Friday, June 06, 2014

How I Stand With Ruth - A Shavuot Sermon

I heard the term “fake Jew” for the first time at a small Shabbos dinner gathering many years ago.  It was actually a celebratory pot-luck for a friend that had just had her Beit Din and had successfully converted to Judaism.  She had an Israeli boyfriend and had planned to move to Israel with him, but her conversion had been a personal matter that predated this relationship. 

One of the invitees in a quite varied group was an older lady, a born Jew of Sephardic heritage.  She had at one point after the discussion of making Aliya asked my friend about her own parentage.  When my friend responded and then commented that she has just converted, the guest nodded and quipped, “Oh, so you are one of those fake Jews.”

This wasn’t the last time that I have heard this term or some crass variation used.  Sometimes those commenting simply are repeating something that they have unfortunately learned and on which they have never been challenged, others have driven the words into others’ flesh with the intent to draw blood.  Some have no idea the pain and humiliation this epithet brings, others are fully aware and regardless hurl the insult.

Certainly when I first heard this term I did not realize that I would be spending years of my life in communities where such a term and its variations were not only commonplace, but the deeply held and publicly stated belief of the majority of Synagogue members.

Although our tradition indeed shows a great ambivalence towards conversion, ranging from Rabbi Eliezar ben Pedat in Tractate Pesachim who states: “The only reason G-d exiled the Jews among the nations was so that converts could be added” to the contrasting statement in Tractate Yevamot where it is written: “Converts are hard for Israel like a nasty sore,” the fact remains that  halakhah explicitly allows conversion and in our weekly Amidah we praise the “righteous converts” right along the Tzaddikim and the Elders of our communities.  Our tradition is filled with converts that have been significant contributors to the Jewish People and Religion.  One could possibly laugh at the picture of Onkulus, the great and influential translator in Torah into Aramaic, being told by his contemporaries that he should be considered a “fake” Jew.

Yet the conclusion is today inescapable that we have developed a Conversion Wahnsinn – a sort of insanity around that concept of conversion that is disproportionate to the halakhah as well as various praises and critiques of converts in Jewish history.

Perhaps this can be most clearly seen in the events of past years with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel.  Two incredibly disturbing types of events have occurred that should shock anyone with any knowledge of Jewish Law.  The first consists of the retroactive annulment of conversions performed by National Religious rabbis in Israel based on the argument that the converts (sometimes of patrilineal Jews some times of children of Jewish mother’s that could not prove their status due to the reality of the Soviet Union) that had converted often for marriage sake no longer observed the mitzvoth to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate after a divorce and therefore the conversions were invalid.  The second involves rejection of conversions of Orthodox Beitei Din outside of Israel that have not been specifically sanctioned by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel— there are so many problems with this alone it is worthy of another post.  Of course those of us outside of orthodoxy already understand this reality and have no expectations that our conversions will be accepted by “religious authorities” in Israel (also something worthy of another post) but that Orthodox Beitei Din also suffer this, although certainly worth a bit of Schadenfreude, should also be quite a shock.

The idea that there might be “problems” with conversion is not a new idea.  The fact that some might undertake the conversion process with ulterior motives is not a new concern.  Rambam specifically addresses this in the Mishne Torah where he writes (Book 5, Issurei Biah Chapter 13, Halakhah 7):

 “A convert who was not checked after or was not informed of the mitzvot and their associated punishments yet he circumcised and immersed in front of three ordinary people. He is still considered a convert. Even if it is subsequently clarified that he converted out of ulterior motives since he was circumcised and immersed he is no longer considered a gentile, however we still suspect him until his righteousness is proven. Even if he went back and worshipped idols he is considered as a rebellious Jew who performs idolatry whose marriage is considered a marriage.

This is an unambiguous halakhah, completely ignored by the chief rabbinate, that wisely acknowledges the potential of a nasty slippery slope.  In essence, without this halakhah successful converts (i.e. milah when appropriate, tevillah, beit din) would become subject to the whims of the interpretation of practice by a group in power exactly as is now happening.  Rambam even goes as far as to say that when a converted Jew becomes an active apostate the apostasy must be looked at in terms of Jewish law for one with the status of “Jew.” Quite simply and according to this critical halakhah, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and no matter how much we might not like that we must deal with the Jew as opposed to retroactively annulling the status for the sake of expediency or that they do not conform to our definitions of a "good Jew," whatever that really means. 

