Friday, January 23, 2015

Siyyum Masechet Yoma: Saving A Life Trumps All

We are taught in our Torah that the purpose of Mitzvot is to enable our meaningful living process and that we are to live by them, not die by them. This is a foundational value and teaching that provides the underpinning for so much of Halacha. Our most important teachers of Jewish Law constantly remind us of this in their writings while holding onto the importance and the centrality of Mitzvot as a set of dictates for how we live.

Today, I have just completed learning MasechetYoma, the tractate about Yom Kippur. Most of the tractate, seven of its eight chapters, is about the pageantry of the Yom Kippur sacrifices and the role of the Kohanim as we recall during our recitation of the Avodah service on Yom Kippur. While sacrifices and the preparedness of those who offer them is the central subject of so much of this Tractate, it is important for us to consider Chapter Eight which references practices with which we are more familiar and associate with this day in our annual cycle of Jewish living – fasting, refraining from bathing and anointing ourselves, and other practices that are part of our daily lives.

As we complete learning this important text, the last four topics are most interesting, and I believe, the most pivotal. First of all, we again amplify the point that saving a life is tantamount to all other things. It is in the context of this discussion that we learn about the laws requiring us to feed those who need food and are physically unable to fast. We are taught that if there is even a doubt that someone’s life is at stake, we err on the side of caution, remembering this is not meant as a test of deprivation per se, for its own sake. For only in this way are we observing the basic principle that we are to live by the Mitzvot, not die because of them. We break down doors to save babies who are locked in rooms, we pull apart the rubble of a building that has collapsed to save lives, and we are strongly reminded of the importance of life above all else. Not only that, but we are adjured to rush to do these things and not question them. We are taught that the person who runs to save a life, even while “breaking” other prohibitions, is to be greatly praised. And yes, this COUNTS for Yom Kippur as well!

After this discussion, we learn about Teshuva, true and honest and intentional repentance in which we are dedicated to being better and more refined human beings. This is a soul-searching and dedicated process that is not to be taken glibly and it must be sincere. This is for ALL of us, including our leaders and those that would have us believe that they have some type of authority.

As this text and discussion continues, we are shown stories of acts of humility by the greatest of those leaders at that time, including the great lengths they would go to ask for forgiveness if they had wronged another. I kept thinking about the unique characteristic of Jewish leadership as taught in our sources that they are to lead by following the authority of G-d, not by doing as they please because of their position. It was for this precise reason that we are taught in Deuteronomy in one of Moshe’s last speeches that our leaders are to keep a Sefer Torah (book of our law) by them at all times. This was to remind them that they are stewards who act on behalf of G-d, nothing more. If this sense of accountability is not maintained, then these are not leaders! What a standard to truly think about and apply.

These stories of humility are to teach us that we all stand before G-d, that our leaders are to exemplify this standing before G-d, and that we are all to work together to protect life and preserve the dignity of each other. This is what Yom Kippur is about and this is what we are to carry with us every day of our lives as we consider how we are to purify ourselves before G-d: Remember the importance of life – yours and that of those around you; lead with compassion and empathy; always be ready to acknowledge your weaknesses as a human being; and intentionally act at all times with humility.

As we look around us at the leaders of our world and the many abuses in which they engage and the lack of consideration for others that is too often thrown in our faces, we must remember that these lessons are at the heart of our lives as those who believe in a Greater Power to Whom we are accountable. This is, I think, the BEST of religion!

We say a special prayer when we complete such a learning unit. This is mine -- to truly live and exhibit these foundational teachings in our lives!

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, January 12, 2015

WHAT A WEEK!!!!!!!! Remembering who we are and what we are supposed to be doing here in our world!

Where do I begin? Okay, what about here… “Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis Ahmed.” This quote by Harvey Weinstein regarding the past week in France and the incredible assault on free speech and our basic freedom to believe, think and say as we believe captures so much of what is going on at this moment in time as we begin 2015. I am reminded by the events of this past week both internationally and even in my own personal life of the poem ‘The Hangman” by Maurice Ogden in 1951 – you remember that one, right? The Hangman comes to town to hang the Jew, the black, the communist, the homosexual, and everyone else while the bystander just looks on and does nothing, and then in the end, he too is hanged. It is chilling, terrifying, and way too real when we consider how an amazing historical reminder of a film called Selma is out during Ferguson and other cities of unrest; and free speech is being attacked in our world reminiscent of the book burnings of Krystallnacht and so many similar attacks through the Middle Ages and into present time. And of course, this is 2015!!!! Haven’t we evolved!?

We read in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) the following sentiment: What was will be and what will be was; those who say it is a new phenomenon were not paying attention the many times before the same thing happened. Or in the words of Frances Bacon and so many others who reformulated this thought (kind of like re-tweeting in today’s world), “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

I have written here and elsewhere often as well as spoken about the fluid identity of our younger generation, their reluctance to claim allegiance to a specific ideology and just be. Can one wonder? I think clearly we are on to something, because these allegiances and our adherence to them are too often fulfilling the words of Ogden’s horrific prophecy.

