Holidays

A Story on an Airplane (for Shavuot)

I was on a flight from Boston to Newark.  I was wearing a kippah—I mention that because it’s germane to this story. Sometimes I wear a baseball cap when I travel, but this time, for some reason, I left it behind.

The plane was full and I was stuck in the middle seat of the emergency row (I hate the middle seat, but I love the emergency row). I figured during the short hop to Jersey I could keep my head down in the Gabriel Allon thriller I’d bought in the airport, and before I would know it, we’d have arrived.

The plane took off uneventfully, and I was at the point in the novel where the Israeli superspy was called out of retirement to save the world again when there was a tap on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw the flight attendant, a tall, delicate woman in her young thirties. Why was she noodging me?

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you learned, or merely observant?”

Huh? What kind of question is that?

“Are you learned, or merely observant?”

I mumbled something about not being sure I was either, but trying to be both. (There’s a Hasidic story about Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, who was once approached by a cop who asked, “Who do you work for and what are you doing here?” The rebbe, taken aback by the hidden spiritual implications of the question, asked the man if he would agree to follow him around asking that question all day—as a reminder! I wasn’t so glib, so I simply responded:) “What are you really trying to ask me?”

She said she had a question about Judaism. She asked, “Is it true that if I’m Jewish, I have to quit my job with the airline?”

Now, I’m in the middle seat, and we’re all flying cattle class anyway, so this truly bizarre question is taking place over the lap of at least one other passenger in very close quarters. I told her that as far as I knew, there was nothing in the Torah or Talmud that prohibited one from being a flight attendant for American Airlines. She thanked me and continued up the aisle.

For the next few minutes, I found it difficult to care about whether or not Gabriel Allon would set aside his paintbrushes to command the Mossad, so I got up and went to the galley at the front of the cabin, where she was alone. I asked her to explain a little more.

“My fiancé is Jewish,” she said, “and I’m not. I’m studying for conversion with a Chabad rabbi in Los Angeles. He told me that not only must a Jew keep kosher, but it is prohibited for a Jew to serve non-kosher food to another Jew, even inadvertently. So he said if I became Jewish, I’d have to quit my job, because part of my duties includes serving food to passengers.” She was obviously emotionally torn up about this prospect.

I’m not judgmental about others’ Jewish choices, but this woman really needed someone to talk to. So I listened. She said, “You know, this process has been so hard. My fiancé isn’t Orthodox, but we wanted to do this with a Chabad rabbi because… you know… we wanted to do it right.” (My bowels twisted and I bit my lip, but said nothing.)

But it became clear that this teacher was abusing his student. She said, “A few weeks back, my fiancé and I decided to make a real Shabbat evening experience, the whole thing—services, dinner, just being together and not doing any work. We went to the local Conservative synagogue—it was closest—and we just had the most incredible time, singing the prayers and joining in with a Jewish community. I couldn’t wait to tell my rabbi. When I saw him a few days later, I told him all about it and how wonderful it was. He said to me, ‘You went to a Conservative synagogue? I just added four more months onto your studies.’”

Her eyes welled up, and my heart broke a little for her. I said, “I want you to know, there are many kinds of rabbis and many ways of being Jewish.” She nodded, thanked me for listening, and we had to return to our seats.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and about this L.A. rabbi who was beating her up emotionally. I felt awful, because she’s supposed to be falling in love with Judaism and everything Jewish, yet here she is, guilt-ridden and hurt and filled with ambivalence. And I thought about that question, “Are you learned or merely observant?”, and how she asked me simply because I was wearing a kippah this time.

The flight ended, she was making the connection to LA and home, and of course we’d never see each other again. So I figured I would make a final gesture. As we started that disembarking ritual—“…bye now, b’bye, good-bye, bye now…”—I slipped my business card into her hand. “Listen,” I said, “I know a couple of really good rabbis in L.A.”

I don’t know what became of her, or if she became a Jew, and what kind of spiritual life she might have discovered for herself. But I hope she found her way Home.

