Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is Judaism All About Mourning? Reflections on the Tochacha ( Rebukes) in Bechukothai

Is Judaism All About Mourning?  Reflections on the Tochacha ( Rebukes) in Bechukothai
Have you heard the words of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Maher Hathout,made publically a few years ago:
The Jews had always been a problem in European countries. They had to be confined to ghettoes and periodically massacred. But still they remained, they thrived and they held whole Governments to ransom...Even after their massacre by the Nazis of Germany, [Jews] survived to continue to be a source of even greater problems for the world...The Holocaust failed as a final solution”.
            This was not from the lunatic fringe of Iran- this was form a very successful and educated leader of a moderate Malaysia. It is a country that has no problem blaming every failure on a Jewish conspiracy even though there are no Jews left.
            I am sure that you saw the latest ADL research—one quarter of the world hates us, and in the Moslem world—it reaches as high as 75-80% and above, especially in Arab speaking lands. In contrast, even Iran. For all the Ayatollahs threats, the level of Jew-hatred levels off at a little over 50%, actually better that among the Greeks or the Armenians, whom, we thought, should have known better.
So, we say, what else is new. Es ist shver zu sein a Yid- It is difficult to be a Jew- from our neighbors around us. Then, we have our Torah reading today. It is the “ Tochachah”- The Reproaches- verses of doom and gloom( the ending of Leviticius). We have, in the start, a 9 sentences of promise if we behave ourselves. But, Oh My!,  30 sentences threatening gloom and doom if we fail to live by the ordinances of the Torah. It’s hard enough when we need to deal with our neighbors, and then, we need to deal with the one up above!
            I would therefore assume that we should be a very gloomy and downcast people, who would approach our religion with a great sense of dread and apprehension.
            So how do we Jews approach our faith?
This is how this great British writer, Samuel Pepys described his first, and last, visit to a synagogue, in the mid 1600’s in England. Jews had only been allowed to reside and officially open a synagogue a few years before, so keep in mind that he is looking at a previously unknown type of humanity in England: So these Jews had finally found a safe haven after being  bounced around the Mediterranean after Spanish expulsion
               He goes to the Jewish Synagogue:
               “ where the men and boys in their veils, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and
some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their veils do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his veil.  Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew.  And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burdens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing.  And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portuguese; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew.  But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.  Away
thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall”.
            What was his luck to visit a synagogue—not on Yom Kippur with its solemnity, not on Tisha B av with its sadness—but—of all days—when we are at our wildest in misbehavior, next to Purim—on Simhas Torah! What made it difficult, and what disturbed this English writer so much, is that, in the name of religion, one could be so happy and carried away with joy. This is, afterall, the England just after the Puritan period and the restoration of the monarchy. The England of the stiff upper lip.  A downtrodden people did not show signs of depression when it came to the symbol of the purpose for their being, the Torah.
            With all the trepidation, with danger from the outside, with overwhelming moral and religious expectations from above, we celebrate our faith, our Torah, singing and dancing.
Indeed, while Samuel Pepys was on the outside looking askance at these Jews, the Jews inside were dancing
This is something we need to keep in mind- that our religion is based on a celebration, a celebration of the Holy in life, and that is a reason for joyous celebration.
For Jews, it  is too easy to forget.
            We all fall into the terrible trap of the tragedy of Jewish history. This is a great trap that all Jewish thinkers fall into. Salo Baron, the great  Jewish historian decried our  obsession with the gloomy and the tragic- -all our writings and  preachings are based on the lachrymose theory of Jewish history. Lachrymose~full of tears, heart-wrench; sobbing. Our whole tone of thought overcast by  the recollection of centuries of tragedy. " es ist shwer zu sein a Yid.
            There is a great danger to this approach.  How do we engage our new generation if we only speak of our tears.
            The Torah itself, in Devarim,  informs us that one of the greatest sins that we could commit against God is not just to worship idols and fail in the commandments, but above all ,to fail to worship with joyfullness and glad heart.
            As we  delve deeper into the Bible , we suddenly discover  that our religion is not one of gloom and doom and thou shalt nots, but a teaching of joy and gladness.
