Don’t wait for God’s permission to repair the world

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden, 9/10/18)

On a Friday evening in February, my family sat down for our weekly Shabbat dinner. This is an important time for us to decompress from the hustle and bustle of the week and to reconnect to one another. On this Friday night, our teenage sons had an urgent matter to discuss. They asked if they could go to the March for Our Lives Rally in Washington, DC, the following month. They knew they had a busy schedule with a lot of school commitments. They knew that we don’t have an unlimited travel budget. They were expecting us to say no. How surprised they were when we not only said ‘yes,’ but that we would go with them. 

We all shared a sense of urgency to go to Washington. We were outraged by the latest senseless school shooting on February 14 at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which a former student shot and killed 17 innocent people, 14 of them students, 3 staff members. We were pained by the bloodshed that took place virtually in our backyard. We were horrified when our boys heard personal accounts from camp and youth group friends who attend Stoneman Douglas. All of these factors contributed to our decision to travel as a family to Washington for the March for Our Lives, but these were not the decisive reasons. What clinched it for us was the passion, poise and persistence of the Stoneman Douglas students who would not let this story fade from the news cycle. Our sons saw in them peers who cared about changing the status quo and stood up to take action themselves. 

Our family drove to Washington. We joined up with United Synagogue Youth, which fused participation in the Saturday march with traditional Shabbat observance.  The feeling of being part of nearly one million people singing together, shouting together, demanding change together was overwhelmingly powerful. My children were transformed by the experience, and it’s because their peers from Stoneman Douglas did not sit and wait to be told to take action. They did not listen to cynics who said nothing can be done. They grabbed the mantle of leadership, and inspired millions across the country. 

Our Torah presents different models of leadership. For one, there’s Noah. He seems to be a nice guy, unlike his violent neighbors. When God commands Noah to build an Ark, Noah silently obeys. When God tells Noah about the flood to destroy all life on earth except those allowed onto the Ark, Noah does not protest. He just saves himself and his family. To his credit, Noah did not commit the crimes of his neighbors. But neither did he step up to bear witness to their crimes and to improve society. 

The rabbis of our tradition criticize Noah for his apathy. Consider this statement in the Midrash about the end of the flood when it was time to leave the Ark: 

The Midrash says: “Noah said to himself, Since I only entered the ark with permission (from God), shall I leave without permission? The Holy One said to him: Are you looking for permission? In that case, I give you permission, as it says, ‘Then God said to Noah, Come out of the ark.’”

The Midrash then adds: “Said Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, If I had been there I would have smashed down [the doors of] the ark and taken myself out of it.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  sums up this midrash as saying: when it comes to repair of the world, don’t wait for God’s permission. Just get to work. 

The Torah presents leaders such as Abraham and Moses as contrasts to Noah. While Noah waited passively for God’s instructions, Abraham cried out to God to do justice and spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of the innocent. Moses protected the Israelites when God threatened to destroy them over the Golden Calf incident. The Parkland students resemble Abraham and Moses much more than Noah. They are not waiting for God’s permission to repair the world, and neither should we. 

The students have courageously called out the complacency of lawmakers. They endure constant harassment from gun lobby sympathizers and continue to make their case in public. When told that nothing could be done about the scourge of guns in our society, they got modest legislation passed in the Florida legislature and Congress. And when elected officials would not do more, they pressured corporations to sever ties with the NRA. Over the summer they went on a nation-wide bus tour that included visits to gun ravaged cities like Chicago where they joined forces with their peers to protest gun violence. And they are just getting started. The Parkland students are continuing to build their movement to reduce gun violence through sensible laws such as universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes and banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons.  

The Parkland kids are the same age as my children, and yet they are my heroes. One of the most prominent Parkland students, Matt Deitsch, happens to be Jewish. He graduated from Stoneman Douglas in the spring and is the Chief Strategist for the March for Our Lives organization. In preparation for these High Holidays he contributed this short piece, titled “What If?” to the Jewels of Elul blog. He writes:

What if you grew up in the small suburb of Parkland, Florida, as a normal kid, Hebrew teacher, lifeguard and youth group president with aspirations of being a filmmaker?

What if one-day, loss and risk turned your life upside down? Mine did.

