A few days ago I was on my way home from work on my bike when a passenger in a passing car yelled to me, “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” It was jarring. I was obeying traffic laws and being as hyper-careful and thoughtful as possible. I have learned that when you are cycling on the suburban New Jersey roads near my home, anything less is very risky and foolish. So what was this guy’s problem? He was more than just an obnoxious North Jersey driver. He was a member of a more selective club – offensive, selfish drivers who put the lives of cyclists at risk.
Once spring weather settles in, I tune up my bike and use it as a primary means of transportation, weather permitting. I not only love the experience of a good ride, but I feel that cycling helps me to live my values. While getting great exercise I am also taking my car off the road – burning less fossil fuel and doing my own little part in relieving the traffic that plagues our New York metropolitan area. The least I would expect from the motorists who pass me is that they allow me to share the road.
This morning I took advantage of beautiful weather and set out early for an extra long ride. Riding on the quieter, beautiful roads away from the main town roads, I was sad when an ambulance sped past. I said a prayer for the person who needed to be whisked so quickly to the hospital. A little while later, as I passed another ambulance, I worried once again for the wounded or sick person whose morning was broken with their emergency. But when I passed a third ambulance a while later, my imagination kicked in. I prayed that the person inside was not a cyclist.
Our rabbis taught that we must not say that we are relieved that we are not the victims in an emergency, since that implies that we are not sympathetic to the person who is truly suffering. So I rebuked myself for such a selfish thought. I prayed once again for healing for whomever was in the ambulance.
But I came by this fear honestly. Just a couple of weeks ago a 25-year-old man was critically injured while cycling (hit by a car) just a mile from my house on a road I often need to travel. We live in an area that lacks shoulders on many of the roads, and harried drivers speed by, sometimes carelessly. A distracted driver can, God forbid, be a disaster for a cyclist. Even as it has become more and more common to see bicycle commuters all over the area, motorists are no more sensitive to our experience.
Last year I was coming to a stop at a light near my house, along with a few other cars. Suddenly, a large rock landed in front of my bike. It had come from one of the cars stopping at the light, from which a guy whom I never saw shouted at me. Luckily it didn’t hit me and, since I was stopped, the rock didn’t obstruct my travel. This was the worst of what I have experienced, thankfully! But it is very common to be jarred by passing motorists who honk or yell because they don’t like sharing the road with a bike (even though the road is not blocked — as I ride far to the right.)
What values are they living? Surely, they lack an appreciation for the need to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (as we learn from this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus 19.) They are too self-absorbed to realize that the best way to build a peaceful, caring society is to “stand in each other’s shoes” and respect each other’s needs. I can only pray that these lessons aren’t learned through tragedy.
A local group is sponsoring the second annual “Bike to Work Challenge.” I proudly display my certificate from last year’s challenge on the wall in my office. Thankfully, there is activism for raising cycling awareness. But the power to change our society resides with everyone. Some kindness, compassion, thoughtfulness and patience would go a long way toward helping all of us.
To all of the motorists who give us space and share the road – Thank You! We are all doing our part in making our world better.
Well I did not make it to the Newsweek Rabbi list, or even the My Jewish Learning Real Top Rabbi list. It would therefore be easy for me to be critical of this whole venture of voting for America’s Real Top Rabbis. However, this Real Top Rabbi vote is a reminder that rabbinic work is being carried on daily by some genuinely talented rabbis who do not make the headlines, but really deserve a thank you from all of us.
This whole phenomenon does raise a vital question as to what characteristics we look for in our rabbinic leadership. This is certainly a very old question without a simple answer neither today nor in years past.
This past Shabbat I taught a Rashi from Leviticus 9:7. Moses instructs Aaron to approach the altar. Since Aaron was already involved with the needed sacrifices, Rashi apparently saw this instruction as superfluous and therefore assumed something was happening that warranted this command from Moses to Aaron. “Aaron was bashful and afraid to approach [the altar]. So Moses said to him: “Why are you ashamed? For this [function] you have been chosen!”
One could imagine Moses being critical with Aaron here: Nu- get on with it, offer the required sacrifices, and do not hesitate! The Sefat Emet does not follow this approach. He understands Aaron’s bashfulness or reticence as a genuine religious/spiritual characteristic and one worthy of emulation. When commanded, Aaron acted, but with a certain hesitancy. What is that source for hesitating? Why not simply plow ahead eagerly?
