6 Years as a Rabbi: What I’ve Learned

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A few weeks ago, I completed my sixth year as a rabbi. Much like I did when I finished my third year as a rabbi,  I find myself at this juncture reflecting on the wisdom I’ve gained on my journey so far.

I’m grateful to Rabbi Sid Schwarz for prompting these reflections. Rabbi Schwarz selected me, along with a diverse group of 18 other early-career rabbis, to participate in a program called the Clergy Leadership Incubator.  The Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) is a two-year program to support and encourage rabbis in organizational leadership, change management and institutional transformation. These reflections emerged from one of the program’s final writing assignments.

Here are some of things that I have learned during this time of my life. I hope you will find some of these reflections meaningful, and perhaps also useful to you wherever you are in your life:

  • Not only is “going it alone” profoundly risky for a leader, s/he cannot affect any meaningful change without enlisting the support and partnership of others.
  • Real change doesn’t happen quickly. It takes time, openness, and effort to truly understand the nature of and diagnose the adaptive challenge, to workshop the proposed remedy and avoid the trap of technical fixes, to solicit the necessary support and partnership, and to test out hypotheses.
  • Significant organizational (or life, for that matter) changes require constant, engaged, and ongoing support. One can’t just give birth to an innovation and hope it flies on its own. One has to tend to it, pay attention to how it’s succeeding and how it’s faltering, and perpetually troubleshoot until it is ingrained enough in the culture to have its own inertia and eventually stand on its own two feet. That means it’s important to free bandwidth before trying to deal with an adaptive challenge and to keep open space for doing so, and all the more so to not try to roll out two many innovations or address too many adaptive challenges at one time.
  • As in nature, most adaptations fail. Failure of an adaptation to work, then, is not defeat. Rather, if one is willing to accept it, it is a perpetual teacher of what doesn’t work, a way of getting to the heart of what the need truly is.
  • The adaptations that make it are incredibly resilient. The status quo of an institution can be understood as the sum total of all the previous adaptations that stuck. In order to make any meaningful change, you have to understand how and why things got to be the way they are.
  • A leader is not separate from the system, operating on it from the outside. The leader can and should step back for outside perspective, but nevertheless (almost) always owns a piece of the mess. Unless the leader acknowledges how s/he has contributed to the problem and is prepared to change how s/he is functioning in relation to the problem, the problem can never be changed.
  • Organizations tend to reward conformity to the status quo, and discourage/punish departures from it. Leadership by definition involves pushing a break from the established order, and so is therefore always risky.
  • Jewish institutions, and synagogues in particular, tend not to be very thoughtful about the metrics they use to determine success, thinking about success entirely through the prism of attendance, net membership gain, and financial stability. While those metrics doubtlessly have their place, institutions need leaders to help refocus attention to the progress made toward fulfilling the institution’s mission and to the depth and breadth of the impact of the organization’s work.
  • A related point: Jewish institutions, and synagogues in particular, tend to create programs solely for the purpose of bringing people through the door, rather than serving real needs or fostering deep, meaningful, and lasting Jewish impact. Leadership, then, must facilitate that reframing, and must also engage in the grassroots work necessary to understand people’s real needs.
  • “Negativity bias” is real, and pervasive, both in individuals and institutions. We focus on the large and small ways in which we are failing to accomplish what we want to accomplish; we trust and outweigh the criticism receive, distrusting and devaluing positive feedback; we rarely see and celebrate successes, whether they be minor or major. Not for nothing does the Jewish liturgical tradition emphasize praise and gratitude over petition.
  • Goodness is more important than greatness. Greatness has no bell-curve. It is inherently unequal and competitive. Either one’s accomplishments are more special or important than the accomplishments of others, or they’re not. Goodness, however, takes into account our personal strengths, talents, skills, and abilities. It recognizes that each of us is limited by the resources we have and frequently handicapped by our weaknesses and by circumstances beyond our control. Therefore, focusing on goodness means we are not in competition with Abraham or Moses or with each other, because each of us can only be as good as we can be. Greatness has no room for failure. Either you’ve achieved greatness, or you’re a loser. Goodness, however, has a margin for error. One doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. In fact, quite often the quest for perfection gets in the way of goodness. It can set the bar so high that we become too paralyzed to even start trying, and it can distort one’s approach to the task at hand, ironically making him worse at the very thing he is striving to do excellently.
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Do You control Your Monuments, or Do They Control You? – Shavuot 2017

1cb007ff8508cf39ffc07b8957ab00f4Recently, the City of New Orleans removed its Confederate monuments, prompting both celebrations and protests. The actions and their aftermath reverberated across the country and, not surprisingly, into Virginia. Protests and counter-protests erupted – violently – in Charlottesville a couple weeks ago, and calls have been renewed in Richmond for the removal of our Confederate monuments, despite staunch opposition to such a change. How might the Jewish tradition guide us on this topic?

Today is Shavuot, the day we commemorate the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Among the first instructions God gives the newly freed Israelite slaves was:

ג לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ

ד לֹֽ֣א תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ ׀ וְכָל־תְּמוּנָ֡֔ה אֲשֶׁ֤֣ר בַּשָּׁמַ֣֙יִם֙ ׀ מִמַּ֡֔עַל וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר֩ בָּאָ֖֨רֶץ מִתַָּ֑֜חַת וַאֲשֶׁ֥֣ר בַּמַּ֖֣יִם ׀ מִתַּ֥֣חַת לָאָֽ֗רֶץ

ה לֹֽא־תִשְׁתַּחְוֶ֥֣ה לָהֶ֖ם֮ וְלֹ֣א תָעָבְדֵ֑ם֒

3 You shall not have other gods besides Me.

4 You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

5 You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them…

The prohibition against idolatry, connected with the principle of monotheism, is about as fundamental a tenet of Jewish faith as they come. Ask any religious school child, and she or he will likely relate the midrash about Abraham and his father’s idols. In this apocryphal story, God chooses Abraham to be the first Jew because Abraham, the child of an idol-maker, reasoned that God alone was sovereign and that idolatry was therefore wrong. To prove the point to his father, Abraham smashed all the idols in his father’s idol shop and pinned the blame on the largest idol in the store, thereby showing his father the absurdity of idol worship.

But the Torah doesn’t just forbid idolatry because it is silly or illogical to worship statues. After all, there are plenty of silly beliefs or practices that the Torah does not forbid, whether because their ridiculousness is self-evident, or because absurd ideas and behaviors are not necessarily harmful. And the Torah goes further than merely prohibiting idolatry. When they conquer the Promised Land, the Israelites are also to utterly destroy all pre-existing Canaanite idols and holy places (Deut. 12:2-3).

These commandments, these strong and ubiquitous bans on idolatry, imply that the practice is not merely intellectually wrong, but also, more importantly, morally or spiritually problematic.

What’s the moral or spiritual problem with making graven images? Foundational to the biblical moral order is loyalty to God. The system unravels unless God alone is seen as authoritative. The Torah’s concern about graven images is that they will steer our loyalties away from God alone.

