Thursday, June 20, 2013

Why I Believe in Heaven, Or A Loose Interpretation of “This Is the End”

Parshat Balak
12 Tammuz, 5773
June 20, 2013

I once swore to myself that I would never be the kind of rabbi who gave sermons about movies and pop culture.

This column will be yet more evidence of just how little integrity I actually possess. But if I’m going to break this particular oath, I’m glad that, at the very least, I’ll spend my self-respect on something as ridiculous as “This Is the End.”

“This Is the End,” is an extended schlong joke about the apocalypse. It is ridiculous; it is insane; it is crude beyond description; to call it irreverent demeans irreverence. I loved every second of it.

This movie reminds me why I believe in heaven.

Just to be clear, I am fairly confident* that there are no bikinis in heaven. I’m also pretty sure that smoking blunts and the Backstreet Boys might be out.

But I am possessed of another conviction. As we were dying in the theater, I remembered that humor belongs to the category of things that are eternal. Humor, and compassion, and justice, and faithfulness, and pure sentiment, and moments of brilliance, and true art, and real holiness – all of these exist timelessly, in a world just beyond our own. When our bodies are gone, these lived moments remain, and they ascend.

The Talmud tells that Elijah the prophet once identified the only people in a market who were worthy of the World to Come**. Rabbi Brokah (who, you know, hung out with Elijah) approached the three and asked what they did for a living. “We are comedians,” they said, “we make sad people laugh. Also, when we see two people who have quarrel between them, we work to make peace for them.” (Ta’anit 22a)

Life is a damn hard fight. It is uphill, both ways, in the snow – and that’s if you live in the First World. There is abuse and addiction, hunger and oppression, not to mention the pettier sins and yetzer horas*** of daily life. Too many people spend most of their time in the muck. To lift one’s head into the light is precious.

Again, to be clear: it isn’t the joke, it’s the way you felt when you heard it; it isn’t the painting, it’s the feeling that possessed you when you saw it; it isn’t the circumstance, it is the kindness that worked through you. These experiences last but a moment, yet we know that they are the most important in our lives. And though these things are ephemeral in this world, I believe that they are eternal in the next. They are the part of us that lives on.

I am an observant Jew, which means that I believe in heaven, and then don’t think about it very much.**** But it is nice to be reminded, with a belly laugh, that indeed, I do believe.

*As much as people can be confident about these things, which isn’t much.
** That’s what Jews call heaven
*** Evil inclinations

****As compared to other religions, Jews are relatively “this world” centered, though we explicitly believe that the rewards of a good life we do not receive here are waiting for us in the next world. And, just to correct a misconception, Jews believe in hell. We call it Gehennom. It lasts about a year, and is apparently a painful process of separating the pure parts of the soul from its impurities. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bless Us with Dirty Hands - A Prayer before Serving Others


This prayer was delivered at the Faith and Service Unite Summit luncheon, sponsored by Repair the World, at the ServiceUnites Conference on Volunteering and Service.

Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the World:

Bless us with dirty hands.
       Bless us with hands that are crusted with food hastily served, and copy ink from handouts and pamphlets and protest signs. Bless us with calluses from fruit gleaned and crops picked, trash collected, cartons carried, and clothes sorted. Bless us with the grime of the earth, and the sweat of a hand grasped in fellowship and in common cause. Master of the World, bless us with dirty hands.

Bless us with a weathered heart.
       Bless us with hearts that have not hid from the pain of others, nor merely guessed at their welfare, nor that make the stories of the suffering into castles of theory in the air. Bless us with hearts rough with knowing the lives of those around us: the pain of the addict and the homeless, the struggle of the abused and the hungry. Bless us with hearts that show, in faded patches, the signs of use: that they do not beat with naivete, but rather knowingly, and all the stronger for it. Source of Compassion, bless us with a weathered heart.

Bless us with sharp eyes.
       Bless us with the eyes that see, more than a problem, a person, and more than a person, a human being imbued with Your image. Correct our vision so that the rationalizations, the reasons we tell ourselves we cannot help, stand out in sharp contrast. Bless us to see life both as it is now, and as it could be. Bless us to see, in humility and in greatness, the effect of each individual and of each community. Yotzer haAdam, Creator of Us All, bless us with sharp eyes.

Forgive the brashness of our prayer God, asking for so much at once.

But Your Rabbis taught us that there is no better sacrifice than justice. Your Prophets said that there is no more holy fast than to share our bread with the hungry, to take the homeless into our homes, to clothe the naked, and to unlock the chains of wickedness.

So we hope You will forgive a little chutzpah as we struggle to find the path to righteousness.

Give us more chances than we deserve to turn away from evil and do good.
Give us more courage than we possess, so that no chance is wasted.

Bless our hand, our hearts, and our eyes.

In Your name we call. Answer us with compassion.