Saturday, October 25, 1997
"After the Holidays..."
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, New York
Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. There is a Spanish term for this attitude of mellow postponement, of confirmed procrastination. The attitude is summed up in the word “Mañana”/Tomorrow.”
There is, however, a Jewish equivalent, a deferment of dealing with difficult issues even more effective than that of a single day. It is the Hebrew term "acharei hechagim." "After the holidays..." Of course, just as there is always a tomorrow, there is always another holiday coming up.
Having said that, however, we know that we now have reached one of the biggest gaps (read "breathing space") of the Jewish year. By the time you read this Sukkot and Simchat Torah will both be behind us, and we will enter a period of over a month with no holidays on the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with their chilling themes and haunting reminders of the randomness, the sheer unpredictability of life, fade into yesterday's memories. Having been doused with our annual portion of perspective, our lives now return to routine. "Last year's confessions came easily to the lips..."
Personally , however, for me, this year, the themes of the holidays will not fade quite so fast This year, as I look ahead to November, it is filled not only with thoughts of turkey , but also trepidation, anticipation, and excitement
We are expecting our second child sometime around the end of November. But "expecting" is a bizarre term for an event in which the unexpected is precisely the norm.
Julie is an attorney. She specializes in the field of human resources, which is known as "labor law." She was, in fact, in labor negotiations with the Teamsters when she went into labor last time unexpectedly. Three weeks early. She had just picked up a beeper for me, but not yet delivered it (the beeper, that is). We were planning on packing our emergency bag for the hospital the next day. But the best laid plans...
And so our lives are now filled with personal questions of the same nature as the spiritual questions which occupied our attention last month. Not that I take the words quite as literally as they seem, but "on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall come to be... who during the day , and who in the middle of the night. Who with a smile and who with a scream Who will sleep, and who will cry " and repentance, prayer and charity might not affect the outcome of this kind of question.
We learn from particle physics that as we try to observe the spin and speed, charge, and location of an electron, we can know two of these three things, but we cannot know all three at once. If I remember correctly this is called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, popularized on the rest room walls of college science buildings as “Heisenberg May Have Slept Here”. We can know some things. But we cannot know everything that we want to know, all at once.
The Boy Scouts say: "Be prepared." But for what? And when? Monty Python said something like “expect the unexpected “which is, of course, paradoxically impossible.
So I am, for now, hovering in time, floating in amniotic suspense between one peak moment and the next but my prayers are heart-felt and real. And the resonance of holidays past stays with me this year, just a little bit longer than usual. But to move from the Jewish calendar to the American one may we all have a great deal to be thankful for... this coming Thanksgiving. And I will have news for you... after the holiday.
Tuesday, October 14, 1997
Israel, Jewish Identity, and Life in the Minority
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, New York
One summer, as I was walking down the street, I saw a man wearing a shirt that proclaimed a great truth. It's old, and it's obvious, but I had never heard it before. "Nostalgia," this man's shirt said, "Nostalgia isn't what it used to be."
We live in a time of Jewish history awash in anniversaries. But, alas, nostalgia isn't what it used to be. For these past few years are a tale not so much of anniversaries observed, as of commemorations marred, celebrations overshadowed by the bitter taste of present strife. Conflicts with Palestinians took away enthusiasm for the Jerusalem 3000 festivities last year, too many bombs in buses and crowded cafes and fruit stands. The centennial anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, in Basel, Switzerland, was marred by revelations of the role of the Swiss during and after the Shoah, and an eruption of backlash antisemitism in the city once witness to the rebirth of Jewish nationalism. The golden anniversary party for Israel, set for this coming spring, is amuck in politics and controversy, while sticks and stones as well as words are being thrown by Jew against Jew in Jerusalem, with answers no closer, fifty years after the founding of the country, to the question of what it means to be a Jewish state.
There are times... when I feel compelled to write about Israel. But I do not want to delve into the politics, nor even, at the moment, the conflicts that push Jews apart from one another. Rather -- at least for now -- I want to dwell on what brings us together, what experience it is we share as American Jews that Israel can still address, on a spiritual level.
On a personal level, sometimes, it is not that easy for me to write about Israel. It's like a story which doesn't sound quite the same when retold: sometimes, to really get it, you just had to be there. But I will come back to that.