So how did we get to this point?

As we read the book of Ruth this Shavuot we enjoy the timeless beauty of Ruth’s words of conversion (1:14): “Stop urging me to abandon you // For wherever you go, I will go // Wherever you live, I will live // Your people will become my people // and your G-d will become my G-d.”

The meaning of these words are no secret and I am offering nothing new by pointing out that conversion must somehow include both the religious and the peoplehood aspects of Judaism.  Put negatively, without both elements Judaism is not Judaism.

All of which leads us to the insanity of today. 

I cannot directly speak to the underlying politics of the Chief Rabbinate in Israel, only assume that the increasing fundamentalization of Haredi politics and religious views/belief/practice leads to the same extreme black and white extremism as all types of fundamentalism:  “You believe/behave as we do or you are wrong.”  Although this directly contradicts the very fundament of Rabbinical Judaism, namely the dialogic process explicit in Talmud, through this mindset the easiest victims are those without a “from birth” proof of membership in the tribe.  “We can’t do so much about the Reform born Jews whose practice we so hate, so let us victimize those not born as Jews that do not follow our incredibly narrow interpretation of the Law.”

This I can do nothing more about than write and preach and point to the dangers of fundamentalism, but even more disturbing to me are the words of the non-Haredi in our midst that act with the same intolerance—those that uncritically utter the words “fake Jew” or even worse treat the converts in our midst as second class citizens at best.  Make no mistake, this is a manifestation of “bullying” in our Synagogues and the emotional, spiritual and psychological effects are no less damning to the victims of this bullying than the children that suffer bullying at schools or the adults that suffer mobbing in their workplaces.  Converts have become the focus of our own insecurities and we are making it harder and harder for Ruth to make her poetic statement of conversion.  Today we meet “Your people shall be my people and your G-d shall be my G-d” with “but you, Ruth, will never really be accepted.  You are not really Jewish.”

Even our language has changed.  We utter phrases such as “half-Jew” or “quarter-Jew” as if these have some historical legal importance in determining Jewishness, and somehow with the sickest of ironies forget that we have begun defining ourselves through the racial laws of the 3rd Reich as opposed to the words of our Tradition.  On the other side, we learn the lesson of Stalin that Judaism is a stamp of nationality on a passport without any religious content—we relegate Ruth to the status of an immigrant and forget she also accepted a specific way of interacting with the spiritual universe – with “G-d.”  When we forget this of course conversion cannot be valid, as how could someone have a nationality to which they were not born stamped in their passport? 

Standing with Ruth means that we remember Judaism exists only when it remains in dialogue with itself in both its religious and peoplehood aspects.  Standing with Ruth means calling the bigotry of the Chief Rabbinate exactly what it is—a rejection of Jewish Law in order to further a hegemony that stands outside of normative Jewish Law.  Standing with Ruth means that we reject defining ourselves as Hitler and Stalin would have us do.  Standing with Ruth means that a convert is fully Jewish, period, and we embrace Ruth in the same loving arms with which we wish to be welcomed when we enter our communities as Jews.


Chag Shavuot Semeyach.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Not really a sermon, but . . .

It was an especially difficult week to be a Jew.  The week started as I opened my computer Sunday morning to read of the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium.  Then came the news of the European elections where far right parties all over Europe had picked up an astonishing amount of votes, including three seats in the Parliament for the Greek essentially neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party.  And of course before last Shabbos even began, the news starting coming out of the states of yet another mass shooting.  Perhaps I should say it was a particularly hard week to be a human.

Usually what a rabbi is supposed to do is to find a great passage in the weekly Torah portion that will give us some sense of comfort in these times.  Religious attendance and communal gatherings will go up for a few weeks especially in Santa Barbara and in Brussels as we try to make sense of all these things and hope that our rabbis and priests and imams and ministers and teachers and philosophers can find just the right text to make sense of what is now an absurd repetition of the unthinkable and unbearable, making these things quite "thinkable" as they are so commonplace.  And although there are many good words to choose from in Parashat Naso, I would rather pull my thoughts, for what they are worth, from a conversation I had this week with a conversion student.  

