Thursday, May 27, 2010

In honor of Richard Fishkin on the Occasion of his Retirement, delivered Erev Shabbat Naso 5/21/2010

וזאת תורה הנזיר ביום מלאת ימי נזיר יביא אתו...

This is the ritual for the nazirite on the day that his days as a nazirite are fulfilled: The person shall be brought to the Tent of Meeting, and shall make an offering לחטאת as an atonement offering.

Why, we might wonder – as plenty of Torah scholars before us have – would the nazirite be required to bring an atonement offering on the occasion of his retirement from service? A thanksgiving offering would be understandable, a general, all-purpose olah perhaps, but atonement? Why after a period of dedicated service would an individual need to make atonement?

In his trying to understand the perplexity of this seemingly odd requirement, Moses Maimonides, that well-known Medieval commentator who hailed from Cairo, in his Guide of the Perplexed comments on the difference between the nazarite, about whom we read in this week’s parashat Naso, and the sage. Separating themselves from the community and consciously refraining certain basic pleasures and comforts, the nazirite chooses an ascetic form of divine service. Such dedication to self-denial might be viewed as commendable, exemplary even (particularly in our Western culture of over-abundance), but as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, notes in his comments on the text (cited in this week's Dov-Ray Torah compiled by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins), such pursuit of self perfection is not at all exemplary in the context of community.

In stark contrast, the sage remains fully engaged with society in his effort to perfect it. The sage, as Maimonides explains, recognizes and remains involved with others as he seeks to serve: he remains involved with members of one’s own family; he works together with his colleagues; he participates along with the fellow members of his community; he recognizes the need to defend and serve his country in addition to his own people.

Accordingly, one could argue that the nazirite requires atonement upon the completion of his days of service because of his eager willingness to pursue such a solitary life exclusive of family and community. Mainstream Judaism demands that we serve God by actively participating in the world. Liberal Judaism adds to this model that by doing so, we naso, we lift ourselves up as God’s partners in the ongoing creation of our world. To do so requires that we strive to create a balance among the conflicting pressures on us, working not to focus on some while neglecting others. To do requires a valuing of communal cooperation over and above the solitary pursuit of perfection.

There is no question that Richard exemplifies Maimonides’ sense of a sage. Did anyone notice that even in his remarks this evening, Richard drew attention not to [excuse the Kennedy-esque language] what he has done for Temple, but what our community has done together. He draws pride not from his solitary achievements but from that of which he has been an integral part. One of Richard’s greatest strengths is his loyalty and devotion to the Jewish community; and we should be so grateful that for the past 8 years, Temple Emanuel – both the building and its people – staff and congregants, we have been recipients of his steadfast devotion.

More significantly, the lesson that we can all learn from Richard is that like the sage model, he expresses his commitment to his task without secluding himself from the very people who form that community. Yes, he loves his work, his professional activity. As those of us share office space with him know, Richard is not eager for a leisurely retirement, he wants to work and to be involved. But, work alone does not define him. A devoted husband, father, and in more recent years, grandfather, Richard balances both family and vocation. Actively involved in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, his home congregation, where I understand he will be installed as member of the Board for an upcoming term, active in Brotherhood – the Men of Reform Judaism, not just at his own congregation, but in quad-Temple activities and on the regional and national levels, a regular giver of blood and platelets – these are just a few of the many ways that Richard eagerly extends his hand out far beyond himself and into the community.

The Psalmist, in his quest to define מי האיש החפץ חיים, "who is the man who desires life?" notes, אהב ימים לראות טוב...ועשה שלום ורדפהו, "one who loves days so that he may seek good…seek peace, and pursue it.” One traditional understanding of this text is that the author was urging the community to do just that – to use one’s days towards the pursuit of goodness, peace, and the betterment of their lives. I don’t think the Psalmist had a better model than Richard Fishkin. Indeed Richard is one who, at least from my vantage point, uses his days to pursue goodness, to foster community, and to strive towards making this world a better place. Mi ha-Ish he-chafetz chayim - to you Richard, in honor of all that you have given us in your pursuit of goodness.
Temple Emanuel's volunteer choir, Kol Zemer, concluded my presentation by singing Mi Ha-Ish (music: B. Chait/arr. C.Heller)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Congratulations to the Temple Emanuel Confirmation class of 5770 - Remarks delivered Erev Shavuot

Swimming, swimming in a swimming pool, when days are hot, when days are cold, in a swimming pool…
The Talmud teaches, gentlemen, that among the obligations a father, and by extension at least I’d argue in the modern world at least, both parents have towards their sons is to teach them to swim. Yes, to swim. In a fairly well-known passage in tractate Kiddushin of the Babylonian Talmud it states, האב חייב בבנו למולו, ולפדותו, וללמדו תורה, ולהשיאו אשה, וללמדו אומנותֹ וי״א: אף להשיטו במים “The father is bound in respect of his son, to circumcise him, redeem (him if first born), teach him Torah, to get him wife, and teach him a craft; and there are those that say, to teach him to swim.”