Returning to France for a moment, do you know who Lassana Bathily is? I certainly hope so, and if not, you should. Lassana is a Muslim employee at the Kosher grocery where more people were killed in France this past week and hostages were taken. Due to his quick thinking and action, he was able to save many of the people who were in the store at the time by putting them in the walk in freezer and disconnecting the electricity so they would be alright until they could be ushered out. Here is a Muslim man who said, when he was interviewed, that "We are brothers. It's not a question of Jews, of Christians or of Muslims. We're all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis." Parenthetically it should be stated that when police first encountered him, he was arrested because they thought he was with the terrorists. Sadly, he understood and just stayed calm. Of course, now everyone knows what a hero and a human being (“mensch” if you will) he is!

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that we all have to work together to end this hatred. We have heard voices recently asking for mainstream Muslim sanctions against the extremist behaviors that we have seen too often in our world. I was looking at a montage of world events this past year and too often and in a disproportionately large amount, the horrors were related to Islamicists, whom we MUST distinguish from Muslims, who are people of faith and ethic like so many others in our world.

As Tom Lehrer taught in his own philosophical treatise penned as a popular song, this group hates that group and the other group hates this group and EVERYONE hates the Jews.

ENOUGH!!!! Let 2015 be a year of standing together with other peoples of faith and collectively protect our freedom to believe, write and think and just live! “Je suis Charlie, je suis juif, je suis Ahmed.”

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Thought for the New Year of 2015…. An Antidote to the Tom Lehrer anthem

We all remember the song about hate. This group hates that group and that group hates another group and everyone hates the …. So it goes, and so it has gone for way too many decades, centuries, since the beginning of recorded history as reflected in the Torah/Jewish Bible, when Cain and Abel had their tragic altercation. Our Rabbis tell us that there is an important missing text in that story, namely WHAT EXACTLY WAS SAID from one brother to another before our first recorded incident of fratricide. There have been a plethora of theories about what words could have possible led to such horrible results. What could they have possible been?

The day after New Year’s, here I am playing “Sunday morning,” you know, sitting with my coffee and croissant and reading the paper. Lo and behold, I come across this great commentary by E.J. Dionne entitled “Great questions about the future of religious faith” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It can be found at It is a quick and highly recommended read.

His point is beautiful in its simplicity. He explains that the desired mark of our pluralistic society is that we ask questions of each other and begins by quoting the well-known story of Rabbis from long ago. One asks the other “Why is it that you Rabbis almost always put your teachings in the form of a question?” The answer – That is a very good question! We learned long ago that “Questions unite, answers divide.” There is actually a question, interestingly enough, as to whom that was attributed. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel are the leading contenders. Does it really matter? The point is that questions open doors for dialogue; declarative and absolute statements close door and draw boundaries, too often resulting in disastrous results.

Throughout the same issue of our local paper, there are many articles about QUESTIONS in the New Year. What will happen in the Palestinian debate over statehood and self governance? What will be the future of too many places in the world that are presently mired in conflict? What is going on in this country between our police forces and the people that they are supposed to be invested in protecting? How are we to heal these insurmountable rifts in our fractured world?

Dionne goes on to laud the new Pope who is really dedicated to addressing so many of these questions of conflict from the position of his foundationally held Christian values? What are those values, you ask? GREAT QUESTION!!!! These values, interestingly enough are more often than not shared by people who uphold different variances of religious faith as central to their lives. The problem is that too often those same people are so wrapped up in the accuracy and correctitude of their personal beliefs, that these become facts and the questions are lost.

I am an avid Law and Order fan. I skip the first three minutes because even with scripts and stage blood, I cannot stand to look at violence. I then LOVE watching the process. In this process, supposedly hardened people adamantly hold on to their stories of what happened and justify their despicable actions vehemently with declarative statements. As the hour winds down, the guilty party will often break down and move from statements to questions (e.g. What was I supposed to do? Can you understand how I thought that …?) Imagine if they would have begun with questions, the script would have been so different. While this might not make for great television and ratings, it definitely is something to consider in looking at the real life conflicts that are so part of our existence daily.

So what might these questions look like? Let us join John Lennon for a moment and IMAGINE. What if the Jews asked the Christians what Jesus means to them and show respect for that perspective? What if the Monotheists who fight over whose understanding of G-d is better ask Buddhists about their ways of peace? What if Protestants could ask Catholics about the importance of sacraments? What if Moslems really considered what submission means? What if religious and self identified ritualistically observant persons of faith could ask the questions that would have them look at less observant individuals with new found respect for their ethically informed behaviors? And what if we all remember what our Rabbis (teachers) of old show us – that questions are far more compelling than answers, for one question can and does spark many answers, and there is not just ONE correct way!

As 2015 dawns, let us commit ourselves to these questions. Let us resolve that we will work to understand each other and ourselves better and come to terms as much with what we are not sure that we know and ask, while questioning what we are so sure that we know along the way as well. Maybe then and only then will we learn to listen and share the beautiful ways of our religious faiths instead of using them as the weapons they were never meant to be. Then we will be able to write the new version of the Tom Lehrer song together and show that finally we have learned the lesson of Cain and Abel – NOT TO LEAVE OUT QUESTIONS! KUM BA YA!