Thursday, April 15, 2021

What Gossip Destroys


Gossip is wrong. We shouldn’t reveal embarrassing secrets about others, and we certainly shouldn’t repeat slanders that will hurt their reputation. The Torah prohibits lashon hara, “negative speech,” including gossip and slander. In the past century, thanks to the publication of Sefer Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the laws of lashon hara are very much a part of the ethics curriculum in Jewish schools.

It is easy to see the laws of lashon harah as a form of domestic ethics, a way to make sure that friends don’t hurt friends. But Maimonides offers a revolutionary insight into lashon hara. He sees within gossip and slander a malignant perspective on life, one which is corrosive to the speaker’s character and detrimental to society.

Maimonides himself was the subject of many personal attacks in his lifetime. Several of his letters offer glimpses to how he responded to these controversies. In a letter to Yaphet, the judge of Acre, Maimonides writes that through the years, informers plotted against his life. In another series of letters to his student Joseph ben Judah in Bagdad, Maimonides instructs his student on how to respond to a local controversy about his recently published Mishneh Torah. The Gaon of Babylonia, Samuel ben Eli, had disparaged Maimonides and the Mishneh Torah; he and his son-in-law Zechariah had issued a series of criticisms, and claimed that they could have written a much better book than Mishneh Torah in a very short period of time. As Maimonides notes in his letters to Joseph, the Babylonian leadership was threatened by his stature. Samuel ben Eli still clung to the dream that the Gaon of Babylonia would be the Rabbinic leader of the entire Jewish world; the presence of other great rabbis like Maimonides was a threat to his dream. Samuel and his cohort had ample motivation to belittle Maimonides and his works. But Maimonides explains that he himself is not concerned by these attacks, that he remains silent in response, and when he meets his attackers, he speaks to them politely. Maimonides advises Joseph to be “among the insulted and not among the insulting,” and to hold his tongue. 

These letters remind us that Maimonides was not just a brilliant author; he was also a communal leader. He lived his life in the public eye, and despite - or perhaps because of - his extraordinary brilliance, he attracted more than his fair share of controversy throughout his life. It is for this reason that what Maimonides has to say about slander, rumors, and disparagement is very significant.

Lashon hara is a topic in this week's Torah reading. The Torah describes the regulations surrounding the afflictions of tzaraat, skin lesions that have a similarity to leprosy. Included in the regulations is that the person afflicted with tzaraat is sent to live far away from the camp or city. Later in the Bible, there is a strong hint that these afflictions are a punishment for speaking lashon hara. Miriam speaks ill about her brother Moshe, and is immediately punished with tzaraat. This connection is further developed by the Talmud, Midrash and a legion of later commentaries. At first glance, the connection between tzaraat and lashon hara is obvious. Speaking gossip creates ill will between people, and exiling the one who speaks lashon hara protects the community from a divisive personality who slanders others.

It is fascinating that Maimonides took a very different approach to tzaraat. In the Mishneh Torah, at the end of the laws of leprosy, he offers a lengthy explanation of the prohibition against gossip. (This is one of the longest non-halakhic digressions in the entire Mishneh Torah.) Maimonides explains that lashon hara is not always about spite or animosity; even Miriam, who loved her brother dearly, spoke lashon hara about Moshe. Rather, lashon hara reflects an attitude of disrespect; they are the words of the cynical, people who lose sight of the true value of everything. Maimonides explains this has far reaching implications, and lashon hara can lead to a loss of faith in both God and humanity. He writes: In this vein, Psalms states: "They set their mouths against Heaven and their tongues strut on earth." What caused them to "set their mouths against Heaven?" Their tongues, which previously were given free rein on earth. This is the speech of the wicked that is caused by loitering on the street corners, frequenting the assemblies of commoners, and spending time at the parties of drunkards. Slander and gossip reflect a mindset of irony and sarcasm, a mindset that flourishes in the boozy gatherings of callous and uncaring fools. To Maimonides, the great evil of lashon hara is that it degrades the intellect and undermines values. Lashon hara begins with ones’ neighbors but then proceeds to the mockery of everything, insulting and undermining even that which is holy and wholesome.

Maimonides offers a very different understanding of the prohibition against lashon hara. In his view, the true harm caused by lashon hara comes from negativity and cynicism. It destroys our virtues by mocking nearly anything and forgetting the value of everything. (It should be noted that this cynicism is very different than criticism. It is not interested in evaluation, just denigration.)

