‘To Bring People Close…’ – Shabbat Ha-Gadol – Parashat Tzav 5778(2018)

We’re a pretty divided lot. By ‘we’ I mean Americans, and also Jews, and also American Jews. In each realm, the divisions are deep and well known. Fox or MSNBC, J-Street or ZOA, religious or secular, etc and so on…

 

In a moving and plaintive column earlier this week, David Brooks of the NY Times poses this question – “What on earth holds this nation together?” His answer – that “despite our differences, we devote our lives to the same experiment, the American experiment to draw people from around the world and to create the best society ever, to serve as a model for all humankind” – draws on an equally moving and plaintive essay written a century and a half ago by Walt Whitman. The great poet’s key line was this: “Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”

 

The drawing of lines is a persistent and quite ancient human activity. Long before there were Republicans and Democrats, human societies made distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ The current issue of National Geographic, devoted to an exploration of “what race means in the 21st century”, includes an article called “The Things That Divide Us,” which teaches, among other things, that “people everywhere are ‘identity crazed.’ We can’t help it: We’re wired from birth to tell Us from Them. And we inevitably (and sometimes unconsciously) favor Us – especially when we feel threatened.” Awakening our ‘tribal minds’ turns out to be ‘remarkably easy’ writes David Berreby. And it also true, he continues, that “human beings can shift their group perceptions in both directions. Sometimes we turn Us into Them. But we can also turn Them into Us.”

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That’s where this week’s haftarah enters the picture. The prophet Malakhi’s famous closing words summon up the figure of Elijah the Prophet who, it is promised, “shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” (Malakhi 3:24) An old rabbinic teaching unpacks those words and imagines three distinct venues for ‘reconciliation’ (literally ‘the restoring of heart to…’).  “Rabbi Yehudah says: to bring [people] close, but not to [make people] distant. Rabbi Shimon says: to resolve arguments. The Sages say: …to make peace in the world…” (Mishnah Eduyot 8:7) 

 

While the Mishnah’s teaching is understood to refer to the messianic age, I’m inclined to think that we can apply its wisdom to the here and now. Let’s read these three understanding of Elijah’s work in sequence. Step one is to bring people close. Then, once we’re actually talking to each other, we can begin to resolve, or smooth out, our disagreements. One conversation at a time, that process yields peace in the world. Maimonides identifies Elijah as “a prophet (who) will arise to guide Israel and set their hearts aright.” We could use a healthy dose of that guidance right about now. 

 

Shabbat Shalom!

 

 

 

 

Missing the Mark: Shabbat Vayikra-Ha’Hodesh-Rosh Hodesh Nisan 5778(2018)

A rather unsettling war story in the Book of Judges describes a crack squad of left-handed soldiers with the boast that “every one of them could sling a stone at a hair and not miss.” (Judges 20:16) The Hebrew for ‘miss’ – yakhati – derives from the root khet, tet, alef which also yields the word for ‘sin’ – khet. Think Yom Kippur for a moment – al khet she’khatanu l’fanekha – ‘for the sin which we have committed (literally ‘sinned’) before You.’

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Parashat Vayikra introduces a central category of Jewish thought, the unwittingly committed sin or misdeed. Here’s the wording from the Book of Leviticus: “When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them—” (4:2). In Hebrew – nefesh ki tekheta bi’sh’gaga. Or, to translate with the stone slinging use of the same term in mind, ‘one who unintentionally misses the mark.’ One, in other words, who inadvertently errs. That kind of mistake, or sin, has consequences, and in the levitical system it must be compensated for with a purification (or ‘sin’) offering known in Hebrew as a khatat.

 

Now, you might protest, no one errs on purpose! Why would one intend to make mistakes? No basketball player ever launched a last second three pointer aiming to miss. And that missed shot will certainly not be among the highlights of the NCAA tournament flashing across our screens over the next few weeks. The error is always unintended. What, then, could the Torah be describing? And why a penalty for an inadvertent mistake?

