by admin | Friday 3 May 2013 10:40am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
My blog entry from two weeks ago-asking the question how we publicly remember someone after their death–received some interesting feedback.
The natural instinct is to say only good things, but some wondered if there is a limit. Are there some sins that when committed, those left behind are no longer required to say anything good?
Several readers pointed out that there is a significant difference between a public and private figure. A public figure is, at the same time, open to a higher level of scrutiny; and less able to be judged for his or her true self.
I would like to share selections from just two of the many responses I received. The first recalls a particular individual:
"I had a [colleague] die years ago. He was very strongly opinionated and not sparing in his commentary. When he died unexpectedly, there was practically a celebration in the office. It was disrespectful.
I finally had enough and told people in a meeting to remember he hired nearly every one there and maybe the best way too celebrate his death would be for them to quit. Further, I told them I was grateful for the life tools he provided me. And no matter how nasty he could be he was gone and beyond the scope of hatred, so the only ones they were hurting were themselves. Oddly, no one quit and they quit whining about it."
Another reader takes a philosophical approach: "Where is the benefit from speaking poorly of another? My belief is that it rarely serves oneself or others to speak poorly of another whether dead or living. Making up lies about someone and spreading them is slanderous and deplorable. I cannot imagine how this could be justified. Relating facts about another that diminishes them is also harmful. . . In fact, this action creates more damage in the world. It harms the subject of my communication, by creating a poor image or reputation of them. It harms the audience by making them party to the degradation. Moreover, it hurts me in several ways. First, it casts me in the role of one who spreads unfavorable information. In addition, by making my focus negative thoughts, it diminishes my perspective on others and the world in general. Finally, and probably most damaging, it reduces my resistance to this pitfall in the future, setting up a negative cycle."
by admin | Friday 19 April 2013 9:32am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
When tragedy strikes, we find God in the way we react to it and to one another, it is not the actual event that we must focus on, but what we do afterwards.
This has become increasingly clear after the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the acts of of heroism by all those who ran to help. This is in sync with our highest Jewish values. Rabbi Shai Held, a well respected colleague of mine, explains:
"Here, then, is Judaism’s message: You want to serve God? Run towards the very people and places you most want to run away from. You want to be religious? Learn to be present for other people when they are in pain. All the rest is commentary." (His entire article from Tablet Magazine is worth reading.)
Struggling with what happened in Boston is important. Prayer is important, but holy encounters only happen when each of us run towards every opportunity to help one another.
by admin | Friday 12 April 2013 9:39am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
Margaret Thatcher died this past week. The Iron Lady of both British and international politics leaves behind an indisputable legacy.
Yet, even now, she continues to be a polarizing figure. Eulogies and retrospectives who celebrate her politics are being challenged by those who maintain an active anger for their impact.
This raises an interesting question, how are we to publicly remember someone after their death?
There is a tendency for the pain and loss of a death, to shape positively our view of the deceased. Certainly politicians will publicly show respect. But among some in the public at large, there has been an instant sense of "loathing" on social media sites, and in the streets. Downloads for songs like Elvis Costello's Tramp the Dirt Down, which looks forward to Thatcher's death, have gone up.
In general, western culture treats speaking ill of the dead as taboo. This follows an old principal of: "Of the dead, nothing unless good." First expressed in Latin in the 4th Century as De mortuis nil nisi bonum. The phrase means just what it seems to: don't say anything of the dead unless it is praiseworthy.
Jewish tradition has a similar expression. Using the names of three parshiot from Leviticus: אחרי מות, קדושים אמור, "After death, speak holiness." Clearly a call for putting a positive spin on a life that has gone by. But the Hebrew (as it so often does) adds important meaning. Rather than using the word bonum, "good" we are enjoined to speak of that which was kadosh about the person. Kadosh meaning holy in the sense of unique and different.
We are not asked to whitewash a life, but to speak about those actions and traits which made it special and unique. And an honest evaluation of a life will include mistakes and misdeeds. Judaism seems to leave us with a nuanced mitzvah as we remember those no longer with us.
What do you think? How should we speak of those who have died? Does context and time matter? Does being a politician change the calculation? Please email me and I will share with others.
by admin | Friday 5 April 2013 6:59am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
Passover is over and we have put aside the matza for another year Now we would do well to remember that what we do next is even more important.
