Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.
The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.
Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.
As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.
Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.
Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.
A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.
To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”
Often reality is stranger than fiction; The vote for one of the first major strike in American history was taken in Yiddish and involved an ancient Jewish oath.
Most of us take for granted the bathroom breaks and workplace safety that are, not always but generally, the standard in the United States. As Labor Day approaches, it is worth taking a moment away from the barbecues and the back to school prep to remember that some of these basic workplace amenities came to be through the hard fought battles of early labor organizers many of whom were Yiddish speaking women.
In the early years of the twentieth century the influx of immigrants combined with industrial mechanization gave rise to sweatshops and factories with grim conditions, low wages, and long hours. Workers were rarely in a position to negotiate time off, overtime, or even bathroom breaks. Workers were crammed together with little fresh air and breathing in the byproducts of their manufacturing process. Machine safety was an afterthought. Threats of strikes and unionization were undercut by threat of unemployment for the same workers who could ill afford it and the easy supply of replacement labor.
Still there were those who understood that the power for change would only come through unionization and strikes. Unless business owners faced real loss they would have no incentive to change. In 1909 there were a series of small strikes. These were grassroots affairs that engage a largely female Jewish immigrant population involved in the needle trades. But the bosses beat picketers, had them arrested and the strike fund dwindled. Time was running out.
Nonetheless the members of Local 25 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called a meeting inviting all the workers in the shirtwaist industry. Thousands came and listened to a roster of important union bosses, most of whom were men, speak in broad terms about the importance of strikes and the challenges to the efforts. The momentum might have been lost had not Clara Lemlich stepped to the podium for an impromptu speech.
Lemlich was a Russian immigrant and a self taught socialist who had become a union organizer in the United States. She had been arrested and beaten but felt compelled to act. She was frustrated by lack of action and new that something needed to be done. Speaking in Yiddish she admonished the union leaders and roused the crowd. “I am a working girl, one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here to decide is whether we will or will not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared–now.” Following her lead, the assembled masses raised their right arms and swore loyalty to the union using the words “If I forget thee o’ union may my right arm forget its cunning.” Playing off the ancient oath not to forget Jerusalem. The vote to strike carried. The numbers swelled to 20,000 and it became impossible to ignore the workers needs. Though only some of the needed changes were made, a 52 hour week and 4 vacation days, it was the start of a new era.
Since those days Yiddish has largely become the language of Jewish jokes not of American politics or social reform. Yet in recalling the passion and purpose of Clara Lemlich and the other brave women she rallied that night, we remember that the story of those still struggling for safe working conditions and reasonable pay is our own story. We cannot distance ourselves from the farm, box store or fast workers who despite actively contributing to the economy cannot necessarily afford the basics of food, shelter, and healthcare or be assured safe working conditions.
In a few weeks it will be 5775 on the Jewish calendar, a Jubilee year when we are supposed to set our slaves free. Take a page from Clara Lemlich and begin this year with a call to justice. Write to your representatives and to the stores in which you shop, post to your communities on social media and remind them that we all need to work together to have a society in which work and human dignity and survival go hand in hand.
Tisha B’Av (Aug. 5th), which commemorates the destruction of the Temple also marks the seven week countdown to Rosh Hashanah. Seven weeks. What will the rabbi at the services you attend in seven weeks talk about? Israel? For sure, but what will she say? Immigration? Not so sure about that one—it might depend where you live. Will he suggest that you give yourself the gift of time away from your electronics, from what Joshua Ferris in his latest novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, calls your Me-machine? Your rabbi might say that, so politely nod, ‘cause he’s right. Yes, you already know it. But then again, most of the great wisdom your rabbi can share is something you already know, but still find it hard to accomplish.
With seven weeks prior to your rabbi’s high holiday sermon, as rabbi tax-season now starts to ramp up, make him or her a suggested topic list. In fact, narrow it down for your rabbi, he or she might very well thank you. Better still, but certainly annoying (so worth it!!), agree with 10+ fellow congregants about 3 or so topics that you genuinely have questions about and let the rabbi know that y’all have some expectations for real answers to your collective real questions.
“Rabbi, what does Judaism have to say about the existence of my soul?”
“Rabbi, we’re curious about what Judaism has to say about a shift to greater nuclear energy? Should we fully legalize pot in our state too?”
“Rabbi, what does Judaism say about my gay cousin?”
“Is heaven for real? Are there dogs?”
“Don’t tell me right away, Rabbi, not another ‘on one foot’ answer. Open your books. Ask your colleagues. I want Judaism to guide my life and to answer my questions, so take your time. If you speak to what really concerns me, if you tell me the truth, even a partial-truth as you understand from our vast tradition, it will be worth it! I’ll give you seven weeks.
Here is a topic you might consider suggesting. In this mid-term election year, how about articulating a strong, clear Jewish position on gun control? “Rabbi, should there be a limit on our Second Amendment right?” For most, school hasn’t started yet, so there is no school shootings to speak about. The problem with speaking about gun control after a school shooting is that one can be dismissed as reactionary. A place to start might be from the short piece by my colleague, Menachem Creditor, Peace in Our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence.
There are many great topics, so suggest some to your rabbi—make the High Holiday experience relevant to your real concerns. So why did I suggest gun control? It was on my mind. Yesterday, August 4th, James Brady died. Mr. Brady was Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary when he was shot during an assassination attempt on the president. After that, Mr. Brady became a tireless spokesman on behalf of curtailing gun sales, and gun violence.
When he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.
