Friday, February 22, 2013

Zakhor - Remembering and Doing

One of the beauties of reading and rereading Torah is how our understanding of specific narratives, laws and even sentences or words can change annually.  Take this Shabbat, the one immediately preceding Purim, for example.  Known as Shabbat Zakhor, we read a special Maftir Aliyah, one that reminds of what the Amalekites did to our ancestors as they wandered in the desert.  They did not confront Israel from the front where, presumably, they were strongest.  According to Torah, Amalek came from behind, killing those who moved slowest, who were most vulnerable.  As a result, Amalek becomes the paradigmatic enemy of the Israelites and of Am Yisrael throughout history.  The end of the special maftir this Shabbat commands us to wipe out the memory of Amalek from beneath Heaven.  In wiping them out, we are also commanded to commit them to our eternal memory.  What does it mean to blot out the memory of Amalek?  To not forget?  How is it possible to wipe out all memory and to remember at the same time?

Rashi understands our maftir literally: We are to eliminate any and all evidence of the Amalekites existence: the humans, the property and even the animals.  Rashi’s reading is based on Samuel where King Saul ultimately loses his throne to David due to his failure to carry out God’s instruction.  Saul leaves the King of Amalek alive and the people to keep the animals, purportedly to make offerings to God.  There is something visceral both about the original text in Torah and in Rashi’s explanation.  Our modern mindset rejects the active, physical, complete nature of this understanding.

I have to admit: there were times when my own discomfort with literalness of the command to eliminate Amalek gave way to a desire to see the haters of Israel and the Jewish People disappear ,in a very real way.  Sitting in a “sealed” room during the First Gulf War, wearing my gas mask, knowing there were people around the world dancing on their rooftops in celebration of our being attacked, part of me wanted them to be blotted out, to be erased.  And, frankly, there is a part of me that always remembers that feeling.  Even though reason gives way, my modern sensibility prevails and my humanity returns, hatred breeds hatred and there is a little part of me that wonders what would have happened if Amalek really was completely wiped out long ago.

Ramban and the Pesikta Rabbati, however, can be interpreted to read the passage figuratively.  If the literal reading of the text is one of vengeance and murder, the figurative approach lets us consider what Amalek represents:   the impulse to hate, to take advantage of the weak, the forgotten, the easy target.  It also demands us to act in opposition to Amalek: To love Humanity, to sanctify God’s Name in this world, to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger.  Defeating hatred and evil required greater emphasis on love, on understanding, on communicating, on building.  Ramban argues that as long as Amalek is present in the world, God’s name and God’s Holy Seat remain incomplete.  Obviously, once Amalek disappears from the world, the unification of God’s Name and Seat in this world are completed.  That time is what we call The Messianic Era, the time of Eternal World Peace.  The question is:what are each of us doing to bring about this Era?

This week, I sat in Jerusalem with an exceptional Rabbi who suggested we start a Gemach, A Loving-Kindness Fund, together, one that will bring something real, something good, to individuals who need it.  On my next trip, we are going to choose an area not currently being taken care of, a population not being cared for, and start collecting so we can help.  One possibility, based on models of Gemachim in Israel that collect wedding dresses for brides who cannot afford them and projects in the US that collect prom dresses for girls who cannot afford them, is to collect bat mitzvah and bridesmaid dresses and make them available to those in need.  It is small but concrete and is the anti-Amalek: it supports those in need rather than taking advantage of them.  

This Shabbat, as we hear the words of the Maftir of Zakhor, we must take time to think, in very concrete terms, about what we are doing to be the antithesis of Amalek.  What are we doing to increase good in the world?  What are we doing to support those who fall through the cracks, who fall behind, who are attacked for no other reason than they are weak and forgotten?  And how can we do more?   

As soon as the focus of our Gemach is determined,  I hope you will join us in the effort.  I hope you will be inspired, as I was this week, by my friend, colleague and teacher, Rabbah Tamar Elad Applebaum, who suggested the idea of a joint-Gemach.  Similarly, I hope you will be inspired by my teacher, Danny Siegel, to find ways you can be the anti-Amalek and contribute to bringing about the completion of God’s Honored Throne in this world.  Finally, please share with me your own projects so I can spread the word and invite others to join you.  In so doing, we will all eliminate the memory of Amalek - of hatred, of suffering, of advantage-taking - and eternally remember the needs to bring more love and humanity into God’s Divine creation.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 1, 2013

This I believe...

Emerging leaders often have to learn that it is far more impressive to communicate complex ideas in easy to understand language than it is to communicate simple ideas in complex jargon. “Jargonization” is so deeply ingrained in some fields and people that it is virtually impossible to make any sense of their written or spoken strings of buzzwords and catchphrases, all connected by confusing sentence structures.  We need a return to simplicity.

