What if

December 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if….? The ‘if’ could be anything: if I had gone to a different school or if I had taken that opportunity or if I had chosen the other option. It’s natural for us to wonder about the paths that were not taken. Robert Frost’s most famous poem addresses this question:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In Frost’s poem, the choice “that has made all the difference” is between two remarkably similar paths with minor variations. This poem has become axiomatic in our culture, as a reminder that small decisions can have far-reaching consequences. One only needs to quote a line to make that point. It’s a pleasing poem, one that reflects a quietly self-satisfied kind of life.

That situation, however, is not what’s facing Joseph right now.

Rather, our weekly portion opens with a dramatic moment in Joseph’s life: his brothers have returned to Egypt, and his half-brother Judah has just come forward to argue on behalf of his full-brother Benjamin’s life. And Joseph must now choose how to respond.

One can imagine what he is thinking as he listens to Judah’s plea: These are the brothers who sold him into slavery; these are the brothers who have arrived in Egypt starving and penniless; these are the brothers who do not recognize him in his Egyptian dress, outfitted as the second only to Pharaoh.

What would his life look like if his brothers had not sold him into slavery?

When he thinks about taking the road less traveled, it’s not a happy musing about alternate options. For him, it’s a dark night of the soul. It’s true that it was a small decision – the decision to go out in search of his brothers on that fateful afternoon – that set off a chain of events that eventually brought him to Egypt. But the big question in his life is not ‘why did I go out in the field that day?’ The big question of his life is ‘how do I move past the trauma inflicted upon me by my brothers?’

And it brings up for us an important question: What happens when the defining feature of your life is trauma of this intensity? How can you venture a definition of your life and your self, when this kind of abuse is the dominant feature?

That event, after all, is a touchstone for every aspect of Joseph’s personality and character. For better or for worse, it is the central defining moment of his life. Any personal narrative that he constructs to explain himself to himself and to others must try to make sense of this trauma. Those who have been marked by this kind of intense pain will understand: he will always be the kid who was sold into slavery by his brothers. It has, in a literal sense, become part of his DNA. Ever after, he will always be just a little bit intense; it’s the scar that this kind of trauma leaves behind.

So his brothers are standing in front of him, the ones who caused him such pain, and he needs to decide what to do. How to respond?

Is it ever really possible to forgive and forget?

It is at this moment of decision that Joseph proves himself to be a person of extraordinary character. It is at this moment that Joseph gives us the most transcendent moment of forgiveness in all of the Biblical literature. Listen to him speak, and learn from his example. This is what he says:

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” [Genesis 45:4-8, JPS translation]

You will not reproach yourselves, he says, for it was all, ultimately, for the good. As he explains later, I know that you meant me ill, but your evil act has enabled us to reach this place, he says, and has allowed us to experience an extraordinary deliverance. Now go and bring our father close, so that we may once again be united.

I must admit, I find that I am moved by this story every year. There is no ‘what if’ and there is no regret here. There is just the courage to go forward.

What is particularly interesting about Joseph, however, is the fact that he does not minimize what they have done.

He recognizes that this event is part of the larger narrative of his life and he gives it meaning on that basis. But at no point does he fool himself into thinking it was any less hurtful than it was. He is quite willing to engage in the full accounting of what has happened. I think that this point is key: to be able to heal and forgive, it is absolutely necessary to acknowledge openly the pain of the past.

But that is why his example is so awe-inspiring; something so awful also set in motion something so extraordinary.

When death wounds us

June 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

We fear death and usually hate to talk about it. We have trouble imagining our own non-existence, and we try not to think about what it would mean to live without those who matter most to us.

But death is a part of life, and is its natural conclusion; we find that we must live with it. We make an uneasy truce with it, trying not to think about it too much.

This week’s portion, however, prompts us to think about it. It is unusual in its concern for death and dying, for it has three separate mentions of death in it:

The first relates to the dying body: we are told, “one who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days.” With our scientific mindset, we think of these rules as a form of hygiene: of course it makes sense to quarantine someone who has been in contact with death. But we should note that it has a ritual element as well: death is uncanny, unnerving us even wen it is not one of our own. The impulse here, therefore, is to segregate the forces of chaos, to keep them from striking the rest of the camp.

Our second mention of death in this portion relates to the death of Miriam. Surprisingly, the text is very terse: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” We have no mention of the ritual that was involved in her burial.