It is also hard for me to speak about Israel for another reason. As I was packing up my study to leave Erie, I came across a single picture in a once lost file. It was a picture of a desert. Of Kibbutz Lotan, the Reform movement's second agricultural commune in the Negev. With that one picture all the memories came back, all the discussions, the pull of family verses the hand of history, the spindle from which spun my own thread in the story of our people. For me, this was a road not taken, the decision I made not to remain after my junior year of college, and make aliyah to Israel. I am not sure a week goes by in which I do not think about that decision. Not with regret, exactly. But with nostalgia, of sorts, for a player on the stage of Jewish life that never came to be. But one door closes. And a window opens.
For good or bad, as American Jews, most of our lives are here, not there. Because Israel is far away, we must remind ourselves that events in, even the existence of Israel affects our lives as Jews. Because religious rhetoric from ultra-Orthodox fanatics has been so harsh, we must remind ourselves of the lesson of last week, of Kol Nidrei, of the inflammatory power of the tongue, the grave importance of choosing our words with care. And because it is so easy to react to this internecine strife by pulling away, by distancing ourselves, by reducing our own commitment and involvement, we must, above all, strive to retain a larger perspective. For remember: if all of Jewish history were written on one page, all four thousand years of wandering from the time Abraham set out on a journey whose end he could not know, all of it written out on one single sheet of paper, then this century alone, indeed, events in the living memory of many of Jews in the world today, would merit two full paragraphs: the smokestacks of Europe, and the new dawn on the distant shore of a Mediterranean sea. In the awesome span of four millennia, we ourselves are witness to the great and the terrible, the best and the worst of that story called Judaism. No wonder the time is full of tumult. For the ink on the last paragraph is not yet dry. Indeed, what we are fighting over is no less than who holds the pen to write the next page.
In assessing the role of Israel in our lives, we touch much more than one land and one national government. We build bridges across continents, to reach every Jewish life, and every Jewish community in the world today. But wherever we live, outside of Israel, the fact remains: we need Israel. As Jews. Of whatever denomination. We need Israel. In more ways than one.
Do you remember the children's stories of Dr. Doolittle? He could talk to the animals! There was one creature in particular that I remember, a wonderful creature. It was a horse, sort of, only it had two heads, one on each end of the body, facing in opposite directions. I think it was called a "Pushmepullyou."
That is what Israel is. It is a PushmePullyou. A place to which Jews may turn if, God forbid, they are pushed from the lands of their birth. But it is more. There is also a pull. It is also a place that draws us to it, all Jews, persecuted or free.
The image is incomplete, however. For both of these, the push and the pull, focus on our leaving here, and going there. And Israel plays a vital role in Jewish life, even for those with no plans to settle there permanently.
Any place outside the land of Israel is called in Hebrew galut. The word means "exile." I prefer the term Diaspora, which means dispersion. It is more descriptive, less perjorative. But, there is a way in which life outside the land is an exile, although one for which even a short trip provides a ready antidote.
Newsflash: did you know that Jews are a minority in this country? Now, I can tell you that I really don't feel like quite as much of a minority as I recently did. In Erie, I was often the first Jew that many people had ever met. So, based on my recent experience, Buffalo is a bustling, cosmopolitan, and huge Jewish community. (It isn't, of course. It just feels that way for now. Almost all experience is relative. Well, I shouldn't say that, either. In some small communities, almost everyone is a relative.) But we are a minority nevertheless, everywhere in this country. Even in Brooklyn.
Being a minority means being different. There are some benefits to being different. And there are reasons why we are at home here in America, as nowhere else in the whole history of the Diaspora, reasons for another time.
But while we work hard to convey to our children that being different is not better, not worse, just different, we also know that there is a subliminal and pervasive definition of what is normal in society... and that we are not it. I believe that there is something not entirely... whole... about spending one's whole life as a minority. That to be always on the margin -- or always an ambassador -- tears at the soul.