I think it is not an expression of inadequacy to the task at hand. Rather, the Sefat Emet is suggesting that the serious religious personality has to take a breath, pause and consider: “what an awesome responsibility I have and an amazing opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah! What I am about to do is not something to be taken lightly. It is an extraordinary privilege to serve God and others. Am I truly worthy of it?” Not only a duty one must perform, a mitzvah is a statement of our worth and dignity. Have I earned the right to perform it?
As I write this it is Yom Hazikaron and this is being posted on Yom Ha-atzmaut. In this context I am reminded of one of my teachers, Rav Yehuda Amital, the founder of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He built an amazing educational institution whose students and teachers play important roles in Israel and world-wide. At a number of celebrations of the Yeshiva and at certain family celebrations he would walk around and sometimes express to nobody in particular “What did I do to merit this?” Now Rav Amital knew his talents and was not expressing false humility, but his sentiment was genuine. I think it came from this sense of amazement; how did he merit the privilege to create and nurture a yeshiva of the highest, spiritual, educational and moral order. It is the appreciation of this privilege that gives the religious person pause.
So, if you vote, vote for all the rabbis! And before you vote, pause and appreciate the privilege you have that these rabbis are your teachers and leaders.
Before I could read and write in English, I spoke Yiddish. At age 3 I learned the Hebrew alef-bet alongside the English alphabet. Together they remain by my side, right to left and left to right. This summer while in Israel I will continue my love affair with Hebrew and study yet again all the cool new phrases and lingo that I have missed since my last visit five years ago.
In my sixth decade, I continue teaching the holy Hebrew tongue from scratch to my budding bar/bat mitzvah students. I chant the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta with them and I empower them to decode the mysteries in all those final letters and strange vowels that play upon our gutteral abilities. Some Americans can do it better than others, but most struggle with a more perfect “chet.” Each one of them succeeds in getting close to their Hebrew heritage.
Some parents ask me again and again: “Can my child have a bar mitzvah without learning Hebrew? Hebrew is such a barrier. It takes too much time to learn. They’ll never use it again. I hated learning it myself during Hebrew school. Why put the pressure on them? ”
Ah, yes, the Hebrew controversy yet again. Why Hebrew?
I listen and I empathize for there is truth in everything they say. And then there is another truth: The veracity that the Jews have a special relationship with this ancient language with its venerable sounds. Hebrew is the best kept spiritual secret of the Jewish people.
Classical Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. The language is attested from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period, after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. Modern Hebrew is spoken by most of the eight million people in Israel, and it is one of the official languages of the country, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and by Christian seminarians.
To learn Hebrew is to tap into a resource that offers more than just the acquisition of knowledge. Hebrew connects the Jewish child with a historical telescope that reaches beyond our insular present. Putting sounds and words together creates a jigsaw puzzle of revelations. Like a mathematical logarithm, when they figure out how to read the most familiar of prayers, a light sparks inside of them.
The child delights in himself/herself when upon entering the synagogue they can read from the siddur that only a few months ago looked like a Chinese manuscript from a disappearing dynasty. They embrace this “adult” practice. This mandatory mitzvah to learn the Hebrew language, one prayer at a time, is magical, mystical and memorable.
I teach Hebrew by design. God’s design.
I recently made my first exploratory college visit with my high school aged son. My initial reaction during the tour of this elite liberal arts college was the same as my visit to an Israeli army post a few years ago: “God help us! We’re screwed if our future is entirely dependent on the success of these highly-libidinal teens and twenty-somethings.” The truth is, I loved the small campus, the 1:10 ratio of professors to students, as well as the personalized study programs that they offered. For almost $50K per year my kid would get access to great professors, small class sizes, incredible opportunities for selective, character-shaping internships, plus free-massages, and, get this, puppies in the quad to relieve stress during finals week. As our sophomore Theater Arts major tour guide said, “because who doesn’t love puppies.”
It was easy to picture my kid there, thriving, making life-long friends, generally “becoming”. Sadly, the $50K/year price tag only gave me slight pause. It should have stop me dead in my tracks, but it didn’t. Why not?
First, I was told by our college guidance office that “you just can’t tell what a college’s real cost will be” until you see how much scholarship and aid money they are going to give you. If they really want you, a private college tuition can sometimes even be less than a state school’s (so I’m told). So, why not apply to the schools you really want to go, and then deal with the money part latter?
Second, I’ve bought into the idea that your child doesn’t need to go to the best school she can get into, but to the college that fits her best. What’s the point of going to college if your kid will just be miserable there. Can he thrive there if he feels lost? Won’t she learn more, and live better, in the near future and even well into adulthood if she builds a strong foundation during her first foray in independence? And, how can she do that if the coursework is so overwhelming that she can hardly breath?
