Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blogging Elul: Rosh Chodesh, Shoftim and choosing to Act

In the summer of 1958, Groucho Marx took his daughter Melinda, friend Robert Duan and Robert’s daughter Judy for a six week trip to Europe, including a visit to Germany. While in Germany, they attempted to visit the cemetery where Groucho’s grandmother was buried, only to find the entire Jewish section had been eradicated by the Nazis. A few days later, Groucho hired a car to take them to East Berlin, where he asked to see the remains of Hitler’s bunker and last resting place. They found it much the way it was right after the war; a heap of wreckage and rubble. Marx got out of the car, stood atop it, and proceeded to do a frenetic Charleston routine; an ultimate act of defiance. No one laughed. They left Germany the next day.

It’s worth reflecting on that image, of Groucho Marx literally dancing on the grave of Hitler, without even a hint of humor in the moment, as we continue to process the events of the last few weeks. Rabbi Koppel, in conversation with me, reflected that it seemed as if the march in Charlottesville sent the entire Jewish community into shock, and that we were—are—still wrestling with what we should be doing. I mentioned this to a non-Jewish colleague, who said that he shared with his congregation the following question, based on the prophets: are we responding to the Tiki-torch Nazis out of righteousness or out of rage?

We might ask the question whether or not it matters; why shouldn’t we respond out of our own rage and pain? Wouldn’t we be justified to react in that fashion? To meet the forces of evil—and lets be clear, we are discussing evil—in the same manner they approach us?

This week we read in our Torah those words that we as Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, have clung to for generations; tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice you shall pursue. The Hasidic leader Rabbi Simcha Bunim understands the repetition of the word tzedek—Justice—to mean that we must pursue justice in a just way. We cannot, must not say the ends justify the means, for to do so means that we are no longer truly pursuing a just, compassionate and sacred world. Instead we are pursuing our own agenda, one filled with bad intentions. Or, through our actions, no matter our intent, instead of spreading justice, we create the fertile ground for more injustice in the world. We have seen this again and again as people who once pursued righteousness now seek to feed their own egos, or well-intentioned programs and efforts turn out to backfire on the very people they were supposed to help. So it is with us as well in this moment. I know it’s scary right now, and exhausting, and sad, and infuriating. The old punk in me would like nothing better than to curb-stomp some skinhead thugs. But that isn’t justice; it’s not even close. Surely the times demand that we act and act we must. But we won’t become them. We will not allow their hate, their penchant to violence, their disdain for justice to make us act out of fear and rage. We will not let them dictate the rules of the game. No; we will act with a defiant love in our hearts, a love for God and this world and our neighbors and our tradition as radical and provocative as dancing on Hitler’s grave. We will not shrink from our mission as Jews, but step forward, reminding others of God’s hidden light in the world, that will only be revealed when we lift up the poor, support the oppressed, and care for the stranger in our midst, for we know what it means to be the stranger. We will act with courage, but not hate, strength but not rage, justice but not zealousness. The moment is calling to us, and we must answer the call, to do justice justly in the world and cause the shadow of hate to crawl back under the rock.

In 1941 Woody Guthrie put the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. His music was his weapon against tyranny and hate. Groucho’s weapon against injustice was a crazy Charleston. Our weapon is Torah, guiding the work of our hands and the words we speak. We move forward, mindful of the words of the psalmist we say from now until Rosh Hashanah, Hope in God! Be strong and of good courage. Hope in God! Amen. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Charlottesville, Eikev and Being In The Camp Bubble

I've been at Camp Harlam as faculty for the last week now. It's been amazing, as always, working with my unit and their staff, being with colleagues and comparing notes, focused on this cloistered microcosm of Jewish life here in the Poconos.

The emphasis is on the word cloistered. Even while taking the unit to New York City earlier this week it's easy to feel disconnected from the outside world. That is, as they say, a feature, not a bug; the point is to get the kids (and staff) to focus entirely on the Jewish world they're creating here in Kunkletown, rather than be distracted by what might be happening off-camp. Campers aren't allowed phones or connected devices, and staff are asked to keep theirs discreet and use them only for work or in their off hours. So it's easy to loss connection with the daily round, including what's happening in Virginia right now.

I was in Charlottesville for the first time only two months ago. I was down to do a wedding, and Marisa and I used the opportunity for a little R&R as well. While there, we toured the Old Grounds of the University of Virginia, and later (when my son arrived from my in-laws) Monticello.

I was struck by two things while in Charlottesville. The first was the kindness and diversity of everyone I met: the woman who cut my hair the day before the wedding, the local friends of the couple, the folks we met in passing, the guy behind the counter at the used book store who clearly could spin a yarn,  the folks at the coffeeshop we had breakfast in. Sure, you might say, it's the South, of course they were nice. But it was more than that: they were kind.  There was a real sense of community in this town. A sense that all of us are in this together.

The other was how the city--and UVA--are still wrestling with race and the legacy of slavery. As someone who went to Oberlin, a school rooted first in the Underground Railroad and Emancipation and later the Civil Rights movement, it was hard for me to tour the campus and process how much slavery permeated the origins of the school. But to the school's credit, it was neither hidden away nor whitewashed; there were clear exhibits and displays discussing their "original sin" and its legacy.

So to see what's happening in Charlottesville today is heartbreaking. The hate. The bigotry. The violence and terrorism. The lack of shame on the part of those who fly the symbols of racism and rage and intimidation. And to be here, surrounded by children of every color of the rainbow and every orientation celebrating their Judaism knowing that only a half-a-day's ride, people are being threatened, beaten, or run over, makes me feel pulled in two different directions, groping for answers in the dark.

This week, in our Torah portion, we read: "Remember the long way that The Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness...[in order to] test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep [God's] commandments or not."(Deut. 8:2). Clearly we as a country are still in the wilderness, still tested by hardship; is this truly what is in our hearts as a country? Is this who we want to be? A place of fire and rage and hate and bigotry? Or can we find our way back on the path? At this morning's Shabbat service, the unit head and assistant unit head of Galil reminded us that our values are not goals to achieve, they are not things we are meant to master. Rather, we are presented opportunities to strive toward them, and while sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail as well. But failure can lead to learning, can lead us higher, to strive harder for those moments where we might be our best selves. Today, as we continue in the wilderness of history, is a moment of failure. Today is a moment where we failed God's test. Not for Charlottesville or Virginia, but for all of us. Even those of us cloistered away at summer camp. But it will only remain a failure if we fail to learn from it, if we fail to act on that learning. Today is a day of hate. May tomorrow be a day of love, a day of peace--because we made it as such.