Friday, October 28, 2011

Searching for Core Values

At the end of Parashat Bereisheet, having heard two versions of the Creation story, we learn that even the second Creation attempt was flawed (Genesis 6:5-8), at least where human beings were concerned.  At this point, early on in the Torah, all of the pursuits of the human heart are evil, or at least bad, all day long.  I find myself wondering what ingredient was missing in the recipe in order for humanity to find a balance, to pursue doing good in the world, to look out for the other, to behave in an ethical way.  In the formative moments of humanity, what was missing?

At the outset of Bereisheet, the only clear rule given to people is that they are not allowed to eat from the Tree of Life.  We also get the clear message that murder is unacceptable, hence the Mark of Cain.  Beyond these two explicit and implicit laws, however, there is not much else in the form of limit setting, no agreed upon list of rules, ethics or laws that serve as the foundation for the first society.  Parashat Noah leads us through the third Divine attempt at re-creation and it is in this parashah that the Rabbis find the basic rules of society known as Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noah, the seven laws of the children of Noah.  These rules, inferred from a midrashic reading of certain verses, include prohibitions against:

Sexual Immorality;
Blasphemy; and
Eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive.

Finally, based on the rabbinic interpretation, humanity must establish courts of law.

These seven laws, in the eyes of The Rabbis, are obligatory on all of humanity. They form the first set of core values in history.  If the first two creation stories end in failure, the third story, that of Noah, teaches that success in Creation requires an agreed upon set of basic rules.  As you might expect, what the seven rules are, or if the exact number of rules is, in fact, seven, is the subject of debate between the rabbis.  The above list, however, is the one that is generally agreed upon.

The Sheva Mitzot B’nai Noah got me thinking a lot about core values this week and, in a roundabout way led me to ask the following question: if these seven mitzvoth are the foundation of humanity, are what is required to have a just, sustainable world then what might be the agreed upon core values for the Jewish People today?  Overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to define the core values of Jewish Peoplehood, I narrowed my focus to concentrate on the core values of Conservative Judaism.   In my brief search for a clear statement of our core values, I recalled an essay written by Rabbi Dr. Ismar Schorsch who was, at the time, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, titled The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism. Success!

The Sacred Cluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism is elegantly written, and equally deep and soulful.  Dr. Schorsch explicates seven core values for Conservative Judaism:

In the essay, Dr. Schorsch proceeds to address each of the core values in great depth and concludes with a statement that Ramahniks know intuitively:

It is surely in order to ask in closing whether this unique constellation of core values has ever coalesced into a vivifying ideal. I would submit that in its Ramah summer camps the Seminary created an extension of itself: a controlled environment for the formation of a model religious community. Over the past half-century Ramah has compiled an extraordinary record of touching and transforming young Jews to become the most effective educational setting ever generated by the movement. All the core values of Conservative Judaism are present in spades, defining and pervading the culture.

At Ramah, we live the embodiment of the core values the founders of Conservative Judaism intended. 

Noah provides us with the foundations of the earliest attempt to identify the basic rules of civil society.  If humanity in general requires a set of core values, each subset of society must develop, wrestle with, and embody an additional set of core values that defines it.  Conservative Judaism is no different.  We may not agree on all of the core values listed by Dr. Schorsch.  Just as Hazzal, Our Sages, argued about what the seven laws of the children of Noah were, so too should we passionately argue and debate the core values of our Movement for today, and more important, for tomorrow.  When the debates are over, when there is a consensus list, we must work harder than ever to bring our core values to life in every setting in which we find ourselves

Shabbat Shalom.

To read more of Dr. Ismar Schorsch’s, The SacredCluster:  The Core Values of Conservative Judaism direct your browser to:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

...And the Children return to their borders.- in Celebration of Gilad Shalit

At 4:04 am central time, the tears were allowed to flow freely.  Like so many others, I spent the day holding them back, not wanting to tempt fate.  So much could go wrong:  there could be delays; another appeal; last minute demands.  But now, at 4:04 am, I could not hold them back any longer.  At that moment, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai stood at the podium and announced the words that a family, a nation, and a people waited to hear for 1,941 days:

גלעד שליט חזר הביתה...ברגעים אלו, צועד גלעד שליט וניכנס לשטח מדינת ישראל

Gilad Shalit has come home...At this very moment, Gilad Shalit advances and has entered the territory of the State of Israel.

