Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On The Fifteenth Anniversary of the Murder of Yitzchak Rabin z’l

Today, Wednesday, October 20, 2010 is the fifteenth anniversary of the death, murder really, of Yitzchak Rabin, may his memory be a blessing for us all. I say FOR US ALL because it is irrelevant whether we agreed or disagreed with his politics. He was a man of peace who was trying to achieve this impossible goal in the best way he could. I was reminded of this sad memorial by my good friend, Esther this morning. We were discussing this as we drove together to work and she further told me that in Israel there is a lot of energy being expended on trying to stop observance of this anniversary, claiming that enough time has passed and it is the moment to move on. But wait! Who, I asked, is behind this? Using the old standard of lawyers that say you should know the answer to the questions you ask, I received the expected response – a lot of very religious people want us to take this annual reminder off the calendar.

Reminder of what, we must then ask! I remember that day very well. It was Motzei Shabbat and my father-in-law respectfully waited until we had said Havdalah and then called and told us to turn on the television. Yitzchak Rabin had been murdered! Needless to say we were all horrified! This was definitely one of those moments that as we recall, I remember exactly who was with us, where we were and what we were doing. As so much of the world was doing already, we then depended on the television as our life line and informant regarding what exactly had happened. Then the horrible story and its details unfolded.

Yigal Amir, an Orthodox University and Yeshiva student who claimed that his Rebbes taught him that Yitzchak Rabin was a “rodef chayim,” that is, a threat to Jewish life, as a seeker and crafter of peace with Arab and Palestinian neighbors and residents, felt that he was given permission (even asked to) murder this danger to society! Amongst all of the tears and horror that followed, there quickly ensued a barrage of statements, letters and writings from within the Orthodox world about how we have to be careful how we use our words, thus observing the just as strict laws (as many other things) of Shmirat HaLashon! There was a genuine Heshbon HaNefesh, a taking account of one’s actions and motivations, for….. of, about a couple of weeks, as well as distancing from what this one young man took into his own hands to accomplish. Then life went back to normal and the diatribes and overstatements continued, as if nothing had happened. Everyone was back at each other’s throats, accusing, yelling and defaming!

The reality is that we live in an increasingly dangerous and scary world, inside our communities as well as outside. The hatred amongst different as well as within various religious groupings is truly cause for great concern about our viability as a future society who will ever achieve any modicum of peace. The lack of care that is shown in words that we use never fails to startle and disappoint me in a most profound way. From where I sit, WE NEED THIS ANNUAL REMINDER DESPARATELY regarding the words we speak and the effect they have on those who hear them.

How many of us think that in using the language we choose, we might be screaming and inciting the hatred of the next Yigal Amir? For this reason, if for no other (even though clearly there are many), this anniversary MUST CONTINUE TO BE OBSERVED by all of us in the Jewish community and beyond!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Our Faith in G-d and G-d's Faith in Us

We all understand that we are to have faith in G-d according to many voices and teachers in our various Jewish communities of faith. The challenge for today is What about G-d and the need for G-d to have faith in us?

We are in the middle of the travails and triumphs and challenges of the life of Avraham Aveinu in our weekly readings from the Torah. As we move from Lech Lecha to Va’Era and then on to Chayei Sarah, we note that the challenges just keep coming as Avraham is tested regarding his faith. I am presently teaching these stories to a wonderful group of ninth graders and we are considering to what degree does G-d have faith in us? On one hand, it might appear to be a somewhat presumptuous question, but hold on and consider it for just a moment. My students love the notion that we are wrestling not only with our consideration of G-d in our relationship with G-d, but also G-d’s perspective towards us.

G-d tells Avram to leave all that he knows and start a new entity and a new life – for him and for the generations that will follow him. Why does G-d specifically come to Avram? What about Avram does G-d know that validates this placing of trust in Avram? Were there others to whom G-d came first with this particular direction (this is clearly a rhetorical question!)? Do we or do we not understand this special reciprocal placement of faith of G-d in Avram and Avram in G-d – after all, we are at best bystanders separated by many, many years.