We live in a dark age of lashon hara, facilitated in large part by the internet and social media. The first time I got attacked on the internet was back in 2001. I had written an article that was later posted to a Jewish law website. It was an in-depth, nuanced exploration of Rabbinic sources on the controversial issue of rabbis writing letters to parole boards on behalf of convicted criminals. It quickly received a scathing comment. This comment really bothered me; its language was nasty, its tone dismissive, and it questioned my character. From the looks of it, it was pretty clear the commenter hadn't read the article, just the headline. Over the years, I have come to realize that such comments are pretty ordinary, and that thoughtless, nasty, and harsh criticism is very much a part of internet culture. There is an entire vocabulary for the online bullying that takes place in social media, such as dunking and trolls. Respectable people get on Twitter and lose their minds; they engage in virulent attacks against strangers with whom they have political disagreements. An ugly subculture of people who look to embarrass and mock others has flourished; remarkably, many of those people are quite nice in person. Reasoned debate and civil discourse have been replaced by 140 character insults.

It is this type of criticism to which Maimonides is referring when he speaks about the ills of lashon hara. This type of negative speech is much more than a social ill. It actually is an intellectual pollutant, a noisy screech that prevents the small, still voice of goodness from being heard. Maimonides reminds us that a society built on gratuitous abuse will spiritually collapse. That's something to think about next time you read a snarky remark on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Alcohol, Intoxication, and Inspiration

Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher (1796-1874) was the Tsadik of Gr├Ątz, a brilliant Talmudic scholar and mystic to whom thousands of Jews flocked for blessings and advice. A collection of kvitlach addressed to him are found in the archives of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. (Kvitlach are notes addressed to rabbis, with requests that the rabbi pray on behalf of the person or offer them a blessing.) Glenn Dynner, in his book Yankel's Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland, cites several of these notes that relate to drinking problems that were destroying families. One note, from Solomon ben Reizel, includes the admission that he "drinks a lot of liquor to the point it makes him drunk, and because of this he has no domestic tranquility." He asked for a prayer that God "have mercy on him and guard him so that he doesn't drink anymore."  Another, from Isaac Eizik ben Rachel, describes how he "drinks more liquor than he needs, and so he beats his children, so he asks for a cure for this" from Rabbi Guttmacher. Problem drinking was not restricted to scattered individuals; a popular Mussar work from the late 1600s, Kav Hayashar, condemns those who drink early in the morning and show up to synagogue drunk.

At the same time, drinking was far less prevalent in the Polish Jewish community than in the surrounding population. Dynner quotes non-Jewish observers from 19th century Poland who write that “a Jewish drunk is hard to find” and that the “Jew is always sober.” This pattern continued on to the United States, where several studies from the 50s through 80s showed that Jews continued to have lower rates of alcoholism. There may be a genetic component to this, with the possibility that some Jews have an inborn aversion to drinking too much. However, this past advantage should not make us complacent; substance abuse and alcohol abuse is on the rise in the United States, and there is no reason to think that it is not on the rise in the Jewish community, as well. And more significantly, the myth that Jews don’t get drunk makes recovery far more difficult for Jewish alcoholics, who are afraid to reveal their condition because it makes them feel like they have failed the community.

Discussions about Judaism and drinking often focus on theories about why Jews drink less. Some argue that perhaps Jews learn to drink in moderation through the Shabbat Kiddush, which offers a ritual framework for the use of alcohol. (And Judaism, from the Bible onward, sees drinking in moderation as both respectable and enjoyable.). Another theory is that Jews see drinking as a defining difference between themselves and their non-Jewish neighbors. But there is really no evidence to back either view, and it is hard to know if any of these theories are valid. But one must look beyond sociology, and ask a different question: What is the Torah’s view of intoxication?

One of the attractions of drinking and drug use is the search for an alternate reality. The Midrash Tanchuma tells a story about a Torah scholar who is trying to convince his alcoholic father to change his ways. One day, the son sees a man drunk in the gutter; the Torah scholar hurries home to bring his father to witness the drunk’s humiliation, hoping it will change his father’s behavior. What is the father’s reaction? He asks the drunken man where he bought his wine! The son asks his father how he can continue to drink, when it is so obviously bad for him. And the father responds: “My son, in my life there is no greater pleasure, no greater Garden of Eden than this (drinking).” Intoxication offers the possibility of quick high, one that feels like ascending to heaven.

It is easy to confuse spirits with the spiritual. The very terminology of drinking overlaps with the religious, and drugs and alcohol are seen as a way to become “high.” In some religious cultures, like the Cult of Dionysus, intoxication becomes a spiritual experience.  And in ancient Hindu scripture, Soma, a mind-altering plant, is used to attain spiritual greatness.