Third, and I know that this will sound simultaneously idiotic and self-serving and high-minded, I don’t really care about money, what I care about is people. Can I afford NOT to make a strong investment in the people I love? Apparently after reaching the Jewish age of wisdom (40), and after collecting almost $200K in graduate school debt between my wife and myself, I haven’t learned a damn thing. I have figured out that my student loans might finally get paid off when my youngest kid finishes graduate school. If he goes. If it still makes sense to still go to graduate school in a decade. [My sense is that educational life is changing so rapidly that it’s too hard to accurately predict what is or isn’t necessary to “make it” in the near future.]
Alas, such is the disconnected-from-reality mindset of a parent raised in the 80’s and 90’s, an era so seemingly prosperous that even though I know better it is hard to fathom that this “economic down-turn” can last much longer. Intellectually I believe that we’ve likely got almost a decade of unravelling to go and perhaps a full generation to recover from as a nation.
Reading Jefferey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (it should have won him a second Pulitzer) and watching the new HBO series Girls (working with high schoolers and only have sons, I found the first two episodes so mesmerizingly current and concerning that my wife had to remind me that it was a comedy) I am reminded that college does not guarantee a successful “launch”:
“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think, I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation… Okay, all I’m asking to finish this book is $1100 a month for two years.” (Girls character, Hannah Horvath, to her parents who are cutting her off after two years at an unpaid internship).
I believe that the desire for our kids to “just be happy” is a relatively new phenomenon, no more than one or two generations old. It was not so long ago that parents just wanted their kids to “make it,” to survive. Once the relative risk of survival diminished, a new goal came into play – happiness, and happiness, as an end in itself, has brought for many a wave of depression, an eclipse of the holy dimension, and a deadening sense of total relativism in all aspects of life. It’s the difference between living for something larger than the self (think God and country) verse the living for one’s ego.
The Talmud provides a short template of parents’ obligations to their children:
“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well,” (Talmud Kidushin 29a).
The brief checklist suggests that one must provide for the spiritual as well as physical well-being of one’s children. Circumcision (brit milah), redemption of the first born (pidyon haben), and the study of Torah all sustain the soul, while finding a spouse, learning a trade and swimming speak to the physical survival of one’s children. We could also read into the list temporal (physical, this-worldly )and eternal (heavenly) survival.
Could the right college possibly provide my son with spiritual and physical fulfillment? Is that what I’m hoping for?
In the recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question what it is that undergraduates are really learning, and how exactly we would know:
In a typical semester … 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?
Remember Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten? I’ve always found the title apt. I would add, and if you didn’t learn it in kindergarten, don’t worry, it’s on the web! If the findings of Academically Adrift are correct, than wouldn’t it be absurd to spend something approaching $50K/year if my kid wouldn’t really learn anything? I don’t expect my son’s intellect to grow considerably; he’s already smart enough (smarter than I, the real measure between fathers and sons). It’s not the money either, though according to the Wall Street Journal college grads should still expect a considerable pay bump over high school grads, between $450K to $1 million over a lifetime. I’ve been so deep in debt because of my own student loans that such numbers feel like Monopoly money.
What I really want in a college for my son are “mastery experiences” that build him up and opportunities that will deepen his understanding of the world and of his place in it. College is not the only place finding one’s causes and path in life can happen, and there are no assurances in the calculation, but as it stands right now, college still seems like the best bet, besides, who knows, there may be puppies.
When I was in rabbinical school in the mid to late 1990s the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical School, did not knowingly admit or ordain gay or lesbian rabbis. I say “knowingly” because there were some students in the closet. Being a supporter of gay ordination, I did everything I could to try to move the process forward.
I will never forget the day that myself and another student met with the then Chancellor Ismar Schorsch. The two of us began to passionately speak about the Jewish values which informed our belief that gays and lesbians should be ordained. After only a few sentences had left our mouths, the Chancellor interrupted and said, “Let me stop you there. Gays and Lesbians will not be ordained at JTS while I am still Chancellor. It is not going to happen.” Then, he escorted us out of his office.
The experience left me a little shaken and very sad. I could not believe that he would not even listen to us. He had no interest in even discussing the topic. None! I hated that I was attending a school which did not uphold one of my core values. The Bible tells us time and again “Welcome the strangers in your midst because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” I hold the value of welcoming, inclusivity and acceptance as one of the highest Jewish values. As a Jew growing up in Austin, Texas, I often felt like a stranger. As a woman studying to be a rabbi, I often felt like a stranger. I think most people feel like a stranger at some point in their lives. In my mind a Judaism that is not open, welcoming and accepting is not a Judaism that I want to practice.
