Monday, August 03, 2015

Introduction for PM Harper - King David Dinner, May 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Hunger, Iran and Tisha B'Av

Fasting is foreign to us. In the Middle Ages, people fasted a great deal. The 9th century Babylonian work Halachot Gedolot (Tur OH 580) lists no less than 25 additional fast days that are obligatory; in addition, people fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, Yartzeits and when they had bad dreams. In the medieval era, fasting was a religious experience of inspiration, a meaningful way to transcend the mundane. 

Today, things are different. While some might still appreciate fasting as a spiritually transcendent experience, when I fast, I.....just get hungry. I think about food, think about when the fast is going to end, and think about how much time it will take for me to return home, pour a cup of orange juice, and break the fast. But there's meaning to be found in these banal cravings as well, and hunger can teach us some down to earth spiritual lessons. And hunger's message is this: humans are frail and needy, and without food for even a few hours, we become worried and uncomfortable. We learn from hunger how incomplete we are, and how much needs to be fixed.

The lesson is that hunger isn't just about food. Our spiritual side craves a better world; and on Tisha B'Av, while we mourn the tragedies of exile, we feel desperately hungry for the peace and security of a real home.

The Jewish hunger for peace is more than an accident of history; it is a part of our destiny. Geographically, Israel sits at the crossroads of conflict. The land promised to Abraham is located on the land bridge between three continents; and because of this, Israel was an area hotly contested by empires in Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia Greece and Rome. Many have noted that unique geography of the land promised to Abraham is intended to make the Jews profoundly aware of how fragile, and precious, peace can be.

This is why peace is nothing less than a Jewish obsession: we pray for peace three times a day, our blessings end with a hope for peace, and Israel's Declaration of Independence remarkably offers peace to all of Israel's hostile neighbors. Peace is nothing less than the Jewish quest.

At the same time, in exile, security was elusive; the outrage Chaim Nachman Bialik eloquently expressed after the Kishinev massacre in 1903 is the repressed cry of two millennia of exile. The establishment of the State of Israel was meant to give the Jewish people a true home where they could live with peace and security.

Unfortunately, peace and security are not always one and the same. And every political debate about Israel can be boiled down to this: are we hungrier for security or for peace?   The same script is revived endlessly, about policies, political parties, and personalities: "xxx is bad for security". "But xxx is good for peace, and worth the risk". We might want both peace and security, but in the cartoonishly binary logic of politics, you only get to choose only one or the other. And on most issues relating to Israel, the old debate of peace vs. security will fill page upon page of newsprint.

But not this week. Remarkably, the Iran nuclear deal has sparked a virtual consensus of rejection. The entire Israeli political spectrum finds very little to love in a deal that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East. Yes, giving a fanatical dictatorship 24 days notice before an inspection should have been a deal breaker, plain and simple.  And with the sanctions lifted, Iran can buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles and bankroll Hezbollah attacks on innocent Syrians and Israelis. For Israelis sitting at the crossroads of conflict, it is easy to see how tossing a lifeline to Ayatollahs who shout "death to Israel, death to America" does not advance the cause of peace. It is easy to see that handing a major economic and diplomatic victory to a Holocaust denying, terrorism sponsoring, Jew hating regime is simply not a step in the direction of peace. It's impossible, even for left wing supporters of Israel, to pretend otherwise.

Yes, I'm hungry for peace; and most supporters for Israel are as well. But this deal does nothing to advance the cause of peace. And as another Tisha B'Av comes and goes, I'll be hungrier than ever for a true and lasting peace in the Middle East.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Bitter Herb’s Bittersweet Lesson

Why dredge up ugly memories when you’re celebrating your triumphs? It’s much more pleasant to forget the bad times and focus on the good times.

And yet, the Seder focuses a great on remembering the pain and suffering of slavery. We have salt water tears, blood red wine, charoset mortar and straw, and most prominently, the bitter herbs of 400 years of slavery.

But why do we spend so much time remembering the bitterness?

The first lesson is that the bitter herb must be bitter; that means we should never fool ourselves and think that the bitter herb is sweet. The pain and suffering of slavery should never be rationalized, period. Too often, people who are pious believe they have found the “divine plan” to explain suffering; instead they have justified the unjustifiable, and ignored the pain of the victims. So we must never forget that bitterness is bitter, and that our only hope is to overcome slavery and make suffering disappear.

