Sunday, February 01, 1998

More Than A Man

More Than A Man

Rabbi Michael L Feshbach

Temple Beth Am, Williamsville, NY

Well, I went and met the President last week along with 20,000 more of my closest friends.

As crowded as it was, and as hard to get in to Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena to hear Bill and Hillary, and Al and Tipper on the day at their very first appearance after the State of the Union address, it was, nevertheless, an extraordinary experience for me. There is something about experiencing an event in person, about hearing a speaker, about being in the same physical place that no television or radio or even ''virtual" World Wide Web experience can match.

I have seen Bill Clinton before and Jimmy Carter. as candidates. And I have heard both Vice President Gore and the First Lady speak in person during the last several years (both at biennial conventions of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national Reform movement). But I had never heard a sitting (or a standing) President before.

What can I say? It may be unsophisticated, it may sound uncool to say it, but, hey, it was pretty exciting. It was even, to use a once in vogue word, "awesome." But that is not why I am writing about the experience.

You know, everything depends on how you look at the world. The sun sets on what is to most people the end of a long week of work. So what is it? Is it Friday night? Or Erev Shabbat? Who we are is not fixed from above, or before. It depends on what we have in ourselves, our existential eye glasses, the way we look at what happens around us. And, seeing the President of the United States, this ultimate exercise in Americanism, this Mecca journey of civic religion was a profoundly Jewish experience as well

There is, of course, the Jewish moment at the beginning of many important events in our lives. What is that Jewish moment? It is when the priest or minister rises to give an invocation in any setting other than a Christian church, and all the Jewish eyes find each other, and silently, unanimously, say: oy! Will they or won't they? Will they mention him at the end of the prayer? Will they read us out of the room, make us invisible, and make us feel as strangers in our own land? Or will they utter words that come from their heart, but do not cut at the hearts of others? No matter how inspiring or insipid the content of the invocation may be, it comes up kosher if it ends up inclusive. If it does not end with the words: "we say this in Jesus' name," or some other equivalent. (I have my own ideas about how Christian ministers can stay true to themselves and still give an inclusive prayer; perhaps another day I will put those ideas in writing.)

So the moment passed, and the minister passed muster. A good invocation, in our book, and one which didn't make us feel different from those around me.

But I was different in another way from the people I was sitting with, the people my wife and I had brought with us, in fact. I had received tickets from the local Jewish Federation and from a small congregation in our area... had distributed them at our synagogue Board meeting the night before, and had a few left over. So we invited some of our neighbors.

One, a Buffalo native, with her mother, got us around town where we would have still gotten ourselves lost. And it was wonderful having a chance to spend some quality time with the whole group we went with.

But there was one difference between "us" and ''them" 'They" are.... Republicans!! Not necessarily the ''throw the bum" out types, and not necessarily people who voted against Bill Clinton in either election, but registered Republicans nonetheless. Who were every bit as excited as seeing a President of the United States as were we.

Which reminds me of a lesson. Not just the American adage about respect fur the office if not the person (a lesson my parents drilled into me during Watergate). But a lesson from our tradition. A lesson, and a play. That opening scene from Fiddler on the Roof  “'Rabbi is there a blessing for the Czar?” And the answer? "Of course. There is a blessing for everything!" The rabbi then goes on to make up 'May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!”

But the question and answer were right as well For there actually is a blessing for the Czar -- even a problematic one -- and for seeing a President of the United States. Even one in the middle of defending his Presidency.

The ancient words are not taught in too many religious schools. But they are found at the back of some prayer books, and in the memory of those who take seriously the statement "of course, there is a blessing for everything." The traditional Jewish prayer on seeing an exalted ruler (whether you agree with his or her positions or not) is: "Baruch atta Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaO!am, shenatan m'kvodo l'vasar vadam, Blessed are You, Adonai Our God,

Sovereign of Existence, who has shared of your glory with mortal human being;" (literally: with ''flesh and blood'}I believe this is a profound blessing. For, at the moment I saw him, indeed, during his time in office, the mantle is more than the man or woman, the presence, the power, the aura of authority is more than the person. There is something... special.about seeing one whom we have chosen to lead us, or, outside of a democracy, about seeing one who holds earthly power in his or her hands.