While going over a list of standard "Jewish" terms, we came upon "Ner Tamid."  It was a bit of a test, as all of my conversion students are required to write a series of thought provoking essays in addition to identifying dozens of common words, concepts and objects in Judaism.  The essays are to be written over the course of months, but the vocabulary list itself is part of an interactive series of meetings at the end of the conversion time, in the last months leading up to Beit Din.  Before the first of these meetings, I ask the candidates to write a percentage next to each term -- 100% meaning "I feel strongly that I know what this means and can explain it in detail if asked" to 0% being "I don't know what this is."  Over the course of several meetings then we start with the 0% items and work through to the 100%s. 

In this case, "Ner Tamid" was a 0%, and so we walked into the Beit Kenesset and identified the "Ner Tamid," translated this as "Eternal light," talked about its placement and meaning in Torah and then what it might symbolically mean today.  An idea randomly popped into my mind and I asked, "So, if we call this an 'eternal' light, does the light ever go out?"

The candidate remained silent for a few moments and then replied with the beautiful honesty that I have come to expect from her, "Funny.  I guess I have never thought about it."

I laughed and told her it was all very practical.  Every once in a while someone from the community will enter the Synagogue some morning and see that light has gone out.  "It has happened to me once since I have been in Duisburg," I explained.  "Easy solution.  I called the Hausmeister, he came a bit later with a ladder, and once again the eternal light seemed eternal."

Seemed eternal.

Maybe I had never thought of it before either.  I had been one of the two at Abraham Geiger Kolleg to replace the batteries in the small Ner Tamid in our humble but lovely Beit Kenesset.  It was a necessary job that we did without thinking-- not necessarily to provide the illusion of a truly "tamid" Ner Tamid, but rather to do our best that one never had to see the lamp without light, regardless of how symbolic one would choose to see such a light.

My student and I chatted a bit more about the Ner Tamid and in the end I had to look at this every-day part of my existence a bit differently.  The Eternal Light is one of those contradictions of connotation and practicality for the reality is unescapable that the light is only eternal if maintained.   We call this light in the Temple that we now remember in every Synagogue an "eternal light" as if that is a passive reality, when in fact we are the ones doing all the work.  The day we stop tending the light it is not eternal.  Shouldn't this make us call into question what “eternal” means?

Of course the text is much more subtle.  The first source text in Torah of the Ner Tamid is in Exodus, 27:20, where the text is really talking about the work aspect.  The JPS translates the verse as "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lights regularly."  This is not nearly as romantic sounding as the normal connation of eternal light.  The next verses however solidify the idea of the romantic light, that the lights should be set up outside of the dividing curtain to burn ". . . before the Eternal.  It shall be a (statute) from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages." Indeed, a "Ner Tamid."  But the Hebrew I think is even more profound.  The word translating here as kindling is really "laalot" to ascend, which could render the verse paraphrased as "You shall command the Israelites to do the work that will cause light to continually ascend."

I think a lot of our words get a bit of a bad reputation because of the connotations we give to "spiritual" concepts.  Although we might not think about it, after a bit of reflection it is patently clear that we are the ones who light and maintain a "Ner Tamid" and that the word "Eternal" only has validity if the work is maintained.  It would be absurd to say "It is G-d's fault that I walked into Shul this Shabbat and the light was out over the Ark."  Yet it seems like we do indeed think this way with other "eternals."  We declare our eternal love for our partners and talk about love between parents and children as an immutable truth.  Yet when relationships fail and families fall apart and children become estranged we to tend to look to G-d and say "How could you let this happen?"

We will as a matter of course ask the same "eternal" questions regarding Brussels and Santa Barbara, and yes as well the seemingly exploding right wing in Europe, which will be some variation of the question of Theodicy, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" or simply, "How could G-d let this happen?"  We see the ethical contracts that we have with each other as a type of eternal light, and so we will once again react with surprise that the eternal light seems not to be functioning.  "People simply shouldn't do that/the light must always be on."  Yet the lights go out all the time and people treat each other like this all the time.

There is no easy solution.  But just like the eternalness of the light is predicated on the effort that goes into maintaining it, the first thing to do is to stop thinking that the message of Torah is to passively wait for G-d to manifest “eternity.”  Moreover we can stop the opposite reaction, to think of the light as the thing itself and kill ourselves trying perform the mitzvah of maintaining the light in the most perfect and halakhik possible manner, that we forget about the symbolism of the light itself.  If our life is primarily the performance hundreds of tasks in the hopes that if we perform well enough we will get to get the blessing promised in Torah, then the message of Torah itself is lost.  And then if we do not perform adequately than we to sit back and passively wait for the curse which comes from not eating from the right hekscher or not having the mezuzah at just the perfect angle.

