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The feast of Passover arrives Wednesday at sundown. The eight-day celebration is one of the most important events in Judaism, and it’s also significant to
Passover 2020: Finding Triumph In Tragedy
The feast of Passover arrives Wednesday at sundown. The eight-day celebration is one of the most important events in Judaism, and it’s also significant to
Our parashah this week begins the story of Joseph, a man destined for greatness by virtue of his extraordinary gifts and good luck. It certainly was not his political acumen that got him into power. Quite to the contrary, he repeatedly proved to be his own worst enemy, getting ahead in the world in spite of himself.
The story opens with Joseph bringing bad reports about his brother to their father Jacob. Jacob for his part, with a long track record of a disastrous insensitivity to family dynamics, rewarded the snitch with lavish gifts. Needless to say, his brothers weren’t crazy about him.
When I first visited KI as a student rabbi for Rosh Hashanah, knowing nobody in Lansing or at this shul, a man came up to me after the services and let me know how much he appreciated my d’var Torah. After that he kept smiling at me, to the point that I was almost getting embarrassed. In any case, he could have taught Joseph a lesson that it’s a lot easier to get ahead in the world if you show your appreciation and friendliness.
Joseph next bungled whatever good will he had left by telling not only his brothers, but his father as well, of a dream in which all of them would be bowing down to him. It’s one thing to brag about one’s power, and quite another to quietly demonstrate it. On my next visit to KI after Yom Kippur, a late afternoon Shabbat walk had been planned through Scott Woods, to be followed by havdalah and cider back in the social hall. The plan was to end up at Hawk Island, where cars were parked to shuttle us back to KI. Unfortunately, since we didn’t make it to Hawk Island until after sundown, the gate leading to the county park had been locked for the night. Don’t worry, said a man in our group – you’ll never guess who. He got on his cellphone and ten minutes later a patrol car came around and an officer opened the gate. “Good evening, Mr. Wiener,” the officer said. David greeted him by name, asked about his family, and we were on our way.
Through Joseph’s naïve boasting and bungling, he nearly got himself killed. While it was only good luck that saved his hide, his extraordinary managerial powers got him a position as caretaker for a prominent Egyptian official. And even though house-slave is usually considered a dead-end job, Joseph managed to rise to a position of increasing responsibility, prestige, and benefits. At this point, our two stories converge for a while. On my next monthly visit to Lansing, I picked up a copy of City Pulse, intrigued by the cover story, “Is this the most powerful man in Lansing?” The article suggested that the quiet man with inside connections had more going for him than I realized. It also depicted man behind the mayor in words reminiscent of the retired volunteer who has given so much to this congregation:
The mild-mannered David Wiener has become a familiar face in Lansing over the last ten years.
Former Mayor David Hollister said. “It was really important for me to leave someone behind who could keep the continuity that we had built in the city, and David was that person. He understands the big picture when it comes to politics and this city.”
He has emerged as more of a public figure. During the Capitol Loop controversy, for example, Wiener was clearly running the show for the city. Such activities smack of political ambition. “The idea of running for office has been brought up from time to time,” Wiener said, “but in order to run for office, I would have to give up what I’m doing, and that’s just not what I’m looking for right now.”
His announcement comes as welcome news to his supporters, especially the leadership of neighborhood groups who say that Wiener has become an integral part of their relationship with the city.
“We know that we can go to Mr. Wiener, and that he’ll make every effort to get things done,” said Anita Beavers, president of the Colonial Village Neighborhood Association.
“He’s always got a handle on everything,” Benavides said. “He knows this city inside and out and he’s incredibly committed.”
Incredibly committed might be putting it mildly. Wiener says that he spends an average of 12 hours per day doing his job.
“It’s not all at the office. I do a lot of reading and writing at home and I also spend a lot of time out with the neighborhood groups and other city organizations,” Wiener said.
In the public arena, any kind of corruption or scandal can ultimately be disastrous to one’s career. Joseph understood this, so he wisely kept his distance from his boss’s gorgeous wife. Unfortunately the usually clever and calculating Joseph did not cover his bases and let Mrs. Potiphar hold on to circumstantial evidence that landed him in prison. Many commentators have pointed out that the florid Torah trope sign on the word meaning “but he refused” her seductions suggests that Joseph hesitated. Also, the side commentary in the Torah text “Now Joseph was well built and handsome” suggests that he may have in some way provoked the woman’s advances.
What a different story when we talk about a man with 150% integrity, as this excerpt from the City Pulse article makes clear:
In the little spare time he has, Wiener says that he and his wife enjoy ballroom dancing and traveling, especially to Lansing’s sister cities.
“And by the way, we all pay our own way when we visit sister cities, unlike a certain other publication reported,” joked Wiener.
Note here that unlike Joseph, when a ludicrous accusation was thrown at David, he could easily make light of it because he was so obviously beyond reproach.
