Thursday, April 30, 2015

Springtime's Bustin' Out All Over - Reflections on Sefirat HaOmer 5775

(Advance apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein.)

Sefirah is the seven week period between Pesach and Shavuot. During part of this time in early spring, for 33 days, Jews observe a period of mild mourning. Primarily, we avoid live concerts, we put off weddings, and (if you're a guy) you grow a beard like a mourner.

The reason is to be found in the Talmud, Tractate Yevamot 62b:
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect...A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". Rabbi Hama ben Abba (or it might have been Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin) said: "All of them died a cruel death." What was it? Rabbi Nahman replied: "Askarah."
In my ill-spent and dissolute youth (smile), I must confess that I just couldn't get into the mode of mourning. I mean it's springtime - springtime! The world is coming alive again! Birds are a-twitter (back when 'twitter' only meant a melodious avian articulation.) Trees are in blossom, love is in the air, everything is fresh and new and vivid and just breathtakingly beautiful. 

And every spring I am reminded of a line in Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King: “Every twenty years or so the earth renews itself in young maidens," a renewal that undoubtedly occurs, as do the crocuses, daffodils and tulips, in the spring.

So, as I say, I didn't understand. To compound my confusion, the reasoning of the Talmud was very obscure. 24,000 students? What does that even mean, for one guy to have 24,000 students? How does one teacher relate in a meaningful way to 24,000 disciples? (Even today, the Mir Yeshivah in Jerusalem, one of the largest in the world with hundreds of rabbis on staff, only has about 7,500 students.)

And what does it mean that they died because they dissed one another? We're talking about the disciples of Rabbi Akiva here, arguably one of the greatest rabbis in all of Jewish history. And they all died of a cruel death called "askarah?" And the plague magically stopped on one specific day? And why do we traditionally celebrate that day, the 33rd day of the count, with picnics and bonfires and archery?

None of it made any sense to me. How could it be that the Sages of Israel were so out of touch with the palpable, vital reality of springtime that they ordained a period of sadness and mourning? Didn't they look out the window? The incongruity of sefirah and spring was screaming at me. 

And then my wife's only brother was killed by a drunk driver. 

Michael Allen Ziegler, z"l, was killed during sefirah. He was only 24, single, in the springtime of his life. And to compound the pain, he was killed by his best friend, who walked away from the twisted wreck uninjured.

And then I began to understand.

I began to understand the futility of trying to comfort an inconsolable wife. I began to understand how the blossoming flowers that spring held no solace; indeed, in their very beauty they seemed to mock Michael's death. 

I began to understand how the beauty of spring is fleeting when weighed against the inevitability, the permanence, of death. 

The Sages, in their wisdom, were counseling temperance in enjoying the beauties of spring. 'Soak up the loveliness of spring,' they seemed to be saying, 'but don't be overcome by the seductions of youth, by fleeting beauty, no matter how immediate or palpable it may seem in the moment.'

The historical fact is that Rabbi Akiva's "students" were actually the warriors in Bar Kochba's rebellion. Like Uncle Mike, they were in the prime of their lives - youthful, idealistic and beautiful. The "cruel death" his disciples suffered was the decisive military rout by the Roman Legions in the fields of Beitar. Those brave young men died in battle, and the battle - and their lives - ended on a single day in 135 CE. Also ended was any hope of Jewish political sovereignty for the next 18 very long and dark centuries.

So that explains the archery and bonfires used to commemorate Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the count (which is this coming Thursday, BTW.)

But the Gemara couldn't tell the real story, could it? Not with the Roman censors looking on and the fears of reprisal against the pockets of remaining Jews. So it speaks in hints and ambiguities. 

With wiser eyes, it must be said that the loss of our national sovereignty and personal freedoms are indeed things worth mourning over.

So yeah, go sit under a tree in the park and enjoy the gifts of spring...but tuck a Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of the Sages) under one arm, too.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mission...Possible - Reflections on Parashat Shmini 5775

I am about to ask you the scariest question in Judaism.

It's brazenness may shock you. It may come across as being irreverent - maybe even sacrilegious. 

It is the question that scares the socks off Jewish educators, because most don't have a compelling answer to the question. It is also the most important unasked question in the atherosclerotic Jewish Establishment.

The question itself is quite simple: Why...Be...Jewish? 

From the outside looking in, living a Jewish life is demanding: keeping kosher (covered in our parashah, BTW); keeping Shabbat; getting up at the crack of dawn every day for prayers; daily Torah study; giving significant sums to charity; and committing hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private Jewish education for the kiddies, when the public school around the corner is free. (And that's just for warm-ups.)