At a later point in our history, we all know the Midrash about how before G-d gave the Aseret HaDibrot to the B’nai Yisrael, G-d went to other peoples and asked them to accept this code of law. As the Midrash goes, one group of people said that they could not get along without murder, another claimed that stealing was part of their daily lives, and so forth. Finally, G-d comes to the B’nai Yisrael and they respond, “Naaseh v’Nishmah.” We will do what you ask and then we will ask about what we do! This is clearly a leap of faith or so it appears and too often, so it is taught! Perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere in this story we can find and consider the notion that the people of Israel had faith that G-d had faith in them to make the appropriate choice so that G-d could and would do the same for them. If we do accept this, then it is more understandable to consider how this relationship outruns the many disappointments G-d will have in the B’nai Yisrael and vice versa in later years as they wander through the spiritual as well as any physical desert in which they were found.

In such a scenario, faith goes both ways. It makes sense that this could be the case. Think about this in terms of our own lives. Don’t those people in whom we have faith reciprocate in their relationship with us? I don’t think it would really work in a one direction only trajectory.

Similarly, Avraham, the father of this people, takes this leap of faith. G-d says “Go” and Avram goes! That is the way we often read and are taught the text! Is this blind faith or does Avram, later to be called Avraham (The Father of Many Peoples) as a reward and acknowledgement for his continual show of faith) question what G-d does and commands?! We really do not know. We like to say that Avram just does what G-d asks, but there are clearly other narratives in which we observe many challenges to G-d’s requests and dictates. Does G-d have enough faith in Avram to get past these feelings of uncertainty and questions? Are these indicative of a lack of faith? Might Avraham have had questions and feelings of ambivalence? Clearly, it would be most human of him to have had these and this would probably make the stories we are reading even more believable.

In this week’s coming Parsha, we read about the Akedah. Personally, I like to consider the proposed translation of v’ha’alehu as “prepare him for an offering.” This is a possibility provided by some of our classical commentators. Many modern readers say this is merely an apologetic that takes the sting out of the strange request G-d makes. So, G-d gives Avraham directions to prepare his loved son as an offering. Avraham goes with Yitzchak, leaving the other members of their entourage behind, to the appointed place as G-d directs. If G-d does show that G-d has faith in Avraham to allow G-d to direct what is to transpire and Avraham ascertains that others will not understand, is this the result of an unspoken agreement between Avraham and G-d – that special type of unspoken agreement between two souls in a special relationship of trust that others may not and will not necessarily understand. Perhaps in looking at this story we are reading it from the perspective of the entourage left behind, not Avraham. We all know people in our lives that have a special degree of faith in us and us in them that outsiders may not completely understand and therefore are hard put to judge.

Contextually speaking, on a very human level, might the faith that Avraham placed in
G-d, even hiding this most pivotal event from his wife, Sarah, be somewhat like the distressed family, whose loved one is going in for a complex surgery, places in the medical team. We constantly place the well being of our life in the hands of others while bystanders may not understand; is this not what Avraham was doing?!

Maybe this is yet another lesson to come out of these stories. It is difficult for those of us left behind to judge the reciprocal relationship of special faith between two people – in this case, between G-d and Avraham. Further, many of us might not dare ask if G-d has faith in us, but why not?!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?!

I know here I go again on my soapbox… we are so (way too much, actually) quick to criticize others, find the wrong in those with whom we don’t agree and villianize those who do not agree with us! Think about the Sunday School vision of Terach we all grew up hearing and taking on as our own. He was a horrible idol worshipper and Abraham had to run as far away from him as possible so that he could be and do the good he was meant to pass on to the rest of us. In fact, Abram was able to fool his stupid father by claiming that one of his idols broke all of the others. Silly Terach! But WAIT, where in the Torah do we see that Terach was so horrible or pedestrian? Let us look carefully at those verses that give us what information we have at the end of Parshat Noach.

In chapter 11, verses 31 – 32, we read:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had com as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach came to 205 years; and Terach died in Haran.

Translation from Jewish Publication Society’s Tanach:The Holy Scriptures.

So, we know these stories of Terach the idol-worshipper did not come from Torah. Where do they come from? The Midrash! Remember, this source tries to rationalize, simplify and give us reasons for things that happen when it appears that there are none. So, why would Abram go on his journey? Right – to leave his father and his wicked ways! BUT, we do not see this in the words of the Torah either! Why? I do not know and frankly, I am not so sure anyone else does either! But wait, there is something here!

At the end of this Parsha of Noach, we have a story that is quite compelling, that of The Tower of Babel. This is the last narrative of importance before we read the generational listing, the next story being that of Abram leaving his home under the instruction and tutelage of G-d. What happens here in this last story of Noach? People have perhaps learned the lesson of the Mabul, the Flood, regarding how poorly people were treating each other (and how this even corrupted the very land on which they lived) and are trying to get along better in working towards a common goal. The problem is that this goal is to “reach the heavens,” that is to try to raise themselves above the human condition and limits! Now, this could be a noble goal to be sure, but in fact, it can lead to excessive hubris and forgetting the limits and realities of what it means to be truly human! We clearly see such dynamics in our world today among so many who claim to KNOW the truth and try to push it down our throats or choke us around the necks with it.

