Monday, October 20, 2014

The Purpose of Adam


            The Purpose of Adam

            Comments on the Weekly Reading: The Creation of Adam

            There is a story about the Hebrew school teacher who wanted to show off to the Rabbi how well his smallest children, in first grade, had learned their lessons.
            " Yankele, when the Rabbi asks you," Who made you," you will say "God".
            Itzik, when the Rabbi asks you " from what" you will say" from the earth".
            They study this lesson over and again, and finally, comes the day of the visit.
            The Rabbi walks in and the little children fall silent in awe at the distinguished visitor.
            The Rabbi, as expected asks the children" Who made you?". Nobody answers, Silence. He asks again. No answer. And again. still no answer. Finally, one little youngster raises his hand.
" Please Rabbi, the boy that God made--he is home sick with the flu."
            Fortunately, we know the answer, and we don't need to look for the boy who is home with the flu.
            Still, if we talk about God making man and woman, we can ask, " What is this Adam, this man and woman, that God created?" It's an ancient question, probably as ancient as the day Adam first opened eyes.
            One of the ancient scholars of Israel, Ben Azzai, said that the great verse of this book is found in the 3rd chapter of Genesis:
            " This is the book of the history of Adam. God created Adam in the divine image, male and female he created them."
            Adam means mankind, all mankind, all races and peoples, male and female, all created in the likeness of God, all of us as bearing exceptional potential. We are God-like in our traits when we use them for good good.
            A member of my former congregation, Reuven Weisman, of blessed memory, had been a noted Jewish educator, and he taught me a saying from his father, a noted Rabbinic scholar in earlier days.
            " What is man? He is like Jacob's famous ladder,Sulam muztav arza v rosho magia hashamayma   .We are a ladder, whose base rests on earth, but whose head reaches into the heavens."
            We may be mere mortals, tiny, limited , but our souls, our potentials, our mind, and spirit, are capable of reaching to the heavens.
            In the pagan world, it was customary for the idols to be brought out in procession, and for soldiers to run in advance and declare, "Make way for the images of the gods of Rome".  Rabbi Joshua ben Levi laughed at this custom. "Do you not realize," he scoffed," that when a  man goes in the road, a troop of angels proceed in front of him and proclaim, " Make way for the image of the Holy one, blessed be he."( Deut.Rabah 4:4).
             If we wish to see God, he was telling us, we must look for him (or her) in our fellow human being, not in any idols or objects.
            What better statement of the regard for the human potential, than these words by Rabbi Nehemiah, “One person is equal to all of creation."       ( Avot d' Rabbi Nathan 31)
            There is even competition between man and God as to who does better, in our teachings.
            A sceptic once challenged Rabbi Akiba, " Who creates more beautiful works--God or man?  After all, look at the skies and the heavens."
            Rabbi Akiba answered.” These objects are out of our reach, true, but what ever we can get our hands on, we can do better. Man creates more beautiful works. God produces wheat, but we make fine cakes. God produces flax, but we make fine clothing of it."
            It is the human being who is capable of bringing perfection and completion to the world. It is man, meaning both male and female, who are God's partners in creation, partners in creation when we act righteously and do good.
            In Kabbalistic lore, mankind is created precisely to complete the creation of the universe. We are created, the mystics said, lezorech gavohah, we are created for the greatest need, for tikun olam, to restore the world to its pristine glory.
            Yet, we know that if mankind is God's child, that child often behaves like an intolerable brat.
            There is a quaint description of God discussing with the angels his idea of creating Adam. There was no unanimity, the story goes. Some angels said," Please don't create him", yet others said, “Do create him".
            Love said: Create him for he will do deeds of love.
            Truth said: Do not create him, for he will be all lies.
            Righteousness said: Create him, for he will do righteous deeds.
            Peace said: Do not create him, for he will be all quarrel and discord.
            For the sake of man, the story goes, God cast truth to the ground, even though truth is his own emblem.(Gen. Rabbah 8)
             God had high expectations, but what has he been doing about us ever since?
            I had the privilege of serving as student secretary to one of the great religious teachers of this century, Rabbi  Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had marched arm in arm with the late Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma , Alabama. This is what he said of the human condition:

