Monday, April 27, 2009

The Sin of "Getting Back to Normal" -Yom Haatzamut

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

You Are What You Dream

“You are what you eat” is a well traveled but powerful cliché. We construct our identities out of the littlest bits of quotidian life; from our culinary style, fashion sense, and literary interests, and from the company we keep and neighborhoods we choose. In a sense, we are what we eat, wear, befriend and read.

We pay less attention to our dreams. Dreams and visions are considered too ephemeral, too intangible to warrant serious thought. Indeed, the word “daydream” connotes an entertaining but meaningless diversion. But in actuality, dreams are the single largest force in determining our identities.

You are what you dream. This may seem trite, but it’s true. Our dreams shape our identities in subtle ways. High school students with dreams of playing basketball or starring in movies will concentrate less on their grades, comparatively, than students dreaming of careers in astrophysics. While there are always exceptions, in all likelihood the aspiring athlete will focus on sports, the aspiring actress will focus on drama, and the aspiring scientist on academics. Dreams may be about the future, but they can affect the here and now.

That is why the power of dreams is the basis of repentance. One of the key elements of repentance is to resolve to improve one’s behavior in the future. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik notes that several philosophers have questioned the value of resolutions. They argue that either the person will improve in the future, or they will not; what difference does making a resolution make?

Soloveitchik explains that our vision of the future is critical to our present. A sincere resolution changes our attitude immediately; a powerful dream can transform immediately.

Dreams have transformed individual lives, and have transformed Jewish history. In exile, the Jews were a stranger in a strange land, a people despised and oppressed. Despite being second class citizens, Jews dreamt of redemption and return to the land of Israel. Jews wherever they were exiled prayed facing Jerusalem, and during each prayer service, large sections of the service were devoted to praying for the return to Israel.

One would imagine that it would be ridiculous for a member of an abject minority to have any sense of optimism. However, to the poor Jew living in a hovel inside a ghetto, the dreams of redemption offered a lifeline. Even if everyone treated him as a cursed subhuman and a landless alien, the poor Jew could straighten his back and dream that he was only a few short steps from returning to his beloved land of milk and honey. And these dreams not only maintained the Jewish connection to Israel; the dreams of redemption transformed the lives of every Jew. By looking forward to the redemption, the Jew could maintain his dignity in the face of discrimination and hatred.

Throughout history, it was a challenge for Jews to hold on to their dreams, and at times, it was downright dangerous. In 1968, Boris Kochubievsky wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Soviet Union stating:

"I want to live in Israel.

This is my dream. This is the goal not only of my life, but also of the lives of hundreds of generations preceding me that were expelled from the land of their ancestors.As long as I live, as long as I am capable of feeling, I will do all I can to be able to leave for Israel……..I will be prepared to go to the homeland of my ancestors, even if it means going by foot."

Kochubievsky was immediately thrown in jail. But Kochubievsky went to jail with his dreams intact and his head held high. Today, forty years later, the situation has changed. The Soviet Union can only be found in history books, but Boris Kochubievsky can be found in Israel.

Boris’ dreams changed world history. We all need to learn how to dream like Boris, because in the end, you are what you dream.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Judaism and Time: Beyond Bridges and Pendulums

(a short recap of my Pesach sermon)

How does Judaism look at time? Well, like a lot of subjects, in a complex and conflicted way. An excellent example of this can be found in contrasting some of the Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are holidays that see time as a bridge. These holidays bridge between one year and the next, prodding man to judge himself and improve his behavior. Yom Kippur, the holiday of repentance, is an austere day in which man resolves to transform his nature. These holidays present time as a bridge which allows man to cross his limitations and discover new spiritual horizons.

Time as a bridge is most often associated with personal growth, seeing man as dynamic and ever changing. The famed narratives of Rabbi Akiva and Reish Lakish, in which ignorant and dissolute men become great Rabbis and spiritual giants, reflect the dynamic nature time has, and how it allows everybody to transform and change. (This perspective is less common regarding history; however, some thinkers such as Rav Kook, do accept a dynamic, ever changing view of history.)

On the other hand, Pesach, (as well as the other pilgrimage festivals), view time as a pendulum. These holidays present time as ever recurring; the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, the wandering in the desert, happen over and over again and again, year after year. Time constantly swings back to where it once was, producing the same seasons and the same moods repeatedly.

Time as a pendulum is on prominent display at the Seder. The Hagaddah tells us to view ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt, and we declare that “in every generation they come to destroy us”, that anti-Semitism is an iron law of history.

Time as pendulum is reflected in many Jewish sources. A well known passage is the famed Midrashic comment, championed by Nachmanides, “that everything that occurred to the patriarchs is a sign of what will occur to their children”. This seems to say that history is a recurring narrative, and yes indeed, history will repeat itself.

One passage in the Talmud says that even specific months have historical tendencies:

“ the month of Av, we reduce joy (due to the destruction of the Temple, which occurred in that month) and in the month of Adar, we increase joy (due to the redemption related to the holiday of Purim).

Rabbi Pappa said: therefore, if one has a court case, he should avoid the month of Av, which is bad luck, and try to schedule it during Adar, which is good luck”.

In other words, to Rav Pappa, the calendar itself is a pendulum, moving between dates that are “good for the Jews” and dates that are not.

Pesach and Yom Kippur have very different views of time, indeed. What is fascinating is what they share. On both days, we declare at the very end of the service, “next year in Jerusalem”. In other words on each of these holidays, we say that the holiday itself is a springboard for redemption.

