Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Salvation Cycle - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5776

(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

What would you say is the defining event of the Book of Shemot/Exodus? The Ten Plagues? The Parting of the Red Sea? The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? The building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan?

The Sforno (16th Century, Italy) says "None of the Above." He has a radically different perspective on this Book, which he sees as a cautionary tale on the future of the Jewish People. From his introduction to the Book of Shemot:
And it is related in Gcd's Second Book, that the Seed of Israel then began to violate the covenant of their forefathers in Egypt, as the prophet Ezekiel attests when he says, "...and they rebelled against me, and no longer desired to listen to Me, no one throwing away the abominations of his eyes, no one abandoning the Egyptian idolatries...[and I/Gcd resolved] pour out My wrath upon them, and to vent My anger on them in the Land of Egypt to work them with rigor." Until a small portion of them did teshuvah and prayed, and a messenger [Moses] came before them and saved them. 
The Sforno sees all the events we mentioned above in this context. Divine salvation from the ruinous famine led to relief for the clan of Jacob and relocation to Goshen; the Israelites became numerous and comfortable in Egypt, and once the generation of the twelve sons died, the old ways were quickly forgotten; punishment came in the form of enslavement to the Egyptians, until a core group did teshuvah and triggered Divine mercy and salvation, aka the Exodus from Egypt.

We can call it the Salvation Cycle:
Divine Salvation Leads to
Relief Leads to
Affluence/Complacency Leads to
Backsliding Leads to
Punishment/Enslavement/Exile Leads to
Teshuvah Leads to
Divine Salvation.
This is the grand leitmotif of all of Jewish History. Ma'aseh Avot Siman L'Banim: The events in the lives of our ancestors create precedents which we see played out in our own lives.

Fast forward to America, 2015: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish families left Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, thus being spared the fate of European Jewry in the flames of the crematoria. After relocating to America, the Jews became numerous and comfortable in their new land, and once the generation of religious Bubbies and Zaydes died out, the old Jewish ways were quickly forgotten. 

In this, the final spin of the Salvation Cycle, punishment now comes in the form of suicide-by-happy-pills. Judaism in America is dying out, but not because of murder or enslavement by Roman Legionnaires or Czars or Hitlers or any other external oppressor. This go 'round we are more like opium addicts, buzzed out and in a really good place, too high to realize that the opium is really poison: shutting down our organs, destroying our minds, and deadening our spirits. 

But those who are wise enough to learn the lessons of Jewish history recognize the pattern. It is said that a problem identified is a problem half solved, and we certainly know how to solve this one - we've done it over and over again for well on 4,000 years.

Indeed, there is hope for American Jewry:  Teshuvah - a return to what the Sforno calls the Brit Avot, the Covenant of Our Ancestors: Deepening our connection to Gcd through Torah study and performing mitzvot. Keeping the Shabbat. Keeping Kosher. Keeping the Laws of Family Purity. Educating our children in Torah.

But how to get there from here?

I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, for bringing to my attention an recent newspaper article by Dr. Steven Cohen entitled, Lessons Learned from Orthodoxy's Dramatic Growth (New York Jewish Week, November 29, 2015). In it, he examines the root causes for the imperviousness of the Orthodox to what I have described above as the "Happy Pills":
The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE. That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews. [emphasis mine]
The Salvation Cycle doesn't care if you call yourself Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Teshuvah applies to everybody, because despite these divisive labels, despite what the High Priests of Pluralism would have you believe, there is but One Gcd, One Torah, and One Jewish People.

As far back as 1933 Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook wrote:
The Jewish people have become divided into two camps, through the categorization of Jews as Charedi (religious) and Chofshi (secular). These are new terms, which were not used in the past. Of course, not everyone is identical, especially in spiritual matters; but there was never a specific term to describe each faction. In this respect, we can certainly say that previous generations were superior to ours.

By emphasizing this categorization, we obstruct the path toward improvement and growth in both camps. Those who feel that they belong to the religious camp look down upon the secular camp. If they think about teshuvah and improvement, they immediately cast their eyes in the direction of the secularists, devoid of Torah and mitzvot. They are confident that full repentance is required by the irreligious, not by them.