It is important to recognize that the Torah doesn’t see the creation of sculptured images or other likenesses as inherently problematic. The Torah doesn’t forbid all art, even art that depicts animals or humans. On the other hand, the Torah doesn’t only forbid images of God or of other entities people identify as gods. Rather, the Torah is forbidding something specific: the making of an object of veneration (Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:4).

In the prohibition on idolatry we find in the 10 Commandments, the forbidden action of making an image is connected to the forbidden action of bowing down to it. The Torah is only banning images made for the purpose of exalting, celebrating, or venerating them.

Why? The answer is given away by the next action listed after “You shall not bow down.” “You shall not serve them,” the Torah utters with its very next breath. Objects we venerate invariably come to represent the ideals we serve, and the ideals we serve, in turn, inevitably compete with God for our loyalties. Be mindful, the Torah is teaching, about the statues you erect as objects of honor, because the objects you honor influence your values, your values command your loyalties, and your loyalties steer your actions. You may think you control your monuments, but ultimately, your monuments may come to control you.

What does this have to do with our monuments? Back when I was in college in New York and rabbinical school in Los Angeles, I had an annual tradition of hosting a “Southern Shabbat Dinner.” I would convene a dozen or so friends and treat them each year to a feast of fried chicken, corn pudding, greens, Brunswick stew, sweet potato pie, and pecan pie. The mint juleps were also ice cold, syrupy sweet, and bountiful.

But the dinner wasn’t just about the delicious food. It was also meant to be educational. As one of only a handful of southerners among primarily Yankee classmates, I felt a special kind of pride – maybe it was simply contrarianism, a quality I’ve been accused of possessing from time to time – and a responsibility to acquaint my friends with my culture. So, at the dinner, I would give each guest a short biography of a figure from Southern history, and they would have to give a brief presentation about their assigned figure for the rest of the group, ideally in character.

Now, some of the biographies were relatively innocuous ones, like Elvis Presley. Others were truly heroic icons, like Martin Luther King, Jr. But many of the assigned figures, revered by many in the South, were hardly uncontroversial. Each year, I would assign guests historical figures like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and, at the time, my personal favorite, John C. Calhoun, the former Senator from South Carolina, Vice President of the United States, and philosophical architect of southern secessionism. Their biographies were presented without irony or qualification, held up with the same esteem for their place in shaping the story of the South as Frederick Douglass or Rosa Parks.

It was not until quite recently – perhaps it was in the summer of 2015, when a white terrorist who embraced Confederate ideology and iconography murdered nine innocent African-Americans in a South Carolina church – that I began to feel conflicted about the fact that my celebration of Southern history and heritage centered around a celebration of the supporters and defenders of slavery. But growing up as I did in Georgia, it was easy to miss the true significance of those figures.

Lee, Jackson, and Davis, as well as other Confederate leaders and iconography, were omnipresent in the Georgia of my youth, and they still are today. The Georgia state flag, which was displayed alongside the flags of the United States and the State of Israel in my Jewish day school, was, until 2001, the year I left for college, the Confederate battle flag. The cover of my 3rd grade Georgia history project were the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

John C. Calhoun, the South’s most eloquent and high-ranking defender of slavery as a “positive good” was presented as a champion of conscientious objection, principled resistance, and state’s rights.

Lee, Jackson, Davis, and other Confederate leaders were typically depicted as valorous heroes, men of pride and honor who loved the South and were willing to fight and die for her defense. I learned to drive on streets named for them, and walked frequently past statues honoring them and their compatriots. I lived the first six years of my life in an Atlanta suburb called Stone Mountain, named for a nearby large granite formation, the north face of which was adorned with a massive bas-relief of Lee, Jackson, and Davis, atop noble steeds and in full military regalia, charging gallantly forward. I’ve probably climbed that mountain a dozen times, and made a visit at least once every summer to this Confederate Mount Rushmore for an incredible nighttime laser and light show – you can still see the show today – projected onto the north face, during which the three horsemen would come to life, fight bravely to defend the south, and, to the tune of a melodramatic rendition of “Dixie” that ensured there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the crowd, would be forced to surrender their swords and abandon their apparently noble cause as a laser-projected outline of Atlanta burned.

Sure, I learned the history of the Civil War, and I had teachers who were committed to ensuring their students knew the racist rationale for Southern secession and the extraordinary violence southern leaders unleashed to defend involuntary human servitude. My teachers did not shy from noting that the Southern states seceded upon the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who was seen by southern leaders as a man whose “opinions and purposes,” to quote South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession, “are hostile to slavery.” My textbooks did not avoid the truth that the organizing principle of the Confederate States was slavery. They did not ignore the Mississippi Declaration of Secession, which said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” And they did not avoid Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Corner-Stone” speech, in which he said the corner-stone  of the Confederacy is, “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” I learned in school that the Confederacy was not a peaceful Southern society wanting to be left alone, but, rather, “an aggressive power,” one that fired the first shots of the Civil War because it was determined to secure at all costs “the bondage of a third of its residents, with dreams of expanding its fields of the bondage further South.”

But the ubiquity and normalcy of Confederate iconography that existed all around me in my youth made it such that I scarcely associated those images or those figures with the cause they represented and for which they fought. In other words, in the classroom I learned about the direct connection between the Civil War and slavery, but my experience on the streets, out in the world, severed that connection entirely. Out there, the Civil War, at least as it was embodied by representations of its chief Southern leaders and most prominent symbols, was about Southern pride, honor, and bravery. It was about the preservation of tradition, about maintaining a more civil, more noble way of life, about defiance in the face of tyranny. In theory, the Civil War was about hate. But in practice, the Civil War was about heritage.

And since we learn so much more from what we observe rather than from what we hear or read, it was inevitable that my associations with the Confederacy would be fairly sanitized. After all, if someone has a statue erected in his honor, the mind naturally assumes, he must be a person worthy of honor. If my state elevates a particular symbol, it must be a symbol worthy of elevation. Sterilizing the Confederacy was the only way to square the circle. Thus, while on some level I knew what the Confederacy and the Civil War really was about, I more commonly pictured it devoid of the racism, the oppression, and the violence, a picture of a glorious, idyllic South and of the heroes who built and fought for that largely lost civilization.

The objects you honor influence your values, your values command your loyalties, and your loyalties steer your actions. Those monuments, such a pervasive part of my youth, warped my view of past and present, and blunted my desire to build a different future. They disabled me from truly understanding Southern history, which prevented me from truly grasping the enduring legacy of that history — everything from economic inequality to lingering racial attitudes to Jim Crow to “the new Jim Crow” of mass incarceration — which in turn guided and, often inhibited, loyalties and behaviors. I became, however unwittingly, complacent in enduring structures of oppression.