I once was invited to lecture to a college class on the Jewish attitudes towards human sexuality. I pointed out to them, that the very first existential fact of  the human being, according to the Torah. was the loneliness of  Adam. Here is the essence of being human--Man is alone--man finds woman--man finds romance- man is happy. That's what God hoped. If it doesn't always turn out that way, you can' t blame God for  trying.
            Truth is, the Bible is full of joy--there are about 250 references in the Bible to the word 'simha"-joy-in its various forms – noun, adjective, or verb. Then there are other variations, such as Rinah-- Ivdu et Hsahem besimha, bou lefanav berenanah. Worship the lord in joy, go before him in gladness. Or Osher-- Ashrey Yoshvey veytecha--Happy are they who dwell in you house. The people of the Bible were not depressed!
            The Rabbis, in formulating Judaism  as we know it, constantly emphasized the  Simcha, the joy, of mitzvoth, of  observance.
             They preached against  baseless self-denial, as they were opposed to endless indulgence. They preached against any attempts to establish monasteries or monastic movements based on self-punishment or a disavowal of the normal run of human life.
To be considered a saint, in the eyes of the Rabbis, one must be willing to enjoy life, not deny it. Indeed, they said,  when we get to heaven, we will be asked: Did we indeed, eat everything that our eyes  saw and desired ?(kosher, of course, as long as we're on a healthy diet).
            If we did not eat all, then we would  have to atone for that sin.
            As for the secret to getting into heaven, one of the sages declared that if one ate three good, enjoyable meals on Shabbat, ending with the third, Shalos Shudos, the seudah shlishit, that he was already in heaven.
            This open vision of Judaism which the rabbis developed in the Talmud
was clouded over in the course of the centuries by inquisitions, and expulsions. We as  a people became sunk in the depths of misery. That's where the "lachrymose vision" of Judaism came in.
            One of the most wonderful movements  appeared  only 3 centuries ago to save us from the death -trap of despair. Some of you grew up within that movement and understand what I am getting at. Under the leadership of a simple laborer in the Carpathian mountains, a man known  by his nickname, the Besht-The Baal Shem Tov,  the Master of the Goodly and Godly name, a revolution was forged in the Jewish mentality. Among other things, a key point driven home was, as phrased by one of the movements  masters- Rebbe Nachman-- Yidin, zoll nit sein meyaeish." Jews,you may never give up hope.'"
                        This movement, Hasidism, gave us a new turn; we are all, Reform, to Orthodox, influenced by this movement. We are all Hasidim in spirit.
            Said the Baal Shem Tov "No child can be born except  through pleasure and joy. By the same token, if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy."
Said the Baal ShemTov It is my aim and the essence of my pilgrimage  on earth to show my brethren by living demonstration, how one may serve God with merriment and rejoicing.  For he who is full of joy is full of love for men and all fellow creatures."
It is time for us all to rediscover 'lvdu et hashern' be simcha. " Worship the Lord in gladness” Now, more than before. When things are well, we can afford to be morose and despondent. In times of stress, when we are worried about our day to day troubles- our health, our fortune, our families the greatest danger is to give in to despair- -. Yiden, zoll nit sein meyaesh--a Jew may not despair , may not give up hope. If we are to face the future strongly, then it is through “ivdu et hashem besimha”--worship the lord in gladness.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

From Gloom to Hope Israel at 66

            Last week, we paid tribute to the survivors among us as well as to those whom our people had lost during the Shoah. It was particularly moving because we could mark this jointly with our companions of the Iranian congregation with whom we share these walls. Next week, we plan to pay tribute to the people of Israel with a guest speaker and singing and dancing.
            Every look back, is, in Jewish thought, a prompt to a look forward. I recall that  twenty years ago, we held a similar commemoration, and among those who had an Aliyah that day was the brother of one who lived in the headquarters building of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Mila 18;someof you may recall the Leon Uris book of the same name. The following week, as I said, looking forward, we celebrated the Bat Mitzvah of that same man’s grand-niece.  From past, we move to future.