The mitzvoth are not magic spells, they are rather the way that Jewish tradition slows us down in everything that we do that we may become conscious of the world around us as it is instead of what we fantasize and wish it to be.  The mitzvah of the eternal light is not to look at it, it is to participate in keeping it going “that light may continually ascend.”  If the observance of the mitzvoth causes our relationships to crumble than we are missing the point.  If the mitzvoth help us to be more self-aware and then profoundly aware of others, their needs and what our actions do to affect them, then the mitzvoth are performing their central function— to lead us to an existence where we have the ability to love our neighbors as ourselves.  In this reality and only in this reality are there no mass shootings.  Here the eternal light is eternal.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that by using the wisdom of our various traditions to see others as subject rather than objects that the shootings stop tomorrow.  But I do believe that the shootings are related to a systemic breakdown from a world that values objects much more than subjects for a million more reasons than can be discussed in a simple sermon.  I do, however, believe that the mass healing comes from a critical mass of many small healings.  One abusive family member that stops blaming his or her parent for their own behavior and gets the help necessary to escape that prison is one less lineage of violence that enters the world.  One less person taught that the others exist only to fulfill their needs is one less that acts on this belief be treating people as animals.

In the end, there is no “end” to this message.  A rabbi giving a sermon is supposed to have a good charge that gives us something that we can take away afterwards and use.  The reality of this type of message is that it usually ends up preaching to the choir, as it were.  This prevents us all from doing the work that we all without exception need to do—either we are already struggling towards that moment where we can radically see others as equals or we are not and then this message cannot be heard.  Moreover, it is absurd and almost insulting to tie the events of this week to us becoming more self-aware.  My clearer understanding of my own prejudices will not bring back the dead.  But there is a dark reality in our traditions and I imagine all traditions, that we focus on the pain that we have experienced and use that to obfuscate our own failings.  For us Jews, if we look clearly in the mirror, we have a very shameful history about talking about, for example, people of color with off-hand epithets that we would never accept directed towards us.  Yet we can somehow justify this as harmless at best or “well they deserve it” at worst.  This is not to even begin to address our rhetoric against other groups with whom we are in conflict, no matter how complicated the political and existential reality may be.  No!  We cannot weep and gnash our teeth at an assassin or mass shooting when we in any way participate in seeing and talking about others as untermensch regardless of how we justify the intent.  This is not political correctness, this is the simplest of “love your neighbor as yourself” Torah and ethics 101.  We may not be pulling the trigger but we are continuously releasing into the world the energy that lurks behind so many of these acts of violence.  Are my words of hate that may or may not incite me or another to an act of violence less worthy of condemnation than the words and thoughts that actually have led one to an act of violence? 


The message of the eternal light is that we look up to see it and think of what our daily contribution is to what we want to be eternal in the world.  If we objectify others and act purely that our selfish needs be fulfilled above the needs and desires of others then we are giving “light” to making self-gratification at other’s expense eternal.  If we use religion or narrative or racial epithets or all forms of bigotry to harm others that do not act or believe as we do, then that is the “eternal light that we maintain.”  But if we collectively shine a little light as we do the ethical basics— treat others as we wish to be treated—then we are no longer waiting for someone else to make the light magically eternal.  We take the responsibility upon ourselves.  Maybe with an ever increasing critical mass of these intentions to we achieve the tipping point that makes these acts of violence truly rare as opposed to the everyday horror that they are.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rabbi’s Speech (English Version): Auschwitz Liberation Day



Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany
January 27, 2014

It has become tradition on such occasions to chant a version of our memorial prayer, El Malei Rachamim, to the martyrs of the Shoah.  But as we listen to these words and hear the melody, we also need to remember that before martyrs become martyrs they are victims, and before they are victims they are subject to discrimination, violence and displacement, and before they can be so treated they must have been dehumanized.

In the Shoah those subjected to this progression of horror were not only Jews, but as well mentally and physically handicapped, political opponents of National Socialism, Roma, Sinti, Slavic peoples, POWs, religious dissidents, homosexuals and transsexuals.  All were subject to a type of de-humanization before the mass mobbing could take hold and inevitably lead to genocide.