The third mention is Aaron’s death. Here the text is much more willing to elaborate – but some of the details are heartbreaking: “They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

I hope, for Aaron’s sake, that this ceremony was done in a loving and reverent way.

In all three cases, however, the Torah is rather matter-of-fact about death, yet nonetheless unwilling to fill us in regarding the details. For example, was Miriam’s death unexpected? Did the camp bewail her for 30 days too?

I ask these questions because I believe that the rituals that we follow surrounding death are profoundly important. What I have learned in my eleven years as a rabbi is that there is such a thing as effective mourning. [1]

All significant deaths wound us in some way – and that is as it should be, since the people whom we love are profoundly important to us. Grief is a necessary and important response to the gaping hole that is created by this loss.

Grief is compounded and made worse when there is some aspect of the relationship that was left unresolved – for example, when a death is sudden and you don’t get a chance to say goodbye. Or the relationship itself was complicated and you never had a sense of closure.

Effective mourning is what allows you to acknowledge the depth of your loss and grieve it. It also gives you the strength to continue your life even in the absence of your loved one. It’s like the difference between an open wound and a closed one: your loved one. Think in terms of an open wound versus a closed one: effective mourning is what allows the wound to close.

In my experience, effective mourning involves six distinct steps. All of them are important, but they do not need to be done in order. I have listed them here in the order that they appear in the Jewish tradition.

1. You must say goodbye. I have heard a lot of people over the years say that their preferred way to die would be to die in their sleep. Personally, I would rather not: I would rather die in hospice or at home, at a time when everyone was more or less expecting it. That is the kind of death that would allow me to gather my friends and family together to say goodbye.

If you don’t get a chance to say goodbye – if the death was sudden, or took place far away, or you heard about it only after the fact – then you need a ritual to let you say goodbye. I usually advise folks to write down what they would say and then burn what they wrote. The actions of the ritual itself, however, are not as important as their intent. Regardless, you need to find a way to say goodbye.

2. You need to make the death real to you. Our Jewish tradition, in its great wisdom, suggests that we help shovel earth on the casket, so that there is no denying the reality of the death. I will say that there is no sound more disheartening than the dull ‘thump’ of earth hitting a wooden casket. It usually makes the mourners wince. It is one of the most difficult moments in the funeral.

But if you are not able to go to the funeral, or if the deceased was part of a different religious tradition, there are rituals that you can do to make the death real. You can bury something that reminds you of this person. Or cast something into the water or let go of something, such as a balloon or a kite. Regardless of how you do it, the ritual must in some way speak to you symbolically of letting go.

3. You need to summarize the importance of this person’s life to your life. According to our tradition, the ideal eulogy – known as a hesped in Hebrew – is one that makes the loss felt all the more acutely. [2]

If you can’t go to the funeral in person, then you should still seek to read the obituary or the eulogy or write one of your own.

4. You need to let your community know that you have experienced the death of someone close to you, and you need to let your community comfort you. Here our tradition is particularly strong: the kria ribbon – that black ribbon that you tear at the funeral – is a sign among our people that you are in mourning. It symbolizes how your heart is torn in such a way that it can never be the same again.

In this regard, the practice of shiva – observing the seven days of intense mourning – is also profoundly therapeutic, for the whole community pours into your home and tells you how sorry they are for your loss. Usually, after seven days you desperately want to get all of these people out of your house and get your life back. It’s good to know, after those chaotic seven days, that the quiet that follows can be welcome.

I am aware that it’s fairly common nowadays for people to choose to do just one day or just three days of shiva, but I would advise all of you here, now, when you’re not in the midst of mourning, that you really should heed the full wisdom of our tradition. Make it your practice to do the full seven – you’ll be glad you did. Don’t shortchange grief.

5. You need to mark the point when you go from active mourning to returning to your life. In the broader culture of America, mourners commonly return to their jobs and our responsibilities almost immediately – usually as soon as they return from the funeral.

I think that it is a shame we don’t give more time for mourners because it’s an intense process, and it is one that takes time. Our tradition advises us to spend seven days in full-time mourning. That makes good sense.

For the first thirty days mourners are exempt from celebrations of all kinds, and given a wide berth. At the end of thirty days, it is customary to go out of the house, take a walk around the neighborhood three times, and then reenter the household.

At this point, the mourners are entering their new life, their life without this person. I have been a part of this ritual, walking alongside grieving families, and have found it to be very moving.

