Monday, December 23, 2013

Renounce and Rejoice

by Greg Marzullo

As Moses is standing before God for the first time, the Divine is trying to convince our all-too-mortal hero to take on the mantle of leader. 

In one of Moses' backpedaling moments, he says, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."

God respons, "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?"

This reminds me of the Isha Upanishad, a beautiful text coming out of India. The Upanishads are a series of works that, as translator Eknath Easwaran describes them, are like snapshots from the edges of expanded consciousness. We can think of the Upanishads as postcard someone sends to the people back home - it whets the homebody's appetite with the promise of exotic locales and glorious experiences. The person sending the postcard from Upanishad-land, however, is sending it from heightened states of awareness to someone just beginning on the spiritual path.

In the Isha Upanishad, the opening lines are: 

"The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all. The Lord is the supreme Reality. Rejoice in him through renunciation. Covet nothing. All belongs to the Lord." (Translated by Eknath Easwaran)

It's almost too easy to make the obvious interpretation that all things belong to God. We don't actually own anything in our lives; we're all just one or two paychecks from being bereft of any financial support. However, "All belongs to the Lord" can also mean all attributes, all actions we take, all experiences we set in motion.

Feel like you're a fantastic student? Renounce and rejoice!

Proud of that great case you just won? Renounce and rejoice!

Finally got the role you've wanted in that play? Renounce and rejoice!

Nothing belongs to you. You're free of all fetters surrounding ownership, and so is Moses. He has nothing to worry about. So what if he's not the best talker around? God points out that it's not Moses' own words that will have the desired effect - it's the voice of God that will pour out of him. In a similar moment of what God later says to Job, Adonai reminds Moses that nothing he does originates from himself. It all comes from and returns to Ha-Shem.

As long as Moses tries to take the wheel from God, he will feel ill-equipped because he is. His strength lies in his ability to let Ha-Shem roll through him. In fact, it's much later when Moses, in blind anger, disobeys God's command and strikes the rock for water instead of talking to it that God bars his entry into the holy land. 

Renounce and rejoice. Nothing belongs to you. No thing, no person and no ability. You're not in the driver's seat, which means you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Raising the Dead

12 Tevet, 5774
December 15th, 2013

When teaching, my greatest moment of trepidation comes when I say, "the famous commentator XXXX from the 16th century says,"

To which I hear, as if it were said aloud, everyone else thinking, "who the hell is that guy?"

To most people, the names that we rabbis rattle off, "Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra," -- these names are flat; they just refer to some guy; those guys could not possibly have understood contemporary life, my life; those guys are not relevant to me.

Let me respond simply: yes, they are; they are quite relevant; don't hold their being dead for a few centuries against them. 

There was a time before they were dry and dusty bones. They had blood in their veins, and flesh on their bodies. They lived; they loved; they got annoyed with their partners and children and held grudges; they weren't always sure what they should do; they believed with conviction; they hated with a passion; they were kind and compassionate. They were real.

And more than that -- these people were possessed of a genius that they toiled their entire lives to develop. Just as the great stars of humanity in our time, they burned brightly too. They were human, just as we are, and they understood what it was to be alive in the greatness of their wisdom. 

God led the prophet Ezekiel into a valley filled with dry bones, and said to be, "human being, can you revive these bones?" Ezekiel cynically responds "You know [the answer to that question]. God says to him, "prophesy over those bones," and, as Ezekiel does, the bones join themselves together, and ligaments and flesh bind them. God says, "Prophesy to their spirits"; as Ezekiel does, those bodies came back to life. (Ezekiel 37)

Be like Ezekiel: do not let the dead stay dead, nor their wisdom buried. When you hear that unknown name, which means nothing to you, build a human being behind it, and then listen again. When you resurrect them, you may be surprised at how clearly they speak to you.

* Start your journey with the story of Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitchaki of Troyes, France - hands down the most important commentator on the Torah and the Talmud. Read more here.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Some Views From Our Pews

Last night we hosted Generation Why? Engaging Millennials in the New Jewish America, a conversation about the challenges and opportunities posed by the Pew Research Center’s recent Portrait of Jewish Americansstudy, and specifically what the survey findings say about millennial Jews and identity.

In conjunction with the event, the Pew Research Center shared with us some of the survey questions it used and allowed Sixth & I to conduct its own survey* with those questions and some of our own.

Over 1,000 people took the survey. We revealed the results last night, offering an informal picture of what Jewish identity means within our local community, and you can now see the results here.