Like our former KI president, Joseph remained as active off the job as he was on the job. Instead of just festering in prison, he made himself available as counselor and dream interpreter. David still shows up at KI nearly every day, whether it’s to replace light fixtures, tutor our b’nai mitzvah candidates, lead great books discussions, roll the Torah scroll, or spread de-icing salt in the parking area. Unlike David, however, Joseph boasted to the point of playing God. As he told the cupbearer before interpreting his dream, “Surely God can interpret! Tell me your dreams.” David’s bearing is more like Gideon in our haftarah. He showed up incognito at the enemy camp, let the others play the role of the brilliant interpreters, and left them to draw their own conclusions when his dream prophesized their defeat. This kind of low key approach, empowering others to excel and giving them room to find their way to a solution, was typical of David’s leadership style as board president.
Finally, our parashah suggests that Joseph was a political opportunist. When he recognized that the cup bearer would soon be returned to power, Joseph used the man’s influence to secure his own release from prison. That much is understandable; we would all do the same thing if we were in his predicament. But what I find striking in contrast is that after he gave the chief baker a terrifying prediction of his future, he broke off contrast with the poor guy. Just imagine what a state the baker must have been in after hearing he would be impaled in three days. After the workshop I just took at the rabbinical convention on dealing with trauma, it’s clear that one can never just walk away from someone who has received such shocking news. Here I picture David taking the time to sit with him, listening patiently and with equilibrium as the baker unleashed waves of distress, rage, and powerlessness, and letting him know that he cares about him and, if there were anything he could do, he at least would try.
So in next week’s episode, Joseph will rise to become the number two man in Egypt, accountable to no one except pharaoh himself, kind of like being executive assistant to the mayor. As we’ll read in two weeks, the way Joseph used his power wasn’t always pretty. In contrast, our congregation, like our city, can be grateful to have been guided by the most humane, compassionate, gentle, and life-affirming of leaders. David is reminiscent of the sun in the Aesop fable about the sun and the wind trying to get a man to remove his cloak. Soft power is a very Jewish thing. It empowers others to be the change they want to see, and creates no collateral damage.
— Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Inspired by Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms*
Ascent # 1:
There are glimpses of a lost spiritual heritage in Jewish practice. We find it in the psalmist’s glorious depictions of nature and the cosmos, and in the mysteries of the sacrifice. Our practice was established to enable us to remain in constant intimacy with Divinity. We have lost that divine intimacy nowadays; many of us don’t even believe that a Divinity exists with which we could be in intimacy. And still, we struggle to keep the ancient practices alive, not always certain if they are accomplishing what they are supposed to, or for that matter, what it is that they are supposed to accomplish. Yet we do understand that our lives are fraught with tensions and uncertainties, that life in modern society is grossly out of balance, and that these imbalances may drive the world to economic collapse and environmental disaster. And so, we seek solace, we seek wisdom, we seek to reconnect with the part of us that has not forgotten what we were seeking for in the first place. Chadesh yamenu kekedem.
Seeking requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is scary. When we offer up our first fruits, there’s no guarantee that these won’t be our last fruits of the season. To offer the Shlemah, the sacrifice of well-being, we place on the altar, with our own hands, the breast that had cradled the living, beating heart of a creature that we had fed and cared for. When crisis in our lives causes us to bottom-out, to seek help and change our ways, we may need to abandon our friends, our sources of pleasure, and all that’s familiar. Our Torah reading repeatedly threatens us with being cut off from our kin, and indeed, anyone who goes forth on a journey of purpose and discovery, who, like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit leaves his pipe and easy chair to go on an adventure, may encounter a deep sense of loneliness and isolation. Min hametzar karati yah.
The world can be a scary place. There have always been enemies, highway robbers, and malicious beasts. Today we live in gated communities with encrypted unrememberable passwords on our software. The nightly news keeps us apprised of spectacular meteorological threats, serial killers, and suicidal terrorists. Yet statistically we face far greater danger every time we get behind the wheel of a car…and for the most part we do this without fear and in the vast majority of situations we reach our destination unscathed. In a scientific age, it may seem preposterous to speak about guardian spirits, and yet we experience making perilous car trips without fear when fear is not called for, even though we immediately snap into defensive mode to deal with genuine threats in the road. Somehow we know how to find repose despite potential dangers. We are nourished when we find this repose in wild places, rather than on I-96. There’s a special tranquility in nature at night, fearing nothing, yet poised to react at the first stirrings of a potential cougar or copperhead. Esa einai el heharim me’ayin yavo ezri.
After describing the proper preparation of the well-being sacrifice, our Torah reading tells us that a pure person may partake in the sacrificial offering. However, “the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his or her kin.” In other words, it’s not enough to do the right thing in the wrong state of mind. We may recite our prayers in perfect Hebrew, unaware what the words mean, and say them so fast that no one else can understand them. And we’re likely to be rewarded with as much blessing as we put into the prayer. To quote Marjan’s commentary on Ascent IV: “Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.” Vetaher libeinu l’ovdecha be’emet.
