Friday, December 28, 2007

Parashat Shemot – 2007

ויאמר אל תקרב הלם של נעליך מעל רגליך כי המקום אשר אתה עומד עליו אדמת קדש הוא:
שמות פרק ג פסוק ה

We moved from the outer walls to the public square. From there, we entered the inner sanctum. We were not in a model of the Bet HaMikdash; we were in a football stadium. Nineteen camp directors, part of a leadership program, we were gaining a different perspective on customer service. They took us through underbelly of the stadium, the board room, and the field – a portrait of awe and grandeur, and then escorted us into the most sacred of places: the home team’s clubhouse. Among the group were childhood fans of the team. Their eyes welled up at the power of the moment.

They told us several times that this was an honor reserved for only the most special of groups. They demanded only one thing of us: do not, under any circumstances, tread on the team logo in the plush carpet in the center of the room. Stanchions surrounded The Dolphin in the carpet and we stood a safe distance away reverently paying respects. At least one childhood fan found a seat and let the moment wash over him. He did not remove his shoes and nothing was asked of him. If just being in the presence of The Dolphin was so overwhelming, imagine what would have happened if it started moving in the carpet, swimming without water, and making demands of him.

Moshe Rabbenu, our greatest t teacher, didn’t enter a football stadium. The ground he stood on was not soft or comfortable and what he saw remained neither silent nor facile. Walking in the wasteland, Moshe climbed a humble mountain. He found no stadium seating but a few uncomfortable rocks. He did not watch the action on the world’s largest HD superscreen; rather, he saw it right in front of him, in a small shrub, burning but not being consumed by the flames. And he did not hear a roaring crowd of seventy thousand; he heard a single, solitary voice call out to him, make its presence known and then give him a mission to rescue the Israelites and humanity. That voice did not command him to put on battle gear – pads, helmets, etc – symbols of the glory of the battle, but to remove his shoes, a gesture of humility and sanctity.

At one point in life, Moshe was surrounded by glory and advantage. He had virtually everything material one could imagine in his world, but it was not enough, for “stuff” never did, nor does, fill the hunger of the soul. So he fled the world of privilege, shed the clothes of glory, and wandered. One day, he stumbled upon the place, and discovered meaning and mission. He went to battle for freedom with nothing more than a staff and a soul, a charge and a mission-giver. And he was victorious.

Like Moshe, we need to seek out the places where we can experience God, where we can hear the Voice, where we can perceive the greater good that we are to contribute to society. It might be at a stadium or in a mall (personally, I would love to hear that voice in Wrigley Field, crying out from the vines in the outfield, assuring me that this will actually be The Year, that the Messiah is no longer tarrying, and telling me clearly what my part of the work is. – who knows) but probably not. It is difficult to squelch out the noise in those places – visual, oral, virtual and material – to perceive that which is most important. It is in that still small voice, in the quiet, less traveled place, where we find the meaning our souls crave and the mission by which the meaning will be translated into action.

Moshe’s journey, and ours, starts this week. We know how his ends. We get to choose how ours will.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

Friday, December 14, 2007

Parashat Vayigash - 2007

Cab rides in this country are always fascinating. From politics to education to society in general, the taxi driver is an expert in all and will tell you, with surety, the fastest way to get from point a to point b and the key to Peace in the Middle East. There are even games that I play in the taxi cab adventure. One of them is the “Fare” game, where you decide whether you want to pay the inflated fee proposed by the cabbie or to go by the meter. Turning on the meter is the law, but it rarely happens without asking. In the end, you choose between paying the flat but higher fee in order to arrive at your destination more quickly or insisting on the meter and being taken where you want to go in the most roundabout way possible. Choosing the meter almost always means paying an even more inflated fee than you would have had you succumbed to the cabbie in the first place.

There is another game I play frequently that I call “The Identity Game.” Here, the challenge is to figure out if your driver is Israeli Jew or Israeli Arab. I don’t care either way. I learn something from either driver. But I have noticed a troubling pattern lately. I get into a cab and when I ask the driver how the day is going, he responds, “Baruch HaShem” “Blessed is God.” Nothing unusual here, until I look up to find the driver’s name and discover that he is Muhammad al Yussuf or Ziad or Ahmad. This is a dead giveaway that the driver is an Israeli Arab and not an Israeli Jew . I dig a little deeper but the driver still plays the role of Israeli Jewish cab driver.

Why the pretending? I have a suspicion. I wear a kippah all the time. Many people, therefore, assume that they know who I am and what I believe. Perhaps the Israeli Arab taxi driver fears that upon discovering his Arab identity, I will get out of the taxi and find an Israeli Jewish driver. The more questions I ask the longer the play goes on until I ask the driver where he lives. When he asks me if I know where the Mt. of Olives is, I know I have won. I ask him if he lives in A-Tur or Ras-al-Amud or Silwan and he has to tell me, and I have now relaxed him enough to know that I am not bothered by Israeli Arab taxi drivers. The rest of the trip results in delightful conversation about the need for all of us to live together in peace.