            " All  of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man.
When Adam and Eve hid from his presence, the Lord called," Where are you"( Gen 3:9). . . .
            "God is in need of man for the attainment of his ends ...  
God is looking for a" partner in creation" . . .." He continued, in quoting the ancient sages," The wicked rely on their gods, but the righteous are a support for God."
            God is always looking for us. He needs us, but we don't always want to be found. When we are found, we don't always want to answer to our failings.
            When  Adam sins, he covers himself with the infamous fig leaf,  hides in the bushes , and then blames his wife, Eve. She in turn, blames the snake. No one wants to take responsibility.
            God asks Cain a simple question," Where is your brother , Abel?," and Cain denies all responsibility," Am I my brothers keeper?."
            Our sages imagined this running dialogue between God and Cain, a dialogue that every criminal has used ever since,:
            God turns to Cain." Where is Abel your brother?" Cain answers, “I don't know, why do you ask me about him?  Do I ask you about him?           You, after all, are the keeper of all creation, and you ask me where he is?"
            Then he continues, “Of course I killed him-- you created me with the evil instinct. You are guardian of all, and you let me kill him--then you killed him!"
            Answered God," But Your brother's blood cried from the ground." 
            He couldn't deny the act, so he claimed ignorance,
            "Lord of the world. I didn't know what could happen. I have never seen a corpse in all my days. How could I know that if I hit him on the head with a stone, he would die? "( Gen. Rabbah 22)
            God is always calling us, and we are always either hiding, or coming up with lame excuses. We run away from what we are capable of, run away from our potential.
            The sage Hillel was aware that we are not always ready or courageous enough to stand up for what is right. We look around and see no one around us who is ready to do the job.        
            "Bamakom sheain ish, histadel lihyot ish: Where there is no man try to be a man." Or a woman. We surely can try.
            We have tremendous capacity for good, which we often are afraid of letting loose.           
            The Danish philsopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, offered this advice:
             "A possibility is a hint from God. One must follow it. In every man there is latent the highest possibility; one must follow it. . . We each must say: Trusting to God, I have dared, even though I was not successful; in that is peace , calm, a confidence in God.  But to say: I have not dared; that is a woeful thought, a torment in  eternity."
            Would that we could all be ready to dare to fulfill our possibilities, with full responsibility for our actions.
            We pray that the day will come that humanity will behave in a manner fitting the " Image of God." On that, God will finally be able to breathe a sigh of relief and rest from creation.

Hoshanah Rabbah and the World Around Us

Hoshanah Rabbah and the World Around Us  

     What day on the Jewish calendar is so important that the entire calendar is designed so that this one day never falls on a Shabbat?.
     There is a formula that defines the Jewish calendar which says,” Lo ADU Rosh”-Rosh Hashanah never begins on a Sunday Wednesday or Friday. What does the formula mean? Well, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Wednesday, Yom Kippur would fall on a Friday. How can you eat freshly cooked food for Shabbat when you can’t cook on Friday, and there is no refrigerator to keep food fresh? The break the fast would have to consist of some dried fruits and stale bread! If Rosh Hashanah falls on a Friday, then Yom Kippur would fall on a Sunday. Again, since you can’t cook on Shabbat how can you eat a decently cooked and satisfying meal before the fast? Again dried fruits and stale bread won’t do the job. So what about Saturday? Yom Kippur can fall on a Shabbat, as it did this year, since you can cook fresh and eat well the Friday before and the Saturday night after.
     So what holiday can’t fall on Shabbat? Purim , it is true, doesn’t fall on Shabbat, but that is because of Pesach, one month later, which cannot fall on a Monday, Wednesday or Sunday—but that is a fact controlled by the timing of Rosh Hashanah. So which holiday is so important that the calendar was designed so it would never fall on Shabbat?
     Any guess?
     Go back to my formula—Lo ADU Rosh. Not Wednesday and not Friday , because of Yom Kippur, but what of Sunday? What holiday would fall on a Shabbat if Rosh Hashanah hit a Sunday?
     What do we do on Hoshanah Rabbah? What is it by the way?
     During Sukkoth, every day we are to march around the congregation one time, carrying our lulav and etrog, and chant “ Hoshanah”=Save us. On the seventh day, we march around seven times, hence” Hoshanah Rabbah” a great Hoshanah. We then take a bunches of “aravah” , willows,chant a piyut, a prayer, for rain beat them on the ground, and chant “ kol Mevaser’- A voice is announcing, announcing and saying”.
     Later generations would ask why we beat the willow hear and interpret it as beating out our sins, as Hoshanah Rabbah represents the end of the Season of Judgement from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur until now. But Hoshanah Rabbah, as true of all Sukkoth, is no longer about sin, but about water. All of Sukkoth was accompanied by a festival of water,” Simhat Beit HaShoevah.”
Hoshanah Rabbah, with its prayer for rain, was clearly the culmination of the celebration of the beginning of the rainy season. The “ Aravah” is specifically, the “ Arvey Nahal” the Brook willow, a plant identified with flowing water; beating the leaves is figuratively, beating the Aravah, which is also a Biblical word for clouds, a physical prayer for rain.
