Friday, December 19, 2014

Chanukah 2014: Yotzeir Or

Rabbi Eliezer said: In the light that God created on the first day, a person could see from one end of the world to the other. When God foresaw the misdeeds of future generations, God hid this light from them, reserving it for the righteous of the future.

Asked the disciples: "where was it hidden?"
He replied, "In the Torah."
They asked, "If so, will the righteous find something of this hidden light when they study Torah?"
He replied, "They will find and continue to find."
They asked, "If so, what should the righteous do when they find some of this hidden light in the Torah?"
He replied, "They should reveal it in the way they live." (From Martin Buber's Or HaGanuz)
I shared that story back at Rosh Hashanah, and it seemed appropriate to revisit it now. For one, we are in our season of Light: It seems this time of year we hear an awful lot about light. Everyone from the president to David Wolpe to every Jewish musician wants to say something about being a light, or lighting the way for others, or other really lovely ideas and images. For another, we are in our season of darkness. I don’t just mean the darkness of winter; now seems like an especially dark time in the world. From the threats Israel faces within and without to our own anxiety about our city, to the deaths of so many children in Pakistan, lights snuffed out too soon by barbaric murder, the words of Jacob Rader Marcus (z’l) seem awfully appropriate: it’s dark out there.
We need light, our prayerbook reminds us, when gloom darkens our home. And every morning we praise God as Yotzeir Or, the creator of Light. Not just at Chanukah time or in the winter, but every day. We do this in order to offer Praise to the One who began creation with the words, “Let there be light”. We do this in the hopes that God will continue to shine light on all of us: the light of renewal, of learning, of joy. Or chadash al Tzion tair: let a new light shine on Zion! But we also read this prayer as an instruction. For it isn’t only God that is Yotzeir Or; we have the power to be Yotzeir Or. It maybe God who created light, but we can bring forth light in the way we live. It would be easy to sink into the darkness of selfishness, of cynicism, the gloom of defeat. But we may not, we must not. No matter how dark our world seems, we are obligated to shine a light to those around us through the way we live Torah.
One taper isn’t enough to light a small room, never mind the world, but one taper is enough to light another. And another, and another, without being diminished itself.  We call that light the Shamash, a word that we say means ‘helper’, but is the same word as the sun in Hebrew. As we celebrate Chanukah, that holiday that means ‘dedication’, let’s rededicate ourselves to being the Shamash, to revealing the light hidden within not only ourselves but each other, the light of Torah. Thus we may chase away the darkness and illuminate the whole world with a new light, a light of hope.

Friday, December 12, 2014

She is more right(eous) than I!

One of my favorite Chasidic stories is about the Kotzker Rebbe, one of my Jewish heroes. He asked his students where is God? They looked at him baffled. Surely God is everywhere? The Kotzker Rebbe replied with a smile, God is only where you let God in.

It is a lovely story, and you’ve heard me tell it before, but what does it mean to let God in? Is it a profession of faith? Okay, well, what is a profession of faith? We usually understand it to mean a deep believe in a particular way, to to the exclusion of others. Perhaps even exclusion of other ways to a fault. Our truth is the real truth, the only truth, the only way.  Letting God In, under that rubric, might then be understood as a kind of a/b question: yes or no, right or wrong. Or as Heidi Klum puts it on Project Runway: either you're in or you're out.

That may be how we tend to understand faith and belief, but I don't know that's defensible in Judaism. Time and again we see God upholding not the one who is in but the one who is just.

Case in point: Tamar, from this week’s Torah portion. Cast aside as damaged goods by Judah, her father-in-law, because each son who married her in succession died, he never stops to think that he may be the one in the wrong. Instead, the brother who sold Joseph into slavery and left his father assumes he is right. It takes Tamar sleeping with him in the guise of a sacred prostitute and revealing his identity as the father of her children to proclaim that she is more tzedek than he. More right, but also more just.

We are increasingly like our namesake Judah. He couldn't conceive of s world where Tamar's needs were of equal values and his sons may be wicked. Likewise, we are uninterested in hearing other narratives that run counter to our own. We continue to assume the world is a/b: either you're right or you're wrong. Call it polarized, or chauvinistic, or what have you, the scenario is the same. And I repeats in the situation at UVA, in Ferguson and System Island, between Jews and Palestinians, between Jews and Jews, and here in Wilmington. But it is possible to hold more than one narrative as true. It can be true that the police mostly serve honorably and that there is a problem with race and class in this country. It is possible that Rolling Stone blew it on a journalistic integrity AND there is a problem of sexual assault on college campuses. It is possible that Wilmington has terrible problems, and is a wonderful community. And I can go on and on, not just on big social issues, but our personal relationships as well. How often do we feel we aren't listened to by the people in our circle? But we need to see the other side, EVEN AND ESPECIALLY when we disagree. Even if the other side isn't trying too hard to hear our side. Even when we know we're right.