In our Torah reading, a very different view of intoxication is offered. On the final day of the dedication ceremony for the new Sanctuary, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, enter the Sanctuary and are struck dead. Their deaths are a mystery and it is unclear why they were struck dead.  The Midrash cites the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, who notes that immediately after their deaths, the Torah commands “drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die.” Rabbi Yishmael infers from this juxtaposition that Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they entered the Sanctuary, which is why they were struck dead.

This view is shocking.  Samuel David Luzzatto writes, “It is impossible to believe that Nadav and Avihu drank wine on the morning of that awesome day.” But there may be another interpretation of Rabbi Yishmael’s view. He could be saying that Aharon’s sons drank wine for ritual purposes. In Ancient Egypt, during the 2nd millennium BCE, there was a “Tekh Festival” or “Feast of Drunkenness,” whose ritual is described by one Egyptologist as this: "It seems that in the Hall of Drunkenness, worshippers got drunk, slept, and then were woken by drummers to commune with the goddess Mut.” Sacred drinking existed in ancient Egypt; perhaps the sons of Aharon found that to be appealing, as well. Intoxication, with its ability to alter one’s mind, can be misunderstood as a pathway to the spiritual.

Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretation offers us a powerful lesson: Inspiration is never found through intoxication. We do not find a higher purpose by trying to escape reality, and drinking wine is not the road to spirituality. (It should be noted that although wine is used for Kiddush, it can be replaced with challah or grape juice. We use wine in Kiddush due to its social significance, because it is a beverage that is appropriate to offer to an honored guest.) The Talmud extends this lesson and forbids one to pray after drinking just a few ounces of wine. Intoxication is a false form of inspiration.

Peak performance in Judaism needs no enhancement; on the contrary, when you alter reality, you lose the clarity of mind needed to find true inspiration. As painful as life may be at times, salvation is not found in an alternative reality.  And even when carrying a difficult emotional load, inspiration can be found by turning back to life.

When I have given sermons on drinking in the past, people would approach me afterwards and say: “My name is xx xx, and I’m an alcoholic.” These people inspire me; they have taken the long road to recovery, despite the pain and difficulty involved. Recovery is about recognizing that life is more satisfying than any drug, and a sense of purpose is more meaningful than any pleasure. And that is the lesson of this passage in the Torah.   

Happiness is not found in a wine bottle or a pill container; true inspiration can only come from within.  This lesson is fundamental to recovery, but it is a valuable lesson for anyone seeking a meaningful life.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Should We Celebrate When the Pandemic is Over?

Should we celebrate when the pandemic is over? As the vaccinations ramp up, there is finally a sense of optimism. After over a year of anxiety and isolation, we can reasonably predict the end of this pandemic and expect life to return to normal. But is it appropriate to celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus?

The coronavirus has caused exceptional suffering. There have been millions of deaths worldwide, and many more have been impacted by the psychological and financial effects of the pandemic. However, the impact of the pandemic has been uneven. The metaphor used, that we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat, is very accurate. Some have suffered greatly, and others have actually had a very good year. But that makes the moral foundation of this question even more profound: Is it appropriate for anyone to rejoice while so many people are still heartbroken?

Halakhah makes a sharp separation between mourning and celebration. The Bible tells us that “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing”- and Halakhah codifies this into practice. When a holiday arrives, we cancel the 7-day mourning period of shiva. When a burial occurs during a holiday, the shiva is deferred until after the conclusion of the holiday. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that these two emotions of joy and mourning are in direct contradiction with each other; for this reason, Halakhah separates mourning from joy and gives each their own stage.  Ideally, we should experience joy and mourning separately, each in their proper time.

But we cannot always disentangle the moments of joy and grief. A child who loses a parent and inherits an estate makes two blessings, one to reflect their heartbreaking loss, and the other thanking God for their good fortune. On the holidays, we recite the Yizkor prayer, which remembers family and friends who have passed away. Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein asks the obvious question: How is it permissible to say Yizkor on the holidays, which are meant to be joyous? The answer, he says, lies in a deeper understanding of human emotions. There is permission given for mourners to cry on the holidays if it will give them comfort. It is unreasonable to expect a person to seal off their grief, even on a day of joy, and the tears of a mourner can bring them a sense of relief. For this reason, Yizkor has a role to play during the holiday, even though reciting this prayer will bring us to tears. 

Joy and sadness are frequently intertwined. The abundance of joy at a Pesach Seder will never fill the empty chair of a beloved grandparent. The abundance of grief at a shiva will never erase joyous memories. When the family brings out old photo albums, there is a mixture of laughter and tears, as joy and grief sit side by side. And this is true of life in general; to live an authentic life is to carry sorrows and joys together, with both sharing space within the same heart.