We have celebrated achieving freedom from Egyptian bondage, and hopefully found ways to connect that ancient struggle with our modern lives. Now we must move from having our freedom, to the very reason for our freedom: Torah.
We connect the holidays of Passover and Shavuot by counting each of the 49 nights between them. This is known as Counting the Omer.
Rabbi Andy Shugerman puts it well: "The counting of seven weeks came to reflect seven character attributes associated with key divine qualities, each of which we emulate in fulfilling our creation in God's image . . . All seven weeks and all seven days of the week each correspond to a different attribute. This results in a seven-by-seven grid of virtue-pairs, traits we must cultivate in preparation for reliving our ancestors' spiritual elevation as freed slaves receiving the Torah and becoming both 'a kingdom of priests [responsible for our own Judaism] and a holy nation' (Exod. 19:6)."
The tradition of Counting the Omer reminds us that freedom is not achieved once and then permanently ours, but rather must be constantly worked on and refined. It also reminds us that we do not find true, lasting connections in the big, broad and noisy events of our lives, but in the small actions of connection with one another.
Let's make these days count, by counting each day.
by admin | Friday 15 March 2013 10:30am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
Before the matza, the seder and the plagues, there is the story. So much so that the book which guides us, the Haggadah, translates as "The Telling."
Indeed, telling the story of Passover is the central mitzvah of celebrating Passover. It is not just reciting the words, but rather incorporating them into our soul and our behavior. They are not to be someone else's story, but our very own. As the Haggadah reminds us, we are each to see ourselves as having personally left the slavery of Egypt. We are to tell it like we lived it.
All stories are this way. They need to be personal and meaningful in order to be powerful; be they the stories we hear growing up, stories that we tell others, or those we tell ourselves.
Kabbalah, the mystical tradition within Judaism, describes the importance storytelling in God's creation. It describes creation out of three elements: "the scroll, the scribe and the story."
This Passover, let us focus less on the bread we deny ourselves and the matza we eat, and more on telling the story that lies at the foundation of Jewish identity: that of leaving Egypt to freedom.
by admin | Friday 8 March 2013 11:15am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
Earlier this week I had a wonderful opportunity, along with some of our members, to spend time with 13,000 people supporting Israel at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.
While there I learned a lesson from the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. He teaches the following in his Passover commentary on the Hagadah.
Noting that in the Torah Moses says: “Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:, Rabbi Sakes asks simply, why?
After all the oppression and degradation, hate would seem to be a reasonable response. Yet as Israel stands on the edge of freedom centuries ago, we are told to let go of that legitimate hatred.
This letting go is a necessary step in becoming free. We are not to carry previous resentments into our new life in the Land of Israel. Had we still hated the Egyptians in our hearts, then Moses would have succeeded in taking us out of Egypt, but not in taking Egypt out of us.
In all aspects of our lives, being truly free means letting go of even legitimate anger. May we all find the strength to do so in our daily lives.
by admin | Thursday 7 February 2013 6:47pm | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
Change can be unsettling. And when entire communities undergo a change, the discomfort is magnified. A recent article in Wired magazine (below) proposes to answer why changes can cause entire societies and communities to, in the words of the author, panic.
According to Wired author Clive Thompson, each era of human history has seen transformations that are at first railed against, accepted as normal, then elevated to the level of tradition. But along the way, communities can often panic, especially, Thompson writes, when three criteria are met:
"First, [a technological change] has to change our relationship to time. Then it has to change our relationship to space. And, crucially, it has to change our relationship to one another. Individually, each of these transformations can be unsettling, but if you hit all three? Panic!"
The same can be said for changes within a synagogue community, even when they are positive and healthy. Alterations that interrupt our usual way of connecting to the time of a service, or the location of a celebration are enough to throw us for a loop. Add to this the inevitable changes in our relationships with each other, and we feel acute anxiety.
In the world of technology, the reaction leads to a loss of perspective, which tends to idealize the past. Seeing a group of kids all staring at their cellphones makes us wish they were absorbed in paper books. But we must remember that widespread printing of books and newspapers was also greeted with panic. Many feared the change would destroy people's minds, and rip families apart. According to the Thompson, this kind of reaction reinforces the mistaken view that "each technological past was a golden age of civility and contemplation, when it was no such thing. And hilariously, many now rhapsodize nostalgically over tools that themselves were once demonized."