What if we did not have to bury our heroes? …What if we came together to confront the problems of today? What if our elected officials stood up for the most vulnerable people?

… What if we did not just ask these questions, but also found answers? …

What if we could all have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless of zip code, religion, color or status?

Matt Deitsch and his friends are not waiting for God or anyone else to give them permission to repair the world. Like Abraham, they jumped in and took charge. As we enter the new year of 5779, I pray that we will be inspired by the Parkland students. Let us not wait for God’s permission to bring more hesed, loving kindness, into our world. May we create a world without bloodshed and violence. May we break down the doors of our Arks to stamp out injustice. May we build a world of love. Amen

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#MeToo in the New Year

11 Sep

(Delivered at Congregation Gan Eden 9/11/18)

At a Hollywood awards show a few months ago the host, comedian John Mulaney, made the following observation: “Last year, everyone who is famous died. This year, everyone who is famous wishes they were dead.” The quip drew nervous laughter because of the many powerful and famous men who had recently been publicly confronted with credible allegations of sexual harassment. 

Indeed, our world has changed since the intrepid investigative reporting of The New Yorker and The New York Times nearly a year ago exposed the sexual harassment committed over many years against many women by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Soon, there was an avalanche of revelations of other male abusers. The outrage in society towards these men crescendoed into #MeToo and #Timesup! and our world has forever changed. 

Egregious abuse was happening in public view for years, yet many of us didn’t see it. Or we chose not to see it. Or we saw it and dismissed it as “boys being boys.” In many cases it was an “open secret” that men like Harvey Weinstein used their power inappropriately. Back in 2013 actor Seth MacFarlane announced the 5 Oscar nominees for Best Supporting Actress and quipped: “Congratulations. You five ladies no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein.” Those present politely laughed. It took another four years for us to realize it was no laughing matter. More than fifty women have leveled accusations against Weinstein in the published accounts. Many lived in fear that Weinstein would ruin their careers if they said anything. Some did say something and indeed experienced retaliation and crippling of their aspirations in Hollywood.

We have learned a lot in the past year from many women, as well as a number of men, who have lived in fear of sexual predators who held power over them not only because of the action itself, but because society looked the other way. Then, all of a sudden, society’s eyes were opened. The breaking of the Weinstein story opened the floodgates for the exposure of sexual harassment as an epidemic touching virtually every industry. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, commenting on the ravages of the Vietnam War said , “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” I think this teaching applies to all of us who allowed the pervasiveness of abuse in our society for decades.  

Fortunately, thanks to the brave victims who have come forward to tell their stories, a loud and determined consensus emerged that we could no longer tolerate the status quo. Time’s up for sexual harassment. This consensus has enabled more victims to tell their stories.

Since the #MeToo movement, I’ve been thinking a lot about violence that takes place in plain sight. Therefore, I am struck when I confront today’s Torah reading, the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, to find a story about violence and abuse of power that takes place out in the open—in plain sight. 

If the story happened today, I can imagine a newspaper headline: “Abraham assaults son in act of ritual violence.” Another headline might scream, “Abraham blames God for ordering sacrifice.” What a scandal this would be! We glean from the story the traumatic effect on the main characters. For instance, Isaac and Abraham are never in each other’s presence again, and God and Abraham never speak to each other again.

Often overlooked, though, are two additional characters in the story. Two nameless servants accompany Abraham and Isaac. They are referred to in Hebrew as n’arav, Abraham’s youths, commonly translated as ‘lads.’  They are told to stay behind as Abraham and Isaac ascend Mt. Moriah. The lads do not see the actual binding, we can presume, but we can ask, ‘What were they thinking at that time?’ When Abraham comes down the mountain alone and returns to the lads, we do not hear them asking, “Where’s Isaac?” They silently go on their way. They knew something was wrong but they seemingly said nothing. On one level, who can blame them? Abraham was their boss. Who were they to say anything? On the other hand, they were the only witnesses. They had an obligation to share. 

Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote at the dawn of the #MeToo movement, “It’s time we tell the stories that weren’t recorded. The stories we were too scared to share, those that weren’t deemed important enough to be remembered. It’s about reading between the lines, and listening.” 

