Thursday, April 25, 2013

Seeing Is Believing

Parshat Emor
15 Iyyar, 5773
April 24th, 2013
30th Day of the Omer 

A lot of Torah is learning how to see.

I suppose this is true for any area in life requiring depth; doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, artists, judges, professors, analysts, marketers, actors, writers – all learn to see what is before them in light of their concerns: are these symptoms a disease? Is this action legal? What does this child need? Why was that historic event significant? From learning to look well, they gain an added measure of usefulness and worth.

And when their sight is especially clear and exceptionally penetrating, we share their vision with the rest of the world, and record their names in the annals of the great.

Paradoxically, the first step towards clear sight is learning what to ignore. “Do not be led astray after your hearts and your eyes, which you prostitute yourselves by following after them.” (Numbers 15) The verse is obviously true – all of reality television is a testament to its wisdom.

But there is a deeper meaning: when it comes to human beings, sometimes one must look beyond a whole lot of external detritus to see the goodness of the soul underneath.

This ignoring-in-order-to-see is a mitzvah: “See – today I am setting before you blessing and curse.” (Deut. 11:26) “…and choose life, so that you may live.” (Deut 30:19) It is a wise requirement, for there is great pain waiting for those who can only see the shmutz in those around them.

It’s also damn hard. We all present plenty of distractions to the people in our lives – reasons why they should not see the goodness in us. Some days, those distractions are very hard to ignore.

Luckily, in my life, I have my colleague and friend, Rabbi Shira Stutman.* If there were ever a master of the choice to see the good, it would be her.

So choose for yourself a sighted companion, someone who can guide you in the art of seeing well. It is the secret to a blessed life.

*Rabbi Shira is also my supervisor. She was recently voted one of the Forward’s most inspiring rabbis in America. For these gifts and talents, I have taken it upon myself to torture her mercilessly. It’s my special way of showing affection and appreciation.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dr. King's Sword - Responding to Boston


Parshat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim
9 Iyyar, 5773
April 19th, 2013
24th Day of the Omer

The Onion said it best. It always does. “‘Seriously, can we wrap this up already?’ Maryland resident James Alderman told reporters, echoing the thoughts of all 311 million Americans, who have just about reached their weekly goddamned quota for carnage, misery, confusion, heartbreak, and rage. “Because, you know, I’m pretty sure we’ve all had our hearts ripped out of our chests and stomped on enough times for one seven-day period, thank you very much.”

Someone set a bomb off at a marathon. An eight year old and two others died there. Two cops were shot last night.

There were heroes. And there was shame. What bothers me most is how not at all unusual all this seems.

But what reassures me is that it seems that the American people have changed.

We have changed. We are not the same people yanked out of our overripe naïveté 12 years ago when the towers fell.

Not all of that change has been good: we’ve frittered away a decade in pointless wars; we have a strange, dangerous, addiction to assault weapons; our politics are so polarized that one party should just call itself Antarctica and be done with it.

But when the bomb went off, and ordinary people ran towards the blast to help, and runners added 2 miles to their staggering 27, just to reach the nearest hospital and donate blood, we saw who we want to be.

In the Song of Songs it says, “Here is the bed of Solomon, with sixty warriors around it, of the heroes of Israel. All grasped a sword learned in war; every man, his sword strapped to his thigh – out of fear of the nights.” (3:7-8)

We are these verses. We know fear in the night, and we are learned in war. Perhaps the great tragedy is that we live an infinitesimal inkling of what large swaths of the world experience daily.

I am cautious of using war imagery because it makes people feel like it’s ok to go out and shoot someone, or, on a whim, invade a nation. But here is what King said about nonviolence:

“We had to make it clear that nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”

We have reluctantly assimilated the idea that we do not live in times of peace. Peace is not the tenor of our age. We live in a strange age in which the terror of the few is perpetrated upon the wellbeing of the many. Those who set the bombs are not waiting for the right moment to take our hand in friendship. Peace is a fervent dream; it is not reality.

And if that is the case, then we must become – we already have become in some ways – spiritual warriors. It is time to choose an aggressive spirituality, just as the good doctor taught us. 