     Now, it makes sense. The calendar must be designed so that we can offer our prayers for rain with the physical beating of the willow without worrying that we violate a law of the Shabbat. The proof of the pudding comes the very next day—today- Shmini Atseret, the Eight Day of our Festival. It is marked by adding “ Mashiv haruach u’Morid Hagashem”, who causes the wind to bow and the rain to fall. If that weren’t enough, by tradition, the Cantor wears a white robe and chants the musaf with what melody? The melody of Yom Kippur Neilah.
     The whole calendar is so designed as to complete the season of forgiveness—Yom Kippur expresses forgiveness in our spiritual lives, and Sukkoth-Hoshanah and Shmini Atzeret express forgiveness on a physical plain, as felt in the blessing of the first rains of the season.
     All of this is intended to remind us that what we have on this planet, in its physical nature, is a great gift to be appreciated.
     We might assume that is to be self-evident, but, in truth, for us , as Jews, we weren’t always so much attuned to nature.
     We Jews, more so than any other ethnic group in the world, have spent some two thousand years as primarily urban, city and town-dwellers. To some extent ,we became disconnected from nature, just as the average city dweller today sees nature as a nice place to visit—but he doesn’t live there.
     Take for example, my paternal grandfather. He was a pious Jew, who knew that Jewish law requires us to feed animals. He would therefore feed cats. However, a cat is tamey--an impure animal, and if the cat would jump on his lap, he would take a towel and pick it up with the towel, never with his hands.
     Although there were Jewish farmers, they were the exception, and even in modern times, with the start of Jewish pioneering in Israel, Jews today—still sit in the office, not in the field.    
Our traditions tried very much then, to make us consider our connection to the world. The prayers for rain and the Hoshanah willows are one example.
     The other example is the idea of blessings for so many aspects of nature.
     Upon sighting the first blossom in the spring, one is to say," "Blessed are you O lord our God . . .for witholding nothing from this world and for creating good creatures and good trees in order to give delight to human beings." It is said only once a year and there is yet another blessing, that's said only once in 28 years, when the sun  is said to return to the same position it held in the sky at the time of creation.  We have to wait till the year 2037 to try that one.
     There is a blessing for everything on this earth--of course, we know of blessings for food and drink, but also blessings for lightning, shooting stars, or any other splendour of nature-- one says" Oseh maaseh bereshit"=who creates the world."-- in the present, not just the past.
      There is a prayer for beautiful tress, plants, and people,--She kacha lo beolamo.”this is how it is in His world”.   
     One hundred and fifty years ago, before ecology was popular, and when the industrial revolution was at its peak, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explained the purpose of these blesisngs.
     "It is these berakhot that have trained the Jew not to meander through the world unthinkingly and unfeelingly... Rather, the berakhot have taught the Jew to view the entire physical and material world with all of its change and its infinite variety of events and phenomena as a Temple in which to glorify his God ... Thus, as the Jew deals with the affairs of this world, he communes with his God. He perceives the voice of God not only in the bread and food which preserve and enhance his physical life, but also in all the bright and shining meteors of heaven and earth, in every great masterpiece of Creation that overawes his spirit, in every new blossom that heralds to him the return of spring, and in every form of great beauty or bizare grotesqueness which he gazes in amazement."
     What was true eighteen hundred years ago, when these blessings were formulated, was true one hundred and fifty years ago, in the time of Rabbi Hirsh, and is true today as well. 
     So very much of Jewish tradition is intended to help us live with the world, not away from it, not against it, but with it.
      That is very easy and simple idea to grasp, and we find, in Jewish law codes, starting with the Torah itself, rules of care for our resources--
     There is the Sabbatical year for the land to regain its vital minerals; this year happens to be a Sabbatical or Shmittah year.  Protection is given to fruit trees from devastation. There are rules in Rabbinic sources against overgrazing, and limitations against air pollution -- ancient laws  dating centuries, even millenia ago.
     Now, the Jewish concept of nature is not the same as the concept of pushed in popular talk, of “ mother” nature or of Planet earth as if it were “ Gea”,the goddess earth. It is very popular in modern ecology talk, to the extent that some modern ethicists can claim that there is no difference in value between a human infant and some noxious insect.
     The various prayers for rain, as well as the different observances around natural events, serves to remind us that we, as human beings, are the caretakers of nature--we are to enjoy our world, and we are to protect it, but we are also not nature’s subjects .
     We are focused on this life. Rabbi Abahu said that the day of rain is greater than the day of the Messiah , when the dead will came back to life. How can that be? The day of the raising of the dead will benefit only the righteous, but a rainy day is good for all-even for the wicked. Other Rabbis said a rainy day is like the giving of the Torah, yet others, like the very creation of the world. Rain  is a blessing in our lives—ask anyone in California.
     As to our world, it is said that when Adam was created, God took Adam on a walk through the garden of Eden. He showed him the flowers, trees, and animals, and said" Please--don't destroy my world . If you do, there will be no other world to take its place."
     Let's be sure we take the very best care of our world so we can be blessed from heaven with the bounties of earth.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why Me?