Not only that: we look around and see lots of people who were born into Jewish families who have blown all that stuff off, with no apparent ill effects. They lead pleasant enough lives; so why shouldn't I eat what I want, do what I want, whenever I want? 'Don't hassle me with your rules, I just want to be happy. Give me one good reason to stick with it.'

And goodness knows there are lots of exits, no waiting.

This is where many parents and educators get stuck. How would you answer the question?

Let me come to your rescue: the Torah in this week's parashah provides a pretty good answer. 

In it we read of the eighth day of the investiture ceremonies of Aaron and his sons as the priestly clan (in Hebrew, priest = Cohen) for all of the People of Israel. For seven days, they had been purified in body and spirit. They had intensively trained in the various forms of offerings - the sin, elevation, peace and guilt offerings - and in the many specific details regulating how each of them is to be dealt with.

Now, at the end of the training week, they are given their unique charge: they and they alone are empowered to present the offerings on Gcd's Altar. The celebrant can bring the offering as far as Gcd's doorstep, as it were, but the Cohen must take and offer it in the inner sanctum. It is through the ministrations of Aaron and his sons - Aaron being the archetypal peacemaker - that peace is restored between Gcd and his frequently wayward people.

As we read through the book of Leviticus, the Cohanim had many special duties, and as a consequence, they had many extra rules that applied only to them and not to a garden-variety Jew. But the relationship between the Jew and the Cohen was an interdependent one; without the Cohanim, the Jews could not make Temple offerings, and without communal and private offerings the Cohanim were out of business.

Brilliant. But how does all this address our question?

When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the entire Jewish People were called upon by Gcd to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Hallowed Nation.

A Kingdom of Priests.

We learn how priests are to behave (and not behave) by the lessons of Aaron and his sons as presented in this parashah. But what does this parallel language actually mean in the real world?

In the same way that the Cohanim ministered to Gcd on behalf of the Jewish People, the mission of the Jewish People is to minister on behalf of all the other Peoples of the world. In the same way that the Cohanim were the teachers of the Jewish People, so, too, are the Jews the light-bringers to the Nations. And in the same way that the Cohanim had specific mitzvot that were not incumbent upon other Jews, so, too, do the Jews have mitzvot that are not incumbent upon the other Peoples.

Were the Cohanim “better” than other Jews by virtue of their of their service? No. They simply have a different role to play; a different voice in the complex fugue that is the Jewish Mission. Are Jews intrinsically “better" human beings than other people? We are not. But we have a different role to play; a role that requires the careful and enthusiastic observance of the Torah's 613 mitzvot. 

The Jewish Mission is to agitate for a world where all people come to recognize that all good emanates from Gcd/Hashem, Creator of heaven and earth, the Eternal One, Gcd of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the One who wants for us only good. It is to sensitize people to the idea that the natural state of the human soul, the spark of the Divine, is to connect with its Source and be at peace with it.

The Jewish Mission is to unite mankind in the recognition that the One True Compassionate Gcd created us all, Who loves us all, has assigned each to one of us a specific task in the great and holy work - our common goal - of perfecting the world together. It is a clarion call to genuine goodness and compassion; it is the shofar's penetrating call to the heart that melts the layers of cynicism and pain. It is a call to truth and to service and to love; a call to reflection and to self-improvement and to humility.

The Jewish Mission proclaims the inclusive, universal message that Gcd loves us all and welcomes all good people in heaven irrespective of race, creed, or color. (This is in strong contrast to faith systems that threaten eternal damnation for non-believers.)

The very survival of this sliver of a people, the Jews, the nation that bears His name within its own, is tangible proof that Gcd exists. 

And Gcd apportioned the land of Israel to the people of Israel. The return of the Jews to this mere sliver of a land, our ancestral homeland Israel, in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, proves that He keeps His word, and that His Torah is true. The Torah is our deed.

We must answer "Why Be Jewish" by speaking of mission, of a life of purpose, a life of destiny; if we can ignite the fire of youthful passion in the dissemination of all that is holy and good, of priesthood and of leadership, then it is virtually assured that our children and our children’s children will remain faithful to Judaism for all time. 

How do we light that fire in them? By rekindling it in ourselves first.

We must shatter our own apathy and complacency; we must perform our mitzvot with passion and dedication, and strive to perceive the mission behind the mitzvah. We must read the words of the Siddur, the daily prayerbook, as if reading them for the very first time, every time, pregnant with impact and layered in meaning. 

Lastly, we must take a stand in the culture wars, and be the voice of Truth in a world of lies and falsehood. Wake up brothers and sisters! Why do we yet sleep? The world burns around us and we dither.

To rise to our calling as the Kingdom of Priests is to live for a far higher purpose than the craven pursuit of a comfortable life; of self-gratification and the next buzz. To be Jewish is nothing less than to have hand in, and to make a signal contribution to, the salvation of the world.