Could this be what Terach was leaving (since we do not know why he took his family and left home either!) when he takes his familial grouping from Ur and moves to Haran? Might it be possible to consider that Terach was actually a decent and realistic person who felt that a new beginning was imminent, not following the ways of those who completely corrupted all around them or those who aspired to reach far further than a human should try to reach? Is it possible that Abram inherited this understanding from his father and thus we might better understand his reasoning for leaving his home and listening to G-d? Does Terach set out roots for Abram to know that there is one G-d and that we are supposed to follow G-d, not “reach for the heavens” as the generation of Babel did? Might Abram be a credit to Terach in carrying on what he learned as “a member of his household?”

I don’t know and clearly all I have at this point are questions, not clear answers. As Martin Buber taught, “Questions unite, answers divide.” Maybe we are JUST NOT SUPPOSED to know all of the secrets of this text… or any other for that reason. Maybe instead of deciding who is right and who is wrong, we should follow the lead of Nechama Leibowitz and so many others who implore us to ask WHY the commentators, or Midrash or modern thinkers say and propose what they do? Why does the Midrash teach about idolatry and Abram’s distancing from it? Remember, its practice does NOT disappear at this point.

Look, I am not saying that this is a correct idea. That would be rather presumptuous of me. What I am suggesting is that we can all engage in the art of interpretation. That is the beauty of the Tanach – “one text and so many different meanings.” Now, zil gimor – go, think, learn and enjoy!

Monday, October 4, 2010

So when are we forgiving and when are we enabling; some thoughts about Mechilah!

We have just completed the full cycle of Tishrei Hagim. One of the most compelling themes of the season is that of asking for forgiveness and a fresh start – both from G-d and from each other. I, for one, take this very seriously and do ask for Mechilah (forgiveness) from friends and family members whom I may have hurt intentionally (G-d forbid!) or unintentionally (much more likely and producing so much guilt on my part I don’t even imagine trying the former!). So here is the question that is still floating around in my head more than usual (which it does as well) as we prepare for the entire year. The gates have closed at Neilah and then the one small bit of opening has been locked with Hoshanah Rabbah and its colorful beating of the willows and I am still quite perplexed.

When does forgiving another become enabling poor and inappropriate behavior, even abusive, dare I say, on their part and to what degree am I responsible for that? Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that one is not to say “I will sin and I will repent, I will sin and I will repent, I will sin and I will repent” over and over again for this is not repentance, which is truly a change of heart. Yet, I find that people do exactly this all of the time.

So, what do we do when someone who has continually and consistently wronged us in a profound way (ruining a reputation or trying to, for example) through ongoing actions (as opposed to one time long ago that no one really remembers!) comes to ask for Mechilah from you? I just had this happen, where someone did ask for such forgiveness. I must say I do not know exactly what my response should be. I know this much – I must not ever be in a position that makes me vulnerable or accessible to the type of abuse that this person has meted out in the past. Yet, my religion and everything I believe tells me that another, no matter what they have done (and this is the most difficult part!) is just a human being as I am and is deserving of another chance. True, we are all flawed and imperfect. True, we are all supposed to strive to go “higher and higher” in our attempts to be the best person we can be. True, if someone comes to ask forgiveness, it is our responsibility to give that. Wouldn’t each of us want and hope for the same from another – I know I would! So what do I do?

We are all familiar with the expression “forgive and forget!” But really, forget… erase past wrongs so that you are beginning yet again! Remember that definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. Where is the balance?

I actually once went to a Rav to try to figure this out. This is the advice he gave me. Forgive and give the benefit of the doubt (“Dan Lechaf Zechut”) but don’t forget and put yourself in a position to be hurt again. Play the defensive. Give a guarded and conditional apology – I forgive you but will not allow you to hurt me again. After all, don’t we learn “Im ain Ani Li, Mi Li?” – If I am not for myself and do not defend myself, who will do so?

So, as we move into the busy, hectic, crazy year of activity and further away from this season of Mechilah, I will allow for new beginnings but/and am just as committed to not repeating old mistakes. This is the best I can do in this difficult balancing act!