Monday, March 28, 2011

Grateful for My Gratefulness Haggadah

Finally, after months of work that entailed not only interpretation of the text but making use of designing and formatting skills I never imagined I could use, the Gratefulness Haggadah - Dayenu - is complete. I hope to eventually have the haggadah published so that it can be used more comfortably at a Seder table. In the meantime, all or parts of the document can be downloaded (you can access the haggadah by clicking on the cover located on right-hand side of my blog or at and referred to in my hope that in some small way it can add to the sense of celebration, freedom and gratitude that are inherent in the Passover Seder experience.
I would welcome comments so that inclusions, deletions or changes can be considered to enhance the beauty and richness of one of the most exciting and satisfying rituals in Jewish life.
With deepest gratitude to the Author of All things, I offer these pages to you in blessed memory of my devoted father-in-law, Jacob Lederman, and my dearest cousin, Eric Joel Tanenbaum, may they rest in peace.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Shemini-THE ELDERLY:The Wings of Israel

The Wings of Israel"On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel."(Lev.9:1)

Midrash Rabah, 11:8, makes the following statement: “ Israel is compared to a bird; in the same way that a bird has wings with which to fly, likewise Israel can do nothing without their elders.”

As a bird can only achieve her nature by having wings, so does Isrel remain incomplete, without the ability to fulfill itself and its destiny, without the presence of the elderly in their midst.I was struck by something of an incongruence in this particular parable. The midrash equates the elderly with wings-does this not raise a contradiction regarding the appropriateness of the analogy? Wouldn't a birds paws or feet , which enable her to stand on the limb of a tree or on the ground , not be a more accurate point of comparison? After all, the elders usually represent a base of security, an anchor of tradition and experience that gives a community or culture a foundation and sense of continuity and linkage to a past?

The wings of a bird, by contrast, point to the capacity to take flight, to soar into unfamiliar skies and places of freedom never before explored? Do the elderly represent this dimension of Jewish experience or challenge, the ability and necessity to spread one's wings and take off into new adventures of discovery and attainment? Is not this sense of freedom and buoyant adventure better connected to youth rather than to the elderly? Isn't this parable off the mark, demanding an interpretation beyond the obvious?

I believe that the midrash provides us with an incredibly contemporary understanding of old age. Firstly, before one can fly-excuse the pun-one needs to learn to walk.The elderly represent the accumulation of experience, the wisdom of the past, the rules of life -all of which must be imparted before the young can flap their own wings, and take off by themselves. An anchor and foundation provides security and strength to a young person wishing to search in new directions for meaning and experience.

More importantly, the elderly have a vital role to play in enabling and freeing the young to reach out for the skies and explore the richness of life's many unanswered questions. In the popular mind, there exists an almost irreconcilable tension between the commitment to the past represented by the elderly and the belief in the future that defines the journey of the young. So often both directions are at odds with each other, leading to great hardship and difficulty, a generational gap that seems to require divine intervention to resolve. On the Great Sabbath, Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath before Passover, we read in the prophet Malachi -”I will send the prophet Elijah to you...He shall return the hearts of the fathers to their children and those of the children to their fathers.”(3;23)

Our Midrash offers us a psychological and natural solution. It is the duty, and the great opportunity of the elderly, to encourage and support the natural ability and desire of the young to spread their wings and fly! Perhaps in addition to preserving the past, the elderly can be called upon to join with Aaron and his sons to offer guidance, support and the fullest measure of their love in demonstrating their joy at the young person's willingness to soar to the heights of heaven in pursuit of her dreams. In a psychological way, the elderly are empowered to release the young from the Oedipal attachments that create fear, confusion and paralysis in the lives of so many of the sons and daughters of Israel.Perhaps this is what Moses meant when he unequivocally declared before Pharaoh- “We shall go with our young and our old” (Exodus 10:9)-toward the great gateways of life leading to greater freedom and fulfillment. This is the path of freedom so important to recognize as we anticipate the Festival of Freedom, the festival of Passover, which will be celebrated in peace and freedom, we pray, in less than 30 days from today.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Grateful for Purim-Why?

Purim is a controversial holiday.You might be surprised by this assertion given how much fun it is and how beloved a holiday it is , especially for children. After all, who but a curmudgeon would object to partying as a way of celebrating an experience of deliverance and rescue? Who could object to having a carnival with costumes, the exchange of food packages and achieving the pinnacle of celebratory intoxication-with the blessings of the Rabbis- to the point of losing any sense of discrimination between the villain and hero of the Purim story, Haman and Mordechai? Is it not a psychological victory to throw all caution to the winds-especially with rabbinic sanction and under its supervision, and experience a moment of guilt-free letting go of restraints and simply having a great time?

