Archive | October, 2015

Remembering Rabin 20 years later

30 Oct

 

 

 

On Yom Kippur, I reflected on my experience in Israel 20 years ago when the country went through the trauma of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. While Rabin’s yahrzeit already passed several days ago, this week marks the secular anniversary on November 4. Furthermore, President Bill Clinton in his eulogy of Rabin cited the very Torah portion that we read today, Parashat Vayera. President Clinton said:

This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. “Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.” As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak.

Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak. But Israel’s covenant with God for freedom, for tolerance, for security, for peace — that covenant must hold. That covenant was Prime Minister Rabin’s life’s work. Now we must make it his lasting legacy. His spirit must live on in us.

The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for mourning, never speaks of death, but often speaks of peace. In its closing words, may our hearts find a measure of comfort and our souls, the eternal touch of hope.

“Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom aleinu, ve-al kol Israel, ve-imru, amen.”

Shalom, haver.

On this twentieth anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, official memorials are taking place, including one tomorrow in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv at which Bill Clinton will be present. Yet, it seems that reflections on the Rabin assassination is rather subdued in the Jewish public square. Yehudah Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute  suggests in an op-ed three reasons for the muted commemorations:

  1. If Rabin’s assassination was a cautionary tale on the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism, its message has not been sufficiently heeded, particularly in the last year in which Jews have carried out horrific acts of violence.
  2. Rabin’s political legacy is complex. We will never know what would have happened if he had lived. Given where we are now, it seems Pollyannaish that he would have completed a peace deal and brought about the elusive two-state solution.
  3. The biggest obstacle to Rabin’s memory is that many Jews very reasonably have little appetite right now for the self-flagellation involved with a commemoration of Rabin. As Israel’s citizens are under attack, many of the country’s supporters feel that Israel’s primary enemies are from without and not from within. They argue that empathy with a society under attack dictates solidarity with the people rather than the bitter surfacing of a memory that signaled that society’s failure. If remembering Rabin is about signaling that we can be our own worst enemies, that message is hard for us to hear today. Rabin’s legacy, in other words, is hijacked both by the complicated political reality he left behind, and by the dominant lesson of his death as a warning about Jew-on-Jew violence. Rabin’s memory may be lost because it arises at an inconvenient time, or because it is thought to be a failure.

 

Just as Bill Clinton framed Rabin’s legacy 20 years ago through the lenses of  Parashat Vayera, we can do the same. The portion continues the story of Abraham and the dramatic accounts of how the father of our nation welcomed angels into his tent, argued with God over the justice of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac in his and Sarah’s old age, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. We see Abraham as a great hero, yet one with human flaws. He and the other patriarchs and matriarchs are at once larger than life and very approachable. For centuries, people have attempted to get inside the minds of our ancestors and speculate on the details of their experiences and what they must have thought at the time. The art of Midrash is the attempt to have a conversation with the Biblical narrative and to imagine ourselves in the situations described.

Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet who died in 2000, completed his last collection of poetry shortly before he died in a book titled “Open Closed Open.” Though he identified as a secular Israeli, much of his poetry, particularly in this volume, discusses Biblical figures and religious issues. Abraham and the story of the Binding of Isaac appear multiple times. The following poem is an example of the poet’s attempt to enter the minds of our ancestors and imagine them reflecting with nostalgia on the traumatic events of the Akeidah.

Taken from “Open Closed Open” by Yehuda Amichai

Page 119

Every year our father Abraham takes his sons to Mount Moriah, the same way that I take my children to the Negev hills where my war took place.

Abraham walks with his sons: this is where I left the servants, that’s where I tied the ass to the tree at the foot of the hill, and here, right at this spot, you asked me, Isaac my son: Here is the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the sacrifice? A little further up you asked me again.

When they reached the top of the mountain they rested awhile and ate

And drank, and he showed them the thicket where the ram was caught by its horns.

And when Abraham died, Isaac took his sons to the same spot.

“Here I lifted up the wood and that’s where I stopped for breath, this is where I asked my father and he replied, God will provide the lamb for the sacrifice, and that’s where I knew that it was me.”

And when Isaac became blind his sons brought him to that same Mount Moriah and described to him in words

All those things that he may already have forgotten.

 

In this poem, Abraham behaves like we might behave visiting a historic site while on vacation, particularly while visiting places of battle. The poet likens Abraham to generations of Israelis who would often visit battle sites with a sense of nostalgia. We also see the contrast between generations. Abraham has his set of memories when he revisits the site with Isaac. But when Isaac takes his sons there, he remembers things differently. He acknowledges that while Abraham did not fully answer his question about where was the sacrifice, he understood that he was the intended sacrifice. Then, Isaac revisits the site years later when he is blind, perhaps a symbol of blocking out a memory that was too painful for him.

