I don’t know about you, but I am truly tired of this year’s election. I cannot wait for it to be over. It is the most bitter, frustrating political season I have witnessed in my lifetime. We need t…
I don’t know about you, but I am truly tired of this year’s election. I cannot wait for it to be over. It is the most bitter, frustrating political season I have witnessed in my lifetime. We need to be rescued from the craziness of Trump, the constant accusations against Clinton, and the endless droning of political surrogates. We need a diversion from recordings of sexual abuse and piles of Wikileaks. I thank God that we are about to be granted this needed relief through major league baseball’s World Series. It is coming at exactly the right time. It is providing an irresistible story line. Yes, it is also football season, but it is baseball that will provide the drama, the wonderful contest – the diversion we need to enable us to recover our sanity. What could be more intriguing than a World Series matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians – the two teams denied a world championship for the longest time in baseball.
Not to insult football fans (I do love football – go Eagles!), but baseball is truly our national game. Only baseball reflects, at various moments in American history, our country’s situation, our emotions of the moment, and best of all, provides inspiring stories at the times in which we most need them. Maybe it is because some of our most tense moments are during presidential elections, and the World Series is the October Classic – so it is well timed. Maybe it is because the essence of baseball is so intertwined with who we are as Americans – or who we wish to be.
The roaring 20’s was a time when our country’s mood was a kind of decade long party – and that is the decade in which the chief party guy in baseball, Babe Ruth, turned the game upside down by upping the presence and dominance of the home run. Baseball did not stop during World War II. Rather, mirroring “Rosie the riveter” we got the first woman’s baseball league – and folks enjoyed it! Baseball showed us the path to racial integration when Branch Rickey started Jackie Robinson at first base for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. The migration of baseball teams to the west in the 1950’s mirrored the shifting US population (Giants to San Francisco, Dodgers to LA, Braves to Milwaukee, Senators becoming the Minnesota Twins).
As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960’s, baseball underwent another set of dramatic changes reflecting race relations in America. This is brilliantly explained by David Halberstam in his book “October 1964.” He describes how that World Series, between the Yankees and the Cardinals, reflected a clash between the old and new baseball realities. The Yankees were an almost all white team (Elston Howard was the lone black starter, Al downing was a starting pitcher), focused on power hitting. Their stars, all white, were the stars of the past (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford). The St. Louis Cardinals were integrated not only with black stars (Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood, and Bill White) but had Hispanic players as well. The team’s success came from speed, pitching and defense – the prototype for later major league teams. The series went a full 7 games with the Cardinals winning, thus representing a changing of the guard. The Yankees were not competitive after that year until the latter half of the 1970’s.
Baseball in the 1970’s and 1980’s mirrored changes in the business and professional worlds – how specialists became more and more the trend over generalists. Baseball reflected this by instituting the designated hitter, through the rise of dominant closers and later by 8th inning set up pitchers. Through all of the last 4 decades baseball provides some of the great storylines Americans well beyond baseball fanatics talk about. I remember in 1967 when talking to someone about the chances of the Mets going to the World Series (a seeming impossibility at the time) I told him the Mets would win the series when man went to the moon. That is exactly what happened. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July of 1969, and the Amazing Mets beat all odds and took the series from the Orioles that October. Who does not remember Bill Buckner’s critical error that extended the Boston Red Sox curse in the 1986 World Series? Who does not remember the thrill of the 2001 series in the month after the tragedy of 9/11. Baseball has always been there to entertain us, to inspire us, and to remind us that despite all other differences – we are Americans first!
That is what I expect this year’s series to do. The Cubs have not won a World Series in 108 years. Heck they have not even been to one since 1945. The Indians last won a series in 1948. This is a great story line of two teams that have NOT been in the winner’s circle reaching the pinnacle of America’s game. It is a reminder of the great American lesson that hard work and smart management can raise up even the lowest of the lowest. Whoever wins will inspire us – but I admit I am rooting for the Cubbies!
So for the next week, forget the electoral nonsense and enjoy one of the things that makes America great – baseball. Take us all out to the ballgame – please!
Yes, I know it is Sukkot. But this election season has made me think of a theme from Pesach – dayeinu – enough already! The song we sing with vigor at our seder expresses our thanks for the countless bounties God granted our people as we left Egypt for freedom. This expresses an important message for Jews. Any one of them would have been enough. Now, however, I offer another message for Jews – we cannot support Trump. Any one of these incidents would have been enough. All are substantiated by Trump’s own words and actions.
If he had only classified most Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers – dayeinu.
If he had only stated that John McCain was not really a war hero (McCain refused release as a POW as others were scheduled before him) – dayeinu.
If he had only tripled down on building a wall between us and Mexico – which is ridiculous, let alone physically and financially pretty much impossible – dayeinu.
If he had only claimed, from 2011 on that President Obama was not born in America despite NO evidence otherwise – dayeinu.
If only he had not only failed to apologize for this bigoted stand when he finally acknowledged Obama was born in the U.S., but stated it was a good thing he forced him to produce his birth certificate (should all presidential candidates be required to do this, or only ones of color?) – dayeinu.
If he had only claimed that Hillary Clinton started the birtherism movement – dayeinu.
If he had only stated he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. – dayeinu.
If he had only stated there is no vetting process for refugees (there is and it takes 18 to 24 months) – dayeinu.
If he had only stated there should be an ideological test for immigrants (former Soviet Union anyone?) – dayeinu.
If he had only created a shameful ongoing squabble with a gold star family – dayeinu.
If he had only refused to release his tax returns – dayeinu.
If he had only lied about his initial support for the Iraq war – dayeinu.
If he had only lied about getting to know Putin on 60 minutes (their segments were filmed in different locations) – dayeinu.
If he had only refused to acknowledge and condemn Russian hacking of our democratic institutions, and instead wished they would do more – dayeinu.
If he had only stated Putin, a dictator of a country rampant with corruption, was a better leader than our own president – dayeinu.
If he had only hyper focused via tweet on silly issues like Alicia Machado and the satiric portrayal of himself on Saturday Night Live, demonstrating an inability to differentiate between nonsense and important issues – dayeinu.
If he had only declared he knows more about ISIS than our generals (only one of several disses of our military) – dayeinu.
If he had only demonstrated he was receiving propaganda directly from Russia (see the email apparently changed by Wiki leaks that attributed to Sidney Blumenthal words written by a Newsweek reporter, which Trump read before it was released and fact checked) – dayeinu.
If he had only reduced the presidential primary debates to an argument over male body parts – dayeinu.
If he had only said Hillary Clinton laughed at a 12 year old victim of sexual assault from a man Clinton was appointed as a young attorney to defend (if you listen to the whole interview it is obvious she is NOT laughing at the girl) – dayeinu
If he had only delayed distancing himself from David Duke – dayeinu.
If he only used his rallies to inspire violence against those who disagree with him – dayeinu.
If he had only threatened to put his opponent for president in jail, thus reducing our country to a banana republic – dayeinu.
If he had only used bankruptcies to cheat investors and vendors while preserving his own capital and then claim that his business acumen is what the country needs to guide our economy (the best businessmen create a profitable atmosphere for everyone from investors to suppliers to workers, just reference folks like Mark Cuban) – dayeinu.
If he had only bragged about sexually assaulting women and then dismissed that merely as “locker room talk” – dayeinu.
If he had only accused the electoral process of being rigged BEFORE the votes are counted and despite the hard evidence of almost no voter fraud over the last 16 years (Neither Nixon in 1960 nor Gore in 2000 fought the final electoral decision even though their supporters believed they had a case) – dayeinu.