Now, everyone is a minority in one way or another. To be a woman in a "man's" field, black in a white world, a Catholic among Protestants, any kind of Christian in China. We can live like this. Most people do. But the rhythm of time, the flow of the seasons, the inner beat of the psychic heart is set to someone else's standards. I believe that to live like that forever is not a fully integrated life. It is difficult. It is, perhaps... not as we are meant to be. Unless... unless we get a dose of help. In the form of reconnecting with normality. Of tasting life in the majority. Even if only for a short while.
This is what support groups do for many working women. Or trips to Jamaica do for African-Americans. And it is, of course, what our connection to Israel can do for us as Jews.
This is a Christian country. Not officially, and we should keep it that way. Not by doctrine, and that is why we have flourished here. But by the flow of the seasons, the cycle of time and the engine of the December-oriented capitalist enterprise, it is quite clear: we are at home here, yes, as never before... but we are also often outsiders still. Our holidays, our week, our inner clock is different than that of most Americans.
Israel gives us the chance to realign the clock. What is hard to convey is that feeling: being in a supermarket on a Friday morning, having as many people wish you "Shabbat Shalom" as cashiers say "Merry Christmas" here in December. Having the whole country shut down for this night, "our" night. No tests on Rosh Hashanah, no homecoming games on Yom Kippur. No fighting for time off for Jewish holidays. No time blown on personal days, while co-workers get religious holidays off as a matter of course. No driving down your street after Thanksgiving, and being the only house without colorful lights. (They are beautiful lights, and wonderful trees. I go out of my way to see them, on the private property of my Christian neighbors. But they are not our lights or trees.)
Just to taste what it is like to be in the majority, to realign our inner clock with the beating heart of our own history and heritage... to do this even for a short while makes it easier to carry that clock around inside us when we return to minority lives again. Except for Jewish camps for kids, there is nowhere else, there is almost nothing else, that can help recharge our Jewish battery, help mend our Jewish soul, as much as a trip to Israel. We need Israel... because of what it can do for us. For our Jewish identity. Even here.
Monday, October 06, 1997
You Can't Hide
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York
Did you know that the United States government gets a copy of all checks over a certain amount of money? I learned this only recently, as we closed on our home in Erie, and purchased a house in Buffalo, handling in the process checks written out for slightly more money than I tend to carry with me on an average trip to to the grocery store. But now I know: when the stakes are high, the government wants to know where the money goes.
I guess this wasn't the first time I had thought about the government in the context of fairly large checks. A few years ago Julie and I received an interesting piece of mail. It was from the IRS. And it was a friendly refund. A very friendly refund. I don't remember the exact details, but I think it had a couple of extra friendly zeroes in it. Hey, what's a few zeroes between friends? Nothing, right?
There was nowhere to go. There was nowhere to turn. There was no choice about the matter. Well, there was one choice. We called our accountant. Can't we cash it, and send them back the difference between their check and the refund we expected to get? That way we could at least get what we were supposed to get without waiting who knows how long. So we learned then that there were no choices. Don't cash the check, we were told. It wouldn't look right. We sent it back. And fast!
The morality of the issue was, of course, never in doubt. But you would have to be devoid of all curiosity and lacking a pulse not to wonder the same thing we did for just a moment: could we have gotten away with it? But the answer is no. For when dealing with the IRS, I am reminded of the old Yakov Smirnoff line, of how he nearly skidded off the road, this new Russian emigree, when, while driving out west, he heard the following pronouncement from his car radio: "This is KGB -FM, and we know where you are!"
Not that we would have, but sure, we could have cashed the check. But we knew we couldn't hide. From some things, you just can't hide.
There was a funny television commercial a few years back. Now, I made reference to this in Erie once, and no one remembered the commercial. That's because the product it advertised was never sold in Erie. And so the commercial never aired there. But perhaps it was seen where you live.
The commercial opens with a picture of a tall, distinguished looking Uncle Sam, handling a plump hot dog. The voice says: "The United States government says that we can put..." and it went on to name some barely pronounceable, unappetizing sounding chemical "in our hot dogs." Uncle Sam smiles, and gets ready to take a bite. The voice goes on. "But we don't." Sam stops, and gives a puzzled look. The sequence repeats several times, ending with the words: "we're kosher." And, with a Hebrew National symbol on the bottom of the screen, Uncle Sam fades away, to be replaced by a shot of clouds. "We answer to a higher authority than the United States government."