Amichai’s interpretation of the Akeidah is told from different perspectives. Similarly, this week we approach the memory of Yitzhak Rabin from different perspectives: what was, what is and what might have been. I believe many of us hold all three of these thoughts and memories of Rabin simultaneously. Abraham and Isaac were not perfect, and neither was Rabin.

On this 20th anniversary of Rabin’s assassination, I yearn for religious and political leaders who, like Rabin, are willing to take risks for positive change and who continue to envision a better future with both sincerity and pragmatism. This is how I choose to remember Rabin twenty years later.

To conclude, the Psalmist says (122:6):

 

ו   שַׁאֲלוּ שְׁלוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָם יִשְׁלָיוּ אֹהֲבָיִךְ: ז   … ח   לְמַעַן־אַחַי וְרֵעָי אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּא שָׁלוֹם בָּךְ: ט   לְמַעַן בֵּית־יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁה טוֹב לָךְ:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they who love the Lord shall prosper…For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will now say Peace be within you. For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your goodness.

Amen.

 

#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.

Hitler’s war against the Jews is not up for revision

23 Oct

 

As I have noted on various occasions over the years, there is a trend among politicians that has become increasingly repulsive to me. That is when they exploit the Shoah to score political points.  I think this does great injustice to the victims. I’m very much influenced in this approach by Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian, who wrote a sharp critique of remarks made by Prime Minister Netanyahu this week on the Holocaust that represent revisionist history. More about that shortly. We all know that invoking the Holocaust for political gain did not begin this week. At least two presidential candidates in America, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson, did this recently and were widely rebuked by a cross-section of the Jewish community. We also know that the Holocaust is exploited at pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests where it’s common to see participants carrying placards accusing Israelis of carrying out a Holocaust and describing the current prime minister as the equivalent of Hitler or even his “clone.” One might totally disagree with Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. But to speak of a Holocaust or Hitler bears no relation to historical or contemporary reality.

 

Lipstadt notes that it’s possible to argue that since neither Huckabee nor Carson are well versed in the history of the annihilation of European Jewry, they should not be too roundly condemned for their cheap analogies. Similarly, one could say that anti-Israel protestors are so infused with hatred and anger that they too have lost sight of any historical reality. But what can one say when the leader of the Jewish state relies on this tactic?

 

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress that the idea for murdering the Jews was the brainchild of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.  According to Netanyahu, when Hitler and the mufti met in November 1941, Hitler had not yet thought of exterminating the Jews but simply wished to expel them. When Husseini complained that expelled Jews would all come to Palestine, according to Netanyahu, a perplexed Hitler asked, “So what should I do with them?” The mufti supposedly responded, “Burn them.” And so the Holocaust ensued.

 

 

Lipstadt writes: This claim doesn’t make sense. The murder of the Jews began in the summer of 1941, five months before this meeting. By the time Hitler and the mufti had their tete-a-tete, hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children had been shot. At Babi Yar alone, the Germans murdered 34,000 Jews in September 1941, over two months prior to the meeting, without any encouragement from the mufti. Gas wagons were already in use prior to this meeting. Someone who wishes to only expel a people does not rely on mass shootings and gas wagons.

This is not the first time Netanyahu has made this assertion. Lipstadt brands him a revisionist. Netanyahu’s revisionism, reassigning blame for the Shoah from Hitler to the mufti, is to score political points.

 

Lipstadt notes that the mufti was no innocent, and enthusiastically supported Hitler. Al-Husseini unambiguously encouraged his audiences to murder Jews. In December 1942, at the opening of the Islamic Institute in Berlin, he declared that the war, which had been “engineered by the Jews,” gave Muslims a “unique” opportunity to “get rid of their enemies.” In a March 1944 radio address he exhorted Muslims to “kill the Jews wherever you find them.” He assisted the Nazis in organizing Bosnian Muslims into a unit of the Waffen-SS. While historians may differ on the degree of influence he wielded among Nazi leaders, they do not question his delight that Jews were being annihilated.

 

Netanyahu, however, did not paint him as a supporter of the genocide of the Jews. He credited him with coming up with the idea. There is a vast difference between the two. Historians continue to debate who originated the idea of the Final Solution. No serious historian, however, has ever laid the decision at the feet of the mufti.

 

Netanyahu’s remarks this week came in the midst of a serious security situation in Israel in which Palestinians have gone on a rampage attacking innocent Jewish civilians for several weeks. I spoke last week about Palestinian lies about the situation including Abbas’s claim that Israel killed a Palestinian teen who actually was alive in Hadassah Hospital after he had gone on a stabbing rampage. There is evidence

that the Palestinian leaders are being called to account for their blatant lies, even in media outlets not traditionally recognized as pro-Israel. So, it was a blow to pro-Israel advocates to have to shift attention this week to Netanyahu’s ill-considered remarks. But we cannot ignore them. We cannot demand truth from our enemies without demanding truth from leaders of our own people.