While the Talmud then goes on to provide fairly detailed commentary and explanation of each of the other obligations, obligations that may on the surface seem more self-explanatory, the text provides just two Hebrew words regarding the command to teach our children to swim, “חיותיה הוא” ‘it may indeed save his life.’

There has been much discussion throughout the ages regarding why the Talmud choose swimming from a number of other very useful skills upon which to focus. One could argue that our lives may depend on a number of physical skills or test of endurance. If someone is pursuing us on foot, running – indeed sprinting - would be a far more useful skill than swimming, no doubt. So why the specific mention of swimming?

It is quite possible, that our sages were referring to the actual physical skill of swimming. I learned to swim as a very young child. I was taught by my mother – well she actually took me to the local Y - indeed because my physical existence may have been threatened otherwise. No, both my mother and father were hardly familiar with the Talmudic injunction regarding swimming, rather, my parents had just bought a house with a pool in the back yard that went up to 10 feet deep. There was a concern about my physical safety. While the geographical region of the middle east is surrounded by various bodies of water, no archeological evidence has shown that there was a sudden rise in pools or watering holes in Babylonian neighborhoods of the 2-4th centuries that would have made parents feel like mine did. It seems much more likely that our Talmudic sages were offering a metaphor for living.

Swimming is one of those rare activities that takes us fully out of familiar territory (it is one of the reasons I still love to swim) – surrounded and literally suspended solely by water, we have to teach our limbs an entirely different set of tools for mobility and survival. Moreover, swimming is a skill that requires a range of skills beyond sheer athleticism; it requires balance, trust, endurance, and consistent & steady rhythm - all necessary skills for successful living. Certainly there are basic tools, a skill set that is required to swim – how to cup one’s hand so it functions efficiently as a paddle, how to turn or lift one’s head for a good breath, how to kick in useful manner that actually serves to propel and not just splash, … but what really makes someone a confident swimmer is the ability to trust the density of the water and allow oneself to balance or float instead of panic and to pace oneself in a consistent and confident rhythm that enables one to get where they are going even if they can’t always see the way through the murky water.

You have been given a skill set – it’s called Torah! You have learned the basics over these many years of religious school and synagogue involvement that can serve to keep you afloat if you nurture them and use them. There may be times in your life when you feel like you are drowning. One of the first rules of swimming is to replace panic in those moments with a calm use of learned skills. Draw on the skills that you’ve been taught. Use Torah as a resource. Draw on the Jewish community to support you and to provide you continual skill development and nourishment.

There is no question that a good swimmer must continue to work on those basic skills – in swimming they’re called drills. They can, frankly, seem dull and cumbersome, but they are necessary for continued growth. So too with Jewish learning. You’re not done. You have each reached an incredibly important milestone of which you should take a great deal of pride. This evening’s Confirmation ceremony is an opportunity to pause, reflect upon, and celebrate your achievements, but it is not a time to stop. It is incumbent upon you to continue learning. Don’t stop practicing the skills that will enable you to not only be confident in your Jewish identity in future months and year, but that will also help to keep you afloat as you venture further and further out into the world.

You have each expressed the ties that you have to our congregational community, so I invite the entire congregation to rise and join me in offering blessing from our tradition upon you. Words to the priestly benediction can be found on the back cover of your supplements, please join me in these ancient words of blessing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

BaMidbar: The Need to Plug-in, delivered Shabbat morning 5/15/2010

I love my iPod. That’s probably no surprise. As a music lover I simply can’t imagine living without it. It keeps me motivated at the gym during those indoor workouts when I don’t have the scenery, sounds of nature, or my running buddy Alan, to inspire me. It keeps me company in the car when the talking heads on NPR have tried my patience. It provides me a convenient way for me to keep up with various podcasts that no one else in my living or work space really cares to listen to. It really is an ingenious invention. Do parents today ever have to yell at their kids for having their stereos too loud? And, like, I’m sure, many sitting in this sanctuary this morning, my ipod allows me to always have tons of music and information (perhaps way more than I ever really need) nearby whether tucked in a small pocket of my purse, jeans, or gym shorts. No records, no CD holders, no bulky players and accompanying components that were so popular a generation (or two) ago when those battles over music volume and style were so commonplace.

