Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reflections from the Diaspora

I write this blog from New York City. I am visiting family here. Its hard to leave Eretz Yisrael. And while I prefer a Starbucks drip to an Israeli "hafuch", it is small comfort for having to leave the Holy Land and my people. And then it got worse.
I sat at dinner with some friends who were discussing the tensions between Israel and Iran over Iran's nuclear capabilities. One friend whose daughter is spending a semester at Tel Aviv University remarked, "If the situation ever reached the point where war was imminent my daughter would be on the first plane home!". And two others concurred, one saying she would not even consider visiting Israel at this time.

I was startled. I can remember when the Six Day War was about to break out, after the Gulf of Aquba had been blockaded by our Arab enemies, Jews by the plane load came to Israel to volunteer. So much of the workforce was called up to reserve duty and there was great need of additional manpower. At that time Israel was in extreme peril. It was not at all clear she would survive. Yet young and old came to be with her and their people even at risk to their very lives.They could not imagine being separated from the destiny of the Jewish State.

The people I had dinner with were not assimilated Jews. They were observant and active in the Jewish community. What happened to the idealism of the late 60's ?
How could practicing Jews today even imagine an individual existence apart from the survival of Israel and her people?

Troubled as I was by the table talk I went to the Torah portion of this week, that of T'ruma seeking some insight. And it came!

The Torah in the beginning of the portion tells us about the collection of voluntary offerrings to be used to build the Mishkan, the temporary House of G-d built by the Israelites in the wilderness. The Torah beging " Speak to the Children of Israel that they should take for me an offerring. From every man who is motivated to give you should take my offerring."

The Alshich raised a troubling question on the verse just quoted. He noted that the Torah called the offerring voluntary. It is to be given from those motivated to donate. Why then does the Torah instruct Moshe to "take" the offerring. If its voluntary it will be "given" not "taken"?

Many of the great commentators have explained the verses, each with his own brilliance. I would like to suggest an interpretation based on my experience this week in the 'Gola'. If one studies the verse we quoted above carefully one finds an
interesting idiom. The Torah in its literal translation reads "...from every man whose heart is motivated..." If I may be so bold I would suggest the verse may be interpreted "from every man who is willing to donate his heart you shall take the offferring".

What G-d then is instructing Moshe is to take material gifts to build the sanctuary only from those who are willing to surrender themselves for the purpose of having G-d's house in their midst. Its not enough to be generous of the purse. If you want to have your wealth part of the sanctuary of G-d you need to be devoted to the project.
No, more than devoted, you need to be willing to give your very heart to make the Mishkan a reality. Only those willing to be 'mosair nefesh', prepared to surrender their soul to make the Temple a reality were worthy of having that which they donate, their materials, part of the structure.

I suspect the same is true for our relationship with the State of Israel. Many donate money...even generous gifts that have been important for the Jewish State's survival. But unless one is willing to donate one's very heart as well as his/her money s/he has no real share in the reality that is Israel. Israel only belongs to those who would make an ultimate sacrifice for her continuity. It belongs to those who live their and sacrifice each day to build the land and defend her. It belongs to those in the diaspora who see their personal life and the life of the State inextricably linked and inseparable. Like the Mishkan, Israel belongs to those who would make for her a donation of their heart and soul.

One more Shabbat in the diaspora and then I am home again. Paraphrasing the great poet and philosopher Yehuda Ha'levy, "No matter where I am, my heart is in the East".
When all our hearts are in the East, bound to our beloved homeland, we will know the blessing G-d intends for us. May it be soon. May it be today!

Shabbat Shalom

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ten Commandment Jews

Have you ever heard of the expression "Ten Commandment Jew"? Perhaps today its less in usage. Years ago when I would speak to people about their level of observance often one would tell me "I am a Ten Commandment Jew". What they meant was that yes, s/he identified with the moral principles of the faith but s/he did not keep the rituals. Of course his/her concept of The Ten Commandments did not include the laws of Shabbat observance. The Ten Commandment Jew made clear that s/he loved his/her faith. It was just that the burden of taking on all the mitzvot was more than they felt they could carry. We might call it "Judaism light".

This week in the parsha of Mishpatim, a reading that immediately follows last weeks reading of the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, we separate the men from the boys, as it were, at least in terms of living the Jewish life in its fullness. The Ten Commandments, of last week, were only the lead-in. This week the laws begin to be fleshed out. The portion of Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot. And while many of the laws are civil laws for the ejudication of disputes according to the truth of Torah, the message is clear. The Torah is all encompassing.It addresses every asepct of life with no exception. There is no way to separate the moral from the ritual, nor the religious from the secular. To be a Jew is to embrace a lifestyle.

