Friday, October 31, 2014

Lech Lecha: Be A Blessing

This past week I had the blessing of driving down to Baltimore with Rabbi Beals for a special AIPAC presentation. The American Israel Political Action Committee brought in Ari Shavit to speak in the Baltimore area, and he gave a rabbis-only presentation at lunchtime. I have not read Shavit’s book yet, but I have frequently read his articles in Ha’aretz and I find him to be the most lucid writer on Israel’s current situation.
This being an AIPAC program, he could have started with a discussion of the war in Gaza, or the kidnapping of the three teenagers, or ISIS or Iran or the current ‘crisis’ in the American-Israel relationship as Yair Lapid refers to it, but instead he chose to begin with a story, a true story, the story of his great grandfather.
Shavit’s great grandfather was a proper British Victorian gentleman who found his way to the port of Jaffa in 1897. He had grown up in England as a full citizen of the Empire, then the most powerful and progressive nation in the world. He loved that Empire, loved the English language, loved the Queen, Shakespeare, had been educated at Cambridge, did very well for himself in business, and was said to even look like the Prince of Wales. Why, then, Shavit wondered, did this successful, assimilated British gentleman, the model of success, make his way to a hard-scrabble port city, unwelcoming, on the seeming other side of the world? What would make him leave?
That, my friends, is the fundamental question of Judaism, the very question that begins this epic journey we are all participating in to this very day. “The Eternal said to Avram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” Forget about the stories of the Idol Shop, and Avram being the first monotheist and all that jazz—what makes a person uproot themselves from their native land and family home to go to a totally different place, an uncomfortable place, a place where he will be a stranger, with no connections, where he won’t even speak the language, where he will be rootless, where he will be the Other?
Avram’s story is Shavit’s great-grandfather’s story, and is our own story. For Shavit’s Great-Grandfather, he left his comfortable life because, according to him, the early Zionists were prescient in two specific ways. One, they realized that Europe, where they had been—and continue to be—the ultimate Other, Jewish life was ultimately doomed. They did not—could not—see how destructive Europe would become, but they understood that a Jewish life of progressive values could no longer exist there. Second, unless you were Orthodox and willing to remain within the walls of the ghetto—even carrying the ghetto with you—the only way to create a progressive, modern Jewish identity was to be willing to uproot themselves and their families, go to a foreign place, leave everything they understood about the world behind, and even re-create an all-but forgotten language in order to revitalize the Jewish experience. Zionism, so often castigated as racist and incompatible with modern values, was actually the greatest, most just revolution of the modern era, and it saved Judaism.
Shavit’s family story is Avram’s story, is our story. Avram leaves Paddan-Aram to be a blessing, that all the families of the world shall bless themselves by him and his descendants. That blessing could not be realized in the old country, where people were set in their ways. That blessing could not be realized with the temptation of assimilation, where the lone voice of justice and light would get drowned out by the cacophony of poverty and darkness. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers and anxieties: by embracing the role of Other, we are often vilified. There is no place in the world the Jew can live in isolation; even in the Land of Israel is an Arab population galvanized to seek their own destiny. Avram, for all God’s blessings, agonizes whether there will be another generation, never mind descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. We, too, wring our hands over whether our children can and will choose to be both progressive and Jewish, whether our values are compatible, or whether we should release our Otherness entirely. Zionism, born of a progressive ideal, is increasingly misused by nationalists, Jewish chauvinists and religious extremists, with results such as last week when women had to smuggle a barbie-sized torah scroll to the kotel to celebrate a bat mitzvah, or when Shavit got married by his rabbi in Jerusalem, and it wasn’t recognized, but the second ‘official’ marriage in England by a non-Jewish clerk in an office in London was.
This summer, indeed this past year, we’ve been reminded of our Otherness again and again. We have been reminded by well-meaning non-Jews who cannot relate to our experience, and by extremists in our own camp we’d sooner avoid. We have a choice before us, Avram’s choice: we could try to make a go of it and convince ourselves and them that we aren’t different. Or, to borrow a shopworn phrase, we could ‘lean in’ to our otherness, and become the blessing we are meant to be. That means leaving our comfort zones. That means speaking out against injustice wherever we see it; the soft bigotry of the European-American left, and the hard bigotry of the Ultra-Nationalist Right. We must challenge the false equivalencies of Zionism and Racism, but we must also work to combat the bigots in our midst who would maintain a status quo that satisfies no one: not the Jew, not the Palestinian, not the woman, not the young person asked to protect his country. We must own Zionism, and not let others define what that means for us.
What must we do? We have our own elections next week where we can make our voices—our progressive voices—heard. And The World Zionist Organization elections begin next month. The WZO sets the policy of the Jewish Agency—including financial policies, and it is essential that our progressive voice is heard. I encourage you to register and vote for ARZA, the Reform Movement’s Zionist organization, to promote our progressive values. And it’s not just about voting; when our kids come home challenged by a social studies project that casts Israel in a bad light, when we hear the voice of the disempowered in our own community grow ever fainter, when we see poverty and violence snuff out any hope in this world, when we see our fellow Jews attempt to enforce some romanticized version of Orthodoxy as a way of ‘keeping the peace’, we must act.  It isn’t enough to hold anxiously to our values here within our own House; we need to bring that forward to the community around us.