If he had only used anti-Semitic tropes in accusing Hillary Clinton of engaging in an international conspiracy with bankers and the media to destroy our country – dayeinu.
If he had only claimed our country is no longer great. Our country, while certainly imperfect, is amazingly great – dayeinu.
Dayeinu! Enough is enough of a person who is either psychotic or an even greater con artist than PT Barnum. A man so ego driven, who cares so little about anything other than his personal wealth and power, that he is willing to degrade the democratic institutions that make our country the envy of the world. Again I say, dayeinu!
I have a question, “What is true religion?” If your first thought was an expensive pair of designer jeans, then you are not yet in the proper “Yom Kippur” mood. If you thought something like “Judaism is” or “Islam is not” then you did not understand the question. I did not ask what is THE true religion, but what is true religion? How do we best understand religion? How can we judge the validity of religion – not on a denominational basis, but as a concept?
Let’s start with a dictionary definition: “Belief in a divine or superhuman power or powers to be obeyed and worshipped as the creator and ruler of the universe, and the expression of this belief in conduct and ritual.” This definition certainly contains elements of truth. Religion acknowledges a power beyond ourselves, but do we want to call it superhuman? What then is the difference between believing in God or Spiderman? Religion definitely contains ritual and the feeling that somehow this divine power expects us to do certain things. But how do we know the true desires of this power when its messages are subject to human misinterpretation? No, this definition is lacking in some thing, some element elevating God beyond a Marvel comic book character.
How about a philosophical definition? “A system of beliefs, ethics and rituals which seek to reconcile the difference between the way the world is and the way we would like it to be, and which results in improved living and a sense of worth and purpose for the individuals and group who adopt that religion.” This also has elements that feel true. My problem with this definition is more emotional. It feels rather detached, kind of like the way Mr. Spock would describe religion. Religion does try to explain the difficulties we have in the world. It tries to supply a set of ethics by which we can hopefully improve the world. It tries. But its explanations of the world’s difficulties usually fall short; often feeling shallow. So in the end, it just becomes a way to make people feel better or worthwhile, whether or not the beliefs have any validity.
Let’s try a psychological definition: “The product of humanity’s search for meaning in life.” No question religion helps people to find meaning in life, but do we invent religion because of our search for meaning? Is religion our creation to fill a psychological need or does it arise out of the mysteries sown into the fabric of creation? The term “religion” is a human invention, but the matters it tries to understand are not. Further, this definition seems self-centered. Can there be meaning in life without a morality that guides human behavior? Doesn’t religion play a role in creating that morality?
Finally, let’s look at a spiritual definition: “An evolving world view and a way of life which seeks to bring human beings as individuals and as a group into a closer, more meaningful relationship with God.” What I do not like in this definition is ignoring religion as a means of human connection, with obligations to each other. But, there is an element that rings true in this definition. Religion, like all human endeavors, evolves. Maybe God is unchanging, but our understanding of God constantly shifts. Our understanding of how to fill the world with the divine changes. If we do not recognize that evolution, or if we try to fight it by establishing rigidity in our religion, it becomes authoritarian, justifying abhorrent actions against others.
Here is where I really begin tonight’s sermon. Is religion true to its nature when it becomes totalitarianism by another name? How tolerant can true religion be of dissenting perspectives? Is the truth in religion based on accepting a particular set of beliefs and actions? Most of all; does religious authoritarianism fill a vital human need? Or is it a relic whose use humanity has outgrown?
One can make a case for either perspective. Our country tends to embrace authoritarian figures. Politically, we interpret authoritarian declarations as “decisiveness.” Religiously, a significant segment of our country takes its directions from the statements of their religious leaders. It is common for some religious denominations to state proper belief about God, about consequences for unbelief, and to outline proper morality. Many denominations also tell their adherents that they are not true believers, unless they vote for a certain politician, or support a particular political stance. All 3 of the great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – contain elements of authoritarianism.
The “authority” to dictate beliefs is drawn from the sacred text of that particular religion. Religious leaders who do this maintain there is only one way to read or interpret the sacred text. We often call this approach fundamentalism. We make a big mistake, however, if we judge all religious approaches that have elements of authoritarianism and fundamentalism as bad. A number of evangelical organizations we would label as fundamentalist; do amazing work in fighting poverty worldwide. They see this obligation from a fundamental reading of the Christian Bible. And, there is no more authoritarian religious figure than the Pope. Yet how many of us admire the leadership of Pope Francis? I do. The Catholic Church in general uses its religious authority to advocate for many moral stands that I admire. So is our judgment of authoritarianism based on a figure we like as opposed to one we despise? Is Francis less authoritarian than Benedict? For that matter, what are the essential differences regarding authoritarianism between a Pope and an Ayatollah?
We also have problems defining fundamentalism. Typically we see fundamentalism as a literal reading of a group’s sacred text, with no attempt at deeper interpretation or tolerance for seeing a text as metaphor. The problem is that all religious groups pick and choose what texts are “literal” and which ones contain another meaning. A well known example is the passage from Isaiah 7:14, in which God describes a sign that will be given to King Ahaz of Judah, “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold a young woman (in Hebrew almah) shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” Christians typically translate the Hebrew word almah as “virgin.” They see this as a foreshadowing of the birth of Jesus. However, literally, almah means “a young woman of marriageable age” who could be a virgin, but the term is not specifically virgin. The Hebrew word for virgin is b’tulah. A Jew would argue that the literal, fundamental reading of the text is God giving Ahaz a sign – this woman giving birth. The point is we often cannot agree on the literal meaning of a sacred text. So the term fundamentalism must mean something else.
Karen Armstrong, in her book “The Battle for God,” gives some history of the term. It is first used by American Protestants in the early 20th century, who wanted to distinguish themselves from more liberal Christian groups. They believed liberal Christians were distorting Christianity. They emphasized a “literal” reading of the biblical text supporting what they identified as core religious doctrines. By this historical use, Armstrong explains, one cannot call movements in Judaism or Islam “fundamentalist,” as they are not as focused on doctrine as Christianity. However, the term has evolved to describe religious groups who maintain a “militant piety” in reaction to the influence of modernity on religion. Fundamentalists see the conflict not in political terms, but as a cosmic war between good and evil. Armstrong sees this fundamentalism as primarily a 20th century movement, but with roots extending back about 200 years.
Another key aspect of fundamentalism for Armstrong, is a change in the understanding of two types of knowledge, mythos and logos. To quote Armstrong, “Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture and to the deepest levels of the human mind.” (1) In the pre-modern world, myth was considered a type of knowledge just as important as fact. Myth was not focused on what actually happened, but the meaning of what happened. Logos is focused on the actual events sans any attempt at interpretation. For example, we do not know what really happened when Moses and Israel were at the Sea of Reeds. We do know that the theme of ancient Israelites crossing split waters is a recurring theme – as it occurs in Joshua, when they cross the Jordan to begin the conquest of Canaan – and again in the Book of Kings. Clearly passing through split waters is an indication of something more than just crossing water – yet we do not have any documented proof, independent of the Bible, any of these crossings actually occurred.
Modern fundamentalism sees these stories as historic facts, even though they cannot be independently confirmed. It does not focus on finding a deeper meaning in this recurring meme. It does not see this as metaphor. The reason is that a fundamentalist accepts the belief of God being the author of the Bible as a fact.
