Monday, December 06, 1999

A Covenant Cocktail:
The Messianic Idea in Judaism

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Well, for our neighbors, Christmas is coming. And "the Millennium" (which I continue to assert is being celebrated a full year early; see the previously written "Nothing Matters"). An important date in the history of Christianity and the world. So I suppose that what I have to say here may seem politically incorrect. Or, at least, strike some as vying to be a bit of a party pooper. A whole lot of folks around the world are caught up in this idea of the Messiah. But -- with apologies -- I believe that one of the most important ideas in the history of the world may have been the result of an accident.

Let us go back to the beginning, or, at least, to the tale we tell of where it all got started. From the outset of the Bible, we encounter the concept of "covenant," called, in Hebrew, brit. (Yes, the word "brit", or "br is", means "covenant," not "circumcision," since "bris" is only the shortened -- you should pardon the pun -- form of the full phrase "brit milah, covenant of circumcision.") There are clearly two kinds of covenants in the Bible: conditional ones, in which something is promised from God only on condition that certain terms are fulfilled or obligations are met, and unconditional ones, in which a promise from God is given which, although perhaps sealed by a sign of some sort, is not dependent on particular behavior or reciprocity.

The very first covenant in the Bible was a conditional one. God told Adam and Eve that they could live in the Garden of Eden if they did not eat the fruit of a certain tree. The rest is history. (Or mythology, depending on your perspective.)

If Brit Adam was a conditional covenant, than Brit Noach, the second major covenant in the Bible, was unconditional. God told Noah that God would not destroy the world with water again. Period. End of story. Human behavior had hardly changed: the very first thing Noah goes out and does is invent viticulture, get smashed off his... rocker... and have some sort of ugly incident with his son the details of which do not belong in a family column (much less a public school classroom -- take THAT all you folks who think the Bible should be read in public schools!) The rainbow is a sign of the covenant, but the promise is unconditional.

The covenant of Adam and the covenant of Noah -- neither one concerns me at the moment. For it is the subsequent chapters of Biblical history, the covenants to come -- three of them in particular -- which I believe give accidental birth to a concept that shook the world.

We move from universal (pre)history, to the history of our people.

We turn to the first monotheist, the first Jew, the first successful long-term relationship God manages to have with a human being in the book of Genesis.

We turn to Abraham.

Step One. Brit Avraham. The covenant of Abraham. The sign is circumcision, that much we know. But what is the promise? What are the terms?

God promises Abraham that God will give him the land of Canaan, to him and his descendants. Forever. Period. Unconditionally. Brit Avraham thus contains within it an eternal claim to the land.

Step Two. The rest of the Torah. Brit Moshe, the covenant of Moses.

The ideology here is articulated with the most eloquence and rhetorical flourish in the book of Deuteronomy, but it is found throughout the final four books of the Torah. God places before us a choice, and lays it on the line: it is up to us, life or death, the blessing or the curse. If we follow the ways of the Eternal our God, we will live in the land in security. And if we do not, than plagues and pestilence and pesky dental problems will follow, we will suffer low sperm counts and long lines at the grocery store, we will be exiled from the land, and wander the face of the earth. The choice is ours, but the words are clear: the covenant of Moses, whether we live on the land and feel the bounty of God's blessing, is conditional.

It depends on our behavior.

Step Three. We jump ahead, to the story of David. A shephard-musician is elevated to the kingship of Israel. And God makes another promise. Your descendants will be the rulers of the Jewish people for all time. No qualms. And no quality control. Period. Brit David. The covenant of David. An unconditional promise.
Three covenants. Three different situations. But mix them together, and out of the froth of time comes the most potent message of hope in all of human history. Let's look at the implications.

The Jewish people have an eternal claim to the land of Canaan/Israel (Brit Avraham.) But whether we actualize that claim, whether we enjoy it, whether we actually get to live on the land -- that depends on us (Brit Moshe). And: there is a family who is destined to be the leaders of our people forever (Brit David).

It doesn't take much stirring to see what happens. There will come a time when we no longer merit living on the land. But we still have a claim to it. So someday, somewhere, somehow, when we are ready once again, the proper ruler of our people will reemerge. To lead us back to life on the land.