To be a Blessing is not easy; the challenges are legion, and there are days when it would just be easier to nod and smile. But like Avram our father and the Zionists of old, we are called to a journey—from ease to action, from comfort to justice, from darkness to light. May we find our way together on this journey, and may each of us strive to be a blessing. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Noah and Anxiety: or what happens when we focus on the wrong thing

This past week's sermon!

So I’m at the JCC working on my elliptical and the person to the left of me, a longtime acquaintance, starts gesturing at the TVs. “Ah, I hate it! I hate coming in and seeing these things. It puts me in a bad mood all day.”
She was not angry at TVs themselves, mind you. The electrical rectangles hadn’t done anything to offend her personally. It was, rather, the content on those screens. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC. And what were they showing? We’re all going to die of Ebola. That is, assuming ISIS doesn’t get us first. Or perhaps the various citizens and civil servants of Ferguson? Or the Russian army? Each screen with its own brand and style of hyperventilation, each filling the air with nothing but anxiety and, frankly, nonsense. But there it is, staring us in the face, trying to rile us up to be equally anxious consumers of more anxiety. So we steep in it, increasingly convinced that the world is falling apart, that things are worse than they used to be, that everything is failing around us. So even if we don’t become anxious ourselves, we become cynical, convinced that no good can come of it, that any solution proposed is meaningless, hype, defective in some way, or detrimental; that in fact doing some good is worse than doing nothing.
We are convinced that the sky is falling, or at least there are those working very hard to convince us that the sky is falling. At the same time, we’re being told that there’s nothing to do, nor nothing we can do, about the injustice, inequality or environmental issues that we are facing. Our voices are too small, our actions are empty, our capacity limited. As Leonard Cohen growls, “everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost.”
Well if that’s really the state of the world, I don’t believe it. I think that’s the product news media wants to sell us—crises increase ratings, after all. This isn’t to say the world is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, either; of course we have our challenges, and those challenges are real. But I, for one, am tired of being told the problems are too big, the solutions too grandiose. And I am tired of manufactured crises that obfuscate real challenges in our world.
In the Torah portion for this week, in parashat Noach, humanity faced a real crisis: “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with violence.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth,  God said to Noah, "I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.” Again, we focus on the wrong thing—we are distracted by the Mabul, the flood that will come; we don’t look at the cause of that flood. The problem wasn’t the weather; the problem was the violence—Hamas, by the way, is the word used—in the land.
So it is with us: A few sick people in Dallas from a weak virus masks the thousands dead in Africa, and the lack of support we provide to deal with even more virulent illnesses—more people will die of the flu in America this year than Ebola. ISIS does not currently threaten our border, but it does reveal the stresses in our alliances, and soft thinking by our top diplomats about the Middle East, and reveal how we so often see the other with suspicion. I don’t know what happened in Ferguson; I do know that we have a problem with the way we treat black men, among many, many others who are both actively and passively disempowered in our society. We have challenges, friends, but the real challenge too frequently isn’t the one we’re focused on. We look on helplessly at the problems we can’t fix, taking our eyes off the ones we can and ought and must.
When God commands Noah to build the ark, he is given a strange commandment: to build a “tzohar”, which could mean roof, but also mean ‘skylight’. Who puts a skylight in an ark when the rains are about to come? Someone who needs to know the sun will come out again, and needs to see that sun rise. Someone who needs to see that it isn’t dark out there, that the good guys haven’t lost, that the war is not over, that the challenge remains, but we can step up to that challenge. Gloom may surround us; it may blare at us over the airwaves. But let us make skylights in our lives to let the sun in, for it will return again.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Erev Yom Kippur: The Dash Between the Numbers

