Friday, March 30, 2012

On #Toulouse and #Trayvon.

 During high school, I lived in Toulouse for a month on an exchange program. While I was not at all involved with the Jewish community while there, it is still a place, like others I have lived, that feels like home. I had my patisserie, my favorite place to grab a nutella crepe, my school supply store....and now, like too many other places I have lived, my place of tragedy. 

Teaching about the seder to a Basic Judaism class the other night, I emphasized the experiential; we are, in the course of the seder, meant to feel that we--ourselves--have moved from slavery to freedom, from degradation to praise. Here's hoping....

SOWING IN TEARS: A Sermon on Toulouse
Parashat VaYikra 5772

For this week, at least, sacrifice is trendy.

As we sit here, I imagine that hundreds--if not thousands--are lining up to see the Hunger Games premiere. In case you haven't read this dystopian young adult bestseller, imagine Shirley Jackson's The Lottery meets Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In a post-apocalyptic United States, "tributes" are selected from each of 12 districts. Thrown into an arena, they are forced to fight to the death....all on live, required viewing, television. Actually, it's far more engrossing than it sounds.

The scene of the "the reaping," or the moment when the names of the tributes are picked in front of all of the citizens of the district, is a harrowing one. It is the little sister whose name gets picked first but, spoiler alert, the hero of the story takes advantage of the loophole and volunteers in her place.
Judaism has a complicated relationship with martyrdom, yet our tradition is filled with those who died "al kiddush ha-shem," for the sanctification of God's name. As excited as I am to see Katniss Everdeen take the screen, the events of this week--and the people with whom I shared it--have me reflecting a bit on martyrdom, and how it differs from the words we use--al kiddush hashem.

Several years ago, during the 2006 war with Lebanon, I heard Rabbi Gordon Tucker teach a midrash expounding on the second commandment, and particularly on the promise that God makes to “show kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments.” The Midrash goes on to ask: Who are the ohavai­-the ones who love God and keep the Divine commandments?   These are the citizens of the land of Israel, who give their lives for the sake of mitzvot. For what reason are you to be killed? Because I circumcised the children of Israel. For what reason are you to be burned? Because I read from the Torah. For what reason are you to be crucified? Because I ate matzah. For what reason are you to lashed? Because I participated in the mitzvah of lulav. Rabbi Natan, then, is reminding us that those who love God are in many ways unremarkable, save for the choice to live as Jews in a Jewish land.  In other words, the Jews of Rabbi Natan’s world expose themselves to mortal danger for doing the ordinary stuff of Jewish life. For our sages, these are the people who have died al Kiddush hashem.

"Choose life" is a central tenet of Jewish life--perhaps it is even a mantra. We are told that, to preserve human life, we are expected to transgress just about any commandment. But, our sages imagined three desperate scenarios when that was not the right choice, three instances when we ye-herag v’al ya’avor: we allow ourselves to be killed rather than violate these commandments: murder, incest, or idol-worship.  History has, certainly, placed us in these situations; the literature of the Crusades is filled with vivid--and often unpleasant--images of men, women, and children who made this violent choice. But most people who die al Kiddush ha-shem are not martyrs. They don’t choose that fate; it chooses them…because of who they are and how they live.

This week, we were reminded that ohavai v’shomrei mitzvotai, those who love God and keep the Divine commandments, live everywhere. This week, we added new names to the list of Jews who have died al kiddush ha-Shem, in the sanctification of God's name. The rabbi and his children, on their way to school in Toulouse, France, were not faced with the option of taking their own lives or someone else's. They were not asked to parake in some inappropriate sexual act. They were not asked to bow before an idol, to swear allegiance to another God. They simply walked down the street--a street I might well have walked in my own month living in Toulouse--and went into a building that was marked as a Jewish one.

I know many of you sat here just about a month ago and heard Leonard Stern talk about anti-Semitism. Several of you shared with me that it angered you, or that it saddened you. And some of you shared that it annoyed you; can't we move on, you asked? And I might have shared with you then a teaching I carry with me from rabbinic school. It's not from the Talmud, or some arcane medieval code of Jewish law. It's from one of my history professors, an expert on modern Jewish history. And he said that we too often teach a lachrymos theory of Jewish history; lachrymos from the Greek for tears. It is the same theory that makes us laugh uncomfortably when someone describes Jewish holidays as: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.

Usually, I share that teaching in some frustration. Zeh hayom asah Adonai, we will say tomorrow as we celebrate Rosh Chodesh Nissan--this is the day that God has made. Nagilah v'nismecha bo--let us rejoice and be glad in it. Judaism, for me, is about joy. It is about making meaning, about finding depth in an often shallow world, about leaving this world a better place than we found it. There is a lot of literature out there about Jewish survival......but I like to talk about Jewish "thrive-al."

But a week like this makes it hard. Because the fact is that those kids died outside their school because they are Jews. A martyr chooses his or her fate; they didn't. And, at the same time as I tried to process this latest senseless shooting in our global Jewish family--our nation is forced to process another senseless shooting. A young black man walked home from the market, carrying a bag of Skittles. "He looks suspicious," said a neighborhood resident....and shot him. In cold blood.  Because he was black, and “looked suspicious.” Trayvon Martin did not choose to be a martyr; he chose to buy some candy. In his statement on the case and the investigation, President Obama said: If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. And one of my colleagues[1], in conversation about Trayvon, wrote:  “When it is dangerous to go to school being Jewish, or to walk while being black, to love someone in your dorm room while being gay, we are all interconnected. The pain does not belong only to these families. The pain and responsibility belongs to each one of us.”

