Thursday, February 25, 2016

Who Do You Like for President? - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tissa 5776

(Exodus 30:11-34:35)

As a rabbi, I am careful to keep my political views to myself. I recognize that good people can differ on matters of public policy, and in any case, I subscribe to Daniel Patrick Moynihan's observation that culture, not politics, is far more important in determining the long-term success of a society. 

In spite of the foregoing, I ask: does the Torah have anything to say about the current US presidential race? 

I think it might. Come, let's learn a little Torah together.

First, let's set the stage:

Three weeks ago, in Parashat Mishpatim, we read how the Jews reached the highest of the high, communing with Gcd A-lmighty at Mount SInai, hearing the Ten Commandments from the mouth of Gcd, and declaring with one voice and one heart, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah, we will perform and listen to these commandments."

This week, we read how the Jews fell to the lowest of the low. Just a few weeks later, the Jews were worshiping and prancing around the golden calf like drunken Druids around a maypole.

[Um, sidebar: one of them thar Ten Commandments is a pretty clear prohibition against worshiping idols.]

So we blew it big time.

Moses, meanwhile, is oblivious to all this. He's up at the summit of Mount Sinai, enveloped as it was in fire and fog, faithfully transcribing the Torah from Gcd. The dictation suddenly stops, and Gcd says to Moses:
Go. Descend, because the people that you brought up from Egypt have ruined [our relationship]; they have quickly veered from the path that I commanded them, and fashioned for themselves a calf-idol, and are worshiping it and offering sacrifices to it, saying 'These are your gcds, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.' (32:7,8)
Rashi, the greatest of biblical exegetes, reads the verse as follows: 
Gcd says to Moses, 'descend from your position of greatness, for I only made you great because of them.' At the very moment that the Jews began worshiping the idol, Moses was cast out before the Heavenly Court.
Rashi speaks across the centuries to tell us something fundamental about the nature of leadership: that leaders are, at best, a reflection of the people they lead.

I have read that most Americans find the current field of presidential candidates lackluster on both sides of the aisle. To be sure, there is no shortage of screaming and divisive rhetoric; boatloads of bombast, mudslinging, jingoism and sloganeering. And no doubt there is an obscene amount of money changing hands. But is there any great demonstration of leadership? of vision? of virtue?

Similarly in Israel: the consensus is that Netanyahu and Yaalon are not great leaders, but they're about the best we can hope for.

Maybe we're looking through the wrong end of the telescope: instead of expecting more of our leaders, we should be expecting more of ourselves, of our society, of our culture. Maybe we have no right to expect better of our leaders until we demand better of ourselves.

Perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of morality and ethics, we will have more ethical politicians. Perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal integrity, we will have more honest politicians. And perhaps if we hold ourselves to a higher standard of civility, we will have more civil political discourse.

The Torah is saying that virtuous cultures generate virtuous leaders, not the other way around. And for Moynihan's intellectual heirs, that is, any serious student of contemporary culture, that is a very sobering thought in this political season.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Body Language - Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh 5776

(Exodus 27:20 - 30:10)

For whatever reason, the A-lmighty has given me the ability for make friends easily. My wife and kids joke about it, saying that Abba (Father) can make friends with dryer lint, and they smirk every time a total stranger strikes up a conversation with me in the grocery store or on the street. 

So let me tell you about a man of my acquaintance whom we'll call "Joe." 

Joe is a big bear of a man with a long ponytail, the type who greets everybody with a broad toothy smile. He's funny, naturally friendly, and his booming, bellowing laugh is contagious. He is passionate about music and loves to sing. He's a good father and husband. He cooks for his kids, takes them to church, tries to teach them the rights and wrongs of life. In short, Joe is a simple, sweet, good-hearted man.

To look at him today, you wouldn't know that Joe had a very difficult childhood, plagued with many life-threatening illnesses which kept him in hospital for long periods of time. Later, in high school, his father became disabled and they lost their house. He and his family lived in a car for nine months until they found a homeless campground in the woods. Yet somehow, despite ongoing medical issues, he has managed to transcend all this adversity, to keep smiling and to build the life he has for himself today.

What is the connection between Joe and this week's Torah portion?

Put a pin in that question for just a minute.

We read this week of the priestly vestments to be worn by the High Priest of Israel: The linen breeches, the floor-length tunic, the robe, the apron, the belt, the breastplate, the turban and the headband. 

The Torah goes to great length to describe the design of these garments and the beautiful and precious materials used in their manufacture: gold, silver, scarlet wool, rare purple- and blue-dyed cloth, diamonds, rubies, sapphires.

The high priest in his resplendent uniform represents the ideal man: the person who has worked through his issues (with great effort and difficulty) to overcome the baser human instincts; the person who has emerged from the crucible of personal growth and development, clear of mind, healthy in body and pure of spirit, eager and dedicated in the service of Gcd. Indeed, we are taught that every garment he wore was deeply symbolic, and helped atone for some particular human character fault.

Take for example, the tzitz, the golden headband. On it was engraved the words "Kodesh L'ashem", Holy unto Gcd. We are taught that the headband atoned for any temple offering brought in a state of ritual impurity, either purposely or inadvertently; and more broadly, it corrected for the character flaw of azut metzach, of impudence and rebelliousness that could lead to the bringing of such a flawed sacrifice.

The high priest, then, was the great peacemaker, uniting Gcd above with His frequently wayward people below. 

So what does all this have to do with Joe? As I mentioned above, to look at him you would never guess at the difficult life Joe has led.

And to look at him, you would never guess that Joe is Jewish, born of a Jewish mother. 

He shared this information with me quite by accident one day. Of course he knows nothing of the tenets of Judaism, having not received a single hour of religious instruction in his life. But he knows he is a Jew nonetheless.

And then yesterday, I guess Joe felt he had gotten to know me well enough to share something deeply important to him. He pulled me aside, rolled up his sleeve, and showed me one of his tattoos. On his arm, in flawless Hebrew, was boldly engraved "Kodesh L'ashem."

What he didn't know was that he showed me his tattoo the very week that those words are read publicly in the annual Torah reading cycle in every synagogue on the planet. 

I asked if he knew what the words meant, and he said that he'd looked them up. Joe neither reads nor writes Hebrew, yet, of all the myriad tattoos one could commission, he chose to have engraved on his body, in Hebrew, "Holy unto the Lcrd." It spoke to him, but couldn't explain why.

Here's why: his Jewish soul, deprived as it has been of any traditional, healthy conduit of Jewish spirituality, found expression in this tattoo.

There are many many "Joe"s in the world; people who may not even consciously realize that they seek a path back home, who yearn for a connection with the higher spirituality that the High Priest of Israel represents, who have a deep-seated calling to be Kodesh L'ashem.

The messianic age approaches. We the cognoscenti, those who have been blessed with a Torah education, those instructed in the proper ways of devotion to Gcd, must (like the High Priest) overlook the inadvertent transgressions of our people, and pave the spiritual path back home with Torah Shel Ahavah - the Torah of Love and Kindness and Compassion. 

Shabbat Shalom.