It turns out my confusion represented the success of a deliberate strategy, a program that was initiated almost as soon as Lee surrendered to Grant in Appomatox. This movement, known as the Cult of the Lost Cause, aimed to shape the narrative about the South, about the Confederacy, and about the Civil War. The Lost Cause movement, it should be noted, started here in Richmond, with the publication of an eponymous book by Confederate apologist Edward A. Pollard in 1866. In this telling, the struggle between North and South was not a fight over slavery but, rather, a clash of civilizations, between, on the one side, a materialistic and power-hungry society bent on cultural, political, and economic imperialism, and, on the other, a genteel society, rooted in the land, steeped in tradition, and based upon codes of civility, honor, and loyalty. It aimed to tell defeated Southerners that their cause, though defeated, was just and noble, that their way of life was superior to that of the North and worth preserving, and that, therefore, Confederate leaders were worthy of veneration, honorable men who sacrificed for an honorable cause. It aimed to tell victorious Northerners that the South may have been bruised, but it was not defeated, and that it would, in glory, rise again. And it aimed to tell newly freed slaves, that, whatever their legal and economic gains, their rightful place was to be subservient to whites, and that the old masters were still in charge.

Telling this story about the South was not idle nostalgia. As George Orwell famously observed in his dystopian 1984, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Southern white political leaders, many of whom were former Confederates themselves, wanted to maintain all they could of the way of life they had lost. The erstwhile Confederates who formed the core of this cult said themselves that they yearned to maintain “the supremacy of the white man’s civilization in the country which he proudly claimed his own…founded upon the white man’s code of ethics, in sympathy with the white man’s tra­ditions and ideals.” And, true to Orwell’s insight, one of the key strategies they employed to accomplish this was to build monuments and memorials like Richmond’s Robert E. Lee monument, which was dedicated in 1890. Just a few years later, the Jefferson Davis monument was commissioned. At its 1907 unveiling, during which there was a A Confederate reunion parade, a former Tennessee senator was quoted as saying, “We make no confession of wrong, we plead for no forgiveness of error, we ask no tenderness of the future historian, no charity from the enlightened judgment of mankind.”

Not coincidentally, alongside these efforts, in precisely the same time period, an extraordinary wave of intimidation, violence, and terror was aimed at the black population in the South. The political energy behind the statutes coincided with a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the passing of Jim Crow laws that codified segregation and curtailed civil rights for black residents. The construction of the bas-relief Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain began in 1916. Just a few months earlier, the Georgia Ku Klux Klan was formed on that same spot, spearheaded by the very men who commissioned the carving. Richmond’s Stonewall Jackson monument was erected around the same time. By securing control of the present and of the past, they could tell a story about the past that would influence the direction the South would take moving forward.

Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, was, then, right the other week when he said “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history.” They were designed purposefully, to celebrate the men they depict and the cause for which they fought. They were designed with the knowledge that the objects we honor influence our values, our values command our loyalties, and our loyalties steer our actions. They were designed, in other words, to be idols.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Torah would demand their destruction or even their removal, although it certainly wouldn’t object to such an action. Rather, the Torah would encourage us to consider ways in which their original purpose could be somehow subverted, and thus neutralized. Perhaps clearly visible signage could be added clarifying the historical record. Perhaps they could be moved to a sculpture park or museum, where attention could be paid to putting them into appropriate context. Perhaps they could be transformed, somehow, into pure works of art.

The best solution will be worked out by people smarter and savvier than I. My hope today is merely to open our eyes to the moral gravity of the issue and further a crucial conversation we must, as a community, have. For too long have our hearts been hardened by the sympathetic magic of looking to these gods of granite and bronze. For too long have we served the interests represented by the images we have been told to venerate. The time has come to heed the words of our history, of our heritage, of our tradition, of our Torah. The time has come to bow no more at their pedestals and to worship no more at their altars. The time has come to put away all other gods and dedicate ourselves only to the One whose defining quality is setting slaves free.

Hag Same’ah!

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Remarks from Richmond Rally Against Muslim Ban

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Video of these remarks can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/jewishaction.us/videos/705614492975135/

Video of all speeches can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/moveon/videos/10154390220140493/

In 1790, our first president, George Washington, sent a letter to the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, pledging that “the government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington’s sentiments echoed those of Thomas Jefferson, who, more than a decade before, right here in Richmond, declared that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions” and that “no man shall be compelled to…suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”

This exceptional notion of religious liberty championed by Washington and Jefferson is a bedrock American principle. It’s what makes America America. It’s what makes America great. This core value, a value that brought many of our ancestors to this country’s shores and borders, has weathered economic depression, war, and terror. It has made us more diverse, prosperous, just, and free. If we truly want to make America great, then we must first and foremost reject bigotry and end persecution.

My name is Rabbi Michael Knopf. I lead a congregation called Temple Beth-El here in Richmond. We, along with Jewish communities across the country, are dedicated to ensuring our country remains a land that welcomes all who yearn to breathe free. And I stand with you today representing Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a national Jewish organization that is mobilizing Jews across the country in opposition to the Muslim Ban and other regressive policies like it. Bend the Arc isn’t just fighting this ban in the streets, we are honored to be fighting in the courts by joining friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to this ban, including in the case being heard today.

I stand with you today to say as loudly and clearly as possible: this Executive Order, this Muslim Ban, is un-American. The first version of the Ban was un-American. The second version of this Ban is un-American. Any version of this Ban will be un-American! It is un-American to single out one group for discrimination based solely upon their religion. It is un-American to consider an entire religion guilty until proven innocent. It is un-American to dismantle core First Amendment protections in order to score cheap political points.

We are here today to send a message to the President, to his advisors, to his cabinet, and to all the politicians around the country who have cruelly, cowardly and cynically lined up behind these un-American actions: We oppose this ban!

We are here today to tell our nation’s judges, at every level: We oppose this ban!

We are here to assure our Muslim friends and neighbors, the men, women, and children, who have been made to live in fear: We oppose this ban!

We are here to affirm to freedom-loving peoples across the world: We oppose this ban!

And we are here to invite all Americans of conscience to join us in saying loudly and firmly: We opposed the first ban, we oppose this ban, and we will oppose any ban. NO BAN. EVER!

We oppose this ban because it is un-American.

We oppose this ban because it makes us less safe.

We oppose this ban because it hurts our country. Our diversity, and the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution designed to protect and cultivate it, is what makes America strong, prosperous, resilient, and admired around the world. We oppose this ban because it threatens our future and our children’s future.

We oppose this ban because it is immoral. Religious discrimination is immoral. Collective punishment is immoral. It is immoral for those who occupy the highest offices in our land to embolden racists, bigots and xenophobes through plainly discriminatory words and deeds, giving licence to acts of violence against innocent people and vulnerable communities. It is immoral to make war halfway across the world and then coldly shut our doors to the millions of refugees displaced by those wars. It is immoral to deny to others the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same fundamental dignity, we would want for ourselves.

Just over 70 years ago, the Jewish people were the victims of the largest genocide in human history. We know the dangers of bigotry and prejudice. We know where the road of religious discrimination can lead. And we know therefore how precious are the freedoms that have long been the cornerstone of our democracy. But this great gift of religious liberty bequeathed to us by our ancestors is not inevitable. We, the people, must perpetually work to nurture and protect it. That is why we, the people, have gathered today. It’s why we will continue to gather whenever our freedoms are threatened. It’s why we say with one voice: This ban is un-American. This ban is immoral. It’s why we say with one voice:

No to bigotry!

No to persecution!

No to this ban!

No to any ban!

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30 Days of Liberation 2017

The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.