6. You need some ritual to mark the anniversary of the death. Usually, that first anniversary is particularly hard, but they are all difficult in their own way. When the death was a significant one – a mother, father, sister, brother, spouse, or child – it usually takes about two years to start to feel normal again.

In my eleven years as a rabbi, it has been my experience that there is a correlation between these steps and the sense of completion in mourning.

If you find that there is a death that still wounds you five or ten or twenty years later, it might be that one of these steps remains undone. My advice to you is to go back and ritually complete it, so that it might be possible to heal.

And please know that I am always willing to help. I would be honored, for example, if you called me and asked me to help you write a eulogy for someone who had died years ago. Whatever steps are missing, I am willing and able to help you fulfill them.

Death wounds us, as well it should; these are the steps that allow the wound to close and heal.

This week, of course, also marks the funerals of those who were killed in Charleston last week. We mourn with them. May their families find comfort and strength.

[1] The concept of effective mourning is one that I have developed myself, based on my pastoral training as a rabbi, the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education that I completed at the Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, and my work as a congregational rabbi. It draws upon the work of authors such as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It is, in effect, a statement of my own philosophy with regard to the process of mourning.

[2] See, for example: http://www.jlaw.com/Articles/underhesped.html for a summary of Jewish law regarding hesped.


June 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have spent time inside of a maximum security prison. Not as a convict, of course, but as a chaplain: in my first student pulpit, part of the role included visiting a local “supermax” in Lucasville, Ohio.

Ohio likes to build its prisons in the midst of cow pastures, so the prison looks a bit like the city of Oz in the distance, glinting in the sun, a tangle of barbed wire, guard towers and fences.

And I had no idea what to expect. For the record, getting inside of a supermax as a visitor is about as hard as getting into the Soviet Union during Glasnost, but a little bit easier than getting into an Israeli embassy during the Intifada.

And so, I was thinking about that experience this week as the manhunt continues for two escaped convicts.

The first service I did there was for High Holidays; the prisoners did not particularly connect with the liturgy of repentance and return. The second service I did was an abbreviated Passover seder; the prisoners connected powerfully with the imagery relating to slavery and freedom.

This week, in reading the news articles and opinion pieces about the prison that dominates Dannemora’s landscape, I was thinking of that fact.

One of the pieces that came across my feed this week was written by a former prisoner, speaking of the awfulness of prison itself, and the reasons why these two men would seek to run.

And I was angry at the piece, and a bit surprised at the vehemence of my reaction. Never once did he show any concern for the fate of the victims of these two men – or his own victims, for that matter, the unlucky folks who were on the other side of the gun when he committed the armed robbery that landed him in the New York State system of corrections. My cousin took two weeks off from her job as a bank teller the time she was robbed at gunpoint. These things get under your skin.

What you learn, when you walk into the halls of a maximum-security prison, is that the laws are not entirely fair. It is quite clear that the system has a preferred racial profile.

What you also learn is that the folks who work in corrections live with danger. I was absolutely astonished to discover that I would be walking side-by-side with convicted killers on my way to the chapel. There was, of course, a line on the floor that they were not expected to cross, and there were men with rifles watching at all times. But I still felt very exposed. I mentioned this fact to the chaplain who had greeted me at the door. “It’s been a year since the last riot,” he said, “so it’s probably fine.”

I also know a chaplain who had his shoulder dislocated by a prisoner.

And I know of folks in Cadyville who had to spend the day locked inside of their own houses, by order of the police, for fear of getting caught in the crossfire.

So these were the things on my mind as I read the Torah portion this week, and pondered what it might have to say to us.

First, let us get lost for a moment in the pure joy of understanding a text:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

But what is the purpose of the tzitzit? Our portion tells us that we should “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.”

We all have lustful urges, the kinds of urges that get us into trouble, big and small.

The basic concept of Jewish practice, explained in its simplest terms is this: if you make a practice of curbing those urges through small observances, it will help you stay on the path of what’s right and good.

The whole process is hard, really hard: our passions swamp us, overtake our brains, and let us get carried away by our emotional response. When that happens, we do stupid things: we ruin relationships and damage lives.

Why do we wear tzitzit, then? To remind us to stay on the right side of the law. To help us train ourselves to do the right thing. To build up a series of good habits that stay with us for a lifetime.

It does not always work, of course; but it is intended to help. “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.”

