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