Yizkor is always filled with mixed emotions, a painful pause embedded in a day of celebration. Right now, those mixed emotions are more jarring than usual. It is Pesach, the festival of redemption, and this year, it is truly filled with hope for a better future. Seats in the synagogue are filling up, and people are happy to return now that they have been vaccinated. But there are some seats that will remain empty, and we have good friends who will never return. So, during Yizkor we will be remembering all of those who will never come back to our synagogue. And then we will have to return to our celebration. This is an emotional roller coaster.

Throughout its history, Israel has always had to navigate this clash of emotions. On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army captured the Temple Mount, returning Jewish sovereignty to the holiest place in Judaism for the first time in nearly 1900 years. The paratroopers joyously shouted recited the shehecheyanu prayer, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounded the shofar; audio of both are replayed in Israeli media every year. But when you listen to the full recording of that you hear something else: Rabbi Goren reciting a memorial prayer for the soldiers who had fallen in battle. And as he does so, you can hear the sound of weeping in the background, the victorious paratroopers crying for their fallen brethren. Even the greatest of miracles arrives with tears and heartbreak.

For this reason, Israel has placed its Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, on the day before its Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut. Without the courage, bravery and sacrifice of its soldiers, Israel would not exist. At the same time, the greatest way of honoring the legacy of those who have fallen is by building a vibrant country, one worth celebrating. Putting a day of mourning right before a day of rejoicing certainly brings out mixed emotions. That is as it should be, because carrying both of those emotions is our responsibility.

The Israeli paradigm is an appropriate one for the end of this pandemic. Life includes both the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet; we must embrace them both, because we cannot edit reality. Israel recognizes both, and even puts them together. And so it should be for us as we celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus.

Yes, we will celebrate when the pandemic is over, but we will not forget the pain, suffering and loss. Every holiday will have its Yizkor. Every Seder will have its empty seat. When we celebrate the reopening, we will remember those we have lost as well. The celebration would be incomplete without it. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Why is Moshe Not in the Haggadah?

Why is Moshe not in the Haggadah? When I was younger, I would wrinkle my nose at this question and dismiss it as a "klutz kasha," a meaningless query. The Haggadah is a collection of texts, and not written by one author. There is no author who “excluded” Moshe from the Haggadah, and the omission of Moshe is simply a coincidence. This question is naive, and betrays an ignorance of how the Haggadah was edited.

Now I have a very different view of this question. There are profound truths to be found on the level of “drash,” a poetic interpretation which reads the unwritten words hidden between the lines. Unconscious realities can lie within random coincidence; so it is for Moshe's absence from the Haggadah.

The desire to write our name begins right after we learn how to do so in elementary school; instinctively, we scribble our name everywhere, haltingly written in pencil. It is a short jump from elementary school to the plaques and portraits of adult success. From the very beginning of our lives we hope that something bearing our name will end up being greater than ourselves. We look for monuments that will guarantee our immortality.

The ancient Egyptians were monument makers. The Colossi of Memnon are two enormous 60- foot tall statues to Pharaoh Amenhotep III; they are estimated to weigh 720 tons each. The bust of Ramesses II at the British Museum weighs over seven tons. In 2017, the statue of Psamtik was discovered at the Souq Al-Khamis archaeological site; it is 30 feet tall, and the torso alone weighs three tons.

Jews have had a very different attitude toward monuments. The second of the Ten Commandments states, “You shall not make for yourselves any graven image”; and while this is deeply associated with the prohibition against idol worship, it includes a halakhic prohibition against a full statue of any human being. One interesting anecdote about this halakhic issue has to do with the statue of Fred Lebow in Central Park, on 90th street and Fifth Avenue. Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, was born in Romania to a very observant family. (His given name was Fischel Lebowitz). When the statue was about to be unveiled in 1994, Lebow’s brother objected on halakhic grounds. As the New York Times described it, “the night before the statue's dedication in Central Park...Mr. Mitrovich (who commissioned the statue - C.S.) and a rabbi ducked under the blanket covering the statue. The rabbi used a metal file to chip the statue between Fred Lebow's left thumb and forefinger.”  The prohibition against graven images includes a friendly figure on the edge of Central Park. But this is more than an excessive halakhic caution; it represents a deep-seated discomfort with monuments.

