Friday, October 23, 2009

Parashat Noah 2009

“Blast from the Past” was a movie about a family that entered a home-made bomb shelter in the 1950’s or 1960’s and never came out. As far as they knew, the world was destroyed and leaving the shelter would lead to radiation exposure and death. For this family, the “command” to leave the bomb-shelter would only come at the moment dictated by the amount of time it would take for the radiation to dissipate. Fast forward several decades: the time for a safe and healthy exit from the bomb shelter arrives and the parents send their son, now an adult, out to see what he can find.

Of course, there never was a nuclear attack or meltdown, there was no radioactivity, and while the world of the 1950’s was long gone, it was replaced by progress and not “the bomb.” The son emerges into a new and exciting world with great trepidation. Honestly, I do not remember whether the movie was very good or particularly funny, but I do remember that the re-entry into the wold was filled with potentially hysterical and treacherous possibilities. I also remember that when I watched the film, I realized that I was watching modern cinematic midrash on parashat Noah.

Noah enters the biblical-era equivalent of the 1950’s bomb shelter. Radiation caused by humanity is not the vehicle by which destruction arrives; rather, flood waters sent by God but caused by humanity’s violence and corruption rain destruction on the earth. While the characters in the movie do not stock up on pairs of animals, they do have to put aside large quantities of supplies in order to live through the radioactive years and then to work to re-populate the earth. Similar to the arrival of the date in the movie when radiation no longer posed a threat to life and allowed for the family to leave the bomb shelter, the day arrived for Noah when the floodwaters receded, when it was safe to come out onto dry land.

Interestingly enough, once Noah knew that the waters receded, that the land was dry and that it was safe to emerge, he did not leave. He stayed in the ark. He waited. It is easy to imagine how frightened Noah must have been. The world as he knew it was destroyed. It no longer existed. Not only that but once he did go out of the safety of his floating home, nothing short of the obligation to rebuild, re-populate, and re-imagine the entire world rested on Noah’s shoulders. So, Noah remained in the confines of his Ark, with his family, and the animals. He stayed in cramped quarters that I have to imagine were not so pleasant, but were safe and familiar and... easy. While in the Ark, Noah could maintain his regular routine, make very small changes to ease life, and avoid facing up to the new reality he would encounter outside the Ark.

In fact, Noah only left the ark when he was commanded by God:

“צא מין התבה”

“GET OUT OF THE ARK.” God’s voice demands Noah to wake up, to get out, to see the New World not with fear and trepidation but with possibility, excitement and creativity.

“GET OUT! ALL OF YOU, GO OUT OF YOUR SAFE PLACE!” God’s demand is not just of Noah but of everyone and everything with him in the Ark.

“GO AND FILL UP THIS NEW WORLD!” God gives permission to Noah, commands of him, to create a new reality, a New World

Like the family in the movie, our world was not destroyed nor was everything washed away by a flood of Biblical proportions. But, we do face a new reality in the Jewish world. Whether we like it or not, our world is different today than it was before the onset of the financial meltdown. And those organizations, ideas, programs, etc that survived the initial meltdown may not be those that ultimately survive. I believe that the Jewish World faces one of the most exciting and daunting opportunities in decades. But to succeed, we must be willing to leave the Ark of comfort in the past. We must ask difficult, critical questions about ourselves and our institutions, about our ideologies and our programmatic approaches, about our values and our agendas, about our prior objectives and those of our future. Moreover, we have to be willing to accept different answers than those of the past.

In this new reality, exceptionally strong, historically successful organizations will survive and thrive. They will remain fiercely devoted to a set of core values and vision and at they same time they continually stress innovation, creativity, and adaptation - the same approaches , I might note, that insured that Judaism and the Jewish People would survive thousands of years of ongoing displacement and persecution. They will not rest with the status quo. They will exit the ark, see the changed landscape and plant new vineyards of ideas and programs that will flourish in the newly fertilized soil.