The central mitzvah of Rosh HaShanah is lishmoa kol shofar, to listen to the sound of the shofar. The shofar is our alarm. It is meant to wake us up to be more attentive to the world around us. The sounds of the shofar should goad us to listen, really listen, to those who are in distress and to take action as individuals and as a society to make sure such abuse is not tolerated.  

Until the #MeToo movement, too many of us were like the silent lads who should have known bad stuff had to be going on, but we chose to remain silent or to look the other way. That said, I would like to offer an alternative understanding of the two lads. If we read between the lines in the Binding of Isaac story, we find another hidden story. It’s that the anonymous servants did speak up. Consider how we know the events of the Akeidah. The servants bore witness to it. It was they who wrote it down to make sure future generations would not forget. Perhaps it was precisely for our #MeToo moment of public awakening and reckoning that they told their story. 

In this new year, we must continue to create safe spaces for the vulnerable in our midst who feel great pain. We must listen to their stories. We must bear witness. We must not be indifferent. When we open our hearts to those in pain and work to create a safe society for all, we bring hesed, loving-kindness, into the world. Olam hesed yibaneh. We must build a world of love. 

Amen. 

Farewell to Temple Torat Emet: Remarks delivered April 29, 2017

29 Apr

 

Rabbi Edward Bernstein served as Spiritual Leader of Temple Torah/Temple Torat Emet from 2011 to 2017.

My tie for this week is a medical-themed tie. I wear it this Shabbat as a reminder of the role of the kohanim (priests) to check people for physical blemishes, such as skin disease that would disqualify them from participating in Temple service. The text tells us:

ג וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע בְּעוֹר־הַ֠בָּשָׂ֠ר… וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ:

The Kohen shall examine the blemish on the skin of his body… when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.

Meshekh Hokhmah (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926)) notes that

וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן (v’ra-a-hu hakohen)means when the priest sees him—the person—not it—the disease. In other words, the kohen is to examine the whole person, not only the diseased limb. He is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is affected.

A Kohen is responsible to look out not only for flaws but to look at a human being and appreciate him or her beyond any flaws. The Kohen is charged to look out for a nega, a blemish. However, in order to fulfill that mission, he must have a vision of healing and wholeness. If he focuses only on the blemish, the person will only be seen in terms of the blemish. With a broader perspective, he is able to unlock qualities of kindness that bring about healing for the individual and the community.

Our society is being torn apart by unthinkable cruelty, violence and hatred. In a society in which airline personnel violently remove a paying passenger from a plane, or a candidate for high office mocks the physical disabilities of a reporter, or vulnerable populations such as Hispanics and Muslims live in fear, our job as a Jewish community must be to bring more kindness into the world. The stakes are high. Religious institutions, such as synagogues, are uniquely positioned to be laboratories for kindness. When we are at our best we not only provide refuge from the world, we develop skills and habits within our community to bring healing and kindness to the world. If we who care about synagogue life fail this basic mission of modeling kindness, the synagogue will become utterly irrelevant to the vast majority of our community. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his later years said it best: “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am older I admire kind people.” Sometimes in synagogue life, we lose sight of our community’s broader mission to model kindness.  It is easy to get stuck and see only an individual’s flaws and not appreciate the totality of each person. In such a reactionary state of mind, we deprive ourselves the opportunity to appreciate the gifts that each individual brings to bear. We need occasional reminders of our role as a Jewish communal institution to model radical kindness, radical hospitality and radical compassion.

As I reflect on the broader purpose of a shul and its rabbi, I of course acknowledge that this is a Shabbat of transition.

Whatever blemishes there may be in me or our shul, I’d like to pretend we are all kohanim and look at the bigger picture or, if you will, the entire body. Today is a time for Hakkarat HaTov, recognition of the good. Just as I hope that I will not be judged for any single shortcoming, I strive to do the same for the congregation.

I am grateful for the six years that we have had together. I am pleased to share that my family and I are remaining in the community. I have been hired as a chaplain with Vitas Hospice. I will also be teaching in various capacities. I have joined the faculty of the Florence Melton Adult School in Boca Raton and invite you to contact me privately if this intensive program of learning might be of interest to you next fall. I also plan to do freelance rabbinic and educational consulting, including lifecycle events for unaffiliated Jews in Palm Beach County. Having caught the writing and publishing bug in the last couple of years, I hope to spend time writing as well.