Day 1

Tradition teaches that one should begin reviewing the laws of Passover 30 days before the holiday. The thing most likely to lead us astray is ignorance. True of ritual observance, and also of life. What we don’t know can hurt us, and can cause us to hurt others. Let us be aware of our unawareness and earnest in our striving to reveal the concealed.

Day 2
Alongside the tradition of reviewing Passover’s laws 30 days before the festival is the custom of buying wheat or flour for the poor so that they too can enjoy the holiday. Having the time and resources that enable extra study is privilege, and, if Passover teaches nothing else, it’s that privilege demands responsibility for those less fortunate.

Day 3
The practice of giving wheat and/or flour to the poor beginning a month before Passover was so prevalent in some Jewish communities that people in need became hooked on it. But rather than calling for an end to the practice – support an addiction to welfare?! – Jewish law doubles down, teaching that the dependency exacerbates both the need for aid and the community’s responsibility. It is a sin to avert one’s eyes from the suffering of the poor and hungry, even and especially when they have come to rely upon your help.

Day 4
According to Jewish Law, Ma’ot Hittim (donations of wheat and/or flour – or money to be used to purchase those items – for the poor in advance of Passover) is not charity. It’s a tax. In general, tradition views feeding the hungry as an obligation, not a voluntary act of kindness. There is forced redistribution of wealth in order to support the needs of the poor. But we might have considered kosher-for-Passover wheat and/or flour a luxury. It’s more expensive; and while a religious requirement, it’s not strictly necessary for survival. The laws of Ma’ot Hittim thus teach that the poor are as entitled to luxuries as the rest of us, and we are required to provide more than the bare necessities.

Day 5
The Exodus story opens with an act of forgetting: Pharaoh forgets, perhaps deliberately, about the contributions of the Israelite Joseph who had saved Egypt (1:8). This assault on memory serves to justify Pharaoh’s plot against the Israelites. It’s a common authoritarian strategy: “Who controls the past controls the future,” as George Orwell put it in his classic 1984. Ultimately, memory – truth – is our only defense against oppression.

Day 6
Pharaoh, fearful of the growing Israelite immigrant population in Egypt, plots to subjugate them. But he knows he can’t do it alone, or even with the help of the agents of the state. Rather, he knows he will need the participation of the Egyptian people. That’s why he speaks directly to them about the perceived Israelite threat (1:9), fomenting their nativist resentment, signaling to them what good patriots would do. The aspiring authoritarian needs more than personal power. Even the quiet acquiescence of the moderate populace isn’t enough. Authoritarians rely upon active participation from the people themselves. It is the Egyptian people, not Pharaoh or his ministers, who oppress the Israelites with taskmasters and forced labor. And it is thus the Egyptian people who had the power to prevent Pharaoh’s atrocities.

Day 7
According to the Bible, the first question a human being asks of God is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer is doubtlessly yes. But the definition of “brother” is possibly more debatable. Certainly, a case can be made for a literal understanding. The Exodus story, however, shatters that illusion. Redemption depends on non-Israelites standing up for them; the Egyptian midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Jethro all rise to protect endangered Hebrews. Liberation depends on seeing our fate as intertwined with the fate the other, having no patience for their persecution or their suffering, taking responsibility for their welfare, and standing up with and for them. My brother is everyone. I am their keeper, as they are mine.

Day 8
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Many commentators wonder how it was possible for the new king not to know Joseph, the man responsible for saving Egypt from famine just a generation earlier. Perhaps it was that the new king didn’t know everything about Joseph, only the bad. After all, during the famine Joseph enslaved the Egyptian people and seized their property (Gen. 47:20-21). Could it be that the oppression of the Israelites and the ultimate devastation of Egypt is a result of Pharaoh’s negativity bias, a focus on the bad and a neglect of the good? Could it be that our own psychological tendency to allow negative things to outweigh the positive similarly leads us to harmful decisions?

 
Day 9
Why were there no rebellions against Pharaoh? Because, if nothing else, authoritarians are uniquely skilled at holding on to power. They create systems, structures, and norms designed to render revolution nearly impossible. But just because you can’t overthrow a despot doesn’t mean you can’t resist. In her extraordinary work on resistance during the Holocaust, Nechama Tec points out that, in general, resistance wasn’t about toppling Hitler. That would have been unattainable. Rather, it was about noncooperation and saving lives. While ultimately Hitler could only be deposed through foreign military force, there was throughout his rule successful widespread resistance to his policies within his borders. Similarly, while ultimately only God could defeat Pharaoh, the actions of brave figures like Shifra, Pu’ah, Yokheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses, and Jethro show that just because a ruler has a firm grip on power, it doesn’t mean he has total control. We always have a choice about whether we will capitulate to cruelty or resist it however we can. Resistance is not futile. More than merely being all we have, in some crucial ways, it works.

Day 10

One of the most surprising and overlooked themes of the Exodus story is that of names. Even the Hebrew title of the story is actually, literally, “Names.” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out that the story equates namelessness with silence. Someone with a name has a voice, and someone with a voice has a name. Our distinctiveness and our power comes from what we choose to express; in silence we forfeit our identity and our influence, even over our own lives.

Day 11

The Exodus story begins with a list of names, and names are a recurring theme; the biblical book is even entitled “Names.” Names are statements of personal identity and group affiliation. A Midrash teaches that the Children of Israel were able to withstand the lure of assimilation into Egyptian society through upholding the tradition of giving their children Hebrew names. Think about that. Without those names, there would have been no redemption, since there would have been no distinct people to redeem. The story thus invites us to ask ourselves: Who are we, fundamentally? To whom do we primarily belong? Who, when push comes to shove, are our people? And what responsibilities do we have – for ourselves, for our children, for others – depending on our answers to those questions?

Day 12

While on the surface the Exodus story seems grand and national, at its heart is an intimate and personal story about providing homes for the homeless and families for the parentless. It’s the story of Moses’ adoption: first, by Pharaoh’s daughter, then by Jethro. And it’s the story of God adopting a people, giving them a home when they had none of their own. Redemption may be big, but it’s built on personal acts of love; even small kindnesses can have a heroic impact.

Day 13

Why does God choose Moses? He doesn’t seem to be anything special. He struggles with self-confidence. He is not a good public speaker. But he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who are being harassed by shepherds. Moses is chosen not because he is great, but because he is good.

Day 14

The Israelites paint the lintels of their doors with lamb’s blood so God would pass over their houses. But the blood wasn’t merely a sign. Rather, it was a tool to keep God out. Want proof? A few chapters earlier, Moses’ wife, Zipporah uses blood to stop God from killing their first-born son, Gershom (4:24-26). Taken together, these stories evoke the biblical principle that God cannot enter a place where blood is shed (Num. 35:33). Godliness requires peace.

Day 15

What is the root of hate? According to the Bible, it’s an outgrowth of our revenge instinct. So we are taught, “Do not hate an Egyptian” (Deut. 23:8). We might naturally abhor Egyptians because of what they did to us. But the Egyptians didn’t hate the Israelites; after all, we did nothing to them. Their actions are rooted in fear, not hatred. At the heart of Passover is thus the lesson that fear of “the other” is no less pernicious than hate.

