We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
We start the annual cycle of reading and studying Torah once again this week! So, what is the Torah when you zoom out and think about it as a whole, and not just story by story or teaching by teaching?
The new episode is published!!! Listen and read the show notes here!
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
These were my words at services on Shabbat morning.
I may have been the last adult in New York City to be aware that the attack on the World Trade Center towers had occurred. Laurie went to work in midtown, and I was home with two-and-a-half-year-old Alex getting ready for an upcoming trip to my parents, both to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday and to lead Rosh Hashanah services at our family’s small congregation. Alex and I were sitting in his room going through his long sleeve shirts from the previous winter to find something warm enough to take. At some point we were going to go out to Forest Hills High School and vote in the primary for Mayor Giuliani’s successor. The phone rang a few times in the other room, more than usual for a morning, but we were busy and I ignored it.
Around 11 the phone rang again and so I picked it up. It was Laurie, calling from her office in Midtown, and she said something like, “Did you hear what happened? It’s the biggest terrorist attack ever.” I assumed she meant some horrible thing happened in Israel; that’s what terrorism meant to me. But she told me the World Trade Center towers were gone.
With the two-year-old I didn’t want to be watching this on TV, so I waited for a minute when Alex was out of the den so I could turn it on. There was a view from a camera on top of the one of the TV stations, showing the smoke. Alex came into the room and said, “Helicopter” – and immediately I turned it off. My sister Ellen was also working in Manhattan, and after another call or two I knew they’d just have to walk home to Queens, for Laurie an eight-mile walk. I reached as much of our family as I could to tell them we were safe, and at some point it was hard to get a cell signal; the frequencies were taken over for security needs. Alex and I walked through the neighborhood to pass the time. It was a beautiful day, with F-16s flying across the sky.
A few days later we decided to fly to Minnesota – making the decision it was safe, very aware we were making a life-and-death decision for our toddler. At La Guardia, one of the military people at the security scanners confiscated the tiny nail clipper from our carry-on. We all knew the hijackers had gotten unlikely sharp weapons onto the plane and I felt a bit embarrassed for bringing one and tying up the soldier. Leaving New York seemed so strange – going away from what seemed like the only place anything was happening in the world, where God’s eyes even seemed to be riveted. It felt too like breaking faith. It was so quiet in St. Paul on a weekday afternoon. One of the first things I did when I got settled at my parents was to call the local mosque even though I didn’t know anyone there, to leave them a message of friendship on behalf of the Jewish community.
There are so many spiritual imperatives every 9/11 and especially on an anniversary of significance like this one twenty years later. First and foremost is to remember and honor those who were murdered.
The second to last name alphabetically on the 9/11 memorial is Andrew Steven Zucker. I didn’t realize I knew anyone in the towers until at some point the New York Times published their exhaustive list with photos. I saw his name and a familiar face. For one year Andrew was “Coach Zuck” at the Solomon Schechter school where I worked. He was in his late 20s, and he was the first young, big coach-y looking coach we had. Other than passing hellos, I think I only really talked to him when I had to tell him that one of my Jewish programs would be interfering with one of his practices. I learned since that he was a law associate at Harris Beach, on the 85th floor of the South Tower, and that seven people said he helped them escape down the stairs and saved their lives. He davened every morning before work there. A Torah scroll was written in his memory at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and it was read for the first time on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Monday morning minyan. May Andrew’s memory, and the memory of all who were murdered that day or who died as a result of the day be a blessing.
The second spiritual imperative is to call this what it was: a mass murder and an act of pure evil. Evilhas to be part of our vocabulary. Enemies has to be part of our vocabulary. We have prayed this morning already that we overcome evil -- our own for sure, and that evil in the world be destroyed beyond even our own ability to destroy it. We pray for safety from our enemies. We don’t like to apply words like evil and enemy too specifically; we distance ourselves from these words even as we say them in Hebrew. Yet the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon and who tried to fly Flight 93 into Washington were enemies of America, enemies of Jews, enemies of freedom and universal human dignity. Enemies of equality for women. They attacked and murdered innocent people, deliberately and with forethought and with satisfaction.
We should not be distracted from this by any reflection or regret we properly have over what followed, the wrongs of our own decisions and our own wars that went wrong and took many innocent lives.