Why Me? 
Yom Kippur  Yizkor 2014

            Somewhere, in some obscure article or journal, which I can no longer find, I recall someone doing a survey of people's sensitivity to pain. Groups were assessed by ethnic origins and I assumed were asked to measure some value for pain or the absence of pain. How much, perhaps, would they pay to avoid pain.
            As I can best recall, Jews were the most sensitive to pain. Be it physical pain, or imaginary pain, pain is pain, and Jews hurt. We Jews aren't stoical about it. In fact, not only are we commanded to heal illness, we are also commanded to minimize pain.
            This is a very curious religion, since, we would assume, from the way religion is commonly taught, that we shouldn't worry. Our pain, our hurt, is only temporary, it is only an illusion of our attachment to our selves, it is but the price we pay for heaven, and so forth. Yet no Jew is commanded to be in pain. He is commanded to be out of pain and to heal the pain of others.
                    This is Yom Kippur, and we have gathered for Yizkor, we feel very much the hurt and pain, this one, emotional, of the loss of someone we have loved. We seek, in our religion, the balm to heal, the medicine to soothe our hurts.
                    Undoubtedly, the hardest task for a Rabbi is to deal with good people who have suffered, be it an illness themselves, or the pain or death of a loved one. The question so often asked, is
            "Why me?" Why her?", "Why us?"
            It is a perennial question.
            There is a sage in the Mishnah who is commonly known as Acher-which means "another". What happened to this sage ,that he came to be known by such a disparaging title? It is said that Elisha ben Abuyah, his correct name, was a great scholar, of the time of Rabbi Akiba, and the teacher of the great Rabbi Meir.
             One day, he observed a young man climb a tree, take both the mother bird and the chicks, and come down unscathed.
            To take the mother as well as the chicks was forbidden by the Torah, and it irked the scholar that this scofflaw should have escaped unscathed. Then another young man climbed a tree, and this young man too found a bird's nest. He chased away the mother bird, as the Torah demanded, and took only the chicks. The mother bird was spared in order to produce a new generation of birds. The Torah promised long life for sparing the mother bird. Upon return to the ground, he was bitten  by a poisonous   snake, and immediately died. The great Rabbi was outraged. The one who broke the law went scot free yet the one who was meticulous in observance died of  snake bite , a death reserved for sinner, not saint. He declared Zo Torah --Zo Scharah?? This is the Torah-- This is its reward??
                     At that moment, it is said, he turned from Judaism completely, and became Acher, another.
            How many times have we seen just that which affected Elisha Ben Abuya so greatly. Good people suffer while wicked people thrive. Why should God allow it? Can God allow it?
                             Where is God in this equation?
                             This question has served as the meal ticket for a great many philosopher, especially in the monotheist religions, which all presume an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. The philosopher's answers were often great masterpieces of sophistry. Thus, they would posit that evil is an illusion of perspective, that evil is merely the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light. There is the perspective  that evil is necessary for the good to stand out and be truly appreciated, just as ugliness gives contrast to beauty or darkness gives contrast to light.            But such answers are, in Rabbinic parlance, a refutation with a straw, easily broken.
Some Jewish sources sought to find the cause of suffering in our own actions.
                                            Since God is just, what happens, illness, war, accident, is our fault. We Jews are particularly prone to this, and this thought is in our own prayer books-- "Mipney Hataeynu galinu"--for our sins we were exiled.   There is in this thought, the sense that a universe with an overly strict God is preferable to a universe with no God.
            There are variations on the theme, in which the suffering we have now is compensated in the next life, while the triumphant wicked will get their due in the next world. There is the view, in Jewish thought, just as in Hinduism or Buddhism, that  if we suffer, it is because we committed wrong in a previous life, and are now paying for it, but will thereby be elevated to a higher level in the next as compensation.
            I, for one, could  never say to any person ,"If you are ill, it is for some sin, unknown to you ." I will never say it, and I find, that on the contrary, my greatest task is to assure the one who is suffering: You are not guilty (Unless, of course, we are talking to someone who has committed some gross crime, a mass murderer or a terrorist).
            Sin may be the cause of the troubles of the human condition—after all, we are all flawed beings in some way or another, yet no one dare point a finger at anyone and say, “ Your misery comes from some sin unknown to you!”
            No, sin as the cause of suffering is not an acceptable answer either.
            Fortunately, our tradition is not monolithic. We are not tied to the answers of one Rabbi, sage, philosopher, or prophet over and above all the others. On the contrary, in our tradition, from the very pages of the Bible and Rabbinic lore, there is open dialogue and a serious search for the salve and balm for our deepest wounds.
Our sages rephrased the issue in the tale of Job. Job is each and every one of us who has suffered for no good reason.
        Job's three friends try to assure him, "Job, Confess, You have some great secret sin". .Job refuses to admit any guilt, yet also refuses to turn against God. No answer gives him satisfaction, until God, in full awe and wonder, appears in personal revelation, denounces the three so-called friends, and vindicates Job   This personal vision, the assurance that there is a God in full command of the universe, rather than a universe in chaos, is sufficient answer for Job .
            Later sages took a new page out of Job's experience