This week, we open up the Book of Leviticus, and begin to read the details of the sacrificial system. Ki yakriv mikem,  if one from among you takes, our Torah says. The Sefat Emet looks at the command that we "take from among you." It is not enough, he seems to suggest, to be concerned with your own sacrifice. No, he says, now we understand the sense of "from among you" as implying that this is all accomplished by means of submerging yourself into the larger totality of the Jewish people.  We must acknowledge that we wept this week not only because children were killed on their way to school, but because Jewish children were killed on their way to Jewish school. We wept because they are family.

One of my favorite readings is the one called Why I Am a Jew by Sir Edmund Fleg. There is a long story behind why he wrote it, but it always moves me deeply. And this week, one line in particular stood out: I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps. And so, yes—we weep for Rabbi Sandler, for Arye and Gabriel, for Miriam. And we hope that others weep with us. But we should also weep for Trayvon. But with all this weeping…how do we move beyond the lachrymos? With the hope that one day, the promise of the Psalms will come true, that those who sow in tears will reap in joy.

Because we’ve had enough tears.

Tonight, the Hebrew month of Nisan begins. It's the month of which it is said (Exod 12), Hachodesh Hazeh Lachem, "This month shall be for you.." Lachem in gematriah is 90, the Hebrew letter "Tzaddik," which represents justice. And so: May this be a month in which justice blossoms, everywhere[2]. Ken yehi ratzon.

[1] Rabbi Michelle Pearlman, via Facebook, March 23, 2012.
[2] With thanks to Rabbi Larry Bach, via Facebook, March 23, 2012.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Puff Piece

How fitting that as Passover approaches, I decided to dip my toes into the proverbial waters, and give this blogging thing a try. 

This one is a bit of a cheat, though, as I wrote it for my synagogue bulletin this year.


To usher in 2012, the Wall Street Journal published a “Top 10 List.” Only, it was “The 27 Rules of Conquering the Gym,” designed for all of those who join the gym come January 1, convinced this is going to be the year that they lose those pounds or run a marathon. Among his advice:

 25. Fact: Thinking about going to the gym burns between 0 and 0 calories.

19. If a gym class is going to be effective, it's hard. If you're relaxed and enjoying yourself, you're at brunch.


3. Develop a gym routine. Try to go at least three times a week. Do a mix of strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. After the third week, stop carrying around that satchel of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies.
It is no wonder that every January 1, over 100 million Americans make resolutions. There is something so seductive about considering change, imagining the results. Who wouldn’t want to live the life of their dreams, or change a current—frustrating—reality?  Six months later? Less than 50% of those people are sticking to their resolutions. That’s not so surprising either, given what we know. Change is hard. Whether it is a personal challenge or the challenge of repairing the world, the work of shifting from what is to what could be is messy, difficult, and sometimes painful.
But, of course, it’s March, not January. Why am I talking about New Year’s Resolutions??
The rabbis of the Mishnah teach that there are actually four New Years in Jewish tradition. Elul marks the new year for the tithes (think, ancient Tax Day). In Tishrei, we celebrate Rosh HaShanah—the New Year on the calendar. In Shevat, it is the new year for the trees. And, in Nisan—the month coming up—we celebrate the new year for the festivals. We celebrate Passover, the festival of spring, the celebration of freedom.  What were the rabbis’ thinking with all these New Years – how many times can we mark a new beginning? Perhaps, they had a deep insight into the human condition, an understanding of the tremendous challenge of change within each of us and in our world.
They seemed to understand that like with modern resolutions, you need to “check in” along the way; you can’t just set a big goal and expect it to happen. Passover, with its emphasis on renewal and rebirth---not to mention cleaning—is a great “check in” point; you can assess where you are with those resolutions. The physical ones, yes, but particularly the spiritual work which began at Rosh HaShanah.
On the night before Passover begins, there is a tradition of doing a search for chametz in the house. With a feather and a candle, one is supposed to search all of the nooks and crannies for the errant Cheerios and croissant crumbs that evaded the vacuum cleaner until now.

I have shared with some of you over the years a teaching that I brought to my first interview, a teaching to which I return each Passover. I spoke about a ritual that I never thought I—a New Yorker born and raised—would find suddenly meaningful: my Passover car-wash. I described the sense of relief when my car would emerge shiny and ­chametz­-free—from the carwash.

Those of you who have been in my office recently—okay, ever—know that neatness is not my strong suit, and I find Passover cleaning and preparation quite daunting. I think that is why the car-wash felt so freeing; when it was done, it was done. I never felt like there was more that I could do. It felt—like successful resolutions are supposed to feel—manageable and measurable.

Passover is our halfway point in the Jewish year. How did you hope to grow as 5772 began? What have you done to make that a reality? As Passover draws near, we pray for and celebrate the rebirth of the fruits of the earth. Let’s also make it a time not just to pray for, but to plan for, the rebirth of our spirits. 
The search for chametz is meant to be literal. We are to clean out our homes, finding all of the crumbs that have gathered there over the course of a year. Think of it as super-sized spring cleaning. Yet, if we only focus on the physical, we have missed a wonderful opportunity for reflection and growth. Chametz is forbidden because it puffs us up; it has often been compared to arrogance, but I want to suggest that spiritual chametz can be anything taking up unnecessary room, anything preventing us from feeling free.

I invite you, even before you think about the physical preparations for Pesach, to take some time to think about spiritual goals; either to check in with where you are, or to create some now. Our ancestors, leaving Egypt, had to make quick decisions about what they wanted to bring with them into a new country, a new life. What it is that you would like to leave behind in Mitzrayim, in the narrow place. What is “puffing you up?” What is taking up unnecessary space?

Like the physical search for chametz, you may not be able to find all of it—but remember that the mitzvah resides in the search as much as in the finding. And once you start, it just might become a habit.

But, still no chocolate chip cookies….