Saving Democracy is a Jewish Obligation

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Saying that democracy itself is on the ballot has become a cliche for a reason. Experts widely agree that threats to democracy in the U.S. and around the world are rising, including the specter of political violence and election subversion as we approach next month’s midterms. 

Democratic decline should be particularly worrisome to Jewish Americans. Historically, as democracies falter, persecution and violent extremism against minority groups, including and especially Jews, tends to rise. Indeed, the erosion of American democracy in recent years has coincided with a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents in the United States. Kanye West’s recent outbursts and with the hate it unleashed are but a terrifying case-in-point. But the Jewish obligation to democracy goes beyond the physical safety of our immediate community. Rather, preserving and strengthening democracy is central to our more overarching responsibility to repair the world.

Back in 1932, as the forces of fascism were beginning to take hold around the world, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed that selfishness is the defining characteristic of every conceivable form of government, particularly authoritarianism. Democracies are not perfect, but democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, enable and empower individuals to criticize laws, systems, and leaders, and to work through the political process to make the state increasingly inclusive, just, and peaceful. 

But democracies are not inherent or self-perpetuating. According to German philosopher Erich Fromm, who witnessed the rise of Nazism firsthand, human beings have a tendency to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty, toward homogeneity and authoritarianism. 

The gravitational pull of selfishness on the human soul is great; on human societies, greater still. Without cultivating a force powerful enough to oppose our natural predilection toward selfishness, we invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.

According to Jewish tradition, there is only one force capable of enabling and empowering individuals to think critically about their own self-interest and care about the welfare of others: yirah

The Hebrew term yirah can be translated a number of ways: fear, awe, reverence, respect. But conceptually, yirah is the recognition that we are merely a small part of something vast beyond all comprehension. It is akin to the feeling of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. 

A person with yirah understands the limitations of human knowledge and even imagination. A person with yirah comprehends the pettiness of self-interest, and the equal importance of the needs of all other people; indeed, the equal importance of the needs of all the rest of creation. A person with yirah by definition possesses a sense of broad responsibility, a recognition that the wellbeing of others is no less important than my own and that, in fact, our wellbeing is bound up together. 

Yirah is, therefore, the opposite of the arrogance of granting primacy to one’s own interests, an irreverent attitude toward others’ wellbeing. And because yirah is intrinsically opposed to self-interest, its growth within a population necessarily constrains society’s selfish impulse. Thus, unless we are actively cultivating yirah and advancing the inclusive, just, and peaceful world that reflects it, we are permitting ourselves and dooming each other to continue to be dominated by the tyranny of arrogance in all forms. 

The purpose of Jewish religious practice – study and prayer, tradition and ritual – is to help us cultivate a sense of our place in and responsibility for the world. And we nurture this awareness not as an end unto itself, but as the means through which we, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, take ourselves out of the narrowness of our own self-interest, recognizing our relationship to and responsibility for one another. 

Jewish faith and practice is in this sense meaningless unless it leads us to recommit ourselves to the work of making our world ever more just and peaceful. And that work is not theoretical and abstract. It’s practical and concrete. It requires systemic change and societal transformation on every level – local, state, national, and international. It therefore demands our political engagement because, in a democratic society such as ours, politics is the process through which the change envisioned by our tradition can be achieved in our world. And it also means we must not treat our synagogues as sanctuaries, retreats from the raging fires of the outside world. We must bring worldly affairs into sacred space, consider secular pursuits part of our spiritual practice, and recognize the place of politics in the pulpit.

As this election season draws near, I pray that my fellow Jewish Americans, along with all Americans of faith and conscience, draw upon their yirah in order to preserve our democracy, protect our collective wellbeing, and pursue a more just society. This is no time for neutrality. Now is the time for people of faith and conscience to pray through our political action, to put our worship to work, to raise our voices and cast our votes. Democracy isn’t perfect, but it’s the best path we have for pursuing our sacred responsibility of establishing heaven on earth.

This op-ed was originally published at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/saving-democracy-is-a-jewish-obligation/.

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When the Party’s Over — Shemini Atzeret 5783

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My friend and drumming teacher, Chris Parker, once taught me a lesson about music that has always stayed with me: “Music,” he said, “is sound organized in time.” In other words, sound without time is just noise. Time without sound is silence. But when sound is organized in time, that’s when it becomes something meaningful and beautiful. Music, therefore, is only music if it has a beginning as well as an ending. There is no song that does not end, for if it did not end, it would not be a song. 

Today is about endings. This day on the Jewish calendar is known as Shemini Atzeret. The strange thing about Shemini Atzeret is that no one knows exactly what it is. Of course, the command to celebrate this holiday comes from the Torah itself, but the text, which we read just a few moments ago, is notoriously short on details. The Torah doesn’t even dedicate a single full verse to the holiday. Instead, it simply teaches that immediately after the seven biblically prescribed days of Sukkot, an additional day should be set aside as sacred, with its own attendant sacrifice to be offered at the Temple. 

Throughout the ages, our sages have pondered and puzzled over this holiday, debating endlessly its meaning and significance. Is it part of Sukkot, or its own holiday? If it’s part of Sukkot, then why is it mentioned separately, and why does it have its own sacrifice? If it’s not part of Sukkot, then why refer to it as the “eighth day,” which implies a direct connection to Sukkot. Even the word that the Torah uses for the holiday, עֲצֶ֣רֶת, is mysterious. No one knows exactly what it means. 

Rabbinic tradition, in the end, basically responds with a shrugging emoji: we don’t know what Shemini Atzeret is, but we know we must observe it. So they refer to it by its own unique name, Shemini Atzeret, but call it “z’man simhateinu,” the season of our rejoicing, which is the same epithet they use for Sukkot. Because it might be part of Sukkot, the rabbis say we should err on the side of caution and eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret, but because it might not still be Sukkot, they say we should err on the side of caution and not recite the blessing for dwelling in the sukkah, lest by reciting an unnecessary blessing we inadvertently take God’s name in vain. It’s bizarre. 

Some commentators argue that Shemini Atzeret is – as my friend, contemporary commentator Emily Jaeger colorfully puts it – like a private after-party. One of the many possible meanings for atzar, the Hebrew root of the word atzeret, is “to hold back” or “detain.” Picking up on this definition, Rashi imagines God as a king who throws a large banquet. After all the other guests start to leave, the king urges his beloved children to stay one more day, too painful is the thought of parting with them. Following the lengthy and exhausting weeklong rager that is Sukkot – which according to some traditions is meant to be a holiday for all of humanity – God asks us, the Jewish people, his most cherished guests, to linger a little longer (Rashi, commentary on Lev. 23:37). 

To be sure, there is something quite heartwarming about envisioning God as longing for intimacy with God’s children. However, I suspect the true meaning of Shemini Atzeret may be precisely the opposite of this, that the holiday is actually about ending the party, not keeping it going. After all, another definition of atzar is “to stop.” On modern Israeli roads, for example, cars know when to stop when they see a red sign with the word atzur emblazoned on it; or, at least they would in theory, if Israelis actually considered such signs more than mere suggestions. Perhaps, then, God is less like a king who urges his beloved children to remain at the banquet for one more day, and more like Josephine turning on the social hall lights to not-so-subtly signal that she wants us to clear out at the end of a long night. Perhaps, in other words, Shemini Atzeret is God’s way of saying, “Party’s over, friends. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

This is precisely what happens in today’s haftarah, from the biblical book of Kings. The story is set immediately following the construction of the first Temple, which Solomon son of David, arguably the greatest of the kings of ancient Israel, commissioned to be built atop Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. After the Temple is built, King Solomon invites the entire kingdom to Jerusalem to celebrate its consecration. The party lasts through Sukkot. And then, on the 8th day – meaning the day immediately following Sukkot – Solomon sent the people away (I Kings 8:66): בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי֙ שִׁלַּ֣ח אֶת־הָעָ֔ם. The 8th day, in other words, is when the king officially ends the celebration, telling everyone to go home. The king doesn’t keep the party going. Quite the contrary, the 8th day is when the king proclaims that the party’s over. 

What’s noteworthy, however, is that neither the people nor the king are sad about the end of the celebration. When King Solomon tells them to leave, the people bid the king good-bye and go to their homes joyful and glad of heart, “וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיֵּלְכ֣וּ לְאׇהֳלֵיהֶ֗ם שְׂמֵחִים֙ וְט֣וֹבֵי לֵ֔ב”. Why would the party’s conclusion be cause for joy, rather than sadness? Because just as sound can only be music if it has an ending, an endless experience cannot be joyful. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Only that is precious which passes away. Only that is priceless, which will not last forever.” 

The television series The Good Place, which ended in 2020, illustrated this idea perfectly. Briefly, The Good Place followed the journey of four unlikely friends through the afterlife. In the last season, when the friends finally make it to the actual “good place,” the show’s euphemism for heaven, they are surprised to discover that the inhabitants are all miserable. They wonder: how can this be? How can souls be sad in a realm overflowing with endless delights? Eventually they discover that it is precisely because the delights are endless that they are, sooner or later, rendered utterly joyless. When everything is always amazing, nothing really is. Paradoxically, then, true joy can only be experienced if it comes to an end. And while we may be saddened by the conclusion of any enjoyable experience – whether that be an incredible party, a beautiful piece of music, a delicious meal, a tender relationship with a dear friend or loved one, a life – we might take some comfort in recognizing that it is the very fact of its ending which made the experience enjoyable in the first place.

The Sukkot festival is known in our tradition as z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy. We are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot; indeed, as the Torah says, we are “to have nothing but joy / v’hayita akh sameah”. Beyond this, Sukkot is the culmination of a nearly month-long High Holy Day celebration, a season that can be physically and emotionally taxing, but simultaneously is also – if you’re doing it right – saturated with deep meaning, extraordinary beauty, and joyful exaltation. We may wish this holiday season would never end, that we could, as the psalmist puts it in the passage we recite twice daily during this period, “dwell in the Infinite’s house all the days of my life.” But the truth is that the heights of the High Holy Days and the joy of z’man simhateinu can’t last forever. If they were unending, they would in fact be rendered flat and dull. In order for these days to be high and holy, in order for our festival days to be joyous, they must end. So we have Shemini Atzeret, the period at the end of this long sentence, the silence at the end of the symphony. And while the end may be sad – or even, for some of us, a relief – our tradition also calls Shemini Atzeret z’man simhateinu, the season of our joy, because if the end is what makes joy possible to begin with, then the end itself is, in some important sense, joyous.

Perhaps it is for this reason that, according to tradition, we recite Yizkor during Shemini Atzeret, calling to mind the memory of departed loved ones on this day in particular. There is profound comfort, perhaps even joy, to be discovered in the symbolism of Shemini Atzeret. If endings render meaningful all that precedes them, then the fact that our loved ones’ lives have come to an end is precisely, even if counterintuitively, what made them so special in the first place. If our loved ones lived forever, their time with us would be less precious; their impact upon us would be less pronounced. 

On Shemini Atzeret, we fondly recall, sing, and celebrate the songs our ancestors composed with their lives. Like all beautiful music, we never want those songs to end. But on this festival that is at its core about endings, we remember that the end is what makes it music in the first place. Let us listen, then, to the songs of our loved ones on this day. Let us commit them to memory; let those songs stir our souls and stay in our hearts; and let those songs move us to make our own beautiful music, for our loved ones shared the music of their lives with us so that we might make our own.

And as we conclude these high holy days by singing the songs of our lost loved ones, let each and every one of us come to understand that all life, like all music, must end; including, of course, our own. Let us ask ourselves: What will the music of our lives be? What notes will we write on the staff? What will the song sound like, when it is all finished? Only when we are mindful of the fact that our lives are finite can we truly become the composers of the songs of our lives. 

May the music and the memory of our ancestors endure as a source of inspiration and blessing. May their souls and their songs be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life. And may this day inspire us to make beautiful music of our precious and passing lives.

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The World Was Created for You — Parashat Ha-Azinu 5783

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The 19th century hasidic master Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa famously taught that a person should always carry a note in each of their pockets. On one should be written the biblical verse, “anokhi afar va-efer / I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27), and on the other should be written the rabbinic dictum, “bishvili nivra ha-olam / for my sake was the world created” (M. Sanhedrin 4:5).