However,there are serious voices in the Jewish community that attempt to temper this extreme form of celebration. It is felt that such extreme behavior is un-Jewish, bordering on the pagan!

Nonetheless, Purim is regarded by the talmud as a holiday that will outlast all others; its message elicits great gratitude that has the power of surviving the passage of time and circumstance.

What are we grateful for on Purim?

If the story is true and reflects the reality of Jewish life in the Diaspora, we are grateful for being rescued from annihilation. This gratitude is unmistakable and quite dramatic. Furthermore, we can be grateful for the chance to have fun, an opportunity not always available to us, something that lightens the burden of our existence.

In my opinion, Purim essentially is a time to celebrate and acknowledge one overarching historical reality of the Jewish people-its survival. No other people has succeeded to survive as a distinctly creative entity in spite of all odds, as the Jewish people. So salient is this characteristic, that at a gathering of Jewish leaders not long ago, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep interest in understanding the nature of this Jewish experience in order to glean some insights on the dynamics of survival in circumstances that logically would make survival virtually impossible-homelessness, powerlessness, discrimination and persecution. He, of course, is struggling with the loss of Tibetan independence to the hegemony of the Chinese government.

The Story of Purim is a paradigm narrative of Jewish survival in the Diaspora. In spite of imaginative interpretations and mystical exegesis prevalent among commentators trying to suggest the hidden hand of God, an honest reading of the Book of Esther leads one to conclude the utter absence of God and any intimations of supernatural interventions. Stripped bare of any theological implications-no mention of God in any shape or form is made throughout the book-we are left with a story that unfolds within the realities and circumstances of history and the nature of Jewish precariousness in the Diaspora.While many point to one passage as a disguised yet suggestive reference to God's perennial availability , words spoken by Mordechai to Esther in the face of her refusal to appear unannounced before Ahasuerus- “ ...if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter...”(Esther 4:14), I believe that this statement merely reflects the unyielding trust that Mordechai had in the survivability of the Jewish people no matter what Esther would decide. There is little question that the fate of the Jewish people was questionable at best; they could be done away with at the mere whim of a monarch or despot. Without homeland, a government or military structure with which to defend itself, the Jew had very few options for successful survival. Yet the Jew survived! How? This mystery continues to fascinate us and fill us with wonder.

What is the answer of the Book of Esther to this question?

Again, I reiterate that no amount of pilpulistic creativity will convince me that the author(s) of this book conveyed an unmistakable belief in God's readiness to intervene publicly and overtly as demonstrated in so many other parts of the Bible' over-all narrative.The Jewish people was left to its own devices, and did survive. How?

First, with the cunning, courage and daring of its leaders. Mordecai emerges , like the many “Court Jews” that followed him, a presence that is attuned to the workings and intrigues of palace politics. He pays close attention to all that transpires around him, observing carefully the interactions of the many players for power within the confines of the royal court.He overhears the plot to kill the king, reports it, and in this way injects his loyalty and indispensability into the fabric of the court's political unfolding, winning the favor of the king. He is cautious about making his Jewish identity public recognizing that Jewish vulnerability can easily be taken advantage of, and insists that Esther conceal her identity from the king. The tools of his trade are subtle, the use of any and all possibilities for successful interventions with the source of power, the king, exploiting the king's weakness for wine, wealth, women and his need to compensate for his impotency with a semblance of masculine decision-making power. Interestingly, a close look at the text reveals that Ahashuerus never makes a decision about anything without first consulting advisors. He merely ostentatiously exhibits his affluence and possession of beautiful women in order to gain an authoritative respect for his kingly masculinity.

Esther daringly makes use of her physical beauty, charm and appeal, to win her way into the king's heart and thereby gain entry to a vulnerability that can be effectively manipulated in order to reverse his decisions which in fact were not his but Haman’s. Like so many of her Biblical predecessors who commanded power by cunning and manipulation, Esther has no choice but to do the same if she is to rescue her people.There was always risk and great danger to all such efforts but no other recourse remained.