 

Two modern giants of Biblical scholarship, Jacob Milgrom and Richard Elliot Friedman, offer some help. “Inadvertent wrongdoing,” Milgrom writes, “may result from two causes: negligence or ignorance. Either the offender knows the law but involuntarily violates it or he acts knowingly but is unaware he did wrong.” And Friedman adds that “people still feel guilty when they do harm, even if they meant no harm, and so this provides a mechanism for purging the guilt and putting the act in the past.”

 

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We all miss the mark, some of us more often than others, either out of ignorance or negligence. In thinking about this parasha, this week I set out to list my many inadvertent mistakes. I quit after cataloguing just a couple of days’ worth. Too much to tabulate! Even though I meant no harm in each of those instances, I know that I caused harm and I do feel responsible. Putting those acts in the past would be quite a good thing. The Torah means to teach us how. After all, there are many more missed shots to be taken in the days ahead!

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Mirror, Mirror – Shabbat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778(2018)

What happens when one looks into a mirror?

 

not-to-be-reproduced(Rene Magritte, ‘Not to be Reproduced’, 1937)

A seemingly small detail in this week’s parasha has me thinking about that question. “He (Moses) made the laver of copper and its stand of copper, from the mirrors of the women who performed tasks at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” [Exodus 38:8] Who are these women, what are the tasks that they perform, and why mirrors?

 

A brilliantly creative midrash (Tanhuma Pekudei #9) answers those queries (and a few more). The women are b’not yisrael, the daughters of Israel who perform the essential task of romancing their husbands after a long day’s manual labor, drawing them into their tents (of meeting) with mirrors. As the Midrash describes it, “And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more beautiful than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more beautiful than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied…”

 

The mirrors of our Midrash serve the sacred purposes of continuity and connection which renders them the best possible raw material for the copper laver with which the priests of Israel consecrate themselves. The key to the story is that mirror gazing isn’t a solitary activity; wives and husbands, women and men, look into the mirrors together and as a result are able to see, and seize, possibility and promise.

 

GirlBeforeAMirror.jpg (Pablo Picasso, ‘Girl Before a Mirror’ 1932)

 

This week of Vaykhel-Pekudei has also been the week of AIPAC’s annual Policy Conference which has become the single largest gathering of the American Jewish community, this year welcoming 18,000 supporters of Israel to Washington D.C. Not all are Jews, of course, but AIPAC now draws together more rabbis and cantors of all streams than do any of our professional association conventions, and more Jewish high school and college students than any other annual event. AIPAC, I suggest, provides us with an annual mirror in which we can gaze at, and assess, the American Jewish community and our relationship with Israel.

 

Along with Tanhuma’s ingenious telling of the mirrors of the daughters of Israel, I have on my mind two masterpieces of 20th century art, both produced in the 1930s and both reproduced here. Rene Magritte’s tantalizing picture of a man standing before a mirror in which he, and we, see his back, offers one approach to mirror gazing. To look into a mirror, Magritte seems to suggest, is to gaze toward the past, to look behind rather than ahead. In contrast, Pablo Picasso’s depiction of a young woman standing before a mirror, presents mirror gazing as an exercise in imagination and creativity. The image in the mirror and the image of the young woman are connected but hardly identical. When one looks into a mirror, in Picasso’s vision, one can look forward and summon up new colors, alternate shapes, and different expressions.

 

Gazing at the mirror called AIPAC Policy Conference 2018 I found myself alternating between Magritte’s and Picasso’s visions. Emotional presentations about Israel’s founding moment and about the Soviet Jewry movement (featuring an interview with Natan Sharansky himself) invited backward gazes toward unity and common purpose. At the same time, opportunities to hear from Israeli social and high-tech entrepreneurs served up glimpses of a future marked by co-existence, economic partnership, and peace between Jews and Arabs in and around Israel, despite the threats and challenges faced by Israel every day. And then there was the politics, a full slate of elected officials, both Israeli and American, some in power, some in opposition, reflecting the larger message that support for Israel might in fact tie us all together.

