Shabbat Akharei Mot: A Little Light

Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.

Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer. 

It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.

The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.” 

Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.  

This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.

There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)

There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.

That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have. 

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Shabbat Bereshit: Beginning Again, But Not at the Beginning

Here we go again with the beginning!

This week we begin once again to read the Torah. Our parashah is Bereshit, “in [the process of] beginning”. We all know how it begins, and we all know what happens in the story: creation of the world, then of plants, animals and human beings, and then the trouble starts. There’s a snake, and the first murder, which is a fratricide: Cain kills his brother Abel.

Life can seem like a nightmare of repetition some days; somewhere in the world, another war is breaking out. Another famine is causing the suffering of millions. Another act of violence is diminishing the humanity of all it touches. It makes you want to turn off the news forever.

It seems hopeless, yet Judaism teaches hope. In our liturgy, our theology, and our seeking of justice, we are trained always to hope. Not in an irresponsible way, but hope, nevertheless. It is said that in the Warsaw Ghetto, above the entrance to a shul, were inscribed the famous urging of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav: “No matter what, Jews, do not despair!” Jews historically vote for rehabilitation, not capital punishment, because there’s always hope. In Jewish law one may never assume that someone is no longer living, even if the person was last seen in a war zone, or is very old and frail. There’s always hope.

As we begin again at the beginning, we know that we will soon read again of sin, of murder, of war and of misery.

We will also read of courage, of kindness, of righteousness, and of how many stars can be seen in the sky on a night when we remember to look up.

That’s the reason, we are told, that we are to hope. We are not automatons, doomed to repetition. We learn from our experiences, and we listen to those who are wiser than we. We sometimes feel trapped in repetitive patterns – but we take part in being trapped, and we can choose to change the pattern, and our part in it.

You will continue to repeat what you are doing until you learn what you need to learn from it. That learning is “Torah” in the widest sense, for it is your capacity to learn life lessons and plumb their truth depths. And then you will walk away from the damaging repetitions of your past, because you will have learned what you needed to learn from them. And then, feeling a new sense of strength, you will be ready to face the next challenge.

How will this year be different from all other years that have come before it? This year we are in the third year of our Triennial Cycle of Torah reading. We will begin not with the very beginning of Bereshit, but much later, near the end of chapter 4. One of the first verses we read is this:

א  זֶה סֵפֶר, תּוֹלְדֹת אָדָם:  בְּיוֹם, בְּרֹא אֱלֹהִים אָדָם, בִּדְמוּת אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֹתוֹ.

1 This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day that God created the human being, in the likeness of God it was made;

ב  זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בְּרָאָם; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָם אָדָם, בְּיוֹם, הִבָּרְאָם.

2 male and female created it was created, and G-d blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.

We will begin with an entirely different beginning – after the Garden of Eden, past the snake, way past the misunderstanding and bad feelings that led to murder. The terrible news from the world around us does not define our future, only our present. This verse from chapter five is not the first statement, but perhaps it is the result of some learning, some experience, and some re-thinking. It offers us a simpler, essential version of human beginnings: one single being, made up of all the human potential in the world. From this verse the tradition derives the teaching that despite all that divides and differentiates us, each individual, precious life is worth the life of the world, because in each one is a whole world of potential.

And therefore, in each one of us is that hope – of an entire world of potential. How will your year be different from all those before it?

Shabbat Nakhamu: let hatred give way to kindness

This Shabbat bears two names, one for the parashat hashavua, the “parsha of the week”, and one which reflects the fact that we have just passed Tisha B’Av, the “9th of Av”, the day on which we reach our lowest, saddest point as a people and a nation. On Tisha B’Av the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and we went into exile, stateless, homeless refugees. This happened not once but twice, both times during the hot summer days which are so harsh in the Middle East.

The first time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a fifty-year exile, was at the hands of the Babylonians, in 586 BCE. The Rabbis state in the Talmud that the first Temple was destroyed because Israelite society was guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. In other words, cynicism and hypocrisy, disrespect for one’s body and that of others, and callous disregard for life were the conditions our ancestors contributed to or stood by and witnessed. The destruction of the first Temple was understood after the fact (and by the prophets way before) as a direct result of the corrosion of Israelite society’s ethics and behavior.