And I think of Ruth the Moabite, who thousands of years ago clung to her mother-in-law Naomi and said, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” I wonder sometimes, if Ruth were navigating our Jewish world today, whether or not she would ever make it inside the gates. Thank G-d she did, and we celebrate her legacy, and those who made a journey like hers, this week. She, too, made it Home.

 

The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot, which begins on Saturday night, June 8.

Marking Yom HaShoah in 2019

This is the text of the letter I sent out to the Babson College community today,
on the eve of Yom HaShoah:

Thursday is Yom HaShoah, the annual day in the Jewish calendar that commemorates the annihilation of European Jewry during World War II. Seventy-four years after the liberation of Auschwitz and the defeat of the Nazis, it is a time for sober reflection about what the legacy of the Holocaust means to us who are now three and four generations removed from it.

In truth, all Jews today carry within them the legacy of the SHOAH (the Jewish term for the events called “the Holocaust”), although each carries it in a different way. Many Jews have branches on their family trees that simply break off. Others grew up with memories passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents about survival in the most miraculous, or most horrific, of circumstances. Others simply know the stories, and have a vague sense of responsibility because of the legacy of this painful history. It is part of us, forever.

Yom HaShoah seems especially resonant this year. Surveys of Americans tell us dispiriting news. Two-thirds of millenials (and 41% of all Americans) do not know what Auschwitz was; 22% of them never heard of the Holocaust (or aren’t sure if they have). The remaining survivors of the death camps are elderly today; in a few years, there will be no living eyewitnesses to the crimes of the Nazis and their enablers.

And the emerging trends of hate, violence, and white supremacy are on our minds this year. The murderous attack at the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California last week - six months after the massacre of Jews on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh - in the name of white nationalism conjures up great horror among us on this Yom HaShoah.

This week, the ADL released its annual study of antisemitism in America. In 2018, it recorded 1,879 antisemitic incidents in the United States, including the bloodiest in American history (the assault in Pittsburgh). This number is the third-highest annual number that the ADL has ever recorded. This is why many Jews, young and old, are asking questions we've never asked in our lifetimes:  How safe are we here, really? 

What is there to say or do? I think the answer from Jewish tradition is twofold. There is a famous saying by the great sage Hillel from over 2,000 years ago (it would be a cliché if it weren’t so perfectly accurate):  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

If I am not for myself”— this is why Jews take the legacy of the Shoah so personally. Jewish survival, and its transmission to the next generation, is an absolute obligation for us; the Shoah makes that message only more profound. This is part of what the State of Israel means to us: There is a refuge; a safe place (recalling that the whole world, including America, turned its backs on many victims of the Nazis); and, not insignificantly, a Jewish army to defend itself. The Shoah isn’t the reason Israel exists (its roots extend far earlier than the War), but it does explain the passion with which its supporters will defend it.

In other words, this response to the Shoah is: AM YISRAEL CHAIThe Jewish People lives. And every Jew has a responsibility to make it so. 

But if I am only for myself”— That “but” is crucial. The Shoah didn’t start with death camps; it began with the increasing dehumanization of Jews, and propaganda that gradually eroded rights and liberties to the point where we were turned into something less-than-fully-human. Denial of rights leads to oppression. And that leads to neighbors abandoning and attacking neighbors; which led to genocide. It was systematic, it was thoughtfully planned, and it was almost successful.

This idea, too, seems particularly profound in 2019. The massacres of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand remain a fresh wound. As does the assault on Christians in Sri Lanka. And the burning of three black churches in Louisiana last month. Just to cite the three most notorious, and most recent, examples of the current rise of hateful violence. 

In other words, the other commanding voice of the Shoah is to stand up against the dehumanization of anyone, anywhere. To say to every tyrant: “Not on our watch.” To know and understand our neighbors - and to defend and protect them.

That is what is at stake in the memory of the Shoah. That is what we mean when we say “Never Again.”

We're Doing the 10 Plagues All Wrong—Part Two

The Maggid section of the Haggadah—the lengthiest part of the seder, the section which retells the story of the Exodus—culminates with the description of the so-called “Ten Plagues.” As I wrote earlier, the idea of the “plagues” is misunderstood, and that has led to a lot of misguided creativity around this part of the seder.

