Holding It All Together: Reflections After Recent Tragedies in Jerusalem

This week has been filled with more heart wrenching stories from the ongoing tragedies in Israel. In this context someone shared with me a poem of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. The poem is called “The Diameter of the Bomb”.

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

What is the full impact of violence? Is anyone truly spared from the effect of destruction in the world? The words “no end” in the last line in Hebrew אין סוף- ein sof  is one of the ways we refer to God. So in some sense this violence itself might impact God or even be an act of deicide . Does violence know any limits? In a very poetic way Amichai is describing the etiology of tragedy inside the “thirty centimeters” of a bomb.  What did this world look like before this big bang?

I was thinking about this when reading Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, when we read about the pregnancy of Rivka. There we read;

And the Lord said to her: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger (Genesis 25:23).

At the simplest level Rivka learned about her discomfort with being pregnant with twins. The prophecy did not just warn her about carrying two fetuses in her womb; she had “two peoples” in her body. There is no wonder that she is not comfortable; she was to give birth to entire nations with her body being transformed into a proverbial clown car. On a deeper look, while this might have been said to allay her biological fears of a difficult pregnancy, she is left with the psychological horror of having to parent two children who will be at each others’ throats. Her womb is holding together a history of war similar to  Amichai’s bomb.

While we are all God’s children, God is alone in seeing the unfolding of our history of bloody sibling rivalry. The pregnant Rivka embodies the internalization of the pain of the clash of civilizations. She represents the discomfort of knowing that there will be strife in the future between two people who share much in common and should love each other as brothers. I am not saying that Rivka and Yitzhak were the best parents, but I do want to connect with her fear for the future. This reminds me of what Golda Meir said to Anwar Saddat, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” When will we both be ready to struggle together to achieve a lasting peace? I hope that we can keep the hopes and aspirations of a pregnant mother in mind.

 

Little Becky : Feeling at Home for the First Time

Years ago I heard a story of a girl named Becky. She grew up in a small town where she was the only Jewish child. She had many friends, but she was still a little lonely. There was part of her that yearned to be with others who shared her faith, practices, culture, and history. From her earliest days she remembered her family telling that there was a place for her to be with her people. So when she was old enough she decided to go there. She went with someone who had been there before  who took her to this special place. As her companion saw the sites signaling that they were getting close Becky echoed that person’s excitement.  By the time she got there her heart was palpitating. The minute her foot hit the ground she felt at home for the first time in a place she had never been before.

For any of us who grew up going to camp we can relate to little Becky.  Even today there is a special feeling going up to camp that reminds me of that first time I stepped off that bus so many years ago.  I was privileged to grow up in a large Jewish community attending a Jewish day school. Thinking about Becky I think about my camp friends who grew up in the coal-mining communities  in Pennsylvania. For them it was transformational to live in a vibrant Jewish community of their peers. Seeing their experiences enriched mine. I never took camp for granted and it made me love that community even more. Jewish camp is that home that we need desperately need for the next generation.

The only other place that I have had this kind of experience of homecoming to a place I had not been previously is Israel. So, it will not be surprising if you were to learn that the place she went in little Becky’s story was Israel. It might surprise you that this story is actually taken from Chaye Sarah, this week’s Torah portion. Truly years ago, it is the story of Rivka Imeynu, Rebecca our Matriarch. She left the place she grew up to come home to the land of Canaan. Echoing Abraham’s answering God’s call of Lech Lecha-  to Go, Rivka says”Ailech- I will go” (Genesis 24:58). Following in his footsteps she goes home to a place she has never been before.  It makes me think of Rainer Maria Rilke the German poet when we said,“The only journey is the one within.” We are a nation of seekers.

Wait for Me Until I Welcome: Further Reflections from an Orthodox Rabbi to his Gay Children

As a religious person I am moved by a sense of divine purpose. While we as Jews do not use the word “calling”, I do feel that I work in the service of realizing God’s will on earth. As a Rabbi and Jewish communal servant I have a sense of what it means to sacrifice happiness for a cause. How many nights do I spend away from my own children working to enrich the lives of other people’s children? Avraham is a model of someone who lived with divine purpose. Even if God directed Avraham, as a father it is hard for me to imagine that Avraham kicked Yishmael out and almost sacrificed Yitzhak. Did he not love his sons? If he did, why didn’t Avraham protest on behalf of his sons as he did for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:23- 33)? In that case, God actually listens to Avraham and engages him in debate. Or even better, why didn’t Avraham just politely “take leave” of God for the sake of his sons?  At the beginning of the Torah portion, three strangers approach Avraham in the desert.  Commenting on this, the Midrash says that “he turned to God and said, ‘with purity of heart, Master of the world, let the Shekhinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’”(Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 18:2).