*Note: This is not an official Pew Research Center survey and the results we gather will not be scientific.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The One Where I Don't Belong at the White House

Parshat VaYehi
7 Tevet, 5774
December 9th, 2013

One of the coolest things to happen to a Jewish professional is to get invited to the White House Hannukah party. That invitation carries with it the recognition that one's work has been seen and heard far beyond one's local sphere of influence, beyond the Jewish community, into the national arena.

Which is why I can say to you, here and now: I wasn't invited to the White House Hannukah party last Wednesday. 

Oh, I went to the party, but as my wonderful boss Esther's plus 1. In fact, I was the stand-in for her 8 year-old granddaughter Sadie. Sadie had decided that the event wasn't to her taste.

Thank you, Sadie. It was magical. I enjoyed every second of it. You might have liked the full-sized, papier-mâché dolls of Bo and Sunny Obama, complete with tails wagging. I did.

So I found myself at an unusual vantage point, enjoying the fruits of recognition that were not mine, in this case. Then I posted the evidence on Facebook.

I think it's worth talking about the kind of envy that can arise in the age of Facebook. For many of us, the currency of our lives is not, well, currency – it is recognition. Especially if we work in any kind of public sphere, our relative remuneration is rarely a matter of money - it is the regard of others.

Thus every invitation begets a pool of non-invitees suffering silently, for they were not recognized. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit just how many times we have been those people, sitting greenly at home.

What I've noticed is that envy does not disappear with recognition, for there is always someone “more” than you - someone richer, more famous, more Facebook friends, more friends, more in love. It doesn't matter how many times a person is seen, that old emotion still stands ready. Fame is not the cure for envy.

The Torah says about Moshe that he was, "the most humble man on the face of the earth." (Numbers 12:3) Considering that he was the greatest leader ever to grace the Jewish people, I don't think the Torah means that he was really quiet and unassuming; I think it means that he learned to master his envy. In fact there's a scene in the Torah where, through a kind of mishap, two men receive the spirit of God within the actual Israelite camp, and run through it, prophesying as they go. Joshua tries to get Moses to stop them, presumably worried for his teacher's authority. And Moses responds, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all HaShem's people were prophets, and that HaShem would put God's spirit in them." (Numbers 11:29) 

I can only imagine the kind, wry smile that accompanied those beautiful words.

As the content of our lives is so easily shared, I don't think the difficulties of our envy will go away. Instead, let's learn to find joy in the warmth of real humility, as our teacher Moshe did. The trick, it seems, is to invest as heavily as we are able in happiness for our colleagues and friends who were recognized even as we recount the ways in which we too are filled with the holy fire. The way to overcome envy is to choose happiness, for others and ourselves at the same time. That joy can yank us from darker places, and at the very least remove jealousy’s sting. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


6th Day of Hannukah
30 Kislev, 5774
December 3rd, 2013

Every year, with my students, I try to explain our Rabbis’ obsession with light.
It’s one of the physical phenomena on which they spend most of their time. The Torah is interested in earth and sea, tree and stone, thunder and lightning. But for Hazal*, it is voice, water…and light.

What makes this physical attribute such a place of metaphysical concern? It is that light possesses a peculiar property: its effect extends far beyond itself. Even a small flame banishes quite a bit of darkness. Light transcends the meager matter that created it. Every flame illuminates, not itself, but the world around it.

Proverbs teaches, “God’s candle is the human soul,”(20:27), and our Rabbis believed it. To them, there is for every person the possibility of becoming incandescent. The way we live, the way we are – in certain moments we are set ablaze, and those around us bask in the warmth of the light that we shine.

I believe it too. We live for more than just ourselves. When we are enlightened, the world is brightened. Bring light to those you love, to those with whom you spend your life. Never doubt that you have the capacity. Your soul is God’s candle.

Hag Urim Sameah - May your Holiday of Light be filled with joy.

*An acronym meaning, “The Sages, may their memory be blessed.” In Hebrew, “Hakhamim, Zikhronam Livrakhah” – HaZaL
Both the morning and the evening service begin with a long paean to light. For you Shabbes morning shul-goers, check out the El Adon – a Hebrew acrostic found after the Barkhu.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Closed Scroll

Parshat VaYeshev
19 Kislev, 5774
November 22nd, 2013

On the doorposts of Jewish homes, at eye level, is a small rectangular container. The box’s construction is a matter of taste; what’s inside is not. Every mezuzah that has or will be written says the same thing.*

The mezuzah is a paradox. Its irony is that its purpose is to remind us of the words of Torah. But each mezuzah holds those words on its inside, locked away from our view. When we look at the mezuzah, we cannot see the words we are told to remember.