As instructive as Armstrong’s work is on understanding fundamentalism, there is an additional element that completes our understanding. Jonathan Rauch, in his book, “Kindly Inquisitors” offers a very telling definition of fundamentalism. His book addresses problems of excessive political correctness, which result in the hindrance of free thought. An example happened this past summer. Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker was invited to speak at Elon University; creating an outcry among a group of students, because of a book she published in 2008. 300 students signed a petition demanding she not be allowed to speak. This affront to freedom of speech and thought is exactly what Rauch addresses. He defines fundamentalism as those who believe there is only one clear truth in the world. The other side is not just wrong, but deserves at least censure if not punishment. The result is that fundamentalists are so obsessed with fixed beliefs they try to suppress diversity of opinion. This mode of thinking is not confined to any part of the political spectrum. Conservatives and liberals are all guilty of fundamentalism.
Now we have a better summary of religious fundamentalism. It confuses the roles of myth and fact; declaring, because of the belief the Bible is the direct product of God, its words are completely authoritative. There can be no questioning their interpretation of Scripture, or how it instructs us to conduct all aspects of our lives – including how we vote. Anyone who does not agree is the “enemy.” This perspective informs the fundamentalist’s use of the authority implied in their religion – thus the rise of authoritarianism wedded to specific religious interpretations. Fundamentalists fear a world in which their view does not prevail, and they try to convince others to share that fear.
Which brings us to the third element to consider when discussing the attributes of true (or untrue) religion – fear. It is easy to understand the dominance of fear. In the Hebrew Bible the word generally translated as “fear,” yireh, appears 293 times in one form or another. We are told to “fear” God. The result is that almost all religion has some element of fearing punishment by God. So it is easy to see how certain religious authorities would use fear – by a transference of fear of God to fear of the humans claiming to represent God’s true message – or using fear of God to legitimize the views they are promoting.
However, typical to the Hebrew language, there is more than one way to interpret the word yireh. It can also mean “awe” or “reverence.” Try reading Biblical passages in which the verb is used and translated as “fear.” Then substitute the word “awe” or “revere.” You can feel the difference. The word is used to describe both fear of another human, such as when Jacob fears retribution from Esau in Genesis 32, as well as relation to God. Psalm 5:8 reads, “But as for me, in the abundance of Your loving kindness will I come into Your house; I will bow down toward Your holy temple in yireh of You. Here, the word “awe” is a better fit to the tone of the verse than fear.
We cannot deny that there are millions of people who believe true religion combines authoritarianism with the assumption of having a monopoly on truth. That truth is inspired by a very particularistic reading of their sacred text and plays upon the emotion of fear to gain adherence to its views. The most obvious example is the interpretation of Islam that powers ISIS. In America, those Christians who embrace this model of true religion do not express it in violence, but in adamant rejection of fact in place of myth.
This is causing a real moral dilemma for many Christians, who are supporting a presidential candidate whose lifestyle has absolutely no roots, no connection to the basic religious and moral tenets they claim to believe. Rather, there is a deep emotional connection to his authoritarian manner, based in his use of fear as a motivating factor. Yes, his opponent uses fear as well, but my point is that certain groups of American Christians are motivated to support this candidate because they are acclimated to his brand of fear through religious belief – fear of eternal consequences, such as damnation, fear of the “other” as the enemy of truth. Their emotional reaction to his mythos – if you will, overcomes his logos – the facts of his history.
Jews who embrace this model of true religion are typified by orthodox groups, who have such a low level of tolerance, their men spit on little girls because they judge them to be dressed immodestly, even though the sleeves on their blouses extend to their wrists. It is exemplified by groups who do NOT recognize the State of Israel; all while taking advantage of the social protections and economic help Israel provides its citizens.
My purpose tonight, however, is NOT to condemn any particular group. Instead, I will share my beliefs on what constitutes true religion. These attributes can be seen in Christianity and Islam. But as a Jew and a rabbi, I see them exemplified in Judaism. No, Judaism is not THE true religion. However, in its core are the elements of true religion.
While Judaism absolutely contains aspects of authority, fundamentalism and fear, rabbinic tradition mediates and moderates them. Let’s begin with authoritarianism. God is the ultimate authority. Beyond that statement, however, is a lot of room for discussion. Judaism does not define God other than having no physical aspects and being a unity. Even those statements create discussion. Can a god with no physicality have attributes (anger, love, justice, mercy)? What does the oneness of God mean? Is God indivisible? Is there only one God? Or is all of existence God? You will find Jews believing all of these perspectives. Further, even God’s authority can be challenged. Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gemorah. In the famous Talmudic tale of Achnai’s oven, God is told to stay out of a debate on law taking place between the rabbis. Our tradition permits us, actually teaches us, to question God’s justice: to push back when we feel God is wrong.
Clearly, if we can challenge God’s authority then there is no human authority above challenge. Judaism has no central ecclesiastic authority. Every rabbi makes religious judgments for his or her own community – AND rabbinic protocol demands that visiting rabbis, although disagreeing with the rule of the local rabbi, are required to respect it. The orthodox chief rabbinate in Israel breaks with this tradition by claiming authority over all Jewish religious matters, even outside of Israel. For example, conversions by most Orthodox rabbis in America are not recognized by the Israeli chief rabbinate. That is NOT how Judaism has functioned for the past 2,000 years. Great scholars may be consulted for their opinions, but decisions reside locally.
Further, literate lay leaders often play a key role in decisions. Moses Mendelsohn, one of the founders of Reform Judaism in Germany, was not a rabbi, but a successful businessman, philosopher, and theologian. Judaism is democratic in the sense that literacy, especially in Torah, is considered a great value: for we are expected to challenge accepted beliefs and to question everything. Jewish law, halachah, is never meant to be carved in stone. It is supposed to be an organic, evolving way of life. While there are certainly boundaries beyond which is no longer considered Judaism, within those boundaries is great flexibility. To claim the law has always, is always and will always be a certain thing is the rigidity of certain Jewish groups response to modernity. It is NOT our tradition.
It is easy to understand how flexibility is built into Judaism if you look at our tradition of discussing sacred texts. Every sentence of Torah is analyzed by commentators throughout the ages. If you read a page of commentary that includes a range of contributors (Mikra’ot Gedolot), you will see great disagreement, actually an argument, between scholars of different eras and places, taking place on the page. Jewish tradition does NOT accept the surface reading of a text as the one true meaning. Rather, our scholars delve deeper and deeper to ascertain the inner meaning of the text. This process has allowed Jewish law to evolve over time, becoming applicable to the needs of Jews in each time and place.
We do NOT take the violence commanded or described in certain Torah passages as the final word. Here is a classic example. The phrase “eye for an eye” is never taken to mean physical retribution, but just compensation. Here is another. While Torah mandates a death penalty for many crimes, the rabbinic sages do all they can to lessen its application, not trusting a human court to make the final decision on life and death. The Talmud contains many passages in which the sages provide ways to commute a death sentence or state their opposition to it. My point? Just because we consider text sacred, does not mean it is immune to discussion and reinterpretation. In Judaism you gain authority through the quality of your righteous actions combined with your scholarship, your ability to analyze the text in a way that holds to Jewish tradition, yet maintains its relevance to the Jewish community.
Finally, in Judaism we need to remain aware of the full meaning of yireh. Be in awe of the divine, be in awe of the way God is implanted within each of us, be in awe of the way our world is so intricately connected, of how WE are intricately connected. Yes, there is a role for fear: not fear of the other but fear FOR the other. Ultimately, we are judged by our interactions with each other. We are to live our lives building connections to each other, caring for each other. That is basic Judaism folks! It is why teshuvah, the act of repentance, of turning our path from one of hurt and destruction to healing is considered so very important. Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings healing to the world.” Rabbi Levi responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it reaches up to the Throne of Glory.” To which Rabbi Yonatan responded, “Great is teshuvah, for it brings redemption (the coming of the messiah) nearer.” As it is taught in an early teaching, “Great is teshuvah, for on account of one individual who did teshuvah, the entire world is forgiven.”