The power of simplicity lies in its ability to unmask complexities, to reveal meaning that might otherwise be missed in a sea of difficult words, long passages and obfuscation.  At the same time, “Simplicities are enormously complex. Consider the sentence "I love you," as Richard O. Moore reminds us in, Writing the Silences.  Just as simplicity can unmask complexities, it can just as easily hide them.  Nowhere is this more evident in The Torah than in Parashat Yitro, which contains the עשרת הדברות, The Ten Commandments.  In this singular passage, we experience the power and challenge of both simplicity and complexity.

We encounter the challenge of complexity at the start of Exodus Chapter 20.  What does עשרת הדברות actually mean? In most places, these ten things are translated as “The Ten Commandments.”  The word dibrot , however, comes from the root daber or “say.”  Are these ten “commandments,” or “sayings,” or “core beliefs”?  From here, meaning gets more complicated as the first five “sayings” are longer, contain more information and are more complex.  The last five “commandments,” however,  are models of simplicity.  Don’t do x.  Don’t do y.  Yet, these models of simplicity are also incredibly complex.  Simply stated? Yes.  Simplistic?  Definitely not.  Why?  Because the Torah understands that we need to start somewhere. We need an easy to understand beginning before we dive into the complexities of law and belief.

All the way to today, the עשרת הדברות, these ten utterances, serve as a model for belief statements.  Look at most lists of core values and you will see just a few words in bold, followed by paragraphs explicating the meaning of those values. The phrases are the starting point. The paragraphs are the “next conversation.”  If they are truly core and practiced, any member of the staff in an organization is able to recite the short, bolded, value phrases.  They are recited so easily because they are embodied in the lives and rhythms of the individual and the community, the volunteer and the organization, the employee and the company.  

For decades, we, Conservative Jews and institutions, have found it hard to articulate a definition of our unique approach of Judaism in short, easy to understand phrases. On the one hand, we gave people the catchphrase “Tradition and Change.”  It fit on a bumper sticker but was not enough to convey meaning.  On the other hand, we gave them books: from the brief Emet Ve’Emunah to the recent volume, The Observant Life.  A motivated person can devote a few hours to a few weeks to read about Conservative Judaism.  For many if not most, however, these works are too overwhelming a starting point for conversation or exploration.  We can’t put a book in someone’s hands and say, “Read this and we can talk next week”  and expect to see them again just as we cannot we give a person a one or two word answer and expect it to mean much of anything to them. We still lack a brief, simple response to the person who wants to know what we are all about.

To insure the future of our stream of Judaism, we need  an answer to the question “What is Conservative Judaism?” that is as beautiful in its simplicity as it is brief.  Because I believe this to be crucial, and because I want to initiate a public conversation on the topic, I propose the following:

Conservative Judaism is

Deeply spiritual;
Richly intellectual;
Soulfully engaged in repairing the world;
Passionately egalitarian; and
Avidly Zionist,

all deeply anchored in The Covenant and expressed through living and learning Torah and Mitzvot.  

This is not an exhaustive list. It is not meant to be; rather, I hope many others will suggest additions and subtractions.  Most of all, I hope people, colleagues and friends and as of yet unknown voices, will join this conversation leading to a recognized and accepted communal answer.

We stand for important, dynamic Jewish living and Jewish values.  If we start the conversation with an answer that is memorable, beautiful, powerful and simple, people will be interested in hearing more, in learning more and in doing more.  If every organization in the Movement articulates the same brief answer, we build  a far more powerful voice than when we have we have too simple an answer, too long an answer or, most dangerous, no answer at all.  Finally, if we can communicate this in a unified, passionate voice, we will succeed in starting deeper, more transformational conversations with individual Jews who, interest now piqued, will make the next appointment, join the conversation, take the next step on their personal Jewish journey.  That next step leads to stronger communities and a stronger Jewish People.

This Shabbat, we will imitate our ancestors as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  We will reenact the moment of Divine Revelation.  We will try to feel the power of the Heavenly voice dictating to Moses the foundational principles of The Covenant. We will experience the dynamic power and challenge of simplicity and complexity.  I hope we will consider our own Ani Ma’amin’s, “I Believe...” statements. 

Finally, I hope that in the near future, we will arrive at a collective, jargon-free, simple, powerful answer to the question, “What is Conservative Judaism?”  Without a collective answer to that question, I fear for our long-term future.  With a collective answer, we can all look forward to a bright destiny full of international impact on people, communities and countries.  

Shabbat Shalom.