Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Who Are You? - Reflections on Parashat Eikev

Throughout the poetic parasha of Eikev, Moshe urges us several times not to forget his teachings. In other verses in the Parasha, he asks us also to remember. In one particular verse, he even says "Remember - do not forget." (Deuteronomy 9:7)

Huh? We know that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. Every word, every letter, even every flourish above a letter, is put there by the A-lmighty to teach us something unique and special. So what's with Moshe telling us both to remember and not to forget? To quote Yogi Berra, isn't that redundant all over again? Is Moshe starting to repeat himself, like Bubbies and Zaydes sometimes do?

Quick aside: my Zayde a"h loved to sit and shmooze over a cup of coffee. Nothing would please him more than to have an unannounced visitor drop in. He would quickly put some water in the kettle, bring out some cake or cookies (his pantry was always magically full of cakes and cookies), and settle in for a nice long kibbitz session. I tell ya, that kitchen was made for coffee klatches. 

We lived four hours away, but once a month or so, we'd make a day of it, just to sit at the signature turquoise table with the matching swivel chairs, rest our chins in our hands, sip coffee, nibble on cake, catch up on family news, and listen to the stories flow.

Anyone who visited at Zayde's table regularly knew that you'd begin to hear his stories, well, more than once. Maybe even more than a few times. To the point where we knew most of them by heart, actually. But we never complained, since the joy was in the telling and in his company.

Every once in a while though, mixed in among the stories that we had heard over and over again, he would tell us some amazing story from his long life that we'd never heard before. We'd almost fall off our chairs in astonishment. "Zayde," we'd say, "you've told us the bootleg schnapps story a hundred times, how can it be we never heard this story before?" His eyes would twinkle; he'd just shrug his shoulders and smile.

Was Moshe getting repetitious in his dotage? Or is there a real distinction to be made between 'remembering' and 'not forgetting?'

Here is the difference: remembering is an act. It is a mitzvah. The famous example is the annual commandment to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt. We build museums to memorialize the six million killed by the Nazis. We remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. We also remember life cycle events like birthdays and anniversaries with parties, cards and gifts.

Remembering is a conscious act. It means pausing from the bustle of daily life, and even if only for a moment, focusing the mind on that which is remembered. 

Throughout Israel on Memorial Day (and a week before on Holocaust Remembrance Day), air raid sirens wail for two full minutes. Cars stop in the middle of the road, in intersections, even on the superhighways. People step out of their cars, and standing with heads bowed, they remember their dead. Sometimes people weep openly in the street. It is a deeply moving experience. 

Remembering means doing something; it is a call to action.

Not-forgetting, on the other hand, is passive. Not-forgetting lurks just below our conscious thought, always present, yet just out of reach, barely noticeable in the shadows of our mind. It is content to gently make its presence known without commanding center stage. 

There is no act to not-forgetting. It is not a moment, rather it is a constant companion, a part of the backdrop of our life. It is the foundation stone upon which our every decision is built, the prism through which we experience the world around us. Not-forgetting influences the way we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. As we mature and build on our life's experiences, those experiences are incorporated into the foundational database of not-forgetting, of our truest essence.

In other words, not-forgetting is about identity; it's speaks directly to who we are.

Specifically, Moshe is telling us not to forget our Jewish identity. No matter how affluent or influential we may become in the future, we mustn't ever forget our roots - we were slaves in Egypt, with no pretensions to greatness or lives of ease. Simplicity, honesty, hard work, devotion to Gcd - these are the gifts of our grandparents. 

Yet people try (in vain) to erase their past. Rabinowitz becomes Roberts, joins the best clubs, drives the finest cars, drinks the most expensive sherry, and marries the supermodel - and still they call him "Jew" behind his back.

By embracing our past, we have a shot at crafting our future. Deny your past, Moshe warns, and you're on the path to oblivion.

So we must show kindness to strangers because we were once strangers in Egypt. We must be humble, for our past is littered with our mistakes. We must show gratitude, because we are Jews, and the word "Jew" means to give thanks to Gcd. We must be devotional, because we strive to emulate the spiritual greatness of the Bubbies and Zaydes of our past.

My Zayde knew to the core of his being who he was - a Jew, a Galitzianer, a perpetual student, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He never played at being anyone other than who he was. 

And endless times over coffee, my Zayde would take your hand in his, look you in the eye and say: no matter where you go or what you do in life, never forget you are a Jew.