None of that is to say that there aren’t powerful and important lessons regarding the ritual here. In some ways, this is one of the most provocative sections of the entire seder.

When we reach this passage, every community that I’ve encountered has a similar sort of ritual. Upon reciting the name of each  “plague,” a drop of wine is removed from each of our cups. (Many also remove drops of wine before the 10 Plagues: 3 drops at the verse from Joel 3:3  “...Blood [דָם] and fire [אֵשׁ] and pillars of smoke [וְתִימֲרוֹת עָשַׁן]”; and 3 times at the acronym for the Plagues [דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב], for a total of 16 drops.)

There are variations about how this removal takes place. Many people use their fingers, taking out wine from their glass drop by drop. Perhaps this custom alludes to the יד חזקה / yad chazakah / the “mighty hand” with which G-d redeemed the Israelites (see Exodus 6:1, 13:9; and especially Deuteronomy 26:8, which the Haggadah is citing, as well as Deut. 34:12, the last verse of the Torah).  Other people tip their glasses, spilling drops one at a time. Some use a utensil to remove the drops.

But the most important thing is to be clear about what this ritual means.

A kiddush cup full of wine is a symbol of joy and celebration. To reduce the wine in our glass symbolizes reducing our joy.

Why do we do this? The 15th Century commentator Don Yitzhak Abarbanel said that our joy is not complete as we recall the suffering of the Egyptians as we made our way to freedom. He quotes Proverbs 24:17:  “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice...”

That is a breathtaking statement.  Recall that when we read “Egyptians” in the text, what we’re saying is:  Nazis. Inquisitors. Hamas. Baby-killers, as the midrash makes clear. The most bloodthirsty oppressors that have slimed their way onto the stage of human history. 

And yet, when we consider the victories that gave us our freedom, we recognize that our enemies suffered, too.

It recalls as astounding passage from the Talmud that tells how the angels wished to rejoice at the moment of the Splitting of the Sea, but G-d silenced them:

שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא שמח במפלתן של רשעים. דאמר ר' שמואל בר נחמן אמר ר' יונתן... באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקב"ה אמר להן הקב"ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני.

The Holy and Blessed One does not rejoice at the fall of the wicked.
Thus Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:... At that  moment [when the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea,] the ministering angels intended to sing before the Holy and Blessed One.
The Holy One said, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you would sing before me?!”

This is an astonishing idea. Our tradition is demanding that, at the moment of deliverance from suffering, we set aside any sort of triumphalism. Instead, we are called upon to recognize the very human-ness of our enemy.

To be sure, these passages do not apologize for our victory. We don’t regret that we were brought out of Egypt, just as we don’t regret the integrity and passion and ferociousness with which we’ve fought any just war in history. Evil must be vanquished, sometimes only through greater force.  

What the tradition does assert is that we can’t allow ourselves to dehumanize our enemies. They, too, are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They suffered when their water turned to blood, their fields were devoured by locusts, and their firstborn lay dead in their beds. They suffered when we fought back in the ghettos and the trenches, and when they and their children died on the battlefields. 

Enemies are real, but perhaps recognizing each other’s inherent humanity is a cautious step towards a world with... well, a bit fewer enemies. 

Can we live up to this standard that our tradition sets? I’m not saying I can, not yet. The desire for justice... which sometimes is indistinguishable from the desire for vengeance against those who have hurt us... is just too strong. But that’s what makes this spiritual challenge so compelling—our highest values are what we should reach for, not what we already comfortably accept.  

This is the ritual of the drops at the Ten Plagues.  It’s radical and challenging, and it deserves a moment of meditation and reflection before we tip our cups.  



We're Doing the Ten Plagues All Wrong—Part One

I collect Haggadahs. I love them; I think the Haggadah is the quintessential Jewish religious text. Not only because it tells the story of how we became a people, but also because there are Haggadot customized for every Jewish family and community. That’s why there are so many hundreds of them out there.