Chancellor Schorsch retired in 2006. One year later, The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) voted to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. I was thrilled and excited by this change. Aaron Weininger, a Rabbi Without Borders Student Fellow, became the first openly gay student admitted to The Seminary. And last year Rachel Isaacs became the first out lesbian to be ordained by JTS. (She transferred in to JTS and graduated a year ahead of Aaron who will be ordained this May.)
While I celebrated this progress, I heard from rabbinical school students that The Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies in Israel, the Conservative Movements Rabbinical School in Israel would not admit gay students. This posed a problem since all JTS students are required to spend a year studying at The Schechter Institute as part of their rabbinical school training. The gay and lesbian students were again being made to feel like strangers, unwelcome in the Movement and Institutions they wanted to study in. Gay and lesbian JTS students had to find somewhere else to study for their year in Israel. To my mind, this was an unacceptable situation. I lamented the fact that while admitting gay student JTS did not seem to be capable of thinking through all of the various needs of these students and could not find ways to support them.
Then, just last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, The Schechter Institute board voted to admit gay and lesbian students. The significance of this decision coming in Holocaust Remembrance Day cannot be understated. Both Jews and homosexuals were singled out by Hitler to be exterminated. Jews wore a yellow star while homosexuals were forced to wear a pink triangle. Gay Jews were of course twice cursed. I would like to think that the vote of the Schechter board, coming on the day it did, was an acknowledgement that past discrimination against homosexual students was wrong. I would like to think that Jews, gays, women, and other minorities are all in the same boat. We must look out for one another, support one another, and advance each other’s goals. To do any less would be an abdication of our responsibility as Jews.
While this decision is momentous, I know that the fight for full acceptance of gay rabbis is not over. Many synagogues will not hire a gay rabbi and some other rabbis will not accept gay rabbis as equal colleagues. Women rabbis still face this issue and JTS began ordaining women over twenty five years ago!
I strongly believe that the Conservative Movement needs to stand behind each and every rabbi they ordain. The Movement has a responsibility to these rabbis to support them in their job searches and career growth. Lay leaders and Jewish professionals across the country need to have conversations about diversity and acceptance. If we cannot practice this in our own intuitions how are we to promote acceptance of difference, particularly religious difference, with a clear conscience. How can we fight against anti Semitism the world over if we do not accept the minorities within our own communities?
“Never Forget!” is said each and every year on Holocaust Remembrance Day. We must remember those who died due to discrimination and prejudice and we must make sure that we ourselves do not employ discriminatory practices. Each one of us was created in the image of God. We are all holy beings no matter the color of our skin, our gender, or who we love. God loves each one of us and we need to love ourselves.
Yashar Koach (Right on!) to the Schechter Institute for making this decision. Let’s continue to support each individual who wants to study, teach and lead the Jewish people.
Almost eight years ago, on the evening of April 22nd, after a full day of labor, my husband Rick and I got into the car and drove a mile and a half to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Noa Tiferet Kobrin-Brody, our first child, would be born less than two hours later. Between the intensity of the contractions, Rick and I observed the beauty of the thinnest possible crescent moon that shone brightly in the deep sky. Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of a new Hebrew month) had just ended, and what we saw on that eventful evening was the first sign of the new moon. We knew it heralded an auspicious new chapter in our lives; but it also stirred a very special memory: Rick’s grandmother, who’s name was Doris, loved the crescent moon — she thought it was one of nature’s greatest beauties. Rick’s family had in fact named it a “mommy–moon” in honor of Doris.
Rick and I had been “old-school” and did not know, prior to Noa’s birth, if our baby was a boy or a girl. We had thought, if she was a girl, that we would name her Noa, after Rick’s grandfather, Nathaniel. We wanted to remember Rick’s grandmother through our child’s middle name, but we were struggling to find a suitable girl’s name that honored Doris. The crescent moon changed that. On that night in April, the crescent moon — the mommy-moon — actually had a Jewish name: Tiferet she’b’Tiferet.