In 1860, a controversy raged among American Jewry regarding the proposal to build a statue in memory of the philanthropist, Judah Touro. Touro had spent most of his life in New Orleans, and the local community wanted to honor his philanthropy by building this statue. Much of the debate circled around the question of the halakhic propriety of graven images. Eventually, a query was put to four prominent European rabbis: Zacharias Frankel, Nathan Marcus Adler, Shlomo Yehuda Rapoport and Samson Raphael Hirsch. All four rejected the statue as being inappropriate and, perhaps, forbidden.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s reply offers a unique insight into the Jewish attitude to monument making. He argues that all honorary monuments are contrary to Jewish custom. Throughout the course of Jewish history there is only one character for whom an honorary monument is built, Absalom, and because of his poor character, Absalom is a poor role model. Hirsch then cites the Talmud Shekalim, which teaches that we do not place a monument at the burial places of the pious. Hirsch says this means that the best way to honor the righteous is through good deeds, and through those good deeds, the memory of the righteous will be a blessing for the living. Hirsch recommended that instead of spending money on a statue, the community of New Orleans should establish a charity in Touro’s memory.

Immortality is never carved in stone. The ancient Egyptian monuments now look a bit absurd; they ironically highlight the transience of the Pharaohs and how ephemeral their accomplishments were. When the bust of Ramesses II arrived at the British Museum, Percy Shelley wrote a poem Ozymandias, which at its end mocks the Pharaoh’s pretensions:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Centuries later Ramessses II seems pathetic, grasping at a kingdom that is long gone, his dreams of immortality reduced to a collapsed statue in the midst of a barren desert.

There can be no greater contrast to this statue than the way Jews memorialize Moshe. The Torah tells us that we don’t know the location of his burial plot; Moshe does not even have the simplest marker on his grave. And yet his claim to immortality is far greater; every day, billions of people around the world recall Moshe’s teachings, and what he taught continues to guide humanity.

This is why it may even be more fitting that Moshe's name is omitted from the Haggadah. First of all, the fact that we ask what happened to Moshe’s name is perhaps the greatest tribute to his memory. Beyond that, the entire Seder is a tribute to Moshe’s life, and every day of Jewish history carries his legacy. Moshe is “Moshe Rabbeinu,” our teacher; and it is on his teachings that we meditate, both day and night.

An enormous piece of carved stone is not the path to immortality. But we can grasp at eternity when we live a life of values, love and goodness; in doing so, we build a spiritual legacy for the future. It is these legacies from the past that live on within us; and when we sit at the Seder, we don’t sit alone. Joining us are Moshe and all of our ancestors, the teachers who shaped our souls. There is no greater monument to them than that.



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Our Problem with Sacrifices


Will animal sacrifices return after the Temple is rebuilt? In 1920, two prominent Religious Zionist rabbis, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Cohen Kook and Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, debated this question. Rabbi Hirschensohn, a brilliant scholar who was a rabbi in Jersey City, had written that animal sacrifices would not return, because they were no longer understood in contemporary times; the prophecies about the sacrificial service in the Book of Ezekiel were either about the Second Temple or would receive a new interpretation. Rav Kook took exception to this view, and wrote Rabbi Hirschensohn a letter explaining that it is more appropriate to believe that all the prophetic statements were literal and animal sacrifices would return. He explained that when the Messiah will come, a higher culture would arrive, one which is far more transcendent than “the European culture” of those opposed to animal sacrifice, and at that time people would appreciate the inner meaning of animal sacrifices. (Parenthetically, Rav Kook’s view on this subject varied, and in one place, in his commentary to the Siddur, he argued that only flour offerings would be brought after the rebuilding of the Temple). Rabbi Hirschensohn wrote back to Rav Kook, and said he agreed that certainly there will be a higher culture after the coming of the Messiah, but that is precisely why there would no longer be any animal sacrifices. The dream of the Messianic age is that the lamb will lie down with the lion, and at that time, even the animal kingdom will be able to live in peace.

Modern critics of sacrifices focus on the morality of killing animals. Rav Kook, who was deeply sympathetic to vegetarianism, felt this critique of sacrifices was insincere. He dedicated an entire section of his essay “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace” to criticize the hypocrisy of people who eat meat and wear leather, yet talk about how animal sacrifices are barbaric; he argues it is absurd that someone should consider themselves worthy of animal slaughter, but not God. Whatever you think about animal sacrifices, Rav Kook’s point is a significant one. Perhaps the reason why we are uncomfortable with animal sacrifice is not because we love animals more, but because we appreciate sacrifices less.