That very wholistic imperative is what frightened the Ten Commandment Jews. The sacrifice it called for was too extensive and consequential. They chose to limit their observance and make it more bearable.

The truth is the attitude of the Ten Commandment Jew is not so far off from each of our attitudes. We all, even those of us who embrace the full 613 commandments of Judaism and accept our Judaism as our way of life, nonetheless have depths of observance and practice of faith that we say are beyond us. We do not deny they are worthwhile practices or that they are religious expectations. We simply say that to keep them requires too great a sacrifice. And so we give ourselves a pass.

I don't think I need to find examples here for you. Each of us on his/her own level can think of things that s/he knows and believes to be part of what it means to be a good Jew in the best sense, yet s/he does not maintain in practice. For some it may be about the laws of kosher in the home or when travelling, for another it may be about the Torah he studies, for a third it may be about the spirit of the Shabbat in the home or perhaps the level of materialism s/he embraces, or the amount of tzedaka s/he gives. We all have places where in one way or another we say "the sacrifice is just too much. Up to here I can go in my committment to observ,e but no further".

Yet there is a paradox here that we must confront. Let me frame it in the context of a vignette. I once knew a young man name Jeremy. He moved from London of the UK to live in the community I did which was London, Canada. He had a post at the University. Jeremy, at one time, was involved in a secular movement for Jews on campus at the University of London (in the UK) called the "Non Jewish Jews Society". He was a classic case of one who embraced the notion of The Ten Commandment Jew.
And then something changed for Jeremy. He found himself being drawn to traditional observance. He tried the Shabbat and found he liked it. He discovered, to his amazement, that what he saw as a burden and something to be discarded was actually a gift to his life and not a burden at all. The Shabbat he once saw as representative of Judaism's oppressiveness he came to value as a great blessing to his life and indeed no sacrifice at all to maintain.

Rav Aharon Kotler, the founder of the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey and the acknowledged 'gadol hador', the leading Torah authority of a generation ago, pointed out that all sacrifice for the doing of the good is illusory. Until we have committed ourselves to the mitzva it appears to us that much will be required of us to get it done. We become intimidated and struggle to make the sacrifice. Yet the irony is that, just like in our vignette with Jeremy, once we make the committment and take on the practice, we find it does not feel like a sacrifice at all. What we now do and embrace as our practice feels right and good and even pleasurable.

Whenever we think of breaking through a barrier we have created to do that which we know to be right, despite the sacrifice, we need to know the sacrifice we imagine we will have to make is not real. Yes, it feels real. Indeed at times it feels too much to ask of ourselves, but in reality, once we cross over, we will not feel like we are sacrificing at all. What we do will bring its own rewards that will engender a sense of wellbeing and joy. Sacrifice? What sacrifice!

I suspect each of us has known the truth Rav Aharon Kotler spoke of in his/her own life. We each have had some place where we expected the sacrifice would be great, and nonetheless resolved to the task. Once on the other side,to our amazement, we discovered their was only blessing with no price paid.

What we need to do is trust that precedent and build on it. Again and again, we need to break through the fears and anxieties of the new for us and the intimidating and confirm that, in the face of doing the good, sacrifice is an illusion.

The consequeunce of moving to the next spiritual level in our lives is not a price to be paid but a blessing to be gained !

Shabbat Shalom

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Winters of the Soul

It has been a cold winter here in Israel and in much of the world. When our physical condition is compromised by the cold we know what to do. We dress warmly for the outside. We up the heat for the insides of our home. And if we get fortunate we escape the cold altogether for a time and travel to a place with a warmer climate.
But what about the spiritual cold? What about the inevitable times when our soul seems constricted and depleted of its warmth. How do we create a 'varmkeit' when our innards feel frigid and o
spirit is hibernating?

I understood the early section of this week's parsha of Yitro to be talking to me and to just such a time. Let me quote the relevant passages here. Its somewhat lengthy but relevant for our discussion.