There is a story in the Talmud that illustrates how much Judaism focuses on the ability and need for people to change. In Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood certain boors, ignorant of Torah and disregarding the law, caused considerable distress. Rabbi Meir was praying that God would let them die. His wife, Beruria said to him “What is your reasoning for praying for their death?” “Because,” he replied, “It says in Psalms 104:35, “Let sinners cease from the earth.” “No,” replied Beruria, “It is not sinners written in the verse, but ‘sin’ meaning the urge to sin. Further, if you go to the end of the verse it says, ‘and let the wicked be no more.’ The death of these sinners will not eliminate wicked from the earth. Pray for them. Pray for their repentance. In the absence for the urge to sin, the wicked will be no more.” (2)
Judaism believes in the ability of each individual to turn from a path of evil to a path for good. It teaches us to try and turn people’s hearts away from evil, not to kill those who do evil. We begin with ourselves. Our individual repentance is so important, it has the power to change the world. Hate can turn to love. Prejudice can turn to understanding. Injustice can turn to justice. We believe we can create a relationship where there was none – whether human to human, or human to God. We do this not for a promise of glory in some future existence. We do this because we believe our actions count now. We do this as a community – reciting Ashamnu as a symbol of how our actions, our sins, and our teshuvah are intimately linked to each other.
I believe that true religion begins with acknowledging the mystery of creation. It helps us in our search for meaning by providing a ritual structure for us to strengthen our bonds to all of existence. It provides a means to establish a morality that can be constantly challenged as we seek to better our interpersonal relations. True religion assures us we can change, as can all humans; that we can choose better lives, better paths. True religion gives us ground for hope, not fear. I began with a question, so now I close with a question, “Are you ready to believe?”
1) Karen Armstrong, “The Battle for God” Introduction p XV
2) Berachot 10a
Those who know me know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is one of my 20th century heroes. To me, he exemplifies the exact right balance a Jew must maintain in his or her life, between ritual observance and the application of our most righteous principles to every day living. Heschel did not believe that prayer existed in a vacuum, to be recited at specific times of the day or week then forgotten; but an inspiration to be translated into our every action. In a 1970 essay Heschel wrote, “A word uttered in prayer is a promise, an earnest, a commitment. If the promise is not kept, we are guilty of violating a promise. A liturgical revival cannot come about in isolation. Worship is the quintessence of living. Perversion or suppression of the sensibilities that constitute being human will convert worship into a farce.”
Prayer, according to Heschel, is aspirational, inspirational and sensitizing. Heschel is my hero because he lived those words. He is well known for his association with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through his participation in various civil rights marches. After participating in the Selma, AL march of March 21, 1965, Heschel was asked if he took any time to pray. His response was, “my feet were praying.” But Heschel did much more than participate in civil rights protests. He was one of the first of American clergy to declare he was against the war in Vietnam. He was a delegate to the second Vatican Council and spoke openly and critically of the Catholic Church’s attitude towards Jews. His ability to speak that truth to power helped push the Church to end the charge of deicide against Jews in 1965’s Nostra Aetate. Heschel advocated for rights for the elderly. He embodied and summed up Judaism’s prophetic tradition when he wrote in 1971, “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Heschel exemplifies something I call “holy protest.” I know that sounds like a line out of the 1960’s television show “Batman,” but I know of no better term to use when describing something I see as part of the essence of Judaism. Indeed, it might be the most powerful Jewish call to the world – the idea that we must never be satisfied with the state of our society. We are called upon by God to protest injustice. Once again Heschel says it best when he wrote in 1968, “The Hebrew Bible has destroyed an illusion, the illusion that one can be an innocent bystander or spectator in this world. It is not enough to be a consumer in order to be a believer.”
Our tradition of protest goes all the way back to Abraham. When God announces to Abraham God’s intent to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, Abraham protests that doing so will result in the loss of innocent and righteous lives. After a rather protracted back and forth, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities if just 10 righteous people are found in them. Here is the interesting twist to this story. God, being God, knows there are not 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gemorah. Yet he allows Abraham to carry on with his protest. The lesson? Our job as humans is to question and stand up for issues of justice – even if we are opposing God.
The real flowering of the Jewish tradition of protest, however, comes in the prophetic books. The Hebrew Bible prophets challenged authority. They were the protagonists in the conflict with the priesthood – the authority that held the connection with God was through religious ritual (in their days sacrifice) versus those who held that true connection with God came through caring for those in need. Each side in this conflict, priest and prophet, emphasized commandments from Torah, but each selecting a different priority. Without the influence of our prophets, without the sense that God wanted more from us than mere ritual obedience, Judaism would have died centuries ago as an archaic religion bereft of deeper purpose. The prophets engage in holy protest in two ways – visions of a better world, and admonitions for the evil acts of their communities.
Typical of admonition is this passage from Jeremiah 22:2 – 2,3, “Here the word of Adonai O king of Judah, who sits upon the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter in by these gates; Thus says Adonai, ‘Execute you judgment and righteousness, and deliver the robbed from the hand of the oppressor, and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Amos clearly states God’s priorities in these familiar words, “Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept them; nor will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take away from me the noise of your songs; for I will not listen to the melody of your lutes. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
It is Micah who provides a vision of a more ideal world, repeated in other prophetic books, “And he shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning far away strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of hosts has spoken it.”
I could provide quote after quote from our prophets that emphasize these points. God could care less about the rituals we perform if they are done disconnected from striving for a just society. Justice, not love, is the driving concept. How is justice defined? Create a court system that does not favor any one; whether rich or poor, powerful or weak. Cases must be judged on their merits by provable facts attested to by witnesses. Treat the stranger with kindness and respect, giving them rights within the community. Provide for those with no resources, the poor, the orphans and the widows.
I must point out that these moral commands of providing for those without resources are not a mandate for a particular political perspective. There are commandments that support government sponsored programs as well as personal charity. A certain portion of the tithes collected, which was the Bible’s form of taxation, went to provide resources to the poor. But your obligations were not complete through tithing. One also had to give tzedakah, personal charity as well (leaving the corners of your fields and vineyards). No, Judaism does not command a political point of view. Rather, it demands that we find a way to raise the needy. Neither can we blame the victim for their condition. We are encouraged to be as successful as we possibly can – then to use our success to help solve our communal problems.
The vision of a better world does not imply that God will simply act and solve our problems either. No, Jewish tradition in all eras, and in all forms practiced the past 2500 years assumes we act in partnership with God. If we do not act, if we do not at least protest, God will NOT step in to rescue us from our failings. We are responsible for acting in a way that invites God’s presence into our world. Our actions count immensely. And actions begin with our caring about the state of our world, of our communities.
At the very core of Jewish morality is our treatment of the stranger – the “other” who lives among us. This is one of the most dominant tropes of the Torah, repeated numerous times in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. To ignore this call is to transgress a basic command of God, so important, according to our tradition, it is repeated 36 times. We are not commanded to love the stranger (that is reserved for our neighbor who in Torah likely meant a member of our clan), but it is clear the stranger is to be welcomed, treated kindly, and given the same rights of justice as we are given. We are told to do this because remember – we were strangers in Egypt. Our prophets teach us that when this does not occur, we must engage in holy protest.