 

Our Torah portion today reminds us that our leaders are not infallible. They are human. They make mistakes. We must learn from mistakes and not repeat them. Parashat Lekh Lekha, introduces us to Abraham, a great but imperfect leader whose flaws the Torah does not try to hide. Immediately upon settling in Canaan as God had instructed, Abraham uproots himself and brings his household to Egypt. The text says vayered Avram Mitzraymah, Abram went down to Egypt, suggesting that he lowered himself to the moral level of that society. What happens next is particularly disturbing. Abraham is afraid that the Egyptians will kill him and take his wife Sarai and ravage her. What does he do? He says that Sarah is his sister. She would be vulnerable to being kidnapped and assaulted, but at least he would live. This is not a shining moment of chivalry in the life of our patriarch. Clearly, in this environment of danger and depravity, we can understand Abraham’s fear that led him to deceive others to save himself. While we can understand his fear, we cannot justify his actions, and that is the Torah’s point. As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes, the Torah continually portrays its leading figures with all of their flaws, perhaps to teach us that we too can be good people without being perfect people. Look throughout the Bible and we find one hero after another, each of whom we meet as flawed human beings.

 

The Torah was not given to angels. It was given to human beings with the intention that we would be inspired by its teachings to improve ourselves and our world. The major characters of the Torah are flawed human beings who, despite their limitations, or perhaps because of them, are able to succeed despite their natural human fears and desires. We can and should condemn individual acts of behavior that get in the way of bringing godliness into the world.

 

These are scary days in Israel. Arabs, some of whom have been incited to act by religious and political leaders, have stabbed, hacked, and stoned Jews. Others have mowed them down with cars. As Deborah Lipstadt notes, however, this inexcusable barbarism does not legitimate rewriting of the past. The Holocaust was a crucial moment in history. Forgetting would be a tragedy; twisting and revising what happened to fulfill ancillary goals, equally so.

 

My prayer is that our people will come through this challenging period by upholding truth. Adonai oz l’amo yitein. Adonai yevarech et amo vashalom.

 

#TieBlog #LekhLekha

23 Oct

imageIn Parashat Lekh Lekha, Abram (later re-named Abraham) hears the call from God to uproot himself from everything that is familiar to him and go to Land that God will show him so that he will become a great nation. One problem: he and his wife Sarai (later re-named Sarah) are elderly and childless. Abram goes along with God’s instructions but later expresses angst that he has no offspring and no heirs. The text in Genesis 15 reads: “3 Abram said further, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” 4 The word of the Lord came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.” With God calling upon Abram to look to the stars for hope and inspiration, this week’s tie reminds me of this moment of renewal for our patriarch.

#TieBlog #Noah

15 Oct
Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

As we turn to Parashat Noah, we are faced with the perplexing challenge posed by the first verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” Why does the text say “in his generation”? The rabbis of old had a debate. Some say that if Noah could stand out in his age when surrounded by depravity, all the more so in other ages when he would have other decent people around him. Other rabbis aren’t so sure. He was certainly better than the people around him, but he would have paled in comparison to an Abraham or Moses who intervened before God on behalf of people condemned to die. Noah never says anything. He builds his ark and goes on his way. His action (or inaction) stands in contrast to Abraham challenges God directly when Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed to destruction. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25), Abraham pleas, hoping the depraved cities would be spared for the sake of even ten righteous people. Abraham intervened with God on behalf of the righteous. Moses takes it a step further and intervenes to save the guilty, the people of Israel who commit the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). The trajectory of the Torah suggests that Noah was righteous for his time, but would have paled in comparison to the giants of later generations.

#TieBlog #Beresheet

8 Oct
It all starts here...

It all starts here…

Tapping into “Adam II” on Shemini Atzeret

4 Oct
Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel created the Nobel Prize so that he would be remembered for something other than the inventor of dynamite.

Over the next several days the various Nobel Prizes will be announced, so I thought it would be worthwhile to refresh our memories of the origins of the Prize. Alfred Nobel made his vast fortune after he invented dynamite. Initially, it was used to build railroads, but it wasn’t long before it was used for military purposes. In 1888, Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. In one of the most infamous journalistic errors, newspapers carried the obituary of Alfred with the headline: “The merchant of death is dead.” The story described Nobel as a man who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” Alfred Nobel was stunned to read this account of his legacy and set aside most of his estate to create the five Nobel Prizes that highlight peaceful advancements for humanity.