I was recently coming home from a wedding in a part of town that was completely unfamiliar to me, far away from Baka-land. I told the driver where we were going, and he immediately turned on the meter, without being asked. Being directionally challenged as I am, I made a passing comment about having no idea where I was. I didn’t think twice about it. When we got back to the Mt. Scopus area, near Hebrew University, I looked and said, “OK, now I know where I am. I have my bearings back…” The driver responded very politely, but let me know that he was taking me the absolute quickest way and that I should not worry about him taking advantage of me.

And then I realized that he thought I was subtly accusing him of going out of his way to run the fare up. I quickly reassured him that this was not the case at all, that I am simply terrible with directions, felt out of sorts in the part of town where we were, and was relieved by the familiarity of Hebrew University. I looked at the name plate on the cab and saw that Ziad was driving. So I asked where he lived and got the familiar Mt. of Olives reply. And now I understood. In the darkness of winter in Jerusalem, driving past the Old City, the site of The Holy of Holies, the lights of the Channukiot burning out for the night, Ziad was reassuring me that although he was an Israeli Arab, I should not automatically assume (which I did not) that he was going to take advantage of me.

It is very sad, that we live in a world, in a place, and at a time when people feel the need to pretend, to cover up their identity. I am not naïve. I don’t think that just being honest about who we are will change the world or bring Peace to the Middle East. But I do know that revealing who we are can lead to rapprochement, or at least to the start of rapprochement. Mikketz and Vayigash show us the dangers of covering up our identities and of telling only half of the story. These parshiot also show us the blessings that can come from honesty and from revealing ourselves. Yehudah seems to express regret and Yosef ends his play. He reveals his true identity to his brothers and the family healing begins.

When the day comes when cabbies no longer have to pretend to be those that they are not, when I don’t have to play a game to draw out their true identity, and when people don’t make assumptions based on names or headgear, then we will know that we are approaching an era when Peace and mutual understanding can reign in our wonderful, dysfunctional Middle Eastern family. Until then, I can only hope that each time I win the game with the cabbie that I, in a very small way, make a contribution to the arrival of the rapprochement that will make that era possible.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Loren Sykes

Friday, November 30, 2007

HaMirpeset Sheli – Parashat Vayeishev

Honestly, I am not used to Shabbat starting at 4 pm nor am I accustomed to doing my own homework, like writing papers. I am getting used to them both, but soon enough, Shabbat will arrive later in the afternoon and who knows what is going to be with the Universities here as the strike looks like it will not be ending any time soon, and that it may expand beyond the senior faculty to adjunct faculty in the near future. I tell you this as a way to apologize for the lateness of the writing of this week’s message. I wanted to write something about Joseph this Shabbat, but I had a fascinating conversation with Esti Moskowitz at Makom: The Israel Engagement Network that took me back a to the early Jacob narratives.

Jacob, you recall, flees his brother Esau ending up at the home of Lavan. Upon his arrival, he falls in love with Rachel and works for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. On the wedding night, Lavan sends Leah, Rachel’s older sister, into the wedding chamber, tricking Jacob into marrying the older sibling instead of the one he loves. Jacob commits to working another seven years in order to earn Rachel’s hand as well. That is the short version. The Torah is rather mum about the courting process that Jacob and Rachel go through prior to their engagement and marriage.

Looking at the entire series of events in terms of process, what we have is the following:
A long period of dreaming about what might be; disappointment over what actually is; a period of growing used to and loving what is; and finally, marriage. This is not yet fully developed, but it is very similar to what dating seems to be:

You are attracted to someone and, at the outset, they are flawless. It is only after a period of time, however, that the flaws start to show. There may be disappointment there may not. You are in a position where you have to decide whether or not the positive characteristics of the person outweigh the flaws. Only then is the relationship worth maintaining. If the connection, the relationship, the passion are sustained, and the flaws accepted – for both parties –only then can there be engagement and marriage. This is a very simplified version of the process that is dating, engagement, and marriage, but it sheds light on how I think we should be thinking about Israel education and engagement in this day and age. In fact, it relates directly to the way my connection to Israel developed.

During my very first summer at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, I fell in love with the idea of Israel, the heavenly Jerusalem, a place of perfection and peace. During my six summers as a camper, I waited impatiently to go on Ramah Israel Seminar, to be in Eretz HaKodesh. Finally, the day arrived and we flew from Chicago to JFK on the now defunct TWA, and from JFK to Ben Gurion on the long defunct Tiger Air Charter Airline. I arrived wearing rose colored glasses, expecting perfection. What I found was a country filled with feral cats, trash all over the place, rude people. All the flaws, the one’s that nobody ever told me about, permeated my summer. I left very disappointed! It was like bait-and-switch.

Seven years would pass between my Ramah Israel Seminar summer and my next visit to Israel, a year of study at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem. I returned more mature, more accepting, more aware of my own flaws. Only now was I ready to engage with Israel. I came to accept and love her for all of her strengths and beautiful characteristics, as well as her weaknesses and flaws. It was the process of falling in love, of discovery of imperfections, disappointment and yet, a desire to continue the relationship, that made it possible for me to truly fall in love with Israel when I returned in 1990. It was the power of that love that made it impossible for me to leave during the First Gulf War. It is what instilled in me a passion for helping others build relationships with Israel on their, and on her, own terms.