And here is where we are failing today. Not just us Jews, but all of us. We are too tolerant, too excusing, of the blatant mistreatment, verbally and physically, of others. We can begin with immigrants. Our country has been built on the backs of people like my father, who fled here as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Who came here at 16 years old, finished his education in a trade school, volunteered for the American army, fighting in Europe in World War II, eventually liberating a concentration camp that fed prisoners into Dachau. After the war he went to work, eventually opening his own factory, contributing productivity and employment to America. I remember dad telling me not only about the oppression he faced in Germany, but the anti-Semitism he faced in America. His experience was typical of Jewish immigrants in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
That experience is typical of what immigrants have faced in every generation, whether from Germany in the 1840’s, China in the late 19th century, Eastern Europe in the early 20th century or Hispanics and Muslims today. The arc of American history is to vilify, to be afraid of whatever group of immigrants is in the headlines at the moment. Every generation that opposes immigrants has its issue of the day to justify its bigotry. In the 1930’s it was fear of Jews taking jobs from Americans, or that some would be German spies. Today it is crime and security. Well folks, crime in general has been on the decline for decades. And changes in vetting immigrants will do nothing to stop the influence of people accessing radical organizations through the internet. That is our real security issue right now, not immigrants. I believe that showing kindness, tolerance, to immigrants, will do more to reduce tension than an increase in the strictness of our immigration policy. Indeed, by tolerating the targeting of specific ethnic groups or engaging in ideological vetting, we encourage more racial and religious hatred.
Here is an example. I have Muslim friends who immigrated to America from India in the early 1990’s. They became citizens and had two children here – so their kids are citizens as well. Their 15 year old son, who I tell you is as American as apple pie, was told last spring he would be deported once this year’s elections are over. By allowing this, by mistreating the “stranger,” we are violating a basic command of the Torah. We need to engage in holy protest.
More complicated are the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. I say more complicated because of a couple of issues that muddy the waters. The first is the universal condemnation of all police. We cannot address the tragedy of the plethora of killings of African Americans by police without acknowledging the dedication and conscience of most police officers. We must acknowledge they are human beings doing a difficult job, capable of making mistakes born of fear as well as bad judgment. However, these caveats cannot be used to deny that there is a still a real race problem in America. The deaths of unarmed African Americans by police are just the tip of an iceberg of deeper racial problems. Look at the number of times black drivers are stopped by police for seemingly no reason or suspected minor offenses compared to white drivers. Look at the difference in prison sentences given to blacks and whites for similar crimes. More important, look at the fear and pain in the African American community, the sense that the system, 50 years after the passage of major civil rights legislation, is rigged against them. It is wrong to say their pain is misguided or somehow invented. It is the result of real fear, and the experiencing of real prejudice, amplified by the larger platform being granted to the “alt right” and white supremacy groups.
However, there is a specific problem for Jews in supporting Black Lives Matter – the support of its official platform for the BDS movement, and its anti-Israel statements. This has developed because radical supporters of Palestinians, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, have gained influence in the Black Lives Matter movement. They have drawn comparisons between the plight of African Americans and the situation of the Palestinians. Jews understand this is a false equivalence; as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has a completely different kind of history than the history of blacks in America. This influence on Black Lives Matter is so disturbing because it has resulted in rabbis, colleagues of mine, who have participated in protests side by side with African American colleagues, being driven out of the movement because they support of Israel. They have been told their support for African Americans cannot be real if they support Israel. That is tragic. My rabbinic colleagues are discussing how to handle this reality.
Well, we cannot abandon our support for Israel. We need to not be afraid to tell the folks running “Black Lives Matter” that equating African Americans to Palestinians is wrong and does nothing to advance the needs of African Americans. We have to point out that assuming all Jews blindly support all policies of the Israeli government is itself anti-Semitic. Yet we cannot turn away from the pain of our African American brothers and sisters. As Jews we must not use the misguided positions of some as an excuse to ignore the reality of bigotry that exists in America. We must, as Jews have done since the 1950’s, stand with fellow Americans who are suffering from the pain of injustice.
We must also understand the real meaning of the phrase, “black lives matter.” Too often we hear the counter, “Don’t all lives matter?” as an attempt to say African Americans are just engaging in their own brand of prejudice. Yes, of course all lives matter. But from the perspective of African Americans, considering the number of black deaths at the hands of police, and the casualness with which many whites seem to dismiss the feelings of the African American community, the reality seems to be “all lives matter, but black lives not so much.” The purpose of “black lives matter” is to plead that these lives should matter as much as any life matters, and not be dismissed as part of a political game to gain votes. Today’s racism, highlighted by black deaths, is a painful reality to African Americans.
It is really hard to actually walk in someone else’s shoes. Very few people really understand the depth of Jewish fear of anti-Semitism. They have not experienced what my family experienced in Germany. They have not experienced the emotion of seeing their child mocked or excluded from activities in schools here because they were Jewish. Yet, I have also seen the sensitivity of many of our Christian friends and neighbors in Tallahassee. Over my years serving this community, I have been moved by the caring of Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, even southern Baptists, for our feelings and well being. I have little doubt that if something anti-Semitic happened to Temple Israel, the outpouring of support from the Christian community would be overwhelming. No, they cannot walk in our shoes, but many Christians have felt our pain.
That is exactly what we need to do for our African American friends.
If you were at Temple Israel on September 23 for the “Faith, Food, Friday” program, you witnessed the pain of my friend, pastor Darrick McGhee. Darrick pastors a church on the south side. However, his full time job is in politics. He got his start working in the governor’s office under Jeb Bush, and continuing there for the Crist and Scott administrations. Now, Darrick is a successful lobbyist who is respected on both sides of the political aisle. On that day Darrick expressed is dismay, his frustration and his anger with American society as the police shootings of blacks in Tulsa and North Carolina happened earlier that week. In the heightened racial climate of this political season, his 10 year old son was called the “n” word in school. His son had wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, but as Darrick put it, that week he saw the light go out of his son’s eyes. As Jews we cannot dismiss or ignore the realities Darrick is facing and telling us. Rather, we must embrace his experience, his pain, and engage in holy protest.
When will our obligation for holy protest end? Well, let us look at the first prophet to engage in holy protest – Elijah the prophet, zeicher l’tov. Elijah opposed idolatry as well as unfairness. He confronted Ahab and Jezebel over their immoral and illegal actions. What happened to Elijah? He never died. Rather, he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Because of this, Elijah has occupied a position of prominence in Jewish tradition. He will be the one who announces the coming of the messiah (why we put out the cup of wine at Pesach). He is the protagonist in many Talmudic and folk tales. Just as Elijah did not die, neither does the task he undertook. He was succeeded by many prophets who engaged in holy protest. But the age of the prophets is long gone. The task is now up to us. And we must continue. We must continue holy protest until Elijah returns. In truth, we cannot count on Elijah’s return. We cannot count on the coming of a messianic age. We can only count on the effort we are willing to make, to empathize with those who suffer, to embrace their stories and concerns not because we fully understand them but because we care enough to embrace their pain. We can engage in holy protest.
I have spoken a lot these High Holidays about the presence of God in everything, in all of us. May we come to realize that when we engage in holy protest, we are not just speaking on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of God. May we gain the courage to stand with those whose different race, religion or ethnicity makes them the targets of prejudice causing pain. May we understand that our teshuvah is not just about saying “I’m sorry,” but about taking actions to demonstrate that sorrow. Kein y’hi ratzon may it be God’s will that our holy protests will be heard and heeded.
Whenever I see the movie “The Color Purple,” I cry. Not through the whole movie, but at the end, when the sisters, Celie and Nettie are reunited. Nettie has finally gotten the paperwork allowing her, after many years, to return from missionary work in Africa. With her is Celie’s son, Adam, taken from her at birth: adopted by a pastor and his wife who Nettie accompanied on a mission to Africa. It does not matter how many times I have seen that movie. At that moment, the tears just pour out uncontrollably. One time, Audrey had fallen asleep before me. I found the movie on TV and watched the last 45 minutes while she slept. The end came. Sure enough, I was bawling like a baby. Audrey woke up, looked at my face, and said, “Oh, are you watching ‘The Color Purple?’”