Now here we are today in Germany, doing that which is so critical—gathering together with youth, concerned citizens, members of the Jewish community, leaders of the civic community and brothers and sisters from other religious traditions.  We are gathered here to remember but what we really need to do is to be present to the dehumanization of today.  It has been 69 years since the liberation of the mere thousands that remained alive in Auschwitz, and Europe is once again full of words meant to dehumanize minority groups.  The rhetoric against Roma and Sinti, against minority religions and even against religious traditions themselves as well as the rising rhetoric against Jews should be seen as the reality that it is: we are quickly forgetting.  And then today we see to the east that this same rhetoric being used against homosexuals has now moved the process of horror past dehumanization and already to mobbing, discrimination, violence and displacement.  It is to our shame here in Germany that we gather here today but as a society are scarcely discussing these events.

We hear the words of El Malei Rachimim not only to remember the past but I pray as well to warn us of and drive us away from our present apathy to the cruelty of our own age.


(Recording of El Malei Rachamim for the Maryrs on Youtube)


G-d full of compassion, Eternal Presence of the Universe, grant complete rest under the wings of Your Presence to those that shine in Your glory – to the 6 Million Jews that were victims in the Shoah in Europe – to those martyred, killed, burned and destroyed in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, Treblinka, and all the other work, concentration and extermination camps.  Source of Mercy, let them find eternal refuge under the shadow of Your wings, and let their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life.  The Eternal One is their inheritance and the Garden of Eden their souls’ destination.  May they rest in peace, and let us say: Amen.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Parachat Chayei Sarah, 5774 Duisburg

I am not the first nor even the thousandth to comment on the dissonance between the name of this week’s Parashah and the content—although called “Chayei Sarah” or the “Life of Sarah,” the portion begins with Sarah’s death at the deeply symbolic age of 127 and then proceeds with Abraham’s attempts to procure a proper tomb.  One the one hand, there is no dissonance at all, as the “titles” of weekly Torah portions are not thematic headings, simple the first uniquely meaningful words in the section.  Yet on the other hand, I tend to believe the words of sages that state that every word and even letter in Torah has meaning—I may not believe this for the same reasons they do—but I believe it nonetheless.  Therefore I believe it important to think about the implications of naming a portion “the Life of . . .” where the content is “the Death of . . .”

After having officiated at over 40 funerals in the last 18 months alone I have had to spend a lot of time finding meaningful words to offer in a hesped (eulogy) that celebrate life when we are in the midst of death.  While meeting with families before the funeral, I try to get at the details that are truly meaningful for life.  What most families find easy to explain are birth dates and places, education, jobs and names of family members.  Basically families are quite comfortable presenting a CV.  In the case of my congregation, most of these interviews are done through an interpreter as 98% of the congregation speaks Russian— so my attempts to delve deeper are as much thwarted by culture as by tendency.  Yet there are always ways with patience to get there.  For example, the Rabbinical Assembly’s “Moreh HaDerech” – their Rabbi’s guide for life-cycle events—comments in the section “Questions to ask in preparing for a hesped:

Ask the gathering to describe their loved one, not so much with adjectives, but with memories—

What images come to mind in thinking of (him / her)?
What did (he / she) do to make you laugh?
What was (his / her) greatest love?
What were (his / her) sources of joy?
What concerned (him / her) the most?
Were there any sayings (he / she) was fond of repeating?
In your daily life, what will remind you of (him / her) the most?
What did Judaism mean to (him / her)?
What did you do together with (him / her)?
What will you miss most about (him / her)?
(source: Moreh Derech: The Rabbinical Assembly Rabbi’s Manual Part Aleph, Pages E-9/10, The Rabbinical Assembly, New York, New York, 1998.)

            To this I usually add: “What is the one thing that someone who never met (him / her) that they need to know?” and “What makes you smile when you think now of (him / her)?”

            Although it is still challenging to get past the resume recitation, often some meaning can be gleaned if one patiently nudges a family in the direction of these sorts of questions (although I have at least twice been presented with actual CVs, some translated, some not, and have been told “We cannot talk to you.  It is too painful.  Please use this.”)

            All of these thoughts bring up several issues.  Why, for example, is it that the deepest contemplation of life comes through death, and moreover, why is it that we realize in this contemplation that we seldom know as much about our loved ones as we probably should?  The average life expectancy in the world as of 2010 is about 67 years – how much of that time do we spend focusing on knowing (truly knowing, not controlling or possessing) those around us?  What about ourselves?