The second time that the Temple was destroyed, and our people were led into slavery and a two thousand year exile, was at the hands of the Romans, in 70 CE. The Rabbis ask in the Talmud, why did this happen? Our people was not idolatrous, nor sexually immoral, nor wantonly violent. The answer is that our ancestors of the Roman period, we are told, were guilty of baseless hatred. For no real reason, our ancestors assumed the worst of each other’s actions and words and responded with hate. The destruction of the second Temple was understood to be the end result of baseless hatred. Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches that baseless hatred as as destructive as idolatry, sexual immorality, and callous bloodshed together.

Baseless hatred – sin’at hinam in Hebrew – is a judgmental anger that finds fault and assumes the worst of others, without any justification at all. It is the result of the sin of not giving the other the benefit of the doubt. It is a sin that is doubled by the sin that follows, of treating the person we’ve judged unkindly, instead of respecting as we wish to be ourselves respected. We are warned that, even as a mitzvah will often lead us to another mitzvah, an averah often leads directly to another averah. Once they pile up, it is difficult to dig oneself out. On the bright side, the world will one day be healed of the horrors we inflict upon each other, when we stop reacting as children to what life brings us, and instead consider, as adults, not only how we feel, but what we’ve learned.

On this Shabbat Nakhamu, the first Shabbat after the mourning over destruction on Tisha B’Av, the rituals of our tradition encourage us to lift up our hearts from sadness and be willing to be consoled. The Rabbis who, two thousand years ago, set this meaning for this Shabbat, had lived through total catastrophe. Everything was destroyed – yet they insisted that we refrain from despair. On this Shabbat Nakhamu, as the rockets fly again and peace is nowhere in sight, we who are experiencing something much less total, have all the more reason to pull ourselves and our morale together and hope. More, in good Jewish fashion, let us see the task of making Shabbat Nakhamu a real and complete consolation in the future. May we live to see many more of them, and may we strengthen each other to work for a time where no baseless hatred remains to corrode our vision of what might yet be. The most difficult work, of course, is within ourselves: if each of us tries never to give in to thoughts of intolerance and hatred, the small ripples of our influence will have an impact on all those with whom we interact.

Let that work begin for you today, with three small acts of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Hasadim: learn something, meditate upon it, and let it lead you to a random act of kindness. Let that be your small observance of the true meaning, and hope, of Shabbat Nakhamu.

Tisha B’Av 5774: May Our Mourning Soon Turn to Celebration

Today, the 9th day of Av, is one of intense mourning. For two thousand years the People of Israel has mourned the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on this day. In 586 BCE Solomon’s Temple, paneled with cedar from Lebanon, was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire’s army; in 70 CE the Second Temple, begun by those who returned from Babylonian Exile and renovated by Herod of Rome to great beauty, was razed by the army of Rome.

The full horrors of siege and massacre were recorded in the Book Eikha (“Lamentations”), traditionally attribute to the Prophet Jeremiah. Ever since, we read from that book on this day and cry; we recite laments written in fantastically artful rhyming acrostics, two, three, and four times repeating each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order. Some of the kinot are anonymous; some of the most beautiful are attributed to the poet Eliezer ben Kalir (7th century). The words within each beautifully written kinah (“lament”) describe the horrifying details of suffering and death – all the more awful in that stark contrast.

The kinot give voice to a despair that, though it may change its specific circumstances, remains tragically the same in all human experience: How can our lives have become so wretched that some seek to kill others? How has the Garden of this beautiful world into which we are born, a beautiful gift that we did nothing to deserve, how have we turned it into such a radioactive dump?

The classic Jewish response is this: for our sins we were exiled from our land. The responsibility for our exile from happiness, from peace, from safety, from delight, is the work of our own human hands. I do not mean to say simplistically that an individual deserves what happens to her; rather, to recognize that none of us is an individual in that radical way. Our acts are dependent upon, and affect, each other, not only in our own day but throughout time.