Pride of place in my Haggadah collection goes not to rare volumes or collector’s editions. Instead, I prefer photocopied and homemade texts that families have shared with me over the years, taking the traditional order, texts, and rituals and making the story their own. After all, personalizing the story is the key injunction of this festival: “In every generation, we must view ourselves as if we, personally, came out of Egypt” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5). We write ourselves into the continually unfolding story, respectfully inscribing the latest chapter that builds on what came before.

At the culmination of the Maggid section of the Haggadah—the part that tells the story of the Exodus—is a description of the עשר מכות/Esser Makkot, known colloquially as the Ten Plagues. And judging by the Haggadot in my collection, as well as all the creative seder material that fills my inbox at this time of the year, we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Racism. Climate change. Islamophobia… Countless Haggadot and seder-leaders over the years have invited guests to list “10 modern plagues” that afflict our world.

Homophobia. Rape culture. Surging antisemitism… there is no shortage of plagues in our world, and we’re often called by well-meaning people today to elaborate on them at the seder.

Family-separation policies for immigrants. The ubiquity of screens. Allowing rich people to set our communal agenda. Suburban complacency… I can do it, too. I’m sure you have your own list.

But if we think about it, these lists really don’t work at this part of the seder. It’s not that these things aren’t important—they are, and each contributes to a form of “enslavement” that we all yearn to be free from.

The problem is, that’s not what the מכות עשר / Esser Makkot / “Ten Plagues” are all about. 

Makkot are not “plagues.” They are “strikes”, as in military strikes against an aggressive enemy. That is precisely the image that the Torah presents in the Exodus story: G-d is waging a battle against Pharaoh in order to achieve the liberation of the Israelite slaves. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moses:

וְשָׁלַחְתִּ֤י אֶת־יָדִי֙ וְהִכֵּיתִ֣י אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹל֙ נִפְלְאֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ
וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will stretch out My hand and strike [v’hikeiti – the same root as makkot]  Egypt with
various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.
(Exodus 3:20)

This process unfolds over a series of 10 strikes against Egypt, each one a tool towards bringing about freedom: blood, frogs, lice, etc…

When the Torah recalls the Exodus, it refers to these events as “signs” and “wonders”. In Deuteronomy 34:11, they are called אותות (“signs”) and מופתים (“portents”); these words are used again in Psalms 78 and 105. They are divinely attributed miracles that directly brought about the release of the people from bondage.

The “Ten Plagues” are the tools of liberation. They are not lingering calamities from which the world suffers, like racism, environmental cataclysm, or ignorance. They are not called “plagues.”

The Torah has words for “plague”: נגע / nega’ and מגפה / magefah. Nega’ usually appears in the context of leprosy, the scale-disease that was a particularly horrible trauma in the Bible. (Later, a whole tractate of the Mishna on this theme would be called Nega’im.) Magefah is used usually in the context of massive deaths after the Israelites sin as a community (see, for example, Numbers 14:7, 25:8-9, 26:1; and 1 Samuel 4:17). But neither term, nega’ nor magefah, conjures up God’s battle with Pharaoh.

There is one exception (because there’s always an exception). In Exodus 11:1, just prior to the מכת הבכורות / the strike against the first-born of Egypt, G-d tells Moses:

…ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם…
“I will bring but one more plague [nega’] upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt…” 

Here is the one appearance of the word “plague” in the entire saga. Why does this word appear here, and only here?

Perhaps that Tenth Strike is different. After all, scholars have pointed out that the Esser Makkot occurred in three triads; there is a literary symmetry in the clusters of three, and the Tenth stands outside of the pattern. Perhaps the severity of the 10th Strike is so intense that even G-d realizes that this is the “nuclear option.” Maybe it’s simply the exception that proves the rule, since nowhere else in biblical or rabbinical literature these events are called “plagues.”

So it’s just a little too lazy to score political points by asking, “What are 10 modern plagues…?” We have more than our share of them, it is true. But there is a cognitive dissonance in linking the today’s blights with wondrous moments in the past that directly led to our freedom.