Al achat kama vakama, the Talmud says, meaning, let us reason from a minor point to major one. Or, to put the matter another way: how much the more so. If you can't hide from the government... how much the more can we not hide from God.
"Lo tireh et shor achicha, o et sayo, nidachim, v'hitalamta mayhem; if you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow." These words from the book of Deuteronomy are a clarion call to involvement, an appeal to civic duty, a reminder of our responsibilities.
But, actually, they are more than that. For the words "v'hitalamta mayhem" do not translate exactly as "do not ignore it." What they mean is: "do not hide from them." And again, several verses later. One common translation reads: "regarding anything that your fellow loses, and you find, you must not remain indifferent." But here, too, the Hebrew is stronger. "Lo tuchal lihitalem," means, not, "you must not remain indifferent" but "you can not hide." Or, even: "you cannot hide yourself." Not even "you must not hide." But: "you can not hide." It is not even an option. There is no choice.
It is one of the most important messages of Judaism, one of the greatest lessons of life. We can not hide. Not from others. Not from God. Not even from ourselves. Especially not at this season. On Yom Kippur our sins and our soul are laid bare. We are vulnerable. Visible. Exposed.
We can not hide from others. And yet we spend so much of our time with other people with games and guesses, energy spent on revealing as little of ourselves as possible, sizing up and shaking down, dealing with each other as if we were a bunch of onions, and our task to unpeel the layers of other people's lives.
Hiding from others -- even using the same example as a moment ago, the subject of lost or unclaimed property -- has been much in the news these past several months. First the veneer and myth of Swiss neutrality has been pulled away, and all the world is witness to the rottenness inside. More recently still, questions erupted all over the art world about the rightful ownership of priceless paintings and other objects, stolen from the Jews of Europe a half century ago, claimed now by the original owners and their descendants, claims which are hotly contested by dealers and others who purchased these pieces knowing nothing of a tainted past. The bankers and the dealers who did know that something was amiss must have been pleased with themselves. They must have thought they had gotten away with something. But even with all the years gone by, the old detective's creed still holds. "Follow the money." Or, in this case, the Picasso. You can run. But you can't hide.
Far more common than covering crimes are our efforts to cover ourselves, and discover others. What we forget is that we reveal ourselves to those around us in everything we do. The best example of this remains those with the least history of guile: children. Most of you have heard it said that you can't fool a kid. They have special noses. They know immediately who is "real" and who is not. Who is relating to them, and who is talking down to them. Who really listens, and who speaks only with an adult agenda. Their judgements are harsh, swift, final -- and usually dead accurate.
I remember the day a few years ago that I switched to a new computer, and I graduated from DOS to Windows. Finally, I had achieved an on-screen ability I had long craved, and which most of you are probably using now. There is a special word for it. It is the ability to see on the screen exactly what is going to come out of the printer. In computerese, this is called WYSIWYG. WYSIWG is an acronym for a very important concept. It's called "What you see is what you get."
There are moments when we are called upon to act, times when, despite any words we may use, how we respond, and what we do is what defines us in the eyes of others. These moments are not all made for headlines. There are more of them than we realize. They are as simple as what we do when we find a check in our favor. Or an earing on the street. At times like these we are all users of windows. For with all of us, what we see is what we get.
How much the more so... If we can not hide from others, if we can not hide from the government... we cannot hide from God.
Many synagogues have words or phrases they have chosen to adorn their ark, or surround it. There are common phrases, and you have seen many of these in different synagogues you have been to. Often you will see the words "It is a tree of life" written on the ark, emphasizing the centrality of Scripture, the living Torah. Or: "It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Lord your God does demand of you," which points to our tradition's passion for justice and righteousness. But, to me, the most spiritual, and at the same time, the most bone chilling words I have seen inscribed above an ark are these: "Da lifnei mi attah omeid -- Know before whom you stand."
Know before whom you stand. For when you do you will know... there is no place else to go. There is no place it is more important to be. You can run. But you can not hide.