That's it, folks. That is the idea of the Messiah. Fully formed...from working out the details of three previous promises.  And that is the Messiah's original job description in Judaism. To go home again. That's the only entry on the resume. None of this making the snow melt in a Buffalo blizzard, or eliminating the need for protective fences in zoos. None of this end of history stuff, or bones rising from the earth -- all of that came later, accretions and additions, some in Judaism and considerably more in Christianity, to an idea that emerged from the promises of yesterday.

The most important idea in history, an accident of implication.

Unless, of course, there are no accidents.

Whatever theological bets you have riding on the next few weeks -- Millennium fever, Messianic expectation, or simply another Shabbat service in a synagogue -- whatever you believe and wherever you will be: a happy new year. To one and all.

Wednesday, December 01, 1999

Encounter in Dallas: Tale of a Tiny Torah

Encounter in Dallas:
Tale of a Tiny Torah

Have you ever encountered a person you knew in the most unlikely and unexpected place? Bumped into a classmate while hiking in the Himalayas? Stayed at the same hotel as a relative on another coast, without knowing about it until the hotel operator connected a call to the wrong Feshbach (which happened to my father)? Accidentally built a new house right next door to the home of a woman you left at the altar years before (as happened to someone Iknew where I used to live)?

For all the coincidental encounters of our lives , I often wonder about the near misses. lf we come face to face with friends in the funniest places , how many more times there must be when we are in the same place as those we know, but turn the wrong way , choose a different aisle, ask for a different section of a restaurant, and simply never know how close we came to making a connection we would have spoken about, perhaps, for the rest of our lives .

And then there are the times when we make lemonade out of lemons   When we find connections even when there is no reason to assume we could do so.

I was paying for coffee at a check out line at the Reform Movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregation's (UAHC) Biennial in Dallas last month. The woman in front of me looked familiar. This being a convention, and such things being socially acceptable in this context , I said so. (In the Jewish context , of course she looked familiar. After all, wasn't she at Sinai? And weren't you?) Nine times out of ten such conversations take place between people who had, actually , met before, often at a previous convention. Nine times in the previous day people had said the same thing to me  And then there is the tenth time. After some discussion, I was fairly sure I had not, in fact , ever met this woman.

But then she looked at my badge. "Oh!" she said.  "You're from Buffalo.  I grew up three blocks from that synagogue."  Given that I have just moved here, that didn't mean that much to me, but this unexpected development held out the hope that at least I could reduce my embarrassment about telling a total stranger that she looked familiar .

And then the connections started to work , one right after the other   Two  members of our congregation were standing with me at the time  It turns out that this woman's father is a patient of one of them, and lives on the same street as the other. The woman's parents are divorced. Her mother lives in Boca Raton - and I have been in her mother's home for dinner when I was an assistant rabbi there.

The four of us spent a few more minutes talking We walked towards the evening concert. On the way , we bumped into a former assistant rabbi at another congregation in Buffalo, who had been at this woman's grandfathers' funeral, and her former rabbi in the city in which she now lives . We sat at the concert together, and as Peter Yarrow announces he is about to sing a song about memory , this woman leans forward, and asks one of our congregation's delegates for a favor.

"When you get back to Buffalo," she said, "can you do something for me? Can you help me find something?  It belonged to my grandfather, who was a rabbi, and he gave it to me, but I lost track of it. It is somewhere in Buffalo, but I don't know
where Could you help me track it down? It is a tiny children's Torah, with a gold cover, with an imitation ruby in the center of the cover."

The three of us from my congregation paused, and looked at each other. We knew exactly where this Torah was. It was in our ark at Temple Beth Am. It had been in our religious school wing, and this past summer , when I said I wanted to put children's Torahs in the ark as I had done in other congregations, our rabbi-educator, who is also new to the congregation, said he thought we had a couple he had seen when he was unpacking

We told the woman we had just met that we were now using "her" Torah every week , that children's faces glowed in pride and delight as they part1c1pated in carrying the Torah around the congregation.  That we had asked the congregation to help us obtain more such Torahs , and that the response has been very fawrable.  That her Torah had come "out of the closet" and into a living ark.

