Posts Tagged 'Theology'



In Your Face Empathy

In BeShalach, last week’s Torah portion, we learned of the splitting of the sea. There we read, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14: 21) At the start of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion we learn that Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law comes to meet Moses and the Israelites. There we read, ” Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses, and for Israel His people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt.” ( Exodus 18:1) Why did Yitro come? He heard of the great miracles of the Exodus, especially the splitting of the sea. But, how did he hear? When discussing the miracle of the splitting of the sea, the Sages rationalized that this exception to the rule of science, must have happened every where on the world if it happened at all. Rashi (on Exodus 14:21) brings down the idea  (from the Mehilta and Shemot Rabba 21:6) that “all the waters of the world also split at that time” .

So the water in Yitro’s cup divided, but why did he run to get Zipporah and the grand kids in the car to see Moses?  The miracle of the splitting of the sea was not just that the Isrealites escaped their slave masters, but that it created a narrative with which everyone could relate. The story was not in a far off sea, but right there on our table. All too often we are not sympathetic to a cause until we connect with it on a person level. It is easy to turn a blind eye to someone who is suffering, until you look that person in the eyes.  In my mind this points a deep lesson in the power on empathy.

I was thinking about this lesson  when I saw a recently posted TED talk. In this video photographer iO Tillett Wright pushes us to see past the having check boxes like “female,” “male,” “gay” or straight”. She is the creator of Self Evident Truths—an ongoing project to document the wide variety of experiences in LGBTQ America. So far, she has photographed about 2,000 people for the project. Her goal: 10,000 portraits and a nationwide rethinking of discriminatory laws. Please watch:

In the words of Jewish Philosopher  Emmanuel Levinas, “the Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me . . . the face presents itself, and demands justice. (Totality and Infinity 207, 294) In the spirit of Yitro, it is hard looking at the pictures of iO Tillett Wright and not heeding  the call and working for equality and justice for all people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. When we see the humanity in another person, we cannot help but have empathy for that person. We feel that we are connected. And as Yitro teaches us, that is just what family does. Regardless if it is for a celebration or morning, we show up.

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Making Shabbat

In BeShalach,this week’s Torah portion, we read about the Israelites’ preparation for the first Shabbat in the desert. There we read:

22 And it came to pass that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses. 23 And he said to them: ‘This is that which the Lord has spoken: Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy Shabbat to the Lord. Bake that which you will bake, and see that which you will see; and all that remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.’ 24 And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses asked; and it did not rot, neither was there any worm therein. 25 And Moses said: ‘Eat that today; for today is a Shabbat to the Lord; today you shall not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day is the Shabbat, in it there shall be none.’ 27 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that there went out some of the people to gather, and they found none. ( Exodus 16: 22-27)

Usually the Manna from one day would be rotten the next, but here on Shabbat it kept from Friday to Saturday. What do we learn from this miracle inside a miracle? God made the manna, why is it a big deal that God made special Manna on Friday with preservatives?

Recently I got a e-mail from a dear college friend who shared with me the recent conversation she had with her child who is about to turn four years old.

Child: Is Israel the most beautiful part of the country?
Parent: Which country?
Child: This country.
Parent: Israel is its own country. It’s a different country in the world.
Child: Is it the most beautiful country in the world?
Parent: It is a beautiful country but there is no one most beautiful country. Lots of countries are beautiful and Israel is one of them.
Child: Does the sun shine on the holy temple and make it shine?
Parent: Where did you learn about the Holy Temple?
Child: I don’t know. I just know about it in my mind. Does the sun shine on it?
Parent: Yes.  The stones are white so when it is sunny, it looks like it is shining.
Child: Is the Holy Temple where Israel makes Shabbat?
Parent: What do you mean, “make Shabbat”?
Child: Is the holy temple where people in Israel make their Shabbat?
Parent: Well, everyone can make Shabbat wherever they live, just like we make it at our house with the Shabbat family you invite each week.
Child: Well, where is Shabbat made in our country?
Parent: Well, Shabbat doesn’t come from a factory. It’s something each family can make on their own each week.
Child: Well, where does it come from?
Parent: (growing desperate) Well, it’s like a present from God.
Child: I know!  God lives really high up.  On top of space.  He sends the astronauts to earth with Shabbat and its a gift from God.  He gives Shabbat to us and Christmas to Christians, but they don’t get Shabbat and we don’t get Christmas.
Parent: That’s right. Each religion has its own special presents and fun times.
Child: The Shabbat family are angels from God. They bring Shabbat to us each week and they live with us and I bring them into the house.  They love coming to our house.
Parent: That’s a nice way of thinking about it.
Child: Where is the guitar for Rock star Elmo?  My sister wants to know for Elmo’s band.
 Scene.
I love this story for many reasons. I often think about how much harder things can get for us as we grow older. When we are young it might have been easier to maintain a simple,but not simplistic notion of holiness. Diversity is just a given.  God is just sharing different gifts with different people. And we see how this can be a model for a child who himself wants to make sure his sibling gets her toy. And of course there is a part of this story that is relevant to our question. Shabbat is beautifully a tangible thing.  Like God made Manna, the people make Shabbat. What does it take to make Shabbat today? Does it mean having to work harder during the week to be able to take off 25 hours? But if we do, we have a Shabbat Family.  So maybe Shabbat is just a story we tell our children. And that would make a Shabbat Family a story in a story that our children tell us. Or maybe that is a miracle in a miracle.  Shabbat  is a lot of work. But, who knows? Maybe making Shabbat preserves us all week.
Shabbat Shalom

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.

