Friday, March 18, 2016

Shabbat Zachor: Blotting out Amalek

This past Saturday night as I was dreading the changing of the clock for Daylight Savings, I saw online a cartoon that read “I’m ready to turn the clock forward 8 months until after the elections are over.”

Show of hands, who feels that way? I bet a lot of us do. We’ve been in election mode since the early summer a year ago and we have a long way to go yet. And the process has not made us more astute, or thoughtful about our political choices. Mostly it’s been a lot of yelling. There’s been yelling at the debates; though up until recently the Democrats were having relatively calm discussions about policy. There’s been yelling over the internet. Yelling between the candidates, which has turned increasingly crass. There’s been Yelling between different parts of the electorate, which have devolved into physical attacks. And, of course, yelling threats to the press, to protesters, to counter-protesters.  Are the candidates sexist? Misogynist? Fascist? Communist? Is Trump Silvio Berlusconi, or George Wallace, or Mussolini? Or even worse?

The whole thing raises my anxiety level from one scotch to two-and-a-half, and it worries me considerably. It worries me for our process, which has been getting increasingly harsh and banal for years, and seems to be looking for new ways to demolish our integrity and hope for the future.
I’m starting to wonder if the folks who organized the most recent round of primaries knew the Jewish calendar. Purim is around the corner, which means this Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, that time when we are tasked with remembering Amalek, how they sought to wipe us out as we departed from Egypt by attacking the most vulnerable of our people. Haman, the villain of Purim is understood to be a descendant of Amalek’s king Agag, and he becomes the archetypal Amalekite: an egotistical, xenophobic leader eager to murder an entire people, our people.

Amalek and Haman are not just historical characters, of course. They are metaphors for those who would commit acts of genocide, who would prey upon the vulnerable, and who has wished over the ages to commit unspeakable acts driven by their antisemitism.

It’s also interesting to also note that AIPAC’s Policy Conference usually takes place right before Purim, as it does this year. Having attended a few times, I can tell you it’s not unusual to hear language echoing those ideas—of the fight against antisemitism and safety of the Jews—at AIPAC’s policy conference.  This year they have invited Donald Trump to speak, declaring it to be an act of bipartisanship. After all, he is the frontrunner on the Republican side, they argue.  And, they clarify, an invitation to speak is not an endorsement.

A few weeks ago Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College, my alma mater, used similar language to describe why they were not firing a faculty member who claims that the Jews orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and the downing of Malaysian flight 370, among other things. She is permitted to speak, Krislov says, but her speech should not be seen as having been endorsed by the college.


So if we don’t buy that logic from Oberlin, why does it work for AIPAC, exactly? How does this burnish their bipartisan, pragmatic reputation? More to the point, how does this keep Israel from becoming a partisan issue?  As one example, couldn’t they simply have not invited any of the presidential candidates and stayed out of the fray? What does having Trump, who’s own agenda, if you can call it that, seems to speak in the language of violence and xenophobia, accomplish, exactly?
I said before that Amalek and Haman are metaphors, but if we draw the conclusion that they are only metaphors for people we do ourselves a disservice. There are other lessons for us to learn from Haman and Amalek. Amalek is a metaphor for the abuse of the vulnerable, Haman a metaphor for power unchecked and in the service of ego. And they are more than that; they are a mirror for us to look into. At the end of the book of Esther, the Jews are saved not by cancelling the decree, but by doing to the people of Shushan exactly what Haman and his followers would have done to them. That is, the Jews become the mob, performing massacres so numerous that non-Jews pretend to be Jews to avoid destruction. That is a lesson as well: that our values of democracy and free speech cannot be allowed to be manipulated or misused in the pursuit of power and publicity. We also learn from Esther that strength comes from one’s own identity, and that we cannot wait for others to come save the day, or that the problems we face will magically go away on their own.