I think that for many people this opacity is frustrating metaphor for their experience with Judaism. Why doesn’t the Torah just make meaning accessible? Why can’t we easily get at real wisdom? Why is the mezuzah closed to us?

In the mezuzah, I see a wry realization. Even if the words were to be made plain to me, I wouldn’t understand them. “Listen, Israel, HaShem is our God, God is One,” “And you will love HaShem your God, will all your heart, with your life, and with all that you own” – these aren’t just verses, they are a travelogue. They gain their meaning through the context of the journey taken to understand them.

Because wisdom is simple does not mean that it is accessible; there are no shortcuts on the road to that which is wise. But in the moments when we get there, we don’t see a sealed box. Instead we smile, because we look inside and know that we’ve fulfilled the Ve’Ahavta’s most important mitzvah, “and these words that I command you this day will be on your heart.”

* the words of the Shma (Listen Israel), the Ve’Ahavta (And You Will Love), and the VeHaya Im Shamoa (If You Listen – the lesser known text that talks about consequences for actions). In these holy words lies the command for the mezuzah itself. “You shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and your gates.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Shabbat Dinah - Ending Violence Against Women

Parshat VaYishlah
12 Kislev, 5774
Novemebr 15th, 5774

Ovid, the brilliant, absolutely filthy Roman poet, once wrote, "Let others praise ancient times; I'm glad I was born in these." More often than not, I find myself agreeing with him. 

My colleague, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, and a number of others call this Shabbat, "Shabbos Dinah" because this week we read the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, and her rape. 

Jacob and his family settled near the town of Shechem, and the eponymous prince of that town saw Dinah and took a fancy to her. So he decided just to take her. Most of the sources teach that the sex was not consensual.

Afterwards, he negotiated with her father to marry her (it was pretty common back then for the victim to be forced to marry her rapist). Jacob's sons Shimon and Levi deceived Shechem and all the male inhabitants of his city to circumcise themselves in order to be worthy of Dina. While recovering, Shimon and Levi swept in and killed them all in revenge for their sister's dishonor.

Violence, especially sexual violence, against women remains one of our world's great sins.The justification of that violence is also on the list of our travesties. Shmuly writes eloquently on the topic and upon the relevant Torah. 

For my part, I am quite grateful that my cultural niche teaches against violence against women in the strongest terms. It certainly wasn't always that way. No less a tzaddik (righteous man) than Maimonides taught in the early medieval period that smacking one's wife around was an acceptable form of discipline.* Let others praise times past; I prefer my own.

There is, however, no cause for self congratulation. We effete liberals aren't spared from the vicissitudes of psychology and biology. Even when we don't justify human darkness, it still seeks dark corners in which to live. Especially as a biological male, I easily feel the connection between anger and violence. I once explained to an awestruck friend of a different sex (and gender) that occasionally wanting to mess someone up for no good reason is part of what it means to be an adolescent male. I'm sure there are exceptions, but most cis-gendered guys know what I mean. It is incredibly rare that our projections of violence upon another person come from a worthwhile place.

So for us, or for anyone who has ever felt the lure of violence, there is another story from the parsha. And that is the story of Jacob. Jacob who was worried both that his estranged brother Esav kill him, or that he kill Esav.** Jacob, who wrestled all night with the angels until he found himself and met his brother in peace. And from him we learn that honor is not found in violence towards others; honor is found in the fight within oneself. Jacob's message is one worth spreading.

*Rambam, Hilkhot Isshut
** Rashi ad loc.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

True Grit

Parshat VaYishlach

By Greg Marzullo

Jacob's wrestle with the strange man in this week's portion of Genesis reminds me of a story told by my guru Amma Amritanandamayi. As recounted in the book Lead Us to the Light, she says:

"A person was very thirsty, but no water was available. Someone told her, 'Dig here and you will soon find water.' So she dug in that place for a little while, but didn't find any water. She started digging at another spot but didn't find any water there either. She moved to yet another spot and dug again, but there was no water. Thus she kept digging in many different places but to no avail. She finally collapsed from exhaustion.

A passerby saw her lying there and asked what had happened. She replied, 'I am exhausted from digging everywhere for water. Now I am suffering more than before, because, at first, I was only thirsty, but now I have wasted all my strength digging and am also exhausted.'

The passerby said, 'If you had only had a little patience and had continued digging deeper in just one spot, you would have found more than enough water right at the beginning. Instead, you dug a little in many different places and all you got was disappointment!'"