Among the reasons that Dr. King was a great man was that he knew how to choose his weapon. Every weapon has a recoil: when used, it kicks back at the one who used it; it is immutable Newtonian physics. The weapons we choose inexorably affect us in return. We cannot ignore how weapons that cause death and destruction change the nature of their wielders. This is why terror is insidious: not to respond is irresponsible; however, to respond with violence is to run the risk of furthering our dehumanization.

In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, King writes, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

I am glad that there are trained, armed police officers all over the country whose job it is to protect us. But our societal response cannot be to up and grab a gun. Those guns end up pointed back at us. We want a different kind of weapon. We need King’s sword.

As a society, we are not perfect, and there’s really no cause for our triumphalism. But what we have built in this country is a model for dealing with intractable ideological conflict that does not necessitate beating the other guy with a tire iron, or assuming that the guy with the dark skin is the enemy. America is not a peaceful place; we war over ideas and values constantly and grimly. But we do it in front of the Supreme Court, within inches of each other  (I saw it) – and here’s the good part – no one dies for it. The fact of civil response to ideological war is not all of our reality. But that it exists at all is worth everything.

Rabbi Barry Katz, quoting the psychoanalyst Alan Phillips, teaches that part of adulthood’s maturity is surviving and integrating the destruction of childhood’s fantasy. Our fantasy, that everyone desires peace and goodwill, is destroyed. We live in a world of violence. Unlike 9/11, let’s not go invade somebody. Rather, let us be the warriors who fight for that kind of peace, despite the threat of violence to us, to our families, and to our society. That is our Torah. We are to be the warriors who fight for that kind of peace, despite the threat of violence to us, to our families, and to our society. 

I have said nothing new. A thousand sermons and op/eds tell us to fight back by preserving the good in our way of life. All I have to add is a reminder, and some hizuk (strengthening): warriors keep fighting. They accept the necessity of struggle as a personal responsibility. They fight, even while they fear.

Will Joyner wrote a beautiful review of Wounded I Am More Awake: Finding Meaning after Terror, the story of a Bosnian physician who lived through Bosnian concentration camps, and his subsequent work.* The article ends with the haunting words of the poet Mak Dizdar, from which the book’s title was taken:

They whisper around to me that my life has been in vain / They do not know that so wounded I am more awake.

*Again, I am thankful to Rabbi Katz for directing me to this reference.

Monday, April 8, 2013

How Not To Say Something Dumb


When I was a rabbinical student, our class was visited at school by a number of parents who had suffered the worst loss possible: the loss of a child. They taught us a lot, but there was one message that they felt was imperative to ram home: when you approach someone in crises, or someone who has suffered terrible loss - don't say something stupid. They then gave us a list of things others had said to them:
"Well, at least you have other children."
"Are you sure you did everything you could?"
"Everything happens for a reason."

Please read this unbelievably important LA Times editorial, which gets it right.

Friday, April 5, 2013

America: When People Are Paid to Smile

Parshat Shemini
25 Nisan 5773
April 5th, 2013
10th Day of the Omer


My problem with America is that here, people are paid to smile at each other. 

I just rented a car. The woman at the counter was lovely. She bustled. She beamed. And it was as clear as day that her kindness was part and parcel of the corporate image she was entrusted to project.

Don't get me wrong - the smiling works. Oh, does it work. Her smile lifts up that mundane transaction. I leave with the feeling that, you know, the world is an alright place to be. Maybe Ward and the Beaver are waiting for me at home?

But deep down lies the knowledge that we only transacted. We connected through commodity, and it goes no deeper than that. This is the darkside to our commercial courtesy: here, when someone smiles at me, suspicion grips me: I am sure that she's about to sell me something.

To my chagrin, the Talmud sides with Enterprise Rent-a-Car. In Brakhot 6b, Rabbi Chelbo says in the name of Rav Huna, "If one knows that another person will always say hello...and does not return that person's greeting, s/he is called a thief..."

I concede that greeting is a currency. It is passed from one person to another. One's greeting has value; therefore, we possess the power to honor, or manipulate, that value.

What bothers me that is that, in American culture, we spend our greetings mostly in order to make currency of another kind, which is green, and rhymes with the word 'subprime real estate/mortgage-backed securities'. We smile to make money.

We should spend our greetings on other things as well. It is important. An order of "It's just a beautiful day," or "You look like you need a smile," or even a simple "I see you," may be worth the expenditure. For if our smiles are only for the sake of another's usefulness to us, what will we do in the moments when their utility fails?