The courage borne of authenticity is extremely energizing. In our Haftarah, the formulaic form of action is described as “defrauding God,” going through the motions without doing the hard work. In contrast, we do authentic work, such as providing food to those in need, the floodgates of the sky open up and blessings pour down. Hafachta mispadi lemachol li pitachta saki ve’te’azreni simchah.
It has become something of a cliché to speak of atonement as “at-one-ment,” yet the language is compelling. Feeling in harmony with one’s self and one’s world is a joyful state in which self-care and ethical action become inseparable, in that the same impulse of maintaining and deepening homeostasis expresses itself in relaxing tight shoulders, taking seconds on salad and avoiding the dessert table, picking candy wrappers off the floor, and serving meals to the homeless. Ashirah l’adonai be’chaiyai.
Many believe that claims that introspection and contemplation have no place in Jewish observance. The examples of Jacob, Elijah, Daniel, Shimon bar Yochai, and the Baal Shem Tov suggest otherwise. It is only by going deeply into our souls that we find the insight to repair the world and the courage to act upon that insight. Re-entry is difficult; when we come down from the mountain and see how others are living, our first impulse may be to smash the tablets. After twelve years in a cave, Rabbi Shimon was so disgusted by the unexamined lives of his fellow Israelites that he fixed his gaze on everyone he saw and knocked them dead. He therefore needed to spend another year in the cave to develop compassion. It is this compassion that enables us both to shed a tear and to burst out in laughter when we encounter human foibles, to dedicate our new strength and insight to the benefit of others, and to reconcile our differences. In the closing words of our haftarah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.”
Rabbi Michael Zimmerman, March 28, 2015
* Commentary on Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra by Marjan Helms
Seven Ascents for Flute and Orchestra
Ascent I speaks of disquiet and leave-taking—of choosing a path seemingly at odds with what is familiar and comfortable. Drawn from unease by the mysterious Other of the insistent birdcall, the music establishes a determined pace of escape and ascent, marking the beginning of exploration and discovery.
Ascent II presents a pause in the climb. Here, a first backward glance suggests tender regard for the simplicity and goodness left behind. Opposing this sweetness, however, fear, insecurity, and doubt come to dominate a surreal soundscape where turning back is no longer possible. The flute struggles in this eerie atmosphere, ultimately overcoming fear by boldly singing its own echo of the birdcall. Terror passes, and the movement ends quietly, although unsettled and cautious.
Ascent III unfolds while the protagonist’s energy is at rest. The music hints at a realm of guardian spirits where love never slumbers and where the wakeful Spirit watches over all wandering.
Ascent IV reiterates with a vengeance the terrors of the second movement. Deep sadness and fear mingle with irrational anxiety but are met by two opposing energies: first, a formulaic and borrowed determination that is too shallow for the task, and second, a more authentic courage that is willing, finally, to accept pain.
Ascent V begins by startling the almost broken character of the flute back into intense wakefulness. The entire brass section resounds in a tumultuous but ambiguous fanfare, to which the flute responds by almost jokingly transforming march into dance. Redemption is close at hand.
Ascent VI crosses a threshold into a world unforeseen. An encircling Presence arises from the fundamental chant of the earth and all souls resident and nearby. Here, music leads to the edge of Silence.
Ascent VII pours irresistibly out of the sixth movement. The flute hurls itself headlong into a joyful re-imagination of everything previously encountered. This music speaks of hope and laughter and joy, of return and renewal. The mountaintop, after all, is only a resting place. Life does not end. The music goes before us to say that all is well. That all shall be well.
©2014 Marjan Helms
To celebrate Kehillat Israel’s “Year of the Jewish Story,” I decided, rather than deliver a d’var Torah this morning, to read a story I wrote for the occasion. It is inspired in part by a recent poem by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner (find a copy here). The story is a midrash; in other words, it elaborates inventively on the biblical narrative.
Just to quickly summarize the context: Sarah, who could not bear a child, gave her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive a child in her name. When Hagar’s son Ishmael was born, Hagar became scornful of Sarah, so Sarah treated her harshly. After Sarah’s son Isaac was born, Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael banished to the wilderness, where Hagar had a divine revelation. In today’s haftarah, Peninah and Hannah were both married to Elkanah. Peninah had two sons and she taunted Hannah for not being able to conceive. Hannah prayed at the shrine of Shiloh for a son, making the pledge to offer this son for divine service at Shiloh. This led to the birth of the prophet Samuel, and later to three additional sons.
THE MAGIC PIZZA
Once upon a time, Hagar, Hannah, Peninah, and Sarah rented a cottage along the lakeshore for a girlfriends’ getaway. Peninah, who makes a mean cosmopolitan, drove up with two gallon jugs full of the mix. Hagar, who knew a pizza and Middle Eastern place in the nearby town run by a couple from Egypt, ordered three veggie pies topped with zucchini and eggplant, and because she charmed them with stories of the old country, the owners threw in a couple of tubs of baba ghanoush and ful medames on the house. By the time the old girls devoured two-and-a-half pizzas and consumed who-knows-how-many rounds of cosmo mix, the party was in full swing: kvelling competitively over their kids, ripping through suitcases to try on each other’s beachwear, the co-wives giggling wickedly together over intimate secrets. It was then that Sarah popped open a dresser drawer and triumphantly pulled out a Gideon Bible.