It's through dedication to our spiritual devotion that we actually receive the blessings of God. All too often we give up quickly, because we erroneously believe that the spiritual life should be something simple, like purchasing a cabbage at the grocery store.

In this week's portion, the spiritual seeker Jacob stays in the fray, constantly battling with this strong man, until finally the stranger has to injure the patriarch's hip joint, dislocating the leg from the socket, in order to gain the upper hand. Still Jacob hangs in there, saying he will not let go of the stranger until he blesses him, and from this tenacious demand, Jacob receives his new title, thereby washing away the stain of his given name (the follower/the supplanter) and attaining the new moniker of "Israel."

Our relationship with God is not an easy one. Our will is in constant rebellion against that of Adonai, and yet, if we can train our will to hang on to God instead of fighting Him, transformation will occur.

I had a friend in college with whom I shared Erev Shabbat every weekend. I was 20 at the time, and she was well into her later 40s. I remember one night she said to me, "When we ask Ha-Shem to remake us, He doesn't just sit us down and give us a mani-pedi. He tears out an eye, rends us limb from limb and totally changes us."

The process of transformation isn't won without casualties, but as the great Hindu avatar and god Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, "By sustained effort, one comes to the end of sorrow" (18:36, trans. Eknath Easwaran).

The only real sorrow, of course, is the false notion that we're not united with God at all times. All we have to do is realize that we're constantly in Adonai's grip, especially when He is in ours. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

Jacob and the Fast Hand of Karma

by Greg Marzullo

This week's Torah portion contains so many iconic moments of Judaism and the people' story, yet there are endless subtleties that connect beautifully with yogic thought.

Perhaps what intrigues me most is not just what happens during this particular segment, but what came immediately before it - what led Jacob to these moments. The young man has just deceived his blind father Isaac, taking his elder brother Esau's blessings, and running away at his mother Rebekah's insistence.

Shortly thereafter, Jacob has his famous dream of angels descending up and down a grand staircase connecting the transcendent realms with our more earthly one, and Adonai blesses him with His protection, land and countless descendants.

Jacob then ends up going to his cousin Laban's place, falling in love with Rachel and after working for seven years, he gets, as a reward, the elder daughter Leah. Eventually, Jacob is united with his intended, but he works another seven years for her hand.

When Jacob confronts Laban about the "mixup," Laban replies, "It is not done so in our place, to put the younger before the elder."

In yoga, we would call this the fast hand of karma. Jacob basically gets called out for the similar deception he wrought on his older brother and father. Karma is almost mathematical in its efficiency, and everyone, regardless of their station, is affected by it. Even the gods of India are at the mercy of this balancing system, whereby every action, good or bad, puts a stamp on a person's record. That stamp gets cashed in for currency of some kind - in simplistic terms, good begets good and bad begets bad. 

However, that's not just a simple record of rewards and punishments. In fact, we create our own karma with every action, word and even thought (since thought patterns eventually manifest as actions). A person can be blessed beyond measure and still have to pay out a karmic debt to balance his or her rap sheet. (We've all pondered, "Why do bad things happen to good people?") Then there's the opposite when we see cruel people gaining wealth and fame, as if those things were rewards at all.

In this Torah portion, God blesses Jacob, despite the trickery he played on his father, and yet, Jacob doesn't get off Scott-free. He still has to pay up when the time comes, tricked by Laban in a case of mistaken identity, just as he tricked his own father. 

What does this mean? God rewards those who act dishonestly? No. It means that humans are complex, and our relationship with God is equally complex. God doesn't pull us up short and strip us of everything when we commit one transgression. The blessings of Adonai are always upon us, no matter how far we go into misdeeds, but that also doesn't mean that we don't get what we pay for.

If you plunk down money at the racetrack on the horse that's a legendary loser, why should we be surprised when you lose your shirts after the race comes to its predictable end? That doesn't mean God smote us and caused our downfall. We caused our own downfall by betting on the wrong horse.

Karma is not a punishment. It's a payment system. Now the real question becomes, when do you stop going to the racetrack altogether? When do we finally get away from the back-and-forth of "midah k'neged midah" (measure for measure)? 

Only when we realize, as Job does later, that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Then, we can be released from our karmic patterns and lean deep into the embrace of the divine. 

*Rabbi Scott's note: Karma, as a spiritual belief, has a Jewish countpart: we call it midah k'neged midah - measure for measure. One can see midah k'neged midah playing itself out all over the bible, especially in the stories of the forefathers and foremothers, and in the story of the Exodus. Our Rabbis talk about it all the time in Torah commentary.

