it, so they can enter the land with Joshua and know success instead of the failures of the past.
We’re not big on hearing about failure. We don’t want to hear to bad news. Again and again lately I talk to people who try to specifically NOT focus on the news in Israel and around the world. And how often I have heard people try to ‘protect’ one another from hurt feelings. At Michal Cherrin’s funeral this past week, I talked to one parent who didn’t want to tell her daughter, a former student, of her passing. Of course the daughter got the news via texts from friends; the truth will out eventually, and the question is whether or not we are willing to hear those words, really truly hear them, and act accordingly. This is true in our own lives—we become so adept at hiding our true selves even from ourselves that we avoid the real work of living up to our God-given potential, and it seems like only at the high holidays do we get a real glimpse at ourselves and work to fix the broken shards within.
And it is equally true in our current climate. It would be easy to focus on the news of Israel and ignore the dying in Gaza, but we cannot. It would be easy to dismiss the critics of Israel as naïve (though often they are) or anti-Semitic (and frequently they are as well), but many are well-meaning, and knowledgeable, and our friends. Likewise we may read support of Israel that cheers us until it turns ugly, bigoted, impugning all Arabs, all Presbyterians, all liberals, all students, all of anyone. And while we’re focused on Israel, we can replace the name of our home with any issue of controversy: gun control, abortion, immigration, the death penalty, racism.
Jerusalem fell the first time because of idolatry, and the second time because of senseless hatred. If Israel and the Jewish people is to survive, if we are to survive, we need to put aside the idolatry of our own rightness, our casual hatred of the other, and listen deeply. Doesn’t mean we have to agree, but it does mean we have to take their words seriously. We must hear before we can rebuke or respond, and then respond as Moses did, in the way they can hear. Maybe we can’t change their minds (and we probably can’t, and it’s probably a waste of time), but maybe we can learn something even in our disagreement.
Eichah, Lamentations, begins with powerful words of defeat, it ends with powerful words of hope, words we recite in our liturgy today: chadeish yameinu mikedem: renew our days, as of old. Renew us, and our words O God, that we may hear and answer each other wholeheartedly. Amen.