I assume that we are talking about the same Torah  It will be easy enough, I think, to trace its origins. If it is the same Torah , if this woman we met by chance does own it , it is hers for the asking.

But with tears in her eyes on hearing what had happened to her Torah, she did not ask for it back immediately    For the image of something she cherished as a child being used, being shared, spreading joy to other children was a powerfully spiritual moment for her. And not only for her.

How rare it is for a metaphor to be made so real For all the accidental encounters in our lives, all the chance meetings , all the coincidences , all of them... can lead to Torah. If only we are patient enough to  nd, open enough to see... the connections that bind us together. All of us. Every one.

It is said that the bush burned from the beginning. That God did not light the burning bush for Moses alone. That is was , simply ,always there. It was waiting.  It was ready to be seen.. by any who are ready to see.

So it is for us. There are miracles all around us. If only we open our eyes .

Tinky-Winky and Us: The Power of the Word

Tinky Winky and Us: The Power of the Word

Rabbi Michael L Feshbach
Temple Beth Am Williamsville, NY

As many of you know by now, a brand new cultural icon (irony intended) has come under furious attack from the Religious Right. I am speaking, of course, of that fuzzy, humbly British squeaky-thing known as Tinky Winky. Who is Tinky Winky? The largest of the four Teletubbies, stars of the English show and barely disguised cash-cow masquerading as Public Television educational programming aimed at the big spending toddler set. Tinky Winky is sweet, and innocent, and lovable in every way except in his role as a stalking horse for the capitalist system as a whole. But Tinky Winky is in the news these days because of an article in the conservative National Liberty Journal attacking the Teletubby. Tinky Winky, the article notes, has the voice of a boy -- but carries a purse.  ''He is purple -- the gay pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle --the gay pride symbol" Jerry Falwell, founder of the so-called Moral Majority, is reputed to have contended that the subtle depictions are intentional and that "As a Christian, I feel that role modeling the gay lifestyle is damaging to the moral lives of children." (Now, how these people can be attacking Tinky Winky, and ignoring Bert and Ernie, who have shared the same apartment for over two decades, is completely beyond me.)

I share with you the following caveat: I am not certain if Jerry Falwell initiated this attack on Tinky Winky, or continued it by reacting to someone else's prior statement. Admittedly, that is an important distinction.

Nevertheless, such comments, whoever started them, betray an inner obsession, a world turned upside down.  And whatever they reveal about the world view of those who shake with hate at the sweet sight of a toddler tubby saying ''b-i­ g hug," there is an umbilical connection between their words, and the word FAG scratched with pen on the beaten body of a now slowly recovering 17-year old high school senior in Novato, California.  There is a connection because words matter.  They shape our view of the world.  They define the who and how and what of what we do.

And all our wise mothers' were never more wrong when they taught us to say "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The formula was prescriptive, not descriptive. They were trying to teach us the way the world should be. Not the way it is.

Our sensitivity to what other people say extends even beyond the realm of accuracy.  Last month an aide to the newly elected mayor of Washington D.C. was forced to resign for using the word ''niggardly," offending a fellow aide as an ethnic slur. Never mind that ''niggardly," which means "parsimonious" or "stingy," is a Norwegian import, with no known linguistic connection to a similar sounding racial epithet. Gyping someone -- that is a racial slur, based on the gypsies. Welshing" on a deal getting off ''Scott" free, an ''Indian giver" Jewing someone down, being a ''nitpicker," all of these are racially based -- interesting, by the way, that most of these slurs have to do with a less powerfi.11 group being accused of being cheap or dishonest by a group that is entrenched in power. Maybe that is why the other aide assumed ''niggardly" had the same kind of origin.