High on Life

Parshat VaYetze
5 Kislev, 5774
November 8th, 2013

Last year Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, which makes it the second state to acknowledge that yes, college students are high all the time, and no, none of them actually have glaucoma. 

Among the unexpected codicils of legalized marijuana is the question of what to do with drug-sniffing dogs. They've all been trained to detect marijuana, and apparently will bark themselves into doggie hypertension now that they can get a whiff while simply trotting down the street. They all have to be retrained, which recapitulates the age-old question: can you teach an old dog new tricks?

The stoners all thought that last paragraph was hysterical.

Anyways, I worry about "retraining." It isn't the dogs or the weed; it is the question: were I to have to change my life, right here, right now, could I do it? How settled am I? Can I change? Can I be retrained?

We get settled, most of us, sometime in our 20's and 30's. We get used to this - whatever "this" is- being the lifestyle to which we are accustomed. Our possibilities become a lot less plastic than they had been. 

There are incredible spiritual benefits to loving one's lot in life; however, none of us can presume that tomorrow will be the same as today. All of us will experience, probably more than once, that life-changing curveball thrown by the Big Pitcher upstairs. 

When life changes, we should follow the example of our father Jacob, whose life turned on a dime. He grabbed his older brother's birthright, and then fled into the wilderness lest his brother, Esav, kill him. And there, not even possessed of a pillow upon which to lay his head, he had a visionary dream revealing the spiritual truths of the universe, along with promise that God will always be with him. When he woke up, he said, "God was surely in this place, and I did not know it."

We encounter God beyond the assumption that life is static: the blessings we receive daily are not assured - let's not take them for granted; the curses we bear are not necessarily the life-sentences we imagine them to be - they are always subject to change. When we get up in the morning and acknowledge today's good, regardless of what happened yesterday, we will find ourselves changing to meet our changing lives. And we will find God in places where we could not see God before.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Seeing Others


Parshat Toldot
28 Heshvan, 5774
November 1, 2013

Of the Jews who left Germany to find a safe haven in Israel, a noticeable minority never really transitioned from one culture to the other. As much as they had made aliyah to Israel, they were still, it seemed, in exile from Germany. The German Jews, nicknamed “yekkes,” (Yiddish for “jackets”) would sit in the cafes of Sderot Rotschild in Tel Aviv, sweltering under the Mediterranean sun in their formal European dress, refusing to relinquish their hold on what was, to them, the height of sophistication. And finally, having visited Berlin for the first time last week, I can understand why they were so reluctant to leave it behind.

Berlin is a shining city. It is effortlessly cultured, and in the same breadth countercultural. It lives both visibly conscious of its history and in embrace of the contemporary edge. It is wonderful. I would move there in a heartbeat.


Except that the governmental and NGO representatives were quite frank with us. About 1 in 5 Germans hold negative attitudes about Jews. One report put about 30% of Germans agreeing that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust.*

It is different being a Jew in Europe. The untrammeled sense of permission, of inhabiting one’s Jewish identity without the expectation that one will be discriminated against, that is a particular gift of North American life, especially big city life. Not all of our brothers and sisters, scattered around the globe, are quite so blessed.

Here’s what it comes down to: growing up, I understood that I was first seen as a person, an individual, and only after was I seen for my differences. It is much less comfortable to first be perceived as the Other, and only after to be known as a human being.

The American story has blessed Jews. Life has worked out quite to our benefit here. But not all Americans share that same story, and as I reflected on the difficulties of being Jewish in parts of Europe, I remembered that there are plenty of people right next to me who are known, mostly by dint of the color of their skin, first for their Otherness and only after for their character.

Hillel once wrote, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.” (Pirkei Avot 2:6). To which I would add, strive to see the human in others, before you see them as Other.

* I very much apologize for not being able to present citations for these statistics. They were presented verbally (and in German, through a translator).

By comparison, in the United States, in 2009, the ADL (takkeh) found that 12% of Americans hold anti-Semitic views. According to the 2007 American Grace survey, Americans reported having warmer feelings towards Jews than any other religious group.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why Does Judaism Matter, Again?


Parshat Lekh Lekha
7 Heshvan, 5774
October 11, 2013

In a debate about liberal education, a man once said to me, “what’s the point of getting a PhD in French Literature? How is that useful?” Then he smirked.

I believe my instinct was to strangle him.