The earliest criticism of sacrifices is found in the Tanakh. Verses in Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Psalms all contain criticisms of their contemporaries' sacrificial offerings. But the prophets were not criticizing the sacrifices themselves; they were criticizing the people bringing the sacrifices. When Isaiah says: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” says the Lord,” he immediately explains it is “because your hands are stained with crime.” Isaiah is calling out hypocrites who attempt to curry favor with God by bringing sacrifices, while at the same time oppressing the poor and violently assaulting their rivals.

Isaiah’s criticism is about more than hypocrisy. These corrupt community leaders, who used their power to exploit the weak, incorporated their own values in the institution of sacrifice. To them, a sacrifice was just another business deal, a way of paying for Divine protection. They had reduced religion to a transaction and sacrifice into a soulless exchange.

But authentic sacrifice is meant to be an act of actual sacrifice, where the person is offering the animal as a proxy for himself. The Maharal of Prague says that sacrifice is a way of expressing that we see ourselves as insignificant in relation to God; the sacrifice, by connecting man with God, gives man an opportunity to find meaning. Sacrifices express humility and selflessness, a person’s willingness to devote their heart and soul to something transcendent. A person who offers a sacrifice should return home transformed.

Contemporary discussions of our Torah reading often get sidetracked by questions surrounding the relevance of animal slaughter. I would argue that it is much more important to discuss how distant we are from the original ideal of sacrifice, because this act of radical selflessness is increasingly uncommon. Jean Twenge, the author of Generation Me, has written that what marks the current under-35 generation is that “they have never known a world that put duty before self”; unsurprisingly, studies show that this generation is characterized by extreme self-focus. (I would add that this is not unique to those under-35). And this self-focus has even influenced religion. Prosperity Gospel, a theology that asserts the true faith will enable one to become healthy and wealthy, has become very popular in contemporary Christianity; a large percentage of mega churches are associated with this theology. Kate Bowler, who has studied this movement, notes that Prosperity Gospel has been called “baptized materialism”; the sermons of its pastors focus on helping congregants achieve personal success through faith. Amongst Jews, there are similar phenomena, with crude appeals from rabbis who promise a multitude of blessings in return for a donation, and more sophisticated arguments about the Torah lifestyle being a helpful palliative for any ailment. Transactional religion goes hand in hand with materialism, with the service of God being turned into something far more self-serving.

This is why the concept of sacrifice in this week’s Torah reading is even more significant today. The human ego is exceedingly demanding, and it is difficult to escape it for even a few moments. When someone brings a sacrifice, they step out of that self-focus, and, at least for a moment, recognize their own smallness and God's greatness.

This spirit of self-transcendence is possible today as well. The Talmud explains that after the Destruction of the Temple, charity and kindness should replace the sacrifices, and inviting guests to one’s dinner table will make it as sacred as the altar. At first, this analogy would seem strange: in what way is charity similar to animal sacrifices? But the answer is that both are acts of selflessness, and subordinate our own interests to something larger.

When we do see authentic selflessness, we recognize it immediately. Last year at this time, a group of selfless heroes stood up to care for others. Health care workers like doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and Hatzolah volunteers, stepped up to the plate day and night to help battle the coronavirus. These remarkable men and women disregarded their own safety to care for others; many couldn’t return home to their families. Each night at 7:00 PM, the entire city would erupt in applause for these heroes, with clanging, banging and clapping heard everywhere. Since then, an army of volunteers in our community have done so much: making phone calls, delivering meals, helping people get to doctor's appointments and vaccination appointments. (And this is just a partial list of what they have done!)  Our volunteers put aside everything else to help others. These are all selfless acts of sacrifice, and I stand in awe of those who did so much for our community. They are our heroes.

The Torah reading of Vayikra goes well beyond the Temple; it teaches the lessons of sacrifice, and the holiness of authentic selflessness. In the last year, we have seen remarkable people who put duty before self, and reminded us what sacrifice is all about. May God bless them, and may their spirit inspire our own.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Boring and Holy


In 1808, Jerome Bonaparte, the King of Westphalia, convened an assembly of Jewish notables.  Westphalia was a Napoleonic state which had just emancipated the Jews and granted them political rights. The purpose of the assembly was to ensure that the local Jews registered for the census, paid taxes and otherwise took on their duties of citizenship. However, the members of the assembly had goals of their own. They wrote that they planned on "bringing a number of customs, which have crept into Judaism, more in line with the changed circumstances and the spirit of the times, and to take the steps necessary for this purpose."

The Royal Westphalian Consistory of the Israelites initially introduced several changes, which were radical at the time. They removed the additional piyyutim from the prayer service, allowed kitniyot to be eaten on Pesach, and mandated that all sermons be delivered in the vernacular. In terms of Jewish History, these changes were a harbinger of things to come; one of the assembly members, Israel Jacobson, would introduce the organ into his local synagogue, and became an early leader of the Reform movement. This begins a new chapter in Jewish history, and the changes that first start in Westphalia impact all Jews, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform.