Here's my Kol Nidre sermon.
 Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
--Walt Whitman
 Just outside of Camp Harlam there’s a tiny cemetery, the Dotter’s Corner Cemetery Association. It sits on a hill with a gorgeous view overlooking the Pocono Mountains, the stones facing east toward the dawn as it rises over the trees. If you’ve ever been to the Chapel On The Hill at Harlam, the view from this cemetery is a very close second. The field—barely the size of a back yard—is filled with an amazing collection of stones. Some date back to the early 19th century, and clearly belong to the original Dotter family, whose farm they must have stood upon. Others reflect the evolution of the community: civil war veterans, children who died of the Spanish flu. Names like Serfass and Bruch and Martini and Schwartz reflect the diversity of the community.  Some stones are ornate, with images of the deceased, or of their careers (lots of trucks and farm equipment). Others are marked with only simple stones, marked only with initials, or sometimes a piece of slate with no name, a cross made out of iron pipe. In a few cases it’s only the plastic signs left by the funeral home from the service itself, going back to the 1970s. 
It’s a humbling place, this cemetery on Dotter’s Corner, on this hill facing the dawn. When I’m at camp I walk through it most mornings, looking at the names and the dates, or the iron cross or the piece of slate, and wondering the story of the person beneath that stone.
Every stone has a story, be it in Kresgeville or Wilmington, or Arlington, or anywhere. When we look at a marker or a headstone, we focus on the name and the dates: the year of birth and the year of death. But the most important mark in the stone is none of those things, nor any slogan or blessing that may be found; it’s the dash between the years; because it is in that dash that the story of that life is found.  In that dash are all the games the person played as a child, his relationship with his parents and friends and siblings. In that dash are his illnesses and injuries and defeats. In that dash are his first loves and broken hearts, his days of boredom and moments of learning. In that dash are the careers he made, the family he loved, the opportunities he missed. In that dash are the cars he drove and the violence he experienced, the mundane moments and the profound moments and the silly moments.

I have these same thoughts every time I go to our cemetery, or the one on Foulk Rd. I look at the stones and recognize the names of people I’ve buried, and I remember their stories. I remember our conversations and conversations with their families. I remember how they lived their values, how they cared for their loved ones, how they thought of themselves and how others thought of them. I think of those stories that reside in the dash between the numbers on their stones. That is why we are so heartbroken at Holocaust memorials and tombs of the Unknown Soldier, at mass graves of the innocent dead, at monuments by the sea. For they are dedicated to those whose names we will never know, whose dates are left blank, and whose stories are too often swept into the eddies of time, unspoken and unremembered.  And without those stories, without the dash between the dates, we are nothing. 
And you know something? Each of us, every one of us, will be marked by a stone, with our name at the top, and our dates of birth and death underneath. The question is, what will fall in the dash for each of us? Who will remember our story, and what story will they remember? Will we be remembered for blessing or curse, for helping someone in a time of need, or an unkind word that cut to the quick? Will we be remembered for our vanities or for our sacrifices? I raise this not to be morbid, but to tell a truth. It is others who will tell our stories for us, whether we like it or not—our friends, our family, our children and grandchildren, and we’ll never know if they get it right. But we do get to decide what happens inside that dash, how we live our lives, how we live up to our values so that perhaps, when others see that dash on our stones, we will be remembered for blessing.
Tomorrow we will stand and confess our sins, our mistakes, the times we went astray. We will recite Unetaneh Tokeph, which reminds us that we do not control the dates of our lives: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and Yom Kippur it is sealed: who shall live and who shall die…” We wish we had some control over those numbers, but we do not, and we chafe and groan and rail at how unfair life seems. And tomorrow we will also hear the words of Moses, who tells us that we should choose life that we may live. Not life in general, but what sort of life is worth living! We cannot choose the numbers on the stone, but we can choose what happens inside the dash. We can choose a life worth living. What is the life we will choose? What is the life we are choosing? No one has control over that but us, each one of us. And we owe it to those stones that await us to live our lives most fully. 
The powerful play goes on, and we may contribute a verse. Tonight we recommit ourselves to writing that verse. May we write them with care. Amen. 