The key of course, is Don't Panic, but rather to keep perspective. Judaism has always attempted to find the balance between the energy that change and growth bring, and the stability of ancient traditions. We must move deliberately between the old and the new, without going too far in either direction.
by admin | Friday 1 February 2013 7:37am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
In preparing for my weekly class on Jewish values, I was reminded of the following very radical view of our relationship with God.
Commenting on the verse of reassurance by Isaiah (43:12) which reads simply: “You are my witnesses, and I am God” Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai teaches, “Only when you are my witnesses, I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, it is as if I am not God.” (Hebrew on the left.)
The bold has been added to emphasize the surprising twist on the verse. Rabbi Shimon is arguing that God needs humans in order to exist. Without us acting as witnesses, then God would not exist. This notion is both empowering and frightening.
I intend to explore this idea of how being witnesses can directly impact God, at Erev Shabbat Services this week. We begin at 8 pm following a 6:30 pm congregational dinner. (There is still room to sign up for dinner.)
During the Coffee and Jewish Values, we will look deeply at this idea, as part of the much larger, satirical midrash on the verse from Isaiah. The class begins at 8 am, each Saturday, in the Temple of Aaron library, and everyone is welcome.
I would also like to hear from you.
Please email your thoughts on what this interpretation implies. I may share them with other readers in the weeks to come.
by admin | Friday 25 January 2013 12:59pm | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
The Jewish people are often known by the name B'nai Yisrael, literally the "Children of Israel." I would like to suggest three expansive translations of this name that can inform how we identify as Jews.
Descendants of Israel: This perspective reminds us that we have a proud history; we have values and traditions that we teach each generation that have stood the test of time. Each generation is proof of Isaac Newton's view that we are only able to see "further by standing on the shoulders of giants." Each Jew is strengthened by our history.
Children of those who Wrestle with God: The Torah teaches that after Jacob wrestles with "beings Divine and human" his name is changed to Israel. This story reminds us that we struggle and wrestle with our relationships, both with God and with other people. We cannot simply follow God blindly as if God is pulling on our puppet strings, but rather we must engage and actively participate in forming the relationship. (For an excellent treatment of this idea, see the book God Wrestling: Round 2 by Rabbi Arthur Waskow.)
Inheritors of Change: Being a Jew means being part of an ever evolving and growing tradition, where modern situations are balanced with ancient traditions. The very name "Israel" was a change given to Jacob, and that was only the beginning. The Judaism we practice today is very different from that which Moses practiced thousands of years ago. Just imagine Moses attending a Jewish education class, he would be lost during most of it. Change is a fundamental constant of God's creation. Jews must find the balance between the modern concerns of the moment, and the eternal values and behaviors of our people. (Thank you to Sue Schwartz, whose recent D'var Torah clarified this translation.)
We can live a meaningful, engaged Jewish life by combining all three concepts for a better understanding of what it means to be B'nai Yisrael.
by admin | Friday 18 January 2013 10:12am | This entry is not filed against any categories | permalink | 0 comments
The Torah's story of God "hardening pharaoh's heart" has bothered readers for generations, as it should. But paying close attention to the text reveals an important lesson for each of us.
The context is important. Throughout the negotiations, Egypt's Pharaoh is given the chance to do the right thing. Yet he hardens his own heart, time and time again. He does so often enough that it becomes habitual.
In the end, God does not actively harden Pharaoh's heart, but rather provides the freedom of choice which allows it to be hardened by Pharaoh's own actions.
Pharaoh is caught in his own spiritual inertia; acting without thinking. God's role in people's lives is not as a puppet master who directs every action and situation, but rather as creator who set up the rules we live by.
God made a system where action in one direction makes continued action easier. Repeated positive action will make it easier to act positively, and negative action will make it easier to act negatively. Eventually, the pattern becomes hardend into our behaviors, and thus, we will find it very difficult to pull away.
In the end, Pharaoh's own behavior traps him.
The good news for us is that the opposite is also true, every good act makes the next one easier, and the sooner we move to a more flexible heart, the better.
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