Change is the driving force of history.  The unexpected intrudes on the everyday, and disrupts well-ordered lives, and begins the process of transformation. The Emancipation of the Jews was one such event, and the Jewish community still struggles to anchor itself outside of the ghetto. Today, the changes brought about by the coronavirus will certainly impact our future; just how - and how much - remains to be seen.

But history is more than a reaction to external events. The desire for new experiences is instinctive; that is what kindles interest and excitement. Repetition is boring. We avoid boredom by pursuing change, even if the changes are demanding and undesirable.

The need to escape boredom is a powerful force. Bertrand Russell noted that "wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing." Without drama in one's life, people begin to manufacture it. At the root of it all is the fear of boredom, a discontent with the mundane.

This week’s Torah reading is a seminar on the topic of boredom. A large section of it is nearly a word for word repetition of the Torah readings we had just a few weeks ago. In Parashat Terumah and Tetzaveh, the Torah reports on the command to build the Sanctuary and the priestly garments. In our Torah reading, Vayakhel-Pekudei, we are told that these commands were fulfilled, in what sounds like a verbatim transcript of the earlier Parshiyot; only one word is changed in each sentence, to move from future tense to present tense.

Scholars have wondered what is the cause of this repetition. Umberto Cassuto argues that repetition is not uncommon in Ancient Near Eastern texts, and so we should not be surprised if the Torah adopts this style in our Parashah. Meir Sternberg argues that it is incorrect to see what appears to be repeated as a repeat; he explains that context and minor linguistic changes can dramatically change the meaning, even if much of the text is identical. 

My own view is this text is intentionally repetitive in order to teach us the significance of repetition. The Sanctuary itself is a place of ongoing repetition, with a service that was repeated regularly, each day, each week, and each year. The prayer service in our synagogues, (which are modeled on the Sanctuary), is just as unchanging. At its heart is the Amidah, a prayer service that is repeated word for word three times a day, each time with an identical stance and gestures. Prayer is a repetitive performance. (This is why any innovations in the synagogue service, like those introduced in Westphalia, are controversial; synagogues have a change-averse culture.) The Sanctuary is about embracing repetition, which is why its command is written as a repetition.

Our parashah challenges us to rethink our concept of boredom, and to see that sometimes repetition can add meaning to our lives.

Without question, the desire for change is critical to a full life and motivates us to improve ourselves and our world. Boredom can reflect the frustrations of an ambitious heart; but it also can reflect an empty soul. Our persistent need to move on reflects a fear of missing out, the nagging worry that life is passing us by without quite knowing what life is meant to be. We look to our smartphones for that next message, and search the internet for new items to add to our bucket list; the most important commandment is “Thou shalt live an interesting life”. Repetition seems absurd, and even eternity seems ugly; what could be worse than something that “feels like an eternity”?

Judaism teaches us to find a connection to the holy, and then cherish it forever; the repetition is part of the joy. And we grasp hold on to this joy and hang on for eternity, even in heaven. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel tells a story about Moshe of Uhely, “who had a dream: he was transported to heaven. There he was led to the chamber where the fabulous sages of the Talmud were spending their eternal life. His heart swelled with emotion. When he entered the chamber, he looked around. And what did he see? Long tables like those to be found in a house of learning, and the sages were sitting around the tables, engrossed in study. He felt keen disappointment: is that all there is to heaven? Suddenly he heard a voice say: “You are mistaken. The sages are not in heaven; heaven is in the sages.” What good is heaven if there is no Talmud class?

We end up repeating that which is sacred and significant precisely because it is sacred and significant. At funerals, families struggle to describe an entire life in just 15 minutes. What is notable is how often the descriptions feature the quotidian and commonplace. The family remembers their grandmother's chicken soup and mother's hugs, their grandfather’s kiddush and father’s phone calls. They remember the little things that are repeated, the everyday rituals that expressed love. The same phone calls every day, again and again, with the same chit chat every day, again and again, might seem boring. But when you love the other person, those calls don’t feel like an eternity; instead it feels like you are grasping eternity.




Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Broken Yet Beautiful

It was Sukkot, 1973. A visitor to the home of Rabbi Yehuda Amital woke up in the middle of the night to the sounds of a man sobbing. Rav Amital was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, which combines military service with Yeshiva study; it was then in its sixth year, and had 200 students. When war broke out a week earlier on Yom Kippur, the Yeshiva immediately sent its students back to their units, even before being called to duty. In the days following, eight of those students would die in battle. And that night, Rav Amital, their teacher and mentor, was sobbing, heartbroken over their deaths.