Why I’m not a free-range parent

May 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I was a child, we would spend entire summers outdoors, roaming the neighborhood. I spent most of that time roller-skating in the park with my best friend. I suspect that the summer before I turned 11, I spent more time wearing roller skates than shoes.

We did not wear helmets, of course, or any of the protective gear that has become normative today. We did not check in with our parents for hours at a time: the rule was that we had to come in when the street lamps came on, just as the sun was setting. We were largely on our own, learning valuable skills through creative play.

It is difficult to avoid a sense of nostalgia when we look at how scheduled our kids’ lives are in comparison.

Some parents suggest that we ought to go back to this model. After all, kids are safer than they have ever been before; the risk of abduction is absurdly low; we ought to let them walk themselves to the park now and then.

However, we are forgetting two things whenever we argue that kids should be allowed to range free, the way they did in the 70s and 80s.

First, we are forgetting that there was a social network in place if (and when) something bad happened.

If one of us fell while roller-skating and started bleeding, we would go to the nearest house, walk in unannounced (no need to knock) and ask the parent home to help us. That parent would promptly go into triage mode: call 911? Go straight to the emergency room? Call the kid’s parents? Hand out a bandage and a popsicle?

In those years, there was always a parent home when school was out.

By way of comparison, some years ago I fell in my suburban neighborhood one afternoon while taking a walk. I had to hobble home on a torn-up ankle, completely unaided, because I did not know anyone who could help me. My friends and neighbors were all at work and at that time my family lived half a continent away.

My sense of isolation that day caught me by surprise: since then I have sought out greater community. It’s one of the great gifts of living here.

Second, when we argue for a free-range childhood we are forgetting how often kids got seriously hurt. Kids now wear helmets for good reason. Kids are safer than ever because we have worked to make them safer.

To be sure, every so often you will see internet posts about how ‘we sat in the front seat without seatbelts and drank water from the hose and we all turned out just fine.’ These memes are a revolt against the safety-mindedness that pervades modern parenting.

But every time I see one of those posts, I am reminded of another experience in my childhood. In my teen years, I went to a neighborhood pool every day to swim and flirt.

Our favorite activity there involved the heavy metal grate at the bottom of the pool. We would swim to the bottom, pick up the grate, and swim with it to the surface. We would then let it pull us back down again.

One of the kids there was a practical joker, always laughing. One time he floated to the bottom with the grate and then started to struggle with it. We all assumed that he was joking. Until, of course, too much time had passed. His arm was caught in the recovery pump.

He never resurfaced.

Every bicycle helmet, every warning sticker, every safety notice that you see represents an afternoon that came to an abrupt halt, a childhood interrupted, a grieving family.

It is a truism that kids need unscheduled time to learn how the world works on their own terms. I do think that we should make it a priority to give kids that kind of freedom.

That does not mean, however, that they should be left unsupervised.

In other words: the issue is not ‘should kids be allowed to walk to the park by themselves?’ but rather, ‘what do we do to create community, so that it is safe for kids to walk by themselves?’

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about how Moses sets up a master layout for the tribes, so that they camp in the same formation every time they reassemble. Judah is camped on the east side, and next to them is Issachar – and so on. This account might be read as one of the duller details in the long process of instilling law and order in the Israelite camp.

But it could also be read in terms of community.

It may or may not be his intention, but by putting the same family units side-by-side each time, Moses is creating a structure that allows kids to roam freely.

Kids grow strong and independent when they know someone is there for them, regardless of where they are. Parents have an easier time raising kids when they can share the twin burdens of supervision and correction with other parents, especially with parents they know and trust.

To do that, however, it is necessary for families to come into regular contact, in the context of a shared community.

That’s why I think that the congregation is so important for families.

At the year-end picnic for the Rabin Religious School, it was wonderful to see how the kids were able to play independently without having an adult organizing them. That’s one of the signs of a healthy community.

One of my goals for the year to come, and the years that follow, is to expand that sense of community, so that the kids feel that same sense of ease in the sanctuary and in the social hall.

I think that we ought to continue to work toward the good of the greater community as well: to make the effort to know our neighbors, to vote in school elections, to be involved, to make sure that parks are clean and neighborhoods are safe and kids have a place to roam.

In my view, what is best for our kids is best for us all.

How to be heard

April 10, 2015 § 1 Comment

When something is wrong, it is our nature to complain.

And, really, there is something positive about that: noticing what’s not quite right is what allows us to make continuous improvements.