What would have happened to Noah and his family and all those on the ark if they never left? What if they never heard the call from God? What if they simply ignored it? Starvation and dehydration, misery, disease, death, and the end of the experiment that God started with Creation would have been their fate. For those in the Jewish world unwilling to leave the ark, the consequences will be similarly dire: they will lead to individual and organizational extinction. Those parts of the Jewish world that tinker around the edges, that refuse to openly and fully re-imagine and re-invent themselves, those that become stultified, or those that abandon their core values for the fadish or trendy, will limp along until they disappear.

As for me, I am an optimist. The new landscape we see is exciting and refreshing, invigorating and redemptive. I am fortunate to be part of an institution that sees this bright future and is investing in it. Ours is an incubator for the future of the Jewish People, for our ongoing relationship and dialogue with Torah and with God, and for new approaches to learning and living based on values that have been central to Ramah since its outset.

This Shabbat, we all have a chance to exit the ark. Will we? And when we do, what will we allow ourselves to see and imagine? Will we be moved to create the next new world of Jewish opportunity? Noah did and we live as beneficiaries of his efforts. We owe it to the next generation to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 2, 2009

In Memory of Rafi Lehmann z"l

I still remember the crux of the conversation with my friend Heidi after the death of one of our classmates from high school. I was sitting in my dorm room on the phone with her, and with the high level of wisdom that only a sophomore or junior in college could muster, I tried to comfort Heidi with a wide range of theological and philosophical explanations for why this tragedy had come to pass. I don’t remember what illness struck down our friend; I do remember trying to find intellectual words of comfort to respond to a soulful crisis. As I got older, and added at least a little humility and thoughtfulness to my quiver of skills, I came to realize just how vain and foolish my theological-intellectual response was. The arrow I shot probably hit the bulls-eye. The problem was that I was shooting the wrong arrow at the wrong target in the first place.

I have been thinking about that conversation with Heidi a lot the last few days. Despite the fact that the phone call, and the death, took place over twenty years ago, the questions that spurred that call never stopped coming. And since Tuesday midday, they have come back with a special ferocity:

“How could such a terrible thing happen to such a great person?”

“Why did God take him?”

“How could God do this to such a wonderful family?”

The question of “Tzaddik v’Rah Lo” or “The Righteous Soul who suffers,” Theodicy, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, is as old as eternity itself. And I have been seeking words to give as an answer since Tuesday, and since I was in college, and since I was a camper. On Tuesday, a person with the soul of a Tzaddik, a true anav - a humble servant of God, a friend and staff member at Ramah Darom, Rafi Lehmann died. He was a few months shy of 28 years old. A month ago, Rafi fell and broke several bones. A chain of events started leading to a spiraling decline, the ICU, unconsciousness, and death. All of us who knew Rafi were and continue to be devastated.

We search for words to express our own sadness; and more words to try and explain this tragedy, to make sense of living in a world where something like this happens; and we search for words to comfort Rafi's incredible family - his parents, Rabbi Allan and Joanne, his brother, Elie, and others - and for his future, Sara Beth - and for his closest friends. And none come, at least none that are adequate. Our tradition gives us words, a script of sorts, to use for circumstances, circumstances where words do not come easily: "Barukh Dayan HaEmet" or "Blessed is the True Judge" and "HaMakom Yenachem Etchem B'Toch Sha'ar Avelei Tziyyon v'Yerushalayim" or "May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." They are ways to open or close conversations when words are difficult to come by. They are mantras, repeated over and over during the transmission of awful news and during the process of mourning. They do not bring about magical healing. They do, however, provide openers and closers. And whatever emotions they elicit from the recipient - anger, sadness, wailing, sobbing, talking, and or silence - are the right ones, no questions asked. Like all other words in these circumstances, they are insufficient, but they are a starting point.