Like many people, I love this teaching; but it occurred to me recently that the texts written on these respective slips of paper are not exactly parallel. Remembering that we are but dust and ashes certainly instills a sense of humility, as Reb Simcha Bunim intended. But I’m not so sure that asserting the world was created for my sake is as empowering as the master thought it would be. After all, if the world was created for my sake, then, logically, couldn’t it also be destroyed on my account as well? This is the question that occupies Moses in Parashat Ha-azinu

Parashat Ha-azinu is, of course, the penultimate portion in the book of Deuteronomy and indeed the entire Torah. As such, it represents the culmination of Moses’ parting words to the Children of Israel before he dies and they cross over the Jordan into the Promised Land. The last parashah, V’zot Ha-b’rakhah, is less a final teaching than the benediction that follows it. In Parashat Ha-azinu, Moses frames his climactic lesson as an epic poem that describes God’s relationship with Israel through dramatic metaphors, prophesying that Israel will eventually betray God and that God, in turn, will spurn Israel. 

To understand the meaning and message of this poem, let’s spend a little time unpacking its language. Moses begins by describing how Israel’s relationship with God was formed, and how God tenderly cared for us from our earliest days as a people:

 כְּנֶ֙שֶׁר֙ יָעִ֣יר קִנּ֔וֹ עַל־גּוֹזָלָ֖יו יְרַחֵ֑ף יִפְרֹ֤שׂ כְּנָפָיו֙ יִקָּחֵ֔הוּ יִשָּׂאֵ֖הוּ עַל־אֶבְרָתֽוֹ׃ 

As an eagle who rouses its nestlings,

Gliding down to its young,

So did [God] spread wings and take them,

Bear them along on pinions.

Deut. 32:11

God, in other words, relates to Israel as a mother eagle to her young, hovering nearby and watching over them, protecting them, nurturing them; it’s an intimate image of concern and care. But, if you’ll pardon the pun, you eagle-eyed readers out there may have noticed that the Hebrew verb translated as “gliding,” יְרַחֵ֑ף, is actually a very rare word, used only one other time in the entire Torah. Side-note for you grammar nerds out there: there is actually a Greek term for a word that only appears twice in a text: “dis legomenon.” Who knew? In any case, the only other instance of the verb רחף in the Torah is at the very beginning, all the way back in the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 1 verse 2, we read that, as God began to create the world:

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃ 

the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep and God’s spirit was מְרַחֶ֖פֶת over the water. 

Different translations render the term מְרַחֶ֖פֶת in various ways: sweeping, soaring, flitting. But all recognize that the image evoked by the word is that of an eagle protecting its young, noting the way it is used in our parashah. Rare words in the Torah are quite meaningful; and when a verb, like this one, is used in only two places it is extremely likely that the Torah is deliberately trying to draw a connection between those two passages, between God’s relationship with the Jewish people and the creation of the world.

And, as a matter of fact, the language of Moses’ poem here in Deuteronomy evokes many parallels to the story of creation in the book of Genesis. For example, in verse 10, Moses says that God first encounters Israel v’tohu, which our chumash translates as “in an empty [place].” If you’re paying attention, you will likely remember that the same term, tohu, appears in the very same passage from Genesis, often translated there as “void.” Again, the Torah deliberately connects God’s relationship with the Jewish people to the creation of the world. 

And later, when Moses predicts that Israel will eventually reject God, the poem utilizes similarly cosmic language: the fire of God’s wrath will descend all the way to Sheol, to the deepest depths of creation before leveling mountains and ultimately consuming everything on earth. As a consequence of Israel’s betrayal, they will experience “wasting famine, ravaging plague, [and] deadly pestilence” (32:25). The animals over which God gave humanity dominion in Genesis will be loosed destructively against their former masters, before they will finally be “reduced to nothingness, making their [very] memory cease” (32:36); the result of Israel’s rejection of God will be that it was like they never existed. The question thus emerges: in what way is God’s relationship with the Jewish people connected to the creation of the world?

In order to answer this question, we must first examine the nature of the betrayal to which Moses envisions Israel will eventually succumb. According to Moses, Israel will betray God by turning to other divinities: “They incensed Me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God saying, “and vexed Me with idols” (32:21). Now, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t seem to me at first blush that the punishment fits the crime here. Does Moses mean to tell us that God is really petty enough to utterly annihilate the Jewish people, and maybe even to destroy the whole world, simply because we started worshiping other gods? When rabbinic tradition considers what sins led to the first major cataclysm in Jewish history, the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians, they said it was not only because of idolatry but also because of widespread bloodshed and sexual violence. Similarly, the rabbis identify unfettered hatred as the transgression that led to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. For these sins, we can certainly understand God’s righteous indignation; and whether as punishment or as inevitable consequence, national catastrophe would seem a quite fitting result. But in what way is idolatry itself a sin worthy of such intense divine wrath?

It is important to know that the Jewish insistence on monotheism is not simply a mathematical concern. It’s a moral one. To believe in only one God is to believe in only one creator. And if there is only a singular source for all creation, then everything that exists is precious to the Creator, and, even more importantly, every human being is inherently and equally a child of God. To believe in multiple divinities is to relate to the world as inherently divided and hierarchical: some things, and indeed, some people, are of this god, while others are of that god, which invariably must mean that some are greater and some are lesser, some more worthy of consideration and concern, and some fundamentally less valuable. 

I want to be clear here that I am not talking about religious traditions that envision one God manifesting in many different ways, or that use the metaphor of divinity to identify natural forces and processes. When I say “idolatry,” I’m talking about believing that there is literally more than one God, or else venerating someone or something other than God, considering someone or something that is not God on a level that is equal to or higher than God. And from the Torah’s perspective, the problem with idolatry of this sort is that the one who believes in multiple divinities must of necessity also believe that anything which doesn’t resemble, or isn’t of, their preferred deity, is inherently less than that which resembles or comes from that deity. 

The one who venerates a particularistic image of God therefore inevitably denigrates anyone and anything that they believe is distinct from that divinity. Either I believe that the same God who created me also created you and everyone else – and that therefore your life and your needs are not only as important as my own but also that your welfare is bound up in my own (and vice-versa) – or I believe that we are fundamentally separate and inherently unequal. The former belief leads to justice and peace; the latter to oppression, violence, and, ultimately, destruction. In other words, monotheism by definition results in equality and harmony; idolatry to injustice and annihilation. Which also means, crucially, that tolerating inequality and bloodshed is tantamount to idolatry, whereas embracing monotheism is evidenced only by the extent to which one actively pursues a just and peaceful society. 

Seen from this perspective, creation itself depends on humanity’s exclusive loyalty to God, in principle, but more importantly in practice, because our deeds are what ultimately testify to our loyalties. Regardless of what we profess to believe, if we treat every human being equally as a child of God, pursuing justice and advancing peace; indeed, if we treat all of creation as thoroughly precious to God, then creation itself will be sustained. And if not – again, regardless of what we might profess to believe – creation will unwind into chaos, existence will be reduced to nothingness. 

But Moses’ message isn’t directed to humanity as a whole. It’s directed to Israel, because the Jewish people’s loyalty to God is meant to serve as an example to all. As Moses says earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, when others look upon the kind of society Israel has created by putting monotheistic faith into practice, they will marvel at, and seek to emulate, us. This is the essence of our covenantal relationship with God, to be a mamlekhet kohanim, a nation of priests; just as a priest brings people closer to God, Israel is charged with connecting all humanity with their Creator. “Imru ba-goyim Adonai malakh,” says the psalmist, “proclaim to the nations that there is but One sovereign” (Ps. 96:10).

Again, this is less about principle than it is about practice. It ultimately doesn’t matter what we or anyone else believes in our hearts. What we do reveals what we really believe. The Jewish people are not tasked with converting the unwashed masses into our faith. Rather, we are charged with inspiring and leading others through our example to live in such a way that reflects a recognition that God is one. The stakes of our rejecting this responsibility are grave; all of existence depends upon whether Israel succeeds at its mission; the world needs us to lead by example. That’s what Moses means when he asserts, כִּ֛י חֵ֥לֶק יְהֹוָ֖ה עַמּ֑וֹ, we are God’s very stake in creation (32:9). The integrity of the entire world is undergirded by our loyalty to God, demonstrated by our deeds. 

But what of the claim that the chosenness implied by our parashah undermines the moral message I am claiming is inherent to monotheism? If God indeed has the uniquely intimate relationship with Israel that Moses is describing, doesn’t that imply a human hierarchy and justify inequality? Isn’t the Torah teaching, to paraphrase George Orwell’s classic line in Animal Farm, that all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others? 

In a word, no. If Israel is defined by its loyalty to God, and loyalty to God, in turn, is about behavior rather than belief, then anyone – regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, or even religious identity – is an Israelite so long as they act in the world in a way that reflects the monotheistic ideal. And conversely, anyone whose behavior betrays an idolatrous worldview forfeits their claim to be part of God’s people, even those whose Jewish ancestry is unimpeachable. “הֵ֚ם קִנְא֣וּנִי בְלֹא־אֵ֔ל, those who incense me with no-gods,” Moses imagines God as saying, “וַאֲנִי֙ אַקְנִיאֵ֣ם בְּלֹא־עָ֔ם, I will avenge them by rendering them as no-people.” God, in other words, disowns and disavows anyone whose actions reveal an idolatrous mindset, whereas God’s chosen people are those people who demonstrate, through their deeds, that they are choosing God. 

Any person who is loyal to God is therefore part of God’s people. And the more of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation is held together; the fewer of God’s people that there are in the world, the more creation collapses into chaos. 

When the rabbis of the Mishnah taught “bishvili nivra ha-olam,” that every person must remember the world was created for their sake, they were not speaking metaphorically. The world indeed depends on each and every one of us. Through our choices and our deeds our world can either be sustained and, indeed, perfected; or plunged into chaos and, ultimately, destroyed. The question our teacher Moses poses to us in our parashah, then, is – which path will you choose?

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Are You a Hero? — Yom Kippur 5783

By now, you’ve heard quite a bit about my sabbatical; perhaps more than you wanted to know. Apologies if that’s the case. 

On Rosh Hashanah, I talked about how I tried to embrace the spirit of Shabbat by refraining from productive work, and avoiding the news as much as possible; relearning how to be still, but also realizing the challenges inherent in retreating from the world. 

Last night, I talked about the parashah comic book series I began writing; how it took me down the Rabbit Hole of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and how that led me to think deeply about the idea of true self. 

I have to say – writing a comic book is harder than it looks. It required me to study an art form with which I had only casually engaged in the past. Most of you know that I love many movies based on comic books, especially superhero movies. But I had never really read many of the comics themselves. There was something about the format that never really grabbed me. 

So this summer, I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, seeking to understand their unique language of storytelling. That means I spent a lot of time with hero stories. In the process, I began to see the concept of heroes everywhere I turned: 

I watched many movies and TV shows, which were, of course, filled with stories about heroes. 

I listened to more music than usual, including a deep dive into David Bowie’s discography, especially the excellent albums he recorded while living in Berlin in the early 1970’s, the best of which is arguably, you guessed it, “Heroes.”

I also read voraciously, and even picked up a biography of Hank Aaron, one of my all-time favorite baseball players, the kind of book I likely would never have read were I not on sabbatical. And want to hear something eerie? The book’s title is…The Last Hero. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

As the idea of heroes became increasingly inescapable, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t receiving a message from on high, that I was for some mysterious reason being called to consider the meaning of heroism. 

So with my copious quantity of sabbatical free time, I bought a copy of literary scholar Joseph Campbell’s famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces – something I’ve always wanted to read (and, if I’m being honest, have often pretended to have read) – in the hopes it might offer some insight. 

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell teaches that stories about heroes are remarkably consistent across space and time. Campbell calls this narrative pattern “the hero’s journey.” The journey always begins with the hero experiencing, and refusing, a “call to adventure.” And the pivotal moment of every hero’s journey is when the hero goes through a trying ordeal that leads them to embrace their calling, transforming the hero into someone different than they were at the beginning of the journey. Campbell refers to the challenging experience that causes the hero’s transformation as “The Belly of the Whale” – which is, of course, a reference to the book of Jonah that we read each Yom Kippur afternoon. 

But is Campbell right? Is Jonah a hero? 

That question is urgent for us to contemplate today. Rabbinic tradition considers the Book of Jonah central to Yom Kippur. To understand Jonah, then, is to unlock the meaning and power of this day. So, is Jonah a hero? Let’s consider the story:

God tells Jonah, an Israelite, of the wickedness of a great city called Nineveh and instructs him to go there and proclaim God’s judgment upon it. 

The city’s name may not mean much to us moderns, but for an ancient audience, Nineveh was as well-known as New York or Paris. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, one of antiquity’s most powerful empires. Importantly, the Assyrian Empire was a mortal enemy of ancient Israel; in fact, Assyria utterly decimated the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. 