Day 16

One of the most curious Passover traditions is “selling” one’s hametz, leavened food items. Biblical law forbids Jews from owning any hametz during Passover. But since destroying or disposing all hametz is often costly and/or wasteful, Jewish law created a legal fiction in which a non-Jew buys a Jew’s hametz before the onset of the festival, owns it during the holiday, and returns it afterward, even as the hametz never actually leaves the Jew’s premises. This temporary legal fiction symbolizes a deep and eternal truth: nothing in our possession is truly owned by us. We may have things, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, ours. Judaism teaches that all belongs to God, a principle that reminds us not to worship our things, to be able to let go easily, to distribute resources equally, and to freely share with those who have less. Selling hametz may seem silly, but relinquishing ownership of our things even as we continue to possess them is as serious a spiritual and moral practice as they come.

Day 17

Today is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Passover. According to tradition, the whole month is sacred because Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, the Israelites’ portable wilderness sanctuary, on the 1st of Nissan in the year after the Exodus (Num. 7:1). It’s important to remember that, without the Tabernacle, there would have been no more Passovers, since the Torah, given to the Israelites 7 weeks after the Exodus, prescribed that Passover had to be observed in a state of ritual purity. Such a state could not have been achieved without a Tabernacle and its officiating priests and Levites. The month-long celebration, incorporating Passover and the New Month, reminds us that freedom cannot survive without law, that law is meaningless without a community that invests it with authority, and that a community cannot endure without the rites and norms that bind them together.

 
Day 18

It may seem strange that the holiday celebrating freedom has the most rigid, stringent, and restrictive set of rules. Even its central ritual is called a “seder,” the Hebrew word for order. But liberty and law are opponents, not adversaries. Both are necessary for a moral society. Without liberty, there is no agency or progress. Without law, there are no shared expectations or values. In the absence of either, there is only oppression. Passover invites us to embrace the creative tension between liberty and law, for only in that embrace can we flourish.

Day 19

At the Seder, before we retell the Passover story, we break the middle of the three ceremonial pieces of matzah. The two whole pieces conceal the broken piece as we remember the journey from darkness to light. This is us: harboring flaws, pains, and struggles underneath a veneer of perfection. But so long as we ignore the brokenness within, we cannot be redeemed.

Day 20

Half of the piece of matzah we break before retelling the Passover story at the Seder is hidden away, to be eaten at the end of the meal. A piece of matzah, once broken, can’t be repaired, of course. So we accept what cannot be fixed and discover the next best step. Redemption is not about repairing brokenness so much as it is about finding a way forward despite it.

Day 21

Breaking one of the ceremonial pieces of matzah at the Seder means we fulfill our obligation to eat matzah with both a broken and a whole loaf. The broken piece represents poverty: in the ancient world, it was presumed that poor people couldn’t afford full loaves of bread. The whole piece represents prosperity. We fulfill our obligation by “placing the broken piece inside the full one,” remembering in our prosperity where we came from, and who we remain responsible for supporting.

Day 22

We actually tell two different liberation stories at the Seder: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” and “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers.” When we think of Passover, most of us likely think of the first story. But the second is equally, if not more, important. The first is about freedom of body. The second is about freedom of mind. And while the former is obviously critical, there can be no true freedom without the latter.

Day 23

Eating matzah on Passover makes sense. But why the strict ban on hametz generally? Any leavened foodstuff, in any quantity, is forbidden all week. According to legend, hametz, which occurs when humble grains puff themselves up, symbolizes the ego, which inflates our sense of distinctiveness and importance. Passover is about forsaking all other masters beside God. And our biggest, most tenacious master is our own ego, which separates us from each other, and from God. That’s why hametz was outlawed in ancient sacrificial worship, because when our selves take up so much space, there’s no room for God – or others – to enter. And as we recommit ourselves to God and each other on Passover, the ban on hametz reminds us to make room.

Day 24

While Jewish law is very strict about Passover’s dietary laws, the rules are actually not as stringent as most people presume. Many toil to cleanse items and areas of hametz that actually don’t need to be cleansed, and many items bear kosher-for-Passover certification but actually don’t require it. Most people assume that the more Jewish knowledge one has, the stricter s/he will be. Not so: when one has intimate knowledge of the finer points of Jewish law, s/he is better able to discern what the law actually requires, and what represents unnecessary stringency. Pesah thus becomes the perfect teachable moment for the old adage, “Knowledge is power.” Indeed, it is liberation

Day 25

Did you ever notice that the dramatic climax of the Exodus story – the Splitting of the Sea – is actually unnecessary? The story could have simply ended with the Israelites leaving Egypt. What does the miracle story add, especially for those of us who are generally skeptical of miracles? Maimonides teaches that miracles aren’t suspensions or violations of natural law. Rather, they simply expand upon our definition of the possible. It was built into the sea’s nature to split; Israel just didn’t know it could until it did. In this sense, miracles happen all the time, even now. Whenever something novel happens, it’s a miracle: something that was always possible, but that we presume is impossible before it happens. Such a definition calls for awareness and humility. Just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen at all. And that’s why we need the Sea as the Exodus’ climax: Liberation requires openness to possibility.

Day 26

The famous “four questions” from the Haggadah are actually not questions at all. They’re exclamations: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is better translated “How different this night is from all other nights!” and each successive phrase is not an inquiry but, rather, an awe-struck observation. Passover thus begins not with inquiry but with wonder. Appropriate, because so does the Exodus: “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight” says Moses upon seeing a bush ablaze but not consumed. Heschel wrote, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” It’s also the root of liberation. Only when we are awake and aware, only when we embrace our not-knowing and take no thing for granted, can we truly be free to the possibilities of being.

Day 27

“How different this night is from all other nights!” That’s how we begin to tell our story at the Seder. Of course, this exclamation isn’t only true of Seder night. Indeed, every night is different from every other night, if we are sensitive enough to notice. Maybe the Haggadah is teaching us a secret of liberation: To the one enslaved to the finite and material, every day is “unvaried, iterative, homogeneous” (Heschel). All hours are alike. But to the one attached to the infinite, “there are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

Day 28

After telling the story of the Exodus, we sing a song of joy, “Dayyenu.” Literally, “it would have been enough for us,” as in, “If you had only taken us out of Egypt and not executed justice on the Egyptians, it would have been enough for us…” What an incredible sentiment! How many of us perpetually want more and more, never satisfied with what we have? How many of us focus on all the things we haven’t achieved, never appreciating all we’ve actually accomplished. How many of us fixate on our flaws, and never celebrate our strengths? Dissatisfaction has its place, but liberation also requires appreciation.

Day 29

For all the drama and fireworks of the Exodus story, it sure seems like the Children of Israel end up right back where they started. When they migrate to Egypt, they are refugees, and when they leave Egypt, they are refugees. The narrative is bookended by landlessness, as if to remind us that, in God’s world, all of us are ultimately landless: “The land is Mine; you are but sojourners resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). To live in such a reality calls for kindness, generosity, and radical welcome.

