Spiritual Awakening

Image: Sunrise. (pixabay, public domain)

If you think I am writing this to you, yes, I am.

If you think I am writing this about you, yes, I am.

If you think this has nothing to do with you, well, I tried.

!קוּמִי אוֹרִי, כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ; וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה, עָלַיִךְ זָרָח

Arise, shine, because your light has come, and the glory of the Holy One will rise upon you! – Isaiah 60:1

We are in a time for spiritual awakening.

Mind you, I’m not claiming that many of us (any of us?) are awake. What I see around me are sleepers, myself included.

We are tempted to read Isaiah 60 as a triumphal psalm, because it speaks so firmly of good things to come, but we must not lose track of verse 2:

For, look, darkness will cover the earth, and fog [upon] the nations; but upon you the Holy One will rise, and the honor of the Eternal shall be seen upon you. – Isaiah 50:2

Never forget that Isaiah speaks as a prophet. He calls us to notice those things we do not want to see. It is very dangerous to assume that because I am [insert category here] that I am one of the people who will eventually be elevated in honor.

We are in a time of trouble, a dark night of the soul. The very climate is disrupted. Everyone (myself included!) point at scapegoats (Trump! Obama! Conservatives! Liberals! Islamists! Terrorists! Lazy people! Greedy people! Rich people! Politicians! The media! Social media! Parents! Kids these days!) Very few take responsibility, least of all me.

Isaiah 60 goes on to tell us that:

Up to now you has been forsaken and hated, so that no one passed you, I will exalt you forever, joy from generation to generation. – Isaiah 60:15

So let’s ask ourselves, honestly: to whom is Isaiah speaking? Is Isaiah talking to me, or is he warning me that someday the people I have forsaken and mistreated will be lifted up, no matter how I disdain them? In his own day, I believe Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel, people who had lost everything, people who had lost their homes, lost many loved ones, and who had been dragged off to work in other people’s houses. Am I one of those people now – or am I their oppressor?

To whatever degree I have benefitted from the sufferings of others, I should take Isaiah 60 as a warning. Is the security in my world provided by threatening the dignity of someone else? Is the peace of my neighborhood sustained by policing that targets someone else?  Are my taxes lower because there is stuff I simply don’t want to pay for, and devil take the unfortunate who needs what I won’t buy? Is my own sense of self-worth bolstered by looking down on someone else who lacks my education, my facility with language, or my abilities? Is my righteous attitude supported by a lack of empathy for someone different from me?

As long as I am preoccupied with pointing elsewhere with blame, I am part of the problem. As long as I am unwilling to look into the face of the person utterly different from me and try to love them, I am part of the problem. As long as I refuse to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the behavior of the person I see there, nothing will get better.

What if I were willing to look into the face of the stranger and search out the spark of the Divine?

What if They are not wrong about everything? What if I am not right about everything?

There are those who will say, “They started it. They won’t listen. They are ignorant fools. They will just take advantage and then where will we be?” That is the voice of fear, and from what I can tell, we have been listening to it at least since September 11, 2001, and truly much longer that that. What has it accomplished?

It is time for something new. It is time to listen. It is time to reach out. It is time for compassion and risk-taking.

But how else will we wake from this nightmare?

We are in a time for spiritual awakening. The question is, will we wake up?

This song, “It Won’t Take Long” by Ferron is my alarm clock:

Advertisements

Judaism and Social Justice

Image: Elie Wiesel (Photo: AP/Bebeto Matthews) Mr. Wiesel was a tireless advocate for the underdog, based on his own experience as an enslaved person in Auschwitz.

What need have I of all your sacrifices? says the Eternal.
I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls;
And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. 
That you come to appear before Me— Who asked that of you?
Trample My courts no more!
Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. 
Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. 
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime— Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.

– Isaiah 1:11-17

The prophet Isaiah made it abundantly clear in Chapter 1 of his great book that the Jewish mission is not merely to perform rituals but to aid the wronged in the world. He he closes this salvo with specific directions about two of the most woeful elements of Jewish society in his age: orphans and widows. He did not specify Jewish orphans and widows, and later commentators made it clear that if only for the long-term good of the Jewish people, we were never to limit our efforts to fellow Jews. We were to devote ourselves to justice for all the oppressed.

For most of Jewish history since that time (these lines were written just before the Babylonian Captivity) the Jews themselves have been a persecuted and often homeless people. Still, relief for the poor and the weak and the disenfranchised has been part of our portfolio, indeed it has BEEN our portfolio.

However, our investment in social justice did not begin with the Prophets. Look at this passage from Genesis:

Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

 And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”
And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”
When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.  – Genesis 18:20-33
Abraham argued with God – with the Holy One! – bargaining for the souls of the innocent in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, even though he had no idea whether there were so many blameless souls. What a bleeding heart he was! God was set to blast all of them for the sins of which only some were guilty.
.
God is aware, of course, that there are not ten righteous men in the doomed cities, but watches as Abraham bargains furiously for them. This is the Abraham whom God chose out of all the people in the world at that time, because of his fervour for justice and his kind heart. The sages teach us that it was exactly this quality that attracted God to Abraham. God had considered Noah, but Noah never advocated for the innocents who would die in the Flood.
.
Centuries of suffering schooled the hearts of the Jews, and for much  of U.S. History Jewish Americans served among other Americans in leadership of great social movements: the labor union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement. We have not always been in the right; a Jew served as one of the leaders of the Confederacy, to give only one example.  Jews have done evil as well as good. We are as prone to error as anyone.
.
But this great tradition of social justice is the reason that in a time of threat to various minorities in this country I and others feel the need to speak up and make our voices heard. When we say “Never again!” we mean “Never again for ANYONE.
.
This is not “politics.” This is speaking up for the five-year-old separated from his mother, speaking up for the refugee who has lost her home, speaking up for the young person terrified that he will be deported to a place where he is under threat of death. It is based on the texts in Leviticus 19 which forbid standing by as another person bleeds to death, and in which we are admonished to love the stranger.
.
And of course, we are Jews, so we will argue about specific applications, but if we say, “We need not be concerned about this “we must think back to those dark years in the 1930’s when all doors slammed in our faces. That was not just “politics.” That was murder.

Shabbat Shalom: Toldot

This week we look at the eventful and troubling parashah Toldot, or “Generations.”

I confess I don’t have a d’var Torah to offer you this week, but I can point you to several good ones online:

Blind Love from ParshaNut, by Rabbi David Kasher

A Father’s Love by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Joy and Loss by Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman

Sowing in the Unity of Love by Ariel ben Avraham

Can I Identify with the Struggles of Others? by Isaiah Rothstein

Remembering Kennedy

Serious Steps

This is a re-post of my remembrance of President Kennedy from last year, slightly updated. I reread it earlier this week and decided that these words were still the right words, given the state of the news and the nation right now.

It’s 51 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

What is Shabbat Nachamu?

"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael
“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.

What’s the Point of Ritual?

TorahRitualmod

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.

Image: LicenseAttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by rbarenblat

Remembering Kennedy

Serious Steps

It’s 50 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)