God therefore gives Jonah not only the task of prophesying to a population of non-Israelites, a charge that is literally without precedent or parallel in the rest of the Bible, but also specifically to prophesy to a nation that is utterly hostile to his own. 

So Jonah runs away, clear in the opposite direction of where he is supposed to go. God tells him to go east, and instead he gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, the westernmost edge of the known world at the time. 

Now, one could perhaps understand if Jonah flees out of fear. Presumably, the Assyrians of Nineveh would have been a very tough crowd for an unknown Israelite prophet bearing bad news. 

But Jonah doesn’t run away because he’s afraid. As he reveals later in the book, “I fled to Tarshish because I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, Jonah flees because he knows that God is a big ol’ softy who, when push comes to shove, won’t execute Nineveh’s sentence; and, spoiler alert, that is precisely what happens. 

So Jonah runs away not to save his own life, but to try to ensure the people of Nineveh won’t be able to save theirs. Jonah believes in law and order, in crime and punishment. Those who sin deserve to get zapped. Don’t want to get zapped? Don’t sin. That’s why, when Jonah defies God’s command, he fully expects to get his just desserts, and accepts this fate. 

Jonah boards the ship to Tarshish, and God sends a powerful tempest to destroy it. Jonah, however, has made his peace with the fact that the ship will be his casket and the ocean, his tomb. He goes down into the hold and takes a nap. When the panicked captain rouses Jonah from his slumber, and demands that he join him and his crew in their fervent prayers for salvation, Jonah instructs the crew to save themselves by throwing him overboard. He knows he has willfully done wrong, and therefore deserves to die. 

But God doesn’t let Jonah drown. Instead, God sends a great fish to swallow him up. 

Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days. In the putrid bowels of the great fish, Jonah offers a prayer. Some commentators have read Jonah’s prayer as a model for repentance, what our tradition calls teshuvah. But according to our tradition, teshuvah is about rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness. It requires one to acknowledge their wrongdoing, admit their guilt, seek forgiveness, and commit to changing their ways (Cf. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 1:1, 2:2-3, 2:4). Repentance, in other words, is about transformation. 

But if one looks carefully at the words of Jonah’s prayer – a pastiche of canned quotations from the book of Psalms – Jonah notably doesn’t ask God for forgiveness or to be saved. He neither expresses remorse for disobeying God nor promises to follow God’s orders in the future. Rather, Jonah simply accepts that he got what he deserved. What Jonah does in the belly of the fish is decidedly not teshuvah.

God orders the fish to spit Jonah out, and the reluctant prophet goes to Nineveh. But he doesn’t obey God’s command because he has been changed by his experience in the fish’s belly. He goes because he has no other choice: Running away didn’t work; trying to get himself killed didn’t work. What else could Jonah do? As a matter of fact, we can see Jonah’s lack of transformation in what happens next: Instead of repeating God’s message as instructed, Jonah goes rogue, delivering his own prophecy: “Od arba’im yom v’Nineveh nehepahat / Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” These are not God’s words. They’re classic Jonah: crime must be punished; criminals must pay; no salvation, no forgiveness, no mercy. From the beginning of the story until its very end, Jonah refuses to change. 

The book of Jonah is therefore quite deceptive. It has many characteristics of what Campbell calls “the hero’s journey.” But according to Campbell, the hero’s journey must be transformational (Campbell, 23). Jonah isn’t changed by his experience in the belly of the fish. He doesn’t embrace his mission; he goes to Nineveh only because God coerces him. Once there, he delivers his own message, not God’s. When God ultimately refrains from destroying the city, Jonah becomes extremely angry and lashes out at God for failing to bring down the swift hammer of divine justice. To the very end, Jonah remains unchanged. Jonah is no hero.

Transformation is central to the hero’s journey because it takes conviction, strength of character, and power of mind and spirit to recognize one’s failings and strive to overcome them. Succumbing to one’s baser instincts is easy; recognizing the error of one’s ways is hard. Rare is the person who can master themselves. To make mistakes, even to fail, is human. To strive to learn from those errors and change for the better? That is heroic. As Rabbi Abahu teaches in the Talmud, “מָקוֹם שֶׁבַּעֲלֵי תְשׁוּבָה עוֹמְדִין — צַדִּיקִים גְּמוּרִים אֵינָם עוֹמְדִין / In the place where the person who has done teshuvah stands, even the completely righteous do not stand” (B. B’rakhot 34b). Being perfect doesn’t make one a hero. A hero is one who learns from their mistakes and changes their ways. 

So, if Jonah is not the hero of the book, who is? Well, if the defining quality of a hero is transformation, then there is only one character in the book who fits the bill: the people of Nineveh.

In chapter 3, immediately after Jonah’s pronouncement, the people of Nineveh proclaim a fast, don sackcloth and ashes, admit their guilt, cry out to God with sincere remorse, and commit to changing their ways. In other words, the people of Nineveh repent, spontaneously and voluntarily engaging in the process of teshuvah. Jonah may not change, but the people of Nineveh sure do. Jonah is not a hero. But in their willingness to change, the people of Nineveh are the very definition of heroism.

But the Ninevities’ heroism is about more than just their willingness and ability to change.  

As I mentioned earlier, this summer, I read Howard Bryant’s excellent biography of Hank Aaron, The Last Hero. Aaron, of course, is best known for breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. But as I read the book, I discovered that, beyond the fact that Aaron hit 755 homers, I actually knew very little about the man. For starters, it turns out he much preferred his given name, Henry, to the moniker Hank. 

I also hadn’t fully appreciated the uniquely challenging conditions in which Aaron played: he cut his teeth in Alabama at the height of the Jim Crow era; when Aaron signed his first big league contract in 1954, there were still very few black players in the majors, and the ones who did make it experienced horrible bigotry and discrimination. 

As Aaron closed in on Babe Ruth’s home run record in the early 1970’s, now playing for the first major league team in the Deep South, he was subject to unimaginable racist abuse, including torrents of hate mail and death threats. He was forced to hire round-the-clock security and rely on the FBI’s protection. 

That he was able to accomplish what he accomplished in such a brutal environment is extraordinary. And, as Bryant points out, Aaron’s career is even more exceptional when contrasted with the player who ultimately surpassed his home run record, Barry Bonds. 

Bonds was, of course, also a great hitter, quite possibly one of the best all-around players in baseball history. But Bonds – like many other players of his era – was so obsessed with being the best, and acquiring for himself all the fame and fortune that went along with it, that it ceased to matter how he went about pursuing that goal. So Bonds ultimately beat Aaron’s record in 2007 – with the help of copious quantities of performance-enhancing drugs. 

Both men’s “how’s” reveal something about their “why’s.” For Bonds, pursuing the home run record was solely about naked self-interest. Certainly Aaron had his own selfish reasons for seeking the record; he was human, after all. But no one perseveres through what Aaron endured for ego alone. Aaron – who risked his life not just to play baseball, not just to hit the most home runs, but also to become active in the civil rights struggles of his era – had his sights on something bigger: showing a society still mired in racism that every single human being deserves respect and equal opportunity’ and showing those who are systematically degraded as he was that they, too, are infinitely dignified and worthy of pursuing their dreams. 

Ultimately, it was Aaron’s capacity to see beyond himself toward his broader responsibility that made him a hero. And in a world in which too many of our leaders – in sports, entertainment, even in religion, and most definitely in politics – seem increasingly unable to think past their own self-interest and unwilling to see how their actions affect others, it may well be that Aaron is worthy of being considered “The Last Hero,” as Bryant calls him. Heroes like Aaron are indeed in short supply these days.

It’s not just the ability to change that makes one a hero. According to Campbell, the hero’s transformation is not an end to itself. The hero’s transformation must inspire and enable them to help others (Campbell, 23). 

According to our tradition, our inborn inclination to serve ourselves first and foremost, what Jewish tradition calls our yetzer ha-ra, is the root of all wrongdoing. Despite how the term is often translated, the yetzer ha-ra isn’t inherently evil, per se. Our tradition acknowledges that, without a yetzer ha-ra, no one would ever have children, or engage in productive work, or enjoy the delights of the world. But unchecked by an opposing force, the strong gravitational pull of our yetzer ha-ra can lead us to harm ourselves and others, ultimately producing inequality, oppression, and bloodshed. 

That opposing force is what our tradition calls yetzer ha-tov, the altruistic impulse, an innate desire to help others that we all inherently possess alongside our selfish instinct. 

When our yetzer ha-ra outweighs our impulse for altruism, we harm others and ourselves, deepen social inequities, and even precipitate violence. 

But when our yetzer ha-tov triumphs over our yetzer ha-ra, we act in ways that are loving and just. 

Our tradition teaches that we can control these inclinations. We have the ability to overpower our yetzer ha-ra with our yetzer ha-tov, to transform from being mostly concerned with ourselves to taking responsibility for the wellbeing of others, to change our ways from selfish and uncaring to loving and just. 

But it’s not easy. It takes both will and work. One of the primary aims of Jewish religious practice is to help us cultivate and strengthen our yetzer ha-tov and diminish the power of our yetzer ha-ra. Jewish religious practice, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, serves to take us out of the narrowness of our own self-interest so that we might recognize our relationship to, and responsibility for, one another, enabling and inspiring us to act in ways that make the world more loving, more just, and more peaceful. 

That’s why the person who has done teshuvah, rejecting wrongful behavior and returning to a path of goodness, is our tradition’s paradigmatic hero. The person who does teshuvah is making an active choice to strive to overpower their yetzer ha-ra with their yetzer ha-tov, committing to the work necessary for their altruism to triumph over their selfishness. The person who has done teshuvah is not only a person transformed, but a person who deliberately undergoes a transformation in order to help others. 

If a hero is a person who makes the conscious choice to change from being self-centered to living a life of service, one who chooses to set aside self-interest and embrace a life of helping others, then the person who has done teshuvah is the model of heroism; and therefore, the process of teshuvah, the process that Yom Kippur invites us to embrace, is the real “hero’s journey.”

Jonah not only fails to complete the hero’s journey because he doesn’t change; he fails because, from the beginning of his story through the end, he only cares about himself. The nature of the transformation of the people of Nineveh, on the other hand, is from selfishness to widespread concern for others: “ וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה / And God saw their deeds, that they turned from their selfish ways” (3:10). They take responsibility for themselves and each other. Even the king, who might be expected to have been the most self-interested Ninevite of them all, who could have easily found a way to just save himself and his own family, takes pains to help everyone in the city avert destruction – not only the city’s human residents, but also all its animals. Jonah, selfish from beginning to end, is no hero. But the people of Nineveh, who do real teshuvah, choosing to set aside their self-centered ways and commiting to serving others, most certainly are.

So the real question for each of us on Yom Kippur is, therefore: which will you be? Will you be like Jonah, or the people of Nineveh? Will you become a hero?

The book of Jonah ends without a resolution. God gets the last word, and we don’t know if Jonah will finally acknowledge the error of his ways and commit to changing. We don’t know whether Jonah will ultimately choose the hero’s path of repentance. 

But maybe Jonah’s journey is left unresolved to remind us that God’s invitation to change is perpetually extended not only to Jonah, but to each and every one of us. No matter the choices we’ve made in the past, we can, each of us, right at this very moment, choose to change

We don’t read about Jonah on Yom Kippur because he’s a hero. We read his story to remember that, like the people of Nineveh, we can embrace God’s ongoing invitation for us to become heroes ourselves.

The power of Yom Kippur – this day that invites us to consider with genuine regret the ways we have failed to live up to our highest ideals, sincerely seek forgiveness for our wrongdoings, and wholeheartedly commit to living differently in the year to come – is to remind us that we can change. And in changing, we can be heroes. 

It need not be a permanent transformation. As imperfect beings, it most likely will not be. But even if, to quote David Bowie, we are only heroes just for one day; even if it is only for this one day – one is better than none. And tomorrow, we will have yet another chance, because the invitation for transformation is extended to us each and every day; indeed, the opportunity for teshuvah exists in each and every moment. The process is perpetual; the choice to be a hero is one we must make continuously. 

So – are you a hero? If you’re anything like me, probably not. At least not yet. But today is a new day. This moment is a new opportunity. We can be heroes. And God knows our world needs heroes, now more than ever. Will you choose to be one?

May this be a heroic year for each and every one of us, and indeed, for the whole world. 

Gmar hatimah tovah.

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Who Are You? — Kol Nidrei 5783

During my sabbatical this summer, I began finally putting pen to paper on a project that I’d been dreaming about for some time – a series of comic books based on the weekly Torah portion, with at least one volume for each parashah. The concept, in short, is that a girl from our time gets transported into each parashah, discovers how the parashah’s message relates to her own struggles, and then returns to the present day. 