“Here it is,” she proclaimed. “The whole story of those awful years; complete with fabrications to make each of us come off as revolting as possible.”
“Not exactly each of us,” said Peninah. “Little goody-goody over there just keeps weeping and praying while big-bad-wife-number-one was lording it over her.”
“Give me a break, Peninah,” said Hannah. “Do you think I want to be remembered as a whiny wimp? You know what a knockout I was in my younger days. I drove old Elkanah wild, and we loved each other. Let’s face it; he married you for family connections and for no other reason.”
“So you want to get nasty, Hans?” retorted Peninah. “You were always the pretty little flower. You never did a stitch of work around the house and no matter what role I gave you, you were useless in the family business.”
“Some business,” said Hannah. “A sleepy souvenir shop catering to nonexistent tourists while your sons played poker in the corner. If we had used my connections in Shiloh instead, I could have gotten us contracts for temple ornaments and sacrificial paraphernalia. Those priests paid good money. I’m just glad I got Samuel out of our house and hooked up with the House of Eli.”
“Disgusting!” said Peninah. “Drinking and carousing with those lazy priests, making a fool of yourself until you got so drunk that you pledged your son to slave labor at the shrine.”
“Three thousand years and you two still can’t settle your differences,” said Sarah. “Why, Hagar and I, after all we’ve been through, are still Facebook friends and get together regularly for mah jongg. Whatever happened in the old days, we’re the only ones still around, and life’s too short to hold grudges.”
“But Sarah, dear,” said Hagar, “let’s be honest. It’s taken us a couple of thousand years to get where we are now, and mostly it’s because it was all so long ago, we can’t really remember what all happened. In fact, just for the fun of it, could you remind me what it says in that book of yours about me?”
Sarah read from the Gideon Bible, “‘And when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.’ Come to think of it, you were pretty snotty in those days.”
“Give me a break, Sarah,” said Hagar. “You have no idea what it’s like to be born a slave, to have nothing, and then to suddenly have your mistress throw you into her husband’s bed in some bird-brained scheme to work out their marital problems. That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of. How could you expect me to respect you after you forced me into harlotry and somehow thinking that this would be in your own best interest!”
“Soooo,” said Peninah. “Now this is getting juicy. And you girls got after Hannah and me for not settling our differences. Go ahead; show us how it’s done. But first have another cosmo.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” said Sarah. “But if your plan was to get us rip-roaring drunk so two jealous women could entertain you with a bit of reality TV, I’m not playing along.”
“Really, dear,” said Peninah. You don’t mind going down in history as the mean old hag who tormented the innocent young thing?”
“Well, now that you mention it,” said Sarah. “The text really did give me a pretty bad rap: dealing harshly, casting her out twice, and all.” “But isn’t that exactly what happened?” asked Hagar.
“I’ll admit I wasn’t as patient as I might have been,” said Sarah. “But the text doesn’t mention how you were going around saying you wanted to get out of there, that you were hearing divine voices sending you to the wilderness, that you and your son had some grand destiny. I was all too glad to give you what you wanted.” “You sure were,” said Hagar. I told you in confidence about one dream I had and that gave you all the excuse you needed to shove me out of the way.”
Hannah then jumped in. “Hey, this is kind of interesting. It’s just like what they talked about in that postmodern religious criticism class I took at the Lifelong Learning Center last year. See, a text creates its own reality. And so do personal narratives. You each have your own story, and there’s no objective truth outside of that.”
Then Peninah said, “Oh, now the sweet little mother of the prophet has become a literary critic. If you’re so smart, Hans, why don’t you give us an analysis of the varying narratives from Jewish and Islamic sources?” “Yes, that’s a fascinating question,” said Hannah. “Muslim scholars understood Hagar to be the courageous and heroic matriarch of the Arab peoples, the mother of God’s chosen one, and Abraham’s beloved. The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah made her an Egyptian princess. They also claimed that after Sarah died and Abraham married Keturah, it was actually Hagar in disguise.”
“Yes, everybody wants to put in their two cents about me,” said Hagar. “They create texts, and try to tell me that’s who I am, and that I’m wrong if I don’t follow the script. All I know is that Sarah treated me like dirt and almost got me killed in the wilderness.” “And all I know is that this impudent hussy kept trying to humiliate me and put her child higher up the totem pole than mine,” said Sarah.
“Enough of this war of words,” said Hannah. “Let’s do something completely wild, like jump in the lake with all our clothes on.”