The second lesson comes from the lingering taste of bitterness in our mouths. No matter how charmed our lives have been, we all know people who have had bitter experiences; sometimes it’s our friends, or our parents and grandparents. We all know the taste of bitter herbs.  

Yet this bitter taste offers us a profound wisdom: in a world with too much bitterness, one must cherish the sweet moments, and recognize how special they are.

One can take life’s sweet moments for granted. People can celebrate beautiful weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, only to be obsessed with the shortcomings of the tablecloths and the desserts. (Yes, I have seen this happen). We lose a sense of perspective about how sweet a simcha is, even if the dessert was a bit overbaked.

The bitter herbs are a reminder never to squander sweetness.

A friend told me a story about his Bar Mitzvah 50 years ago. He was an only child, and both of his parents were Holocaust survivors. At the Bar Mitzvah lunch, his parents went missing. The guests started to look for them, and the synagogue’s superintendent was sent to search the building for them. Finally, he found the Bar Mitzvah boy’s parents huddled in a distant corner, crying in each other’s arms. The parents explained that they were emotionally overwhelmed. During the war they could barely have dreamt that they would survive, and now…. now, they were celebrating their son’s Bar Mitzvah. The power of the joy was simply overwhelming.

This is the bittersweet lesson of the bitter herbs; when we remember the taste of marror, we learn how to cherish sweetness. We should be overwhelmed with appreciation at any hint of sweetness, and recognize that any Bar Mitzvah is beautiful, even if the tablecloths are the wrong color, and any wedding is sweet, even if the dessert is subpar.  

At every seder, there are bitter herbs. Not just on the seder plate, but in remembering the person who is gone and desperately missed. But at the same time, we have to cherish the sweet, to look at each and every person who is there, and recognize that it is a miracle to celebrate together, and that there’s nothing sweeter than a spiritual evening filled with food, family and friends.

Chag Sameach !

Monday, February 09, 2015

Why Don't We "Get" Shabbat?

I hate to admit this, but there’s one sermon topic of mine that has consistently flopped.

The topic is Shabbat.

We don’t seem to get Shabbat. What’s puzzling to me is why we don’t.

I’m not talking as a Shabbat observer looking out at everyone else; actually, even among the observant, there is a rush to “get over” with Shabbat. Everyone waits for the minute Shabbat is over, like schoolchildren waiting for the recess bell. And some Orthodox teens find it too difficult to let go of their cellphones on Shabbat, to the point that they keep the Shabbat carefully…except for texting. So it’s not a question of how observant you are; everyone finds it difficult to appreciate Shabbat.

Shabbat actually makes a lot of sense. In the 21st century, Shabbat is more necessary than ever. Constant buzzes and bells multitask our brains into mush; email and cellphones have transformed work into a 24/7 phenomenon. Now, more than ever, we need Shabbat for a little peace and quiet.

Even technology evangelists understand the need for a technology free time. Clay Shirky, a professor of social media at New York University, who teaches his students about the culture of the internet, found it impossible to allow his students to use laptops, tablets, and phones in class, because they were too distracting. Tiffany Shlain, a filmmaker who created the Webby Awards, the leading international award honoring excellence on the Internet, embraced a “technology Shabbat”. She and her family turn off all computers, TV’s, and smartphones for Shabbat, and instead focus on being mindful and being connected with each other. And even the investment bank Goldman Sachs understands the Shabbat. Goldman Sachs now requires junior associates to stop working on the weekend. Beginning 9 p.m. on Fridays, junior associates may not come to work or login on their computers until Sunday morning. 

So why don’t we get Shabbat?