Some of you may identify with this – in that moment, I was incoherent. He and I had such divergent definitions of the word “useful,” that I had no means by which to communicate with him. I so strongly felt the importance of pure study, but had no way of communicating, of arguing that fundamental value to the hater standing before me.

I felt the same way when I read Gabriel Roth’s piece in Slate. The article is Roth’s response to the new Pew Center’s “A Portrait of JewishAmericans.”  Now, it is true that everybody is in the process of losing their damn mind about this study, due to its indication of high rates of assimilation.
However, Roth, in that lovely rhetorical trope that briskly embraces the bracing truth, argues that, for secular Jews, it’s best to accept the end of American Jewish particularism with a smile. “The loss of Jewishness as a meaningful identity in America is the kind of loss that occurs when individuals are free to engage in the pursuit of happiness.” As to the future, he opines, “The fruits of Jewish culture are the gifts of Jews to the world, freely given. Over the next century, American Jewish culture may come to an end—not in tragedy but in triumph.”

And in this article, I see a question similar to the one above, “What’s the point of remaining Jewish? How is that useful?”

There is a famous story in the Talmud about the Hillel and Shammai – famous rabbis and interlocutors around the turn of the Common Era. A non-Jew comes to Shamai and says, “I’ll convert, as long as you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, an engineer, known for his brilliance and precision in Torah, takes the ruler in his hand and smacks the guy with it. The Hebrew is particularly poignant – dahafo – Shamai pushed him away. Same guy then goes to Hillel, and makes the same (somewhat mocking) offer. Hillel says to him, “do not do to other people what is hateful to you – that is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” And the guy converts. (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

Some days I feel a lot like Shamai. Anyone who works with the mind or the heart does: teachers, professors, clergy, social advocates – nothing reduces a passionate person to incoherence like hearing, “why does what you care most about matter, again?” I so wish that I were smart enough, pithy enough, thoughtful enough to respond as Hillel, but only a few are granted that gift.

The best I can do is say that we, the Jews, have been a voice that matters in the world’s conscience – and we have remained relevant by remaining particular, both part of and apart from other communities. We have been the moral and spiritual counterpoint. We are the other voice, and often the voice of the Other. It’d be a poorer world if that voice spoke no more.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Yom Kippur - How to Bring Mashiach Now, By Rabbi Shira Stutman

How to Bring Mashiach Now[1]
- Rabbi Shira Stutman

Quick show of hands. How many of you have traveled to any of the following cities: Kinshasa, Baku (Azerbijan), Phnom Penh, Lagos (Nigeria), Zagreb (Croatia), Aukland, Guayaquil (Ecuador), Tokyo, La Paz? Keep your hands up if, while there, you stopped in at your local Chabad house. Mistake if you didn’t. Thirteen years ago, in Kathmandu for Yom Kippur, my husband and I met the local Chabad rabbi, who had personally shechted over 1,000 chickens in preparation for serving pre- and post-Yom Kippur meals to travelers who found themselves in Kathmandu for the holiday. Chabad emissaries move all around the world to bring Jews back to Judaism, practicing a form of “extreme welcoming” because they believe that with every mitzvah, we are inching closer toward messianic times.

But this sermon is not about Chabad. This sermon is about messiah.

Before I jump in, let me just acknowledge that for Jews, talking about Messiah can feel awkward or even downright heretical. The concept of “Messiah”, like angels, immersing in a body of water to commit yourself to your religion, or even God’s love, may read as Christian. For the sake of time, you’ll have to trust me here: the concept of Messiah is very Jewish. We had it first. We just believe that he hasn’t come yet. Instead, ancient rabbis argue that one day, a figure will “redeem” humanity and bring in the “messianic age”. In these texts, the Messiah, is sometimes a military or political figure, other times a despised, impoverished person already on earth, just waiting for Jewish kindness or teshuva, repentance. Some texts report that in the lead-up to the Messiah’s arrival, the world will be in chaos, while others say he won’t come until the world is at peace. I must admit that some texts read a little bit uncomfortable to the contemporary sensibility. I’m okay with that. Judaism is vast and ancient, and we sometimes have to choose teachings that are meaningful while disposing of those that reflect a world-view that no longer makes sense.

If you find yourself unable to believe that one day a personal Messiah will somehow arrive, you are not freed from the conversation. Say not “Messiah” but “Messianic times,” which is what the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do. It’s an idea, a state of being, a future time of peace and justice toward which we are striving. Otherwise, you risk missing the forest for the trees. And our forests are these incredible, ancient teachings about the wonder of the messianic era, a time when the great yeshivas will flourish with study, warfare will be abolished, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and so on.