But as an article in Monday’s New York Times noted, there is a significant cost to all of this digital portability and the cost isn’t just the reduction of friction between parent and child over music played in the house. As the article noted, “the ease of loading songs onto a computer or iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity (aesthetic quality) for portability and convenience.” Perhaps more troubling is that our ears have been trained to accept such mediocrity – we are, generally speaking, no longer interested in having the quality restored. Audio engineers have found that portability is a far more revered quality than sound quality. In other words, we consumers will pay big bucks for convenience and compactness far more than we will for increased quality. Pity, really. And it is not just the aesthetic quality of sound that is lost in our desire to perpetually be on the move; portability of our music has greatly impacted the quality of the listening experience itself. How many of us just sit down and make listening to music its own activity (outside of a concert hall). I for one am someone who treasures music, listens often and considers myself a critical listener, yet more often than not I’m doing something else while listening: cooking, running on a treadmill, driving,… I am old enough to recall when just listening to music, perhaps while analyzing and perusing the album covers and lyrics was an activity all to its own. Ok – it was the late 70’s -early 80’s, maybe we got up and danced, but you get the idea. Gathering around our music was not saved for the public concert hall or stadium. We gathered with our friends in our homes where daily music appreciation was far from the private ear plugged affair it is today. And while we 21st century parents may rejoice in the peace and quiet, there just may be a vital aspect of relationship building that is lost along with those conversations, even arguments, over sharing musical space in the household. A disturbing down side to the digitization of music is that so much of music listening has become an activity for not only for the individual, but for the individual who no longer needs a home to plug into.

Bamidbar. This Shabbat we begin recalling our journey through the wilderness. Scholars who study the bible from a critical, scientific lens argue that the Book of Numbers/Bamidbar was originally the final book of a canon known as the Tetrateuch. According to this theory, parts of the original Numbers were moved to the end of Deuteronomy by the final editor in order to make the entire canon a seamless literary unit after the addition of the Deuteronomic text. This is a compelling editorial hypothesis (particularly if we accept its assumption regarding dating); for, at the end of the book of Bamidbar we are eager for, we expect the Israelites to get to Canaan – that Land of milk and honey they’ve been promised and for which they’ve been waiting. Let’s face it, nobody would read all of the regulations of Deuteronomy if the fulfillment of that land promise was placed at the end of Bamidbar. What would be the point? The drama would be over. This period of wandering in the desert of which we now read for a number of weeks is a temporary destination, the goal is Canaan; the goal is to make permanent roots – to get some place and stay there. Yes, Abraham was instructed to lech l’cha, to go forth, back in Genesis, but that command had the full intent of propelling Abe and his family to a settling place.

How ironic -- now that we are so settled, that we have established roots not only in Israel (that historic land of which the text speaks) but also in communities throughout the world - that we seek to fight against that which roots us. We want to unplug, to go wireless – to free ourselves from what we define as the burden of permanence.

The opening portion of the Book of Bamidbar, about which our Bar Mitzvah, Matthew, will speak in a moment, gives us a glimpse into the desire for roots, a desire for a sense of connectedness and home during a period when in a sense the entire community is unplugged – in a state of wandering with nothing more than a verbally stated – one could say ‘wireless’ promise of future rootedness. In truth, we, as humans, require a balance. Even as we strive to cut the cords that connect us to our homes and offices, and perhaps all the more so, we demand to be connected – I’d say even hyper-connected. Who among us doesn’t feel even a mild sense of frustration or anxiety when our wireless gadgets are disabled for whatever reason or when we simply choose to turn them off.

The example of the current state of the music industry underscores that the ability to free ourselves from that which keeps us rooted is not without consequence. As we continue to seek those wireless conveniences that free us from being bound to our homes, offices, and physical structures, let us allow the wanderings of our Israelite ancestors to remind us of the value of seeking a grounding place to settle and establish roots…even if it means plugging in every once in awhile.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Parashat Behar: A Lesson in Materialism, delivered Shabbat Behar/Bechukotai 5770- 5/8/2010

Of all our readings in our cycle, particularly our Levitical cycle, its the earlier chapters of Leviticus with their emphasis on the sacrificial cultic system that we so often think of as providing the greatest affront to our modern sensibilities. The idea of schlepping animals to and slaughtering them on the Temple altar as a form of worship or spiritual cleansing ritual certainly flies in the face of our modern concepts of worship. We certainly don’t think of Parashat Behar containing the well known verse וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ, ‘Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof’ as its translated on the Liberty Bell as offensive to our modern values. On the contrary, this verse’s appearance on such an icon of American history has made this biblical mandate a symbol of the American values of liberty and democracy.

Yet, I’d argue that the rules of the shmita and yuval outlined here force us to confront our modern sensibilities as readily if not more so than the details of the Temple worship system, specifically with regard to the American values of materialism and capitalism.