            I remember from years ago the somewhat kitschy saying passed around when someone was working a little too hard.  “No one lying on their death bed says, ‘Gee I wish I would have spent more time in the office.’”  Unfortunately I think there are a few people that would think that, but the point behind the kitsch remains clear—as a people, we tend to spend our lives focusing on exactly the things that in the end will not mean as much as they seem to mean in the moment.  We easily give meaning and life energy to the life-or-death seeming deadline where we ramp up the stress hormones in order to please someone who probably is not capable of being pleased while husbands and wives and children and girlfriends and boyfriends and the people that really matter wait at home and pray that the insanity calms down that they may some day find a way back into our lives.  I remember a poignant story of a mother dying of cancer, asking her adult child which experience that they had together had meant the most.  The daughter talked about a late night discussion they had had when the child was a teen and how close she had felt to her mom in that moment.  It wasn’t the Disneyland trip or the movies or the zoos or the interminable car rides to rush to get to that moment of coolness that will surely provide the meaningful meaning to a child’s life.  It wasn’t the noise; rather it was the quiet moment of interconnectivity.  At the end of one life the only memories that carried true meaning were the ones we tend to give the least attention in our busy lives.

            And this insight comes at the moment of death instead of the time when we could have changed our priorities.

            I think that the title “the Life of Sarah” given to the narrative of our matriarch Sarah’s death carries neither coincidence nor dissonance.  I believe that the seeming contradiction is meant to light up one of the most difficult aspects of our humanity.  Today, with few exceptions, we must work or rely on someone working in order to maintain hearth and home.  We evolved as a species based partially on the survival ability to complete repetitive, often tedious tasks.  Somewhere along the way, we began giving those tasks meaning beyond the implied survival, essentially making clear idols and bowing down before that which should be a means rather than an end.

            Yet there is choice, even if it feels like we have none.  In these times of financial trouble for so many it feels like there is much less of a choice or that all the choices are bad.  But the first step in all aspects of spirituality is awareness.  Maybe in this moment the choice is between 70 hours a week in the office, three part-time jobs, or no food.  But there is always the choice on how we choose to use our energy.  When we get home, are we truly home or is our work still bouncing around in our head?  When our child asks us a question or wants to show us a new painting, do we shoo them away so we can take another 10 minutes of Daddy/Mommy alone time and think more on how upset we are at that one thing that happened?  Maybe the choices are bad, but the essence of spirituality is to be aware and then still make the most healthy loving choices within those bad choices.  An essence of Judaism is to ask, are we bowing down before an idol that is taking us away from the commandment to love our neighbor as our self?  Do we even know our neighbors or families or even selves any longer?  Is our family going to have to search hard to find those answers when we chas v’chalilah pass from this earth?  Is it only through death that we finally allow life to have meaning?  As the old tale is told:

One evening a Tsalagi (Cherokee) elder told his grandson about the battle that goes on inside of people.

He said, “My son, the battle is between the two wolves that live inside us all. One is Unhappiness. It is fear, worry, anger, jealousy, sorrow, self-pity, resentment and inferiority. The other is Happiness. It is joy, love, hope, serenity, kindness, generosity, truth and compassion.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The elder simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’”

Shabbat Shalom


(My thanks to livewellspace.com and Suzanna Skully for recounting this tale.)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Paraschat Vaera - Duisburg 5774

            Years ago I worked as a pastoral counselor with a gentlemen who had a remarkable story. About 10 years before I began working with Matt, he had in a short time lost all that at the time had meaning to him.  In the space of several months his wife left him (taking most all of the family friends) after which he fell pray to a Reduction In Force – the painfully euphemistic way of saying “was laid off.”  Quickly the debt piled up until the only phone calls he received were those from creditors.  Feeling alone and without hope, he began to plan his own death.

            Two warning signs of how serious a suicide wish is are having a concrete plan and physically writing out the note.  Both had been done, and on the day of the plan he recounted that he had said to himself, “If there is a single person in the world that still cares about me, I will not go through with this.”

            That night, after returning from the last day of the temp job he had taken to try to pay a bill or two, there was a message on the answering machine.  Sandwiched in between a dozen calls from collection agencies was the voice of a former roommate who had once been a dear friend and confidant that he had not heard from in years.

            “Hey Matt, just thinking about you a lot lately and you were really on my heart today.  Just wanted to touch bases and see how you were.  I love you.”

            Needless to say, since I am able to retell this story, Matt filed away his note to remind him of what he almost did, and moved on.  Ten years later he still had a lot of issues to deal with, but had achieved a sort of peace and success that he could not have imagined during that painful period.