Additionally, another source of Jewish survival skill was the cooperation and participation of the entire people. When Esther demands that the people fast, mourn ,wear sackcloth and cry out in preparation for her daunting challenge of confronting the king, no where is it indicated that the object of this public act of mourning and grieving was God! No prayers were recited; only wailing and crying filled the homes and public places of their communities. This outpouring represented more an act of public solidarity and support , perhaps a gesture of reaching out to the general public for some attention, consideration, even support. A Jew who felt the sorrow of his fellow Jew was indeed a “good” Jew, offering her concern and empathy as a means of bolstering the community's strength.What else could the average Jew do? Protests and demonstrations are political realities of the 21st century but were beyond the consciousness of ancient Persian civilization. The people lived the dictum of the Rabbis-”He who shares in the sorrow of Jerusalem will one day join in celebrating its joy!”

Jews survived this way throughout its history. Of course faith in God and the promise of a Messianic future played a central role in its capacity to maintain hope and strength in the face of such insurmountable odds and hardships. But for the author of Esther, survival was the ability of the people to withstand all the uncertainty of tomorrow with a deep sense of trust in itself and its leaders. Without such sources of leadership and loyalty , the Jewish people would find itself without any hope of self-preservation as a people.

The Book of Esther is a bold, straightforward narrative of the precariousness of Jewish existence in the Diaspora.The scenarios presented reflect a a common paradigm of Jewish history over the ages. Societies were ruled by monarchs whose primary concern was their own personal well-being and reputation, usually guided by a clique of advisors who in fact were the powers behind the throne. Ahashverus certainly fits this mold; a king with little interest other than enjoying the privileges of his position through the ready availability of women,wealth and wine, sources of monarchial masculinity. According to the story, he makes no independent decision of importance and rules at the response of advisors and his queen , to whom he pays deference out of his deep passion for her.

As long as “harmless” rulers like Ahashuerus occupy their thrones untouched by agents of evil and ambition, life unfolds undramatically, and securely for the Jews. Unfortunately, when men of overreaching ambition will go to any length to achieve their hunger for power, against the backdrop of a weak ruler a power vacuum is created with ideal conditions for the emergence of those seeking power and glory at the expense of others, in particular the long-standing scapegoat for occupiers of power throughout the generations, the Jew.

Repeatedly, the counter valence of persons with special ties to seats of power who were either Jews themselves or were favorably disposed toward the Jewish people, with sufficient political skill and cunning could outmaneuver these other forces of peril to the Jewish community. Steadfast support of the rank and file of the Jewish community reinforced the strength of the community at large and the voice of Jewish leadership as well. The anxiety associated with living in exile and not knowing the outcomes of tomorrow was somewhat mitigated by the determination of the Jewish community to learn how to navigate the perilous waters of a hostile and unpredictable world around them. The Purim story is such a story of successful and skillful political maneuvering that rescued an entire community from annihilation.

For this moment and the many others, we are grateful and pay tribute to the fearless leaders of our people who risked their lives and those of loved ones to provide an anchor of some security in the ocean of stormy exilic existence.

How much more grateful can we now be with the State of Israel restored and constantly strengthened as the homeland of the Jewish people once again.

Happy Purim.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Vayikrah-An open invitation to all

“And He called, summoned Moses ...”(Leviticus 1:1)

The book of Leviticus opens with an invitation-from God to Moses. Unlike the many other introductions to moments of communication where we read that God spoke to Moses saying, here it seems as if Moses needed a special introduction , a calling to attention by God before the communication will flow. Many are the interpretations associated with this unique opening between God and Moses.Some portray Moses as standing outside the Tent of Meeting hesitant to enter, awaiting God's summons or permission. We encounter the image of Moses on the outside wanting to get in, wanting to enter into a divine space, yet reluctant, waiting to be invited, to be called upon.Many point to Moses' humility as expressed in the posture of waiting; others understand this withdrawl as a way of showing deference to Aaron his older brother who is responsible for the cult of sacrifices and thus should be addressed by God.

The midrash in Vayikrah Rabah focuses upon the institution of conversion as a part of the attention paid to this phenomenon of being called upon to step forward and enter the space of the divine. The Midrash emphasizes the positive and the desirable aspects of conversion and praises the convert for her decision to abandon idolatry and link her life to the Jewish people.In a very dramatic way, we are being informed that God awaits the stepping forward of not only Jews but all people, making it clear that the torah and the God of Israel are not the exclusive possessions of natural born Jews-all have an opportunity to embrace the reality of the godly in life, so much so that the summons is addressed to all humanity and God' eagerly awaits our response to His open invitation to enter the tent of sacred living.Moreover, according to Jewish law, the non-Jew is permitted to offer sacrifices in the Sanctuary based on the verse: “adam ki yakriv mikem,” adam refers to generic man which is inclusive of the non-Israelite.