Alfred Nobel’s revelation relates closely to the theme of a recent book The Road to Character, by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He opens the book: “Recently, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.”

Brooks is inspired by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s classic essay, “The Lonely Man of Faith,” in which he contrasts two opposing sides of human nature that he derives from the first two chapters of Genesis. In Genesis 1, we meet humanity on the move, assisting God in the creation of the world. Rav Soloveitchik called this Adam I. In modern terminology, Brooks renames Adam I is  “Résumé Adam,” the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature that seeks to build, create, produce and discover things.” In contrast, there is Adam II, derived from the character by that name whom we meet in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2. Adam II is internally focused. Adam II seeks a serene, inner character, a sense of integrity in the face of life’s moral dramas. Adam II will never admit it, but he (or she) cultivates the positive attributes that will appear in his or her eulogy or obituary. We, the descendants of Adam, live in the contradiction between the outer, majestic Adam and the inner, humble Adam.

Brooks argues that our current generation’s ethos is more heavily weighted to Adam I. In this mindset, “[i]nput leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest….Impress the world.” Adam II lives by a different mindset, a moral logic. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning.” Brooks adds: “To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”

Brooks laments that our society today has lost touch with Adam II to a large extent. Prior generations spent more time cultivating character and eulogy virtues, while our generation is heavily tilted towards résumé virtues.

Like Soloveitchik, Brooks advocates a balanced approach to the duality of human nature, and laments that we as a society have lost our way.  “The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied with the struggle to achieve.” (p.259) Using Google, Brooks discovered that the language of economics in books and publications has increased, but words having to do with morality and character have declined.  Words like conscience, virtue, bravery, gratitude, and kindness are all down over 50% over the course of the 20th century.  We are losing the language to talk about values, and we can’t nurture Adam II without it.

Brooks calls those who confront their imperfections “moral realists.”  They are aware of their flaws and strive to improve.  This is in accord with Jewish wisdom that teaches:

איזהו גיבור?  השמח בחלקו “Who is a hero?  The one who conquers his weakness.” (Avot 4:1)  Indeed our heroes such as Moses, David, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Esther, and other biblical characters had to cope with their insecurities and ultimately overcome them, making them our role models.  Jewish Heroism lies in the work of Adam II.

Our gathering today on Shemini Atzeret is an opportunity to reflect on the Adam II side of our character. Shemini Atzeret is prone to get lost in the shuffle of the fall holidays. Our holiday today follows the high drama of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the pageantry of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, the revelry of Simhat Torah is postponed until tonight and tomorrow.  Sh’mini Atzeret seems more like a way station than a destination.

The midrash explains Shemini Atzeret as an opportunity to look inward. It’s a call to tap into our Adam II. Commenting on the designation of this holiday as “atzeret” the rabbis understood it in the sense of stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.’”

The midrash is both simple and profound. We spend all of the High Holidays and Sukkot reaching out to God, asking for forgiveness, for redemption, for life itself. We want to carry on with our lives of building and creating. Along comes Shemini Atzeret to remind us that God seeks an intimate relationship with us. This text complements another midrash that explains the sacrifices over the seven days of Sukkot as honoring the seventy nations of the world. In contrast, on Shemini Atzeret, the sacrifice honors the special relationship between God and Israel. For seven days we’re hobnobbing with the other nations, each showing off to God their greatness. Today, we confront God directly, and in so doing we confront ourselves.

Sh’mini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. If the other holidays this month up until today have been Adam I, outward focused days, today is about Adam II. It is inward-focused.

Tomorrow, when we begin reading the Torah anew, we will read the creation story. The operative verb of Genesis 1 is bara—God creates. So too, Humanity creates. That is Adam I, and it is a necessary part of life. However, tomorrow’s reading ends with Shabbat. God ceases creation. Shabbat redirects attention from the outside to within. The verses describing Shabbat are the prelude to Adam II, the inner-focused aspect of humanity.  We need Adam II to ground our actions in the moral character that we hope will burnish our legacy. When we tap into our Adam II, we create a more intimate relationship with God that molds us into the kind of people we ought to be.

Perhaps it is the image of divine-human intimacy that spurred our tradition to add Yizkor to this holiday. We miss our departed loved ones. We miss the meaningful relationships that they created with us. We miss the quality time that we spent with them on Shabbat and Festivals and other times when we just enjoyed each other’s company. When they died, we realized that their résumé virtues did not matter so much. What mattered most were their eulogy virtues—their kindness; their character; their integrity. On Shemini Atzeret, we remember our loved ones for these essential qualities, and we miss them terribly as a result.

May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to nurture our character so that we may bring God’s presence into the world.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.