Mr. Brady said that five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower and help getting dressed, and—damn it—I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ” -New York Times (Aug. 4, 2014).
As I imagine it, when James Brady reaches heaven he is no longer in a wheelchair. He is greeted by his late family and friends, even President Reagan, who, thanks to the miracle that is heaven, is no longer limited by the Alzheimer’s he once had. Then, the two of them, guided by the gift of wisdom and eternity, amble over to Charlton Heston, who, while he lived played Moses in the Ten Commandments, and than later in life became the celebrated spokesman for the National Rifle Association. Brady and Reagan, together, pry Heston’s rifle “out of his cold dead hands.”
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At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”
During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.
Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.
Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.
Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.
Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.
For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.
My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.
Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.
Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.
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“It’s not that I have an issue with her having sex, per se, it’s just that it should mean something. You know?”
That’s what a parent I met years ago said about his suspicion that his teenage daughter was having casual sex in his home while he and his wife were away on a brief trip. That sentiment, that ‘it should mean something’, is what I’m thinking about as Pesach is coming to a close. It’s not that I’ll miss Passover exactly, it’s that its message is so important that I don’t want to forget about it for an entire year. “It should mean something. You know?”
We are suppose to feel as if we ourselves have been taken out of a dangerous and narrow place, Egypt, and have been liberated. To make this come alive, at our seder tables we recounted the 10 plagues. For each plague we took out a drop of wine, reminding ourselves that while each plague was indeed a miracle for the Hebrews, the opposite was simultaneously true for the Egyptians. We cannot enjoy a full cup of joy while others suffer, even when it was due and coming to them. So what are plagues that exist today that inspire in me an sense of freedom should I be able to imagine a life without them?
What are the Plagues of the 21st Century that upon the close of this festival of freedom we will still need to contend with?
- Blood. It is preposterous to me that in a time and age when we know what is happening in almost every inch of our globe that we have grow so numb as to allow so much war and bloodshed throughout world, but especially the African continent. “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
- Frogs. The incessant croaking of the frogs made it nearly impossible for the Egyptians to even think a clear thought. Such are many of the TV pundits, who, in the guise of informative journalist, are mere partisan bloviators who confuse partial truths with good policy positions.
- Lice. Lice, like the spots in Cat in the Hat, lice are little things that once you turn your attention to them, they seem to multiply. It’s as if they were specially designed to piss you off. What are the little things in your life that are multiplying and seem to be taking over?
- Wild Beasts. “Who do those animals think they are?” In the realm of animals, we often think of humans as the pinnacle power and control. During the plague of the wild beast, that was turned upside down. Hate crimes, such as the one perpetrated in Overland Park, Kansas remind us that it’s not all peace and manna here in the monkey house. When there is a lack of order, when our protections fail, we are fearful, and we know the topsy turvy plague of the wild beasts.
- Cattle Disease. Cattle stock was a measure of value and of security in the ancient world. Some people put their stock in the stock market, but so many others, the overwhelming majority of humanity on this planet, have no savings, or are half a paycheck away, or one hospitalization away from being wiped out.
- Boils. Private indiscretions, no matter how well concealed, find a way to come to the surface. If they’ve been hidden from view, if we’ve tried to hide Truth, perhaps especially from ourselves, the Truth tends to boil over. This is true for the NSA, for the CIA wiretapping Guantanamo Bay hearings. When a Truth once hidden comes to the surface, it’s ugly and it disfigures precisely those who tried to hide the truth for personal gain. It’s true for those who post maliciousness on the internet and its true for cheating Congressmen who run on a platform of “religious values”.
- Hail. In each ball of ice was a tar ball, all aflame. We can no longer ignore our environment. When it’s cold, it’s colder. When it’s hot, it’s hotter. And, it’s not even hot or cold in the right season any more. Nature in no longer playing by her usual rules. It’s disorienting. The environmental impact of global warming are multi-factorial and so monumental as to seems beyond human ability to correct.
- Locust. Like lice, locust swarm. There are too many things that need our attention. The digital age isn’t helping much with this. There is so much that we can pay partial focus to. Have you ever missed your stop on the subway? Or your exit on the freeway? Have you ever read a page of a book, blinked, and than wondered if you had really read that page? Now, add in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and some Candy Crush (of Flappy Bird if you still have that app.). It’s not all bad, in fact, much of it is good, but our digital life can turn into such a time-suck. Our bifurcated lives have the potential, much more than any age before ours, to make us less attentive when we should be more mindful. I see people quickly feeling swamped, overwhelmed, so much so they see only two choices, caring less (F’ it) or pushing on and living with greater and greater anxiety (this really leads back to some level of F’ it, so just one choice).
- Darkness: The darkness of the 9th plague was palpable. Egyptians were physically stuck in the think slosh of the darkness. This is not the “good darkness” of Barbara Brown Taylor, this is depression. Depression is a thick tar that coats everything with darkness. There in no joy, there is no motivation, there is just stuck-ness, meaninglessness, and for some, deep pain.
- Death. The final plague is a culmination of the previous nine as well as a return to the first, bloodshed. When we ignore bloodshed, when we’ve let our trouble rise and rise such that the world feels upside-down, and all that we can see is darkness, we will have suffocated hope. Without hope, there is only death. There is no opportunity to change, no ideal with which to steer a new generation toward. In the face of any and every obstacle, the greatest plague is the death of hope. Without hope we sink into absurdity. Without hope, there is no love, no beauty, and no meaning. Without hope there is only death.
As a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?
Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.
One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.
Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.
Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.
As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.
Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?