They dashed out of the house, sprinted down the beach, and plunged into the refreshing water, laughing and splashing one another. In their excitement and their drunken stupor, they didn’t notice the little boy playing in the sand. While the girls were frolicking in the water, he lay down in the sand and started to make snow angels with his arms and legs. Then he floated up into the sky, flapping his arms like wings. He hovered over the four women and cleared his throat.
Everyone turned silent.
Finally, Hagar said, “I remember you. You came to me when my son was about to die from thirst in the wilderness.”
Sarah said, “I remember you. You and a couple of friends came to our tent. You predicted I would have son.”
Hannah said, “I remember you. I got a glimpse of you the night that Elkanah and I conceived a son.”
Peninah said, “I remember you. You were hovering around our house almost constantly since that time that Hannah prayed at Shiloh for her first son. And what brings you tonight to visit four drunken, squabbling, water-fighting women?”
The angel replied, “I’m hungry. What have you got to eat?”
Hagar said, “I think there’s half a pizza left on the table. And a bit of baba ghanoush.” The angel said, “The pizza would be just perfect. I’ll wait up here and you can bring it out.”
Hagar ran into the house. Two pizza boxes were lying on the floor near the trash can; the other one rested slightly ajar on the table, with cheese and tomato stains on the side. Hagar grabbed the box, closed it shut with her fingers, and brought it out. The other three were waiting for her on the shore, wet and shivering. Peninah opened the box in Hagar’s hands and gasped. The pizza was cold, hard, and broken into at least forty crouton-sized pieces. The four women gazed for a few moments. Then they understood.
Sarah, being the eldest, took the first piece. “I cast off the misdeed of forcing Hagar to have sexual relations with my husband.” She hurled the pizza crumb into the waves.
Hagar took the second piece. “I cast off the misdeed of acting with contempt and haughtiness toward Sarah.”
Now it was Peninah’s turn. “I cast off the misdeed of mocking and humiliating Hannah.” And when Hannah took her first crumb, she said, “I cast off the misdeed of poisoning my relationship with Peninah through jealousy and resentment.”
Over the next several minutes, they took turns recalling ways they had hurt one another and casting them off, until the pizza box was completely empty. The angel was no more to be seen; neither was the imprint in the sand from where he was making snow angels. Sarah and Hagar looked one another deeply in the eyes, hugged each other tightly, and became consumed with tears; Peninah and Hannah did the same. They returned to the house, cleaned up the mess they had made, returned the Gideon Bible to the dresser drawer, and poured the remaining cosmopolitan mix down the sink. Then they all fell into a deep sleep.
When they awoke the next morning, the sun shone brightly. Peninah and Sarah challenged Hannah and Hagar to a game of water polo before breakfast. Then the four women took a slow walk along the lakeshore. No words were necessary. At the opposite end of the globe, a group of men were sitting around the table signing a peace treaty. And the earth heaved a great sigh of relief.
—Rabbi Michael Zimmerman
Rosh Hashanah 5774
Once, on the eve of the Day of Atonement, Rabbi Zusya heard a cantor in the House of Prayer, chanting the words: “And it is forgiven,” in strange and beautiful tones. Then he called to God, “Lord of the world! Had Israel not sinned, how would such a song have been intoned before you?” (paraphrased from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim)
While we might marvel at Rabbi Zusya’s chutzpah, his audacity, his remark touches an interesting issue. Imagine God looking down at humanity and seeing all the warfare, all the environmental damage, all the cruelty, all the people struggling in desperate poverty while a handful of others are hoarding extraordinary wealth, all the hatred fueled by the very religious doctrines that God gave us in love, all the failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, all the ways people shield themselves from the suffering of others. And still, God continues to bathe humanity with blessings: the sun rising every day, the cycles of living things providing abundant nourishment and indescribable beauty, sufficient material resources to meet the needs of every being on the planet, the intellect to solve insurmountable problems, the presence of family and community, the emotional capacities to love them and care for them, the power to express our love in the creation of new life. Why doesn’t God burn out? What sustains God to keep giving so much to a species that has so misused God’s gifts and is likely to continue to do so?
Zusya’s answer is truly ingenious. The more broken people have made God’s world, the more beautiful and passionate will be our song of repentance. Our tender music sings out in stark contrast to the shrill screeches of human misery and neglect; the sinewy lament flowing arrhythmically from our hearts offers a welcome interlude from the lockstep heavy metallic thud, thud, thud beating of what we call progress. The music of our prayers is beautiful in and of itself. But beyond that, our prayers proclaim that kindness, reflection, and hope cannot be muffled by the noise of human folly. For this, God can be deeply grateful.
OK, I know that this is not what we like to hear about at Thanksgiving, broken world and all that. Shouldn’t we instead focus on how incredibly blessed most of us are in this society? Most of us enjoy adequate food, clothing, and shelter, a decent standard of living, personal freedom, and access to resources and access to resources and opportunities. We can, and we should, acknowledge how fortunate we are and give thanks for all the wonderful things in our lives. In Jewish tradition we don’t limit this kind of thanksgiving to a single Thursday in November; rather we are told to include the following blessing in our prayers at least three times a day:
We thank you for our lives entrusted to your hand, our souls placed in your care, for your miracles that greet us every day, and for your wonders and the good things that are with us every hour, morning, noon, and night.