The seder saga inspires other, more appropriate and difficult questions: What “miraculous” things have contributed to our freedom – individually, as a family, and as a people? What wondrous events in our past directly made it possible for us to be here today? And how do we appropriately express our wonder, awe, and gratitude?

Good Enough

Had G-d brought us out of Egypt
But not parted the Sea for us – Dayenu!
Had G-d parted the Sea for us
But not brought us through on dry land – Dayenu!
Had G-d brought us near to Mount Sinai
But not given us the Torah – Dayenu!

 Here’s a conversation starter for a dry seder:  Does anyone really believe the words to this song?

            I mean, we’ve been singing Dayenu a long time – probably since the era of the Geonim (650-1075 CE). Even families that have abridged the seder to a significant degree still consider this song essential. But consider the words as they appear on the page, and the message is less than obvious. Do we really believe that “It Would Be Good Enough for Us” (for that is the meaning of Dayenu) if G-d had redeemed us from slavery and then left us to starve in the desert? If the Sea had parted and the story ended there? If we had not been allowed to coalesce into a people, and had ultimately gone the way of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Babylonians, and others who long ago folded into history’s abyss?

            Of course it wouldn’t have been “good enough.”  Any break in any link of the chain of those miraculous events would have signified the end of the Jewish people, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to sing Dayenu to G-d. How could that possibly be “good enough”? So maybe this passage has more to it than meets the eye?

            Dayenu is placed nearly halfway through the seder, after most of the storytelling has taken place and just after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We have already recounted the brutality of slavery. We have begun to comprehend all the many miracles – and the miracles upon miracles, according to Rabbis Yossi Ha-G’lili, Eliezer, and Akiva in the Haggadah – that have brought us here today, to this moment. Soon we’ll be feasting. But first we sing this song.

            The themes of what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free are placed before us.  And there’s a trap. We might reach this point in the seder, say to ourselves that slavery is a thing of the past, and we’re done with it. Let’s eat.

            But slavery is not a thing of the past.  Those who delude themselves into thinking they’re the most free just might find themselves in chains more restrictive than ever.  Just consider:

·      One in three Americans are chronically overworked;

·      54% of Americans have felt “overwhelmed” at work in the past month;

·      21% of overworked Americans exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.[1]

Do you see? A girl who starves herself “just to lose a few more pounds” is still enslaved. A family that feels compelled to make a Bar Mitzvah party that much bigger or more lavish because that’s the style is enslaved. A teenager who accommodates sleep deprivation just to get fifty more points on the cursed SATs is still enslaved. Uniquely, Americanly enslaved.

            What’s the way out of this trap?  Only this: the person who knows how to say Dayenu—what I have is, indeed, truly enough for me—is the person who is really free. I can stop the endless pursuit of acquiring, competing, accumulating more. In fact, I can do a better job at giving some of it away.

            Of course, there are plenty around us who are truly, desperately in need. This lesson can’t be applied outwards toward our neighbors, telling them they should be satisfied with whatever they have (as in the words of the miser in a classic Chasidic story, “If I can subsist on bread, they can surely subsist on stones!”) It only works when directed within.

            That’s why we sing Dayenu in our seder. Only the person who can look at his life and say, “What I have is truly what I need,” knows the taste of liberation; everything else is delusion.

 


[1] Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2005, http://familiesandwork.org/press/overworkinamericarelease.html#overwork

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

Borrowed Dresses: A Thought about Tu B'Av, the Festival of Love

Tu B’Av is a return to normalcy: Just six days after the Tisha B’Av fast that marks the destruction that senseless hate can wreak, Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av) is a day devoted to love.

According to the Mishnah, Israel in antiquity had a minor summer festival when young women would dance in the fields, inviting young men to court them:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:

There were no festivals more joyful for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on [Tu B’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments – borrowed, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have a garment of her own. Each of the garments required previous ritual immersion. And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

 This is what they would say: “Young man! Pay close attention and see whom you are about to choose. Don’t be seduced by beauty, but pay heed to a virtuous family.” After all, “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory, but a woman who fears God is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30)…  
                         Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. כָּל הַכֵּלִים טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה' הִיא תִתְהַלָּל

There’s so much here in this passage—it seems so against-the-grain of what we might imagine ancient Israel was like, including the young women, in this case, controlling their own romantic destinies. I’ve written about Tu B’Av and love in Judaism, and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky has posted this excellent essay about the festival’s possible biblical roots.