As I was workshopping the concept with some partners – including my dazzlingly creative daughter – I found myself thinking a lot about a story I loved as a kid, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which also tells of a young girl who is mysteriously transported to an unknown realm, and has to find her way through – and, she hopes, out of – this strange world. 

Shortly after tumbling down the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland, Alice encounters a large blue caterpillar sitting on top of a giant mushroom, its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah. After staring intently at Alice for some time in silence, Carroll writes that, “at last, the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice. ‘Who are You?’” Alice is taken aback by the unusual question. “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” she replies, continuing, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” 

The Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, are obviously intended to have several layers of meaning. At the most basic level, the Caterpillar merely wants a stranger he encounters to identify herself. Alice, for her part, is confused about how she ended up in this curious land, in which she has literally transformed several times, drinking and eating items that somehow have caused her to grow and shrink. 

Of course, we all know that Carroll also intends the Caterpillar’s question, and Alice’s reply, to register as existential questions. The Caterpillar is effectively asking Alice, “Who are you, really? What is your essence, your nature?” And if this is indeed the meaning of the Caterpillar’s question, Alice’s answer reflects a profound uncertainty that I suspect resonates for many of us, as it does for me. Who am I, really? Who are any of us, at our core? 

If you’re anything like me, you might have a very difficult time answering the Caterpillar’s question. We may, like Alice, push back against it, arguing that there is no such thing as an essential self. Echoing Sartre, we might say that our existence is what determines our essence. Who we are today is not the same as who we were yesterday or who we will be tomorrow. We are in each moment defined by the sum total of the steps we have taken that have brought us to that moment; we are what we have done, defined not by our essence but by our actions. We therefore may know who we are when we get up each morning, but by the end of each day, like Alice, we may recognize that we are no longer the same person; one day’s choices and deeds inevitably make us different than we were when the day began.

The idea that our lives are truly what we make of them – that we can do anything we set our minds to, that we can become anything we want to be with the right combination of ambition and determination – is deeply embedded in our culture. But is it really true? [pause]

The evidence suggests the opposite. Consider, for example, the story of Jim Lewis and Jim Springer. Lewis and Springer were identical twins who were separated at birth and raised apart. When they were 39 years old, they reunited, and found that they were both the same height and weight; both also habitually bit their nails and got frequent tension headaches. Now, that may not be so earth-shattering. We might expect two people with the same genes to have the same body shape, health history, even habits. But here’s where it gets really weird: as kids, they both owned a dog named Toy; as adults, they both worked in law enforcement, drank the same kind of beer, and smoked the same brand of cigarettes. And that’s not all: both independently gave their firstborn sons the exact same name, James Alan. Lewis and Springer are not an anomaly. Since the 1950s, researchers have done numerous studies on twins raised by different parents, and the results consistently show that identical twins turn out very similarly, regardless of their upbringing. This research reveals a simple, if perhaps challenging, truth: each of us comes into this world with an inherent nature, an essential self.

What modern science has discovered, Jewish tradition has long believed to be true. בְּטֶ֨רֶם אֶצׇּרְךָ֤ בַבֶּ֙טֶן֙ יְדַעְתִּ֔יךָ, וּבְטֶ֛רֶם תֵּצֵ֥א מֵרֶ֖חֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּ֑יךָ, writes the prophet Jeremiah; “[God] knew you before you were formed in the womb, and before you were born, [God] sanctified you” (Jer. 1:5). Religious extremists misconstrue Jeremiah’s words as biblical proof that life begins at conception. That’s not what this verse means. What the prophet is really saying is that the nature we will exhibit once we are born is deeply rooted, encoded into our very DNA, implanted within us from the earliest moments of our formation; moreover, Jeremiah is asserting that our fundamental selfhood is both a genetic inheritance from our biological parents and, also, a sacred gift from God.

Those of us who have children of our own likely discovered this truth early on, for better or worse. Watching each of my children from their earliest days on earth, it was readily apparent to me that, as the writer and master teacher Parker Palmer put it in his extraordinary book Let Your Life Speak (which I read no fewer than four times this summer; it’s that powerful), each of my children “arrived in the world as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.” Each had inborn “inclinations and proclivities,” an intuitive sense of what they liked and disliked, what they were drawn toward and repelled by (Palmer, p. 11). Each naturally moved in the world in their own distinct way.

The countercultural, perhaps uncomfortable, truth, is that none of us come into this world as raw material to be shaped into whatever we, or the wider world for that matter, might want us to become. We give voice to that truth in our worship tonight. A little later in our service, we will sing: 

כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹֽמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר. בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר. כֵּן אֲנַֽחְנוּ בְּיָדְךָ חֶֽסֶד נוֹצֵר.

As clay in the hands of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love.

This piyyut, this liturgical poem, is both very famous and very misunderstood. In it, the poet compares us to clay, to stone, to iron, to glass, to cloth, and to silver; God, in turn, to a potter, a mason, a blacksmith, and so on. Traditional commentators tend to interpret the poem to mean that an omnipotent God can mold us however God desires. However, as my teacher, Rabbi Brad Artson, points out, “anybody who has worked with clay knows there are things you can do with clay, and there are things the clay will not let you do. Anyone who has worked with cloth, or with metal, or with jewelry, knows that the matter you are doing your work with constrains the results you are able to achieve.” 

Similarly, each and every one of us is made of a unique material. We can therefore only fashion ourselves, or be fashioned by others, into whatever form is possible given the distinct potential and limits of our essential selves. God, according to the piyyut, knows this. According to the Mishnah, God’s ability to recognize our uniqueness is precisely the divine quality that testifies to God’s greatness (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). And, as Rabbi Artson warns, “It is our frailty to forget.”

While the widespread cultural belief that we can do anything we want to do, be anything we want to be, is meant to be empowering and hopeful, it can also lead to harm. A failure to understand or honor our unique nature leads to us trying, and invariably failing, to be that which we are not. Failing to understand and honor other peoples’ unique nature, including and especially our children, leads to us trying, and failing, to get them to be that which they are not. No two people are the same. Try as I might, I cannot force myself to be someone I am not, nor can I force someone else to be someone they are not. Seeking to build lives for ourselves, or to push others to make lives for themselves, without understanding and honoring the material we’re working with, is like trying to build a working suspension bridge out of clay, or a ship out of stone. Not only won’t the finished product turn out right but, as those examples illustrate, trying to do so may well be dangerous, whether for ourselves, or for others.

And yet this is precisely what happens to most of us. As the author and activist Robert Bly, who passed away just last year, once put it, we come into the world: 

…‘trailing clouds of glory,’ arriving from the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing with us appetites well preserved from our mammal inheritance, spontaneities wonderfully preserved from our 150,000 years of tree life, angers well preserved from our 5,000 years of tribal life—in short, with our 360-degree radiance—and we [offer] this gift to our parents. [But] they [don’t] want it. They [want] a nice girl or a nice boy…Our parents [reject] who we [are] before we [can] even talk. 

Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, p. 24

I remember encountering Bly’s observation shortly after having my first child, and it has haunted me ever since; not only as a parent, but also as a child myself. 

It took me many years – and a lot of therapy – to finally realize that I am fortunate to have loving, if imperfect, parents, who tried their hardest and did the best they could with the tools at their disposal to raise me right. By and large, I like to think they succeeded – though you can tell me what you think!

But, like virtually all parents, my parents had myriad expectations of me and for me – and, indeed, they had expectations about parenting and life that were placed upon them, by their own parents, by their extended family, by their community, by the broader culture – that had little to do with who I really was and am. 

I am certain that this was not in any way my parents’ intention. As Bly observes, “We do the same thing to our children; it’s a part of life on this planet.” We “arrive in this world with birthright gifts,” Palmer teaches, and then “we spend the first part of our lives abandoning them, or letting others disabuse us of them…we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability…” (Palmer, p. 12)

Being taught from our earliest days to deny our fundamental selves, is, for many if not most of us, a source of deep emotional pain; a powerful, and lingering feeling of rejection, of feeling as though we have to be, or strive to become, something we are not in order to be thoroughly accepted by and pleasing to the most important people in our lives. I know it has been for me. And as I come more fully to terms with it as an adult approaching – God help me – middle age, the more I realize that the particular perniciousness of this pain is that it produces more pain. Because we end up either trying to live with the painful dissonance of trying to be something we are not, or else being in a context where we are rejected for being who we are.

Before we chant Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, many have the tradition of reciting a prayer called “Tefillah Zakah,” a prayer for purity, composed about 200 years ago by the modern Lithuanian sage Rabbi Abraham Danziger. The prayer is deeply personal, with the author reflecting on the ways in which he has not lived as God created him to live: “You created me with a tongue and a mouth…to speak the words with which You formed heaven and earth…But [instead] I [have embarrassed] people, [laughed] at others, [gossiped, lied, and caused] arguments. You created me with hands…to transmit tenderness and comfort, but I have often used my hands for hurting others…” and so on, Rabbi Danziger reviews all the parts of his body, acknowledging the various ways he has betrayed his God-given gifts. 

What Rabbi Danziger is pointing to here is a universal human truth: on some level, we all deny our essential selves. We strive to be something we are not in order to fit in. And what’s more, we try to get others, often the very people we love the most, to live in ways that are incompatible with their nature, selfishly – even if unintentionally – forcing people in all their infinite uniqueness into the finite and uniform boxes into which we feel they should fit. What suffering we cause ourselves and others through acting this way! What pain we cause our Creator by rejecting God’s infinitely precious gift of our singular souls! How grievous this sin; perhaps even the very root of all transgression!

The Torah calls Yom Kippur shabbat shabbaton, a complete cessation, a moment for us to stop everything about our lives – to stop wearing the clothes we normally wear, to stop being concerned about our body odor and our stinky breath, to stop numbing our pain with physical pleasures, to stop eating and even to stop drinking water. Is it possible that, by asking us to so thoroughly interrupt the momentum of our lives, our tradition is offering us an annual opportunity to take a good, honest look at ourselves and ask: Am I living the life I was meant to live? Have I been who God created me to be? If I look at my life, will I find a life that’s mine, the unique child of God who came into this world “trailing clouds of glory”? Or will I find someone else’s life, one that is unrecognizable to my singular soul? And beneath all of this is the one question that must be answered in order to address any of the others, the most basic question of all: Like the Caterpillar in Wonderland, on Yom Kippur we must ask ourselves, “Who are you?

I don’t know about you, but I find those questions haunting to consider; painful, evenThat’s the point of the whole holiday, of course: When the Torah discusses Yom Kippur, it commands, “v’eeneetem et nafshoteikhem” (cf. Lev. 23:27, Num. 29:7) which can be literally translated as, “you shall afflict yourselves.” This day requires not only forgoing creature comforts but also leaning into the discomfort of confronting the deepest pain in our hearts – our guilt, our regret, our longing. And the pain we are asked to lean into on Yom Kippur is profoundly purposeful. It is precisely what tells us that we are not in fact living the lives we should and could be living, that we have strayed from who God created us to be. It is the voice calling us to return – to return to our true selves; to who we really are. 

The problem, however, is that because we spend the first part of our lives being trained away from our true selves, and abandoning our birthright gifts, for the sake of belonging, most of us have lost sight of who we really are. When we channel our inner hookah-smoking Caterpillar and ask ourselves, “Who are you?”, we are likely to answer, just as Alice did, “I hardly know” anymore

So how do we recover who we are, deep down? How do we hear the inner voice of true self that is calling out to us? 

The answer, of course, is that we must listen. It is no coincidence that our tradition’s guiding principle has long been, “sh’ma Yisrael,” listen, O Israel. In order to hear the voice of our godly soul calling us in each and every moment, we must listen for it. 

True, our souls don’t literally talk to us; at least, not in a way that is audible to our ears. Rather, as Palmer writes, our souls “speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being” (Palmer, p. 6). Like trees that grow in the direction of available sunlight, our souls speak in the ways we intuitively recoil from certain experiences and are drawn to others; in the ways we wither in certain environments and thrive in others. 

But however our souls speak to us, hearing their voice requires us to do something even more basic: to listen, we must first be quiet. It is again no coincidence that we cannot utter the Torah’s command to listen, “sh’ma,” without first telling ourselves, “shhh.” We can’t hope to hear the divine sound of our soul without first being quiet., 

Perhaps this is why our tradition has us recite the sh’ma no less than twice daily; morning and evening, we remind ourselves to be still so we can listen for the godly voice within. The daily practice of sh’ma has a weekly parallel in the Sabbath; the Hebrew word for which also, helpfully, begins with the sound “shhh” – Shabbat. On Shabbat, we “lay down the profanity of clattering commerce,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, so that in the silence we might hear our souls speak. 

But for most of us, even those daily and weekly practices are not enough. We are so accustomed to silencing our souls that we have all but forgotten their sound, even as they long for us to listen to their voices. So once a year, we have Yom Kippur, a shabbat shabbaton, a supreme sabbath, a day to cease not only our labors, but all aspects of quotidian living; a desperate measure – for desperate souls. 

It is fitting, then, that we begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a prayer that reminds us that all our many words are and ought to be b’teilin u’mvutalin, utterly null and void. Yom Kippur is a day for the supreme silence we need to hear the speech of our souls. So we start Yom Kippur by telling ourselves, in effect, to be quiet; because if we are to listen to our souls speak, we must first embrace the stillness. 

Only when she steps outside the life she was supposed to be living does young Alice confront the most basic and most important question there is: “Who are you?” On Yom Kippur, we are like Alice in Wonderland. By inviting us to break radically with our routine reality, Yom Kippur enables us to peer beneath the people we’ve become to inquire about and discover who we truly are – to stop and be still so we can hear the sound of our souls, to discern the distance between who we were meant to be and who we are today. As Alice discovered, navigating this Wonderland is not easy. But it is nothing compared to the pain many of us know all too well of living lives that are not truly our own, seeking belonging by losing our selves.

This day invites us to healing and wholeness: reclaiming who we truly are, embracing our singular souls. This day invites us to ask ourselves, “Who are you?” to answer “I am Me,” and to live in the year to come in such a way that honors ourselves as the unique gifts from God that is each and every one of us. 

Gmar hatimah tovah.

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Why Are You Here? — Rosh Hashanah 5783

Throughout history, there have always been people who sought solace from the world as it is by hiding behind what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com).

As a people that is well over three thousand years old, Jews have collectively lived through many eras of upheaval. We have endured revolutions and conquests; crusades, inquisitions and expulsions; the rise and fall of empires; civil wars and world wars, pogroms and genocide. 

One of the tempestuous times that looms large in the Jewish consciousness is the chaotic era of the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, a period of oppression, civil unrest, and national calamity. 

The upheaval of that era did not cloud the moral vision of the ancient rabbis, who didn’t mince words when it came to their feelings about Rome. Characteristic of their perspective was Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s critique: “Everything that [the Romans] established, they established only for their own purposes. They established marketplaces, to place prostitutes in them; bathhouses, to pamper themselves; and bridges, to collect taxes from all who pass over them” (B. Shabbat 33b; cf., B. Bava Batra 10b)

In other words, the problem with Rome was that it only cared about one thing: Rome. All at the time could see that Rome was responsible for extraordinary advances in engineering, art, and architecture. One can still marvel at Rome’s triumphs in these areas to this day, as remnants of the edifices and infrastructure it built endure in all the lands that were once under her dominion. It was, and remains, difficult not to be impressed by Rome’s accomplishments. 

Yet Rabbi Shimon saw through this facade, recognizing, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “that all these splendid edifices and public institutions were not built by the Romans to aid the people but to serve their own nefarious designs,” the expansion of imperial wealth and power chief among them (The Sabbath, ch. 3). True, advancing Roman interests may have sometimes benefited those under its dominion, but that was beside the point. The Empire could not have cared less about helping its subjects unless doing so would also serve its own interests; and conversely, when the Empire saw that it was to its own advantage to oppress its subjects, it didn’t think twice about doing so. 

The ancient rabbis had a word for this quality: zadon, perhaps best translated as arrogance. In the rabbinic consciousness, zadon is about considering oneself more important than others, elevating oneself above other people (cf., Maimonides, Hil. De’ot 2:2; Ex. 18:11, Ovadiah 1:5, Jer. 49:16). A person characterized by this quality is concerned only with their own self-interest, flagrantly disregarding what is good for others; unconstrained, even, by what is morally right. Thus rabbinic tradition frequently refers to Rome with the epithet “memshelet zadon,” the Arrogant Kingdom. 

An Arrogant Kingdom such as Rome is a state that is thoroughly self-interested, one that believes nothing is more important than its own power and wealth – that there is no higher morality than its own position. An Arrogant Kingdom will therefore do literally anything it perceives as being to its own benefit, no matter who may be harmed in the process.

In honing in on the nature of Roman evil, Rabbi Shimon demonstrates that he could clearly see the mess of his moment, an era of oppression and injustice wrought by the reign of an arrogant empire. But the ability to recognize what is broken is not the same as summoning the conviction and the courage to fix it. So instead of confronting the moral crisis of his era, Rabbi Shimon ran away, secluding himself in a cave, along with his son, Rabbi Elazar. They remained in that cave for twelve long years, studying Torah all day, every day, pausing only to recite their daily prayers. 

Throughout history, there have always been people who, like Rabbi Shimon, turned to their faiths for refuge from the world as it is, seeking solace by hiding behind what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail). 

Examples of this tendency abound in all faith traditions, including our own. From the ascetic Essenes who fled to Qumran, to caves near the Dead Sea, during the oppressive Roman era; to the German pietists and Spanish kabbalists who embraced mysticism as a refuge during the terror of the crusades and the Inquisition; to the Hasidim of 18th-19th century Eastern Europe who sought shelter from the violent antisemitism of their era in contemplative practices and ecstatic prayer, many of our ancestors have turned to spirituality as shelter from the storms of their respective eras. 

And still in our time, many embrace what my teacher Rabbi Sharon Brous calls “escapist religion,” an approach that sees the synagogue as a sanctuary, a retreat from the raging fires of the outside world. Consequently, religious escapists strive to keep worldly affairs out of sacred space, secular pursuits distinct from spiritual practice, politics far away from the pulpit.

This approach is not baseless. The Essenes, for example, had a point when they noted the fundamental dissonance between worshiping a thoroughly perfect deity and living in a painfully imperfect world. And our tradition emphasizes the value of Shabbat, the importance of setting aside regular opportunities to cease engaging with our broken world, creating space for uninterrupted joy. 

This summer, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a two-month sabbatical. The term “sabbatical,” of course, comes from the concept of Shabbat, and I tried to embrace those two months as though they were Shabbat, including refraining, to the best of my ability, from my pathological urge to be perpetually productive. And, since our tradition teaches that Shabbat is meant to be a time of uninterrupted joy and peace, I also chose not to read, watch, or listen to the news or even to look at social media news feeds, since I find that it provokes anxiety and depression at least as often as it informs. 

I have to admit it felt really good to tune out all that noise and embrace the calming quiet that is the heart and soul of Shabbat, even if it was only for a few short months. But a part of me was always acutely aware that the world was still on fire, even if my extraordinary privilege enabled me to temporarily pretend that it wasn’t. 

That’s precisely what Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, come to realize. The Talmud records that after twelve long years in what Rabbi Brous calls their “pietistic dreamscape — completely isolated, free of the distractions of the everyday, immersed only in holiness,” Elijah the Prophet appears and informs them that the Roman emperor has died. Taking this as a herald of the advent of the messianic era, when evil will cease and God’s perfect justice and peace will reign, they decide it’s finally time to leave the cave and return to the world. 

But when they emerge, they see that nothing has changed. People still go about their daily lives, just as they had before they fled to the cave. The emperor may have died, but Rome, the memshelet zadon, still reigned. When Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar realize this, they become so overwhelmed with righteous anger that everything they cast their eyes upon burns to the ground. Finally, God calls out to them: “Have you emerged only to destroy my world? Go back to your cave!” In other words, God is saying that turning from the world to focus on the welfare of your own soul is its own form of zadon, a self-serving narcissism; the selfishness of religious escapism is every bit as destructive as imperial arrogance. Retreating behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows and ignoring the pain and suffering in our world doesn’t make it go away. Outside, the fire still destroys. And you can only ignore a fire raging outside one’s home for so long before the flames eventually spread and consume you, too.

One of the central themes of Rosh Hashanah is malkhuyot, God’s sovereignty. Throughout Rosh Hashanah, we pray for a world on the other side of our broken and messy inbetween, a repaired and perfected world, nothing less than the establishment of malkhut shamayim, the Kingdom of Heaven – a world aligned with God, radically loving, thoroughly just, and perfectly peaceful. Heaven on Earth. In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we repeatedly assert that such a world will only come into being ki ta’avir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz, when memshelet zadon is eradicated from the earth.  

Our mahzor, for its part, translates the term memshelet zadon euphemistically, as “the tyranny of arrogance,” rather than more directly as the Arrogant Kingdom. In defense of that choice, there is admittedly something strange about praying for the destruction of a government that hasn’t existed for nearly two millennia.  

But such a euphemistic translation, I think, obscures the real point of the prayer. We have continued to pray for the destruction of memshelet zadon for two thousand years because, on some level, we recognize that, even though the Roman Empire may no longer exist, the Arrogant Kingdom remains, and we all still live under its dominion. 

In his masterful book Moral Man and Immoral Society, the great 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that every human government that has ever existed, in every conceivable political form, can be fairly and accurately characterized by zadon, concerned primarily with its own self-interest, doing whatever they perceive as beneficial to themselves (Moral Man and Immoral Society, 11-12). And it is this quality that breeds inequality, oppression, and bloodshed, which has, of course, been ubiquitous in human history. So long as we live in a world marked by widespread injustice and unending war, we remain subjects of memshelet zadon

From this reality, there is no escape. No cave into which we can run and hide. And moreover, hiding from the evils of our world doesn’t stop them from, ultimately, impacting us and the people closest to us. It didn’t work for the Essenes or the hasidim, and it won’t save us either. 

So what, then, are we to do? 

According to Niebuhr, while every society inherently and inevitably acts primarily out of self-interest, some are doubtlessly better than others. The more repressive, unequal, and violent a society, the more it resembles memshelet zadon. Thus, for Niebuhr, totalitarian regimes are at one end of the spectrum, while pluralistic democracies are on the other. It’s not that democracies are perfect. It’s that democracies, unlike totalitarian regimes, enable and empower individuals to criticize laws, systems, and leaders, and to work through the political process to form a more perfect union, to borrow the language of the American Constitution; to make the state increasingly inclusive, just, and peaceful. Therefore, democracy, while imperfect, is the only conceivable social system capable of advancing God’s sovereignty on earth.

But democracies are not inherent or self-perpetuating. Human beings have a tendency, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Erich Fromm, to “escape from freedom,” to gravitate away from the messiness and uncertainty that are part and parcel of diversity and liberty, toward homogeneity and authoritarianism. Right after the American constitutional convention concluded, a Philadelphia power-broker named Elizabeth Willing Powel is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin famously answered, “A republic — if you can keep it.” The gravitational pull of zadon on the human soul is great; on human societies, greater still. Without cultivating a force powerful enough to oppose our natural predilection toward zadon, we invariably succumb to the encroaching tyranny.

According to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, there is only one force capable of keeping zadon at bay; one quality that can totally and permanently eradicate memshelet zadon and bring about a world perfected under divine sovereignty. Each and every time we recite the Amidah today, we say:

וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֽׂיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָֽאתָ, וְיִירָאֽוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים…

And so, Infinite our God, instill awe of You in all Your works, and fear of You in all You have created, so that all existence will revere You…

In other words, the only thing that can end the dominion of zadon is widespread yirah. 

The Hebrew term yirah can be translated a number of ways: fear, awe, reverence, respect. But conceptually, yirah in our tradition is the recognition that we are merely a small part of something vast beyond all comprehension (Maimonides, Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 2:2). It is akin to the feeling of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or looking at the images from the Webb Space Telescope of galaxy clusters that are billions of light years away. A person with yirah understands the limitations of human knowledge, even of human imagination. A person with yirah comprehends the pettiness of self-interest, and the equal importance of the needs of all other people; indeed, the equal importance of the needs of all the rest of creation. A person with yirah by definition possesses a sense of broad responsibility, a recognition that the wellbeing of others is no less important than my own and that, in fact, our wellbeing is bound up together. 

Yirah is, therefore, the opposite of zadon, the arrogance of granting primacy to one’s own interests, an irreverent attitude toward others’ wellbeing. Zadon is hubris, selfishness, greed. Arrogant Kingdoms are therefore inherently unequal. Yirah, on the other hand, is humility, selflessness, and generosity; the knowledge that, as Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” That’s why the Rosh Hashanah liturgy asserts that the inevitable result of widespread yirah would be “וְיֵעָשׂוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת,” that all will be made into one agudah, one bundle, one single society, because we will be free from the divisions and inequities that are both the cause and the effect of zadon

And because zadon and yirah are intrinsically opposed, the growth of one necessarily constrains the other. Therefore, our tradition rejects any attempt to support, accommodate, or make peace with memshelet zadon, even through avoidance. As Rabbi Brous teaches, “either you work to dismantle oppressive systems, or your inaction becomes the mortar that sustains them.” We either advance a perfected world of pervasive inclusion, justice, and peace, or we permit ourselves and doom each other to continue to be dominated by Arrogant Kingdoms in all forms. 