And that is an answer worthy of the question.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Redeeming Ourselves - Reflections on Passover 5775

There is an oft-quoted Zohar which states that Hashem redeemed the Jewish People from the Egyptian bondage prematurely because we had sunken to the 49th level of tumah; had the Jews sunken one more level, to the 50th and final level, we would have been irredeemable. So Gcd hastened the Redemption in order that the Children of Israel not be lost to history forever.

In thinking about this the other day, my very perspicacious daughter Elisheva asked me, "Abba, why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for?

It's a splendid question, don't you think? (And yes, I'm braggin' on my brilliant kid.)

As I have written ELSEWHERE, Taharah/Tumah represents the spectrum between the Source of Life and the utter absence of life, and that it is a part of the human condition to cycle between these poles. The 50th degree of tumah mentioned in the Zohar represents death itself. 

But not just physical death, the quantifiable absence of heartbeat or brain waves. Death in this context can be defined more broadly as the state in which we are no longer able to exert any power and influence in the world. 

In this sense, poverty is akin to death, because the poor do not have the means to affect the world in which they live. Thus says the verse: "Precious in the Eyes of the Lcrd is the death of His chasidim, His dear ones." (Psalms 116:15) Not martyrdom, but poverty. "The A-lmighty looked at every attribute and could find none better for Israel than poverty." (Chagigah 9B) Why? Because in their sorrows, the poor look constantly Heavenward. 

For the same reason, victimhood is death, because victims are objects, not subjects, in their own world. Victims are unable to make any mark or impact on their world; they are but one small step from being literally dead.

The ultimate poor person, the ultimate victim, is the slave. Slaves must focus entirely on imperatives of mere survival; there can be no attention paid to the higher, spiritual callings of life. 

Hashem had to redeem us from Egypt because we were utterly incapable of redeeming ourselves. We were victims, not actors, in the grand drama of our own lives.

I will tell you that many people fill their lives with the "have-to's:" the grocery shopping, the dry cleaners, music lessons for the kids, dropping the car off at the shop, errands, here, errands there - the nuts and bolts of mere survival. The day ends in exhaustion, and what have we truly accomplished? We have made no lasting impact in the world. In 100 years, in 1000 years, no one will remember the salon appointment or the business lunch. When all the dust settles, we have expended ourselves on the hamster wheel of today, for no other purpose than to jump back on the hamster wheel tomorrow.

For many, any residual effort and energy after the "have-tos" is devoted to personal pleasures and recreation. But like the slave in Egypt-land, there is scant little time left for the higher, spiritual callings of life. We are, in a sense, trapped as victims of our own lives, where life molds us, instead of us molding our lives.

We work hard for five so we can play hard for two. What a bleak existence! No wonder people do drugs and alcohol.

But there is a higher Geulah (redemption): V'alu moshi'im behar Tzion..."And the Saviors shall rise from Mount Zion to judge Mount Seir..." (Ovadiah 1:21) Saviors? In the plural? Our Sages understand this verse to mean that the ultimate redemption will come about in one of two ways: the Redemption of Pesach, which was the redemption of the victim, of the aino zochim, a violent, bloody redemption requiring miraculous, Divine intervention; or the Redemption of Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur - the redemption of Teshuvah, the redemption of the Zochim, the bloodless redemption of the worthy.

To answer Elisheva's question: why did Hashem wait until the last possible moment to save us? What was He waiting for? 

Perhaps He was waiting for us to redeem ourselves. 

The Higher Redemption is when we don't behave like victims; when we are proactive in influencing the world around us. That is why matzah has two identities: the bread of poverty/helplessness/affliction and the Bread of Freedom & Redemption. And that is why the Talmud in Tractate Megillah says that, in the Messianic Era, all the Jewish holidays will be abolished save for Purim - because on Purim, we saved ourselves. To be sure, we understood Gcd's Hand in human affairs, but the great salvation arose, not through supernatural miracles, but rather via hidden miracles worked through the agency of great heroes: Esther, Mordechai, and those who took up arms to defend themselves against the enemy. We were actors, not victims; men, not mice.

Gcd was waiting for us to redeem ourselves, and I think He awaits us yet. Based on the actions of Jacob in parashat VaYetze, one of the enduring lessons of Torah is that when we do everything in our power, Gcd takes care of the rest. 
"...the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no (human) could have dreamed would come his way." -Goethe
Listen to Goethe. Commit yourself. Look at the world around you. Use the prism of Torah to understand the rapidly-changing events in the world we inhabit. Trust your intuition;  cultivate the soul-voice that speaks Truth to guide you. You'll know what to do. 

This Pesach, let's not wait to be redeemed. Let's redeem ourselves.

Chag Sameach.