Monday, November 8, 2010

A Comment on the Rally for Fear &/or Sanity, Parashat Toldot, 11/6/2010

Yes, I’m going to talk about it. The Rally for Sanity &/or Fear. How can I not? Here we sit reading parashat Toldot the tale of sibling rivalry that was so fundamental that it started in the womb; a rivalry that can easily be likened to partisanship due to the striking differences in their core values; A rivalry that sadly serves as too familiar an example of the level of animosity that exists in our country between the right and the left.

We could dismiss this rally as entertainment. A comic display presented by two very adept performers joined on stage (or at moments by satellite) by a myriad of big name musicians and actors. They even gave out crowd pleasing awards! It was an organizational feat of production from assuring security, sound, visuals, and the plethora of necessary porta-potties that added to the hundreds already present but on reserve for the Marine Corps Marathon scheduled for the next day. And, thankfully, they succeeded in this feat -- it was thoroughly entertaining and went on without any serious glitches, a few clogged subways and a lot of crowds, but all in all, a peaceful and well executed event.

Of course, entertainment was the vehicle, the guise if you will for a rally that was planned with a clear and and very serious (and well organized) political agenda. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were not two random comedians seeking an audience and a laugh on a beautiful Shabbat afternoon to boost their ratings. Satirists, they each host shows that while aired on Comedy Central offer at least as much news and far more pointed commentary than many of our mainstream news outlets.

In character last Shabbat, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert could be likened to our biblical pro - and antagonist. Mr. Stewart to the peaceful Jacob seeking a reasonable, calm, even studious way in which to function in the world and Mr. Colbert to the quarrelsome and rancorous Esau determined to make his way fully armed and ready for battle. If we trust the biblical story, we know that reason will win out. Jacob, not Esau, earns the distinction of patriarch in our tradition. But, biblical narrative while sacred, it is still story. Are we confident, particularly after the anger displayed on both sides of the political table in the days leading up to Tuesdays election, that our country won’t fall victim to Esau’s (or Colbert’s) hostility and overt animosity?

When I first heard of this rally for “Sanity &/or Fear” marketed on their respective shows during the days immediately following Beck’s luke warm Tea Party rally, I assumed it was a well- executed joke. This was the comedy channel after all, and well, Beck left himself open to be the brunt of at least a few jokes. I doubt I was alone in thinking they were just after a laugh; and yet, clearly this wasn’t a joke. Stewart and Colbert have touched on a very real and open nerve in our society. Many of our politicians are behaving badly, and they often work to incite and divide the public rather than working towards bringing us together. Moreover, we are getting fed up and frustrated with this status quo. As the New York Times reported, “Some in the crowd expressed regret that it was comedians, not politicians who were able to channel [our] frustration.” America needed this rally, and its timing just days before an important election in our country couldn’t have been better chosen.

We must not fall victim to our politician’s and the media’s attempt to divide us into angry camps motivated to action primarily by fear of the other. Rather, we must continually remind ourselves that when we get down to it, we all are seeking the same results: a healthy economy, equitable access to health care, a safe, clean, and decent living environment, good schools. Ensuring these and other expectations requires not fear laden and quarrelsome behavior but rather compassion and, to quote the rally’s writers, ‘reasonableness.’ Based on the attendance, the reaction by the media, and the number of people I know who tuned in on TV, we Americans are doing just that – living, doing the best we can, and most importantly respecting each other’s opinion. And, let’s hope our politicians were paying attention!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Living Fully - the Lesson of Chaye Sarah, the life of Sarah, delivered on 'New Member Shabbat' 10/29/2010

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
It is an interesting start to this section of Torah that spends a so much time narrating death. Sarah’s and Abraham’s death both are accounted for within the verses of parashat Chaye Sarah.

ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים שני חיי שרה
Sarah lived - 100 years and 20 years and 7 years…These are the years of Sarah we are told. But then, despite the fact that this is the only time a matriarch’s age is reported at the time of death, and it is done so in such an unusual and elongated manner, no other details of her life are reported. That’s it. After that first sentence, the text continues immediately to her death, the arrangements Abraham makes for her burial, and perhaps more significantly the arrangements he makes to ensure – as best as he is able - his (and Sarah’s) future progeny.

There is no shortage of Rabbinic commentary on this opening verse and specifically on the unique notation of Sarah’s age (100 years & 20 years & 7 years). Midrash Rabbah, for example, explains that her life span is notated as such because Sarah’s years on earth were unblemished. Accordingly, “at the age of twenty she was as at the age of seven in beauty, and at the age of a hundred she was as at the age of twenty in sin.” In this scenario, youth is the gold standard for measuring a good life: Sarah’s life is exemplary because even in old age, she exuded youth in appearance and behavior. In contrast, and in my mind far more satisfying, others explain that her life span is expressed in this extended manner, in this additive equation, 100 + 20 + 7, to underscore not only the length but the richness of her years – in short, this presentation is used to highlight Sarah’s ability to live fully through each stage of her life, so fully that to compact the years into one number would somehow diminish her life and the goodness she brought to the world.

Common to both of these midrashic explanations is a desire to get to know and understand Sarah beyond a simplified number. To state that her life was simply 127 years may have been too easily passed over by the reader, rather, 100 years + 20 years + 7 years makes us stop and take notice. It makes us consider the person, the human being behind the number.

Despite a Jewish reticence to counting people directly, the Jewish community seems obsessed with numbers. Tradition has us go to extremes to avoid counting or pointing out individuals using, for example: ‘not 1, not 2…’ or the words of Mah Tovu when counting a minyan for worship instead of the far more direct, “1,2,3…” ; yet, for all other purposes, we are intent on taking a numerical count. Not so unlike the biblical or national census, we too implement demographic surveys of our community. We count the number of families on our congregational rosters and take pride in increasing membership numbers. We count the number of students in our religious schools rejoicing when the numbers swell. But I wonder,how useful is this celebration of quantity?

There are many good reasons to know how many of us there are. Certainly we need to know the size of our community so that we can ensure that resources are in place for the proper care and support of each and every member of our community. But, far too often, our numbers are used instead to make a judgment of quality or success. 127 years - Sarah’s life was, at least according to our modern reckoning, long. But the text coupled with our rabbinic understanding of the text makes it clear, the number of years – the quantity – is far less important than how she lived them.

This Shabbat we celebrate and welcome our new members including the number of whom could not be present this evening. Of course, we are excited when our numbers increase. But, far more than being happy about in increase to some numerical tally, we are thrilled to have each new member family become a part of our Temple Emanuel community. We take in being a small and caring congregational community devoted to Torah, worship, and social justice. We have to count our numbers. Like any organization, we can’t avoid the business of numbers. The building, the staff, the programming and materials we use – all of this requires the counting of numbers in order to ensure survival; but as best as we are able, and perhaps to our detriment when it comes to finances, the leadership of Temple Emanuel is far less interested in the size of our congregation than in the human beings that join and participate together in our synagogue community.

As I noted at the start, Parashat Chaye Sarah, this portion known in hebrew as, The Life of Sarah, narrates paradoxically, the deaths of both Abraham and Sarah. At the same time, the portion also offers a glimpse into the future. Isaac is paired with Rebecca – literally, in Sarah’s tent no less – before the end of the narrative and Abraham’s progeny with his other wives is listed. Noteworthy is that numbers are not offered in this tally of future progeny, rather individual names are listed. The Torah is clear. Sarah and Abraham’s legacy will continue; but, numbers will not ensure that legacy, people and their actions will.

As new members of Temple Emanuel, you have a choice. You can remain counted solely as a listing on the congregation roster, as part of one lump sum, remaining virtually anonymous; or, you can get involved and be counted by the fullness of your actions. It is my and the Temple leadership’s hope that you will choose the latter, for in that way, we get to know you, you get to know us, and together we can ensure a long and extended legacy of Reform Jewish life here in our community.