As I look forward to new endeavors, I also look back on my service at Temple Torat Emet.  I am grateful for the learning many of us have done together. I am grateful for your trust in allowing me to facilitate services. I am grateful for the accomplishments we achieved together from the merger to create Temple Torat Emet to our Adult Education Consortium  of five synagogues to JACATT to goofy YouTube videos that some of us created together. Moreover, I’m grateful for the opportunity to enter the lives of our congregants and for the trust you invested in me to provide guidance at critical moments.

Among hundreds of encounters, I’d like to highlight three specific interactions across generations that come to mind:

  1. Teenager Seeking Answers—Two years ago, a young man from our congregation, a high school senior on spring break, asked to meet with me. This hip, athletic young man could have been doing a million other things on his spring break, but he wanted to meet with his rabbi. He had spiritual questions and was seeking in depth exploration of issues. He had had some exposure to Chabad but was looking for guidance from within the mainstream Conservative tradition in which he was raised. I thought the conversation might last 20 minutes. Instead, we wound up talking for two hours studying texts and creating a reading list for further studies. We’ve kept in touch, and he is an amazing young man in college who represents the future leadership of our people. I’m honored that he entrusted me with those two hours during his spring break, and I’m humbled that I was able to meet him where he was at and offer what I hope was meaningful guidance.
  2. Transition to Hospice—At the other end of the lifecycle spectrum, a woman was battling cancer. She had a beautiful marriage of more than 60 years. After years of treatment, her situation was not improving. She had a razor sharp mind and she and her family were faced with a difficult decision on next steps. For me, personally, the answer was obvious not to continue any more invasive treatment. But I refrained from saying that. I asked: “What are your goals? What tradeoffs are you willing to accept?”

She articulated very clearly that she wanted to die peacefully at home, not at the hospital. She chose not to continue with treatment and enter home hospice. She had a beautiful final week in the comfort of her home surrounded by her children. I was honored to earn the trust of this woman and her husband to enable me to orchestrate these final days of peace and dignity. I am grateful to have been a part of these sacred moments.

3. Conversion—One of the most spiritually uplifting roles I play as a rabbi is the opportunity to facilitate conversion to Judaism. At Temple Torat Emet I facilitated over twenty conversions. Last year, a family in our community came to me shortly after enrolling their daughter in Wiston Family Torah Tots. Since the mother was not Jewish, the child was not either. While our pre-school would have welcomed the child anyway, the couple had committed to raising their daughter exclusively Jewish according to the father’s tradition, and they were eager to convert their daughter as soon as possible. The mother was not yet ready to convert herself but supported her daughter doing so. We had a beautiful day at the conversion at Lakeside Park on the Inter-coastal. Not long after that, the mother enrolled in the Board of Rabbis Introduction to Judaism course for conversion candidates and has expressed her desire to formally embrace Judaism in her own right.

I  could share numerous other examples, but, suffice it to say, it is stories like these that remind me why I do what I do. The stories I described did not just happen. They happened because of the relationships I cultivated as your Rabbi with congregants of all ages.  I am filled with gratitude for these sacred moments.  In the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, it is easy to get caught up in daily stresses. We get distracted by each nega, each blemish. However, in zooming out and looking at the bigger picture, we see a beautiful wholeness, similar to what the Kohen saw when examining a person. A community rabbi’s role at its essence is to cultivate relationships and facilitate meaningful engagement with Jewish tradition, particularly at key moments. It is humbling to realize the extent to which I have been part of changing people’s lives, one person at a time.

I would like to acknowledge a few specific individuals who were important to me over the past 6 years. During this tenure, I’ve conducted roughly 100 funerals. Of those, two special people are very much on my mind today: Dr. Kenneth Cohen, z”l, who was co-chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee in 2011, along with Richard Katz, may he enjoy length of years and good health. Kenneth called me during Hol HaMoed Pesah in 2011 to invite me to interview. After I began my service, he became a trusted friend and mentor. We worked closely together on a synagogue strategic plan that paved the way for important initiatives, including our merger to become Torat Emet. I miss Kenneth’s visionary leadership and steadfast confidence.