If we truly lived with these words implanted in our consciousness, we would live enchanted lives. No matter what happens, we would never forget that the glass is not half empty; it is, in fact, at least 90 percent full.
The trouble is, we don’t seem to be wired to experience this level of fulfillment. We ignore at least 40 percent of the nectar in our glass, and then bemoan that it is still half empty. In the eleventh century, a rabbi named Bachya ibn Pakuda taught that there are three causes for our lack of gratitude. First of all, once we get attached to material possessions; we keep wanting more. If we enjoy our Ipad 2, we now want an Ipad 4, and no matter how happy we’ve been with our Ipad 4, we just can’t live without a Mini. The second problem is that we take all the good stuff we’ve got for granted. Even our new Mini soon becomes just another tool, while our old Ipad 4 sits idle on a shelf alongside the laptop, smartphone, and CD player that we’ve owned since the Pleistocene era. The third problem, according to Bachya, is the one that concerns me the most tonight. This is that we tend to focus on our disappointments, failures, and hurts, and then lose sight of our blessings altogether. Who cares about a little Mini when the rich kid down the street got a sports car for her seventeenth birthday? And what’s the use of having a new car if you knock your back out working out at the club so you are immobilized for the next two weeks?
To be sure, physical pain is something we all would rather be free from. Getting turned down for a job opening or a date does nothing to lift one’s spirits. And even though we may read the newspaper as a leisure activity, the headlines usually don’t do much to brighten our day. But, as the sages of all religious traditions teach us, we have a choice how to react to these events. So let’s say, for example, my insurance premium has doubled, a lab test came out positive, or that stench comes from a raccoon’s nest in the basement. Our rabbis taught that we react positively or negatively to events like these because we assume that they will lead to either good or bad outcomes. But none of us are clairvoyant. We actually have no idea how things will turn out.
Alan Morinis, in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar, tells the true story of a man condemned to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Unlike countless others, he survived this ordeal and fled to Uruguay. Decades later, he escaped from the political instability and guerilla warfare in Uruguay and emigrated to the United States with a comfortable fortune. It turned out that in the concentration camp he was forced to make soap; eventually this experience enabled him to become the largest soap manufacturer in Uruguay. These twists of fate demonstrate how the consequences of the events in our lives cannot be predicted. Therefore the Talmud tells us to say a blessing if something good happens, and to say a blessing if something bad happens, because we don’t really know which is which.
To be sure, life sometimes throws situations our way that are truly catastrophic and lead to extreme suffering. Yesterday I met a woman who has survived multiple illnesses deemed to be imminently terminal, and in addition she lost her husband to suicide a year and a half ago. She told me how important it would be for me to mention extreme situations such as hers in this talk, to let people know how her difficulties have compelled her to live every day as if it were her last, to speak authentically and passionately, even if it defied social mores and expectations, to dance, to sing, to laugh, to cry, even if this made people uncomfortable. From tragedy and painful confrontation with death emerged a passion for life, a sense of gratitude for each day, and at the same time a sensitivity that her words and deeds, no matter how freely expressed, must never cross the line of causing physical or emotional hurt to others.
But beyond our personal tragedies is the realization that we live in a broken world crying out for repair. The kabbalistic master Yitzchak Luria taught that God initially created a world so perfect that everything was enveloped in radiant divine light. But this light got so bright and intense that the earthly vessels created to hold the light could no longer contain it. All the vessels got shattered. Like Humpty Dumpty, all the elements of a whole and perfect world lie in shambles. It is up to us to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Our human task is to assist God in the work of creation by reassembling all the broken pieces. How do we do this? By feeding the hungry; by struggling for justice; by restoring the damage we’ve wrought on the environment; by ending war and violent hatred once and for all. This is the work of repairing the world, of tikkun olam. As we gather here tonight to pray together, we are repairing the world. When Muslims, Jews, and Christians come together in friendship and mutual respect, we are repairing the world. When we do not allow the bitter struggles that divide our peoples to stand between us, we are repairing the world. And when, ultimately, we sit down together at the conference table to resolve our differences, sensitive to each other’s point of view and compassionate to each other’s suffering, our world will be about as close to being fully repaired as it has ever been.
Tonight, more than anything else, I am filled with gratitude for the opportunity to engage with all of you in this work of repair. I thank God for bringing me to a community where I can interact with, learn from, and befriend my Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Bahai counterparts. Through the efforts of good people in this community and in countless other communities around the world, may warfare and genocide vanish from our midst and may the seeds of compassion and forgiveness germinate in fields long infested with the bramble of fear, prejudice, and hatred.