 

 

 

Shut Up: An Accomplished TED New Year

At this time of year I imagine that I am in good company with many of you who are also struggling with your  New Year’s resolutions. I like many of you fall into the trap of sharing my aspirations for the coming year with other people. While you think it might create a sense of accountability, in reality telling people what you want to accomplish gives you the reward as if you already did the hard work. It seem to be counter-intuitive, but according to Derek Sivers,”Repeated psychology tests have proven that telling someone your goal makes it less likely to happen.” It is a wonderful and short TED talk. Take a look:

It seems if we want to accomplish all that we want to do in this coming year, we might be best served by shutting up.

This seems particularly poignant with Haazinu, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read the Song of Moses in which we learn of the indictment of the Israelites’ sins, the prophecy of their punishment, and the promise of God’s ultimate redemption of them. At the start of our portion we read, ” Give ear, you heavens, and I will speak; and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.” ( Deuteronomy 32:1). And near the end of the Torah portion we read, ”  And when Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel,  he said unto them: ‘Set your heart unto all the words wherewith I testify against you this day; that you may charge your children there with to observe to do all the words of this law.( Deuteronomy 32:45-46)Like Sivers teaches, if we want set our hearts “to observe to do all the words of this law” we need to shut up. We need to do less talking and more listening.  But, is it possible that all of our listened, praying, and saying that we did on Yom Kippur itself will get in the way of our accomplishments this coming year? Who am I to say?

Just A Game

I wanted to share with you (again) one of my favorite stories said in the name of Maggid of Mezritch.  Once a Rebbe was walking and he saw a young boy crying sitting behind a wall. The Rebbe asked the boy why he was crying. The boy responded that he was playing hide and seek with his friends. The Rebbe said, ” But, that seems like a fun game. Why are you crying?” The boy explained that he was crying because he thought that his friends forgot about him. And hearing  this the Rebbe started crying. They boy asked the Rebbe why he was crying.  The Rebbe responded, ” Now I know how God feels”.

This week, in Vayehlech, this  week’s Torah portion,we read:

17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods. ( Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

This is the Bible’s play at theodicy. God is not responsible for bad things happening, he is hiding his face in history as a response to our bad deeds. It is our fault for God being absent. But I think it is more constructive to understand this idea in the context of the Maggid’s storyof a God who is playing hide and seek? Like the Rebbe I am sad to realize how many have given up on the game. God must be lonely. More than sadness thinking about this today makes be feel terrified. I am terrified  by those who forgot it was a game. There is a troubling rise of militant fundamentalism ( in all religions) who are so committed to their ideology that they cannot enjoy the playful nature of living in a world with doubt and wonder. And even worse, they have grown callous to seeing the pain of others. It is disheartening to see that we are living in a world that is painfully divided. Personally I am not invested in your finding God or proving to you that God cannot be found.  I am invested in realizing that the game is worth playing. If for no other reason than in the process of playing we might learn how to play together nicely.

 

John 6:13

It is hard to watch a sporting event let a lone walk down the street without seeing signs reading “John 3:6“.  So what does it say? The New Testament reads:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.— John 3:16

It  has been called the most famous Bible verse and the Gospel in a nutshell. Seeing that I am an observant Jew, that is a nut I just cannot crack. While a historical Jesus may or may not have existed, I am not sure how good of a religious leader he was and he was surely no Son of God. Despite being so famous, it was never covered in any of Biblical studies classes in Rabbinical school. I am stuck thinking about Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

2 If there arise in your midst a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams–and he give you a sign or a wonder, 3 and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spoke to you–saying: ‘Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them’; 4 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God puts you to proof, to know whether you do love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 5 After the Lord your God shall you walk, and you shall fear God, and God’s commandments shall you keep, and to God’s voice you shall hearken, and God you shall serve, and to God shall you cleave. 6 And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he has spoken perversion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to draw you aside out of the way which the Lord your God commanded you to walk in. So shall you put away the evil from your midst.  (Deuteronomy 13:2-6)

Clearly for us Jews, there is no idea of agency. We do not need any intermediary between us and God. We are not called by John 3:16, but rather the Torah 613. And I know this will not make me popular but this Jesus guy would probably have fallen into this false prophet category.

I believe on free speech and on one level I can acknowledge that it is lovely that people want to share their faith with me. But on another level I have to admit that I am a little put off by all of the John 3:16 signage. How would those people feel if I showed up at sporting events with signs reading  “Deut 13:6”?  I am not about to do that, but if one of you reading this makes a shirt, please send me one.

Closer to Revelation

This week we start reading Veyikra, the book of Leviticus. It is choked full of rules regarding sacrifices. You could understand why it seemed strange to learn the Midrash when it said:

Rav Assi said that young children began their Torah studies with Leviticus and not with Genesis because young children are pure, and the sacrifices explained in Leviticus are pure, so the pure studied the pure. (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3.)

I understand why people might think that the story of Genesis is too nuanced to be a young child’s initiation to learning. But, just because we are not starting off with the Garden of Eden does not mean that we should start off with all of the blood and gore and guts of Leviticus.

The word “korban” (sacrifice) derives from the word that means “that which is brought close.” Bringing a korban was not just the process of giving something up to the Tabernacle or Temple, but the process of becoming closer.  Maybe this is what we need to be teaching out children.

Education is not about the blood of the sacrifices or for that matter any of the data. It is about relationships and making those connections. Education is not just about knowledge; it is about wisdom.

As the Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said, “it is learning in reverse order, a learning that no longer starts from the Torah and leads into life but the other way around: from life…back to the Torah.” Revelation is not limited to something that might or might not have happened long ago at Sinai, but it is something that is happening in the learning experience itself today.   So too korbanot, this drawing near, is not limited to the sacrifices, but needs to be about making connections. Now more than ever relevance is a prerequisite to revelation.

– This blog post is written in honor of the wedding of Daniel Infeld and Rachel Ross


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