The power of the word. Since the founding of our faith 4000 years ago we Jews have known the power of the word. God is said to have created the world with words, saying "let there be," and there was. A Midrash states that the primary difference between the animals and human beings is the ability to speak, and an ancient Aramaic translation of God having made Adam into a '1iving being" is that "Adam was given the spirit of speech." Abraham exposed the emptiness of idols by placing words in their mouths, when his own rather knew they were nothing more than wood and stone. The Ten Commandments are actually known in our in addition as Aseret Hadibbrot, the 'Ten Words." The whole Torah, as the sacred word of God, invites infinite scrutiny and, indeed, the very kind of play on words we saw in this week's portion, between mishkan, or sanctuary, and mashkon, or pledge.   And the Torah is filled with constant injunctions about shmirat halashon, guarding the tongue, or restraint in speech.  'Do not go about as a talebearer among your people." 'Do not carry false rumors."  'Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind."

Even one of the rare genera possibly vague statements in the Torah, "do not wrong one another," is parsed and applied by later tradition precisely to the arena of speech.  We read in the condensed law code knows as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch:

"Just as it is forbidden to wrong a person by dishonest buying or selling, even so it is forbidden to wrong a person by means of words, as it is written: 'lotonu oto, v'yaraita m'eloheicha; do not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God.' This prohibition refers to the wrong done by means of words.

What constitutes wronging by means of words? A person should not say to his fellow 'At what price will you sell me this article?' when one has no intention to buy. If one seeks to buy something, one must not send that person to one who has no merchandise to sell. If one's neighbor is a penitent person, one should not say: 'Remember your former deeds.'... If one is asked a scholarly question; one should not say to an unlearned person 'What is your opinion?' To same applies to all forms of speech which tend to hurt the feelings of another person.

If a person has an opprobrious nickname, although accustomed to it and does not seem to mind it, nevertheless it is forbidden to call the person by that nickname with the intention of conveying an insult. Itis wronging by means of words.

It is forbidden to create a false impression, that is, to deceive any human being, Jew or non-Jew, even by mere words, without causing any loss. It is forbidden, for example, to sell unkosher meat to a non-Jew who seeks to buy the meat of a ritually slaughtered animal. If one sells an article having some imperfection , although it is worth the price, one is nevertheless obliged to inform the purchaser of the imperfection ...

We must not invite anyone to dine, if we know that the invitation will not be accepted. Nor should we offer someone a gift, when we are certain that the gift will be refused. In all cases where one expresses something with the tongue, and does not really mean it, as when one compliments a neighbor, when it does not express one's true opinion, it is forbidden. One should always harmonize the tongue with the heart, thereby cultivating the qualities of being truthful, upright and of a pure heart.

Careful speech, we see, is about fur more than not telling tales.  Our tradition treats speech as a moral virtue, applying its insights to many areas of our daily life and conduct.  Even... padding a guest list, or trying on clothes in a store, to see what
we look like, with no intention of buying... constitutes deception through speech.

L'shon ha-ra, literally, ''the evil tongue," is, according to Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, "the practice of making a derogatory, deceptive or damaging statement that is not motivated by a constructive or beneficial goal" Or, even more broadly, Rabbi Stephen Wylen defines gossip as "any statement that lowers another person in the esteem of the listener."

To guard our speech in the way we are expected to do is a hard task indeed. It is a constant struggle, a never won war. I struggle in this area, and frequently fail I admire those who are further along in this struggle than am I. I am humbled, and I grow, from trying to apply the Jewish insights of the ages to my daily life through what I say.

To use restraint in our speech, we must think about the language we use, the words we choose in terms of intent, impact and integrity.

Intent.  What is the goal the purpose in saying what we say?  1bis is a more subtle question than it at first appears.  For the intent must be measured, in the end, vis a vis the subject and not the speaker.  Was the intent to lower, or elevate, in the esteem of the listener?

Using Rabbi Wylen's definition of gossip, the truth of a statement does not matter. In fact, as he points out, the fact that something is true is definitional of gossip – if it is not true it is slander, which is even worse. The fact that something is already common knowledge does not matter. Your willingness to say the same thing to the person directly does not matter. Your feelings about the other person -- making it clear, for example, that you think well of him or her, but that this one thing really bothers you -- that does not matter. Even seeking advice from a third party does not matter, if you state your case in a way which will leave the subject lessened in the eyes of the listener. (How therapists would make a living under such a definition is an open question. Seriously, however, it is precisely the issues involved in sorting out and holding separate the realities and world views of disparate patients, helping along without bringing inside, which is precisely what makes therapy more an art than a science and a difficult art indeed.)
The question of intent relates not to your own needs or safeguards, but to your intent regarding the subject.