What was Avraham thinking when he drove his son Yishmael away and made him wander in the desert? What was Avraham thinking when he brought Yitzhak up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him? In the case of Sodom, God is willing to engage in debate. In the case of the strangers, God understands that Avraham’s turning away is not disrespectful, but it is in service of another value. Is anything so sacred that we would be unable to welcome those who feel marginalized, are in danger, and need our help? What if they are our own children?

Since the publication of Promises for My Gay Children, Pastor John Pavlovitz and I have carved out some time to Skype. We have only begun to talk, learn, and reflect together, but we have much to share regarding how we decided to come out in support of people who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or  Transgender (LGBT). We realized that despite our differences of our faith, religion, and culture, we both share some fundamental things. The most obvious one is that we both have a profound love of our children as well as a deep love of all of God’s children. For both of us it is our faith itself that has lead us to where we are. We were also both moved to speak about the staggering statistics. Here are a few:

  • A LGBT youth is more than twice as likely to be homeless ( National Coalition for the Homeless)
  • Family rejection of gay and transgender youth often leads to attempted suicide. According to a 2009 study, gay youth who reported higher levels of family rejection in adolescence were 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their gay peers who did not experience family rejection. They were also 5.9 times as likely to have experienced depression, 3.4 times as likely to have used illicit drugs, and 3.4 times as likely to have had unprotected sex. ( Center for American Progress)
  • A Columbia University study showed that roughly 20% of LGBT teens have attempted suicide, compared to 4% of straight teenagers. That is five times more likely.

Rejecting who our children are is tantamount to asking them to sacrifice themselves on the alter of our expectations. With these stark numbers, we cannot be silent. Shetikah KeHodaah Damia – Silence is Acquiescence ( Ketubot 14b).  We need to argue and debate as if our children’s lives depended on it.  Not being intentional and explicit about our unconditional love might drive them out of our lives.

In Vayera, this week’s Torah portion, we read all of these stories of Avraham’s trying to manifest his divine purpose on earth. We should humbly choose which narratives of Avraham to tell in order to ensure that our children are not made to feel like strangers. In the Midrash, Rabbi Aha depicts a speculative dialogue between Avraham and God at the binding of Yitzhak. There we read:

When I [God] commanded you [Avraham], ‘Take now your son,’ [to sacrifice him] (Genesis 22:2), I will not alter that which has gone out of my lips. Did I tell you, ‘Slaughter him?’ No! But, ‘take him up’ (Genesis 22:2). You have taken him up. Now take him down.  (Genesis Rabbah 56:8)

If we think our tradition demands we risk our children’s lives by not accepting them, like Avraham maybe we are misreading our tradition. God does not need our defense and God will most certainly be there when we get back. All of our children are angels who are just waiting to be welcomed into the tent.

Atlas and the High Priest Shrugged : Caring about and Carrying the Jewish Future

A number of months  ago when we were reading parshat Tetzaveh we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but this week I want to focus in on the Ephod. There we read:

And they shall make the Ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skilful workman. It shall have two shoulder-pieces joined to the two ends thereof, that it may be joined together. And the skilfully woven band, which is upon it, wherewith to gird it on, shall be like the work thereof and of the same piece: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And you shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be inclosed in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of as a remembrance for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.  (Exodus 28:6- 12)

I have a pretty good imagination as to what the Ephod looked like, but what is the meaning of the two shoulders memorials? For whom is this a memorial? Quoting the Midrash  on this Rashi comments:

“As a remembrance”  So that the Holy One Blessed be God should see the names of the Tribes written before God’s self and give thought to their righteousness.  ( Shmot Rabbah 38:8)

The shoulder gems are not for the High Priest, but rather for God. But, why does God need these? Does God need a cheat sheet to remember our righteousness? What is the purpose of these memorials? And why on the shoulders?

These questions made me think about the story of Heracles and Atlas. As one of his Twelve Labors  Heracles had to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon. Heracles went to Atlas and offered to hold up the heavens while Atlas got the apples from his daughters. Upon his return with the apples, however, Atlas attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away. Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that Atlas take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. When Atlas set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.

What does it mean to carry the weight of the world? It does not seem to be an honor, but rather a horribly onerous task. In light of this we see the severity of the role of the High Priest. He is carrying the weight of the Jewish world on his shoulders. But, why are we revisiting Tetzaveh now?