I've been thinking about the Yom Kippur War recently, after watching the Israeli drama, Valley of Tears (Sha’at Neilah in Hebrew). It is the most expensive show ever produced for Israeli television and is now available in the United States on HBO Max. Valley of Tears tells the story of a group of strangers whose lives intersect on the battlefields of the Golan Heights during the first days of the war. It skirts convention and jumps genres, starting as a comic buddy story and ending as a tragedy. 

Valley of Tears has stirred a great deal of discussion in Israel, partly because of its artistic shortcomings and historical inaccuracies, and partly because the producers openly advertise their political sympathies. Despite its flaws, this TV series has consumed Israel because of its focus on the difficult first days of the Yom Kippur War. Although Israel achieved a decisive victory over its enemies, the initial days of war were filled with fear and chaos, worry and confusion. And above all, there were the casualties. In just a matter of days, 2,655 Israeli soldiers had lost their lives in battle. Valley of Tears taps into a trauma that lingers nearly 50 years later; and each fall, with ritual regularity, Israeli media devotes articles, interviews, and TV shows to the Yom Kippur War. It was a war that shook Israeli society; Israelis, who had previously thought of themselves as invincible, felt like their hopes and dreams had been shattered.

How does one respond to shattered hopes? In our Torah reading, the Jews are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai waiting to receive the Luchot, the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed by God. The Talmud in Shabbat says that at that moment, the taint of Adam and Eve’s sin had finally been vanquished. But as they wait for Moses, the Jews decide to make a Golden Calf. When Moses returns, he smashes the Tablets; God’s divine gift and blessing cannot be given to idolaters. The Tablets, and the dream they represent, were now broken.

The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 32:1) sees this as a moment when paradise was lost. Had they received the Tablets, the Jews would have had a worry-free history, in which exile -  and even death - would disappear. Had they only been obedient, the Jews could have returned to world much like the Garden of Eden. (Several authors have noted the similarity between this Midrash and Augustine’s view of Original Sin.) At Mount Sinai, the Jews repeat that Original Sin; they once again return to brokenness, to a frail humanity and failed history that is permanently flawed. All that is left afterwards is either resignation or desperation, leaving mankind to accept its inferiority or to scramble to escape it. 

But what if brokenness is part of the plan? What if failure is expected on the road of life?

There is another response to brokenness, which begins with the broken Tablets themselves. The Talmud explains that the broken Tablets were not discarded; they were given a place of honor in the Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, alongside the second Tablets. The Maharal of Prague (1512-1609) expands on this idea, and explains that the Ark itself anticipates this brokenness, because its dimensions are two and a half cubits by one and a half cubits; the “broken” half cubits hint at the fact that we should never expect that the Tablets will always be whole. Instead, we need to find the beauty of life within the broken shards.

For this reason, the Talmud explains that we must honor a rabbi who has forgotten his learning. The broken Tablets receive honor, because even when broken, they are still holy; the same is true of a rabbi struggling with the depredations of age and illness.  We need to see what remains within the broken tablets.

This understanding of the broken Tablets is revolutionary. Original Sin means that every man is broken, even if otherwise unimpaired; this passage in the Talmud is teaching us that even when one is broken, they are still worthy of greatness. Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Lublin 1510–1573) was once asked whether a man whose arms were lost is qualified to serve as the prayer leader for the community. He answered metaphorically that unlike humans, “God prefers the service of broken vessels…for God will not despise a broken heart.” Being physically broken does not injure the soul, and as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”

One can be shattered by defeat and still find strength in the broken pieces. Several years ago I met an Israeli surgeon by the name of Shmuel Yurfest. He was a skilled vascular surgeon, who had saved the lives of many, including multiple victims of terror attacks. And then in May 2003, he was outside a shopping mall when a suicide bomber blew himself up. The attack blinded Shmuel and ended his surgical career.

Shmuel stayed home for months, depressed about what he had lost. His profession, and what seemed like his very identity, had been stripped from him. All he did was sit on the couch, enveloped by a cloud of melancholy.

One day his son turned to him and said: “Abba, is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?” That was when Shmuel got off of the couch. I met him in 2005, after he had restarted his life. Shmuel decided to put his medical training to good use, so he retrained to become a psychiatrist. He had once again begun to practice medicine, and now he was helping others whose lives had been shattered. And with his personal example, he was teaching them, and us, that one can be broken yet beautiful.