There are bridges one must cross on the road to redemption, and on Yom Kippur, we are expressing our hope that our repentance is finally sufficiently good to be worthy of the Messiah. However, on Pesach, we believe, as the Talmud puts it, “in Nissan we were redeemed (from Egypt), and in Nissan we will be redeemed (with the messiah).” We open the door for Elijah, expecting the pendulum of redemption to finally swing our way.

In actuality, Pesach and Yom Kippur reflect two sides of a famed Talmudic debate. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate the circumstances of the Messiah’s arrival. Rabbi Eleizer says the Messiah arrives due to repentance, period. Rabbi Yehoshua says that the Messiah will arrive at an appointed time, and that the arrival is a law of history. In a sense, the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Yom Kippur reflects R. Eliezer’s view, while the declaration of “next year in Jerusalem” on Pesach reflects Rabbi Yehoshua’s view.

Is there any possibility of finding a connection between these two conflicting views of time? Perhaps. There is one other similarity between Yom Kippur and the Seder. There is a strange custom among Ashkenazim of wearing a kittel, a white coat, both on Yom Kippur and the Seder. On Yom Kippur, the Kittel is worn because it is a garment that inspires repentance due to its similarity to angelic white and burial shrouds. But why do we wear a kittel on Pesach? Angels and shrouds seem quite foreign on the night of divine redemption. This question confounds the Taz and others.

I think perhaps a simple solution can be found. Being that Pesach and Yom Kippur have such different dimensions, with Yom Kippur viewing time as a bridge, while Pesach sees it as a pendulum, we want to remind everyone at the Seder that in truth, we must marry both visions of time together. Even if we see history returning to the same themes, we must be certain that it not be experienced as a thoughtless pendulum, something that keeps going back and forth without change. In reality, time should neither be a pendulum nor a bridge, but rather a tower, where the lessons of the past are cherished, and we grow and relive at the very same time.

In actuality then, we don the kittel at the Seder to remind us of Yom Kippur. It reminds us that the spirit of the Seder must be merged with the spirit of Yom Kippur, and at the Seder, we should not forget all the spiritual bridges we have to cross. We should not think of redemption as a birthright that we can wait passively for; even as we wait for the pendulum to swing, we hope to raise ourselves to new and greater heights, climbing the tower of spiritual growth.

Chag Sameach!!

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Energy of 11:59

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Power of Sacrifice

Each year, when the weekly Torah reading approaches the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra), I struggle with Vayikra’s focus on animal sacrifice. Vayikra seems foreign to contemporary sensibilities. We buy our meat in groceries and shoes in boutiques, never witnessing the actual slaughter of the animals we consume, and as a consequence, the sight of any animal blood makes us queasy. The thought that this gory act is to be done in a sacred place with sacred clergy and sacred goals seems too peculiar a ritual to inspire our 21st century hearts. Many who are uncertain about their understanding of Vayikra take solace in Maimonides’ fascinating (and controversial) remarks considering animal sacrifice to be a less than perfect form of worship, allowed only as a concession to the cultural norms of the biblical period. If sacrifices were somewhat deprecated by Maimonides, we think, it’s not so bad if we can’t understand sacrifices either.

But contemporary discomfort with Vayikra goes beyond PETA-style concerns; there’s something deeper at play here. The Biblical ideal of sacrifice demands absolute dedication, with the animal standing as a proxy for our very selves; each sacrifice is a miniature replay of the grand drama of the akeidah, (the binding of Isaac), with the owner playing Isaac’s role. And this type of selfless devotion is foreign to a zeitgeist built around personal identity.

Identity is critical to contemporary man. Our designer made possessions are intended to reflect our personal style, and we focus on building self esteem and self confidence. In marketing, one must work diligently on a “personal brand”, and develop a unique persona. And intertwined with our deep self absorption is a culture of materialism that is bonus built, consumption driven, and consumer oriented. This is not a culture that is sacrifice friendly.

However, sacrifice is an idea whose time has come. The outrage over AIG executive bonuses and auto executive private jets reflect a deep seated anger at the destructive sense of entitlement that has pervaded the corporate world. There is a growing realization that the global economic crisis was not just a failure of the financial system, but also a failure of character, a crisis brought on by the arrogance and greed of traders and bankers. Humility and selflessness, the core virtues of sacrifice, is the very stuff our culture is so desperately lacking.

The Midrash says that the lesson of sacrifice is that there is nothing as perfect for the service of God as the humble, broken heart. A humble soul, empty of pretense, has remarkable spiritual powers. Its vision of the world is not clouded by ego, and its sense of generosity isn’t smothered by greed. Seen this way, sacrifice is not about destruction; on the contrary, sacrifice allows us to release the power of a humble heart.

While the past year has produced more than its share of villains, from Shearson Lehman Brothers to Bernie Madoff, there are quiet heroes as well. One of them, Chesley Sullenberger, successfully piloted US Air flight 1549 into the Hudson River after both of the airplanes engines were disabled, saving the lives of everyone on board. Beyond Sullenberger’s flying skills was a deep-seated sense of dedication. He didn’t leave the sinking plane until he had walked the entire cabin twice to verify that there was no one else was on board, and insisted that he be the last one to leave the life raft he was in.

Sullenberger’s heroism reminds us of forgotten virtues. As we observe how greed and grift have ravaged our economy, perhaps it’s time to give respect to those who live lives of dedication and devotion; perhaps it’s time to remember those old fashioned virtues of humility and generosity.

Perhaps it’s time to remember the power of sacrifice.