The great theologian Krister Stendahl said, "We should learn to live in Holy Envy" - Rabbi Gary Bretton Grenatoor  understood that to mean: that truth can come from any source and to be respectful, and even open to truths that come from outside our own tradition.  Teach us, O God, to be able to say, even and especially when it’s hard, even at great cost to ourselves that he, that she, is more right than I. Teach us to put ego aside and focus on learning rather than winning. Then, may it be said they that we let God in. Amen.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Vayishlach, Breath and Not Letting Go

There’s an iyyun, a meditation that I love, that I learned from Levi Kelman of Kol Hanheshama. I use from time to time in services, especially with kids. I ask everyone to close their eyes, take a deep breath in, hold it while thinking on the past week, and then as they release their breath, they let the week go. The idea is to breathe Shabbat in, and breathe all the stresses of the week out; to draw in and hold onto that which is most sacred and precious, and release that which is most spiritually toxic, as easily as we breathe.
Breathing and the idea of breath is a powerful symbol of our tradition. God breathes life into us. It is through the breath of God that the Sea is parted. My teacher Rabbi Larry Kushner interpreted that God’s real name, the Ineffable Name, is a true, real breath, and increasingly we find the Shema recited in Reform congregations as it is at Rabbi Kelman’s congregation in Israel, as every word requiring a breath of its own. Breathing, which should be easy and natural, becomes a manipulative in meditation techniques, in Judaism and other traditions.  
Breathing should feel easy. This Shabbat, breathing doesn’t feel easy. I am, of course, speaking of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe” said as he was strangled by a police officer, a policeman who will now go free, despite video evidence that suggests there should at least be a trial. There is a palpable sense that the very right to breathe, to exist, is being undermined for a whole class, a whole race of people; that their breath is not worth our breath.
There is a struggle in this week’s Torah portion: a struggle between Jacob and…someone. Who that person is—God? An Angel? Esau? Jacob himself?—has provided much fodder for commentary, but I’m less interested in the who than in the why and the what. There is a struggle in our Torah this week, as Jacob wrestles with identity, with survival, with his blessing. He fights to a stalemate. He is wounded, permanently. He demands a blessing of his assailant—I will not let you go unless you bless me—and receives a change of name, and a change of status. His struggle changes everything, and never really goes away. There is no easy breath for Jacob, for Israel; only struggle. We are still struggling. I’m still struggling. I cannot shrug this off or let this go. I cannot, and I will not. It’s isn’t merely that we aren’t living in a post-racial America, or that we cannot hear each other’s narratives over the din of our own—though both statements are true. It’s that we’re pretending that the struggle doesn’t exist—even when the evidence is filmed and replayed over and over again. We are endlessly looking for things to be easy, for solutions to be simple, uncomplicated, without nuance. We want the answers to come easily, but they won’t.
We, of all people, should know and understand this. And it’s time for us—for each one of us—to stand up and banish any thought of ease. We need to turn outward, facing the struggle, face injustice rather than inward, away from it. We need to talk about race. We need to talk about discrimination in all its forms. We need to speak beyond mere platitudes. There is no struggle in platitudes. There is no challenge there, and therefore no blessing. There’s only empty breath. We need to wrestle deep within ourselves whether or not we are backing away from the struggle ourselves, for whatever reason, and explore why, or else every statement we make is an empty breath. Yes, when we struggle with injustice it feels like a stalemate. Yes, when we struggle we may be wounded. But through the struggle we encounter blessing, as Jacob did. Through the struggle we change ourselves for the better. Through our struggle we change everything, permanently.
We begin with breath, and we end with breath. We breathe in what is precious and holy, and breathe out what is spiritually toxic. But we cannot breathe out struggle. Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, writing about Garner’s death, wrote: “At the core is the breath, instinctive, not given, not taken, it is not a privilege or a right, it is even independent of oneself.” So is the breath, and so is the struggle. The breath rises, and we rise to meet the struggle, to face it, and to receive the blessing that emerges from it. We are tempted to let go, but we dare not. We must not. We must never let it go.