            It is amazing to realize how many people wish still, that the Jewish people would just go away, not bother the world any more. Rhonda Fink Whitman, a journalist, went to the campus of a major university and asks students at random what they knew about the Holocaust. These students were perfectly bright and articulate, and completely ignorant. Not only did they not know of the Holocaust, they did not know what country was involved, did not know that Jews were killed, did not even know what World War II or who President Roosevelt was. You can see it for yourself on Youtube.  What is worse is that our academicians, on campuses in the US, and in political movements in Europe, are swift to denounce Israel and call for the elimination of Israel, all the while, ignoring the suffering in Syria, the threat in Ukraine, the nuclear clown in North Korea, the crushing of the Tibetan culture by China, --believe me, the litany of disasters goes on— but for our “ enlightened” associates, these do not exist. Israel  is the “Expletive” little country, as a French government official once said. Whattheyalso mean, often very clearly stated, is that the USis the “expletive” big country, Obama no different than Bush.
            But, we, as Jews have had to deal with it, and overcome it. We have had to deal with the consequences of anti-Semitism in our psyches, in our minds, in the make up a Jewish child growing up before this generation.
            Think of the great shaper of modern thought, Sigmund Freud--what event shaped him more than anything else? His experiments with Breuer, Charcot? His fight with Jung? His attempt at cure through cocaine?
            One event stood out in Freud's mind, that shaped the nature of his psychoanalytic movement, the movement which shook the intellectual world.
            When Freud was a youngster, an Austrian cavalry  officer spied the young Freud together with his father walking down the street--and he forced the father off the sidewalk-he purposely humiliated his father in public-because he was a Jew. Freud was driven to make his psychoanalytic movement a power on the world scene in order to erase the humility he had felt at his father's disgrace as a Jew.
            Today, we no longer need speak of the humiliation that a Jew must undergo. Today, we hopefully can speak of the Holocaust, the Shoah, in the past tense. Today, A Jewish youngster doesn't need to be driven by the threat of oppression or annihilation.
            One fact has changed the Jewish mind-set, one fact has ended, once and for all, the sense of the Jew as victim, the Jew as helpless, the Jews as being held at the whim of a host people, whether for good or for bad.
            That one fact is the creation of the State of Israel, and its success, in thriving, against all odds, now, this week. for 66 years since independence.
            It is an Israel that has managed to face down far more powerful enemies, to the extent that the world assumes that Israel is a Goliath, and not a miniscule David.
            Israel now faces the thorny question of how to very simply be quit and freed of the Palestinians, who have become an albatross around its neck. It has signed treaties with the PLO, withdrawn from most of the West bank, only to be forced back in to stop a wave of blood baths. It has withdrawn from southern Lebanon, only to be faced with a threat of tens of thousands of potent missles posed within spitting distance. Ity has withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, only to see it taken over by   a Hamas movement sworn to the expulsion of every last  Jew. It has been pushed into negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, only to see that same “partner” once again embrace Hamas in a unity government supposedly committed to peace that now includes partners committed to destruction.
            Israel has had to deal with with a visceral hatred and deep resentment, not from the 2001 intifada, not from the Yom Kippur or the 6 Day War, but almost from  the rise of Zionism. Someof you may have heard my comments last Saturday night, about the Sharif of Mecca, a century ago who called for a return of Jews to Palestine as “ brothers”. His voice was soon drowned out and a visceral a hatred dominated the Arab world that said, "Let Palestine remain a desert another hundred years rather than accept help from the Jews". The case was made, very firmly, when King Abdullah of the Trans-Jordan, was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1951, for planning to make peace with the new Israel. Anwar Sadat ended the same way, for the crime of bringing peace to Egypt.
            I can expect other people to fail to understand what Israel is putting up on the bargaining table now, but we, as Jews, we must be aware of it most of all, and, sadly, we often forget.
            I want to quote from an essay by Chicago columnist Mike Ryoko, which he wrote about 20 years ago, but which still rings true today,at the insanity with which the Arab world has been caught up in.:
            "When I look at a world map, I sometimes wonder what the insane fuss in the Middle east is all about. If I look closely and squint my eyes, I can find a country that has about 8000 square miles.