This week in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Avraham when the project of the Jewish people was in it incubation stage. Avraham questions God: “What can you give me, I am childless?” God answers by promising Avraham that he will have children. God directs Avraham outside and asks him to look up and count the stars, saying “Thus will be your descendants” ( Genesis 15:2-5). Avraham is alone in his relationship with God. Like Atlas he bears the weight of the world. God’s answer to Avraham is that we will be as many as the stars in the sky. We each have our own role to play in the future of the Jewish people. Who will bear the weight of the Jewish people? Will it be the High Priest or each and every descendent of Avraham?

We have seen how power can make those who are burdened with its weight crumble. While we clearly need better oversight over our leaders, another approach is to insist that each of us carry our weight. If we do not run off after the apples, but stay and are willing to hold up our end of the bargain Avraham has no reason to fear.  It seems as if we are currently caught in some sort of complex prisoner’s dilemma in which we are all Hercules trying to dupe someone else into carrying the weight of the sky. Surely Avraham’s project will only work if we all do our part in carrying and caring about the Jewish future.
– For another take on Atlas see here.

 

 

Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Mickey, Noah, and Gun Control

This past week I had the pleasure to take a group of camp professionals and educators to a backstage tour of Disney. We got to see how they “over-manage” the people, place, and policies of Disney to ensure spectacular costumer service and remarkable mission alignment. It was great, but a little scary that Mickey Mouse is everywhere. At night our group met under Mickey’s hat from Fantasia to go see the “town”. In the context of trying to learn about the magic of Disney it is not surprising to this iconic image of Mickey as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice all over the place.   images

So what is the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice? The scene starts with Sorcerer Yen Sid working on his magic and his apprentice Mickey doing the chores. After soindexme magic, Yen Sid puts his hat down and retires to his room. When he is out of sight, Mickey puts the hat on and tries the magic on a broom. He commands the broom to carry buckets of water to fill a vat. Mickey is satisfied, he sits on the chair and falls asleep. He dreams he is a powerful sorcerer high on top of the world commanding the stars, planets, and water. Mickey wakes up to find the room is filled with water, the vat is overflowing, and the broom is not stopping. Mickey tries to stop the broom but with no success. He grabs an ax and chops the broom into many pieces. Just when it seems that it is all over, the pieces grow into more brooms with buckets of water. The brooms keep going to the vat and fill it up. Mickey tries to get the water out but they were too many brooms. Mickey goes to a book and looks for a spell to stop the brooms. Mickey finds himself in a whirlpool. Just then, Yen Sid comes in and sees this and with a wave of his hands, the water descends and the army of brooms decreases to one broom. Yen Sid glares at Mickey who gives him back his hat back and the broom. He picks up the buckets and starts back slowly to finish his chores. At the end, Yen Sid whacks Mickey from behind with the broom and Mickey runs out.

As I was traveling around Disneyland I could not help thinking about Noah, this week’s Torah Portion. There we read about God cleansing the world from evil. There we read:

And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. ( Genesis 6:11-13)

On one level there is the interesting role that Noah plays as God’s loyal apprentice. But in this case, as compared to Mickey, Noah does his job well and actually saves humanity from God’s heavy duty water cleaning service. A more interesting connection is to the presence of Hamas- violence in the world. Why would otherwise good people act so poorly?

This is connect to a scene in Sorcerer’s Apprentice that you might have missed. As a mentioned above, Micbreakkey lost control of the broom and could not stop it. At a critical moment he takes out an ax thinking it will stop the broom. Instead of stopping the broom it increased his problem exponentially creating many more brooms flooding the room. This seems to connect to our cycle of violence and incarceration and the lack of gun control in this country. When someone does an offense we send them to prison which has not proven to rehabilitate them. Violence is met with violence increasing violence exponentially. All in the name of maintaining control. Why didn’t Mickey just remove the bucket from the broom?  Wayne Lapierre head of the NRA is oft quoted saying, The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” The answer to destruction cannot be violence which will make even more destruction in the world. Why is it normal for us to expect that Mickey would just take an ax to the broom? This points at the banality of evil both ancient and contemporary.

 

Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.

Promises for My Gay Children: Reflections of an Orthodox Rabbi for Yom Kippur

As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.

Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.

As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.

I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):

1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.

2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.

3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.

4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.

5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha- sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.

6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children– not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.

7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi- she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.

8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu- to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.

There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.

-Reposted from the Canteen

 


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