Elated, Exhausted, Proud, Worried

Yesterday at noon we saw off our eldest child at Newark Airport. Josh boarded El Al’s afternoon flight to Tel Aviv. He arrived early this morning local time, a brand new citizen of the State of Israel. This afternoon he and the members of his Gar’in (pre-army aliyah group) will be welcomed to their new home just outside of S’derot in a celebratory ceremony. Those are (s0me of) the facts.

With pride in our hearts, we (along with his brother and sister) accompanied Josh as far as permitted and then hugged and kissed and cried as he crossed the barrier and stepped into the TSA line. Josh has dreamed about this day for many years, and in truth both of us had imagined and dreamed about similar days for ourselves years ago. Yesterday, after months of planning and preparing, he did what I merely imagined; my son chose to make aliyah and to serve in the IDF. I couldn’t be happier for him. Yesterday at noon I felt elated.

Getting ready for yesterday’s departure has been a whirlwind, particularly in the past few days. A special Shabbat celebration and blessing, followed by an open house on the first day of Hanukkah (also Christmas Day this year), and then last minute shopping, organizing and packing. On very little sleep, we got up early to be at the airport by nine in the morning. And by noon we, Josh included, were exhausted. As that enveloping tiredness settled in my bones a profound sadness began to emerge. Nomi and I already miss Josh terribly, and his siblings miss him even more. We’ll see him, of course. My next trip is a mere six weeks away, and more, many more, will follow. On a daily basis, however, we’ll be here and he there, navigating his path, building his life, living his dream. And so, yesterday at noon, I felt sad.

Ibim, the youth village that will be Josh’s home for a few years, adjoins the western Negev town of S’derot. S’derot has been in the news far too much in recent years. It lies all of a couple of miles from the Gaza fence and has far too frequently been the target of rockets fired by Islamic militants on the other side. S’derot has enjoyed a quiet year or so, but in the Middle East one never knows. We sent our eldest off to the ‘Gaza Envelope,’ the area of small towns, kibbutzim, moshavim, and Bedouin villages that surrounds the Gaza Strip to the north and the east. And so, yesterday at noon, I felt worried.

Elated and proud, joyful and sad, exhausted and worried, all before lunch! Yesterday at noon as our family squeezed in that one last group hug before Josh stepped forth we held all of those seemingly competing and contradictory emotions together. Some of it, I’m sure, is simply what it means to parent a young adult. Some of, I suspect, is very specific to the experience of one’s child choosing to make aliyah. All of it came home with us from Newark Airport yesterday afternoon.

During Hanukkah’s first days, the skies grow darker as the moon disappears. The turnaround happens on day six, always Rosh Hodesh Tevet, marking the first crescent of the new moon. Only a few more nights to go; I’m looking forward to it.

Act in Love – Shabbat Vayeshev 5777 (2016)

Opening words, like first impressions, matter.

Here’s how Parashat Vayeshev begins: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob…” Jacob was settled. Where? In the same place where his father Isaac had sojourned. Sojourning implies movement; Isaac wandered. Settled, in contrast, conveys the absence of movement; Jacob sat still.

Or, at least, he wished to sit still. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, catches the nuance: bikesh Yaakov leishev b’shalva – Jacob sought to dwell in tranquility. In fact, notes Rashi, still referencing the earlier rabbinic teaching, the righteous, in general, seek to dwell in tranquility. Tumult and righteousness, it seems, do not align. Or do they?

As Rashi tells it, God muses that the righteous will enjoy peace and quiet in the world to come; that anticipated tranquility should suffice. In this world, all bets are off. Here and now, sturm und drang prevail.

Within a few lines of the beginning of Vayeshev, Jacob’s hoped for tranquility has begun to unravel, and by the end of Genesis 37, absorbing the news of what he believes to be the death of his favored son Joseph, Jacob’s language (and mindset) has shifted from ‘settled’ to ‘torn’ and tragic. Aviva Zornberg dramatically and colorfully describes the trajectory of Genesis 37. “Instead of yshuv ha-da’at, clarity, composure, coherence, there is tiruf ha-da’at, confusion, bewilderment, loss of consciousness.” We can imagine, even attempt to construct, wholeness and clarity, only to discover that life, and the life of the world, get in the way.