Before I spoke this evening, Father Mark recited one of my favorite Psalms. It is the lament of a man engulfed in brokenness, a man who has fallen into a pit of despair. In Psalm 30 this man recognizes that it is easy to be grateful when one is on a roll:
Va’ani amarti v’shalvi kol-emot l’olam.
And as for me, in the ease of my prosperity I said that I would never be shaken.
But to sustain as a healthy attitude in tough times requires a broader perspective:
Ba’erev yalin bechi v’laboker rinah.
In the evening weeping may set in and abide for the night, yet in the morning there are shouts of joy!
What’s the secret of going from weeping to joy? It’s in the verse
Hafachta mispadi l’machol li pitachta saki va’t’azreni simchah.
The King James Version translates this as:
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing:
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness…
If we look carefully at the original Hebrew, we find that the secret of turning mourning into dancing is likened to the miracle of giving birth:
You transmuted my wailing into its opposite, into the exquisitely writhing ecstatic pain of the pangs of birth;
You opened my sack and filled my girth with joy.
Our work together of repairing the world is like giving birth to new life. The process may be difficult and sometimes painful. We may not bear the child we had hoped for; sometimes the baby may not survive to breathe its first breath. And still, whatever the outcome, our efforts to create a better world bring purpose to our lives. We know why we were created, and how we are connected to humanity as a whole. For all this, we cannot help but be filled with gratitude. This is why our Psalm concludes:
L’ma’an y’zamercha chavod v’lo yidom adonai elohai l’olam odecha.
You blessed me with the joy of new life so that glory might sing out to You and never be silent.
Adonai, my God, I shall give thanks to you forever.
East Lansing, Michigan
November 19, 2012
God of justice, God of mercy. We seek Your wisdom and Your strength.
How can we assure our children and all the children of the world that never again shall they face the sword because they are part of a people that is different from the people in power, or because their faith is opposed by those who have lost faith in human decency?
Throughout history, powerful rulers drunk with greed and blind with fanatic cruelty have deployed fighting men with deadly weapons to increase their power and oppress the innocent.
When Cain slew his brother and set the whole cycle in motion, You left his question unanswered—Am I my brother’s keeper?
God of justice, God of mercy, the time has come to answer Cain’s question. Enough is enough. We are our brother’s keeper and our sister’s protector. We stand here before You today to remember six million of our kin and to honor their memory with the commitment to end the atrocity once and for all. We seek Your wisdom to help us find the answers. We seek Your strength to give us courage to keep asking the question.
You said to Cain, “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” Can You not hear the cries of the blood of millions of our brothers and sisters from Hitler’s death camps, and from the Congo, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia, Chechnyia, Bosnia, and Armenia? Is the collective wail too much even for You to bear? Like us, when You’ve had enough, can You flip the remote to another channel?
Today we flip to the channel of hope. With Your help we will stop the savagery and bring the perpetrators to justice. Extending hands across continents, we will build a global society dedicated to peace and human dignity, protected by the rule of law and the willingness to carry it out, inspired by the prayers of hundreds of religious orientations, rising together in a glorious chorus of diversity:
Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yoshvei tevel v’imru amen.
May the one who creates peace in the heavens grant peace upon us and upon all who dwell on earth. And let us say, Amen.
If the Bible were written in our time, the Book of Job would read something like this:
Once there was a man named Job, who loved God and who was free from guilt or shame. One day the Devil spoke to God and said, “Does Job not have good reason to love God? For he enjoys great riches and excellent health. Do you think he will continue to love you and carry good thoughts in his heart if he has to suffer?” And God said to the Devil, “Very well. We shall put Job to the test.”
The next day Job woke up in intense pain and began to suffer all manner of illness. Shortly thereafter the man whom Job loved also began to suffer intense pain and all manner of illness. And the man whom Job loved soon died. And Job was overcome with grief.
The friends of Job provided him with rare and precious medicines, and even though Job continued to suffer pain and sickness, he did not die. But the medicines were costly, and Job’s wealth steadily diminished.
And the friends of Job said to him, “It is because you have sinned before God that God has punished you so severely. For you have lain with man and incurred God’s wrath.”
So Job found comfort with a woman. She was dark and comely. She lacked access to wealth or knowledge, but her heart was filled with love. And this woman too began to suffer intense pain and all manner of illness. And the woman whom Job loved soon died. And once again Job was overcome with grief.
So the friends of Job said to him. “It is because you have sinned before God that God has punished you so severely. For you have lain with woman and incurred God’s wrath.” And Job was very confused.
And Job sought further companionship, and his lovers lay with men and they lay with women. And those who had wealth and knowledge were able to control the disease in themselves and to prevent it in others. But those who lacked wealth and knowledge spread the disease to those they loved and died themselves shortly thereafter.
And the friends of Job said that those who suffered were sinners who incurred God’s wrath for their evil ways. So people were beset with guilt and shame and did not seek for diagnosis or treatment. And the disease spread around the world, fueled by stigma against those who were different or powerless. So God wept bitter tears of grief and remorse for the folly of his creatures.