Because we don’t understand how you can take a day off. We live in the culture of the M.B.A., where efficiency and productivity are the touchstones of meaning. For thousands of years, the Homo Economicus has seen the idea of taking a day off and forgoing potential profits as bizarre. Peter Schafer, in his book Judeophobia, devotes an entire chapter to Roman criticisms of the Shabbat. He quotes the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C.E – 65 C.E.) as saying: “their practice of the Shabbat is inexpedient because by resting one day in every seven they lose in idleness one seventh of their life”. To the Romans, the Shabbat was absurd: what sense does a day of rest make, when you have countries to conquer and aqueducts to build? And this attitude is even more true of contemporary society. We live by Benjamin Franklin’s edict “time is money”, and wonder how we can squeeze a few more minutes out of the day. We carry our work with us everywhere, and take work calls and send work emails all hours of the day and night. Even universities, which are meant to be places of higher learning, have largely become pre-professional training centers, places for students to harvest A’s on their way to a good investment banking job.

But the Shabbat speaks another language. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) talks about the purpose of abstaining from work on Shabbat is to allow one to pursue spiritual experiences. Shabbat is a day to study and think, to spend with God at the synagogue and with family and friends at home. It slows us down to open our eyes to another reality.

In the Lonely Man of Faith, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that man possesses a dual nature, that of a conqueror and a poet. Man must both master and recreate the world, and at the same time stand in awe of the beauty and grandeur of creation. This duality is what Shabbat strives to help us balance; with six days of productive labor followed by one day devoted to the spiritual, man keeps himself in balance.

Soloveitchik notes that modern man clings to his work, and doesn’t open his ears to hear the other language, the feelings of awe, love and inspiration. Why don’t we get Shabbat? Because modern man is out of balance, devoted to triumphs instead of wisdom.

An anecdote from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg best describes what we don’t get about Shabbat. He was at a wedding and was sitting next to someone he had never met. He writes that:

“In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.”

This plumber is absolutely correct in rebuffing Rabbi Goldberg. On a daily basis, as a habit of speech, we conflate “what we do” with “how we earn a living”. We forget that while work is important, there is more to life than work. And Shabbat is there for a full life, one that includes love and learning, insights and inspiration.

But as long as we think that how we make a living is all we actually do, we will not get what Shabbat is about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Redemption, The Jewish Mission Statement

A sermon by: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz‎

1. Jews are Optimists!

‎It’s remarkable that Jews aren’t more pessimistic about their future.

‎In just the last two weeks, we have watched a horrific terror attack in kosher market ‎in Paris, and then another one on a bus in Tel Aviv. In both cases, Jews were targeted ‎because they were Jews. And these two horrors are merely footnotes on a long ‎history of anti-Semitic attacks. And yet, despite thousands of years of persecution, the ‎Jewish people continue on, unwilling to quit.  Jewish optimism is one of the wonders ‎of human history.

‎‎2. Exodus, Exodus and More Exodus

The key to Jewish optimism can be found in what is no less than a constant obsession ‎in the Bible: the Exodus in Egypt.  The anonymous 13th century author of the Sefer ‎Hachinuch ponders the following question:

‎‎“‎למה זה יצוה אותנו השם יתברך לעשות כל אלה לזכרון אותו הנס, והלא בזכרון אחד יעלה הדבר ‏במחשבתנו ולא ישכח מפי זרענו‎”

‎‎“…why did God command us to do all these (commandments) to commemorate that ‎miracle, for with one commemoration we would raise our consciousness of this, and it ‎would never be forgotten by our descendents…”‎‎

(His answer, which anticipates some of the psychological theories of the last century, ‎is that man is conditioned by his behavior, and that our character is shaped by what ‎we do.‎Now this is an important point, one that offers a new insight into the importance of ‎mitzvoth in the Jewish tradition; but it is not sufficient to explain why there are so ‎many mitzvot tied to the Exodus from Egypt.) ‎

The Bible sees the Exodus as the basis for an enormous raft of commandments; not ‎just the 20 or so commandments involved in the Pesach Seder, but multiple others,  ‎such as the redeeming the firstborn, Tefillin, Tzitzit, the orientation of the Jewish ‎calendar, loving the stranger, and the Sabbath. Even belief in God, the first of the Ten ‎Commandments, is connected to the Exodus. And of course, we are also commanded ‎to remember the Exodus every single day.‎Why is it that so many commandments are tied to just one event in history? ‎‎(Compare the Exodus to the revelation at Mount Sinai, which is connected to only ‎one commandment!)‎‎

3. A Weird Explanation of 400 Years of Slavery

We can answer this question with a question.‎Where did the exile in Egypt come from? It is announced to Abraham, without ‎explanation, in Genesis 15:13:

‎וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה

‎“Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your ‎descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be ‎enslaved and mistreated there.”