Elliot Fagin, z”l, is also on my mind. His dedication to this institution and his kindness were inspirational. He helped me in numerous and immeasurable ways—reminding me of people’s names, organizing services and just knowing every nuance of synagogue culture.

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: I am the first Rabbi in the history of the former Temple Torah and Temple Emeth under the age of 50. I am the first rabbi in our combined history of more than 70 years to have school-age children at home. For some, this was almost as shocking as a rabbi who rides his bicycle to synagogue! There may have been some growing pains along the way as the congregation and our family adjusted our new reality. However, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be this guinea pig of sorts, and I hope for the sake of our community that I’m not the last such rabbi.

Anything I did for the congregation over the last six years would not have been possible without the steadfast support of Ariella and our children.

In Ariella, I am blessed with a partner who supports me and encourages me always. She has opened our home to guests and did the bulk of the work to enable us to host numerous congregants and potential congregants in our home for Shabbat and holiday meals as well as shomer Shabbat overnight guests. Ariella volunteered her skills and contributed her talents to our community when she created Mitzvah Matters, Mitzvah Day and served on the board of the Temple Torah Foundation.  She is an unsung hero, and I am here to sing her praise for all that she did in her own right to strengthen our community and to support me in my work.

We are blessed with three amazing children. Sam and Noam have been leaders in the resurgence of our youth groups in recent years. They have served as ushers for the High Holidays, installed hurricane shudders, facilitated junior congregation services, volunteered in Torah Tots Day Camp and so much more. Esther has been a joy to watch as she has literally grown up in shul and has developed confidence in coming up to the bimah every week. My children have not had it easy. They live in a glass house. While they are blessed to have many good friends who come to shul regularly, there have been many occasions when they were the only children in services. They have been watched more closely than other children and occasionally judged unfairly in comparison to other kids for what they might do, say or wear.  Yet, through it all, they have been gracious. I couldn’t be more proud of their menschlikhkeit. Moreover, my family patiently endured my frequent absences at home due to professional commitments: Sunday afternoons when I had to cancel family plans to do a funeral; Numerous weeknights that I missed Little League games or special school functions due to committee meetings or shiva minyanim; Friday evening Shabbat dinner that we rushed through so that I could get to services on time. While I’m proud of my work and accomplishments, I recognize the sacrifices made by my family and wish to thank them publicly from the bottom of my heart. I love you all.

The five of us draw strength from our extended family, particularly my parents, Roberta and Chuck Bernstein, my grandmother, Adele Bernstein, and Ariella’s parents, Sheila and Jerry Reback. In fact, Sheila and Jerry have been full members of the congregation since our arrival, and Jerry, a licensed electrician, contributed occasional electrical work to the Synagogue. We are grateful for their steadfast love and support.

There are a few other people I want to thank. I’ve worked with four presidents of the congregation: Cheri Deutch, Alan Aronson, Lori Charnow and Phil Avruch. Over the years, there were times we agreed and times we did not. However, I want them and the congregation to know that I appreciate their efforts as volunteer leaders of the congregation. Every day they volunteer their time to field complaints, manage crises and maintain the good will of our community. Volunteers can never be thanked enough, so I want to thank them, as well as all those who volunteer their time for the well-being of our community.

Our professional staff are also not thanked  enough for their tireless service to our congregation and to the Jewish people. I have been enriched and inspired by their work on a daily basis. To Michelle Kantor, Mike Klein, Orly Jacobs, Sharon Feinberg, Stephanie Rubin, Stacey Ripin, Sharon Black, Alyssa Fix, Kathy Slutsky, Susi Wood and Yvette Baugh, thank you for your partnership and support. To: Bob, Richard, Maria and Olga, thank you for managing our large facility and making incredibly complex work of setting up events seem so easy and seamless. A special thank you to my partner on the bimah Hazzan Howard (Hamid) Dardashti. The last year has been a true blessing to work together. I served earlier in my career with his brother Hazzan Farid Dardashti, a dear friend and mentor, and strengthening my bond with the Dardashti family through Hamid has been a special bonus. I only wish we had more time together as a team on this bimah.