Very often, the Torah will provide us with an extra incentive to fulfill a commandment, an additional clause following the instruction to us, which tells us why we should do something, or what will happen to us if we do it -- or if we do not. These added words are called motive clauses. One of the most controversial motive clauses in the entire Torah occurs just a few verses away from the commandment to return lost property. "When you come upon a bird's nest, with fledglings or eggs, and the mother bird in it at the same time, chase away the mother bird, before taking the fledgling or the egg." Why? The reason we are given focuses on the result that will happen to us. Do this, "in order that you may fare well, and have a long life." That phrase is perhaps the most disturbing incentive, the most controversial motive clause in the whole Torah, worth several sermons on those twelve words alone. But that is a rare motive clause. By far the most common incentive, the most common reason given to follow a particular commandment, are these words: "Ani Adonai Eloheichem." Do such and such; I am Adonai your God!" Look, you can cheat in business. You can have dishonest weights and measures, and your customers might never know it. You might curse the deaf, and they would never hear it. You could keep the wages of a day laborer with you until the next morning, for they are weak, and cannot do anything about it. You can give NASA the wrong mirror for the Hubble space telescope, or cut corners on hurricane inspired building codes in South Florida, or walk away from a restaurant when the change is wrong in your favor, or try on clothes you have absolutely no intention of buying, as a struggling salesperson working on commission loses several real customers while attending to your whim. But you will know. And God will know. You can do many things. But you can't do something wrong and not be called to account... somehow. Somewhere. For you can not hide.
The very first question God is said to have asked any human being is a rhetorical one. The question was this. Adam. "Ayecha?" Where are you? But the power of the question is in its existential impact. For it is clear from what follows. There is no doubt. God already knows the answer. Even if we do not.
Even if we do not. For the one we try to fool the most, the most common person we try to hide from, is ourself.
The time is here. The time is now. At the end of this week is Yom Kippur. And the hiding must end.
A difficult confession, a struggle to admit our weakness... we say of those who honestly delve into such contrition that they come forward with naked hearts. A revealing term. It implies vulnerability. Exposure. Openness. But we must uncover our lies, even to ourselves, to recover ourselves. To be whole again.
"Ashamnu. Bagadnu. Gazalnu. We are guilty. We have acted treacherously. We have stolen. We are arrogant, bigoted and cynical." The vidui, the confessional prayers of Yom Kippur. Every year we read the same list. Every year we say the same things. We say all of these things out loud. In public. And in plural. Even when -- look, I know sometimes we have a bad year. But even in a bad year, we haven't done all of these things. (And, as an aside: shouldn't we replace the x-sin. In Reform synagogues we recite an alphabetical acrostic of sin, first in Hebrew, and then in English. The x-sin listed in the Reform movement's High Holy Day prayerbook is "xenophobia." That's a pretty bad one, but, you know, if we want to hit something more people have done, wouldn't illegal Xeroxing be a better choice?) So why do we say them all?
It has to do with the psychology of the human spirit. Some traditions treat confession differently. It is private, and individual. It is sacred -- but it is sealed in silence.
Our rabbis took the same question -- how do we get people to take a really honest look at themselves, to look inside, and hide no more -- and they approached it differently. They thought that, for all of us, if we stand up, if we recite the whole list together, if we say the words out loud, but with no one looking at anyone else, if we are not singled out, but supported by the voices of a full community while looking in our own souls, that in that moment it might actually be easier to be completely honest with ourselves than if we were the only one talking. It is a wise strategy, if an ironic one, that during the one service of the year with the biggest attendance, surrounded by the largest number of other people, we might be able to find ourselves. To hide no more. And begin to heal.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" They are the words that end a round of hide and seek, when the hiding is so well done, the seeker so frustrated, or dinner on the table. But they are also the words of a last chance. Of a game that is almost over.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that hide and seek is not just a children's game. It is also for adults. For adults, and for a higher authority than the United States government. But we don't play it right. For when God calls for us, we do not always emerge. And at troubled times, when God is hiding, we are not always willing to seek.
"Ole, Ole in come free." I'm not sure... but I think the phrase from a children's game means that all who are hiding can come in now, without a penalty. Without shame or embarrassment. A limited time offer.
The High Holy Days are also a limited time offer. To uncover, discover and recover. To turn, and return. To come back. To come home. To come here.
"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" May we provide a place we can call a spiritual home. Where we are supported with enough love to ask hard questions of ourselves. And where no body has to hide.
L'shanah Tovah. .