The Talmud records that Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar obey God’s command and return to their cave, once again immersing themselves in study and prayer. Rabbi Elazar, for his part, is relieved to escape a world on fire in the serenity of his religious sanctuary. But God’s rebuke haunts Rabbi Shimon. Day by day, he begins to notice that the Torah he studies repeatedly emphasizes one thing above all – our responsibility to love and care for one another. And he likewise begins to notice that the prayers he recites from the siddur express a longing for a perfected world. Slowly but surely he begins to understand what God meant by sending him back to the cave: not to hide from the world, but rather to remember his religious calling to repair the world – to take the world as it is and transform it into the loving, just, and peaceful world it ought to be. 

The purpose of Jewish religious practice – study and prayer, tradition and ritual – is not solipsistic self-help. The synagogue is not a sanctuary from the world. Rather, it is where we go to cultivate yirah, reverence, a sense of our place in and responsibility for the world. And we nurture this awareness not as an end unto itself, but as the means through which we, to borrow a phrase from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, take ourselves out of the narrowness of our own self-interest, recognizing our relationship to and responsibility for one another. 

Our worship today is in this sense meaningless unless it leads us to recommit ourselves to the work of making heaven on earth; far from lulling us to retreat from the world, it’s a shofar blast – calling us to engage in the world. And that work – of eradicating the Arrogant Kingdom and advancing the Kingdom of Heaven – is not theoretical and abstract. It’s practical and concrete. It requires systemic change and societal transformation on every level – local, state, national, and international. 

It requires us recognizing the widening gap between rich and poor, the stubborn persistence of racial inequity, the ongoing assaults on the rights of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, the increasing irreversibility of man-made climate change, the threats to democracy in the U.S. and around the world, including the rising specter of political violence and election subversion as we approach November’s midterms,, as moral crises, spreading fires that threaten us all; manifestations of the ongoing dominion of the Arrogant Kingdom in our own time that must be eradicated if we are to fulfill our tradition’s vision of building heaven on earth.

This recognition demands our responsibility and our engagement – yes, even our political engagement, because, especially in a democratic society such as ours, politics is the process through which the change envisioned by our tradition can be achieved in our world. 

I get the desire for religion-as-escape. I really do. The world can be brutal. The brokenness all around us can at times feel overwhelming, even unchangeable. Arrogant kingdoms have a way of seeming inevitable. Who wouldn’t want to find some way, even temporarily, to retreat from such a weary world, whether in a synagogue or whatever cave we find to insulate ourselves? What difference does it make, anyway?

After being back in their cave for twelve more months, God finally tells Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar that they may leave. Rabbi Elazar once again finds that little has changed. And once again, he erupts in righteous indignation, destroying everything he sees. But Rabbi Shimon has been transformed. Where Rabbi Elazar destroys, Rabbi Shimon repairs. 

Rabbi Elazar is incredulous, insisting that the world is broken beyond repair, and that the only path to God in a godforsaken world is for people of God to forsake the world. But Rabbi Shimon has learned the truth: People of God forsaking the world is precisely what enables arrogant kingdoms to endure. He turns to Rabbi Elazar and says, “b’ni, my son, dai l’olam ani v’atah, you and I are enough for the world.” Rabbi Shimon, in other words, channels his inner Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”” We may just be two people, but two people can indeed make a difference; because we are either two people advancing a perfected world, or we are two people allowing the world to remain broken. 

Our worship today reminds us – you and I are enough for the world. You and I can change the world. We may not fix everything that is broken – and certainly not all at once – but if you and I aren’t doing whatever we can to eradicate oppression, we are sustaining it; if you and I aren’t doing whatever we can to pursue justice, we are abiding injustice. You and I are either building heaven on earth, or we are sustaining the Arrogant Kingdom; we are either allowing the world to remain broken, or we are advancing a world perfected. Religion, in this sense, cannot be a retreat. It must be a revolution. Even our prayer must be political. 

We don’t come here on Rosh Hashanah to escape from the world. We come here to remember what we are called to do in the world – nothing less than advancing God’s sovereignty in the world – and to recommit ourselves to the sacred and secular work of eradicating arrogant kingdoms and establishing heaven on earth. 

May this be a year of political prayer, a year of revolutionary religion, a year of putting our worship to work. 

Shanah tovah.

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Shabbat for Shabbat’s Sake: Parashat Sh’lakh Lekha 5782

Photo by Ihsan Adityawarman on Pexels.com

I didn’t grow up in a sabbath-observant home. The first time I encountered traditional Shabbat observance was during my first summer at Camp Ramah in New England, when I was about 11 years old. And if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t care much for it.

What especially irked me about Shabbat in those early experiences was what Jewish tradition calls the “fences around the law”, activities that, while technically permitted on Shabbat, are nevertheless considered off-limits, either because they might lead one to inadvertently violate a biblical prohibition, or because they are against the spirit or essence of the Sabbath. 

For example, I remember that, during my first summer, the last day of camp was a Sunday. And I, ever the procrastinator, neglected to pack my bags before sundown Friday. But I thought nothing of it, figuring I could just pack up on Saturday afternoon, since there were no structured activities, anyway. But when my counselor came into the bunk and saw me shoving dirty laundry into my duffel, he made me stop. Apparently, it is forbidden to prepare on Shabbat for something that takes place after Shabbat, even if the activity itself would otherwise be permitted on Shabbat. Why? Because preparing for something after Shabbat violates the spirit of the day as a day apart; sacred time, separate from the days that preceded it and distinct from the week that will follow it. In other words, Shabbat is its own thing. Shabbat exists for the sake of Shabbat itself.

That concept is central to the story found toward the end of parashat Sh’lakh Lekha. After the portion’s main narrative, which centers on the ill-fated mission to reconnoiter the Promised Land, the Torah turns to a lesser-known and somewhat strange story: 

A man was discovered gathering wood on Shabbat. The Israelites are unsure what to do with him, and even Moses and Aaron are baffled, “ki lo foresh mah ye’aseh lo, for it had not been specified what should be done to him” (Num. 15:34). Presumably, the man was gathering wood for the purposes of kindling a fire, and the Torah specifically forbids making a fire on Shabbat. However, while it may be necessary to gather wood in order to make a fire, the act in and of itself is purely preparatory. Is it forbidden merely to prepare to do something that is forbidden on Shabbat, even before performing the prohibited act itself? What if the wood-gatherer doesn’t even intend to make a fire on Shabbat, but is simply getting ready for the next day? What if he just likes picking up sticks? 

Ultimately, God clarifies the law: “mot yumat ha-ish, the man shall surely be put to death” (15:35), which is the same as the punishment for kindling a fire on Shabbat. The sentence is severe, to be sure, but let’s put that aside to note what this passage is really trying to communicate: God regards the act of gathering wood on Shabbat as tantamount to igniting a flame on the seventh day. In other words, merely preparing to perform an act that is forbidden on Shabbat, even if the preparation is intended for doing something after the conclusion of Shabbat, is considered the same as performing the prohibited act itself. 

The fact that the Torah equates preparing to do forbidden labor on Shabbat with committing the prohibited deed itself means, from a biblical perspective, that Shabbat must be observed for its own sake. Once Shabbat begins, one must set aside old business, refrain from engaging in any new labor, and even forgo preparing for that which is beyond Shabbat. Put simply, Shabbat must be its own thing; a day apart, distinct, separate, sacred. A day that exists for its own sake.

This way of understanding Shabbat may strike many of us as counter-cultural. As Americans, we are conditioned to denigrate idleness and prize productivity. We tend to think of and justify time we spend not at work – like weekends, holidays, vacations, self-care; even sick days, family leave, and sleep – as means to an end, necessities for optimal productivity. Perhaps this is why we Americans frequently work on weekends and holidays; receive significantly less vacation time, sick days, and paid family leave than do citizens of similar nations; and even often pride ourselves in sleeping as little as possible. We are taught from an early age that our dignity derives from hard work. I know I was. As a result, we wear busy-ness as a badge of honor, boast about how tired we constantly are, and celebrate productivity, professional accomplishment, and material acquisition above all else. 

Consequently, we are inclined to understand an institution like Shabbat from the same perspective, arguing that the Torah must mandate a day of rest each week only for the purpose of recharging for the week ahead. Without taking time to recoup our strength, the thinking goes, we risk producing diminishing returns and burning out more quickly. Having a regular day of rest, on the other hand, enables us to work harder during the work week and, moreover, to remain at our labors for more years of our lives. 

Explaining Shabbat as a pragmatic strategy for ensuring a healthy and stable workforce is not new. When Roman critics regarded the institution of the Sabbath as an example of Jewish laziness, Philo, the spokesperson of the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, argued that the object of Shabbat was “to give [people] relaxation from continuous and unending toil” in order to “send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables [people] to collect their strength with a stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them.” In other words, Philo defended Shabbat by saying that its purpose was to make a person more productive, to regain strength for the work of the week ahead.

I must admit that I am frequently guilty of thinking about Shabbat in these terms. For example, I once had a girlfriend during my college years who I’ll call Sarah, to protect her identity. Sarah was a real go-getter – smart, ambitious, driven, and incredibly hard-working. Now, by that time in my life, I was shomer Shabbat. Sarah, on the other hand, was decidedly not traditionally observant. Spoiler alert, the relationship didn’t last very long. In any case, I remember one Friday afternoon, as I was busy preparing for Shabbat, Sarah said to me with maximum incredulity, “I really don’t know how you are able to spend a whole day off the grid and away from work.” I replied, “That’s funny. I don’t know how you aren’t able to do it!” My point was that having a dedicated day of rest made me more focused and productive in the week ahead, and I couldn’t understand how she was seemingly able to work nonstop with no breaks. However, it strikes me as I think back on it that both of us were actually thinking about Shabbat from the same perspective, that rest is only valuable as a means of attaining optimal productivity. 

To this day, I find that I often explain or justify Shabbat in similar terms. I’m certain I’ve made comparable claims from this very bimah. And just recently, in my letter to the congregation about my upcoming sabbatical, I claimed that Shabbat is intended to be “purposeful and restorative respite,” a time for rest following a period of hard work that exists so that we can return to work with full spiritual, emotional, and physical vigor. 

When I wrote those words, I was not being disingenuous. From the moment I first considered taking a sabbatical – which, as the term suggests, is closely related to the concept of Shabbat – I justified it to myself, and presented it to our congregation’s leadership, as an opportunity to disengage from day-to-day responsibilities so I could focus on other work – a book project or two that I had been dreaming about for some time and beginning to work on the advanced degree I will be pursuing part-time over the next few years. Having the spaciousness to engage in these pursuits, I argued, would enable me to be a better rabbi for our congregation when I returned. 

However, after a recent conversation with a Christian colleague, I started thinking about my sabbatical in an altogether different way. The other week, I was telling my friend, Rev. Jim Somerville, about my sabbatical plans. After listening to me list all the things I was planning to do, all I was hoping I would accomplish, during this time, he replied with a mix of consternation and compassion: “That all sounds great, Michael. But this is Shabbat we’re talking about. What are you doing for your nefesh?”  Rev. Somerville invoked the Hebrew word for soul specifically to remind me that the point of Shabbat is not increased productivity. The point of Shabbat is the soul, reclaiming and nurturing our most essential selves. 

Many of us, myself included, have a deeply ingrained, perhaps pathological, need to feel and be recognized as optimally productive, as though our worth depends on our work. From the Torah’s perspective, however, our value as human beings derives not from our productivity but rather from our godly spirit, from the fact that each of us is created in the Divine image. In other words, we are fundamentally worthy. Work does not endow us with dignity; we are inherently equally and infinitely dignified. There is nothing we must do, indeed nothing we can do, to prove or magnify our worth. 

Therefore, our tradition insists that Shabbat is not for the purpose of productivity. Rather, quite the contrary, “labor is the means toward an end,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues in The Sabbath, his stirring love letter to Shabbat (Heschel 14). We work for the sake of rest, not the other way around. In Heschel’s words, “the Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath” (Heschel 14). 