I want to close with where I began. Each one of us today is like that Kohen of long ago who can only heal blemishes by bearing witness to the whole, complete person before us. As I finish my tenure I challenge all of us to fulfill the essence of synagogue life: look for the good in others and bring more kindness into the world. Finally, particularly since I am staying in Palm Beach County, I pray that we will cross paths on happy occasions. I’m reminded that in Hebrew we don’t say farewell. We say l’hitraot—till we meet again. Shabbat Shalom.

Moses the Mensch and Moral Imagination

18 Mar

Hillel teaches us in Pirke Avot: In a place where there is no mensch (decent person), strive to be a mensch. In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses demonstrates how to be a mensch when his entire environment is chaos.  The Israelites push God’s patience to the limit when they create the Golden Calf. God threatens to destroy them, but Moses saves the day. Let’s take a closer look. Upset that Moses is tarrying for 40 days on the mountain, they build a Golden Calf to worship as God, despite the fact that they were specifically instructed not to make a graven image.

God is furious and threatens to destroy the people and start a new nation with Moses.

9The LORD further said to Moses, “I see that

this is a stiffnecked people. 10Now, let Me be,

that My anger may blaze forth against them and

that I may destroy them, and make of you a great

nation.” 11But Moses implored the LORD his

God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze

forth against Your people, whom You delivered

from the land of Egypt with great power and

with a mighty hand. 12Let not the Egyptians say,

‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them,

only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate

them from the face of the earth.’ Turn

from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan

to punish Your people. 13Remember Your servants,

Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You

swore to them by Your Self and said to them:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the

stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring

this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”

14And the LORD renounced the punishment

He had planned to bring upon His people.

 

It seems clear enough from Exodus that Moses intervenes and saves the people from God’s wrath and certain destruction. To underscore the point, Psalm 106:23 singles out Moses for praise:  “And [the Lord] said He was about to destroy them, if not for the fact that Moses, God’s elect, stood in the breach against Him to deflect His anger from destroying.”

Aviva Zornberg notes the Zohar’s contrast between Moses and Noah:

[T]he Zohar rereads Noah’s obedience to God’s commands—to build the ark and save his own family as a genetic basis for a future humanity: what looks like normative obedience is in fact collusion in the destruction of the world. Moses perceives the analogy with his own situation and prefers to die, rather than incur such a charge. The moral intuition that Moses articulates constitutes a momentous advance in ethical sensibility: to accept God’s offer to found a new nation on Moses, reconstructing history with Moses as patriarch of a revised world, would mean in effect to conspire, like Noah, in destroying the sinful world.

“Indeed, the contrast between Moses and Noah may be deciphered from a possible wordplay on Hanicha li (Let Me be…) …Moses, unlike Noah catches the drift of God’s intention, rather than unimaginatively obeying His explicit words. Noah becomes the paradigm, then, of an unimaginative literalism, which is harshly judged as murder. This moral vision is Moses’ creation, making sense of God’s implicit communications. To achieve this order of sensitivity to the unexpressed desire, a kind of self-forgetful attention is necessary. (Kornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 416)

God wants us to think beyond the bounds of our personal lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes of approaching life with a sense of moral imagination, the ability for people to think about the implications of their actions before they do them—to think through before we do it.  People often have imagination but lack moral imagination.

Leaders in our country today have plenty of imagination but are woefully lacking in moral imagination. When lawmakers threaten to strip health insurance away from 24 million Americans, they suffer from a deplorable lack of moral imagination. When our leaders threaten to cut heating subsidies from single mothers in the Midwest who would freeze in the winter without this assistance, that’s not just a lack of moral imagination, it’s pure cruelty.

Moral imagination is the ability to learn before you do something. But how do you teach this? How do we cultivate genius for helping other people? Telushkin writes that we have the ability to cultivate moral imagination, particularly in youngsters, when we reserve our highest praise not for good grades or athletic prowess, but for acts of kindness. Examples may include returning a lost object, helping someone in need or stopping a friend from committing an act of vandalism or some other anti-social behavior. By praising children for simple acts of kindness, and I might add adults as well, “they will identify having a high self-image with being a good person.”