 

The image in the mirror describes a heroic past, a hopeful and peaceful future, and a present marked by unity in diversity.  I hope it is so. Picasso and Magritte, modernists par excellence, are also describing the fragmentation and subjectivity of contemporary life. Too often, contention and discord feel like the reality of American Jewish life, especially on the topic of engagement with Israel. On that score, the daughters of Israel –  courtesy of Midrash Tanhuma – truly inspire. If only we can find a way to gaze into the mirror together – Israeli Jews and American Jews, Republicans and Democrats, Arabs and Jews, Progressive Zionists and Revisionist Zionists – then perhaps we can imagine and create a future marked by continuity, connection, possibility, and promise.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

We Lost a Tree at BAI Today

This morning brought news of a fallen tree about a third of the way down Beth Am Israel’s driveway. Upon inspection, yesterday’s nor’easter took down a three trunk beauty that has overseen many years of comings and goings at our synagogue. It is, of course, ‘the way of the world’ (minhago shel ‘olam) as the talmudic rabbis phrase it. Storms happen, trees fall, the sun returns, new growth arises, the world continues along its path. And still, losing a tree is much like losing a good friend. I shall miss our triple trunked tree’s daily greetings and farewells very much. And I look forward to finding new friends in our front yard as well.

 

Joyce Kilmer’s justly famous poem has been echoing in my head today. Its sparse lines capture for me what we’ve lost and in so doing have offered me comfort. I hope his words comfort you as well.

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Purim’s Lingering, Long Tale – Shabbat Ki Tisa 5788 (2018)

Exactly what endures?

An arresting and opt-repeated teaching claims that all Jewish holy days will cease once the Messianic age begins, except for Purim (and in one version Yom Kippur as well). Of all of our observances, Purim has the longest tail. Not Pesah and its story of liberation; not Sukkot and its focus on gratitude and vulnerability; not Shavuot and its commemoration of the Divine gift of Torah; not Hanukkah and its celebration of the fight for freedom. Rather, Purim and its farcical tale will linger for all of eternity. Why Purim?

Maimonides’s formulation may help us get to an answer (or two or three).

All Prophetic Books and the Sacred Writings will cease during the messianic era except the Book of Esther. It will continue to exist just like the Five Books of the Torah and laws of the Oral Torah that will never cease. Although ancient troubles will be remembered no longer, as it is written: ‘The troubles of the past are forgotten and hidden from my eyes,’ (Isaiah 65:16), the days of Purim will not be abolished, as it is written: ‘These days of Purim shall never be repealed among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never cease from their descendants.’ (Esther 9:28) [Laws of Megillah 2:18]

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Along with Purim and the Book of Esther, the Torah and rabbinic law will make it into the messianic era. The ‘troubles of the past’ vanish, while Purim and Esther endure. Purim, therefore, represents the opposite of earlier travails. We get to remember reversals of (apparent) fate and instances of human triumph for all time. And along the way, we receive the opportunity to forget the troubles of the past.

David Hartman, noted philosopher and teacher, locates the claim of Purim’s lingering significance in the larger context of covenant. “Persons of mature covenantal faith,” he writes, “were able to feel God’s commanding voice under all historical conditions. The spiritual power implicit in the Sinai covenant reached full expression when the Jewish community was able to trust in the covenantal promise despite the apparent arbitrariness of history.” We take that trust in the unseen with us into the next era; it’s mature faith that endures.

A few lines later, Hartman hammers his point home. “What began at Sinai as an externally imposed system of norms had become a successful internalization of those norms when Purim was identified as the celebration of the free acceptance of the Torah.” That, in a nutshell, is why Purim outlasts Pesah; free acceptance of covenant lingers for all of eternity.

Trouble no more, teaches this ‘minor’ festival; mature faith, freely chosen commitment, and the ability to hear the divine voice in the shadows of history and human experience are the things that last, and that matter most.

Shabbat Shalom.

Mindfulness in the Culture – Exhibit A, Exhibit B

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Exhibit A – WXPN, our spectacular local radio station has been playing this one a whole lot since its release a couple of months ago. I think we all have a ‘Happiness Jones.’  Enjoy! And you can find the lyrics here.

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Exhibit B – I heard an interview with Catherine Price, whose new book – ‘How to Break Up With Your Phone’ – presents a fully realized smart phone mindfulness practice. Check out the book’s website, especially the resources button which offers mindful lock screen messages for download. In her interview, Price mentioned an app called Moment which tracks your phone usage for you. Very helpful. My day one results stunned me. There’s work to be done!