The attackers chose deliberately not only to kill indiscriminately, but to attack centers of government, military, and finance. They attacked the things many Americans had come to lack confidence in, to make it harder for us to stand up for ourselves and see ourselves clearly. They dared us to look in the mirror. But our freedom, our strength, and our prosperity are so much more than any flaws in them. They are worth defending and strengthening and perfecting. They are a tremendous gift in the history of the world.
We have to look straight into the reality that small, disciplined groups can magnify evil and harm and death. There are parts of the human world beyond bargaining and incentives and change. We cannot strengthen what is good without acknowledging this.
The third spiritual imperative is awe at the goodness that sprang into action immediately. The Andrew Zuckers. The first responders who went back into buildings to look for more people to save, knowing very well they might not survive, as many did not. The people who retook Flight 93 and saved so many lives at the cost of their own. I remember the evening of 9/11 how the site of the Twin Towers had become a well-organized place for rescue and cleanup. In the face of the unthinkable, people did not miss a beat around their responsibilities, even as they improvised. There could have been chaos and pandemonium, or at the very least paralysis. Instead there was determined work to seek anyone who might still be alive.
We came to know stories like Gander, Newfoundland, where international flights back to the U.S. were diverted and a small town took care of strangers even in their homes – it’s the subject of the amazing musical “Come From Away.” President Bush came to the side of Muslims in our country to warn us against blaming the wrong people.
I had always been a reluctant New Yorker, living there because of rabbinical school and staying because of Laurie’s work and my own opportunities. The last five years we lived there, the rough city seemed transformed, toward a graciousness and helpfulness that hadn’t been there in the same measure. At least that was my experience.
We have to view this part of the story and the evil together, and think very hard about what it means. Margaret Mead said famously, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Nineteen hijackers committed mass murder. Twice a minyan, not even, that’s all. It is easier to destroy than to build. How many multiples of nineteen are there committed to good on an equal scale, on a lifesaving scale, a Gander, Newfoundland scale?
So the fourth spiritual imperative is to take responsibility for how we have responded as a nation and as Jews over the twenty years since. The instincts to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East were good, even though motives are always mixed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not looking down on people in a part of the world so unfamiliar to most of us, to the vast majority of Americans and Jews. We believed and still should believe that people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East deserve democracy and are capable of freedom and prosperity. I supported both wars when they started, in Afghanistan and even Iraq. Yet it was clear even to me from very early on that we were not willing to be accountable. For caring about the people in those countries, for bothering to learn about them or build connections with them commensurate with our interference in their world. Some people have done incredible work – some of our military, some of our NGOs -- and they have brought education and health and fierce friendship. As we go forward, leaving behind what we have left behind, we need to consider who is left whom we still owe.
And we still have an obligation to learn more about the Muslim world and about Islam itself. I said this ten years ago on this anniversary, and while I have learned more, it’s certainly not ten years worth of more. We all, myself surely included, let our leaders and elected representatives let themselves off the hook in terms of oversight and engagement. But at least we can learn and connect here in our local community. In fits and starts, some of us have tried to connect to the local mosque from the shul and through the Interfaith Council. Yesterday, Jeff (our Board president) and I sent a message of friendship to the Islamic Society of Greater Nashua, for day when surely it is more difficult than usual to be a Muslim in America.
We have drawn some wrong lessons from the aftermath of the two wars, and the collateral effects in Syria and other places. It’s becoming easier in the past twenty years to give up on the societies of the Middle East and to see the Palestinians in particular as fundamentally interwoven with terror. Yes, American power cannot do everything, and the destiny of faraway lands is not up to us primarily. But we have many powers and things to offer. And again our conviction that all people deserve freedom, that women’s rights and girls’ education are not only for some in this world -- those convictions are still right and we cannot run away from them.
There are people standing up to the Taliban, and people still learning how to do good work in Afghanistan. We owe them. I think the people who were architects of our bad decisions and those who supported them like me have a special obligation. I read the reflections of nearly twenty key American government and military leaders from the post-9/11 period in Politico the other day on what we did wrong, and truthfully what sickened me more than the mistakes they acknowledged was how many of them are now making their living as lobbyists and in the 1% sector, and how few are in public service and academia. They have run away from debts they still owe.