One young man in my community was on a high school sports team a few years ago when a teammate of his developed cancer and lost his hair in the course of treatment. In response, all members of the team shaved their heads to show solidarity with their teammate during his treatment. Somewhere along the way, this team developed moral imagination. Telushkin writes that “children who grow up associating being praised and loved with the performance of ethical acts are apt to most like themselves when they are doing good.”

In our society, it’s too easy for us to say Hanicha li—leave me alone—as God said to Moses in this morning’s Torah reading. But God didn’t really want to be left alone. He was testing Moses’s level of moral imagination. Moses had this keen sense and was able to think on his feet act swiftly so that his people were not destroyed. In a place of chaos and no decency, Moses rose to the occasion to be a mensch. We learn from  Moshe Rabbeinu that God expects no less effort on our part. Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

Remembering Amalek’s oppression of us-and others

10 Mar

I posted on my Facebook page this week an article reporting that 100 U.S. Senators signed a letter to President Trump demanding swift action to counter the surge in attacks on Jewish communal institutions. My posting without comment was meant to indicate praise of the Senate for this important bipartisan statement. In response to my posting, my brother, Aryeh Bernstein, a Judaic scholar and social activist in Chicago, referred me to a blog post that he had just written. He praises the letter from the Senators demanding the Administration do more. However, he then notes an important irony:

“[T]he Senate — divided and hostile at an historic level — unites in solidarity with our Jewish community in response to a frightening but (thankfully, so far) very low register of violence: robo-call threats that have given no indication of having backing to follow through, but cause fear and disruption of communal life, and scary property damage to Jewish sacred spaces (broken and vandalized synagogue windows, vandalized Jewish cemeteries). At the same time, Muslim, Indian, Black, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities and individuals have not received the concern, attention, and care of the Senate, even as they have faced similar, and, in many cases, more direct and lethal violence,” such arson attacks on mosques in Texas and Tampa and the murder of two Indian Americans in Kansas.

I’m grateful to Aryeh for this important reality check. Shabbat Zakhor calls on us to remember the weakest, most vulnerable members of society because we know what it’s like to be in their shoes. This week’s special maftir reading reminds us of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the stragglers in the rear.  The full text is as follows:

17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.

There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.” In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would do such a thing?

According to the late Rabbi Jack Bloom, z”l, in an article he published on this difficulty, he proposes that lo yirei Elohim does indeed refer to the Israelites. He writes: “Perhaps, at an Israelite army staff meeting, when an officer noted that there were those who trailed behind the camp, no junior officer or commanding general stood up to say, “We have stragglers out there; we have women and children, the famished and the weary, young and old who can’t keep up—we have to protect them somehow.

 

“No troops were deployed, no armed escort dispatched; no protection provided. The stragglers were not protected for the self-same reason the Amalekites attacked them. The Israelite high command had depersonalized their own people. They were the refuse, the impoverished, those no longer of any use in the long trek to Canaan. They were no longer of value. They did not matter. They had become other. They were depersonalized, left to perish in the desert, to be exterminated by Amalek. The Israelite leadership was lo yirei Elohim, ‘undeterred by fear of God.’”

We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.

When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher as lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. Rather than bemoaning all of the disasters that have befallen us and wallowing in our own victimhood, our task should be to reach out and be present to our neighbors who are also in pain. It’s great that the Senate speaks in a united voice to condemn anti-Semitism. This wasn’t always the case in American history. At the same time, we must not allow the Jewish community to be used as a fig leaf while reins of terror against other minority groups go by unchecked. Let’s resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not stand idly by while our neighbors are in fear. Let us remember and be present for those in need of support, because we know what it’s like. May our renewed resolve usher in a Purim worthy of our celebration.

#TieBlog #HappyBirthdayDrSeuss #BeHappyIt’sAdar

2 Mar
Horton the Elephant

Horton the Elephant

A Free Press As the Root of Democracy: Reflections on Shabbat Shekalim

25 Feb

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When I was a youngster, before I discovered the rabbinate as my career, I had other aspirations. I wasn’t interested in becoming an astronaut, nor a doctor or a scientist. In my wildest dreams, maybe a baseball player. Remember, the Chicago Cubs weren’t good in those days, and I thought maybe I’d have a chance. Alas, I did not. So, I aspired to be a journalist. I was fascinated by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their coverage of Watergate and how through their reporting they spoke truth to power. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched as much TV as anyone, including all the reruns—The Lone Ranger, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and others. But I was also drawn to the evening news, especially the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite. I realized early on that journalists had an important responsibility to report the news and convey the truth.