Trying to suppress complaining, in fact, feels unnecessarily restrictive. Should I not notice when something is wrong? Should I not try to set it right? Should I be satisfied with my lot, even when there is something that could be done to set matters straight?

Of course not.

To the contrary: in the right circumstances, the act of complaining can be a very positive thing to do. It is what allows us to make things better.

But not all kinds of complaining are helpful. What doesn’t help? It’s the kind of complaining that focuses on tearing down rather than building up; the kind of complaining that creates a self-defeating cycle of negativity; the kind of complaining that reinforces a doom-and-gloom view of the world. We can’t do that. It won’t work. That’s a terrible idea. No one will come. And so on.

So, if you find that you’re stuck with a group that likes to focus on the negative, what can you do to counteract it?

Happily, there are three steps that you can take.

First: any time a person says something negative, add something positive. It doesn’t matter whether the negative came from your mouth or someone else’s – a negative comment should be paired with a positive comment. Just one positive comment is enough to break the cycle.

For example, a negative comment like ‘this soup is too cold’ might be paired with the positive observation, ‘its broth is very tasty.’ You don’t have to pretend that the soup is warm – rather, you are finding what is both true and positive in this situation.

Actually, it just takes one positive to break the cycle. You can be a force for good within your cycle of friends and family if you just focus on saying something positive. You would be surprised at how transformative that small shift in behavior can be.

In fact, there’s a trick that really effective managers use when they need to give constructive criticism. They do so as part of a ‘feedback sandwich.’ A feedback sandwich is when you sandwich a negative comment between two positive comments.

So, let’s go back to our soup example. Let’s say that you are in charge and you want to let the person who made the soup know that changes are needed with regard to the temperature of the soup. You could go to that person and say, ‘the soup is too cold.’ But that is not the most effective management strategy. It would be better to say, ‘This is really good food. The soup is too cold, but the broth is very tasty.’

People hate to be scolded, so it really helps to acknowledge the positives along with the negative. Hearing a balanced view makes it easier to respond without getting defensive or angry. Instead of hearing ‘you’re an absolute failure at soup-making,’ the soup-maker hears, ‘you made a good soup, but there’s a problem with the temperature.’

Which brings us to the second step: when making these kinds of comments, your audience matters quite a bit. Are you speaking to the person who is directly responsible for managing this particular state of affairs? Or are you merely stating the negatives to anyone who happens to be nearby?

In the first case, you are helping improve the situation. In the second case, you are actually part of the problem.

The only way that improvements can be made is if the powers that be know what needs to be done. So, don’t complain to anyone who will listen; instead, go through the chain of command.

In the congregational setting, for example, the best persons to seek out if you have a comment or complaint are the committee chairs or the congregational president. Complaining to other members, to your friends, or to visitors will not help; that is merely gossip.

Third, make sure that your timing is appropriate. Complaining to someone when they are in the midst of their business is unhelpful. It makes them less effective in their work. Let them finish what they are doing and then talk to them.

If you want to be heard, think about when is the best time to speak.

It’s difficult to get these things right, of course. If, in a moment of self-reflection, you may realize that you’ve been a part of the problem. If that’s the case, take heart: Even Moses struggles with this issue.

Let me give you an example, drawn directly from this week’s Torah portion: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu make a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

In response, Moses speaks at some length to the remaining priests about the proper procedures to follow.

Shortly thereafter, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task. This time, he really lays into them, yelling at them as they are in the midst of the offering.

The first time around, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ critique. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things.

That is to say, Moses was right to bring up his critique, but he should have done three things differently.

First, he should have included positive words alongside his negative comments. He should have said something like ‘I see that you are handling the fire-pans correctly, but we are still having a problem with the timing of the offering. I really appreciate that you took my earlier words to heart, so I am sure we can get this worked out.’

Second, he should have brought the matter to Aaron, rather than laying into the two sons just as they were in the midst of the offering. Aaron is responsible for the actions of the priests. That’s why he’s the one to respond to Moses. As a matter of respect, Aaron should not have heard about it second-hand.

Third, Moses should have waited to speak about the timing of the offering until after Aaron had time to grieve. It really wasn’t that urgent.

Moses is a mensch, of course, and he realizes that he is in the wrong. As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

This narrative is an excellent example of Moses’ humility, for it demonstrates that he will admit when he is wrong and set the matter straight. It’s okay to make a mistake if you apologize and learn from it.