And my fifth spiritual imperative is for any of us who identify as religious people of any faith, to be a Kiddush Hashem, to do honor publicly to the Divine Name in what we do and what we say. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote about this in the days following 9/11. The hijackers are in a long line of mass murderers claiming divine sanction. They weaken the ability of any faith to be seen as a positive force and not a divisive one. To be religious and to identify publicly as religious after 9/11, we have to be far from even the first cousins, even the second cousins of the attackers and their ideology, in our own faiths. We need to publicly repudiate our own Kahanists – our Muslim-haters, our Arab-haters, our Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs.
So a lot of spiritual imperatives, not just one or two, on this anniversary. I remember that first Rosh Hashanah trying to find words in my small pulpit, thinking what a burden President Bush had taken on by declaring war on evil itself. How fortunate we were to have a place and a haven of time a week after the attacks -- to gather together, to take time out to think about good and evil, to humble ourselves about what we can do and briefly trust the work of fighting all evil back to God. Just for a couple days. So it’s fitting that we are remembering and reflecting now during the ten days of teshuvah. What will we learn, how will we change, how will we honor those who died on 9/11 and in everything that flowed from that day? The answers are not easy, but they will flow as everything does from love. Love of those whose memory is precious; love of the American ideals that made the attacks hurt even more; love of each other in this gathering today and in this country; love of those who responses over the past twenty years have uplifted and inspired us. May we find our way in teshuvah, through all of that love.
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
Posted at 08:45 AM in Calendar, Education, Elul, Ethics, Foregiveness, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Spirituality, Study, Talmud, Teacher-Student Relationship, Television, Teshuvah, Torah, Yamim Noraim, Yom Kippur, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
Posted at 11:06 AM in Calendar, Education, Ethics, Foregiveness, Gossip, Harry Potter, High Holidays, Holidays, Hope, Jewish Education, Lashon Hara, Leadership, Middot, Rosh Hashanah, Soul, Study, Talmud, Television, Teshuvah, Tikkun Olam, Tzedakah, Web/Tech, Weblogs, Yamim Noraim, Young Jewish Adult, Youth | Permalink | Comments (0)
I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.
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This is the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, July 17, Shabbat Chazon -- the Shabbat preceding the fast of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Romans.
I want to tell you a story from the Talmud often taught at this time of year, around the fast of Tisha B’Av. But first I want you to take a minute and think about the Jewish person who is most unlike you as a Jew. The Jew or the Jewish group you find it hard to admire, or who is hardest for you to feel connected to as a fellow Jew.
Here is the story (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b):
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The servant went and brought Bar Kamtza.
When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
Said the host: “Absolutely not.”
“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”
The host refused.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamtza, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.”
He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
Said the emperor, “How can I know that this is true?”
“Send them an offering,” said Bar Kamtza, “and see whether they will offer it on the altar.”
So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip (or some say, on the white of its eye)—in a place where we Jews count it a blemish but they Romans do not.
The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
This story from the Talmud is retold often around Tisha B’Av, part of the idea that the Second Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among Jews, sin’at chinam.
There is a lot here in the story and I’m not going to give you a complete analysis. But a few things stand out particularly to me this year:
The last issue is particularly worth our attention, always and especially this year. Jews argue and Jews don’t all get along always. Conflict is built into Torah and Talmud, and into Jewish culture. The good version of this is called machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement and even division for the sake of Heaven. It goes hand in hand with Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people and love of Jews generally, beyond one’s own community and the Jews at your own Shabbes table or your own synagogue.
I do think what happened here is that a Jewish fight got turned into a Roman one, and the rabbis stood there and let it happen. They didn’t ask what Jewish ethics had to say about these two people in an uncomfortable situation, who maybe were enemies for a good reason. The rabbis got stuck on technical rituals questions and didn’t see the bigger human picture. So the Talmud here doesn’t blame the destruction of the Temple on the Romans; or on Bar Kamtza, the Jew who sold out Jews to the Romans; but on the rabbis who could have turned this around.
Bar Kamtza didn’t act well but we understand he was hurt. The rabbis didn’t act well because they didn’t put ritual and relationships together. And they got so focused on Bar Kamtza that they forget the Romans were a much worse enemy, a much bigger issue. The rabbis and Kamtza and bar Kamtza could have all gotten on the same side of that.