So with apologies to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend: Who Are You?  The voice of Moshe whispers across the generations: be very clear on that question, and "al tishkach," don't ever forget.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sinat Chinam - The Hatred in Our Midst

This Tuesday is Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. It is a day of fasting, of mourning, and of deep personal introspection. We remember this day as the anniversary of the destruction of the first Holy Temple by the Babylonians, the second Temple by the Romans, and the myriad tragedies, pogroms and disasters that have befallen the Jewish people on this ill-fated day throughout history.

We are taught that the cause of the destruction of the second Temple was sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred between Jew and Jew. We are directed to the infamous incident in Gittin 56a of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza. 

Briefly: a wealthy man held a sumptuous banquet and invited all the "A-List" dignitaries of Judea. He also sent an invite to his friend Kamtza. By accident, the invitation was delivered to a guy named Bar-Kamtza (no relation.) Bar-Kamtza also happened to be a bitter enemy of the host. (You can see where this is going.)

Bar-Kamtza goes to the banquet, thinking that the invite might be an opening to a rapproachment between the adversaries. But when he gets there, the host goes ballistic at the temerity of his enemy showing up at the exclusive shindig and orders Bar-Kamtza unceremoniously ushered to the curb. 

Bar-Kamtza sizes up the situation. He quietly and urgently pleads with the host not to make an awkward situation worse and humiliate him in front of all the rabbis, politicians, business moguls and celebrities in attendance. He offers to pay for his meal. No. He offers to pay for half of the banquet. No. He finally offers to pay for the entire blasted affair if the host will merely allow the evening to pass without incident. Again the answer is an unyielding NO.

The anger that consumes Bar-Kamtza over his humiliation and mistreatment leads to a chain of events which resulted in the Temple being razed by the Romans. In other words,  sinat chinam was the precipitate cause of the destruction of the Temple and ultimately, the Roman expulsion which we experience down to today.

In thinking about this gemara, most people focus on the egregious behavior of the host. People think, "if I ever hosted an A-List-black-tie soiree, I'd never behave that ungraciously to a guest, even an enemy."  Excellent, but few (if any) of us will be having Gwyneth Paltrow to dinner anytime soon. Since, when we look in the mirror, we don't see someone who would act with that much venom, we conclude that sinat chinam is somebody else's problem. We cluck our tongues, point to the other guy, and conveniently exempt ourselves.

Let me clue you in to a little secret: the REAL sinat chinam in the story was that the learned rabbis in attendance did not intervene on Bar-Kamtza's behalf; and once he was bodily ejected, they shrugged their shoulders and went back to the party.

True sinat chinam is ignoring the plight of your fellow. It is plugging your ears with your fingers, squeezing your eyes shut, and saying, "leave me out of it, I have enough troubles of my own." 

Sinat chinam is moral cowardice. Sinat chinam is not standing up to speak truth and righteousness on behalf of a friend in distress; it's taking the easy and convenient path; it's averting your eyes, turning your back and going about your own business. This kind of sinat chinam is very relateable and tragically is very, very prevalent in Jewish life today.

This week, I witnessed this pernicious form of sinat chinam firsthand. A person in our community was accused of a monstrous crime based only on hearsay and innuendo, with no evidence to support the charge. In fact, strong evidence exculpated him, but the campaign of whispers persisted. 

Thank Gcd, some people stood up for their friend; but several more, rabbis among them, sided with the fear, with the lies, with innuendo and rumor and shadows. It was self-evidently a case of first degree character assassination. But instead of standing up for truth, the moral cowards averted their eyes, chose not to get involved, cowered behind their voice mails, shunning this hapless victim. In the end, he lost his job over nothing more than a vile, malicious whisper.

What do we mourn for on Tisha B'Av? A building? A return of the ritual sacrifices? I suggest we mourn for something much deeper.

The Jewish people are supposed to be the exemplars of ethical monotheism. Our elevated and holy society, driven by love of Gcd, love of Torah and love of our fellow man is intended to be what Isaiah calls 'a light unto the nations.' Our highest ideals and aspirations are embodied in the order, beauty and splendor of the Temple, resplendent on Gcd's holy mountain. 

But the Temple is in ruins, and the Jewish people have lost the voice of moral authority in the world. If the world thinks about us at all, they look at us as an anachronism, or as a curiosity, or as a nuisance. 

It is over our personal failings and the inability to fulfill our holy mission that we cry on Tisha B'Av.

How do we presume to preach truth to world if we turn our backs to our own brother in distress? That is the sinat chinam that destroyed - and continues to destroy - everything that the Temple represents.

To those who stood up for truth this week - and you know who you are - it is in your merit that the Holy Temple will be speedily rebuilt in our lifetimes.

And to the moral cowards - and you know who you are - shame on you.

May we merit to see Tisha B'Av go from a fast day to a feast day, and from a day of mourning to a day of joy.

Shabbat Shalom.