"And Yitro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moshe heard
all that G-d did for Moshe and all Israel His People, that Hashem
brought the Israelites out of Egypt....And Yitro, the father-in-law
of Moshe and his children and wife came to Moshe to the wilderness
where they camped to the Mountain of G-d....And Moshe went out to
greet his father-in-law and he kissed him and they exchanged
salutations and Moshe brought him to his tent. And there Moshe told
him the story of all that happened, what Hashem did to the Pharaoh
and Egypt, about the Israelite's experience, and of all their challenges
of the journey and how G-d saved them. And Yitro became excited for
all the good Hashem did for Israel that He saved them from the
Egyptians. And Yitro said 'Blessed be Hashem who saved you from the
Egyptians and from the Pharaoh, who saved you the People from
clutches of Egypt. Now I know that Hashem is is greater than any
other God because he saved you from their evil intentions towards

There are many questions that emerge from this passage. But let me raise this one for now. The Torah tells us that Yitro, while still in Midian heard all of what Hashem did for the Israelites. He knew of the events even before he came to the camp.
So then why is it that on hearing the story told to him by Moshe did he become so moved. He aready knew the facts. He came because of them. What did Moshe add that made Yitro so emotionally responsive and prompt his spontaneous blessing.

We each may have our own idea here. Let me share the way I understand the story.
Yitro was a priest of Midian, even as the Torah makes clear and then repeats in the narrative. He was invested in matters of the spirit. He wanted a faith he could believe in. His pagan practice seemingly did little to sate his quest for the primal truths. When he heard about the miracles G-d performed in Egypt and in the Exodus he came to the wilderness. He left the comforts of home (as Rashi tells us) to discover the truth he needed to know.

He did not hear from Moshe anything he did not already know. It was not new facts that impressed him. What Yitro heard was the story, not a story of G-d's grandeur, but a story of relationship. He heard the personal account of how G-d saved His People. He heard a story of relationship between the Deity and a human entity, a story filled with Divine care and compassion. It was not G-d's power or feats that impressed Yitro. Many Gods claim that. No, rather it was G-d's humility and His availability to His People in a spiritual intimacy that moved Yitro to belief.
When Yitro comes to accept our G-d he said "Now I know that Hashem is greater than any other God, because He saved you from the evil intentions of others towards you." Yitro is saying, "It is because G-d's goal is not to impress but to save, even in the quiet, when no one knows, he saves us from other's bad intentions, in that I know He is truly G-d."

Yitro knew there was a G-d before he came. He heard of the miracles. What he did not know was of G-d's greatness. Miracles are fact. They don't tell a story. He did not know G-d's essential greatness until he heard the story first hand from his son-in-law, a survivor. What he heard was not a story of G-d making miracles but a story of G-d saving His sufferring children through miracles. Miracles were not the end but the means. It was when he heard of G-d, not qua G-d but rather G-d in relationship with us that he was moved to embrace the faith of Israel. It was the story of the personal G-d that was so compelling as to lift the doubts from this life-long searcher for spiritual truth and to convince him of the veracity of the G-d of Israel.

What do we do when we find our souls feeling the cold and lacking enthusiasm. We all experience such times. We may say our prayers but they lack the feeling. We may say grace after meals, but our thanks feel empty.We study, we do kindnesses, we parent our children saying all the right things and yet we are not fully present.
How do we get back the vitality of faith and relationship to both G-d and others that is the fire of ths soul?

From the remedy I think we can also discern the cause of our malaise of the spirit.
I think when our souls go cold we are missing story in our life. Our figid spirit eminates from a religious practice that, while full of devotion and belief, lacks the personal dimension. Our faith has no face to it. We do, we perform, we commit, we may even sacrifice, but without a story in mind. Our service lacks the color commentary to feed it and give it juice. We stop listening and telling tales. We become so focused on the content that we lose the context.

I will tell you. A Shabbat table needs more than words of Torah to make it a spiritual haven. It needs stories, hassidic stories, stories of the sages, or our stories of faith and deliverance. Faith needs to be grounded in the human experience to come alive. Children forever seem to be full of enthusiasm why?, because they are constantly being excited by stories. Yitro found G-d because of Moshe's story. It was only on hearing the facts as a story that his soul became excited.

If we find ourselves in a spiritual winter I suggest the reason is that our faith has become dry. We have not given sufficient attention to the color commentary that is vital to make any experience alive. We have stopped telling and listening to stories. We need to put names and faces on the values we invest in. We need to find our G-d not in isolation but in the context of the human drama.

After all isn't the Torah itself a book of stories. Even the laws are presented to us in the form of a story " And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying...."
Let us find the stories to warm us and give fire to our souls!

Shabbat Shalom

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