Shabbat, in this sense, is about ceasing our pursuits to remind us that we actually need not pursue; it beckons us to remember who and what we truly are. In Heschel’s words, Shabbat exists in order for us to “abandon our plebeian pursuits and reclaim our authentic state, in which we may partake of a blessedness in which we are what we are, regardless of whether we are learned or not, of whether our career is a success or a failure” (Heschel 30). 

Heschel describes this kind of “perfect rest” as “an art,” and I would argue that it is indeed an increasingly lost art. 

I can say that, personally, refraining from productive work on Shabbat has grown more challenging over the years. Some of that is invariably due to my chosen profession. Don’t get me wrong, I cherish, and am extremely fulfilled by, the work I do. Getting to be a rabbi is an extraordinary blessing; a great privilege. Yet as the spiritual leader of a congregation, it’s hard to claim that my activities on Shabbat, such as leading services and teaching Torah, while perhaps not technically violating the letter of the law, do not in some way undermine its spirit. 

The pandemic has only exacerbated this challenge. Adapting to the moment required the use of technology I would have previously considered to be off-limits, and while I don’t regret how we found ways to safely and meaningfully keep our community connected to each other and God during this difficult time, I have to admit that, once the electronic devices are on and being used for one purpose, I have found it harder and harder to turn them off and avoid using them for other, less sabbath-appropriate, purposes.

I know I’m not alone. As my rabbi and teacher Art Green observed, “all those labor saving devices, all those prepackaged foods and household gadgets that were supposed to save us so much time” seem to have freed us up merely “to work harder than ever, to answer messages ever faster, to squeeze more productivity out of each minute of our lives” (Green, Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas, 40). With each passing year, it feels as though the pressures on our time, the demand for us to be constantly at work and immediately responsive, the sense that if we are not keeping up we are falling behind, are all growing exponentially. Is it any wonder that burnout has become so pervasive, that our society is in the throes of a widespread mental health crisis? The persistent push to produce is harming us and indeed our entire civilization – mind, body, and soul. We desperately need Shabbat, now more than ever, a radical reclamation of our inherent and equal dignity, a worth that derives not from what we do, or from how much we achieve, but rather from who we fundamentally are. 

Can we rediscover the lost art of perfect rest, respite not only from constant toil itself but also from our constant urge to toil? Can we embrace an opportunity not only to stop working but also to stop even preparing for work? Can we reclaim ourselves from a culture that tells us our work determines our worth? 

Shabbat is the way, a day in which we not only cease productive labor but also, as we learn from the story of the wood-gatherer in this week’s parashah, cease even laboring to be productive; a day that is not preparation for something else, but rather a day that is sacred simply because it exists, reminding us that we too are sacred simply because we exist.

I may yet do some of the things I had originally envisioned doing on my sabbatical; studying, dreaming, writing. But if I do any of those activities, I will strive to engage in them not because I feel the need to be productive, but rather because they affirm and nourish my spirit. More importantly, I am hopeful that the coming months will be an opportunity for me to learn and relearn the lost art of perfect rest, to rededicate myself to the essence of Shabbat, to embrace Shabbat for Shabbat’s sake. 

I am extremely grateful to our holy community for enabling me to receive anew the godly gift of Shabbat, and I am hopeful that, in my taking this time, you will feel inspired and empowered to dedicate whatever time you can for the rejuvenating rest we all need, and that the Source of Life requires. 

Wishing you all an extended Shabbat Shalom.

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Embrace the Wilderness: Parashat Beha’alotekha 5782

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

One of the central tensions of the Book of Numbers is perfectly expressed by the two very different names by which it is known. In English, of course, we call it Numbers, a name derived from the book’s opening narrative – counting and organizing the Israelite population for the purpose of invading, conquering, and settling the Promised Land. But in Hebrew, we call it Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, a tumultuous and tragic tale of wandering, rebellion, and, ultimately, generational ruin. And it is in our Torah portion this week, Parashat Beha’alotekha that the Book of Numbers, a narrative of order and purpose, actually transitions to being Sefer Bamidbar, a story of loss, and of being lost. 

As Parashat Beha’alotekha begins, the Children of Israel are preparing to depart Mt. Sinai, where they had been encamped for about a year, for their apparently imminent arrival in the Promised Land. According to the great medieval French commentator, Rashi, Moses and the people believed that they would reach the Promised Land within three days of their departure from Sinai. But just as soon as the Israelites leave Sinai, they begin to complain, beginning a devastating cycle of rebellion and punishment that culminates in God barring the generation of the Exodus from entering the Promised Land, dooming them instead to perish in the wilderness, a decree that will be leveled against them in next week’s portion, Parashat Shlakh-Lekha.

What happened? How did the Israelites, a people coming from a year of living intimately with the Divine at Sinai break faith so drastically, and soon into their journey? How did this people, who could practically see their destination just over the horizon become so hopelessly lost so close to their destination?  

Interestingly, the text of this week’s parashah does not record the subject of the people’s first complaint. Rather, it uses the term k’mitonenim, which, literally translated, means “like those who cause themselves to wail.” In other words, there was no content to the Israelites’ first complaint. They manufactured a grievance. They drove themselves to dissatisfaction. 

A few verses later, the people complain again. This time, we are told the subject of their protest: they are sick of the manna, the heavenly bread that God miraculously caused to appear for them in the wilderness, and crave meat, expressing a longing to return to Egypt, where they audaciously claim to have freely enjoyed bountiful fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic (11:5). Here, too, the text indicates that the complaint is manufactured. The text says that the “rifraff in their midst hit’avu ta’avah,” literally, they “caused themselves to crave a craving.” 

The result of both complaints, of course, is tragedy. Which begs the question, “why”? Why would the Israelites – a people with so much to lose and with so much to gain – deliberately choose to break faith and veer off the simple path toward fulfilling their dreams? 

The answer, I think, lies in the wilderness itself. Between leaving Sinai and entering the Promised Land, the people find themselves in a transitional space. Because the wilderness is literally neither here nor there, it is quite likely that the people felt they were precisely nowhere. Being situated in this transitional nowhere, detached from God’s Mountain and distant from the Holy Land, must have produced within the Israelites a sense of being unmoored, vulnerable, even lost. Philosopher Paul Tillich calls this feeling the “anxiety of nonbeing,” an existential crisis that we can experience when we transition between stages of life, when we are no longer who we were previously, but when we haven’t yet developed into who we are becoming. The Israelites rebel, according to Tillich, to escape the insecurity and uncertainty of living by resisting moving forward, retreating to an imaginary and idealized past, and acting in ways that are harmful and destructive, towards others and even towards ourselves.

The tragedy, however, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Right as the people leave Sinai, just before the story turns to their downward spiral of self-destruction, we encounter two verses that interrupt the flow of the narrative, an interruption expressed by the fact that the verses are bracketed in the text by two inverted nuns, which you can see reflected both in the printed chumash and also in the Sefer Torah itself:

Vayehi binso’a aron va-yomer Moshe: kumah Adonai va-yafutzu oyvekha, va-yanusu mis’anekha mipanekha / When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say, Arise, Infinite One, that Your enemies may scatter, and that those who hate You flee before You!’ Uv’nukho yomar: shuvah Adonai rivevot alfei yisrael / And when it would rest, he would say, ‘Return, Infinite One of Israel’s myriads of thousands.

These verses are likely quite familiar to us all, because to this day, we sing them every time we take the Torah out from, and return the Torah to, the Aron ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark. In their context, these verses are an unheeded reminder to the people that even though they might have felt they were leaving God behind in entering the wilderness, God was not moving on from them. Wherever the Ark goes, God would go with it. Wherever the Ark rests, God would rest with it. And therefore so long as the people travel with the Ark in their midst, God would be in their midst. As long as they camp where the Ark camps, they will dwell with the Divine. 

Of course, according to Jewish tradition, God is no more physically present with the Ark than anywhere else. Moreover, God and the Ark are not synonymous; that would render the Ark an idol. Rather, the ancient Ark was a symbol of God’s presence. So through these verses, the Torah was trying to remind the Israelites that, as J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote, “not all who wander are lost.” Though they may be leaving God’s mountain, and though they may not yet have arrived at their holy destination, so long as they bear in mind that God remains with them on their journeys, then they need not fear the time and space between origin and destination. But the moment they lose sight of that truth, then they will become hopelessly, irredeemably lost. 

The tragedy, then, of our parashah, and indeed of the whole Book of Numbers, is that our ancestors did lose sight of that truth. Consumed by the spiritual disorientation of leaving Sinai and not immediately entering the Promised Land, existentially anxious about traversing the transitional space of the wilderness, the Children of Israel resist moving forward. They resist the uncomfortable uncertainty of the present, retreat to an imaginary and idealized past, and, ultimately, self-destruct. 

What might have happened had the Israelites actually overcome this existential anxiety and embraced the wilderness journey? Of course, it’s hard to say with certainty. But those of us who have gone through periods of transition in our own lives – seasons when we are no longer who we once were, but we are not yet who we might become – likely know the difference between rebelling against the wilderness and embracing the journey, however uncertain and uncomfortable and even frightening as it may have been. Sometimes, our greatest challenges can also facilitate our greatest growth, especially if we choose to lean into those struggles as opportunities for transformation, rather than resisting or rebelling against them. Of course, none of us enjoys hardship, and pain need not be welcomed as a gift. However, it is also true that there is no motion without friction. There is no growth without discomfort. Ultimately, meaningful, positive transformation is impossible without unsettling the status quo and enduring the uncertainty and instability that are a necessary part of the process. 

Our congregation is about to enter a season similar to the one the Israelites experience in this week’s parashah. This is our last Shabbat in our sanctuary before it is shut down for renovation, meaning we will, for a period of time, be proverbially wandering in the wilderness – no longer encamped at God’s mountain, comfortably situated in our permanent sacred space, but not yet in the Promised Land of a rejuvenated sanctuary. No matter how much we need this renovation, no matter how long we have needed it, and no matter how magnificent and beneficial our new facility will be, this transitional period will, for many of us, feel deeply unsettling.

Already, I feel the stirrings of anxiety within our congregation. Who are we outside the space that formed us and spiritually sustained us for all these years? Who will we be when we arrive at our destination, which we have seen only in architectural renderings? In this unknown in-between, how will we nourish our souls, connect with our community, commune with the Divine? How will we celebrate sacred moments in our lives outside our sacred space? How will we remember lost loved ones outside a space suffused with so many memories? 

The question before us, then, is not whether we will enter the wilderness, but whether we will survive the journey. Will we embrace the disequilibrium, or will we seek to escape the instability by trying to retreat to an idealized past, resisting forward movement, or rising up against one another. In this undefined space between Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land, will we flourish, or will we fall? Will our travails precede our redemptive rebirth, or will they swallow us up?

Fortunately, we have something our ancient ancestors didn’t. We have the gift of being able to study how they went astray, and to learn from their mistakes. We can see the wrong decisions they made, and make different ones. When our ancestors left Sinai, they did not heed the words that we now know well, the words we sing every week, which remind us that though we may wander, we will not be lost – so long as we bear in mind that God always remains with us on our journey. 

Those words from our parashah employ the Ark of the Covenant as the symbol of God’s presence, assuring the people that so long as they see the Ark, they will know that God is with them, and as long as they center their camp around the Ark, the Divine dwells in their midst. Today – spoiler alert for those who’ve never seen an Indiana Jones movie – we no longer possess that ancient Ark. Since its disappearance centuries ago, our tradition has regarded Torah itself to symbolize God’s presence in our midst. That’s what it means when we recite those verses about the Ark whenever we take the Torah out to study it: we are reminding ourselves that, so long as we orient ourselves around Torah – around divine insight, around ancestral wisdom, around sacred deeds – God will be in our midst, wherever we journey; so long as we look to Torah, we will never be lost, no matter where we wander. 

My friends, we are about to depart from a holy mountain and enter an unknown wilderness. Maybe we’ve already been wandering for some time. But if we can embrace the wilderness – if we can find the Torah in it, and if we can hold fast to Torah and to each other through it – we will make it to the Promised Land stronger than ever.

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Message to the Class of 2022

Delivered at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Baccalaureate Ceremony, June 16, 2022

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for having been invited here this evening. It is such an honor to be with you to celebrate this milestone with you and your families. Congratulations to you all! 

As I thought about the message I wanted to share with you this evening, I thought back to where I was when I sat where you sat. Then I did the math. When I realized that I actually graduated high school 21 years ago, I had a minor existential crisis. But after a few short weeks of doing nothing but staring wistfully out of windows, I ultimately put the pieces of my life back together and returned to thinking about where I was intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually when I was 18, and what I know now that I wish I could have told myself then. And it’s that message I want to offer to you tonight.