             Job did not suffer because he had done wrong--the suffering was an indication of his very special saintliness. Thus, Rabbi Jose ben Judah, could say, "Precious are afflictions, for they are accompanied by God's glory" Or, as in the words of a Rabbi in the Talmud, "Whom God favors, he tries with afflictions. In such an attitude, many indeed found comfort.  I am good, but I suffer; then I must be a special object of God's concern, that it is intended to raise me to even higher levels. We Jews suffer because we are God's chosen people, not God's rejected people. In this thought, indeed, many Jews, over the centuries found great comfort .
                 Yet not every sage-was thrilled with that   assurance. One Rabbi, Rabbi Yochanan  in particular, had dedicated his life to comforting others. It is said that his colleague, Rabbi Eliezer was deathly ill, and he came to visit him.
He turned to his friend, and asked "Do you accept your suffering? Said Rabbi Eliezer, "I want neither suffering, nor any rewards from heaven for my suffering." Then, said Rabbi Yohanan, give me your hand," and raised his friend up in health.
Note in this story, that the great sage does not try to justify God to his friend. He does not lay a guilt trip on him, to say "You have. sinned, and God has punished you ."He does not try to bolster him by saying  “It is God's will".
            He is a faith healer in reverse. The healing does not come because Rabbi  Eliezer has faith. It comes because he refuses to accept the suffering.
Even beyond  this, we see, in our heritage, a call and a challenge, a dare to God Himself. Justice and right are paramount overall, and God is called to task. In the Bible, Abraham, God's personal friend, dares question God's justice at the planned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God accedes to Abraham's position.
This attitude is reflected millennia later, in a Hasidic tale.
There is a wide-spread tale of a poor, simple tailor who ,on this Day of Yom Kippur, began to bargain with God,"Ashamnu, bagadnu. "All right, God, so I did cheat this year. I over charged one man, another, I took too much cloth, the other, I made a sloppy stitch. Sure, those are my sins. But look, God, look at your sins--famine, war, widows &orphans. I'll tell you what. Let's make a deal. I'll forgive you your sins, if you forgive me mine."
            At this point, it is said, the Baal Shem went over to him in great agitation. "Why did you stop? You had God pinned down. A little more, and he would have been forced to send the Messiah.!"
            We must, at this point, recognize, that in our day ,in our frame of mind, we can not accept an image of God as one pushing myriads of buttons, this button for health, and this button for illness, this one for life, and this one for death. As Jews, we have accepted the truth of a universe of law and system, in which material events have material cause and effect. Disease is from germs and earthquakes are from the motion of geological structures, and we no longer seek God as the blame for these events, even if our insurance forms describe them as "Acts of God."  This is especially true for us as Jews, still living in the shadows of the Holocaust, in which clearly, the human choice of evil, and not God's wrath, is to be blamed.
Jews long ago realized that God, for all the philosophical terms of omnipotence, could not control everything. Among Jewish mystics, there was a realization, that for the universe to be created, God had to be absent from it. This inevitably led to a catastrophe in the universe and the existence of evil  which God alone could not conquer. The human being, the Jew ,in particular ,was the special vehicle whereby the universe would be restored to purity and wholeness and whereby evil would be conquered. We are then, not God's victim, but rather, God's partner in the restoration of the universe, God's partner in both a physical and metaphysical sense.
What then of ourselves. If God is not there to bail us out of our troubles, if he no longer splits Red Seas or makes Manna fall on our wildernesses, what then does God do for us. If "Why Me?" is to be answered, “It’s not your fault", then we are still left with the pain and hurt. Where is God in this equation?
The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, suffered in his final years from a debilitating illness. He was torn by doubt and conflict, since he was part of that ancient world which saw illness as coming from God in punishment of sin. Here was a Holy Man, a Tsadik, surrounded by a community of Holy Men--why did he not find healing? He fell into great despair.
Then, as his strength ebbed, he began to recover his bearings. At a gathering of his followers, he suddenly shouted out,"Gevalt- “Zich nit meya-esh zein!” Do not despair! There is no such thing as despair at all ! "He drew forth these words  slowly and deliberately, with strength and depth that he taught his disciples for all generations, that we would never despair, no matter what we endure.
At the entrance to the Bratslaver Synagogue, in the time of the Warsaw ghetto, there was a large sign, "Jews, Never Despair!" It is said that even in the times of the horrible ghetto, his followers danced with great strength and fervor.
“Jews, Never Despair.!" This is the great message of Judaism. God is to found in the depths of our pain, as the source of hope, strength, endurance.
 Just this is what we  add in our daily service for an entire month preceding the High Holy Days, the 27th Psalm. The poet depicts his enemies, ready to  pounce on him, and he asks for one thing: "It is your face that I seek, says my heart;
It is your presence that I crave, 0Lord.    Hope in the Lord and be strong, hope in the Lord and take courage."
                             God is found and is present in our hearts as we leap over the hurdles in our life, or even just live through them.
            We find God in our ability to reach out beyond our pain, beyond our problems, and look to our fellow human being, whom we are taught, is " betzelem Elohim “, in the image of the divine.
We will never answer the question, "Why Me?” Or " Why Us?" but we can give meaning to our lives , to our pain, when we can rise above it, and act, in God like manner with hope in God within us to conquer and overcome evil, pain, and suffering. To this goal we labor, and declare, "Jews, Never Despair!, We never lose hope in the face of whatever life deals us."