The secular Jews, on the other hand, are convinced that any notion of penitence is a religious concept, completely irrelevant to their lives.

It would be better if we would all concentrate on examining our own defects, and judge others generously. It could very well be that others have treasure-troves of merits, hidden from sight. We should recognize that there exists in each camp a latent force leading toward goodness. Each camp has much to improve upon, and could learn much from the positive traits of the other camp.

Let us be known to each other by one name — Klal Yisrael. 
I call upon every single congregational rabbi of every "denomination"; I call upon every local Jewish Federation, in this community and in every American community, to take a principled stand for Teshuvah.

To survive we must shake off our spiritual torpor, we must push harder, reach for a new goal. It's OK to sweat a little; to raise the bar in performing mitzvot, to stretch and struggle to reach the next milestone in Torah study. 

It is a matter of simple self-preservation that we must return to the standards of normative halachah in a way that is compatible with modernity, and in a way that preserves intellectual integrity and joie de vivre. It can be done and it must be done.

Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and pay the "PRICE" necessary to ensure the perpetuation of Judaism as an organic and living faith system in your family? Or do we just continue passing around the opium bowl?

Shabbat Shalom.

[For an earlier blog post on this Parasha, click HERE.]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Airplane Nuts - Reflections on Parashat Miketz 5776

[Genesis 41:1-45:17]

In this week's Torah portion, we read of a small gift Father Jacob sends to the Viceroy of Egypt:
If that's the way it has to be, then take clippings from the Land of Israel down to Egypt in your pack, a gift for the great man: some balm, some honey, spices and lotus flower, peanuts and almonds. [Genesis 43:11]
OK, so let's get this straight: Ancient Israel is in the middle of a record-breaking, devastating famine. The only place with food is Egypt, and Jacob is sending the Viceroy of Egypt, the guy who controls the food supply for the entire planet, a gift

And why specifically those foods?

With those gifts, Jacob is sending a message to the Viceroy of Egypt. If the clippings of the Land of Israel could talk, this is what they might say:
It is true that at this moment in time you appear to hold all the cards. You have food where others have none; you are prosperous, you are powerful, you are influential. But your power is like the food you control, once it is consumed, it is gone forever.
Not so the Land of Israel and her gifts. Balm, honey, spices, perfumes, nuts - all are used in small amounts, yet endure for long periods of time. Israel is a land of enduring gifts, minute in quantity, but priceless in quality. 
So Mr. High-and-Mighty Viceroy: don't be so sure that you hold all the cards, we in Israel have a few of our own.
All over the United States, Jews are gathering to say extra chapters of Psalms and to pray for peace, troubled by the latest rampaging paroxysm of Islamo-fascist murder in Israel and other locales around the world. And that is laudatory as far as it goes. 

But as we focus on the latest terror attacks in Israel, as our rabbis sermonize about the crisis-of-the-week in the Israeli headlines, the impression begins to solidify in the American Jewish psyche that Israel is a dangerous place for Jews to live; certainly much more dangerous than the affluent American suburbs that most American Jews call home.

Jacob's clippings gently remind us that nothing could be farther from the truth: Jews and Judaism in Israel are actually thriving, while Jews and Judaism in America are rapidly disappearing. 

Don't believe me? Read the Guttman/Israel Democracy Institute Study of Israeli Jewry, then contrast those results with the Pew Research Center's 2013 Study of American Judaism. 

It's a little like two jet planes passing in the sky: jet "A" is ascending, but is passing through some turbulence to attain altitude, while jet "B" is enjoying a glass smooth descent - straight into the ocean. And...the passengers of jet "B" are fervently praying for jet "A" to have less turbulence.

Which plane would you rather be on? And who should be praying for whom? 

Maybe the nuts on the plane aren't only the in-flight snack.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

True Dat - Reflections on Parashat VaYeishev 5776

(Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)

We read this week of the confrontation between Tamar and Judah. You will recall that Tamar entraps an unsuspecting Judah into impregnating her, unwittingly fulfilling his obligation of levirate marriage (which he had been procrastinating about.)