We are commanded to remember Amalek, and blot their name—what they stand for—from the earth. If we are to truly blot out Amalek, we must stay true to our values, and not give voice to our worst instincts. We must protect the vulnerable especially because they are vulnerable, and we must be suspicious of those who seek power as an extension of their own egos, and would even stoop to use violence in language and action to achieve such power. Early in the book of Esther, Mordechai reminds Esther that she has an obligation not to keep silent, and that perhaps she has more ability to deal with the crisis than she thinks. Mordechai is speaking to us as well. We cannot remain silent, and who knows? Perhaps we were put here for just such a crisis. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Parashat Pekudei: In God's Shadow

We have come to the completion of the book of Exodus and the Completion of the Mishkan, the dwelling place of God amidst the people. It has taken up torah portion after torah portion throughout the second half of the book of Exodus, and finally, we are seeing the end of the project under Bezalel’s careful eye.  

But who is Bezalel? Bezalel we are told has the divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge: Chochma, T’vuna v’da’at. He is hand chosen by God to lead the work on completing the Tabernacle. A master artisan, we are told that, in the work he does to finish the tabernacle, he manages to fulfill all 613 mitzvot in the process of completing the work. And his name is immortalized as the name for Israel’s school of Art and Design.

But I think there’s more to Bezalel, to be found in breaking down his name. Check the midrash:
Midrash: Numbers Rabbah 12:3

The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to Moses, “And you shall make a menorah of pure gold.” Moses asked God, “How shall we make it?” “Of beaten work…” said God. Nevertheless, Moses still found difficulty in understanding, and when he came down he forgot its construction. He went up again and said: “How shall we make it?” God told him, “Of beaten work.” Still Moses experienced difficulty, and when he descended he forgot…Finally God drew a Menorah in fire and showed him its construction. Yet, in spite of all this, it caused Moses difficulty. The Holy One, Blessed be God, said to him, “Go to Bezalel and he will make it.” So he told Bezalel, and he immediately constructed it. Moses began to wonder, saying: “To me it was shown ever so many times by the Holy One…yet I found it hard to make, and you who did not see it, constructed it with your own intelligence! Bezalel! You stood in the shadow of God (Be-tzal-el) when the Holy one showed me its construction!”  
One way to read and understand this is describing a character, a person who is in God’s Shadow, and therefore is able to learn and understand what even Moses cannot understand.

Another is to see Bezalel as a template: the ones who will complete the work, who will see the Divine vision through, are those who are in God’s shadow.

We think of the shadow as a negative in modern imagery: it’s the one who needs to hide who dwells in the shadows.

But it is also in the shadow that we are shaded and protected. That’s the imagery we receive again and again. We are protected in the shadow of God’s wings, the shade of God’s Sukkah stretched over us, and most importantly, the shadow of the cloud that dwells over the people and the Mishkan as they rest from their journeys.

It is in that shadow that creativity emerges, and it is in that shadow that growth happens. It is in the Shadow that the details get hammered out, where people can dream and imagine and shape.  It is in the shadow that a kind of reverie can take place. As Aviva Zornberg writes:   “it counteracts the hunger for premature certainties, for completed images that deaden the imagination.” Shine a light too soon, and the ideas crumble.  The self we are trying to create crumbles.

So, how much time do we actually get to spend in the shadows? How much time to we get be creative, to grow, to be in God’s shadow? When do we have time to learn what Zornberg calles the ‘cautious audacity’ that ‘intuitive confidence in the moment’ in the Shadow of God? How often do we get to be Bezalel?

I know I don’t have enough time—not enough time to study, to reflect, to play-in-work.  There’s too much to do and not enough time to really reflect, never mind breathe. But we need that time, those moments of creative audacity. As Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan wrote: “An artist cannot be continually wielding his brush. He must stop at times in his painting to freshen his vision of the object, the meaning of which he wishes to express on his canvas. Living is also an art."

We are artists in our own lives, we are Bezalel, but only if we choose to step back from the canvas we are creating and step into God’s Shadow. May we be brave enough to do so in our lives. Amen.