One of the most well-known statements about Messiah teaches that he will come when the whole Jewish community observes two shabbats in a row (Shabbat 118b). Does the following not sound like a true taste of a better time?

One who wants to enter the holiness of [Shabbat] must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of [humans].

This passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel draws a picture of a time without the pressures of materialism and toil. Shabbat is seen as “me’en olam ha’ba”, a taste of the world to come, the Messianic era. But you already know this. Convincing a group of overstressed and over-Tweeted DCers that it’s worth it to observe some sort of Sabbath is not difficult. Actually doing it is the problem. The excuses are too real—the work deadline, the bachelorette party, errands. When I first moved to DC, my phone was off on Shabbat. Then I kept it turned on, “just in case”. (Just in case what I don’t know.) Then I started texting, but only with kids’ friends’ parents about upcoming play-dates or carpools. Then I started texting with everyone. And I’m a rabbi. To keep a Shabbat—even in your own way—is incredibly difficult in a world that doesn’t understand it, and especially doesn’t understand it for the non-Orthodox. We feint at change but go quickly back to the easy way. But today I’m saying that I’m going to bring the Messanic age one step closer by turning off the texts. The Jewish tradition only requires two witnesses for a business deal to be sealed. I have 700.

The most beautiful thing about Shabbat, though, is that it’s not all about me. In an interview, writer Judith Shulevitz argues that Shabbat was a first moment in history when “everyone, not just the upper classes…have the right to rest in a regular way one day a week….[I]t was so radically progressive that it even mandated that you had to give your animals the day off….In its time the Sabbath was an enormously radical idea…..” When we have a Sabbath moment (not the full 25-hours, but part of it), when we turn off the phone, or desist from engaging in commerce, or walk instead of driving, or go to services, or going to synagogue but never make it inside for services, or have an at-home meal with friends, or turn off the computer, or pray/meditate/hike, we deepen our spiritual practice; that’s a given. But not only ours; we deepen others, as well, whether the “other” is the family member with whom you’re reconnecting or the oppressed who you now know, because of your personal experience, deserve their own Shabbat, too. Observing Shabbat, purportedly about self-care, thus becomes about community care. We were slaves, we were freed so that we could celebrate Shabbat. This holds true for Jews in ancient times, Jews in contemporary times, and all of humanity. I know that the labor movement likes to take credit for the weekend, but that too was us. Shabbat is a political act. We are owned by no one. Not out boss or clients, not by commerce. And it brings messianic times one step closer.

Although it may feel insurmountable, observing a Sabbath is within our reach. Other ways of bringing Messanic times, like world peace, feel much farther away. Isaiah’s description of a future time in which “the nations...shall beat their swords into plowshares...[and] shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2.4)? Far, far away. But here’s the crazy part: that’s not factually accurate. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker

argued that violence has decreased over multiple scales of time and magnitude, including tribal warfare, homicide, cruel punishments, child abuse, animal cruelty, domestic violence, lynching, pogroms, and international and civil wars. He tried to explain these declines as a change in the interaction between violent impulses (such as dominance, sadism and revenge) and peaceful impulses (such as self-control, empathy and reason) brought on by historical forces such as government, trade and literacy.[2]

Today, argues Pinker and other scholars, we most likely are living in the most peaceful era in the existence of our species. One step closer.

Fortunately or unfortunately, 1,000 years ago there was no 24-hour news cycle to alert us to every massacre or murder the world over, not many people traveling too far from their home village. Now we get information immediately, and it is quite awful. This past summer, traveling in Israel with members of the Jewish Welcome Workshop, we spent a day in the Golan Heights. For much of that day, while discussing politics, white-water rafting, or sitting outside having lunch, we heard the repeated sound of bombs landing in Syria. Even though our guide reminded us that we were “at least 9 kilometers away from the bombing, so totally safe”, the war felt very close. We sat on our picnic benches with our pita and labaneh, imagining civilians injured or killed.

If Syria feels too far, consider that roughly 24,000 people have died from guns in the US since the Newtown shootings in December, 2012.[3] I am on the treadmill at the gym: two of the tv screens show footage of small children, dying from poison gas in Syria. A third shows footage from the funeral of 1-year-old Antiq Hennis, killed in New York last week while being pushed in a stroller by his parents. "Remorseful doesn't even describe what I feel," said suspect Daquan Breland, after he was arrested for the Antiq’s murder. “I love kids, I wanted to be a father. Now there’s no time. I think about my present, my past, my future. I would’ve changed things beginning in elementary school. I would’ve taken a different path.”