I cry on other occasions as well. When our daughter Carrie was first put in our arms, I cried. When my first grandchild, Amelia was born, we flew across the country from a vacation in California. When we walked into the hospital room and saw her for the first time, I cried. I did not cry at my dad’s funeral. But when I stood on this bimah during Yizkor on the Yom Kippur just following his death, I read a letter I composed to Amelia about the great grandfather she would never meet, then I cried. I got teary when I held my grandson Simon’s legs during his bris, and again when I did my other granddaughter, Libby’s baby naming at our home here in Tallahassee surrounded by family and close friends. I cried when I learned that Audrey had to put our yellow lab, Xara, to sleep before I could get home from Camp Coleman to be with her at the end.
When we watched the American Olympic team enter the stadium in Brazil, I got tears in my eyes when I saw the diversity of the American team, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Muslims and who knows who else, surrounding the American flag carried by 5 time Olympian Michael Phelps. I felt these tears of pride because no other country in the world could ever present that same picture. Whenever I have not been to NY for a while, I tear up if I see the Statue of Liberty while entering the city. Why? Because I think of my dad passing by that statue when he immigrated to the United States as a 16 year old in September 1939. I think of the relief he felt when he passed under Miss Liberty. I cry every time I see the musical “Les Miserable.” I cry at the end of “Toy Story 3.” Heck, I cry at the Folger commercials that show the guy coming home and making coffee for his mom.
Are tears a sign of weakness? Some would say yes. There are instances when tears have destroyed the public’s perception of a person. In February 1972, presidential candidate Ed Muskie was the subject of 2 pieces published by William Loeb in his newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Loeb accused Muskie of using a slur against French Americans, at that time a significant voting block in New Hampshire (the proof he cited turned out to be a hoax by the way). Loeb also accused Muskie’s wife of taking “unladylike” pleasure in drinking and telling jokes. Muskie, with shoulders heaving and voice breaking, stood outside in a blizzard and called Loeb a “gutless coward.” Reporters covering the event reported Muskie cried. Aides said the water on his face was melted snowflakes. Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, but his campaign was ruined and many blamed the idea that a man who sheds tears in public is not fit to be president.
There are, however, instances when tears are the emotional crowning of a moment that creates a powerful group experience through collective empathy. On July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig gave one of the most famous speeches in baseball history. The Yankees had organized an appreciation day for him, after Gehrig was driven from baseball by falling victim to ALS. His descent into weakness was astounding. Columnist Jim Murray called him “a symbol of indestructability – a Gibraltar in cleats.” To baseball fans, his decline was unbelievable. Even more so was his speech, in which he called himself the luckiest man alive. He then wiped the tears welling in his eyes, and Babe Ruth, who had not spoken to him in 5 years threw his arms around Gehrig, hugging him. Columnist Shirley Povich wrote about that day, “I saw strong men weep this afternoon.” Watch the video of this. If you are a baseball fan familiar with Gehrig, you will tear up. I did.
There is, of course, a science behind tears. We have 3 types of tears, basal – which are the worker tears that keep our cornea lubricated so our eyes don’t dry out. Reflex tears wash irritations from our eyes like particles or vapors – the most obvious example is our reaction to onions. But it is psychic tears that capture our attention, our wonder, our emotions. For these tears are a response to strong emotions, either happy or sad, or suffering, or physical pain. Apparently there is a natural pain killer in these tears – lencine encephalin – which actually helps us to feel better when we cry.
The Talmud has a lot to say about tears. I will start with its explanation of the physical effects of tears: Until the age of 40 crying improves your health, and the body replaces the fluid lost by tears. After 40 the fluid is not replaced and crying begins to weaken you (Shabbat 151b). Well, this may be interesting but it is not very scientific. And not true. Far more important, far more powerful, are the many passages that teach us what tears are really about – human emotion, human connection, human balance between joy and sorrow, and humanity in the image of God.
According to the Torah we are created in God’s image, and the Talmud teaches this includes the capacity to cry. Two times the Talmud speaks of God weeping. In Chagigah 5a, “Our Rabbis taught: Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does not; and over him who is unable to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does; and over a leader who domineers over the community.” God cries because of us. If we fail to connect with God through studying Torah even though we have the capability, God cries – I would imagine tears of sadness. If we succeed in connecting through Torah, overcoming obstacles in order to do so, God cries – I would imagine tears of happiness. If we are the victims of a narcissistic, domineering leader, who cares not for our welfare, God cries. Further (Berachot 59a), God cries over our suffering and lets 2 tears fall into the ocean, creating a rumbling sound heard the world over. God cries over our misfortune, our suffering, our lack of reaching out, our failure to form deeper connections with the Divine, and therefore with each other.
We are created with the same capacity to weep. Our tears are the means by which we can break down barriers of heartlessness; by which we can feel empathy; through which we can connect with each other – in times of sadness and times of joy. Tears open our path to God even more than our prayers. We teach that our High Holidays are the time that the Gates of Prayer are open, that God hears our prayers for teshuvah. As the end of Yom Kippur approaches those gates begin to close. But the gates of weeping do not close (Berachot 32b). The capacity to cry, to shed tears, breaks through our coldhearted tendencies. It tells God we are ready to reach beyond our personal barriers, to connect with our friend, our neighbor, our fellow human. It tells God we are searching for divine connection. Tears are a challenge to our egos, to our separation from others. When we cannot or will not cry, God weeps.
But we do weep. We weep over lost dreams, over life’s disappointments. The Talmud tells (Berachot 5b) this story about Rabbi Yochanan visiting Rabbi Elazar after Elazar had fallen ill. He saw Rabbi Elazar lying in a dark room. When Rabbi Yochanan was said to be so handsome his mere presence invited light, so when exposed his arm a light came into the room and he saw Elazar crying. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “If it is because you feel you did not learn enough Torah, remember we learned that God is pleased with the one who is able to offer little the same as God is pleased with the one who can offer much. And if you are crying because of a lack of food, not everyone is able to have 2 tables. If it is because of the children you have lost, know I have lost a child as well.” Rabbi Elazar replied to him, “No, I cry because of the beauty that will rot in the earth.” By this Elazar meant Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty. He was crying not for himself, but because his own illness reminded him of his friend’s mortality. Rabbi Yochanan nodded in understanding and said, “Are your afflictions dear to you?” “Neither they nor their reward!” Elazar replied. “Give me your hand” Rabbi Yochanan said. Elazar did so and Yochanan raised him up.
This is a beautiful story that teaches the power of comfort our presence provides when we visit someone who is ill or in distress. It also teaches that the tears shed and shared amplify the connection between humans. It deepens the experience.
When I was 13, the man who raised my dad, his uncle Richard Stern, was in the hospital after suffering a severe heart attack. My dad was also in the hospital for minor surgery. After visiting dad, mom asked if I wanted to see Uncle Richard as well. Uncle Richard was like a grandfather to me, so of course I did. I went up to his room and when I walked in, Uncle Richard began to cry. Mom told me later he cried because he was upset I had to see him in such a weakened, degraded state. Uncle Richard died just a few days later and I will never lose that image of him in his hospital bed, with tears streaming down his face.
The tears shed by Rabbi Elazar and by Uncle Richard were not over their own suffering, but over the connection of their suffering to the person visiting them. “Tears are words the heart can’t express.” The source of those words is unknown but the truth is obvious. Communication by words can often be divisive. Communication through tears is connective – to each other, to God.
