Saturday, November 30, 2013

Be A Shammash

This Shabbat was not only Shabbat Chanukah, but also Shabbat Miketz, thus marking the Hebrew anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah some thirty years ago.

I think that the themes of Chanukah and Miketz go together very nicely.  Miketz tells of Joseph's rapid ascent from prisoner to vizier in Egypt, as he becomes second in power only to Pharaoh.  Pharaoh realizes that he needs a partner who can help with the logistics involved in storing and rationing food to help the land survive the oncoming famine.  His courtiers agree that Joseph is the proper man for the task, as they ask, "Can we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?"

Joseph serves as an important helper to Pharaoh, much in the same way that a shammash candle helps to kindle the other lights on the chanukiyah.  We can learn from the example of Joseph, and from the example of the shammash as we seek to find ways that we can make contributions to the communities in which we live.

Jews have been called to serve l'or goyim, as a light unto the nations, sharing God's vision of a perfected world with others.  As we kindle the Chanukah lights, our tradition instructs us to engage in the act of pirsum ha-nes, publicizing the miracle of Chanukah by placing our chanukiyah in a window or other visible location.  In this way, both literally and figuratively, we have the opportunity to illuminate and enhance the dark, cold nights of winter.

Robert Fulghum, in his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, tells a story about studying with a Greek philosopher, Dr. Alexander Papaderos (I am paraphrasing the story here, since I do not have the book readily accessible).  At the end of the class, Dr. Papaderos asked the participant if there were any questions.  Fulghum, jokingly, asked, "What is the meaning of life?"

Papaderos paused for a moment, then removed a small round mirror from his wallet.  He told of how he had found the mirror as a boy living in Greece, the remnant of a fragment of a mirror from a wrecked German motorcycle.  He had honed the edges to make it round and smooth, and spent much time playing with it and trying to reflect light into dark crevices.

As Papaderos grew, he noted, the mirror had become more than a game, but a metaphor for how he chose to live his life.  He began to recognize that he was not the light or the source of the light.  But light- which he took to mean truth, knowledge, and understanding- was out there, and it was up to him to reflect it into dark places.

"I am," said Papaderos, "a fragment of a mirror whose exact design and shape I do not know."  Papaderos remarked that the meaning of his life had been to try to reflect light into the dark places of the world- and to hope that others would see him doing so, and be inspired to do the same.

We can follow Papaderos' example.  Like his mirror, the shammash is not the key light; it is not what most people focus on.  But it is essential for bringing brightness into our world.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Great Task Remaining Before Us

This week marked a significant event in United States history as our nation celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, often lauded as one of the greatest speeches ever given.  Here in Illinois, the "Land of Lincoln," numerous events were held to commemorate the great oration of one of the state's "favorite sons."

One of the ironies of the lasting resonance of Lincoln's speech is that Lincoln himself failed to foresee its importance.  It was the dedication of a graveyard- one of many such dedications Lincoln had participated in during his political career- and Lincoln's speech wasn't even the keynote of the day.  That honor was reserved for former Massachusetts governor and former U.S. Secretary of State Edward Everett, who delivered over 13,000 words in a two-hour period.  Lincoln, by contrast, spoke only for a few minutes, and only about ten sentences.  (There are a number of variant accounts of the text of the speech, and it's not entirely clear which version Lincoln used that day)  Lincoln personally thought that "the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here…"

In a similar vein, the world may not take note of what I write in this blog.  They may pay scant attention to any of the things that my colleagues around the world have written or preached this Shabbat.  But we should not let the potentially limited reach of our words lull us into complacency.  We should not allow it to dissuade us from trying to make a difference in this world.

This week's Torah portion, VaYeshev, introduces us to Joseph, famous for being a dreamer in both the literal and figurative sense.  His dreams are seen as predictive of God's plan for the world, while nowadays our dreams are generally aspirational in nature.  Nonetheless, Joseph guides us, encouraging us to dream big, and not to allow others to stand in the way of our bringing our dreams to fruition.

We mark the legacy of another president of our country this week, John F. Kennedy, whose influence and legacy are often compared to that of Lincoln.  Kennedy memorably advised Americans to "ask not what your country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country."

I believe that this idea can and should be adapted for 21st century Judaism.  We should not merely ask what Judaism can do for us, but also what we can do to spread the truth and beauty of Judaism to others; we should ask how our Judaism can guide us to make a difference in this world.

We stand in the shadow of Joseph, of Kennedy, and of Lincoln.  It is up to us to inherit and build upon their legacies.

To borrow again from Lincoln: "It is for us…to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they…have thus far so nobly advanced."  Lincoln was speaking of honoring the memories of the Civil War soldiers buried at Gettysburg, but we may apply his words to the challenge that we have embraced as our own: to work to make a difference, to bring healing and peace and prosperity to every individual, to bequeath to future generations a world in which all can live in harmony and none need be afraid.

Ken y'hi ratzon- may it be God's will that this occur- v'ken y'hi r'tzoneinu- and may it be our will to bring it to fruition.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wrestling With God Till It Hurts

This will probably not be a fun post to read.  It may not even be coherent at all.  My heart and head are so full right now that it's all I can do to put my thoughts and feelings down coherently.  But I'll give it a shot…

My dear friends, Phyllis and Michael Sommer, have been helping their 8-year-old son Sam (aka "Superman Sam") fight a battle against a particularly aggressive form of leukemia (they nicknamed it "ninja leukemia").  Earlier this week, they learned that his cancer has relapsed, and that there is little that can be done.  Sam and his family have amassed a huge network of friends, and each of us undoubtedly wish that we could erase this hurt and eradicate cancer for good.  But ultimately, sadly, we cannot.

As my friend and colleague, Rabbi Benjamin Sharff has written, as rabbis we deal with far too much death and illness.  Every case is tragic, and keeping our emotions in check while we support and counsel our friends and congregants often requires tremendous effort.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, himself no stranger to loss, writes in his seminal book on Jewish grieving, When Bad Things Happen to Good People that people who receive devastating diagnoses or suffer a sudden loss often go through a spiritual self-examination: perhaps there was something they did, or didn't do, that incurred God's wrath and brought this upon them or their loved one.

I am not implying that this is the approach hat the Sommer family is taking.  They are navigating their own way through this personal, painful journey.  But I can pretty much guarantee you that neither Phyllis, nor Michael, nor Sam, nor his siblings David, Yael, and Solly, nor anyone else in their network committed any sin or made any halachic error that gave Sam cancer.  Sam got cancer because Sam got cancer, as will be the case with an average of 36 children EVERY DAY this year.  This statistic is equal parts sad, frightening, and infuriating.  And, lacking an individual or cause to blame, we grasp for someplace to direct our anger and hurt.

We might ask what kind of God could allow this suffering?  If God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, does that mean that God knows about the suffering, is here to watch us suffer, and chooses not to intervene?

There's a story of the Talmudic sage Elisha ben Abuya, who became infamous because of his apostasy.  According to legend, he witnessed a boy honoring his parents AND shooing away a mother bird before  taking her eggs.  Both of these are mitzvot for which the Torah states, v'ha'arachta yamim, and your days shall be lengthened [if you fulfill them].  But as soon as Elisha remarks to his colleagues about the meritorious act of the boy, the boy falls out of the tree and is fatally injured.  Elisha cries out in anguish "leyt din v'leyt dayan- there is no justice and there is no Judge!"

There's a similar episode in The West Wing: President Jed Bartlet's longtime secretary Mrs. Landingham  buys the first new car of her life.  As she drives it off the lot, she is struck and killed by a drunk driver.  The president goes to the National Cathedral and launches into a rant against God.  Though presented in Catholic terms, the essential sentiments are the same as Elisha's. [Warning: TV-14 Language]

It's OK…God can take it.  Now, the God I believe in does not callously and capriciously visit such suffering upon us, but nevertheless accepts our cries and our anger and our venom. And ultimately, even if we were able to identify who or what to blame, it would not reverse the diagnosis.  It would not change the stark and frightening realities that all those who are battling cancer must face.

Jews are known as B'nei Yisrael, literally, "children of the one who wrestled with God."  This is the week that we read in the Torah of Jacob's wrestling match (Parashat VaYishlach).  But the wrestling does not end with our patriarch; we continue to struggle with God- to rant and scream, and cry.  But we also hold onto the hope that in the end, when we are hurting and yearning and searching, God will be there to soothe our aches and comfort our pain.  And, we pray, God will help us to redirect our pain and indignation toward renewed resolve to find a cure for this awful disease.  We pray that God will help us to set aside our differences and learn to embrace one another during this brief time that we have been granted upon this earth.  And we pray that God will send a loving embrace to Sam and his family, and to the families of all who struggle with this terrible illness.

There's another famous "crisis of faith" that we encounter in the Tanach.  It's experienced by the prophet Elijah in the book of Kings.  Elijah is in a somewhat thankless job; prophets weren't exactly the most popular people in his day.  All the prophets of Adonai have fled or been killed, and Elijah wonders whether all the effort is worth it.  God decides to show Elijah a display of the Divine glory.  So God places Elijah in the cleft of a rock and brings a variety of bombastic natural phenomena: whirlwind, earthquake, and fire.  After each of these, Elijah expects to "see" God, and after each he is disappointed.  But after all of the storms and noise have subsided, Elijah experiences God as a still, small voice.

Yes, we cry and scream and shout and curse.  But when that all is done, we seek ways to come together in community, and to fill even the still, small moments with love.

At the end of the wrestling match, Jacob says to his opponent, "I will not let you go until you bless me."  Sam has already blessed so many people.  Nonetheless, it seems far too soon to let go.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Surely, God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know

I'm not the biggest of sports fans.  I don't mind watching sports, but I don't rabidly follow any team, and  I don't make a point of keeping up with players or statistics in the manner of a true fan.  But, when I was growing up in Miami, in an era before the Marlins or the Heat, one could not help but have some awareness of the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins came back on my radar screen recently when they made an unfortunate leap from the sports pages into national news.  Richie Incognito, a leader of Miami's offensive line, was accused of harassing his teammate, Jonathan Martin, an offensive tackle.  Apparently, the abuse was so upsetting to Martin that he took a leave of absence from the team to seek treatment for "emotional distress."  In recent days, recordings have surfaced showing that Incognito racially harassed and intimidated Martin. Incognito has been suspended from the team indefinitely, and will likely be cut.  There is some evidence that other players besides Martin were victims, and that coaches may have encouraged Incognito's actions.

Some sports fans will argue that Martin needs to "toughen up," that such "hazing" comes with the territory when one chooses to play professional sports.  I'd rather, though, that we called it what it is: bullying.  Bullying has no place in any setting, even among "tough men" who play football (refreshingly, this high school coach in Utah agrees).

Unfortunately, our patriarch Jacob was also a bit of a bully, at least in his younger years.  True to the etymology of his name (Ya'akov comes from the Hebrew word meaning "heel" and the pun works in Hebrew as well as in English) Jacob is indeed a "heel."  He fights with his twin brother Esau in the womb; he takes advantage of Esau's hunger and compels him to relinquish his birthright; he tricks his elderly father in order to secure the blessing that should have been reserved for the firstborn.

But in this week's Torah portion, Vayetze, Jacob comes to a crossroads, literally and figuratively.  Having fled his home, he finds himself in the desert.  He has his famous vision of "Jacob's Ladder," and when he awakes, he proclaims: אכן יש יי במקום הזה ואנכי לא ידעתי- Achen Yesh Adonai BaMakom HaZeh Va'Anochi Lo Yadati, Surely God was in this place, and I, I did not know.  The majesty of this apparition shakes Jacob out of his self-centeredness, and he is able to finally acknowledge that others around him have needs and feelings.  Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his book God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know, parses the meaning of the seemingly extraneous "I" that appears in the Hebrew through the lens of different rabbis from Jewish history.  Kushner cites the work of Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk to teach that until we let go of our own "I"- our ego- we cannot possibly make room for God.

In addition to the continuing unfolding of the story from the Dolphins' locker room, another story has more quietly made its way through the internet this week.  On the Q train in New York City, a young black man boarded the train, lay his head on the shoulder of the Orthodox Jewish man sitting next to him, and fell asleep.  When a fellow passenger offered to wake the man, the other man replied, "He must have had a long day; let him sleep.  We've all been there, right?"

The other passenger, moved by the sight, snapped a picture with his camera phone.  It made its way through various social media sites until someone finally identified the Orthodox Jew as Isaac Thiel.  Thiel's daughter was quoted as saying that this was not out of character for her father.  She noted, "Who [else] lets a random stranger sleep on his shoulder in germ-filled New York City?"

But, as some commenters have pointed out, perhaps this should not be such an out of the ordinary occurrence.  Perhaps we should be more willing to open up to others around us with compassion.  As Richard Renaldi discovered in his photos that I wrote about previously, sometimes all it takes is forcing ourselves to go beyond our comfort zones to recognize the humanity and innate value in others.  The Thiel story intrigued people because of the race and backgrounds of the two individuals, but it really could have been (and should have been!) any one of us.

When we learn to open our hearts and minds to others, then we can come to recognize, as Jacob did, that God is among us- and hopefully, we will know it.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

There Are No Strangers Here, Only Friends Who Have Not Yet Met

Greetings, all.  It has been quite a while since I last posted.  I'm going to try to get more consistent with my posting.

I have, in the past few years, started giving my sermons in a fairly extemporaneous fashion.  I like the feeling of having a few notes, but otherwise "working without a net" and seeing where my mood takes me.  One difficulty with this style, however, is that if someone likes a particular message and asks me for a copy, I'm unable to oblige them.  So, I've gotten this idea of writing blog posts based on my sermon notes.  They may express the same ideas as my sermons, or they may veer off into completely different territory.  Hopefully the experiment will work...

The title above comes from a quote that has made its way around the internet.  As is the case with many  an internet quote, its exact provenance is unclear.  You will find a number of people who claim that it is from William Butler Yeats, but I've found no trustworthy corroboration of that attribution.  I first recall reading it on the wall of an Irish pub called Tommy Nevins in Evanston, Illinois (where I didn't personally find it to hold true, so I never returned...)  It reminds me of a lyric from the original Muppet Movie, in which Gonzo declares, "There's not a word yet/ for old friends who just met."

I've been thinking about the distinctions that we draw between friends, strangers, and family as I've studied this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toldot.  It tells the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and their two sons, Jacob and Esau.  From the moment of their gestation, we read, the boys are at odds with one another; once they are born, their parents only exacerbate matters by playing favorites.

Before the portion has concluded, familial relations will be strained.  Rebekah effectively disowns Esau, Esau swears to kill Jacob if he ever again lays eyes on him, and Jacob feels compelled to flee his home.  It's not exactly a picture of a functional family dynamic.

But sometimes, family is not comprised of those who are bound to us by blood or marriage; sometimes we construct family beyond those conventional confines.  We may have friends whom we embrace as our closest confidants, with whom we feel as comfortable (if not more comfortable) as with our biological family.

Photographer Richard Renaldi has begun a project he calls "Touching Strangers"(see more of the photographer's work here).  It is based on a simple concept: Renaldi stops strangers on the street and asks them to pose with one another as though they knew each other intimately.  At first, some of the subjects appear standoffish.  Eventually, the presence of Renaldi and his large-format camera helps to disarm them, and the images are a striking look at how we can interact with one another on a human level if we are willing to let down our guard.  I do not own or claim any rights to the images below, but I post them here for illustrative purposes:


These photos help to drive home for me that, truly, "There are no strangers here, only friends who have not yet met."  Whether Yeats said it or whether it's the fabrication of some anonymous blogger or bartender, the statement still resonates.

There is a rabbinic principle: sever panim yafot.  Most literally translated, it means "Put on a happy face."  But idiomatically, it can be taken to refer to the value of treating everyone with dignity and kindness.  When we work toward this goal, the sharp distinctions between friends and strangers begin to fade, and we better see ourselves as part of one human family.