Zornberg brings to her readers a teaching from R Mordecai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz, a 19th century, theologically radical, Hasidic master. Jacob “sought to dwell in peace. This peace obtains when a person behaves in such a way as to keep far from all doubt, and guards himself from any evil act. That is the modality of peace. But in response to Jacob’s desire for such peace, God told him that as long as a human being lives a bodily existence, it is impossible to behave with extreme wariness and fear and humility. For God wants human acts, and in this world human beings must act in love, in ways that are not completely clarified.”

Jacob wants quiet; God wants passion. Even more, Jacob wants certainty; God wants “human beings” who “act in love, in ways that are not completely clarified.”  Even without a well defined way forward, engage, “act in love.” And by all means, don’t sit it out. As Rabbi Sting once put it, “our spirit is in the material world.”

Jacob’s dilemma is our dilemma. Quiet, and quiescence, would be lovely; but, as the famous ancient Chinese proverb has it, we live in interesting times. Sitting it out just won’t do. Without clarity, and for sure without certainty, we’re called to “act in love,” to toss aside our fear and our undue humility, and to engage in “human acts.” The Ishbitzer is here to remind us that in an unsettled time “it is impossible to behave with extreme wariness and fear.” That, and more, apparently will have to wait for the world to come.

Shabbat Shalom
Hanukkah Sameah

What Would Alex Say? – Shabbat Vayishlach 5777 (2016)

What would Alex say?

Yesterday marked my father-in-law’s 24th yahrzeit. He’s on my mind quite a bit these days. Teacher, leader, scholar, activist, saba – Rabbi Alexander M Shapiro z”l left us and the world too soon, at the age of 63, just a handful of days after the birth of our oldest son Josh.

In ten days time, Josh leaves for Israel, the culmination of many years of dreaming and planning. I think I know what Alex would say about that. He’d have loved Josh’s combination of idealism and practicality, his devotion to Zion, to Hebrew, and to the Jewish people, his determination to be an Israeli and to contribute to the great experiment called the State of Israel. Despite the challenges, internal and external, that Israel faces, Alex’s love and commitment would still brightly burn. I’m quite certain that the politics of the day would not have met with his favor. I’m equally certain that he’d be in it with every ounce of energy and passion in his possession, fighting, debating, encouraging others in support of his ideals and our people’s well being.

Throughout this year’s exhausting (and interminable) election campaign and in the complicated and bewildering days since the election, I have often asked myself – out loud at times – ‘What would Alex think/say about this?!?’ Candidate Donald J Trump would have horrified him; Nominee Trump even more so; President-Elect Trump, I suspect, would have terrified him, and perhaps even filled him with dread. Alex grew up in Brooklyn in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He’d have recognized the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and, yes, anti-Semitic, strains and tendencies that have bubbled up in America in 2016. And he’d have named Trump’s demagoguery and hate-mongering with neither fear nor hesitation. He would say America is better than this; Americans deserve better than this.

Alex would have also urged us all not to despair, not to withdraw, and not to quit. He’d very likely have pointed to Parashat Vayishlach – ironically the Torah reading on the week of his yahrzeit each year – as guidance, and to the adult versions of Esau and Jacob as exemplars for us to emulate. Nearly a quarter of a century later, I still hear the Torah’s words introducing the scene of Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel in Alex’s voice. Va’yivater Yaakov l’bado – Jacob was left alone (Genesis 32:25). We so often feel alone, adrift in a world gone mad. That moment, Alex would be reminding us, is when the real struggle begins. That moment – this moment – is the time for wrestling with our own angels (and demons). Jacob encounters his angel face to face, naming the site of his encounter Peniel – God’s face. That, Alex would say, is how we need to encounter one another, not to mention our God. Without fear, eyeball to eyeball, and now!

On this Shabbat Vayishlach I hear another urgent reminder in Rabbi Shapiro’s voice. Esau and Jacob, the great feuding brothers of Genesis, the very definition of sibling rivalry, reunite in Vayishlach, after twenty years of separation. They’ve both grown up, raised families, made something of themselves. They’re able, now, finally, to embrace, to exchange gifts, to connect deeply and truly. Alex would say wounds can be healed, relationships repaired, peace can actually come to be. Arabs and Jews, Democrats and Republicans, Jacob and Esau. Never lose hope, he’d say; never give up imagining and working toward a better tomorrow. Never…

Y’hi zikhro barukh – May the memory of HaRav Eliyahu Moshe ben Shaul Yehudah v’Chaya Gittel be for a blessing. This Shabbat (and every Shabbat) may we continue to hear his voice.