Our free society depends on a free press. It shines a light on those who serve in public office to hold them to account for the the oaths of office they take to serve the public and our Constitution with integrity. A robust free press asks tough questions of government officials, irrespective of their party affiliation. Even Washington and Lincoln were often savaged by the press during their administrations, and so too with every President until today. Every president is in a bubble in which they surround themselves with supporters and are sensitive to criticism. Yet, time and again, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s words ring true: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” The free press hold our leaders to account.

Our public officials swear to uphold the Constitution and by extension protect the public’s most vital assets such as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards, as well as national defense.  It’s impossible for each of us to become experts on public policy on the myriad issues facing our society, and the free press provides a great public service to protect transparency and our right to know whether our public officials are serving us with integrity.

This week, as we mark Shabbat Shekalim, we are reminded of integrity as a core value of our tradition. In the passage that instructs the Israelites about the levy of the half-Shekel the Torah says (Exodus 30: 13):  זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ

This they shall give. Every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary. Why does the verse begin with zeh, “this they shall give”? Usually a verb in the Bible begins Waw-consecutive, including in cases like this involving instruction.   Prompted by the word “this,” the Sages conjecture that God showed Moses a flame in the shape of a half-shekel. Why a flame? Because money is like fire; it can warm and comfort–or it can consume and destroy (Elimelekh of Lyzhansk).

Throughout the history of our democracy, numerous politicians of different political persuasions have served our nation. Some have succeeded and provided warmth and comfort, while others failed, including those whose corruption threatened to consume and destroy our society. At every juncture a vibrant free press has served as a check on government. As George Orwell wrote: “Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose.”

We should be most concerned when the President repeatedly calls the mainstream news media the “enemy of the people”  and that he even goes so far as to demand that reporters stop utilizing anonymous sources.  Marc Felt  would never have confided to Bob Woodward the crimes of the Nixon White House unless he was certain of Woodward’s rock-solid assurance that his identity would not be revealed. For decades, he was known as Deep Throat, and he was an American hero for exposing a national crisis. Reporters must and will continue to rely on anonymous sources to reveal difficult truths.

And yet even in the Nixon years, as fraught as that administration’s relations with the press were, never were they barred from the White House briefing room as happened yesterday.

The press is not perfect, just like any human endeavor. They get things wrong, including the predictions of most news organizations of the outcome of the last election. The spike in fake news and alternative facts also do not exist in a vacuum. They exist because for multiple reasons, many Americans have lost trust in the mainstream media.

J.D. Vance, author of the bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, has a remarkable story. He grew up in poor, white  Appalachia and went on to Yale Law School. He has become a go-to interpreter of working class whites and their distrust of mainstream institutions. He said recently in an interview :

“The news media seems to be approaching Trump in a very oppositional way. And whether it’s Trump or Obama, it’s always important for the media to take a somewhat oppositional tact because that’s one of their main roles as the fourth estate. But I also wish news executives would think about this credibility gap and think constructively about how to repair it…We may just be in a different media environment where people consume information in their bubbles.”

I think Vance raises an important issue in noting the lack of trust towards the news media, that news organizations would be advised to earn back. Part of the challenge is that journalism is a business as well as a craft. In our world, we consume news as much for entertainment as to know what’s going on. In response, the news media must focus on the entertainment value of their stories. High entertainment value yields higher advertising revenue. That yields higher ratings and salaries for TV reporters. We as consumers of news are complicit in demanding high entertainment value from the news in addition to truth. Money is like fire. When we’re careful, it can keep us warm and comfort us. However, it can also burn when it dominates our focus.

Let us demand the highest standards from our journalists, and let us also reject any efforts to from officials to threaten the free press as a vital check on government and harbinger of truth. Shabbat Shekalim reminds us to preserve the integrity of our public institutions. Ken Yehi Ratzon.