Doing The Best I Can: Yom Kippur Morning

Friends: below you'll find my second sermon for Yom Kippur.
Who am I? I am me.
Where am I? I am here.
When is it? It is now.
What am I doing? I’m doing the best I can. 
The time has come. The gates of prayer and repentance are open; they have been open for ten days. Today is the last day. Soon, too soon, as the sun descends, as we ourselves grow exhausted physically and emotionally and spiritually, the gates will begin to close. We have had a whole year to make amends, to correct our wrongs, to look deeply within ourselves and do the hard work of turning toward the right path, the path we know is right. Now we have had a week-and-a-half sprint to the finish line, an intensive. The year is new—will we be new, or bogged down by the same old same old, the same rag and bone shop of the heart that weighs us down year after year, the same old hurts, the same old grudges, the same old patterns of behavior? Or will we seek to change our ways, to change ourselves, to realign our expectations within and without? Will this be a new year, or same stuff, different day? 
Who am I? I wish I could say I was new and renewed, but I am not. I try, I strive, I work against my nature. Perhaps this year I can tweak at the corners some little habit or tic; but I am me. And I don’t want to accept me for who I am. I don’t want to own it. I want the idealized me, the platonic me, the me I want other people to see. But what would it mean, instead, for me to accept myself? Not accept what’s wrong in order to change it, but be totally aware and pay attention to who I really am, what my needs are, where my soul lives, rather than focus so much on what I think other people need to see? Would I be happier? Would I be more at peace? Instead of fighting against my nature, would I then give myself the opportunity to do real transformation? We read in Torah this morning—God’s expectations are not in heaven, nor across the sea. They aren’t baffling or beyond our reach—my reach. God’s expectations are in my heart, in my mouth. If God’s expectations are within, why do I continually look outside? Nachman of Bratzlav wrote: the day you were born is the day God decided the world couldn’t exist without you. If God needs me in the world, me, why can’t I accept that—why won’t I accept me? What am I afraid of? So we pray with all our hearts for things to be different. We hope that prayer, repentance and charity will change our lives, change ourselves. But as Alan Lew writes: “The liturgy, however, makes a very different claim, namely that prayer, righteousness, and Teshuvah will not change what happens to us; rather, they will change us. We will understand what happens differently… Spiritual practice won’t change what happens. Rather, it will help us to experience what happens not as evil, but simply as what happens.” And I would add: spiritual practice doesn’t change me; it helps me see and accept the real me. 
Where am I? This year I treated myself to a new tallit, a new prayer shawl. And rather than the beracha on the Atarah, rather than the blessing, I had my favorite words of Torah embroidered: Achein yesh Adonai b’makom Hazeh v’anochi lo yadati—surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it, the words Jacob says when he awakens from his dream. They are the words I live by, they are my maxim, the realest truth that I know. God is here, in this place, in EVERY PLACE, and we, to quote Chaim Stern, walk sightless among miracles. We are caught up in our daily habits and routines and are blind to each others’ true selves and the spark of the divine each of us brings forward. Or, perhaps, we stifle that spark, afraid that others will not understand or appreciate it, or fear it. We are surrounded by God in every moment, for we are surrounded by each other, and we know that God is present only through us. But we tune God out. As that great rabbi Yoda says, we are always somewhere else, always thinking about the future, and never where we are, and what we are doing. 
When is it? Who can tell? We fill up our schedules, and our children’s schedules, to make sure we appear busy, to make sure we are busy, for if we rest but one moment we might reflect on how we are squandering the holiness of our lives. We are blind to the day of the week; every day is the same, filled to the brim, and each one ends the same, with our collapsing from exhaustion. We bring our work with us on vacation, our phones are at our sides constantly, our laptops ready to go. We miss what is in front of us because we are afraid that if we looked and saw and took a snapshot of the moment, it might be too late. We think time is linear; that our lives are straight lines that shoot out toward the horizon. But they are not. Yeats had it right: the years are gyres, spinning us again and again back to the same moments. There is no perfect time; it is never too late. There is always now. Every moment is Sinai. We stand this day, not only us but all those who ever were and all those who ever will be. That is what our Torah teaches. We need merely to be fully present in that moment. 
What am I doing? A story by Alan Lew: Every year before the Days of Awe, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, held a competition to see who would blow the shofar for him on Rosh Hashanah. Now if you wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov, not only did you have to blow the shofar like a virtuoso, but you also had to learn an elaborate system of kavanot—secret prayers that were said just before you blew the shofar to direct the shofar blasts and to see that they had the proper effect in the supernal realms. All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man... He choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously—how utterly—he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept. All right, you’re hired, the Ba’al Shem said. But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavanah. So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavanot. And the ax—the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, wherever he may be—the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.” 
I want to have all the answers. I want to change the pain other people feel. I want to be God’s partner in every way. Yehuda Amichai sat looking at his children sleeping and whispered to himself, “I am not God, I am not God.” Nor am I. Nor are any of us. I am going to fail, but in my failure I pray that I find the key. 
The time has come. We are here in this place, in this moment, unabashedly and truly ourselves. We stand—sometimes in our own ways, making our tshuvah, our returning, harder for ourselves.  We are brokenhearted. Good. That means we have the ax in our hands. “The heart is always breaking, the gates are always clanging shut. It is always the last minute.” Now is the last minute, the last minute as the gates are open to pray and be with all our hearts. So I ask you to join me in meditation and prayer, the prayer I recited at the beginning:
 Who am I? I am me.
Where am I? I am here.
When is it? It is now.
What am I doing? I’m doing the best I can.