I’m very much feeling like our Jewish community’s conflicts today are being Romanized, so to speak. Americanized. And this story and the Tisha B’Av fast day are reminders to deal with our conflicts Jewishly. Ahavat Yisrael for me has always been about forcing myself to ask: Who is the Jew who is least like me, whom I have the hardest time feeling connected to. Then looking for a connection of friendship or admiration with someone in such a group. For me it’s a nice long list of Jews different from me who are hard for me. It’s charedi Jews, and West Bank settlers, and completely secular you-can’t- possibly-lure-me-into-shul-no-matter-how-good-the-music-or-food-or-your-sermon. I have to work at that. That’s not what modern day Romans do. Rather than get sucked in more to American-style conflict, I can find ways to love and connect that don’t sell out my integrity. I might even find something that my own Bar Kamtza and I both care about, a moral issue that we can work on together.
There is a tremendous example of Ahavat Yisrael that took place recently, from the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. The speech he gave in the Knesset introducing the leaders in his new government was a like mashup of announcing the starting lineup for the Celtics at the Garden and a book club summary of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.
Prime Minister Bennett presented by name, with affection, the leader of each party in his government and the specific good each one was going to work on for Israel. More of these partners than not are ideologically opposed to him in some profound way. I know this was politics, but he turned a moment of just enough votes in the Knesset to an expansive and generous and forward-looking, hopeful moment. It went even beyond Jews, as the new prime minister even gave a shout out for Mansour Abbas of the Arab Ra’am party.
Bennett did this while the country was hardly out of war with Gaza and just beyond fighting in the streets between Jews and Arabs. He did this with all the emotion in the air around former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he did this while death threats were being made members of his political party and the new government. I would say you should read the speech, but it’s not soaring, it’s not a great read. It’s just the fact of it. Prime Minister Bennett found a way for Kamtza and Bar Kamtza to fight the Romans instead of each other. And the Romans are worth fighting together even if you’re not going to be actually friends. In my proudest, Jewish-egotistical way I would say only a Jew could have pulled this off.
So we might all learn from that. We should try to find a way to say something true and sincere and generous about Jews we’re not like. And as part of that, we have to love ourselves as Jews – you for your own Jewish life, us for our shul’s Jewish life. We have to do better at making sure that there are many good and admirable things that a Jew so different would say about us.
There is a cost to Ahavat Yisrael, to putting this much value on loving all other Jews. Whenever you set aside even for a minute an ideological debate, you are putting on hold a belief you hold because other people’s wellbeing depends on that core belief. There’s a cost, no doubt.
But Ahavat Yisrael is a model not for when to give up our principles, but for how to enlarge our world. For saying: there’s a person unlike me who isn’t only my opponent, who isn’t all the timeworking against what’s important to me, and who I hate to say might be a role model for me in some way.
When I think of the charedi community or the settlements, I know there’s a tight-knit quality and a commitment to taking care of each other that I want more of in our community and that I want to imitate. When I think of the most secular Jews I know, I often find an honesty, a straightforward path toward moral commitments, that I want to work at more.
We Jews have more history than anyone of suffering because of our divisions -- losing life and losing our land and losing each other. We also have more history than anyone of enduringbecause we figured out how to be divided. We are resilient because we’ve learned to be at the same party, as Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Our divisions have not destroyed us; sometimes they have helped us grow. I know my own Judaism is stronger because of the Orthodoxy I reject in my own life, because of the Reform I reject in my own life, because of the Israeliness I chose not to pursue in my own life.
Who knows if this is the gift we’re supposed to find for our time. To find our Ahavat Yisrael, our love of Jews, and machloket l’shem shamayim, division focused around things that matter. Who knows, we could spread this out to the Romans, to the Americans. At least we can try not to be swept up on other people’s terms in the divisiveness of the moment.
So as we go into Tisha B’av, let’s each think about the Jew who pushes our buttons, whether that’s here locally or anywhere in the Jewish world. Find something to admire or like or chuckle about. Find an idea from them that challenges you in a good way, and be thankful and gracious. Imagine a party we can all be at together -- or at least a Kiddush after services.
These were my words of Torah at the start of Temple Beth Abraham's annual congregational meeting on June 15, 2021. Though they refer specifically to that occasion in places, I think the Torah here is apt for all of us as we reflect on the past fifteen months and the transitions we in, each in our own way. I shared a version of this as a Shabbat D'var Torah the prior weekend.
It was taught among our early rabbis:
Rabban Gamliel said:
One time I was going on a ship, and I saw another ship broken apart
And I was in pain because of a brilliant sage who was on it
– and who was it: Rabbi Akiva.
But when I went up onto dry land, he sat and discussed in front of me a matter of Jewish law, halacha.