But not all tears are tears of suffering or tears of mourning. I am sure many of us have experienced the tears of joy, or the tears brought on by laughter. That is how I best remember my oma, my grandma. Oma would laugh so hard she would begin to cry. We used to visit her with our daughters at her Miami Beach apartment. One time we were visiting her when the girls were about 10 and 8. She had prepared lunch for us but was looking for something she had taken out to put on the table. She could not find it until one of the girls opened her freezer and found it along with a tissue box she had inexplicably left in the freezer. They all started to laugh and Oma laughed so hard she had to sit down with tears rolling down her cheeks. That is one of my favorite memories of my oma – my daughters laughing so hysterically with her that she cried. As Hosea Ballou wrote, “Tears of joy are like the summer rain pierced by sunbeams.”
Which leads us to another truth. We cannot really know or appreciate joy without knowing the depths of sadness. The world is defined by balance, the yin and yang between different values, different emotions. Our tears are often the connective piece between the extremes of joy and sorrow. It says in Psalms 126:5,6:
“Those who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy.
Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag,
he shall come back with songs of joy carrying his sheaves.”
There are levels of interpretation to these verses. The obvious is that we must suffer before coming to a place of joy. Rabbinic tradition applies this Psalm to the sufferings of Israel. In 586 BCE we suffered the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem, of a Jewish nation, culminating in the exile of our people in Babylon. That was a moment of tears, as it says in Psalm 137:1 “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, as we remembered Zion.” The Hebrew Bible prophets taught, and the rabbis later affirmed, that the Babylonian conquest and exile were punishment for the sins of Israel, sins of injustice, of neglecting the poor, of turning society’s back on those who shed tears of need, who begged for help. So Israel shed its own tears in exile. But, the tears of exile are only a step along the path to redemption. In Isaiah 40:1 we read “Comfort, O comfort My people, says God.” (nachamu, nachamu ami). Isaiah goes on to teach that Jerusalem should take heart; the time of repentance is complete. The succeeding chapters in Isaiah increase in their levels of joy, describing the rebuilding and the future hope of Jerusalem.
Yes, rabbinic tradition teaches Psalm 126 as a reference to the people Israel. Our tears of sorrow were but a step along the path to redemption and joy. But a reference to the trials and triumphs of Israel serves as a powerful metaphor for our personal experiences. How many of us have walked paths of pain before reaching a place of joy? How many of us have caused tears from a wrong we committed, before facing our personal redemption? How many of us have felt we were in exile, from friends, from family, then suffering a painful confrontation before the relief and joy of reconciliation? And how many times have the resolutions to any of our difficulties included the sharing of tears?
It is our tears that connect us. They speak a language that needs no explanation or translation. They break down the barrier of separation. They water our paths of transformation leading to a moment of connection, of joy. When we share our tears, we are mingling our lives together in an emotional and meaningful way, a way that leads us to empathy and understanding, to actually seeing the world, even for an instant through another’s eyes. While we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can share their tears. Our tears water our hope for the future.
There is a midrash about a key moment in this morning’s Torah portion. As Isaac is laying upon the altar, his father Abraham looms over him, knife drawn. Isaac sees two things. He sees the angels of heaven screaming for Abraham to lay down his knife and NOT slaughter Isaac. And, he sees the tears of pain welling up in his father’s eyes from his grief over what he is about to do. Isaac begins to weep, tears welling up in his own eyes. Abraham’s tears begin to fall into Isaac’s eyes, the tears of father and son mingling together. It is at that moment that Abraham hears the angelic voice breaking through his emotional barriers, crying out, “Do not harm that boy!” It was the sharing of tears that enabled Abraham to leave his own head and finally understand what God really wanted, that he was NOT to kill Isaac. It is the sharing of tears that enables us to really hear what others are trying to convey.
Tears are transforming. Tears are humanizing. Yes, we often sow in tears. But may our tears clear the path to our songs of joy. May they melt the ice around our hearts. May they move us to appreciate how others suffer as we do. May they water fields of understanding and empathy, from which we can build a better humanity. May our tears for each other mirror God’s tears for us. Amen.
One day, a group of scientists got together and decided that humanity had progressed to the point that it no longer needed God. So they picked one of their group to go have a talk with God – to suggest perhaps the Holy One should retire. The scientist walked up to God and said, “We have decided we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just leave, take a rest, retire.” God listened patiently to the man. After the scientist was done talking, God said, “I hear you. How about this? Let’s say we have a human making contest.” The scientist replied, “Sure, great!” Then God continued, “We will do this just like I did back in the old days when I created Adam.” The scientist said, “Sure, no problem.” He proceeded to bend down and grabbed a handful of dirt. God stopped him and said, “Wait a minute, go get your own dirt.”
Cute story. Comes down on the side of religion in the faith versus science discussion. Do you detect a few problems here? I do. First, I am sure there are many, maybe most of you, who if pressed would say factual truth is expressed more by science than by religion. A lot of us are tired of the silliness of dealing with folks who take the first chapters of Genesis – those describing creation and the first human beings – as literal. Indeed, very few Jews, from any part of the Jewish spectrum, take the creation story at face value. Even Rashi, the 11th century commentator on the Torah, says chapter 1 of Genesis is not about a logical order of creation, that it makes no sense on that level. That’s only a surface problem. A deeper problem is the way the story depicts God – as a person with the same feelings of any human, but with super powers. This makes God more like a DC comic book hero than the center of serious religious thought.
The problem begins in our own Torah. God is never to be physically represented, that is God is invisible, yet God is continually depicted anthropomorphically – as having arms, as speaking, as having human emotions. Maimonides says all of this is necessary metaphor due to the limitations on human understanding and language. He says the Torah is like an apple that looks silver, but upon closer inspection we can see the silver is filigree and the core is gold. The silver outside has value, but not like the gold. Torah has value in its literal sense but Maimonides sees the real value in uncovering the golden core – the inner meaning. Traditional Jewish commentary on the Torah is almost never satisfied with the surface meaning, but delves deep into the text, peeling back layers of meaning. Torah and therefore God are mysteries to be studied and understood.
Which means we have yet to really understand creation or the creation story. If you are scientifically bent you might be thinking, why even bother? Clearly Genesis is mythology and our understanding of how the universe came to be is being continually sharpened by science. A typical response by a religious person is that there need be no conflict between religion and science. Science explains the “how” of creation and religion tells us the “why.” While I do not disagree with that statement, it feels rather inadequate – incomplete. I believe the Torah, if we cut through the silver and examine the gold, can teach us lot about creation, and what the scientific truths about creation really imply. And today is the right day to explore this, as Rosh Hashanah is not only about our journey to repentance, it celebrates the birth of the world. It celebrates creation.
So I begin at the beginning. B’reishit bara Elohim. Pretty much all translations render that as “In the beginning, God created.” But that is not grammatically accurate, which even Rashi points out. A better exact translation would be, “In the beginning of…God created.” You see the difference? The question it raises is obvious. There is a word missing in the sentence – in the beginning of…. what? The entire Torah begins with a mystery, a blank inviting us to speculate about the true nature of God and creation. And when we speculate about the true nature of God and creation, we are really speculating about ourselves, and how we fit into the world around us. Too often we see ourselves as islands, disconnected from most of what goes on in the world. That is normal, but misleading.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how we are connected to all of creation. My pondering began while on vacation in June. We went to Alaska and one of our excursions was walking through a temperate rain forest at the base of the Mendenhall glacier. The glacier, as most glaciers world wide, has been receding for the last number of centuries. The rain forest grows where the glacier used to be, and for the last approximately 125 years the receding has been marked by signs that show where the end of the glacier was in various years. Our guide shared a lot of interesting information, some of it shocking and some of it fodder for deep contemplation. The most shocking was the rate glaciers are receding. The end of the last glacial advance was about 11,700 years ago. Scientists have been tracking the Mendenhall glacier for at least 125 years. Until a few years ago the glacier was receding at the rate of 25 to 30 feet per year. Now it is receding at a rate of 300 to 500 feet per year. If you doubt that climate change is happening, go study the glaciers in Alaska! The rain forest, growing in the wake of where the glacial ice used to be, is composed of 4 main elements, moss, alder, spruce, and hemlock. They form the acronym MASH; which until this trip I thought stood for mobile army surgical hospital.