            This idea of someone unexpectedly appearing in our life appears quite often in the Tanakh.  This week in Vaera the narrative begins with “The Eternal appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest time of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing across from him. When he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.” Gen 18:1-2.

            First of all, unless there is a narrative gap between verse 1 and 2, it should come as somewhat of a shock to read that the Eternal appeared to Abraham in the form of three men.  I believe it is more helpful to see the text as a spiritual truth that the work of the Eternal is accomplished by the hands of humans—that the original meaning of “angel” was simply that of messenger – he or she that acted as was needed in a moment to help someone else onto the right path or off of the wrong one.  As a matter of interpretation and expansion of these themes, I was particularly affected this week by the “D’var Acher” in ReformJudaism.org’s “10 Minutes of Torah” for Vaera.  Rabbi Jay TelRav, of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut writes:

I am often asked by congregants about the words in parentheses found in our prayer book, Mishkan T'filah. There are other examples, but the one most often noted is in the second paragraph of the Amidah wherein we offer a blessing to Adonai who "gives life to all," but then are given the alternative to recite in its place "[You] revive the dead." That traditional formulation had been removed from previous Reform liturgy, but has been returned in our new prayer book (Mishkan T'filah, p. 78).

Brandeis professor, Jonathan Sarna, explains that earlier Reform Jews found the theme of resurrection to be too challenging to their theology. The traditional translation of this prayer suggests that there will be a resurrection of all who ever lived at the coming of Messiah. Reform Jews, preferring a more rational liturgy that focused on the physical world around them, were more comfortable reciting the words "God gives life to all." Yet, as I reflect on Rabbi Kroloff's teaching, I am reminded of the Talmudic lesson supplied by the editors of Mishkan T'filah (see p. 79).

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of twelve months [makes the blessing]: "Blessed are You, Adonai, who revives the dead" (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 58b).

In other words, when I bump into someone who had drifted from my current thoughts and has returned as a surprise, I can thank God for bringing that person back to life-that is, back to my life. This alternative allows me to recite our Amidah prayer with a new intention-as I thank God for all the other blessings in my life, so too, I am thankful for the renewed awareness of individuals who reappear in my life and remind me of their preciousness and value.

I love this for two reasons:  First of all, I am constantly fighting against the perceptions that our texts—from Torah to Tanakh to Talmud et. al. need to be seen through literal eyes.  If my interpretation does not match the interpretation of those with whom I am having a discussion, I am accused of interpreting texts to suit my own needs.  Other than the fact that that is completely true, it is simply a very Jewish thing to do!  There is no absolute meaning to “revives the dead.”  Like all other texts we can indeed look at clear meaning of the text, but that is only equally as important as interpreting symbolically, allegorically or even through the eyes of mystical tradition.  Here our sages show exactly how it is done: Take a text and then breathe life into it by making it spiritually meaningful to our every day lives.  Second, I think that this interpretation says a lot about those of us without the gene or inclination to stay as connected as we most likely should—we get so caught up in our every day that we forget to work at making sure that those we love are alive to us.  We ignore and forget until we are blessed by that unexpected visit or phone call or Email and we can say “Thank you Eternal one for reminding me of my love for this person and their love for me.  Thank you that they are alive in me.”

I would personally, however, like to put a slightly different spin on this.  The Talmud states that we recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, Eternal, who revives the dead,” but it does not state who is dead.  The assumption is that those that we see after the year have been like dead to us, but what if we are the ones that are dead?

As we sit in our tent at the hottest part of the day, are we alive to the needs of those around us?  Every day we get little sparks of intuition in the back of our minds and hearts.  Some name or face pops up and we think, “I wonder how they are doing?”  When we are metaphorically dead—when we are purely in the state of self-absorption in our own lives and problems—the thought comes and goes and we move forward on our path.  But what about Matt’s friend?  She had felt the spark and heard the internal question and as she was alive and beyond her ego enough to actually listen. She made a phone call and literally saved a life.

Certainly every moment of intuition is not a life and death situation, but as one of those people that gets these thoughts all the time and all too seldom does anything about them, it is worth using these passages to ask the question, are we right now alive or dead to those around us?  Is our own daily grind so much more important that a 2-minute email or 5-minute phone call? 

Are we prepared to be there when the Eternal needs to appear through us to help someone else?  Are we alive?


Shabbat Shalom