Shabbat Shalom.

John Glenn and Our Ancestor Jacob – Shabbat Vayetze 5777 (2016)

Our ancestor Jacob, running for his life, discovers God in the middle of nowhere. Falling asleep in the wilderness, a stone for his pillow, Jacob dreams of a ladder that connects heaven and earth. His own words encapsulate his take away – “Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and that is the gateway to heaven.’” [Genesis 28:16-17]

God was here and I didn’t know it! How often do we have that experience? How rarely do we have that experience? Our wakefulness, I suggest, is the determining factor. Jacob notices, senses, feels the Divine Presence at the moment at which he “awoke from his sleep.” The possibility doesn’t exist unless/until one is awake to it. So the real question is, how awake are we? Or, how asleep are we?

Once awake, our ancestor Jacob sees that his story, while important, isn’t the whole story. He’s a part of something much larger than himself. Sefat Emet catches the nuance just right: “Jacob dreamed and attained an awesome and incredible dream that under normal circumstances should have filled him with pride and strength, but instead fear and trembling overcame him.” Jacob awakens to reverence – yir’ah in Hebrew – a quality that is essential to religious experience. And, as Sefat Emet reminds: “Every event that occasions reverence also participates in ultimate truth.”

This week we lost John Glenn, the first American to orbit earth and one of the heroes of the Space Age. Glenn, like our ancestor Jacob, left home and in a very real sense discovered God in the middle of nowhere. Beautiful words attributed to him tell the tale: “If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self-interest.”

God, in other words, is in this place, and I did not know it.

Shabbat Shalom.

East, West, Jacob, Esau – Shabbat Toldot 5777 (2016)

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,        

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;

So opens Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem The Ballad of East and West. Kipling’s 1889 ballad tells the tale of an unnamed British Colonel’s son and an Afghan horse-thief named Kamal. It doesn’t begin well.

Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the Border side,                 

And he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride:      

He has lifted her out of the stable-door between the dawn and the day,    

And turned the calkins upon her feet, and ridden her far away.

The Colonel’s son pursues Kamal, crossing into enemy territory to track his beloved horse. Kipling’s tale climaxes with these lines:

The red mare ran to the Colonel’s son, and nuzzled against his breast,            

“We be two strong men,” said Kamal then, “but she loveth the younger best.      

So she shall go with a lifter’s dower, my turquoise-studded rein,     

My broidered saddle and saddle-cloth, and silver stirrups twain.”

By poem’s end, the two adversaries exchange gifts, proclaim their deep respect for one another, and have looked each other between the eyes, and there they found no fault…

Kipling’s well known (and well worn!) couplet came to mind as I sat with the opening words of Parashat Toldot. These verses especially – When the boys grew up, Esau became a man knowledgeable about hunting, a man of the field; but Jacob was a simple man, dwelling in tents. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob. [Genesis 25:27-28] Esau hunts, Jacob dwells in tents. They’re as different as Kamal and the Colonel’s son, complete and total opposites.

Early interpreters draw out the Torah’s binary in powerful ways. Hear the Book of Jubilees: Jacob was a smooth and upright man, and Esau was fierce, a man of the field, and hairy; and Jacob dwelt in tents. And the youths grew, and Jacob learned to write; but Esau did not learn, for he was a man of the field, and a hunter, and he learned war, and all his deeds were fierce. Smooth Jacob writes while fierce Esau hunts. East is East and West is West…

Binaries worry me. Black and white thinking erases nuance and closes off possibility. How could a fierce warrior and a bookish tent dweller connect with one another? How might each of them actually recognize, let alone value, let alone empathize with the other? It seems truly impossible. Indeed, never the twain shall meet…

The Jacob/Esau binary resonates in our current moment. Hunter/scholar, the Colonel’s son/Kamal, Red America/Blue America. You get the point.

In the end, Esau and Jacob do meet, with respect and even affection, in much the manner of Kamal and the Colonel’s son. Two parashiot in the future they will embrace and present gifts and their families to each other. That moment is in the future, not just yet, not today. Today one goes to war and one writes, diametric opposites.

We all know Kipling’s first two lines. I wish the next two were just as famous:

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,          

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.

Shabbat Shalom.