It is clear that the soil left by the receding glaciers is quite fertile, rich with elements that spur growth. Then our guide taught us something even more amazing. The movement of the glaciers through the mountains scrapes off tons of marble and granite filled with minerals. All the glaciers have streams that flow into the ocean. These streams serve as feeding tubes for the world’s waters. The minerals they carry feed all ocean life, a lot of which ends up on our dinner tables! In fact, it is the glacial action all over the world that provides the nutrients necessary to sustain the earth’s oceanic life. The waters off of Alaska, for example, are so rich in nutrients that the humpback whales who migrate to Hawaii in the winter to breed, actually do their feeding while in the north. I was dumbstruck by this fact told us by our guide – without glacial activity, the earth could not sustain life. Wow! Think about that. It is a stunning example of how all of life – all of creation – is interconnected in ways we usually do not think about or see. The science of how glaciers are critical to our survival reinforces a mystical religious perspective!
What my experiences walking through the rain forest by the Mendenhall glacier, and seeing how glaciers affect life brought into focus is how all of life, all of creation, all of us are deeply interconnected – but most of the time we are blind or oblivious to that. This is the golden core of the Torah of life. We kind of stumble through life seeing the silver filigree. We see the surface of existence. We judge things based on how our little island of existence is doing in the moment. Often the silver is quite lovely. We enjoy our life, our friends, our hobbies. Often the silver feels inadequate – we sense something is missing or we yearn for something more but often cannot really place our finger on what we feel is missing. Our emotional responses, happiness, anger, sadness, pleasure; our judgments of people and events – are surface reactions – meaning we are responding to our impression, our satisfaction or disappointment to what is surrounding us in a particular moment. We do not see the golden core. We do not see beyond the boundaries of self that our egos erect for us. We are mostly oblivious to deeper, inner realities.
But not always.
Have you ever had a moment in which you realized that your personal story was not uniquely yours? Have you ever had that moment when you saw another person’s experience, although different on the surface, deeply connected to your own? It can happen in a conversation, it can happen watching the news, it can happen in a movie. When I saw the movie “Woman in Gold,” the story of Maria Altmann’s struggle to recover a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis and taken by the Austrian government, I felt that moment of connection – not to oppression or a shared family history in the Holocaust, but in the way family and extended community works. It occurred in the scene in which she hires Randol Schoenberg as her attorney. She hires him because her family knew his family in the 1930’s in Vienna. She knew him as a little boy. She serves him a piece of strudel and in that moment I was taken back to my childhood in the Bronx in the late 1950’s. The kind of community connection felt by Maria and Randol is exactly what I experienced with my grandparents as a child. I connected on a deep emotional level to people I had never known about because of a shared community dynamic.
In 2012, when I was meeting and getting to know the part of the Romberg family my father never knew, I got a lesson in hidden ties while talking to Magie (Romberg) Furst, who is my dad’s first cousin – one he never knew existed. In my office is a photograph of a stairway in Brooklyn leading to a store of Jewish sacred books and ritual objects. The title given the photograph is “Stairway to Heaven?” The photographer is Teddy Tobar, my father’s close friend, dating to their childhood in Cologne, Germany. Teddy, like a good number of dad’s Jewish community in Cologne, found a way to make it to America. I remember him as a funny, engaging man who everyone in the German Jewish community in New York seemed to know. He looked like Yogi Berra. His apartment, in the late 1940’s, was a center of social gatherings for German Jews. At one of Teddy’s parties, shortly after Magie was married, she told me her husband came to her and said he had just had a conversation with a man named Romberg, who must be related to her (her maiden name was Romberg), and she needed to talk to him. That man was my father, who had to leave before Magie could meet him.
Stimulating that feeling of deeper connection can come from seemingly alien incidents and people. They do not have to be revelations of family and cultural similarities. In 1992, as the videos of Rodney King’s beating were played all over TV, my dad called me in tears telling me it was making him relive his youth in Nazi Germany. Dad saw himself, a German Jewish immigrant, cabinet maker and businessman; in an African American taxi driver in Los Angeles. On September 12, 2001, I called one of my former congregants in Fredericksburg, VA, as I knew his wife was an American Airlines flight attendant who was often working flights to Los Angeles. I was worried she was on flight 77, the one that crashed into the Pentagon. As it turned out, she was the on call back up attendant who was sent home when the regularly scheduled attendants all showed up for the flight. I would wager many of you have similar stories, of connections to events and people that shake you, that surprise you. I would wager that many of you see the faces of your own children or grandchildren when, for example, you hear of incidents like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. I would wager you see yourself and your friends when you learned of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We sense a deeper life connection in moments of sadness, tragedy, joy, and relief. We get a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all being in those brief moments.
And that is a hint of a deeper truth: the beginning of understanding the golden core of all creation. We feel and act isolated, but we are not. Midrash teaches when the 10 commandments were recited for the Israelites at Sinai, all they saw was one thing, the letter alef. It is the letter printed in your leaflets. It is the first letter, of the first word, of the first commandment – anochi adonai elohecha, “I am Adonai your God.” There are a couple of interesting things about that phrase. First, the word elohecha “your God,” is in the singular form of “you” even though all of the people of Israel are being addressed. From God’s perspective they are one unit, not a collection of individuals. But why does the midrash teach that all the people saw was the letter alef ? That is the letter that begins the word translated as “I am.” Take your leaflet. Look at the alef. Turn it slightly so the center line of the alef is not diagonal but straight up and down. Look at it carefully and what you will see is the outline of a face. The center line is the nose. The 2 curved lines are the eyebrows. It is a face with no details. It is God’s face. It is your face. It is the face of every human who ever was, is, or will be. It is the signal of the truth in the golden core. All of us, all of creation, are connected in the most basic way to God. We are connected to each other. When we look at another person, do we get distracted by skin color, by hair color, by eye color, by clothes, by makeup, by ethnicity, by religion by wealth or by poverty? Or do we see the alef, the presence of God, our connection to all creation, to each other?
Bereishit bara Elohim…“In the beginning of….” The Zohar teaches that what emanated first from God, was keter, literally crown. This is the “crowning” if you will, of all creation. When you look at the kabbalistic tree, That shows the emanations from God that create the world, you will see that the first, the first emanation, is keter, the crown of creation. From the crown comes the qualities of binah, understanding, and chochmah, insight. The very first letter of the Torah is a bet, from the word b’reishit. On top of that bet is a decorative crown, a keter. That bet is the only one in the Torah with a decorative crown, as bet is not one of the 7 letters that usually gets that decorative piece. That crown on the first letter is our reminder – to read the story of creation, indeed the whole Torah, with binah – understanding and insight. We are invited to understand that all we really need to see is the alef that begins the word anochi. All we need to understand is that the word anochi, “I am,” is not just about me. It is about God. It is about the reflection of God in each other, throughout creation. God placed God’s self throughout creation. God is present in everything, in each one of us. That is why God declares about creation ki tov, behold, this is good.
May this be the year we can see the connection, the good, throughout creation. May this be the year we can see the connection to God we share with each other: even those who seem so unlike ourselves. May we all look at the world, at God’s creation and declare, ki tov, behold, this is good.
Amen and Shanah tovah!