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.