The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 98a) that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi found Elijah the prophet sitting, disguised as a beggar, at the gates of Rome. He asked, “When will you come to proclaim the messiah?” Elijah replied, “hayom, today, if you will only hear his voice.” The Jewish tradition does not give us permission to stand down, not in Syria, and not when children and adults die every day on the street or by committing suicide in their homes.

We are indeed closer to the messianic era. The world is more peaceful. But this arc is really long. We may not know whether missile strikes against the Assad regime will bring an end to the violence, but we can know that donating to Syrian refugee relief, with organizations like Oxfam or Doctors without Borders, will make a drop of difference. And I’m not interested in getting into a policy argument over gun control but, people—let’s get up off the couch and act. Do it for baby Antiq and work to get guns off the street. Or do it for Daquan and work to make our elementary schools places where kids thrive, whether they’re in Cleveland Park or in Anacostia. Consider volunteering for Reading Partners, an organization that sends people like you into schools all over the city to spend time reading with kids so they can stay at grade level. When we act on our impulse to bring justice, we are healing not only for the other but also the most basic part of ourselves that knows that the more you give, the more you receive in return.

There are many Jewish texts on Messiah. They come to teach us that we are a small but critical part of the whole. Judaism make no distinction between what is good for the self and what is good for the universe; both are equally important for the individual and for the community; both will bring Messiah. Think of the Chinese yin/yang symbol, “used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.”[4] We cannot lift up the other without lifting up ourselves and vice versa. We think Shabbat is about our own self, but it is also about community. Shabbat is important for our own souls and for the souls of our loved ones, the poor who we don’t know, our animals. We think that peace is about the world community, but it is also about our own selves. Something has shifted in history, and we are closer than ever to the metaphorical lion and the lamb taking up residence together. We can do it.

I want to tell you a story[5] that I’ve told some of you before, about a man named Mendel, went to the Baal Shem Tov and said: “Rebbe, I want to see Elijah the Prophet.” “It’s simple,” the rabbi said. “Fill a box with food. Then before Rosh HaShanah travel to Minsk.  On the outskirts of town is a dilapidated house.  Find that house, and shortly before candle-lighting time at sunset, knock on the door and ask for hospitality.”
So he went and did as the rabbi told him.  He filled the parcels with food and went to Minsk, where he found the broken-down house.  Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry.”  He heard the mother answer, “Children, trust in God. He’ll send Elijah the prophet to bring you everything you need.”
Then the hassid knocked on the door.  When the woman opened it, he asked if he could stay with them for the holiday.  “Don’t worry,” he said, “I have enough food for all of us.”  He came in, opened the box, and they ate.  He was there for two days, waiting to see Elijah the prophet but no one came.
 So he returned to the rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I did not see Elijah the Prophet!”  “Did you do everything I told you?” said the Baal Shem Tov. “I did!”  he said.  “Are you sure?”  “Yes Rebbe!  I didn’t see him!” “Then you’ll have to return for Yom Kippur,” said the rabbi. “Go back before Yom Kippur, with a box of food to the same house.  So he went back to Minsk before Yom Kippur. 
Inside he heard children crying, “Mommy, we’re hungry! We haven’t eaten the whole day!”  “Children!” said the mother. “Do you remember you were crying before Rosh HaShanah and that you had no food?  And I told you, “God will send Elijah the prophet who will bring you what you need!  Didn’t Elijah come and bring you food?  Elijah will come now, too, and bring you food.”  Now the chassid understood.  He was Elijah.  So he knocked on the door.
As we gather together as a community this Yom Kippur, each of us is Elijah, capable of bringing the messianic times one step closer. We can make Messiah Now! our manta, our clarion call, for all of us who believe strongly that you cannot have love without justice, that we have within us all we need to do good, that the world as it is is not the world as it could be. Rabbi Arthur Green teaches that “The actual work of redeeming the world is turned to us in history, and is done by all of us, day by day. Messiah has been waiting in the wings, as it were, since the very beginning of history, ready to come forth when the time is right.” The messiah is coming, one step at a time—with our help.
Gmar tov—may we all be signed and sealed for a sweet and justice-filled new year.

[1] This title is cribbed from The First Jewish Catalog: A Do-it-Yourself Kit, a back-to-the-earth approach to Jewish living.
[5] I first heard this story from my colleague Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann.