The minor outbreak of the Ebola virus on American soil is fueling our fears and concerns, and its no surprise. So many of the apocalyptic visions in our contemporary popular imagination—from the Andromeda Strain to Planet of the Apes to any number of zombie movies—have to do with the threat to humanity from microscopic organisms, and to see these scenarios play out in real life (an infected nurse on an airplane!) fills us with end-times fear.
The extent to which we should be afraid has been brought into question, though. The risk is isolated, and, as it’s been pointed out, there are many other threats to public health that are more prevalent. Plus, our own fears tend to neglect the fact that this is not a new disease, and that it has been ravaging African populations for some time.
This week’s Torah portion is an early example of this apocalyptic fear: the story of Noah and the Flood. The story goes that in the generations following Adam and Eve and the Garden, God gets upset at the evil that humanity has brought in the world, and so decides to reboot. God commits to destroy the world by flood, but chooses Noah to build an ark to save himself and his family, and be humanity’s surviving remnant (along with all the animal species).
Why Noah? The text says, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his age. Noah walked with God.” (Genesis 6:9)—a seemingly positive assessment. Yet later commentators will see this as a back-handed complement. A midrash picks up on the use of the qualifier “in his age:” While Noah was righteous in his age, that doesn’t mean he would have been considered righteous in any age. Sure, he was righteous, but in the sinful generation that prompted God to destroy the world, that isn’t saying much.
The commentators also pick up on the up on the use of the phrase “Noah walked with God.” Another statement of praise until you compare it with the biblical patriarch Abraham who is described as walking before God. (Gen. 17:1) The midrash compares this to two children of a king—one grown and one young. The young child must stay close and walks with the king, the elder takes the lead and walks before him.
So what is the difference between Abraham and Noah? Both are called by God to join in a covenant, and both are given special responsibilities to carry on God’s work on earth. The most striking difference is their reactions to the news from God that a destruction is imminent.
Sometime after the story of the flood, Abraham is told by God about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah due to their sinfulness. (See Genesis 18. While God promised not to destroy the entire world by flood, targeted destruction by fire is apparently still permitted.) Abraham immediately protests, and argues with God to spare the city for the sake of the innocent within.
Contrast this to Noah’s reaction when told about the flood earlier: silence. Noah retreats to himself, builds the ark and sets out to save his family. How he feels about those condemned to die is unknown, but in any event, the news does not prompt any action or protest on his part.
Noah is faced with news of destruction and his response is to save himself. Abraham is faced with news of destruction and his response is to seek to save others.
So, we should fear the Ebola virus. It is a deadly disease and we need to take all the measures necessary to prevent its spread. At the same time, let’s fear the Ebola virus for the challenge it presents to us. That we may, in face of a real and potential threat, behave like Noah: concerned solely for our own welfare, indifferent to the suffering of others and silent in the face of devastating risks to humanity.
Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street to prepare for Shabbat.
Friday afternoon on Ben Yehuda Street is an experience not to be missed. In the summer you might meet friends from your hometown, your rabbi or see different groups of Hasidim congregating and preparing for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (or “shekel” worth about 25 cents at the time) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed in Hasidic garb, persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him that I would not give him money but would buy him three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he has asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know the laws of Tzedakah.”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach is near, when a Bratslaver Hasid asks a Conservative rabbi to teach him Jewish law, can the Mashiach be far away?”
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are, and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
The Messianic age will not arrive until we understand this lesson.
My ten-year-old son, Jake, has become excessively frightened by lightning. He used to be mildly scared by the noise of thunder. But his fear was augmented by one random event this past summer.
While our family was at a restaurant celebrating a win after one of my son’s ballgames, a storm popped up. During this typical Northeast summer thunderstorm, the building was hit by lightning. We heard the giant crack of thunder simultaneously with a brilliant burst of light. A window in the restaurant shattered and the power went out. The staff gathered us into a protected room away from the broken glass and calmly helped us wait until it was safe to drive home.
It was a dramatic event for sure, but now my sweet boy shutters at the thought of a rainstorm. After talking with other parents who have children the same age we realized that he and his friends are at the stage in life when they first butt up against the realization that there are some things in life they cannot control, and—perhaps more upsetting—neither can their parents. The lightning strike was his light bulb moment of fear, followed by the awareness that his parents could not protect him from all of the vagaries of life.
Jake’s way of dealing with his new-found insecurity is to exert what he believes is a form of control. Every day, he takes my iPhone and checks weather applications to watch for storms. He feels this will make him safe. Logically, he knows that nothing can stop a weather system from moving in, but the more superstitious part of him supersedes logic. No matter how much Jake learns about meteorology, it’s not going to stop what really makes him afraid. He has now been introduced to the fact that the world is sometimes random.
The vexing aspect of this fear is that he, like so many of us adults, spends more time pretending he can control the uncontrollable than he does working on understanding what he can do to protect himself in the case of a real emergency.
This is what we human beings do. We feel terrified of the unknown and so we pretend to control what we can’t touch. Our faith can sometimes becomes one of superstition instead of self-care and preparation. We don’t visit the doctor in fear of the diagnosis. We don’t set up our child’s nursery in fear of tempting the evil eye to visit upon the womb. We wear red bracelets to ward off evil.
We all feel attached to certain family traditions. But I worry when superstition becomes a proxy for our religion. Our faith can be one that encourages us to live healthy and secure lives; one which prepares us to face all of the challenges which come our way. Expending energy on that which we cannot control will only steal away from the aspects of our lives which we can indeed control.
Randomness is frightening. The unknown shakes us to our core. I pray regularly that lighting does not strike any of my children. But in the meanwhile, my wife and I do our best to prepare them for the realities of a life which comes along with extraordinary blessing and the reality of physical and cosmic storms.
If any Holiday teaches about finding joy in the midst of fragility, it is indeed these days of Sukkot. All of our structures are relatively temporary. When we realize we can only control certain aspects of our lives, we might find our way to a bolstered inner-compass and a perpetuated sense of calm.
“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
I don’t remember the date in September—even though, beginning on Labor Day, my son reminds me several times—but I have the Hebrew date imprinted in my memory. It is the 21st of Tishre, the seventh day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.
We won’t light a yahrzeit candle or recite a prayer, despite that our personal practice tends toward traditional observance of rituals. Perhaps because we are more traditional it seems inappropriate to memorialize a family pet in the same way one would a human. Still, I wish to honor her memory, so I create a technological memorial.
I change my Facebook profile picture to one of her lounging in the sukkah, just days before her death, and friends comment to comfort me with their memories of her life. I tweet a link to what could be called her obituary, a blog post about our ten years together. I feel a twinge of guilt—thinking these small acts of remembrance are somehow disloyal to our new dog—and resolve to post some photos of her after the holiday.
Discussing these newly-created rituals, my spouse asks, “Do you think animals have souls?”
I reply “yes” without hesitation. Not because I am one of those “dog people” (I am) or because I am a pantheist (I’m not), but because I believe it, feel it, deep in my soul. I spend several days formulating a well-reasoned reply. Something to extend the discussion beyond, “of course animals have souls; humans are animals, after all.” If the soul is the essence of life, the very thing that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate objects, then humans are different from other animals not because we possess souls but because we have language with which we acknowledge God the Creator of souls.
While I’m remembering, my thoughts turn to Hoshana Rabbah, a strange interruption of the joy of the Sukkot season. During the morning prayers, the liturgical tradition is to return to the haunting melody of Yom Kippur because—while the book of life is sealed and the gates of repentance are closed at the end of Yom Kippur—the rabbis allowed for the possibility that during Sukkot we could nudge God toward granting forgiveness. Hoshana Rabbah is an extended deadline for atonement; some Jews symbolically cast off their sins by beating the willow branch until its leaves fall away.
Last year when I beat the willow branch, I was picturing Jenna waking up on the final day of her life and praying for the return of her soul to its creator. Tomorrow, when I participate in this ancient ritual, I will acknowledge our creator and engage my soul in remembering Jenna.
Yom Kippur is an exhausting day. By the end of the day, we’re tired, we’re hungry, and we’re just ready to be done. But traditionally, even if you’re exhausted, there’s a mitzvah to fulfill the next day: on the day after Yom Kippur, you’re supposed to build your sukkah.
What’s fascinating is that the day after Yom Kippur was also seen as the first day of building for the two most important structures in Jewish history—the mishkan (home for the Ark of the Covenant), and the First Temple in Jerusalem.
And these three structures—a sukkah, the mishkan, and the Temple—reflect three different levels of permanence.
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem was awe-inducing. It was at the top of a mountain in Jerusalem, and for most people, it would take days or weeks to travel there. It was a mob scene, with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in one location. If you went there, you would have thought that it would last forever.
Except it didn’t. The Temple was destroyed. Twice. The permanence was an illusion.
In our lives, too, we often look for stability, because it gives us reassurance. But we also know that our lives can change in a flash. Whether it’s our health, our finances, or our relationships, even if we think things will be there forever, we know that the vagaries of life and chance have their say, too. So yes, when we find a sense of security it can be comforting, but we also know that we can’t rely on it – too many things can happen.
The mishkan, in contrast, was the ultimate in portability. It was intentionally designed to get dismantled and rebuilt at every spot along the Israelites’ wanderings. Its impermanence was its defining feature, and a reminder that God could live anywhere.
And because the Ark of the Covenant wasn’t rooted down in one place, it became more than just a physical home for God; it was a spiritual home, as well.
The Torah says that when the mishkan was finished, God proclaimed, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in their midst (b’tocham).” The Hebrew word “b’tocham” certainly means “in their midst,” but it also can mean “in them.” So it could read, “Let them build a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell inside the people’s hearts.”
It’s like the story of the young man who wanted to be a rabbi. He told his rabbi, “I have gone through the Torah over twenty times.” “Ah,” said the rabbi. “That’s wonderful. But how many times has the Torah been through you?”
Our greatest treasures are not the things we physically own, but the values that guide us. Remembering what we stand for, who we want to be, and how we want to live allows us to deal more easily with the ups and downs of life.
The sukkah lies in between the Temple and the mishkan in that it is “semi-permanent.” It comes up for a week, and then goes down. It has a roof, but you have to be able to see the sky. It has walls, but not four of them, ensuring that our tent is wide open.
So with its sense of semi-permanence, the sukkah reminds us that even though that nothing lasts forever, we still need to build. Why? Because Judaism strives to create more blessings and justice and peace, and those things don’t happen by accident. They happen when we ourselves create them.
Will we be guaranteed success? No. Will they last forever? No. But for as long as they remain, we embrace them, we celebrate them, and we work to make more of them.
As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote last week, “Shelter and beauty and life are fragile, and to be joyously cherished.”
In the end, we should build our lives the way we build our sukkah—remembering that we are not eternal, but that while we are here, we have opportunities and responsibilities to embrace while they are ours to have.
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There’s an old joke about a rabbi, a priest, and a minister. The three leaders are speaking on a panel at a conference and are all asked the same question: “What would you like people to say about you after you die?” The priest answers first and says he hopes people will talk about how he was able to shepherd his flock and help them understand the love that God has for them as Catholics. The minister then says that he hopes he will be remembered for being a caring and thoughtful man who brought many people closer to Christ. The rabbi answers last; after a pause, she says “I would want people at my funeral to say: ‘look! She’s breathing!’”
Joking aside, the question of what we hope is said about our lives is a fascinating one. Each of us leaves a legacy—and the new year is a wonderful time to think about what that will look like.
One of the things that always strikes me about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is that in some ways the holidays can make us feel like we are starting the new year with a clean slate. But to think like that suggests that our actions and words only have a fleeting impact on others and on the world in which we live. The reality is that all of what we do, i.e. the good and the bad which will ultimately comprise our legacy, is created over our lifetimes and felt for a long time.
In our fast-paced world, many of us don’t have the luxury to reflect on what we do well. Instead, we only find time to dwell on our missteps, often rewinding in our minds those things we regret. But, there’s value in also focusing on where we do well and where we do good. It can help us chart our course for being our best selves moving forward.
A centuries-old tradition that some Jews participate in is writing an ethical will—a document that articulates values to pass on to future generations. This is certainly a worthwhile practice. But whether we write such a document or not – all of us can at least take a few minutes to focus on what it is that matters to us: if we were going to write a personal vision statement, what would that look like?
I recently read a graphic novel called On Purpose by Vic Strecher. Dr. Strecher points out that having a purpose has many benefits; focusing on something beyond our egos helps us grow, helps makes us more resilient, and can actually help prevent disease. In reading this book I realized that charting our purpose in a forward direction is how we can work to make sure that we ultimately have the legacy we want. To paraphrase psychiatrist Victor Frankl, it’s not just about having the means to live, but having meaning to live.
This blog post is a shortened version of my Yom Kippur sermon which can be viewed here.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.