And we can all learn from Moses’ mistake. If you have a comment or complaint, be sure to follow these three steps: (1) say something positive along with the negative; (2) go through the chain of command; and (3) find an appropriate time to speak.

And, if you discover that you have engaged in improper critique, then what? Do as Moses does: go back and apologize. In my experience, the healthiest, happiest relationships are built on humility, honesty, and praise.

The prism

March 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

It is a common assumption that Orthodoxy is the oldest movement and that Reform Judaism is necessarily a recent invention. But it turns out that the reverse is true. Reform is the oldest of the movements, dating back to the middle of the 1800’s in Germany, and orthodoxy is a reaction to it.

Let me explain. In the middle ages, the members of the Jewish community were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were part of a community that was tolerated by the prince or local noble; that community had a charter that gave it permission to stay. The charter often specified how many Jews could live there, so if the number was exceeded it was necessary for some to move.

Emancipation for the Jews came as a result of Enlightenment thinking. The first country to grant Jews full citizenship and full voting rights was the United States: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal…” That meant that Jews were equal as well. The fact that they had to state these truths in the first place indicates that they were not self-evident at the time. This statement represents revolutionary thinking.

At any rate, as Jews were gaining emancipation in Europe, there arose an intense discussion as to whether Jews should be considered equal. The Jewish religion was considered to be backward and superstitious by many ‘enlightened’ Europeans.

It was in this environment that religious reform began. And it started with the congregants, not the rabbis. Israel Jacobson, a prominent philanthropist, was an early leader in the movement to make changes in worship. He sought to revise the prayer book to remove elements that were archaic, lengthy, or repetitive.

What these early reformers wanted is more decorum, in line with European cultural values. Traditional Jewish worship has involved a lot of individual movement and pacing, whereas the reformers were seeking something more akin to the norms of Europe, such as singing in unison, reading from the same page, and listening to a sermon.

Thereafter came the scholarly phase, starting in 1840: this was the era of the scholar-rabbi with a PhD. The prayer book revisions that take place in this period reflect scholarly considerations. They removed references to bodily resurrection, removed nationalistic views of messianism, and removed the Kol Nidre. They also started counting women in the minyan, the quorum of ten Jews needed for prayer.

This generation of reform Jews would proactively change the law if, in their view, ethics demanded it: a persistent problem with divorce under traditional Jewish law is that a man can hold a woman hostage by refusing to grant her divorce. This has become an issue in Israel, where there are no civil courts for divorce. So long as she is not divorced, the woman is thus unable to remarry, and if she abandons the marriage she can lose her ketuba amount – which is the basis of her claims for child support and alimony.

The Reform movement, on the other hand, already addressed the problem of the agunah back in the 1800s and abolished the practice of giving the men greater power in divorce proceedings.

The Conservative movement was the next movement to form: the reformers gathered in Breslau in 1846 to discuss the creation of a common prayer book; Zecharias Frankel walked out of the conference, angry at the growing interest in replacing Hebrew prayers with the vernacular.

Orthodoxy, called then neo-orthodoxy, was a reaction to these two movements; it has always featured a pronounced tendency to oppose changes of any kind. That opposition to change included clothing fashions: for many of the ultra-orthodox communities, the men’s Shabbat outfits worn today were the latest fashion for Polish noblemen in the middle of the 19th century.

In other words, this resistance to change is itself a change: prior to the Emancipation, when the communities did not offer the range of ideological choices that are available today, the practice of Judaism did in fact change over time. You know this point intuitively: if things didn’t ever change, then we would all still dress like the Bedouin nomads of the desert.

So what happened? Why do we think of orthodoxy as the most direct continuation of the pre-Enlightenment Judaism?

The best way to visualize what happened is to think of a prism: prior to the Emancipation, the Jewish community was like the white light – the community looks absolutely uniform to an outside observer. The experience of Emancipation created the same effect as white light shining on a prism: all of a sudden, the white light splits into a multitude of colors.

If you were to ask: which of these colors is the purist, most authentic continuation of the white light, the answer would be: all of them, together. Any one color by itself is only a part of the whole.

We are one family, of course. We have much in common across the various movements – we read the same texts and celebrate the same holidays. And every one of these colors of Judaism is necessary and right. Even so, we filter those through our various lenses. Take, for example, the passage we read in our Torah portion today:

“These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do: On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.”