Shuvah and Tshuvah

Shuvah and Tshuvah     2014
Kol Nidre
                        Our season, from Rosh Hashanah through the end of Neilah tomorrow night, is identified as the Ten Day of Teshuvah, repentance. We are now, at Kol Nidre at our last lap in the race of this season, of the idea of being Jews, of our Jewish identity, and of rerighting our wrongs.
            I was driving in heavy traffic, just behind a truck, close enough to read the words on the bumper sticker. You know, there is one bumper sticker that says" If you can read this, you are too close." Other bumper stickers often have jokes, like "Mafia staff car", or stupid insults, but this one was unique, especially for a bumper sticker on a truck. It said.
            “If you are heading in the wrong direction, God allows you to make a U-turn."
            I couldn't have thought of a better slogan for this season, because if I take the word" Teshuvah", the word U-turn is probably the best translation for it.
            Can we really make a u-turn in life? If I do it on the street, I may get a ticket? Can I make a u-turn if life, and not only not get a ticket, but be praised for it?
            There is an old quip, recorded by one of Rashi’s grandsons in the tosafot--There is a statement in the Talmud" Everything is in the hands of heaven--hakol biyday shamayim- hutz meyirat shamayim-except for the fear of heaven" The commentator adds--Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for hot and cold.
            The commentary then continues—you can open the window if it’s hot, you can light a fire if it’s cold.
            What great philosophy is this?
            That whatever happens to us, fortune, wealth, health, success--all that may be in the hands of heaven, all that may be beyond us, yet there is one thing we can do--If it is too hot, we can open a window, and if it is too cold, we can light a fire.
            It is profound. We go through life complaining about everything, and none of it, we claim, none of it is our doing.  
            Oh No! The sage tried to tell us—it’s not just the simple task of opening a window or lighting a fire, changing the thermostat. It is a metaphor for all of life itself. You can open a window in life, you can light a fire in your hearts, and you can make a U-turn in life.
            Life is hard, and we are sometime tempted to throw up our hands and say, in the Yiddish, es ist bashert--it is fated- it had to be- and thereby, we give up. The word Mazel is a reference to that--what happens to us is the result of mazel, --we translate as luck, but it means a constellation of stars, simply a term borrowed from astrology. It goes back to the belief that all that befalls us has been dictated by the stars long before we were born.
            Even the Talmud says" Hakol taluy bemazal- afilu sefer torah baheichal--All depends on the stars, on fortune, even the Torah scroll in the ark.! How can that be? When you have a well-established synagogue, there are many scrolls, and some scrolls just have all the luck------they get read while others are ignored.
            This is a great idea--I never have to take the blame for anything. It's all my mazel.
            But fate, or destiny, or astrological signs, or mazel, doesn’t go over well with a sophisticated audience.
            Today, we pride ourselves on being modern. We have eliminated the word fate, but we have replaced it with modern versions of fate.
            First of course, we are sophisticated, we don’t believe in astrology any more—so we check the Feng Shui in a room. It’s no longer the stars that are so far away—of course they can’t influence us. But the doors facing the wrong point on the compass.? Ah, that’s something else.
            But there is more. There are new things to blame.
            Hakol taluy bagenim--Everything depends on our genes. This is the newest fashion--our behavior is determined by our genetic composition--patient or irritable, quick or slow, honest or dishonest, it is all a matter of genetic makeup. It's not my fault. I was born that way.
             Then, we have the excuse of hakol taluy bakalkalah-- everything is in the hands of socio- economics. It is not my fault.
            I was born into the wrong ethnic group—I was born black, I was born white, I was born brown—or the economic grouping—I was born in the 99%, or the newest one, I was born in the 1% and so never learned life. I was born a man- I was born a woman
            We say, Hakol taluy ba psychologiah-- everything depends on psychology, on environment and upbringing.
            The newest thing today is to blame your family. My family was dysfunctional, it s not my fault. My mother didn't understand me as an infant, my father made me dependent, they both gave me the wrong genes. All that we are, all that we have been, we throw off on our past, on everything around us--just not on ourselves.
            What is the Jewish answer?
            At this season, we have the famous prayer unetaneh tokef
-- It too begins with that theme, a sad one, that we await our fate passively--mi yihyeh umi uyamut. It is very painful and poignant, Life, death, health, illness, wealth, poverty--all of these are none of our doing. It is biydey shamayim-up to heaven.
            Then we drop to the conclusion: utshuvah utefilah utsedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah
            “Repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness avert the evil decree. “
            We can't change the laws of physics or medicine, but we can change the world around us, we can change ourselves, we can make our choices. Whatever may happen,  come what may, we can change its impact, it import, its lasting effects on us.
            Ultimately, our Rabbis narrowed down the list of what is predetermined: Hakol –everything-- taluy bashamayim,- hutz me yirat shamayim--everything, in deed may be determined outside of us, but one thing, the most crucial,--only we determine--yirat shamayim--our moral and ethical, as well as spiritual values, that which ultimately define us a human beings, upon which we shape our actions- only we can control that.
            On this one fundamental question of human existence—God the Almighty- is powerless.
            Do you remember having to study Shakespeare in high school. If there was one sentence in all of Shakespeare  that was worth learning, it was this one line, in which conspirators look at Caesar and then one of them states: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars , but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.  That’s it—don’t blame the other—take a look at yourself. That is what Shakespeare meant.
            Around the time that the real Brutus was plotting against the real Caesar,  the Rabbis declared "Ain leyisrael mazal". Translated literally, it would seem, The Jewish people don’t have “ mazal”. What? Did they mean we don’t have any luck?
            No, it meant that the Jewish people don’t have a constellation controlling them. The Jewish people do not depend on the stars. It’s just between us—and God. We are either righteous—or not, and the fault, dear Baruch, is not in our “mazel”, but in
            Is that so bad!? Is it blame? Is it overwhelming guilt thrown on us? Or is it a new chance—Is it a new opening—A U-turn in life.
            In that, we are the freest of the free--that choice is ours, and ours alone to make. Not our astrological signs, not our genes, nor our social class, nor our childhood can force us to make our ultimate choices. In that we find our freedom.
            I want to turn to one other aspect of this season, in our High Holy Day liturgy, one which is at the center of our purpose of being, as Jews.
            Both one Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recite the Alenu prayer in the middle of the Amidah..
            The aleynu tells us why we are here, why there is to be a Jewish people. It is the original La Marseille or Star Spangled Banner of the Jewish people..
            Are we to be a people of bagels and lox, a  nation of check writers, and purveyors of Jewish humor?
            The opening of alenu tells us something quite different.
            It tells us Aleynu leshabeach l’adon hakol- We are here to give praise to the lord of all that exists, creator of the universe.
            Why is that so?
            Because we have been given a task that sets us apart from the hoi polloi--from the nations of the earth- she lo asanu kegoyei haaratzot-- He has not made us like the nations of the earth-- not like the ancient Roman imperialists, nor the crazed mobs of the middle ages, nor murdering Nazis.
            In what way are we different?
            Va ananchnu korim umishtahavim u modim lifnei melech malchei hamelachim hakadosh baruch hu. –
            we bend the knee, bow down, and acknowledge the king of kings, the holy one , blessed be he--
            As Jews we are to recognize the reign of God in the Universe. This is a critical issue. It is from this point that we derive our concept of the worth of the world around us, of the value of humanity, of ethical and moral behavior.
            It is at this Alenu , that we do something we do at no other festival or Shabbat worship. A great teacher of Jewish wisdom, Franz Rosenzweig,  noted that  this distinguishes this High Holy Day period from all other festivals. We Jews refused to bow down to all the emperors and rulers in history, and we do not even bow fully before God on other days of the year, or at any crisis during the year—yes, we are a stubborn and stiff-necked people. But we do it at this season. We, or at least the Cantor and Rabbi on our behalf, kneel, not to confess faults, or ask forgiveness of sin, which we might expect during the Ten Days of Repentance, but rather to acknowledge the immanence and transcendence of God, to recognize, to feel, to sense that which is greater than us, beyond our ken, yet also present to us.
            It is in this sense of the awe of the presence of God that endows us with the sense of eternal value, that we are part of something infinitely greater than our 24/7 lives. It is that which gives us our freedom and the ability to move beyond the stars, beyond the           “mazal.”
            May we feel that inner freedom to overcome the burden of events that we feel weigh on us so that this Yom , this Day, truly becomes on of “ Kippur”, of atonement, of “ at-one-ment”,  of cleansing, and of new ness.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Finding Peace- Shalom with God :Rebbe Nachman's Treasure