And children were born with the disease and the friends of Job said that the children were sinners being punished for their evil ways. So once again God wept.
And Job strove to educate people about the disease. But the friends of Job said that he was a sinner and those who suffered deserved to suffer. And again, God wept.
Finally Job called out to God, “How can you allow your creatures to suffer so? Why have you allowed this pandemic to spread?”
And God called out to Job from the whirlwind: “Who are you to question my ways? Where were you when your friends and other false prophets preached their poisonous message of hatred? Why have you allowed them to stigmatize those who most need a helping hand and a loving heart? Do you too believe that I want to punish my creatures for loving their fellow man and their fellow woman? What have you done to rescue the downtrodden from guilt and shame? Why have you not taught them how much they deserve love from their Maker, from their fellow human beings, and especially from themselves? Why have you not educated them about this disease? And what will you do in the days to come to unite all who praise my name to eradicate the plague, to heal the afflicted, to comfort the grieving, and to safeguard the vulnerable?”
And Job said unto God, “No longer do I doubt your goodness. For now I understand that those who walk your ways open their hearts to those who are afflicted, while only fools and those with hearts of stone would blame the victims for their suffering.”
And God restored Job’s wealth a hundredfold. And Job used his wealth to establish programs for education, prevention, and treatment of HIV/AIDS. And the friends of Job repented their evil ways and offered comfort and support to all who suffered.
Then peoples of all faiths joined together with you and with me and with all assembled here today in a prayer of comfort and healing for those who are afflicted:
May Divine goodness manifest in those who love you and care for you.
May Divine healing energy penetrate every pore of your body, bring you comfort, and restore your health and your spirit.
May Divine wisdom fall upon those who develop new medications, and upon the physicians and healers responsible for your care.
May Divine spirit pervade your soul, enabling you to love yourself, nourish yourself, have faith in yourself, and achieve what you were put on this earth to accomplish.
And may Divine mercy enable you to beat the odds and bless you with comfort, longevity, and peace.
And let us say Amen.
Islamic Center, East Lansing, Michigan, September 29, 2010
Shalom Aleichem/salaam aleikum. This week we observe Sukkot. A sukkah is a fragile hut providing minimal shelter. In our evening prayers, we say ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, “spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.” To quote Rabbi Arthur Waskow: “Why not a fortress of peace, or a castle, or a temple, or a tower? Why not something sturdier, hard-shelled, invulnerable—won’t that get us more peace, more security, as we sleep? The wisdom of the prayer is that in fact all human beings do live in a vulnerable ‘sukkah,’ and we can achieve true peace and security if we all recognize that and share our vulnerability with each other—neither in fear and hiding, nor by threat and attack.”
Rabbi Waskow touched upon three key points for us. First, we are vulnerable. Just one troubled soul, one book, and one match can remind us how vulnerable we are. Second, we are not alone. We are all together in the same vulnerable sukkah, and together we can achieve true peace and security. And third, we can learn from the Islamic Center how to respond to attack—not fighting fear and hiding with fear and hiding; not responding to threat and attack with threat and attack; but with restraint, tolerance, and forgiveness, sending the message: Learn, don’t burn.
Yet the desecration of the Quran poses a dilemma. We recognize the wisdom of playing down isolated incidents of harassment, not to fuel the flames of attention seekers. Still, bookburning has horrific resonances for us. As Heinrich Heine said, “Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.” To burn the Quran, the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Diamond Sutra is to pollute the earth with smoke that smothers all that is good and sacred.
Unity with diversity does not mean that we all are one. We are divided on fundamental issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, and most tragically, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. On the one hand, we need to be on guard so that shrill voices among politicians and the media, fanning the flames of divisiveness, do not distract us from our work together for peace, justice, and tolerance. On the other hand, our community can be a beacon of light for the rest of the country, recognized not for Quran burning, but for constructive engagement, mutual respect, and shared learning among those with the courage to disagree and dialogue together.
After the 9/11 attacks, this community came together to speak out against Islamophobia and mourn the tragic loss of life. When the Nazis rallied at the capitol, Mayor Bernero organized a “Celebration of Diversity” at Eastern High School, leaving the Nazis alone downtown to hurl their venom at each other. And two years ago, Palestinian filmmaker Yaser Aladam, impressed by the spirit of religious co-existence in Greater Lansing, produced a documentary featuring the Islamic Center, University Lutheran Church, and Congregation Kehillat Israel, screened in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as an inspiration to end the cycle of hatred and violence.
We will continue together to feed the hungry and build houses for the homeless. Let us also take up the call of “Learn, not burn.” We may burn in our souls from past hurts. Let us instead learn about our respective traditions. Let’s build trusting friendships firm enough to withstand the difficult questions. Let’s learn to say “I feel this” rather than “You are that.” And let the sukkah of God’s peace spread out over all of us, our mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples. Aleikum salaam/Aleichem shalom.