This passage occurs in the midst of the description of building the tabernacle; the Israelites were instructed to stop working on the tabernacle on Shabbat because Shabbat takes precedence. Consequently, the list of prohibited activities on Shabbat is in fact derived from the list of activities that went into building the tabernacle.

So let’s talk for a moment about the prohibition against lighting a fire. In the halakhic movements, this statement is taken to mean that (among other things) you may not use a combustion engine, such as is usually found in your automobile.

This particular commandment can come into conflict with another commandment: the saving of a life. If a person’s life is at stake, then it is possible to transgress other commandments, such as kindling a fire on Shabbat.

What this means, in the ultra-orthodox circles, is that you can use your car to drive someone to the hospital if you must, but you may not park it or turn it off. You are supposed to pull up in front of the emergency doors and abandon it, still running – the actions of parking it and turning it off are not necessary for saving a life.

For some of the orthodox – particularly for some of the mystical branches – this is indeed a life-or-death question: you are courting death and destruction if you transgress the commandments. ‘You should observe these laws so that you may live.’

For the Conservative movement, it’s clear that you should use your car to take someone to the hospital. And it’s not necessary to abandon it, still running, in front of the emergency room. That’s not an urgent consideration for them.

Rather, a different question comes up: is it okay to use your car to drive to the congregation, to attend Shabbat services? Not everyone lives within walking distance to the congregation, so a car makes it possible to fulfill that aspect of community engagement.

Their official position is ‘no’ – though you will see some cars in their parking lots on a Saturday morning. It’s not an absolute. Their rabbis, however, usually walk.

The Reform movement, on the other hand, does not take these prohibitions literally. We believe that our culture has evolved over time, and was not handed down from on high. For this reason, the prohibitions are not, in our movement’s self-understanding, a life-or-death question. We’re not strict. And that’s why I’ll use my car on Shabbat. What I will do, however, is interpret Shabbat as a time for family and rest: my usual practice for Shabbat morning whenever we don’t have morning services scheduled is to remain in my pajamas until about 2:00 pm, read all the magazines in the house, take a nap, and then have a cozy dinner with my family.

Shabbat Shalom.


January 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

What does it mean to be redeemed?

The Israelites cross the Reed Sea on dry land after Moses lifts his hands at God’s command. After they have safely crossed, the waters fall back down again and drown the Egyptians who pursue them. On the other side of the water, they are much relieved; they sing a song of redemption: Mi chamochah. Who is like you, God, among the gods that are worshipped?

What does it mean to be redeemed?

We see, in the text, that almost immediately they begin to complain:

“Then Moses caused Israel to set out from the Sea of Reeds. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why it was named Marah. And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ So he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.”

Three days. Only three days pass before they begin to complain. They have witnessed a redemption at the Reed Sea that is so inconceivable that even Moses hesitated at first. They have been accompanied by a visible sign of God’s presence from the beginning, and have just escaped a four-hundred year oppression by the world’s greatest superpower.
Three days later, they are complaining.

What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave in such fashion?

I think that some of the answer has to do with survivor guilt. It is the guilt that they have escaped, that they are alive, that they are given this great opportunity. After centuries of oppression and servitude, it is unlikely that any of them would have left Egypt with a healthy sense of self. Instead, the narrative in one’s head is closer to: ‘why should I be so lucky? I am no better than those who have died.’

The hardest part of redemption is learning to think of yourself as worthy of it.
As the commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes, “This sidra portrays the character of the ‘generation of the wilderness’. We are able to watch, for the first time, the reactions of the children of Israel suddenly redeemed from two centuries of persecution and slavery.”

And, as we discover, it is very difficult to leave that mentality behind.

It is very hard for them to see themselves in a different light, to fundamentally believe that they are worthy of receiving the kind of attention and care that is being lavished on them. If, for your entire life, your needs did not matter, then how do you understand this extraordinary redemption? And, if all of your life, the only needs of yours that mattered were the basics of nutrition, would you not focus on these very same basics?

So, not surprisingly, they do not react well. As Leibowitz continues, “what do we see? – timidity, skepticism, twisted thinking – the residue of hundreds of years of bondage and exile.”

To illustrate her point, Leibowitz focuses on the opening lines of our portion:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.”

Instead of taking the direct route, they will spend a fully generation in the wilderness. Why is this detour necessary?