With these few, powerful words, a son was returned home alive.  A family was reunited. A nation was just a little more whole. A collective national exhale and joy became palpable around the globe.

Brigadier General Mordechai’s announcement did not bring Peace to the region.  It did not suddenly narrow the gap between rich and poor or establish safe borders.  It did not ease tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else.  It did not resurrect those who were murdered by terrorists or who fell in service to their country. But it did tell the us and the world that on this night one hero, the center of hope and prayers for five years, Gilad ben Noam v’Aviva Shalit was going to sleep in his own bed, in his own home, in his own community after 1,941 days of captivity and complete isolation.  


That is enough for us.

Pundits will argue the merits of the deal that brought Gilad home.  People will try to do the math in an attempt to justify or negate the deal.  There will be, and have been, debates about Jewish law regarding the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim, redeeming captives, and what price is too high. These kinds of conversations, debates and equations, however, will fail to win the point for they are all rational attempts to justify or condemn that which is completely irrational: the unconditional love of a parent for their child (or a nation for one of its children).

During these days of Yom Tov, the Torah commands us to be happy, to the exclusion of all other emotions.  I have to believe that this is an aspirational command for it is impossible to be completely happy when over a thousand terrorists are now free.  It is impossible to be completely happy knowing that friends mourn other friends, those who were murdered in bombings at Hebrew University and Sbarro Pizza and whose killers are now free.  It is impossible to be completely happy despite the strength displayed by a parent like Esther Wachsman who supported the deal to bring Gilad Shalit home even though her own son, Nachshon, was kidnapped by terrorists and murdered while in the army.   It is impossible to  be completely happy knowing that for the deal to work so many others whose parents, siblings, relatives and friends were murdered in the most horrible, unimaginable ways, had to watch as the murderers walked free into Gaza and beyond. Finally, it is impossible to be completely happy given that,  after more than 25 years, Ron Arad is still MIA with no knowledge of his whereabouts, no closure or solace for his family or for the other families whose children are missing-in-action.

Yet, even if complete joy is unattainable at this time, so many of us will be more joyous on this Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah knowing that in the town of Mitzpe Hila, Gilad Shalit will be alive and at home.  We will hug our own children tighter than ever.  We will dance with the Torah and will sing with greater gusto ושבו בנים לגבולם “And the Children return to their borders” for we have seen it with our own eyes.  

With thoughts of blessing for the family of Gilad Shalit and with continued tears of joy flowing, with prayers for his complete recovery from trauma caused by five years of isolation and captivity, and with the hope that despite the threats and promises of Hamas and others, that no other Israeli daughter or son every be kidnapped again, I wish us all Chag Sameach and

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Erev Yom Kippur 5772

I could not help but keep looking over at my son Elan during the early part of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah to do a visual check-in.  He looked fine on the outside but I could not know what was going through his head.  The ark was open and the ba’al tefilah was chanting the words of the U’Netanah Tokef:

וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּום כִּי הוּא נורָא וְאָיום

Let us speak of the sacred power of this day - profound and awe inspiring.

The ba’al tefilah continued as the texts invoked images of God as Judge and Prosecutor, Expert and Witness, seated on the Divine Seat of Justice, reviewing each of our lives, deciding our fates and sealing them in ספר החיים - The Book of Life.  The voice of the community joined in:

בְּראשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיום צום כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמון

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!

I looked even more intently at Elan with increasing concern as we reached the next portion of this powerful and challenging prayer:

כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן
מִי יִחְיֶה וּמִי יָמוּת.
מִי בְקִצּו וּמִי לא בְקִצּו
מִי בַמַּיִם. וּמִי בָאֵשׁ

How many will pass on and how many will be born;

Who will live and who will die;

Who will live a long life and who will come to an untimely end;

Who will perish by fire and who by water...

This summer, Elan and his friends experienced mourning and mortality when a peer passed away.  My instinct was to put my arm my son and hug him.  Through the entire U’Netaneh Tokef, Elan stood ramrod straight and looked, stoically, straight ahead. When Kedushah finally ended and we sat down, I asked him how he was and he told me he was fine.  Throughout the rest of Musaf on Rosh HaShanah and during this period of reflection and teshuvah, I spent a lot of time thinking about this particular text knowing that both he and I would confront it once again on Yom Kippur.