Parashat Behar recognizes the inherent value of work. שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָֹדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ: “Six years you may sow your fields, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather its yield.” Recall, this was an agrarian society, a society fully and directly dependent on the land; our biblical ancestors’ survival depended on their agricultural skills, skills applied in a manner in which made them and the land productive. Yet contrary to our contemporary capitalistic notions, parashat behar places clear limits on material productivity. וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ שַׁבָּת לַיהוָֹה שָֹדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמר ….. “but in the 7th year, the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Shabbat to Adonai; your field, you shall not sow, and your vineyard, you shall not prune.

We are commanded to stop, to stop working the land. Remarkable in and of itself, but all the more so when read in context with that verse that appears just before it: שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָֹדֶךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ וְאָסַפְתָּ אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ: “Six years you may sow your fields, and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather its yield; but in the 7th year, you must not sow or prune.” Note the pronouns (you know from my passion for such details that the grammar matters). While the text refers to the field and vineyard as being ‘ours,’ (שדך\כרמך – your field, your vineyard), the yield, the product, of our field and vineyard is not. It would have been far more poetic to continue using the 2nd nominal pronoun: תבואתך (read it aloud) but rather our writer chooses to break the poetic pattern and uses the 3rd person: תבואתה. The use of the 3rd person stands out in this sentence that otherwise is fully personalized by the 2nd person: you shall sow your field; you shall prune your vineyards, so that you can gather ITs yield. No matter how much work and effort is place in tilling the land, its produce remains beyond ownership. It isn’t ours, it belongs to its source – the land and by extension, ultimately God.

Now, doesn’t the first story of creation in Bereshit tell us that we have dominion over the earth? “Look,” the first chapter of Genesis imagines God saying, “I have given you all the seed-bearing plants on the face of the earth, and every tree that has in it seedbearing fruit.” (Genesis 1:29) It’s all there for us, for our taking, no? The Levitical hand reminds us that dominion has limits, and these regulations outlined in parashat behar not only underscore these limits, but offer a vital even if seemingly counterintuitive lesson to our capitalisitic, material based, 24/7 mind-set that has become normative in America.

We can stop. Despite our fears that we may no longer be able to sustain ourselves without constant effort, we can. I imagine the text telling us to take a deep, cleansing yoga breath! Of course, it isn’t all about taking the break. There is a vital unspoken message in the text. The unspoken message of the Sabbatical year is that consumption must be monitored in the years leading up to the Sabbatical year in order to insure our sustainability during our work stoppage. This requires of us conscious planning and conservation during the productive years in order to make best use of the resources available during the land’s rest. The land has not been given to us for reckless use. Working it and deriving sustenance from it are privileges that require accountability and care.

Perhaps the text is warning us also against the dangers of taking too much pride in our work, our productivity, so much so that it bleeds over into the domain of undue proprietorship. Pride in our labor is a wonderful and important motivator, yet this prohibition against working the land for a full year every 7 years can serve to remind us that the world will keep revolving without constant attempts at controlling or manipulating it towards our goals, no matter how lofty those goals may be. We are not commanded to refrain from taking advantage of what the land offers; we are commanded to refrain from working it toward our advantage. Eleventh century French commentator Rashi imagines God telling us through these regulations, “I do not forbid you to eat it [the produce during the Sabbath year ] or otherwise benefit from it. What I am forbidding you is to treat it as if you owned it. Rather everyone should be equal with respect to it.”

Immediately on the heels of the regulation regarding the shmitah, this Shabbat for the land that comes every 7 years, comes the mandate perpetualized on the Liberty Bell, the mandate of the yuval, after 7 weeks of 7 years – 49 years, we are to:
וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ, ‘Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof’. This King’s James translation fits our modern American sensibilities with regard to freedom, a freedom we equate with being able to pursue what we want, when we want – to be able to work as we wish and claim ownership over all that we produce. The Hebrew implies a different connotation. Dror at its essence refers to ‘release’ or ‘emancipation’ from that which makes a claim on us or from that which we claim as our own. Capitalism values work and productivity, and as Americans we are incredibly fortunate to be free to be able to pursue any occupation, and we are accordingly taught that hard work rewards us with well- deserved material plenty. U’kratem Dror ba-aretz, however, offers an equally valid lesson that is necessary for our modern world – it teaches us the importance of releasing ourselves from this sense of material entitlement.

The lesson of parashat Behar is to work, to put forth our full effort – this is necessary for us to sustain ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually; but then to also to pause and remind ourselves that we are not to be defined by what we produce but rather how we care for the land and this earth that has been but lent to us.