Day 30

At the start of the Exodus narrative, the Children of Israel are sojourners, and at the end, they are once again sojourners. The only time they are ever settled, they are enslaved. Stability is seductive for its security. Moving from place to place is always scarier, more uncertain. Who knows where we’ll end up or whether we’ll be ok? But it’s pernicious, luring us to complacency and stagnation. Liberation requires taking new steps, however precarious they may be.

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Illumin8 2016

1st Night – Playing with Fire

During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Holy Temple had been used for the worship of Greek gods. When the Maccabees captured it, they set about rededicating it for the service of the God of Israel. Central to the eight-day-long ceremony for rededicating the Temple was kindling the flames of the Menorah. Though the Maccabees only found sufficient oil for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight.

This much, most people know. The name of the holiday celebrating this event, Hanukkah, means “dedication,” and the primary ritual of the festival is lighting a Menorah. But what does fire have to do with dedicating the Temple in the first place?
Think about what fire is: pure energy. It has no borders or boundaries. It illuminates what is dark, warms what is cold, and melts what is frozen solid. It symbolizes passion and love, heart and soul, boundlessness and power. By fire’s light, we can see what was previously hidden to us and we can discover paths forward that were heretofore concealed.
Fire, from our tradition’s perspective, is the perfect symbol for the essence of religion, a force for wakefulness and purpose, hope and strength, compassion and boundary-crossing connection. No wonder God is described in the Torah as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), why God appears to Abraham, Moses, and the Children of Israel as fire (Genesis 15:17, Exodus 3:2, 19:18), why God’s glory in the Tabernacle is described as fire (Ex. 40:38), and why we, to this day, symbolize God’s continuous presence in our synagogues with a ner tamid, an eternal flame.
In a brilliant recent TED talk, my rabbi, Sharon Brous, taught that the rituals of our tradition were originally designed “to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place.” Our rites are supposed to help us remember the fire at the heart of our faith. The problem, she argued, is that after a few centuries, the reminder remains but the fire gets lost and forgotten:
That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

 

When the Maccabees rededicated the Temple through lighting a flame, they were making a statement. Religion, ultimately, is not about beautiful buildings or the carefully choreographed ceremonies that take place in them. Those things are important, but only to the extent that they point us to the fire at religion’s heart. Without the fire, there is only idolatry, the veneration of hollow symbols. Which means that every so often, a new flame needs to be lit, redirecting our attention to the core of who we are called to be, and rededicating ourselves for what we are called to do. As we kindle our candles this Hanukkah, may their light and heat reinvigorate our spirits.


2nd Night – “A” Great Miracle?

The Hebrew letters on the dreidel – nun, gimmel, heh, and shin – are supposedly meant to stand for the words nes gadol hayah sham, “A great miracle happened there.” Presumably, this refers to the miracle of a day’s supply of oil lasting for eight days.

But, wait. If there was only enough oil to last for one day, then the Maccabees didn’t witness only one miracle. They witnessed a new miracle each day!
I wonder if they thought about it that way. My guess is they didn’t. After all, on the first night, there was no miracle. They expected the oil to burn for at least that long. Sure, there must have been much amazement, awe, and celebration on the second night (which we observe tonight). On that night they witnessed the truly unexpected, that one day’s oil lasted an additional day. But I’ll bet that, as each day passed, what was once miraculous became increasingly ordinary. Perhaps that’s why, today, we generally don’t think of Hanukkah as the story of several miracles, but rather, as the tale of “a great miracle.” Once we witness a miracle, it becomes hard to see that same event as miraculous when it occurs again.
Here’s how my rabbi, Bradley Shavit Artson, puts it:

Miracles are when something you never thought possible happens, which means that it’s now possible. When a miracle occurs, your world expands by precisely the impact of that same miracle. Something that had been pure fantasy became real.
Once something extraordinary becomes ordinary, we cease to remember how extraordinary it was in the first place! As Rabbi Artson teaches, “Just because something happens often doesn’t mean it’s not miraculous.”
That’s why we don’t only light one or two candles during Hanukkah. We light a candle each night, reminding us that the miracle was still miraculous each of the eight nights, despite the fact that the same miracle happened the night before.
Our Hanukkah observance thus becomes a reminder of the thousands of miracles we encounter each and every day but tend to regard as ordinary. Again, Rabbi Artson teaches:
Think of the miracle of a universe in which inorganic matter became organic matter, in which some of that organic matter complexified in such a way that it gained rudimentary consciousness and the ability to organize itself.  Some of that self-organizing matter acquired the ability to replicate itself,  creating another generation, and some of that self-organizing organic matter got smart enough to crawl out of the wet and onto the dry.  And some of that matter on the dry climbed up a tree and developed binocular vision and prehensile thumbs. And then they climbed down from the trees, our distant ancestors, and here we are, a piece of the universe emerged into life; emerged into consciousness; emerged into awareness.  Isn’t that a miracle within a miracle?
Similarly, Rabbi Joseph Caro, a Sixteenth Century Kabbalist, mystic, and legal authority, wrote that, while most people focus on the miracle of the Red Sea splitting, an insightful person would recognize that “the fact that those waters have existed for thousands of centuries [is] a greater testament to the light of their maker than any single magical moment could possibly be.” Sure, a sea splitting is miraculous. But the sea itself is also miracle! So, too, is the earth beneath your feet, the potatoes in your latkes, each and every breath. These may seem mundane, but they are, in fact, miraculous.
As we kindle the Hanukkah lights each night, we recall the miraculous in the mundane, the extraordinary in the ordinary, “Your miracles that are with us each and every day” (Siddur). A growing body of research indicates that if we cultivate such awareness, if we encounter our world with a sense of awe, it will enable us to feel a greater sense of oneness with others, increase our generosity, and enhance our life satisfaction. It might even lead to world peace.
We don’t want for miracles in our world. We just don’t often recognize them when we see them. If this holiday helps us see the miracles that are with us always, we will have received a true Hanukkah gift.

 

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Remarks at Interfaith Standing Together Press Conference

15337549_10154909945162275_7395177813311807654_nIt is an honor to stand in this sanctuary surrounded by colleagues and friends representing so many brother and sister faith traditions.

To my mind, this synagogue is the perfect place for us to stand together against hate and deliver a message of inclusion and love. We Jews know full well the consequences of hateful rhetoric and actions, especially when they come from or are enabled by the powerful and privileged. Our history is filled with instances of victimization and oppression, times when bigotry was given license and persecution was encouraged.

To my right is a Torah scroll rescued from Czechoslovakia after World War II. It is the sole surviving remnant of a Jewish community that was otherwise destroyed simply because of its faith.

In many ways, we Jews see that Torah as a symbol of who we are called to be in the world, a people plucked from the ashes of destruction in order to share God’s message to humanity.

That message begins with the claim that every human being is a child of God. We are all of us brothers and sisters. The Torah then asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And over and over again the words of that scroll cry out the answer, yes. We are responsible for the welfare of all our brothers and sisters.

The Torah tells us to love both our neighbor and the stranger; it insists that all human beings – male or female, Christian or Muslim, native-born or immigrant, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, everyone – deserve equal protection, equal rights, and equal respect.

It tells us that when our fellow human being is poor, we are duty-bound to care for him; that when our fellow human being is hungry, we are obligated to feed him; that when our fellow human being is suffering or hurt, we must lift him up.

Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, it says. Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. Lo tukhal l’hit’alem it insists. You must not look away.

So we are here today because we refuse to stand idly by when any of our brothers and sisters are victims of the prejudice, intimidation, and aggression that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has proliferated in our country since last month’s election.

We refuse to look away when hateful rhetoric emanates not only from the most ignorant and fearful pockets of our society but also from corridors of power.

We refuse to look away when bigotry inspires discriminatory policies or hate-fueled violence.

We are here to affirm that every human being was created in the divine image, that each of us has equal and infinite value, that we are all brothers and sisters.

We are here to stand with and for any person, and any community, whose dignity, welfare, or lives are at risk, especially when they are threatened with the implied consent of the powerful.

And we are here to demand that all our leaders – whether they be local, state, or national officials – recognize the divine image in every single human being; that they uphold George Washington’s vision that our government will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”; that they will be steadfast in working for and lifting up every one of us.

We are here to pledge ourselves to fulfilling this country’s historic promise that the circle of liberty will ever expand to include us all; and we are here to fulfill our faith’s command that we are, all of us, called to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers.

May God give us strength. May God bless us with peace.

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From Great to Good: Rosh Hashanah Day 2, 5777

In the 19th Century, British philosopher Thomas Carlyle argued that history is mainly about the accomplishments of great people. Since then, many thinkers have pointed out the flaws in Carlyle’s “Great Men” theory, but, whether intentionally or not, history is often still taught this way. We teach our kids about the past largely through the stories of great people doing big, important things.

The stories we tell convey values, whether we mean them to or not. And the message of this approach to history is that our significance depends on the preeminence of our accomplishments. I know I grew up internalizing this message. It was reinforced by parents and teachers who, in ways subtle and overt, taught me that my worth was commensurate with my achievements, that if I wanted to live a life of meaning and value, I had to be great by doing great things.

What is striking to me is how significantly this view differs from that of the Jewish tradition. If one were to make a list of the major figures of the Bible, what would be striking is that they were called by God to take on significant roles not because they had remarkable accomplishments or were uniquely gifted but, rather, because they were good. And even as they ascend to roles of significance in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, the Torah focuses not on their accomplishments, but on their character.

Take Noah, for example. Why did God choose Noah to survive the Flood?

Here’s what the Torah tells us:

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃ /

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

The terminology here is unclear, so let’s break it down a bit. First, Noah is called “איש צדיק,” a righteous man. What does it mean to be righteous? According to tradition, Noah is called righteous because he cared for the needs of others (Tanhuma 4; Rashi).

Next, Noah is called “תמים בדרתיו,” blameless in his age. The term תמים, blameless, means a person of integrity, someone who is never accused of wronging others. But Noah is called “blameless in his age,” as if to indicate that, far from perfect, Noah was a person of integrity only compared with others who lived at the time. Given the fact that Noah lived among people so wicked that God wanted to destroy them, this is not exactly soaring praise.

So it turns out that Noah wasn’t extraordinary. He wasn’t chosen because he did great things. He was chosen because he strove to live a life of goodness in an indecent time, hence the coda, “את האלהים התהלך נח,” literally, Noah caused himself to walk with God. Noah’s only noteworthy accomplishment was that he worked hard to stay on a path of goodness.

Even as Noah is called upon to do something extraordinary, the Bible presents him in his full, imperfect humanity. After the flood waters subside, Noah plants a vineyard, makes a batch of wine, gets wasted, and has a private naked party in his tent. Not exactly the behavior of a “great man.”  

See, the Torah isn’t especially interested in Noah’s accomplishments. Rather, it wants us to reflect on how a good but imperfect person fares when the stakes are high. And, for Noah, the answer is…good. But not great.

The same can be said of the man who is perhaps the greatest hero of the Torah, Moses. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly why God chose Moses, but it certainly is not because Moses is “great.”

Having grown up a child of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace, he probably never worked a day in his life. When God first appears to Moses, he is a shepherd, working for his father-in-law, and a fugitive from Egyptian justice. He struggles with self-confidence. He was not a good public speaker.

So why did God choose Moses? Well, all we’re told about him before his calling is that he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who were being harassed by shepherds. Moses, too, was chosen by God not because he was great, but because he was good.

And Moses, like Noah, remains imperfect even after he is elevated to an extraordinary position. Of course, Moses had many fine qualities, but he is also an inattentive husband and an absentee father. He is prone to fears, doubts, and fits of rage. The Torah presents Moses as a good, but flawed, man who finds himself at the center of an extraordinary moment and must strive to do the best he can.

These examples – just two of many I could have selected – point to a crucial difference between our tradition and other systems of thought, including the culture in which we live. In other systems, one becomes a person of significance only through having remarkable accomplishments. Judaism, on the other hand, focuses not on greatness, but rather on goodness.

What’s the difference? Goodness is fundamentally a moral quality. It is about how we care for ourselves, how we treat others, how we relate to our community and the wider world. Greatness is fundamentally goal-oriented. It is about what one achieves. Put a different way, goodness is about flourishing and serving others, while greatness is about surpassing others and attaining power over them.

Consider some of the models our tradition holds up of those whose primary goal in life is the pursuit of greatness: The builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to be great. But, according to tradition, their pursuit of greatness resulted in “jealousy and hatred,” strife and bloodshed.

King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, also wanted to be great. He wanted to prove to everyone – and this is a direct quote from the Bible – that “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” So instead of relieving the people of the burdensome taxes and building projects initiated by his father, Rehoboam said, “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions!” How did that turn out for Rehoboam? As we learned yesterday, Rehoboam’s thirst for greatness caused the people of Israel to secede from the kingdom, ultimately to be lost forever.

No wonder the great sage Hillel once taught, “When you seek fame, you destroy your name” (Mishnah Avot 1:13). Since the pursuit of greatness typically entails stepping on others, our tradition warns that, sooner or later, the result of that path is ruin.

Greatness has no bell-curve. It is inherently unequal and competitive. Either your accomplishments are more special or important than the accomplishments of others, or they’re not. Goodness, however, takes into account our personal strengths, talents, skills, and abilities. It recognizes that each of us is limited by the resources we have and frequently handicapped by our weaknesses and by circumstances beyond our control. Therefore, focusing on goodness means we are not in competition with Abraham or Moses or with each other, because each of us can only be as good as we can be.

When the Hasidic master, the great Reb Zusya, was on his deathbed, he sat and cried bitterly. His students gathered around him, speculating about what could be making their rabbi so despondent. One said, “I bet he’s crying because he fears that God will be disappointed that he was not as righteous as Abraham.” “No,” said another, “it’s because he fears that God will tell him he was not as holy as Moses.” Overhearing the conversation, Reb Zusya turned to his students. Through his tears, he whispered: “In the coming world, the Holy One will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ That is what I fear. And that is why I weep.”

What matters is not being as great as the greats, or better than our peers. What matters is whether you did as good as you possibly could.  

Greatness has no room for failure. Either you’ve achieved greatness, or you’re a loser. Goodness, however, has a margin for error. One doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. In fact, quite often the quest for perfection gets in the way of goodness.