A fascinating history of the tefillah, as well as reflections on some of its theological implications, was written several years ago by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute and can be found at   This year, the prayer presented more personal challenges, among them:  

Must I read the U’Netaneh Tokef literally or can I read it as metaphor for the fragility of life?

To what extent do I believe that there is a causal relationship between actions and consequences?

Are there really two or three things that, if done during the year, negate the consequences of previous poor choices?

If this is a text that does not fit in with my intellectual outlook should I simply not say it?
Ignore it?

Should I write it off to certain historical contexts that no longer apply?

As human beings, we are often inclined to ignore difficult texts.  Rather than struggle with things we don’t like or with which we disagree, we skip over them or pretend they don’t exist.  And in the polarized society in which we live, we often avoid talking about difficulties with those with whom we disagree.  We surround ourselves in the cocoon of like-minded people precluding the need to struggle with others, with different approaches over the meaning of the text.  Deep insight comes through interacting with people we disagree with, when we listen genuinely.  We learn about ourselves, we clarify, we grow, and we sometimes change as a result of the encounter with the challenging text or the other’s perspective.

Over the years, my personal tendency with difficult texts has been to continue to say them, to struggle with them and, hopefully, to discover meaning and personal connection with them.  And so it is with U’Netaneh Tokef.  In my examining different commentaries on the text, I happened upon a powerful insight by Rabbi Leonard Gordon in Mahzor Lev Shalem, the new Mahzor of the Rabbinical Assembly.  About the U’Netaneh Tokef, Rabbi Gordon writes:

“Most of us prefer to deny the unruliness of our fragility.  But the facts on this list in U’Netanah Tokef are inescapable:  some will get sick; some will be born; there will be deaths by hunger and by wars.  The liturgy begs us to pay attention to these plain facts...After reminding ourselves relentlessly of the many ways that life might end, we tell ourselves that the way to cope with ultimate vulnerability is through t’shuvah, tefillah and tzedakah.  Our goal is not security but a life of meaning that recognizes our vulnerability but rises beyond it.”

For Rabbi Gordon, for me at times, and for many others, the list of life statuses and endings in U’Netaneh Tokef reminds us that life is fragile, that there is always an end, and that we don’t know when it will come or why.

A close reading of the tefillah provides another perspective.  Such a reading yields an important point revealed in the refrain which says that “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on the Fast of the Day of Atonement it is sealed!” This sentence, the one we can almost hear in the form of the congregation singing, does not specify who does the writing or the sealing.  It is just as possible to read this as a text about how we create our own different endings and beginnings.  This is not the peshat, the simple, intended meaning of the text.  Yet, I can both imagine God sitting in judgement and, at the same time, hold myself responsible for the consequences of my actions.  And so in thinking about U’Netaneh Tokef this year, I find myself wondering:
  • What parts of my soul did I neglect this year?
  • What bridges did I burn?
  • What new ideas did I have that I suppressed out of fear?
  • What regrets do I have that I continue to carry, allowing them to disturbme instead of reflecting, praying, learning and then releasing them?
  • What can I do to be at Peace, to be whole, to be “serene” and “tranquil”?
  • How can I work to be more fully alive in this coming year?

These types of questions require serious thought and serious answers.  U’Netaneh Tokef raises questions about ultimate endings and beginnings and our responsibility for the outcomes of our choices.   The tefillah demands that we consider the beginnings and endings of daily living and of interactions with both God and with humanity.

On the eve of the most solemn and sacred day in our calendar, I pray that this be a year when we recognize how we can be more at peace with ourselves, with our loved ones, with others and with God.  I pray that this be a year of good health and long life, of happiness and peace; that this be a year of supporting and being supported by others. I pray to have the strength to stand at Musaf on Yom Kippur, to encounter the U’Netaneh Tokef and, rather than feeling that it is all out of my hands, that I be inspired and emboldened to live ever more fully in this

I look forward to the insights I will gain from hearing what my children, Elan, Mira, Amalya,  and my wife, Becca,see and feel in this challenging tefillah.
Finally, I invite you to share your reactions to the U’Netaneh Tokef in general and, specifically, to the approach suggested here and to the questions raised by such an approach.

Shabbat Shalom, G’mar Chatimah Tova, and wishes for a meaningful fast for all.