To give you and idea how small that is, you could take about 40 Israels and put them together and the whole thing would still be smaller than the state of Texas. There may be counties, even ranches in Texas that are bigger. Then consider the population . There are many cities that have more population. You could put three times the population of Israel in Mexico city.
            So we're talking about a mere speck on the map.
            Syria, nine times as big with three times as many people; Iraq, 20 times as big  ; Iran,80 times bigger  .Put that part of the world together and there are millions of square miles with a population bigger that of the United State. And most of them, at one time or another, one way or another, with guns, tanks, terrorist or oil money, have tried to squash a country that isn't as big as Vermont.
            They've spent the last 40 years( now 66) making themselves look like idiots by unsuccessfully trying to wage war on this itsy-bitsy country.
            We keep hearing that the Palestinians must have their homeland. You'd think that with millions of square miles of vacant land, the Arabs could find them a homeland, the cheapskates. Jordan is right next door to Israel. It would make a fine homeland., That was the idea of creating Jordan in the first place. Lots of vacant land. Same climate. If they'd stop spending their oil money on bumbling wars, they could probably turn Jordan into something like Palm Springs,
            Instead, we have these vast and in some cases wealthy countries now entering their fifth ( now 7th)  decade of trying to take over a place you can barely find on this map.
            It makes no sense. I mean, Israel doesn't even have one really good golf course."
            Some twenty years have gone by since he wrote, and Israel does have at leastone decent golf course since then and there is a tenuous but strained peace with Egypt and Jordan. It helps that the Saudis now are silent allies with Israel against Iran, that Iraq is fragmented, that Syria is in a horrible death spiral. Thatis, what we call,” Hatzi Nechamah”. Half a consolation.
            So, the other side is still the other side. Now, let’s focus on the achievements for the 66th anniversary, 69 years after the close of the greatest horror to befall the Jewish people..
            Israel has been called the “ Start-up Nation.”
            Cities have been built on sand dunes, swamps have been made into farms, ancient Jerusalem is once again a world center, the Hebrew language has been resurrected form the dead, Jews from over one hundred lands have been brought together and shaped into one people
             Israel, which had to import much of its food in 1948, has become a major agricultural exporter. The nation, situated in one of the world's most arid regions, has innovative irrigation techniques. Lacking oil, Israel has focused on alternative energy sources, such as solar energy and nowit has hit upon huge gas reserves and maybe even oil.
            Here is where you get your Intel computer chips, your generic pharmaceuticals, your cell-phone mapping system, and countless other items essential to modern technological civilization.
            Even for all of Israel shortcomings,and pimples there are,  there is a flourishing of Hebrew literature, arts, theater, even the old Torah culture, of Yeshivot and Rebbe's. For all its contentiousness and strife, the Israeli parliamentary system is the only working democratic system in the entire Middle East. The Arab Spring has come and turned to harsh Winter, but in Israel, the Knesset is still a viable and flourishing body, home to every crackpot of the extreme left and right, because it is a liberal and open democracy in which Arab Moslems and Christians can live safely without fear along side gay or Chasidic Jews. Walk over the line , to the Gaza strip, and see if that is possible there.
            On this Shabbat, as we look back at the Jewish world of desolation and destruction before 1948, let us recall what Israel waa intended to be, and what it still means for us, whether we sit here or in Israel.
            I quote form the Declaration of Independence of Israel  of 1948,the fifth of Iyar, just two days from today, 66 years ago.
            "The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual  religious , and national identity was formed. Here they achieved independence and created a culture of national and universal significance. Here they wrote and gave the Bible to the world.
            The state of Israel will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be based on the principals of liberty, justice, and peace as conceived by the prophets of Israel; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of religion, race or sex; will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, education, and culture; will safeguard the Holy places of all religions; and will loyally uphold the United Nations Charter.
            We extend our hands in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring makes its contribution to the progress of the middle east as a whole.
            Our call goes out to the Jewish people all over the world to rally to our side in the task of immigration and development and to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations for the redemption of Israel.”

            Beautiful then; beautiful today.