I said to him: My son, who lifted you up from the sea?
He said to me: a plank [from a ship] happened to come to me, and every single wave that came over me, I nodded my head toward it.
This story from the Talmud is a Jewish version and elaboration of the saying that we’re not all the same boat but we are all in the same storm.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Akiva experience a storm in very different ways. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship that was safe, even though it was tossed around, seeing other ships that are wrecked, and knowing some people have been lost, and some Torah in particular gone.
Rabbi Akiva was thrown from his ship, and the way he sees it, it’s only by fortune that he finds a plank to hold on to. He says that he nodded his head toward each wave as it came. Some interpret this to mean that he lowered his head, so the wave wouldn’t throw him off his board. Some say he nodded, to acknowledge the wave and its power much greater than any he had – a power to harm him or to bring him ultimately to the shore.
Rabban Gamliel is the one who tells the story. Rabbi Akiva, he says, starts discussing points of Jewish law, which is presumably what the two of them used to do on dry land before. But Rabban Gamliel stops him, and asks to hear his story. I think Rabban Gamliel was worried about his friend and student. Because Rabbi Akiva hadn’t been one just to sit and discuss the rules on their surface. He had been one of the most creative sages, an activist, a spiritual master -- and Rabban Gamliel fears that Akiva is not all there.
It’s a hard thing to ask after a storm, when someone seems to want to go back to business as before and pick up what you used to do together. It’s hard because when Gamliel says who saved you, Akiva says: It’s not a who. I got lucky. This plank came. He doesn’t say whether he thinks it was God. He tells a story of having to bow his head low and relives that.
There might be some resentment between the two rabbis, let’s be honest. Why did you have an easier time through the storm? Why did you worry about me and my ship from afar and not come by to help lift me up?
And yet Rabban Gamliel gets Rabbi Akiva to make a kind of Freudian slip in Hebrew. Akiva calls the plank of the broken ship a daf, which also means a page. A page in a book, a book of Torah, a folio of Talmud; a page in the story of a life; a page of our history together as Jews. A page came to me and saved me, and from that page I could turn toward the enormous wave and nod. Rabban Gamliel helps Rabbi Akiva perhaps begin to see that the story of the storm is not the only story. It’s not even the only storm. It’s certainly not the only trial in Akiva’s life, this Rabban Gamliel knows, and together perhaps they can start to tell a story of how each in their way arrived at the shore, and where that story fits into the dapim, the pages and planks that build the story of both their lives, and of their common life.
We have all been in a storm, and I’ll speak for myself, some days I feel like I’m walking onto the shore and other days I feel like I am still in the storm. I talk to people among you each day, who report being on a ship or a plank or on the shore. From the ship I have been fortunate to be on – a ship of my own family, a ship of community and colleagueship among local pastors and national rabbis – I have seen other ships broken apart, and not all of those ships left planks for people to hold onto. We in our Temple community have lost – people have died this past year and not only because of the pandemic. We have lost 5 people at least in our congregational families to COVID-19, and about ten percent of our households have had at least one person sick, and at least ten percent of our households have experienced the loss of a job or income since a year ago March. And so many other losses, of stability and friendship and connection and wellbeing.
Our ships and our planks and our pages – what you had, what you found, what you held onto or made into something, what you remembered as a source of hope -- so many of these the past fifteen months. And there have been waves aplenty, not only of disease but around national leadership and equality in our land. I see the waves that Rabbi Akiva nodded at, as representing his realization that in a storm you see what the truly profound forces are, what is deep and powerful. Or maybe you get a glimpse, you feel it – and you talk when you get back to land.
For us as a community, it’s important to realize that people experienced this storm differently, and also that plenty have not reached the shore yet. Let’s be generous with each other – don’t make assumptions, about where someone else is at, whether they are ready to come out or come here or give a handshake or a hug. We will continue to be a hybrid congregation, and work hard at doing that well. There are conversations to have about halacha, about matters of law and behavior; and there are the joys of conversations we so want to resume, with the people here we have missed. But somewhere too is the conversation that Rabban Gamliel invited Rabbi Akiva to have – about what you experienced, what was hard, what you learned, what gives you hope. It’s not healthy to leave those behind. It’s not what Sages do, to skip that entirely – and I look out and see so many wise people here. So I hope we each get the Rabban Gamliel we need, who will listen to our story, and for someone else who was Akiva this year, you might yourself be Gamliel.