The blessing is a description of an aura. It is also a prayer: that something of Eternity, that some of God's wisdom and goodness, will be shared with the one who wields that authority, along with the glory.

Our leaders are only human being;. They are frail, and they have failings;. Sometimes there flaws are hidden.

Sometimes they are there for all to see. And this leader has faults and personal failing; as visible as any I remember.

But inholding office -- and until the last moment of holding office -- they are...more than themselves. Our hopes, our prayers, our blessing; go with them, more steadfastly than even our votes.

And I am reminded, once again, that each and every experience, every moment in our lives, is a portal beyond the everyday, a chance to gaze at the ordinary and see in it... holiness, transcendence, eternity. Even in the eyes of a leader under fire can we find the image of God.

The Journey Home

The Journey Home

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, PA

Suspended animation isn't restricted to Orlando or Hollywood. It can happen in many places. It can even happen on 1-79, halfway between Meadville and Edinboro, Pennsylvania.

Sometimes I wonder why human beings live in this climate. Then I remember the spring and the summer and the fall.

Sometimes I hear Jews in this area worry about the dangers of a trip to Israel.  And I want to look at them in awe, and ask them if they ever get in a car and drive between December and March. For they are doing something far, far more dangerous than any trip to Israel would be.  (Unless, perhaps, the trip included standing in the middle of Hebron and shouting that you wanted the city back, but that is another story.)

I guess I was pretty shaken up by my drive home a couple of weeks ago. And I didn't even go off the road. Not that I would have noticed if I did.

To me, white out is an archaic term, a remnant of the days before electric typewriters had eraser ribbons as part of the cartridge, and something certainly put out of common usage by word processors . It was not a meteorological phenomenon.

But it is that, as well. And three weeks ago, coming home from the undergraduate Introduction to Judaism class I teach one day a week Spring (sic) Semester at Allegheny College, I hit a white out.

Actually, it wasn't just one. It was several.  And they lasted minutes apiece. Not seconds, as I had experienced before.

A white out is when the snow is so heavy, and the wind so strong to kick up more snow, that you cannot see anything at all. You can't stop, because anyone behind you would not see you. You can't pull over, because you can't see the side of the road. You can't speed up, because, well, you would never have been given a driver's license or passed a psych test in the first place if you are the kind of person who would speed up during a white out. You just have to keep on going, the Energizer Bunny of the Road, slow and steady It keeps snowing and snowing...), hoping the road doesn't curve.

Hoping... and what is that other word for it? Oh yes.  Hoping... and praying. In the white out three weeks ago, I rediscovered petitionary prayer. And at the same moment, I had a theological crisis.

You see, I am not sure how firmly I believe in the notion of a God who intervenes in particular situations. I am com.1nced that the tragedies of life, minor and major, are part of the fabric of the universe, not caused by some being who could have prevented them. In this I follow in the footsteps of Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose When Bad Things Happen to Good People popularized the theology of a limited God. I see God more as a Source of Comfort and Solace, a Font of Creative Energy, an Enabler of Blessing and Growth and Potential, than I do as the Puppet Master of All Destiny. More as the Author of Possibility than the Scribe of Certain Fate. And this theology serves me very well... in my study.

But there are no atheists in a foxhole, it is said. And on that drive three weeks ago, there were no atheists on 1-79. As I had during the years when we were struggling with infertility, as I do when I think of the fragility of my small son (not so small, actually - he weighs 16 lbs. at almost four months), I am not too proud to let my theories interfere with a direct appeal to the Master of the Universe every now and then. Nor am I so ungrateful as to forget to be thankful at the end of a day, or the end of a drive.

I don't know what I accomplish in terms of communication with God at such moments. But I do know that such moments are important.  That they are not to be dismissed even in the comfort of academic thought.   And that more people have such moments than would even admit to actually "belie\1ng" in God.

And so, for now, what I'll do is live with what such moments bring to me: a renewed perspective, a sense of gratitude at being alive, a sense of kinship with those who didn't stay on the road, extended to those whose lives are in pain in any way.

And in the long run, if I can hold on to that outlook just a little longer than I otherwise would have, it will turn out that a whiteout was something different than what I expected it to be. It was a moment when, in fact , I saw with my heart far more clearly than I thought with my head.

May we all meet such moments and come out on the other side, healed, whole... and open to the holiness in life.