The challenge that faces us today is insuring that we serve as honest matchmakers between people and Israel – to be sure that the first encounter is with a Holy country, with a near Heavenly Jerusalem, but with one that is not so perfect as to be either unattainable or certain to disappoint. How we do that is the subject of a future e-mail. But candle lighting is almost here and so I need to go…

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Parashat Vayishlach

My mother-in-law, Claudia is visiting us these days. She has been here for a week and it has been delightful. Rebecca’s sister, Elizabeth, arrived in Jerusalem via Detroit last night. It is wonderful to have them here. It is family reunion time, both in our apartment and in this week’s parashah, Vayishlach! Of course, the nature of the reunions is totally different: the arrival of Becca’s family is purely joyous; the one in our parashah is fraught with tension and potential danger.

After many years on the run from his brother Esau, Jacob now faces direct confrontation with him. He expects and prepares for the worst: he divides the family and all of the wealth into multiple camps so that if Esau attacks one, a portion of the family will survive. He spends the night struggling with an Angel, some say with God and others say with his own internal demons, leaves the night fight victorious and with a new name. He also leaves the fight wounded, an outer wound that reflects a deep inner one, a recognition of flaw and deceit. He prepares gifts for his brother, perhaps bribes, perhaps recognition that giving these will somehow repay the theft of the birthright and the blessing.

Imagine his surprise when he is so emotionally and positively received by Esau! He must feel relief and…happiness. Esau runs to him, embraces him, cries with him and kisses him. What more could one expect?

It appears that Jacob may question the sincerity of Esau’s positive response. He offers the gifts he has prepared even after the warm meeting. After serious prodding from Jacob, Esau accepts the gifts. The midrash sees in Esau’s accepting of the gifts as a sign of insincerity. If Esau truly accepted Jacob, why accept the gifts? But, what if he was genuine in just accepting Jacob at that moment, immediately, without remorse and without need for a gift? What if Esau was worried that rejecting the gifts would anger Jacob? Regardless of the motivations, the meeting leads to reconciliation that reaches its climax when the two brothers join together to bury their father, Isaac, upon his death.

Rashi, in commenting on this moment cites an argument about Esau’s intentions from Sifre and other sources. Some rabbis argue that Esau was insincere, that he ran to Jacob with the intention of killing him, biting his neck until death. At that moment, Jacob’s neck turns to stone and Esau cries not out of love but because his teeth hurt. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, believes that Esau’s intentions were pure, that his tears were tears of joy and the love in his kiss true and deep.

In America, this is a week of family reunions, and reconciliations. How did you approach those with whom you needed to reconcile. You sat at the table with them, watched football with them, and sat at the table some more. Did you come to the event prepared to do battle? Did you assume the worst? Did you avoid the necessary confrontation altogether, either by accepting an invitation elsewhere or by never looking the other person in the eye, navigating yourself to never be alone with the person. And if the conversation did happen, did you do what was necessary? Did you reject the acceptance of the other as insincere?

Or, did you view the interaction through the eyes of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? When the other cried and embraced you, did you accept it for what it was: an open, honest, and sincerer response? If you did, you probably feel much better, making the internal struggle leading up to the reunion worth the while. And if you did not, all is not lost, for the odds are good that you might still be with or near that person. So, do the work and go to the person. Approach them with the eyes of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. And if someone approaches you to reconcile, do so with the same belief in sincerity and honesty.

And now, it is time to go and baste the turkey, the one we are having for Shabbat dinner.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

מרפסות - Porches

Sitting on the porch...a different experience every time: a different place, a different time, or a different person. In my past, there were two significant porches: the back of the library at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin and the back of our house at Camp Ramah Darom. Even now, they inform the present and the future. My current porches: at our apartment on Derech Hebron and between the Maiersdorf Faculty Club and the School of Social Work in the Humanities Building at Hebrew University.

Why HaMirpeset Sheli, The View from My Porch, as the title of this blog? The porch is a place of solitude, of individual reflection. It can be a place to feel small and, yet, to think and dream big. It is a place for watching and for listening. There are times when the Mirpeset is a social gathering place and others when it is a place for problem solving, crisis management, and just plain old group thinking. I choose this frame, this locale, for it is a place:

  • To think quietly;
  • To dream;
  • To observe the world from above the fray of the stress of the day to day;
  • To engage in conversation, Human and Divine

all in the name of the Jewish present and the Jewish future.

As much as the porch is a Place to sit and think, to reflect and relax, it is also a place to act, or minimally to create the plan to act, and then to get up, go, and do, to execute, to make it - the future - happen. In our Jewish world today, thinking is not enough. Action must follow thought and study:

גדול תלמוד - שהתלמוד מביא לידי מעשה
ספרי דברים, מא

Greater is the study of Torah for it leads to action.
Sifre Devarim 41

And so this is a place for thinking about and acting for:

Real People
Real Issues
Real Action

in today’s Jewish world for the Jewish world of tomorrow.

So ברוכים הבאים למרפסת שלי - Welcome to The View from My Porch.