Guilt and Responsibility

It’s been very hot here today in Northern California. Normally we have a cool breeze from the ocean, but today there was only a hot wind from the east. Such weather makes everyone nervous: it’s fire season.

There’s a kind of foreboding that goes with hot windy days in fire season, especially in a drought year. Any tiny ember can start a huge fire, whether it’s from some fool tossing a cigarette butt or something more innocent, like a piece of equipment that happens to throw a spark. So those of us who have lived here for long pay attention and call the fire department if we even think we smell smoke.

Days like today I am reminded that Torah teaches us about communal values. In a few weeks, we’ll be saying Vidui, a prayer of confession. That prayer will include some sins that I know I have never committed. I have never personally committed murder, for instance, but I will confess it as if I had.

The first time I said that prayer with the congregation, it felt ridiculous. I didn’t murder anyone! I haven’t robbed anyone, or given bad counsel! I felt angry that I was supposed to say those things, even though I hadn’t personally done them. I felt misunderstood.

But now I understand the Vidui prayer differently. Even though I haven’t done those particular things, I am part of a community in which people may very well have done them. Even though I have not personally committed arson, I am part of a community in which some people are criminally careless with fire. (Witness all the illegal fireworks on July 4.) Even though I have not and would not make money from the exploitation of children, I live in a community notorious for its child sex trafficking.

What the Vidui teaches is that even if we don’t participate, if it happens in our community, we are responsible. As Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l said:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. – The Prophets, p. 19

I have never thrown a cigarette butt anywhere (I’ve never smoked.) But as part of my responsibility for fire safety in my area, I pay taxes for the fire department, and on days like today, I pay attention to any sign that there might be a fire. Anything less could cost lives. I am not guilty, but I am responsible.

I also live in a society that is racist to its core. People with dark skins suffer all manners of indignities I with my white skin do not suffer. I have never had any reason to be afraid of cops. I have never been trailed in a store. Nor is the suffering merely to dignity: my forebears benefitted from the accumulation of real estate wealth in the mid 20th century, and thanks to red-lining, African Americans did not. I have tried for most of my life to be a good, non-racist white person; I am not guilty of personal misbehavior since I learned better, but I am still responsible.

I am responsible to see to it that no one says racist things in my hearing without being challenged. I am responsible to see to it that my elected representatives vote for remedies to racist policies. I am responsible to keep my civil servants honest about their policies and the implementation of those policies. I am responsible to make sure that some of my tzedakah funds and volunteer time goes to address the wrong that still exists in my society. I am responsible not to interrupt, but to listen, when a black person shares their truth with me.

And as for all those other things, I’m responsible there, too. For instance, since there is that horrible child sex trafficking down on E 14th Ave. in Oakland, I support organizations that work to relieve the suffering, and I vote for elected officials who will work to end it. Since we live in fire danger country, I garden appropriately and do everything else the fire department suggests.

We don’t live on this planet alone. We can’t do whatever we want. And we cannot absolve ourselves with “it’s not my problem” when something is expensive or inconvenient or embarrassing. We are responsible to do what we can.

“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!

What’s the Point of Ritual?


I teach Introduction to Judaism classes for adults who want a basic education in Judaism.

One of the temptations in planning such a class is to focus primarily on the “how to” aspects: how to keep Shabbat and holidays, how to hang a mezuzah, how to have a proper Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah, how to keep up in the service. Certainly it is important for people to feel comfortable and competent in doing those things, but if that’s all I teach, I’ve not done enough.

Before we perform a mitzvah, usually there’s a blessing, one that starts out:

Blessed are You, [The name of God] our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctifies us with mitzvot…

And then we specify the mitzvah we are about to do. Often the words of the formula fly by as we focus on the mitzvah we are about to do, but there’s something important in there: the point, in fact. The point of mitzvot, the point of reading the scroll of Esther or sitting at the seder table or studying Torah is to sanctify us and to remind us of our role in this world. 

Some mitzvot are incomprehensible (Why avoid mixing linen and wool? Why wave the lulav?) but even the most mysterious of commandments encourage me to be aware of the world, to pay attention. They push me to stop and see, to wake up and notice. Combine them with Jewish study (another mitzvah!) and they direct that wakened awareness to the pursuit of Jewish virtues: towards lovingkindness, hospitality, humility, compassion, and justice.

If all I do is a bunch of quaint rituals, I’ve missed the point. The prophet Isaiah tells us that sacrifices and ritual are not enough by themselves to sanctify us in the first chapter of Isaiah:

“Why are all those sacrifices offered to me?” asks God. “I’m fed up with burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals! I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats! Yes, you come to appear in my presence; but who asked you to do this, to trample through my courtyards? Stop bringing worthless grain offerings! They are like disgusting incense to me! Rosh-Hodesh, Shabbat, calling convocations — I can’t stand evil together with your assemblies! (Isaiah 1:11-14)

Isaiah then reminds us that true holiness lies not in picturesque ritual, but in hands and heads that alleviate suffering, act justly and spread goodness in the world:

Get your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing evil, learn to do good! Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend orphans, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

We are entering the spring season of ceremony: Purim, then Passover, then Shavuot. We are approaching an annual opportunity for transformation. If we enter this time with an open heart and mind, then we can indeed be “sanctified by mitzvot” and become the hands of goodness in this world, seeking justice, defending the defenseless, finding hope for the destitute.

Whether we are beginners, in our first “Intro” class, or old hands at the Jewish holidays, let’s open our hearts and our minds to the meaning of these festivals, and transform: first ourselves, and then the world.

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