Finding Peace- Shalom with God :Rebbe Nachman's Treasure

RH 2nd Day 2014

             All of us dream, and we all hope to have good dreams. You know, an old Jewish nostrum was to pray, during the priests benediction, " May you turn my dreams of myself and of all Israel for God, and guard me, be gracious unto me and accept me".

            I remember once seeing a charming children's book, handsomely illustrated, depicting a Jewish legend, of a man who has a dream. So, I will share with you this story of a dream that is attributed to the Hasidic master story teller, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav. Rebbe Nachman was always on of my favorites, because we share the same Hebrew name, Nachman. He has become something of a meditation mantra in Israel today, as his followers have plastered on their homes and auto bumpers--Na, Nah, Nachm,Nachman me uman- It's a mantra, as sure as any from India, and I enjoy seeing my name plastered all over the country.
            But Rebbe Nachman was a great storyteller, and this story is about a dream. May we all have such good dreams:
Once a man dreamed that there was a great treasure under a bridge in Vienna. So he traveled to Vienna and stood near the bridge, wondering what to do. He did not dare search for the treasure by day, because of the many people who were there.
 An officer passed by and asked, "What are you doing, standing here and contemplating?" The man decided that it would be best to tell the whole story and ask for help, hoping that the officer would share the treasure with him. He told the officer the entire story.
 The officer replied, "A Jew is concerned only with dreams! I also had a dream, and I also saw a treasure. It was in a small house, under the cellar."
 In relating his dream, the officer accurately described the man's city and house. He rushed home, dug under his cellar and found the treasure. He said, "Now I know that I had the treasure all along. But in order to find it, I first had to travel to Vienna."
 The same is true in serving G-d. Each person has the treasure, but in order to find it, he first must travel to the Tzaddik.
            Surely ,we recognize in it a typical children's tale. We all want to win the California state lottery, and the tale is a simple fulfillment of a child's wish.
                        Rebbe Nachman preached  to his followers on a very personal level. He hoped to raise the spirits of his followers and imbue them with hope.  In his own interpretation, he adds at the end, that the treasure is the path to God, but that he, the Zaddik, the righteous one, serves as Vienna, the banner that shows the way to the real treasure.  You must find the teacher of truth in order to be directed back to yourself, wherein there is personal spiritual treasure.
            But you know that a story is never what it seems. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav never meant it to mean as it seems. There is always, in his tales, another level, and yet another level. This story, too, can be read, with some license from the Rebbe, on many other planes.
            Thus, his tale can be read on the humanistic plane, the plane of self-realization, or self-actualization. This is a very California type story.
            Each of us is within our little village--our lives, our experiences, but we tend to ignore that. We dream of some treasure, some goal, some grandeur and glory but we doubt ourselves and seek it always elsewhere in something glamorous, fashionable or prestigious--that is Vienna. Our search, however, if it is a true search, will take us away form the glitz and tinsel, back to ourselves, because we discover that each and everyone of us has inside, a storehouse, a treasure. However, without that search, without reaching out of our small village, our limited experience, we would never have found it.
            That is, as a tale, a metaphor for the idea of Teshuva-the return- the idea of this season. We leave our ideals and our virtues behind at the village gate, go to the world at large, become crass, trample on the sensitivity of others, take advantage, climb the social ladder or the corporate ladder at all cost. If we get to the top , if that is all that we have in our lives, of being at the top, then it becomes empty, a vanity. If we don't get to the top, it is emptiness plus. But that journey, into the struggles of daily life, teach us to make our way back to what we had within us to begin with, our pure soul.
            That is Teshuva, the return to the little village.
            The Bratzlaver also lived at the beginning of the age of enlightenment--It was the age of the abandonment of Judaism by Jews, as increasingly, the Jewish elite were being drawn away from their traditions and teachings and to the glories of Western civilization. The Jew is  insecure and unsure of himself, in his little insular shtetl, he feels poor, he is looking for the treasure--not money, but the trappings of the great civilization of Vienna-- the palaces, the power of Empire, the University, the opera of Mozart, philosophical enlightenment, and in a later day, nationalism, socialism or communism. However, when he knocks on the gates of Vienna, in all its glory, all the signs will point him back to his roots, to his little village. Without looking beyond the shtetl, however, our Jew would not have been able to see what a treasure he had.
            It was a story reenacted many times over.  Moses Hess was one of the fathers of socialism, the man who encouraged Karl Marx and him  together with Friedreich Engels to found the Communist movement; Hess soon discovered that the glories of the revolution aside, his one true place was with his people, and he became the first of the modern visionaries of Zionism, before well before Herzl.  Herzl ,too, was the most glamorous of Viennese journalists, and went the same route, to become the greatest mover of the Jewish people of the past century. That , too, may have been the Rebbe's tale.