Take one example from political science: After World War I, a supremely confident victorious group of allies divided up the spoils, just as victors always have. In this case, the spoils were the Ottoman Empire, and the victors were the colonial powers of Europe. The victorious imposed arbitrary “states” and “nations” upon the vanquished, and in so doing created the conditions for great suffering among those whose lives and identities were peremptorily reassigned. Much of the unhappiness in the Middle East today is more easily understood simply by recalling those days, and the Islamic State newly self-styled (and appearing in the areas of Syria and Iraq, tellingly ignoring those Western-drawn state borders) declares itself a direct reaction against that time.

What each of us does, affects us all. In Jewish tradition we recognize this reality through the Talmudic teaching What is the best practice to which a person should adhere? Always consider what is being born. (Pirke Avot 2.12)

Jewish tradition is optimistic; since human beings are created in G-d’s image, we are capable of creativity, love, and beauty – not just the horrors we tend to inflict upon each other. Thus, on this day of Tisha B’Av 5774, when there is much about which to despair, let us consider our power to work for good even in the midst of darkness. If we are in exile because of our sins, it is an ethical exile, not geographical, and we cannot return from it physically or mentally but only morally. We are capable of this return, but only after we come to terms with our acts, and seek healing from them for ourselves and for those we have injured.

The most optimistic teaching of all is that one day, Tisha B’Av will become a day not of our greatest mourning, but of our greatest celebration. On that day we will look back at all our former struggling, and our unkindness towards each other, and then we will laugh it away, and sing our sorrows into delight.

If you have a hard time fighting off despair, you are not alone. But there are those who wrestle a blessing even from the current darkness that seems to surround us. This link shows you a short video of people helping people, in the midst of the destruction. They might be Israelites or they might be Babylonians; they might be Israelis or they might be Arabs. What matters is that they are choosing life in the midst of death.

 http://youtu.be/g_1Mv7F9pyc

…May the day that turns our mourning into song come soon – it cannot come soon enough

Because for now, we find ourselves situated within the difficult and sad work of coming to terms with what we, the people of Israel, and what we, human beings on this earth, have wrought. May this Tisha B’Av be one of fasting from denial, fasting from hate, and fasting from despair.

Here are a few excerpts from the kinot. May these songs of sorrow turn soon to their opposite, and may we all see the day of joy on the other side of this darkness.

Oh how they have cast down my glory from my head when they set up an idol opposite G-d’s Throne, when they profaned the conditions the prophets had counselled, saying “If you walk in My statutes”….G-d has cut down the cornerstone of the city which was full of righteousness, for in her chamber of imagery He found every kind of impurity.

How lonely sits the rose of Sharon! Song is muted on the lips of the Levites, and the priests, the offspring of Aaron, were moved away from their watch-stations when the Temple was delivered into the hands of those who rebel against G-d.

The five-fold Torah cried bitterly when the priest and prophet was slain on the Day of Atonement, and over his blood the young priests were slaughtered like young goats, and the priests of Tzippori scattered like birds in flight.

On account of the iniquity of tithes and the sabbatical year, Israel, the bedecked bride, was exiled from her land.

When I think how the tongue of the suckling child could cleave to his palate through parching thirst, oh woe!

When I think how the daughters were swollen from starvation in their mothers’ laps, oh woe!

When I think how women were burdened with miscarrying wombs and dried-up breasts, oh woe!

When I think how the mother weeps over her children that are sinking toward death, oh woe!

When I think how the young warriors dropped in the desert of Arabia, oh woe!

When I think how in exhaustion the exiles diminished from a thousand to ten, and ten to one, oh woe!

When I think how their breath became flame from thirst, and were given empty skins of water, oh woe!

When I think how nine kavs of children’s brains were piled up on one rock, oh woe!

When I think how three hundred babies were impaled on a single lance, oh woe!

When I think how the young men and women fainted through parching thirst, oh woe!

Palestinian children from border crossings to Israeli hospitals and back. It was shot during the first week of Tzuk Eitan (the current conflict w Gaza) and it features my cousin Yuval, the founder of Road to Recovery.

 http://youtu.be/g_1Mv7F9pyc

.A bit of sanity for us all, please share with the world…