Each spring, we Jews have the opportunity to usher progressively more holiness into our lives through the sacred act of counting the Omer. The 49 days between the first day of Passover and the first day of Shavuot provide a perfect square in time — seven weeks of seven days; each one gets counted as a critical step in reenacting the transformative journey from the Egyptian Exodus to the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. The mystics understood this s’firah — this period of counting — as an opportunity to contemplate 49 different combinations of 7 fundamental Divine qualities, or s’firot. Each week has one of these divine qualities connected to it, and so does each day of the week. This means that each day is a unique pairing from these 7 s’firot — the 4th day of the 2nd week, the 5th day of the 7th week, etc. Each pairing suggests a certain way of being in the world and of experiencing reality. Once each week, the same s’firah appears twice — the same number day within the same number week. This alignment offers double the power for actualizing that one quality.
Noa Tiferet was born on the 17th day of the Omer, the 3rd day of the 3rd week, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet — the day of beauty within the week of beauty. One of the beauties of the Jewish calendar is its lunar consistency, meaning that the 17th day of the Omer, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet, always falls at the first appearance of the thinnest crescent moon after Passover. Each year on Noa Tiferet’s Hebrew birthday, as we count the Omer and look up into the sky, we are greeted by that beautiful crescent shining down on us. And each year, we remember Doris Sack, a woman who lived to the full age of 93, and taught us to appreciate all of life’s beauties, especially the subtle and delicate crescent moon.
We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?
A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.
In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.
Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”
Why? As Ariely explains:
When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)
There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.
Honest Weights and Measures
Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.
The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)
Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!
And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.
The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die
The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”
We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.
So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”
Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.
The annual Newsweek/Daily Beast list of America’s fifty top rabbis came out recently. Like many of my colleagues I always read it eagerly to see who got noticed and honored. I revel in reading the names of friends and colleagues whom I regard with the same awe as the Newsweek crew. I always wonder how they determine the list and think of colleagues who coulda/shoulda/woulda been on the list if I had written it. I shake my head at some of the choices, not sure what the reviewers had in mind – but who am I to know, I’m just a rabbi, not a consumer of rabbinic services. Then I shrug my shoulders at the whole exercise. I don’t know what it means, anyway.
But this year the list generated some interesting reactions among some of my colleagues and friends. Some have voiced criticism of the whole idea of honoring rabbis in this way. After all, aren’t rabbis supposed to be humble servants of the Jewish people? The idea of singling out rabbis to call them the “best” in some ways does dishonor to the whole community of rabbis who give their hearts and souls, and in many ways, the whole of themselves. We do this not for honor and fame, but out of devotion to God, Torah and Israel, to bring honor to the Jewish people.
Other colleagues reacted to the slights they perceived on the list. One rabbinic friend started his own campaign to nominate America’s top rabbis using Facebook. (I learned about it when my name appeared on the nominated list, which just made me laugh.) MyJewishLearning.com launched a campaign for nominations and votes for the top rabbis, egging on possible competition between congregations or organizations to get “their” rabbi up there in the ratings.
So what’s going on here? I think this is a very real sign of a gaping hole in our culture — we desperately need heroes. We are starved for strong, inspiring, talented, transformational leaders. Living in a challenging time, filled with rapid change, and so much cultural, political and religious divisiveness, we are all seeking the comfort and hope that a strong leader can offer.
Many Jews feel a deep need for spiritual nourishment that they have not found in synagogues. In a culture that notices and honors those who achieve celebrity status, it is appealing to have celebrity rabbis who might just give us hope and direction.
Psalm 121 pleads, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” We need leaders cast in the mold of Moses and Miriam — courageous, visionary, creative, innovative, nurturing, and also human.
The Newsweek list of their choices for the top 50 rabbis represented leaders in this mold. I am grateful for their leadership and happy to honor them. But it surely must go beyond this. The reactions to “the list” reminds us that there are many heroes of lesser fame and stature whose contributions to the lives of many people are equally as noteworthy, and perhaps even more impactful.
And still we need more — first, by stepping back from the mentality of celebrity and super-human expectations that we learn from our culture. We need to give encouragement and support to emerging leaders. And most importantly, we do best honor to all of our leaders by joining them in the task of transforming our world.
Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow evening at sundown. Many of us will light a yahrzeit candle and pause to remember. And many memorials will include the singing of Ani Ma’amin — “I believe.”
The text is fairly well-known: “I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is very well-known. It was this text that some Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The well-known Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.
What does it it mean to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise? What does it take to sing it under the most trying of circumstances? Had circumstances been different, were I living there instead of here, then instead of now, would I have been among its singers?
I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is about having faith in the human capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When we do those things, we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of
Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.
And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:
Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.
Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He lives in Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He lives in Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He lives in those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us.
Ani Ma’amin – I believe.
Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.
B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is called mashiach.
V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…
Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…
Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.
B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.
We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.
Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.
If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.
This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.
The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.