According to Leibowitz, there are several possibilities suggested in the commentaries. For example, “Rashbam [otherwise known as Samuel ben Meir, the grandson of the famous commentator Rashi] explains that God diverted them from the short route, since they would be immediately plunged into the hostilities with the Canaanites in the attempt to conquer the land and would prefer to return to Egypt.”

It would appear that they needed some time to catch their breath, so to speak. Better to regroup in the wilderness than face a war right after this initial redemption.

She offers another possibility: “Rambam [also known as Maimonides]… in his Guide for the Perplexed offers a rather different explanation.” According to Rambam, “Divine Providence wished to accustom them to hardship in order to toughen them for the fight to conquer the Promised Land.” In other words, the detour was not just to catch their breath. “Had they immediately been confronted with the task of conquest,” she writes, “after their sudden redemption, they would not have been capable of undertaking it. Man cannot suddenly be freed from persecution and slavery and then be expected to wash away the sweat and toil and fight against such enemies as the giants who populated Canaan. The tough conditions of the wilderness would serve to harden them, teach them endurance and heroism.”

They would need to learn how to defend themselves, rather than crumpling in a heap before their foe. Learning self-reliance would be a good start.

Similarly, she writes, “Ibn Ezra analyzes the character and morale of the people. It is indeed astonishing, he observes, why such a large body of six hundred thousand men should fear their pursuers. Why did they not immediately turn round and fight for their lives? In his answer, Ibn Ezra points out that the Israelites were psychologically incapable of putting up a fight against those who had been their lords and masters for centuries.” Imagine being a slave and then trying to fight your master after having been afraid of him for so many years. It is not a task easily done.

Yet the slaves did take those first, most difficult steps toward freedom. We should not underestimate how difficult it is to liberate yourself. Leibowitz points out, rightly, how hard it must have been for the Israelites to take that first step out into the desert. As she writes, “beside the pettiness and grumbling we also encounter greatness, intense faith and trust in God.”

For example, in the rabbinic literature we see the following comment: “Rabbi Eliezer said: This reflects great credit on Israel. For when Moses said unto them: ‘Arise and go forth’, they did not say: How can we go forth into the wilderness when we have no sustenance for the way?”

I am reminded here of the testimony of one of the survivors of the concentration camps, relating what it was like to have been redeemed:

“All of a sudden I saw…a strange car coming down the hill, no longer green, not bearing the swastika, but a white star. It was sort of a mud-splattered vehicle but I’ve never seen a star brighter in my life. And two men sort of jumped out, came running toward us and one came toward where I stood. He was wearing battle gear…His helmet was this mesh over that and he was wearing dark glasses and he spoke to me in German. And he said, “Does anyone here speak German or English?” and I said, “I speak German.” And I felt that I had to tell him we are Jewish and I didn’t know if he would know what the star means or anything…I was a little afraid to tell him that but I said to him, ‘We are Jewish, you know.’ He didn’t answer me for quite a while. And then his own voice sort of betrayed his own emotion and he said, ‘So am I.’ I would say it was the greatest hour of my life. And then he asked an incredible question. He said, ‘May I see the other ladies?’ You know…[to think of how] we have been addressed for six years and then to hear this man. He looked to me like a young god. I have to tell you I weighed 68 pounds. My hair was white. And you can imagine, I hadn’t had a bath in years. And this creature asked for ‘the other ladies.’ And I told him that most of the girls were inside, you know. They were too ill to walk, and he said, ‘Won’t you come with me?’ And, I said, ‘Sure.’ But I didn’t know what he meant. He held the door open for me and let me precede him and that gesture restored me to humanity. And that young American today is my husband.”

In a sense, their grumblings are an expression of their faith in God and their trust in Moses: we followed you into the wilderness because we knew that you would take care of us. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why their requests – multiple requests! – are answered. It’s true that both Moses and God appear to be irritated with the people when they engage in this behavior. And to us, safe from such deprivation, it might even seem ungrateful. But the grumbling receives a response nonetheless, because they are right; they do merit food and drink. They are worthy of sustenance. And for that reason, in this portion alone, they receive water at Marah; in the wilderness of Sin they receive quail and manna; and finally, water again at Rephidim.

Eventually this people will learn self-reliance; eventually this people will no longer look to Moses and God to provide for them. But at this moment of redemption, to merely speak their needs – whether as a request or a demand – is to acknowledge that they are worthy of being cared for. And, for someone who has just been redeemed, that is the hardest step of them all.


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