It’s easy to skip over that passage about the “borrowed white garments.” What an astonishing custom that is: on a day of frivolity and frolicking, the young women of Jerusalem were determined that none of their peers would be hurt or humiliated while the celebrations were happening. So none would wear her own dress; instead, they would share with each other, including those from poor families who couldn’t afford a dress at all. This was how Jews celebrated.

I wonder how this principle might apply today. Our celebrations have become disasters of consumption. The more money you have, the more elaborate the celebration seems to have become. Somehow, brisses turned into bar/bat mitzvahs, bar/bat mitzvahs turned into weddings, and weddings turned into… what? Papal ordinations?

Each May in Boston, it seems that every Jewish organization has its “Annual Dinner,” where much-needed funds are raised to finance the crucial work that these non-profits, day schools, and synagogues perform year-round. And yet… I know many Jewish professionals dread that time of the year, when night after night they have to experience this season of conspicuous consumption, when many of the values of modesty, equality, and integrity go out the window in pursuit of the big donors’ money. One (important) organization, for instance, is known for charging substantial dollars for a seat at its annual dinner—and for those who pay less, but are committed to the cause, there are tables in an entirely different room from the rest of the donors and speakers! They get to watch the event videostreamed to them in their "annex."

But enough grumpiness. I’m thinking about the daughters of Jerusalem, and what we might learn from them. They teach us, for instance, why Tzedakah organizations that feed hungry people need to serve dinner on china, and use real utensils, even though plastic utensils are so much easier to clean up. It’s why food programs need fresh baked pies and chocolate chip cookies, not just soup and a green vegetable.

It’s why it’s not enough to donate your old clothes—by definition, clothes that you wouldn’t wear any more—or your old furniture, or old video games, or anything else. Laudable as those gifts may be (they certainly shouldn't be thrown out), we're supposed to reach for a higher standard. Maimonides had this nailed 900 years ago. He said that the definition of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was this: “What I want for myself, I want for other people. And what I don’t want for myself, I don’t want [to happen to] them.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206)

Can you imagine a high school prom—where all the students, boys and girls alike, wear “borrowed clothes” from one another, so that no one is trying to outdo their neighbor? No one would show up in a fancier car than anyone else—not only because it’s in extremely bad taste, but also because they wouldn’t want to humiliate anyone whose family couldn’t afford otherwise.

Can you imagine how different synagogue life would be—especially in the notorious “Bar Mitzvah Year”? Rich families would no longer say, “If I’ve got it, why shouldn’t I flaunt it?” Because they would understand that exorbitant spending puts pressure on all the other families in a community, making others think, “I suppose that’s the community standard that is expected of us.”

Of course, every child in the class would be invited to everyone else’s birthday party—because no one would ever want to have someone else be hurt on the occasion of their celebration.

I'd be curious to know other ways in which readers would apply this principle. Can you imagine how different, how sensitive, how empathetic our communities could be?

I can imagine it. Call it a hippie-socialist-Bernie-kibbutz fantasy if you want, but I'll take the Sages and the young women of Jerusalem from long ago, and their definition of what a "Festival of Love" really should be. 

The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

On Israel's 70th Independence Day

My prized possession:

Der Tog.jpg

The front page of the daily American Yiddish newspaper “Der Tog” ("The Day"), May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s independence. On that day the paper was produced in blue ink. My grandfather saved it for me, giving it to me about five years after his death.

The large headline says, Iddishe Melukha: "Jewish State."

"Recognition from America"

“Ben Gurion proclaims Jewish State: 'Israel'”

Lower left corner: Truman, Herzl, and Ben Gurion


1,978 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

!חג שמח