Pursuing greatness over goodness can be paralyzing. For example, I was having a hard time starting to write this sermon. I really wanted you to like it. I wanted it to be great. The best sermon you’ve ever heard. The sermon you’ll be speaking about at lunch today, and at dinner tonight, and all throughout the rest of the year. I wanted it to be the sermon that you forward to all your friends, with the subject line reading, “FWD: You HAVE to read this sermon!” I want it to be so incredible, so universally captivating, that it gets a thousand “likes” when I post it on Facebook, and then goes viral on the Internet. I wanted it to be taught in seminaries, where future clergy will aspire to give sermons just like this one.

With goals like these, it’s no wonder I struggled to even begin typing. What could I possibly write that would guarantee my attaining those objectives? What if some of you hated it? What if it bored some of you to sleep? Or worse yet, what if you laughed at me?

That’s one of the ways the pursuit of greatness gets in the way of our being good. It sets the bar so high that we become too paralyzed to even start trying.

Another way the pursuit of greatness impedes goodness is that it distorts our approach to the task at hand, ironically making us worse at the very thing we are striving to do excellently.

Remember the movie Major League? It was one of my favorite films growing up. Major League chronicles the misadventures of a hapless bunch of misfits who strive to turn the Cleveland Indians into a championship baseball team. One of the best characters in that movie was Willie Mays Hayes, played by Wesley Snipes. Hayes was a good ballplayer, one of the fastest baserunners in the league. The trouble was, Hayes wasn’t content being good. Hayes wanted to be a legend. So, instead of playing to his strengths by hitting the ball on the ground and utilizing his speed, he would try to hit a home-run every at-bat, and always came up hilariously short. It is only when Hayes focuses on being good – aiming for base hits, running bases thoughtfully, considering his role as part of a team rather than as an individual superstar – that he could actually become great.

And, most importantly, the pursuit of greatness can harm us and those around us.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown points out that pursuing greatness is inherently about earning others’ “approval and acceptance.” Our sense of self-worth becomes dependent on whether others like how we look, envy our possessions, think our spouse is attractive, consider our children talented or brilliant or well-behaved, or admire our professional accomplishments. When we pursue greatness, we put our worth in other people’s hands.

The problem, of course, is that the viewing public can never fully know us. They cannot see our hearts, our souls, what we are capable of and what our limitations are. They usually cannot see our intentions or our level of effort. They don’t love us and can’t forgive our shortcomings. And it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

And when we don’t internalize the truth that universal acceptance is illusory, our life becomes an unending cycle: we seek the validation of others; we fail because that’s literally impossible; we feel unworthy because we didn’t get the approval we sought; we seek more validation to overcome the feelings of worthlessness.

In her book, Brown demonstrates that this cycle leads us down paths of “depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.” We miss out on opportunities because we become “too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” We don’t follow our dreams because we become deeply afraid “of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.” We hurt those close to us – our spouses, our children, our friends, our co-workers – when we neglect them to focus on our great accomplishments or when we feel the way they look or act will reflect poorly on how others perceive us. We numb our feelings of inadequacy with anything that takes the edge off and quiets the voice that tells us “you are not enough.”

Because it begins with the assumption that our value depends on the adulation of others, the pursuit of greatness is always self-defeating. It’s like building a house of cards on unstable ground in unpredictable weather.

The pursuit of goodness, however, is always self-building, because it is based upon the recognition that each of us is already enough, that each of us is already worthy, that we don’t need extraordinary accomplishments or others’ approval to know that we matter.

For proof of this, look no further than the Jewish people. As Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “Knowing that we have been chosen by God is precisely what gives the Jewish people our resilience, generosity, and fortitude.” It is telling that the mission of the Jewish people has never been understood as “be great” but, rather, “be holy” (Leviticus 19:1). “Do justice. Love goodness, Walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Only through recognizing that, no matter what, we are valued, accepted, and affirmed has our people throughout history felt emboldened to take risks, to follow our dreams, to honor ourselves and care for others.

Now, you might say that we Jews are great. Maybe so. But that status has been secured not through seeking greatness but, rather, through our historic pursuit of goodness, a path that was made possible only through God’s unconditional, unyielding love for us (Deut. 7:7).

What’s true on a national scale is also true for each of us as individuals. Each of us is a child of God, princes and princesses born to the highest of sovereigns. How much greater do we need to be?

When we begin with the knowledge that we matter to the most exalted being in the universe, we can be free: free from the need to impress, free to live life our own way, free to focus on doing right by ourselves and those around us.

Through the knowledge of God’s love, we also become free to take risks, to make mistakes, and to forgive ourselves our shortcomings.

Our tradition affirms that God loves us unconditionally: ahavah rabah ahavtanu, God loves us with a great love. While we can deviate from the path God holds out for us, there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us, nothing we need to do to earn God’s love for us.

God also intimately knows every part of us: atah yode’a razei olam – You know our innermost secrets – ba-beten y’datikha – God knew you before you were even born (Jeremiah 1:5). While we have a responsibility to live up to our own potential, we are only competing against ourselves, and God knows both our strengths and our limitations.

And, as we remind ourselves again and again over these High Holy Days, God is El rahum v’hanun, erekh apayim v’rav hesed, a God of compassion, grace, patience, abounding love; a God who forgives us when we falter. Of course, we must learn and grow from our failures. But our tradition’s claim that God is forgiving means that it is O.K. to stumble and fall; we are not expected to be perfect.

When we understand that failure is part and parcel of being human, we need not to be paralyzed by the fear of failure, the pressure to be perfect, or the guilt of missing the mark. We only need to be as good as we can be. When we fall, we can look at ourselves with godly compassion and forgive ourselves. Then, we can shake off the dust, rise, and get back to work.

The pursuit of greatness has always been a major part of American culture. When business writer Jim Collins published a book a few years back called Good to Great, millions of copies flew off the shelves. Still today, greatness is very much part of the zeitgeist. The importance of making ourselves great is all some people talk about. Many of us have been made to feel that, in order to live a worthwhile life, that’s what we must strive for. In fact, when I told some folks I was writing a sermon called, “From Great to Good,” deliberately playing off the title of Collins’s bestseller, they immediately responded, “But isn’t that going backwards?!”  

The answer, I think, is no. Not from Judaism’s perspective, anyway. Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah puts it:

כה אמר יהוה

אל־יתהלל חכם בחכמתו

ואל־יתהלל הגבור בגבורתו

אל־יתהלל עשיר בעשרו

כי אם־בזאת יתהלל המתהלל:

השכל וידע אותי כי אני יהוה עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי־באלה חפצתי נאם־יהוה

 

Thus said the Holy One:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;

Let not the strong man glory in his strength;

Let not the rich man glory in his riches.

But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Holy One act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; And – declares the Holy One – it is in these I delight. (Jer. 9:22-23).

In the year to come, ask not “how can I become a success,” but, rather, “how can I be more kind, just, and fair?” Ask not, “how can I stand above others” but, rather, “how can I walk with God?” Ask not, “how can I be great,” but, rather, “how can I be good?”

Shanah tovah.

 

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