            However, we are now in the twentieth-first-century, we are past the great revolutions and ideologies. 
            Science, socialism, communism, nationalism no longer ring anyone's bells. Nothing, no compelling vision is our there for our day.
             We need a different reading. Perhaps this reading is the one that Rebbe Nachman intended for us, our spiritual reading, a spiritual treasure hunt.
            This is the reading:
            The small town, our Judaism, as we know it, is poor, and modest. Vienna is Catholic Europe--the great Cathedral, the conquering religion. Vienna, in our day, is Jews for Jesus, or Bu-Jew, or Hare Krishna, or Scientology, or every guru and New Age avatar.
             The Rebbe sought to tell us--the spiritual treasure which we seek is really buried in our Judaism.  It is the search outside our spiritual house that enables us to see that we have our treasure buried in our own backyard.
            Anyone who looks across this country detects a sense of great malaise, a lose of the sense of ideals and civic virtue. Perhaps, our previous generations were not truly idealistic and virtuous, but what little there may have been, we, today sense, that even that is vanished. On the right, we speak of values, and on the left, the politics of meaning.
            There was an essay in the Los Angeles Times some time ago by one Ralph Georgy, an Egyptian Coptic Christian, a budding philosopher who taught my own children general history right here in the former  Herzl High School .
            You have to know that Coptic Christians are very ancient , the oldest of the established Christian communities. They also are a community that was threatened in Egypt under the previous regime but now protected by President Sisi.
            What is missing in our public and private life, he asked ?
            God, for the common person , is now Dead. God was dead for the intellectual--he is now dead for the common person. He writes
            " God , with all his theoretical complications, gave us morality, decency , and hope. He gave us something to hold on to. We used to find shelter and meaning in God. Today, we find shelter and meaning in physical sensation; we escape our lives through television, the movies, music, sex and drugs. We seem to need more and different sensations to feel anything at all."
            The buried treasure, of Rebbe Nachman's dream, is truly buried, then, if we have lost our vision of the sacred.
             For those of us , as Jews, who still dream dreams, all the paths must bring us back to our path.
            A Catholic priest once consulted me about a design that he wished to incorporate into his religious garments, something to include the Jewish foundations of his faith. He had told me of a Jew he knew who desired to become a Catholic.
            Go  back to Judaism, he told him--this is the root from which all faith is derived.
            One of the great Jewish luminaries of this century, Franz Rosenzweig, went through just such a path of return. He was about to go to baptism, when he decided, for once, to attend a synagogue, on Yom Kippur. In that one visit, he turned his life around. Suddenly he realized that in his Judaism was the answer to his life's search.
            A Roger Kamenetz had gone to the Buddhist Dalai Lama for enlightenment only to be asked by the Dalai Lama for the Jewish secret of spiritual survival in exile. The Jew had to go to the great Buddhist leader to be turned around back to his Jewish foundations.
            We Jews go to the Himalayas only to return to Jerusalem.
            What is it that we return to in Judaism? What is the hidden treasure of the tale of Rebbe Nachman?. What was it that Franz Rosenzweig found in the small shule in Berlin?      What is unique to Judaism?
            After all, the search for God and truth is found in all religions. Yet all religions are not Judaism, and all religions are not alike. There are religions which denigrate the body and our souls attachments to this world. There are religions which deny the reality and validity of our existence. There are religions for which there is no foundation for morality, other than the whim of the gods.
            Judaism unites body and soul; our selves, our very beings, our every day life can be elevated to the highest levels. Judaism unites the individual and the community; I don't seek salvation alone, but as part of a community. Judaism binds the moral and the ethical as one with the spiritual; every man and woman is in the image of God. Judaism recognizes the value of community, of the fellowship of Israel, together with the common origin of all humanity.
            We look back to the story, and we ask ourselves, " We are so far gone, so far removed from our heritage, can we ever find our way back. We are so mired in our troubles, our worries, our failures in work or in love or in fellowship, can we ever get out of it. Can we ever return to the little village, to that mythical shtetl where the treasure is buried? "
            That is our purpose in being here at this High Holy Day season. Rosh Hashanah doesn't make us saints, but it keeps open the doors of life for us.
         Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev taught that atonement, our sense of Shalom, of shlemut, of peace, completion, reconciliation, is possible, for at this season the Jew becomes aware in his soul that " You are the sons of God"-- He is your father in heaven.-" Whether before you sin, or even after you sin,"  A Jew must believe with full faith that even after he has ruined  and sinned all year, God is still his father and will cleanse him."
            The treasure is there, in our hearts, in our heritage and culture, in our faith. We need but to return in earnest search to find it.