Sitting at Rafi's home in Boston yesterday, I was thinking a lot about possible ways to answer the e-mails and the facebook chat inquiries asking about Tzaddik v'Rah Lo, the tragedies of the righteous. There will be a time for theological discussions with those who are asking but it is not now. Now is the time to remember Rafi. The gap in the world, in the hearts of all those who love Rafi, will not be filled again by those words nor will those discussions bring Rafi back to us. The best I can do for myself is to try and make sure that the gap left by Rafi's departure from this world is filled by remembering him, what he tried to do, the lives that he touched and the legacy of Torah and Ma'asim Tovim - Good Deeds - that he left (as we were reminded by the teachings of Rabbi Danny Lehmann between Mincha and Ma'ariv last night).

Of the countless memories of Rafi at Camp Ramah Darom, where he spent ten summers, three stand out in my mind:

Our entering ninth grade theme for Yahadut learning at Ramah Darom focused on "friends, relationships and sexual relations in the Jewish tradition." Campers were offered a menu of different courses from which to choose. Rafi wanted to teach a traditional text class on Shir HaShirim - The Song of Songs. Lots of people told me not to bother offering the course as nobody would sign up for it. They were wrong. I still see a group of four or five campers, all kinds of kids (lest you think it was just the "serious kids") sitting in the Bet Midrash at Ramah Darom at a round table "shteigging" through the text with Rafi. Absent were the giggles that one might expect from adolescent males studying a text that is filled with romantic and erotic imagery. In place of those giggles was a serious discussion about relationships that grew out of a Biblical text made relevant by a compelling soul, by Rafi.

Rafi was a wonderful ba'al tefillah - literally though poorly translated as "owner of prayer" - and often led Kabbalat Shabbat and other services at Camp. He enveloped himself in his tallit, resting it over his head, and truly owned the words he sang as he served as our shaliah tzibbur. In his humble way, his voice channeling his sweet soul, Rafi represented us all beautifully to the Kadosh Barukh Hu - The Holy Blessed One.

Finally, there were several summers that Rafi and Benjie Ackerman, his dear friend, would come back to camp from days off with sticker photos of the two of them that would end up on my walkie-talkie and on the walkie-talkies of other members of the senior staff of camp. Rafi and Benjie were characters at camp, characters in the best sense of the term. Their simhat hayyim, their joy of life, was contagious and they connected to the broadest array of people. You couldn't see them and not smile or laugh. Rafi was one of the people that had Torah and the ability to make it real to so many different kinds of people because he could connect to them where they were at AND infuse the conversation with Torah places that they COULD visit. While both Rafi and Benjie had independent personalities at camp, the indelible image is of the two of them bringing fun and Torah and God to people in camp.

Rafi's legacy is and will be seen in the future by the generations of people that he touched in school, in life, and in camp, as the compelling teacher who attracts students from the broadest spectrum of interests, as the sweet, humble voice of the community, and as the neshamah who connected deeply with the people he encountered. You can see his legacy in the constant stream of testimonials to Rafi that appear in people's status updates on facebook and you can hear it in the voices of those he touched.

If I had any words, I wish I had those that would bring Rafi back to us. But I don't. The world truly is a lesser place because of Rafi's death. And our community is lesser because of his loss.

I wish I was in touch with Heidi these days. She taught me one of the most important lessons a young, not yet in rabbinical school, future rabbi could learn. It is a lesson that I wish, in the deepest corner of my soul, I never had to use.

Entering this Shabbat and Holiday, I know that I will be thinking about Rafi a lot and will be sending thoughts and prayers of love and nechama to his mother, Joanne Schindler, his father, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, his brother, Elie, his fiance, Sara Beth Berman.

T'hey Nishmato shel Rafael Peretz Ben Chana V'HaRav Aleksandr Shabbtai tzrurah b'tzror hachayyim...

Please God, may the Memory of Rafi Lehmann be bound up in the bonds of Life.

Y'hey Zikhro Barukh...

His Memory is and will always be a Blessing to All of us.