The purpose of our community and our institution is to be the ship and the shore, and even the plank and the page, through times that are stormy and God willing less so. Tonight we look at the ship’s sturdy hull and soaring sails, and chart voyages and landfalls that lay ahead. May they be good and safe and joyful, for you and for all of us together.
I'm going to dip my toes into Clubhouse this week, and talk with anyone who shows up about the D'var Torah I promised to complete when I spoke last week. If you're on Clubhouse find my room "Help Me Write My Shabbat Sermon!" Friday at 1pm eastern time. Or feel free to read this and add your comments here.
I want to continue to delve into this passage from the Haggadah:
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said:
Look, I am something like 70 years old -- or, I am as though 70 years old
And I didn't merit to understand -- or, I didn't merit to persuade others that the law should be
That the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night, until Ben Zoma derived it from this verse:
"In order that you shall remember the day of your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life"
"The days of your life" means the days; "All the days of your life" adds the nights.
And the Sages [as a group] say:
"The days of your life" means this world; "All the days of your life" means to bring/to include the days of the Messiah.
So, who was Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in his time, and how old was he really, and what is the difference between seeing the Exodus as a daytime or a nighttime story or memory.... These are literary and philosophical but also very political questions too. Thoughts?
This is the note I sent out to our congregation on Friday, March 26, 2021 as we get ready for Pesach to begin.
I have a short Pesach agenda to share with you below, but first: I realized a couple days ago how much I want Pesach this year to be like Chanukkah.
There's no way, at least for me, that everything meaningful is going to happen in the few hours of the two Seders. Chanukkah is something we anticipate, we prepare for, and it's not over all at once. We come back for something each day; we do something each day.
Actually that's been a theme of the Jewish year of 5781. I wanted to teach you to think not about just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but about the season of Elul and Tishrei. I put out a dozen daily teachings before and after Purim last month.
Truth be told, I've been having trouble planning my Seders this year. This year there's so much to reflect on through the lens of the Exodus story and rituals. So much to teach the next generation. And that's compounded by the disappointment of not being able to have Seders the way I love to yet again, and the complexity of orchestrating the usual conversation around my Seder tables at home and at the synagogue.
What unlocked me, finally, is realizing that Pesach is not just a day or two. The Seders can plant some spiritual spring seeds for each of us to tend and nurture during the whole week of Pesach. Here are my suggestions for the coming week:
1. Whatever you do for Seder this year is what you are supposed to be doing.
Whether you're Zooming, or gathering with a small group safely, or having a quiet meal and reading something meaningful to yourself, it will be special because you're able to do it.
If you'd like some help, our Pesach page is full of resources that literally lead you through a Seder, by audio or video, whether it's for half an hour or a couple of hours.
2. However you mark the Seder, keep in mind the people who are having Seders differently.
In Egypt on the night of the very first Pesach, people were separated into households or maybe ate with one other family. But they knew they were part of a whole nation doing that, and that they would see everyone else in the morning in a great march.
We are a community, and each of us is somewhere different on the long path to physical togetherness. Have other people and groups of us in your awareness, however you yourself are doing the Seder. We will one day march together, hopefully soon.
3. Learn and think this week about some nuance in the original story of the Exodus.
If you haven't done this in a while, take some time during the weekend or the week to read chapters 1-4 and 12 in the book of Exodus, the most important book in history. You will for sure find something that startles you -- about a character, a twist in the narrative, a motivation. You'll wonder why something is told in just this way. So much about our world and our own souls today is revealed in the wording on these verses.
4. Reflect on life during the pandemic in light of the metaphors and symbols of Pesach.
Remember when leavened products were hard to come by a year ago -- flour, pasta, bread? Each of the symbols of the Seder plate and many aspects of the Exodus narrative are a prompt to bore into some aspect of the pandemic experience. All you have to do is pick one of them and ask: how does this relate? How does this help me clarify something important in my life or my ethical philosophy?
5. Think about Exodus and something happening in the world now.
It’s been a remarkable year since last Pesach in terms of our awareness of issues of justice, oppression, freedom, and suffering. Who in the wider nation and world is profoundly in Egypt? Who in the world is most profoundly a Miryam or a Moshe right now?
* * * * *
Pesach is a great gift to us, and through us to our community and the world. The Seder nights whets our appetite with the Exodus story, and the week keeps us chewing on it.
Wishing you a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover festival,