Shabbat Noakh: Sometimes It Floods

Sometimes life comes at you faster than you can thoughtfully respond. In our parashat hashavua one person, Noakh, suddenly discovers that his world is going to end in a great flood of water that will cover the earth as far as he knows it to exist. He builds a giant boat as he is directed by G-d, and he and his family are saved from the death that meets the rest of humankind, and also many animals. Our tradition finds fault with him, based upon a close reading of Genesis 6.9: “Noakh was righteous in his generation.” The Rabbis asked of this verse, what kind of compliment is that? His generation is so wicked that G-d blots them out….They point to Abraham, who, when G-d announced the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra, insisted that G-d distinguish between guilty and innocent. Noakh, on the other hand, when news of the flood reaches him, does not ask and does not argue.

But what else is different, if we compare Abraham and Noakh? Abraham is G-d’s chosen, protected and guided toward a blessed future in a land promised to his descendants. Noakh has no such support, at least not as described in the Torah. He lives in a world which is literally going to hell, and he is experiencing the incredible stress of social breakdown, hatred acted upon in ways that empty out all notions of ethics and decency….and he is, after all, only human.

I am in Israel this week, visiting family and in particular meeting my new cousin, Ofri, who was born on Purim. From here the view is strikingly different from that which we experience from our safely distant perspective in the U.S. Here, we heard about Wednesday’s attack in the local hourly news that comes over the radio, and details emerged over the local internet hour by hour. At the same time, Israelis join right now in mourning young people who were taking vacation from their army service, hiking in Nepal, and were killed by a sudden snowstorm and avalanche. And oh, yes, the latest news about the so-called Islamic State conveys information about what is happening not so far from here – although here in the village it is so quiet that it is almost impossible to believe that such upheaval is actually occurring.

Just now the latest news bulletin on the hour came through as we prepare for Shabbat; two young Israeli adults on holiday in Nepal were killed when the bus they were traveling on plunged into a ravine. My cousin Eli got very quiet for a moment, but there was nothing much to say other than what we already know we are thinking: so sad, so very sad. If you had pushed us further, we might have continued with: and so pointless. Oh, and there is news that tension is increasing in Jerusalem: rocks are being thrown, tires and light-rail stations set on fire.

It feels like a flood of terribly bad, sad news, and within it the different kinds of bad news come together in a way that blurs distinctions. Perhaps this is what Noakh was feeling when G-d announced the great flood. Maybe he was so beaten down by one sad experience after another, one horror following upon the next, that in all the attendant stress he simply lost his ability to act according to his highest human potential. It does happen that we can be so brutalized by experience that we are no longer really ourselves.

Whatever we in our faraway quiet America feel justified to judge about life here in Israel, let’s remember to apply the ancient Jewish ethical principle l’khaf zekhut, “benefit of the doubt”. Perhaps people really are doing the best they can in some very stressful, brutalizing circumstances.

Please join me this Shabbat in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and all places – a Jewish kind of prayer which presupposes action to bring it about.

Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?

 

On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.

 

It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.

 

Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:

 

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)

 

We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.

 

Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 

 

Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.

 

Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.

 

Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.

 

Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?

 

The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.

 

As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.

Parashat Ekev: showing up is safer than hiding

A minyan is traditionally defined as ten Jewish men but by Progressive Jews as ten self-identified and committed Jews of any gender; any way you define it, what it means is that we need critical mass. 

What is critical mass? it’s the number you need to get the job done. In order to evoke holiness in Jewish prayer, you need a minyan. In order to study Torah, our tradition teaches, you need at least two students.  Social justice is more tricky: in order to get a possible new law on the Oregon ballot, you need 116,284 names on a petition. I know; I’ve just trained to become a signature collector for a measure on the 2014 ballot to enact marriage equality in the state of Oregon.

This week’s parashah underscores the Jewish emphasis on individual responsibility for the group’s well-being in the very first verse: If you all obey these laws and guard them carefully, God will guard the Covenant established with each of you. (Devarim 7.12) The laws must be obeyed and guarded by all of us, and then God will guard the Covenant made us as it affects us personally, one by one.

The word if in this parasha gives it its name: ekev “on the heels of” in Hebrew. That is how closely act is followed by reaction in Jewish religious belief. Or, as we might say, “what goes around comes around”. It may take a while, but it’s always recognizable when it comes around again, whatever “it” is for you or me. Consider: we see larger social trends, and we can feel, if not always articulate, how we know our acts have been a small part of what has added up to that trend. 

Do you see less litter on the streets? you, because you do not ignore the presence of garbage but take care of it, are a small part of that trend. Do you see more justice in the world? you will if you do not ignore the presence of injustice, and take care of it, in whatever ways you may find to do so. And not only where you happen to notice it –  as the haftarah for this week reminds us, we are called upon to be rodfey tzedek, “pursuers of justice”:

Listen to Me, all who pursue justice, all who seek the Eternal!

Look to the rock from which you were hewn, the quarry from which you were cut.

Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you.

(Isaiah 50.51.1-2)

It is not enough to quietly be in favor of change, to quietly approve of movements which seek greater justice. We have to show up. Our tradition urges us to show up and to act to guard others if we ourselves would seek to be safe. If we look to the rock of our tradition, let it remind us “to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with G-d” (Micah), and show up in the pursuit of justice, we may suffer and we may not always succeed, but we will know that we are keeping the Covenant, and that it will keep us.

As we come out of hiding, we the quiet ones in support of equality, and act for justice together, may we know justice in our individual lives – and peace in our hearts.

discrimination is so last century

The news that Rev Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the Inauguration because of an inauspicious sermon is both too bad and an encouraging sign. It’s too bad because the Jewish tradition I follow suggests that he should have been given room to atone for words spoken many years ago, and not judged on a position that he may or may not still hold, at least not until he has been given the opportunity to update it. We are all growing spiritual beings, after all, and one learns many things over time. We evolve, as our President has said about his own perspective on marriage equality.

And it’s also an encouraging sign that being gay is becoming a protected status, in our society if not yet under the law. There is a new willingness on the part of our government to express a certain sensitivity to the concerns of gay constituents, and that is a welcome development. One day we might yet become a people equal before the law as well as before God.

The Book of Genesis, which so many “religious” leaders like to quote to their own fancy, is not so easy to rally to the side of those who want to condemn homosexuality. Genesis 1.27 states

“God created the man in his image in the image of God he created him male and female he created them.”

This sentence, which is already a translation of the original Hebrew (and not the only possible translation), is somewhat difficult to understand unless you insert commas. But where to put them? Try this:

“God created the man in his image – in the image of God he created him, male and female – he created them.”

Modern biology has taught us that we are each made up of male and female aspects – we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our hormonal makeup. What if Genesis is expressing this idea, that all of us are both male and female, made up physiologically of both genders, and that gender itself is a spectrum in each one of us? some more male, some more female….a whole shading of gender identities suddenly appears along this speculative spectrum.

At the very least, it doesn’t say “in the image of God, they were created male, white, and heterosexual”. There are many things that the holy texts do not say, but we find what we want to read into them when we need something to divert the public conversation away from thoughtfulness and toward judgments which may or may not be supported by the facts in evidence.

For a long time American society has been laboring under some false impressions about Biblical truth that are more narrowly cultural than transcendently spiritual. In the 21st century we will only make spiritual progress if we are able to open our hearts and ears past assumptions about the text made by others who want to influence us, and toward true hearing with our own ears. The world is upheld through justice, and compassion, and kindness – not through discrimination.