In a scene reminiscent of the Montel Williams show, it comes down to the paternity test, aka, who da baby daddy? 

Tamar alone knows. She states that the father of her unborn child left her with three personal items.  She says to Judah, in front of the live TV audience: "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring, this strand, and this staff belong."

When confronted with the evidence, Judah says simply, "She is right, the baby is mine." [Collective audience gasp.]

On this verse, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that buried in the Hebrew words for "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring belongs..." is encoded the Hebrew word Tireh, revere Gcd. In other words, Tamar is implying that Judah should show reverence for Gcd and admit to the truth.

Because reverence for Gcd equates to an unwavering commitment to uphold the Truth.

Many moons ago, back when I was an undergrad at Georgetown University, I had the privilege and good fortune of being counseled by Dr. Hubert J. Cloke, an English professor and Dean in the Georgetown College. More than anyone else in my academic career, he impressed upon me the value and meaning of a liberal arts education.

He understood scholarship to be a passionate quest to reveal Objective Truth, of working to build the collective body of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. 

The academic disciplines - mathematics, the sciences, literature, history, languages, music, art, theology, philosophy - although perhaps speaking different languages, all are different approaches towards understanding the same Grand Truth. Like the many facets of a single large diamond, each discipline contributes a piece to the broader understanding of that Truth.

The purpose of a liberal arts education, then, is to cultivate and sharpen the critical thinking skills indispensable in making reasoned assessments of that which fits in to the Greater Truth and that which does not. 

Like pieces of an infinitely complex puzzle, new nuggets of data are constantly analyzed and placed into the context of that which we already know to be True. When a conflict arises, the nuggets must be either reconciled or rejected, because the classic holistic epistemological approach allows for no internal inconsistencies in Truth.

Dr. Cloke would say repeatedly, "It's all one big ball of wax." And as we constantly see in the Talmud when conflicting views arise: "Lo kashya,"  it's not a difficulty, the opinions can be reconciled as follows...

Post-modern society wants us to believe that classical religious faith is the refuge of the ignorant; that religion is the opiate of masses who require the anaesthetic to escape their empty lives, to imagine meaning where there is nothingness, to flee from the terrifying reality that there is no existence beyond what we experience in the moment.

But is that True?

I contend that the authentic religious personality is motivated, not to hide from the truth, but to aggressively seek it out, because reverence for Gcd is defined as an unwavering commitment to Truth.

Belief in Gcd and His Torah is not at the periphery of the quest for truth, it is at its very heart: "The Seal of Gcd is Truth." (Yoma 69b) Or, stated, differently: Gcd is the Greater Truth to which we all seek, and the sciences and the humanities attempt to apprehend Gcd through His created universe.

Revealed Truth is no less valid than empirical truth, and we see great symbioses between the two. Our knowledge of the sciences and the humanities constantly informs our understanding of Torah, and conversely, our understanding of Torah helps provide context for understanding the world around us.

It's all one big ball of wax, internally consistent; unrelated disciplines coming together to create to a greater, unified whole. 

Over the years, Modern Orthodoxy has struggled to distinguish itself from Chareidut (oy! do I hate those labels). About 25 years ago, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote an important book called Torah U'Madda, Torah & Science, in which he justifies the pursuit of worldly knowledge through sources in the Torah.

I would go one step farther and suggest that Modern Orthodoxy can be very succinctly defined as follows: the Torah-based philosophical approach that is open to Truth no matter what discipline it derives from, because the Seal of Gcd is Truth. By contrast, the Chareidi view is generally closed to any approach to Truth outside of Torah; it rejects and views antagonistically any notion of Chochma BaGoyim Ta'amin, that there is any wisdom outside of Torah.  

Four thousand years ago, our ancestor Judah compromised his personal prestige, his social standing and his narrow self-interest to admit to a Truth greater than himself. It was his unwavering commitment to the Grand Truth that made him and his descendants fit for the mantle of Jewish leadership throughout the generations.

May we all rise to his noble example.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.