My whole life, I have always been something of a contrarian. My parents and teachers would tell you that I was a pain-in-the-butt growing up, the kind of student who looked at authority with skepticism, always questioning and challenging and disagreeing. So it’s perhaps no surprise that in teen years, as my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion, I fell in love with punk rock. Punk rock is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.

It’s perhaps more surprising, however, that I embraced my Jewish faith around the same time, and for similar reasons. But the way I saw it then – and in many ways continue to see it now – my tradition is rooted in rebellion. For example, Jewish tradition considers the biblical figures Abraham and Sarah to be the founding parents of our faith, a position they achieve only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. Rabbinic legend takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, Jewish tradition holds that the biblical Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history. 

Maybe it’s because my people has always been a small minority, struggling to maintain its uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, my tradition has long taught the value of standing out; of being outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, Scripture issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern Jewish sage, and my spiritual mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62). 

We human beings, on the other hand, are highly adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we conflate the world as it is with the world as it ought to be.

But what would happen if we were able to look at what we usually experience as normal with fresh eyes, from an outsider’s vantage point? What would we see, and how would we feel, if we were able to take a step back and look at our world as it is honestly, and critically, refusing to accept the world as it is as inevitable, or unchangeable? 

For starters, as outsiders, I think we would be horrified by the violence and cruelty so prevalent in our world, from Ukraine to Uvalde. And I think we would refuse to accept evils like these as normal. 

As outsiders, I think we would feel outraged to see the callousness to suffering and indifference to others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable, that has become so commonplace in our culture. We would experience as utterly scandalous the fact that many in our society have come to accept avoidable sickness and death as a price worth paying for convenience and comfort. And I think we would refuse to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal.

As outsiders, I think we would be appalled by systemic racial injustice. We would find it impossible not to notice how racism persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo, and we would see the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, to a truthful reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, and to acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities for what they are – as cynical ploys to perpetuate inequality. And I think we would refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty. 

As outsiders, I think we would see clearly how close we are to losing democracy, in this country, and around the world. We would identify the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to exploit the weak points in our electoral system. We would see how people in powerful positions are embracing, or at least abiding, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; and how many of our fellow citizens are empowering those who tolerate authoritarianism and excusing those who are bent on subverting democracy. And we would recognize the demand for civility as a cynical ploy designed to get us to look the other way, turn the page, and move on. 

True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But then we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.

But this moment in your life – as you stand at the precipice of graduating high school, poised to strike out on your own to understand the world into which you are entering as young adults and to discover who you are and how you fit into that world – this moment particular in your life is a unique opportunity to step outside of the world as it is and to dream about the world that might be, if only we could clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal and fix what is broken. As a matter of fact, I think college does a great job of teaching us how to be critical observers of our world in precisely this way, and, I invite those of you who are going on to college to take full advantage of the chance to learn how to look at our world as an outsider, with a critical eye and a challenging posture.

At the same time, I also want to suggest that to only look at the world as an outsider is problematic. True, unexamined orthodoxies are toxic. Conformity at the expense of reason is dangerous. But so is cynicism. So is nihilism. As the influential 20th century philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt once put it, if we believe that nothing is true, then we permit anything to be possible – no matter how horrific it may be. When we approach everything only as outsiders, we risk not actually standing for anything. 

Ideally, then, each of us will find a way of being in the world that enables us to stand for something without falling for everything, to accept and doubt all at once; to interrogate while remaining faithful to the very thing we are interrogating. 

That means, even as you commit to looking at the world as an outsider, you must also discover and affirm what it is you do believe in. What do you believe to be true, even if you cannot prove it to be true? What is so core to your being that you would even stake your life on it? To be sure, we must question and challenge the world as it is. But we must also know what we think the world ought to be. 

Class of 2022, as you strike out to encounter and engage with the world as young adults, as our next generation of emerging leaders, I want to bless you with the hope that you will become at once outsiders and insiders, simultaneously firm in your core convictions and unafraid to hold everything up to the light of reason; that you challenge, but from a place of commitment; that you believe, but with open minds and soft hearts. 

In the 21 years since I sat where you sat, this is what I’ve learned: harmonizing head and heart, mind and soul not only affords balance and direction in life. It’s also what makes possible the crucial work to which we are all called, the work of repairing the world. By becoming at once outsiders and insiders, I pray that you will take the world into which you are entering as high school graduates and make of it a better one. Congratulations, and may God bless you all on the journey.

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Punk’s Not Dead, It’s Jewish: Shavuot 5782

I couldn’t be more excited for the new FX/Hulu miniseries Pistol, which promises to tell the true story of one of my favorite bands, The Sex Pistols. I first discovered The Pistols as a teen, when my natural disposition toward contrarianism evolved into full-blown rebellion. 

Of course, music history buffs and punk aficionados know that The Pistols didn’t invent punk rock; but they did help define its look, sound, and, above all, its attitude. Punk, as epitomized by bands like The Sex Pistols, is about standing at a remove from the dominant culture, interrogating it with an irreverent spirit, a challenging posture, and a critical eye. It’s about questioning the world as it is, being unafraid to poke at and even to smash sacred cows, and refusing to accept the status quo as inevitable. Punk rock is outsider music, the art of those who look at the world as it is and realize something is deeply wrong.

It is no coincidence, then, that I fell in love with punk rock and Judaism around the same time. If you look carefully at our sacred texts, you’ll find that ours is a faith rooted in rebellion. Abraham and Sarah, for example, become the founding parents of our faith only by leaving their homeland, stepping outside and standing apart from the world they knew. The midrashic tradition takes this idea even further, arguing that Abraham boldly interrogated and challenged the beliefs and practices of his parents’ culture, and that God chose him to found our faith precisely because of his iconoclastic and rebellious spirit. Similarly, tradition holds that Moses was called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt because he was willing to step outside and stand apart from the norms of the only world he knew. One day, Moses witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating an enslaved Israelite. Given his privileged background, Moses could have easily seen that act as unremarkable, business as usual in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But somehow Moses, despite having been raised as a consummate insider, came to possess the sensitivity of an outsider. He refused to accept the taskmaster’s oppressive deed as normal, and the rest is history. 

Maybe it’s because our people have always been a small minority, struggling to maintain our uniqueness when it is tempting to just be like everyone else; but for whatever reason, our tradition has long taught us to stand out; to be outsiders, looking with a critical eye at things as they are in order to pursue things as they ought to be. Time and again, the Torah issues commands like, “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you…” We are called to reject what is popular in order to do what is right. The great modern sage Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, argued that the essence of Jewish faith is “the sense of not being at home in the universe,” feeling spiritually vagrant in a world filled with “so much suffering and evil” (“You Stand,” in Man’s Quest for God, 61-62). 

This ethos is central to the story we commemorate on this Shavuot holiday. God introduces the theophany at Sinai by saying, “You shall be unto me a nation of priests and a holy people.” What are priests if not a group of people who live as outsiders, distinct from the dominant culture? Traditional commentators underscore this point by emphasizing that separateness is precisely the meaning of the word “holy.” To be a holy people is to be a people apart, unique and distinct from all others; to be “גּ֥וֹי אֶחָ֖ד בָּאָ֑רֶץ, a singular people in the world” (II Samuel 7:23).

According to tradition, this message is embedded in the very setting of the story or matan Torah. Why, ask the rabbis of the midrash, was the Torah given at Sinai – at an unremarkable mountain, and not at a more celebrated site? Indeed, they wonder, why was the Torah given in the remote wilderness and not in the Promised Land? The answer? “כל מי שאינו עושה עצמו כמדבר הפקר, אינו יכול לקנות את החכמה והתורה, Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire wisdom and Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 1:7). According to the 19th century Belarusian commentator Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, also known by the acronym Maharzu, the term the midrash uses, “ownerless,” implies total independence, “shelo l’hakpid al shum davar m’divrei olam,” a person who doesn’t rely on any single thing in the world.” 

In other words, the precondition to accepting the Torah is independence – of mind and soul. The midrash doesn’t say only an ownerless person may receive Torah; it says only an ownerless person can receive Torah. Because the purpose of Torah is about transforming the world as it is into the world as it ought to be, it can only be fully appreciated and embraced by those who are able to look at their world with the critical posture of an outsider – those who think for themselves, those who resist unquestioned acquiescence to external authority, those who reject unexamined conformity to others’ norms and values. 

Perhaps this is also why rabbinic tradition associates the story of Ruth the Moabite with matan Torah. Ruth is the paradigmatic outsider. Not only is she not an Israelite, she comes from a nation that was historically regarded as one of Israel’s most relentless enemies. Our ancient ancestors so detested their Moabite neighbors that the book of Deuteronomy famously says, “No Moabite shall be admitted into the Lord’s congregation; nor shall their descendants, even in the tenth generation, ever be admitted into the Lord’s congregation” (23:4). And as if this were not enough, Ruth’s marginalization is exacerbated by her status as a propertyless widow and immigrant.

But it is precisely her marginalization that enables her to see the redemptive promise of Torah. Her willingness to leave everything she once knew and embrace the possibility of an unseen future is rooted in her independence of mind and spirit. And, perhaps even more importantly, Ruth’s independent spirit is also what propels her to hold those around her accountable for fulfilling the Torah’s vision of a compassionate and just society. Tradition therefore holds Ruth up as a model for matan Torah, past, present, and future, as though to say that only those of us willing to become outsiders like Ruth can truly receive Torah. And, of course, Ruth is regarded as the ancestor of King David, whose dynasty is associated with the advent of the messianic era, as though to say that only those who are prepared to see the world through Ruth’s eyes, as outsiders, can help bring about the world’s ultimate redemption.

What would it mean for us to look at our world today as outsiders? 

It would mean, for starters, refusing to become desensitized to violence and cruelty like we are witnessing in Ukraine, or to the fact that mass shooting events – such as the one that occurred the other week at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, claiming the lives of nineteen children and two teachers – uniquely happen in our country with alarming frequency and horrifying severity. To look on these horrors as outsiders would mean never allowing evils like these to become normal. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to accept widespread sickness and death that is largely avoidable through vaccines and other public health strategies as a price worth paying to return to pre-pandemic normalcy; resisting the urge to pretend that the pandemic is over for the sake of our own convenience and comfort. It would mean refusing to accept 1,000,000 American COVID deaths, many of them preventable, as in any way normal; to resist becoming in any way callous to suffering or cavalier about our own or others’ wellbeing, especially the vulnerable.

To look at our world as outsiders would mean refusing to look away or simply move on in the face of obvious and egregious systemic racial injustice, as we have done in the two years since we all saw George Floyd suffocate to death under the knee of a police officer. It would mean recognizing that racial injustice persists, often with deadly results, as was evidenced just the other week in Buffalo. It would mean recognizing the mounting backlash to racial justice efforts, truthfully reckoning with the uncomfortable parts of American history, acknowledging clear evidence of widespread inequities, even against the use of the term “racism,” as a cynical ploy to perpetuate inequality. It would mean keeping our eyes wide open and refuse to look away or allow ourselves to become numb to the pervasive reality of racial injustice in America; to refuse to accept as normal that many of our cities are just as segregated as they ever were; to refuse to accept a status quo where your zip code determines your life expectancy and the color of your skin your prospects for escaping poverty. 

To look at our world as outsiders would mean acknowledging how close we are to losing democracy. It would mean recognizing the widespread efforts happening right now at every level to identify and exploit the weak points in our electoral system; rejecting leaders who embrace, or even abide, conspiracy theories, political violence, and autocracy; refusing to empower those who tolerate authoritarianism and excuse those who are bent on subverting democracy. It would mean resisting the bad-faith calls for civility that require us to look the other way, turn the page, or try to move on. 

True, every once in a while an event like the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Ugalve, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, or the January 6th insurrection shakes us out of our complacency and forces us out of our comfort zone, something that enables us to see that what we usually experience as normal is in fact profoundly wrong, and that what we know to be wrong is shamefully normal. But we human beings are nothing if not adaptable. We are great at adjusting to a new normal and moving on, even if that new normal was once horrifying. Over time, often with shocking speed, we allow ourselves to settle comfortably back inside a broken system, going back to sleep in a burning house.

But this day, Shavuot, invites us to resist our natural human tendency to accept things as they are and instead to strive to be like Sinai and emulate Ruth – to perpetually regard ourselves as spiritually homeless in our world, looking at our reality from the vantage point of outsiders. Because only as outsiders can we clearly and honestly see what is wrong with what is normal. And we cannot fix what we cannot face. As Jews, our core purpose is to fix what is broken, to repair the world. Therefore, to embrace our calling as Jews, we must become outsiders.

And as long as there are Jews who embrace this calling, Punk’s not dead.

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