Now, that seems to be about the implications of your words, but it is not. For intent is in your hands. The implications of your words, as they bounce beyond you, is not. But those implications are still your responsibility. It is still incumbent upon us to consider the e:ffact on others of what we say.

Impact. The ownership of not only what we mean, but how we are heard. To the extent that it is possible to do so.

You know, there is a debate that continues in our culture about this whole ''pc" business . What is "pc"? It is the acronym for ''politically correct." There is a backlash going on against a heightened sense of sensitivity to those who are different. And it is precisely a battle... about language.

Yes, even language sensitivity can be taken to extremes. Earlier I used the term circumferentially challenged, instead of well, "overweight." The one implies a struggle, but the other defines a noun You know some of the others: vertically challenged, instead of short -- or tall; chronologically challenged, instead of too young or too old. We use these, and we laugh at how ridiculous we have become.

And yet let us not too soon throw in the towel of sensitivity. (Although  perhaps I should not be associating innocent towels with defeat by using that phrase.) For the  what we say really does shape reality; words really do build
As a student, I once sat through a Ritual Committee meeting in a synagogue where certain members were arguing against the use of gender-neutral language. In that same meeting, someone said, referring to Kol Nidrei, ''when the men take the Torahs out of the ark..." In that synagogue, the task of holding the sifrei Torah on Kol Nidrei fell to past presidents -­ and the immediate past president was a woman. The rabbi then said: ''If you can convince me that you included this woman in your mental picture when you just said 'men,' then we can go back to male language in the service." Those arguing against gender neutral language leaned back in their seats, thought for a moment, and, to credit their honesty, ceded the point.

What we say shapes how we view the world. If reality is connected, then, indeed, words make worlds. And we are entrusted with a sacred responsibility ... to be aware of the kind of world we are making.

Integrity. Using care in what we say will make us the kind of person others will look to with respect.

One ofthe common criticisms heard about sermons early in the career of a rabbi is ''oy, too many quotes." But there is a reason for this. The tradition teaches us the value of saying something "b'shem omro, in the name of the one who spoke it." To give credit where credit is due. More, and not just for rabbis: to acknowledge our own place in the chain of a tradition, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us.
And more: when we carefully sift our words through the filter of time, when we sort out the influences upon our thought, we will surely know, as we grow, which words are our own.  As time goes on, when we stand up for what we stand for, we will know it.  And everyone who hears us will know it.  D'varim sh'yotzim min halev, nichnasim lalev.  Words that come from the heart, the tradition says, enter into the heart.

The tongue, says the Talmud, is like an arrow. Once unsheathed , it is able to do harm both near and fur. Once in flight, there is no guarantee where it will land.  Worse: while an anow can strike only one target, the evil tongue slays three: the one who speaks, the one who listens, and the one about whom it is spoken.  And one who causes blood to drain from another's face in embarrassment, it is as if we have shed their blood.

Rabbi Artson writes: A community in which l'shon ha-ra is common practice is one in which people cannot afford to trust one another; it is a community in which we can expect our deeds to be construed in the most unflattering light.

My friends, from my heart I share the hope that we can grow in all our lives from the wisdom of our tradition. For our world, and our own community, hang in the balance, of how we speak to each other, and what we say about each other.

Often there is far too much hate in our words to each other, and far too little love.  And sharp words cut the cords that bind us together.  For a shared past does not of necessity a common future make.

Speaking at his first inauguration, to a nation on the verge of civil war, Abraham Lincoln wrote that ''We are not enemies, but friends.  We must not be enemies.  Though passion may have strained, in must not break, our bonds of affection.
True mystic chords of memory... will yet swell the chorus of Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

May the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our heart, be acceptable to you, 0 God, our rock, and our redeemer.