The section, which curiously appears to be the most parochial and exclusive to the Israelite- the code of sacrifices- especially since we tend to think of the ethical dimension of religion as the more universal, suggests that the invitation by God to reach out to the holy by way of worship, is in fact extended to all human beings. There is a place for all at the table of sacrifice and giving, and the only cover charge is the willingness of one's heart to respond to the “vayikrah”-the voice of the divine in any way it can be heard.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Pekudei - The Beauty of Teshuvah

In the opening verse of the Torah reading the completed Sanctuary is referred to as a “mishkan edut”- the dwelling place of testimony. To what idea, object, event or other reality does this structure attest to? What makes this paricular structure a spiritually significant one? One obvious answer is related to the need for creating a sacred space in which the Israelite can experience God's presence.

Another interpretation offered by the Sefat Emet speaks to the nature of God's presence that one can experience in a tangibly spiritual way. For the Sefat Emet, as in the opinion of other commentators, the erection of the Sanctuary represents a profound opportunity for Israel to atone for and undo the transgression of fashioning the Golden Calf. The testimony inherent in the “mishkan”is to the inner capacity of the Israelite to transform himself, to restore herself to her innately unblemished self and recapture the goodness and holiness that reside deep within the person's soul. Israel sinned because of the negative influences of the “mixed multitude” that led her astray. Without the external interferences of other contaminating cultures, left to her own spiritual devices and following her intrinsic nature, Israel would flower into a state of utter purity and sanctity.The sanctuary attests to Israel's innate destiny as an on-going witness to God's Presence in the world. This spiritual vocation is an essential and inescapable part of who Israel is.

We read: "Why did they need this witness, ( the Sanctuary)? Israel had been deeply disgraced by that sin(the Golden Calf). Now God gave the people the tabernacle as witness, in order to strengthen their hearts, to show that they had indeed repaired the damage wrought by their sin....Israel are God's witnesses as it is written 'You are My witnesses'(Isaiah 43:12). But how is it possible that Israel...could worship idols? This thought caused Israel to neglect their witnessing until God had to demonstrate that the sin was incidental to who they were, brought on by the 'mixed multitude'...The rabbis teach in fact that 'Israel were not deserving of such a sin; it came upon them only to teach the way of teshuvah.”(The Language of Truth,trans.and interpr. by Arthur Green, JPS, 1998,pp.141)

The Sefat Emet posits a spiritual understanding of the Jewish people as possessing an inner goodness and holiness that can never be entirely erradicated. The waywardness of Israel, their distance from God is temporary, an aberration, not an expression of authentic Jewish self-identification.

The soul is pure and yearns to unfold as an instrument of drawing closer to the Divine source in all its undertakings. Teshuvah, return, suggests the need and ability to facilitate a process of redicscovery and restoration of one's authentic spiritual self, a reality that is deeply desired by the fragmented and frightened heart. Each time the Israelite worshipped in this Sanctuary, she was reminded of her essence, of her task as a witness to the reality of God's Presence in the world.

Characteristic of the Hassidic view of the spiritual life, the way to improvement and to God Himself was not the emphasis on the negative, the guilt-inducing process by which the individual experiences great pain and harshness of self- judgment but rather the loving and forgiving response of God and man. The path to the divine is not conditioned by harsh, demeaning criticism but is paved by compassion and the embrace of human understanding and sensitivity.

If we understand the Mishkan as the prototype of all sacred spaces ie.synagogues, shuls, temples etc. then the above interpretation clearly delineates the purpose of these houses of worship, these sacred spaces and what they should signify and the role they should play in Jewish life. In the same way the original dwelling place of testimony reflected God's acceptance of Israel as His witnesses, in spite of their temporary sinfulness, and represented Israel's innate goodness and the beauty and efficacy of teshuvah, likewise if our contemporary places of sanctity are to emulate the mishkan's unique spiritual function they must adhere to the standards of God which point out Israel's essential purity and goodness, and the unending and pervasive availability of teshuvah to prevent any despair or surrender of Israel's self-awareness as God's witnesses.Thus the work of the synagogue is to reinforce and enhance this piritual identity of the Jewish people, to help those who are estranged not feel guilty but reassured and loved that their holy task is to be witness to God's reality in this world. A synagogue that fails to meet this religious expectation, misses its mark as an authentic mishkan edut, a dwelling place of testimony.

Shabbat Shalom