‎And dozens of commentators ask the simplest question: Why? Why are these yet ‎unborn generations fated to endure the horrors of slavery?‎

A strange explanation is given by Rabbi Yechezkel Landau of Prague (the “Nodah ‎BeYehuda” - 8 October 1713 – 29 April 1793). In his introduction to his commentary ‎on Pesachim he writes:

‎‏, וידוע שכל גלות מצרים היה תיקון לחטא אדם הראשון שאכל מעץ הדעת, וכן נאמר לאברהם אבינו ‏בברית בין הבתרים [בראשית ט"ו, י"ג] ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך וגו'. אמר ידוע תדע, רמז לו שזה בעון ‏עץ הדעת, ותדע אותיות דעת

‎“…One should know that the entire exile in Egypt is to fix the sin of Adam who ate ‎from the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Bad)…”‎

So here is the theory; Abraham’s great, great, great grandchildren will be slaves, for a ‎sin that occurred nearly 2,000 years before Abraham is born!!

‎At first glance, this sounds nonsensical. But it is actually extremely profound.‎

The Nodah BeYehuda’s lesson is this. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam ‎and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. They were the first exiles, living in a ‎newly imperfect world. The tranquility of Eden had been shattered, and instead, sin, ‎strife and death became the norm. Life had become a true “half-life”, an ongoing ‎process of decay. Man was programmed to fail, and hope seemed impossible.

‎The exile in Egypt is a perfect example of the type of blind fate one could expect in this ‎dystopian world. And in enduring centuries of slavery, the Jews learned firsthand ‎how awful the post-Edenic world is. The fate of planet seemingly points in only one ‎direction: downward. In the Egyptian exile, they saw how nasty, brutish and short life ‎is, how unfair history can be, and how empty the soul can become.

‎And then came redemption.

‎It is no exaggeration to say that redemption is a revolution. It requires imagination, ‎and seeing the possibilities that don’t yet exist. It requires resilience, to absorb defeat ‎after defeat and still fight back. And it requires hope, the inner conviction that things ‎can get better. At the Exodus, the slaves were able to overcome history. ‎‎

4. The Blueprint for Healing a Broken World

Now we can understand why the Torah constantly reminds us of the Exodus. From ‎the moment Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, the world has been a broken ‎place. The tragedy behind this brokenness is that it robs you of hope; if sin is in our ‎nature and death is in our future, how much can you expect from life? The Exodus ‎uncovers the possibility of redemption, the blueprint for healing a broken world.‎

In biblical and rabbinic literature, many things are compared to redemption, such as ‎repentance, (Yoma 86b) charity, (Baba Batra 10a) and carrying on a legacy (Avot 6:6, ‎and this is also the point of the Book of Ruth).

‎And this is why the Torah repeats the Exodus over and over again. It is a Jewish ‎mission statement, that we can fix what is broken, for the core of all things spiritual is ‎the willingness to redeem what is broken.

‎If it’s a failure, with repentance.

‎If it's a defeat, with redemption.

‎And one faces the ultimate tragedy, mortality, with remembrance.‎‎

5. The Daily Call of Redemption

‎Having redemption as a mission statement is no small matter. Redemption is not ‎just about upbeat optimism; rather, it demands that we wrestle with a broken world ‎and make it better. An anecdote told by Rabbi Norman Lamm, describes it well. Lamm writes:‎‎

“Yigal Allon, the Vice Premier of Israel, told a story which is worthy of retelling, and ‎with which we conclude our remarks. As a child in his native village near Mt. Tabor, ‎he heard the famous Jewish legend about the Messiah sitting in the gates of Rome as ‎a poor leper and waiting. He was disturbed by the story, and asked an old man the ‎question that was bothering him: "What is the Messiah waiting for?"‎

His answer is something that each of us must consider very carefully and soberly.

‎‎"He is waiting -- for you."”

‎Yes, redemption is our mission statement. And now the Messiah is waiting for us to ‎follow through on it!‎