Monthly Archives: January 2016

Rage Against the Machine

Imagine that. They had it right all along, the science fiction prognosticators, the paranoid prophets who saw in early computers a danger to humanity. The Terminator, Clark’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – all envisioning a world where the created over takes the creator, where the machines rise up and rebel, changing the course of history forever. Heck, even Mary Shelley saw it in the fevered opium dreams that produced her great novel Frankenstein. The funny thing is we don’t see it, but we very well may be living it.

The midrashic literature, speculating about the way the Israelites became slaves to the Egyptians, paints a picture of gradual and subtle deception. Over a long period of time, a decree here and an edict there, a new responsibility added one month, a new freedom taken away the next. And then, seemingly suddenly, they were trapped. What is happening to us is not so dire, nor restricting, and it is true, more than anything else we are doing it to ourselves. OK, the huge corporations, the Microsofts and Googles, the Apples and Amazons, they are complicit, perhaps even driving us. But still. And we are going along for the ride earnestly, not hesitating, even saying ‘faster, faster.’ Where are we headed?

To an age of ‘post humanism,’ according to Leon Wieseltier. In a scathing essay published recently in the NY Times he argues that by so fully entering the machine age, by becoming so dependent on data and so connected to screens, we are leaving our humanity behind. Here a quote that brings his point home: “Here is a humanist proposition for the age of Google: The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire, and neither is competitiveness in a global economy. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers.”

Text without context is dangerous. Information without understanding, without wisdom, is meaningless, and perhaps even worse a path to apathy, to disconnection and dismay, to believing that nothing truly matters. What we must remember is that data can only describe our reality, it cannot make meaning out of it. The human element – intuition, insight, wisdom, inspiration – these are the impossible to quantify ingredients that are necessary for human intellectual life. Without them we do become like robots, responding to 0s and 1s, to code and data, knowing that a rose is beautiful, but not feeling that it is.

One of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare comes from Lear. Gloucester has been blinded, and he wanders on the heath with Edgar. By seeming chance they run into Lear, who asks Gloucester how he manages to navigate the world without his eyes. “I see it feelingly” is Gloucester’s timeless reply. (Lear act 4, scene 6) And there you have it. To see feelingly means to be sensitive to what is invisible. It is precisely what machines cannot do, and data cannot show us. And it is also, precisely so, the source of our humanity.

You can read the Wieseltier article at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted

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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

If you are from a certain era you know this song. One of the biggest hits of 1969, the music and lyrics were written by Bobby Scott and Bob Rusell, but it was the version recorded by the Hollies that put the song over the top. (Trivia alert – Elton John plays keys on the track!) In many ways it captured the zeitgeist of the times – the young people were determined to watch out for each other, care for each other, have each other’s back, and to do so unconditionally and non-judgmentally. It was communal, and it was community. Still today folks whose souls were shaped in that era will call each other brother.

The song has been buzzing around in my brain over the last days, really since I’ve returned from #RTI, known in the vernacular as ‘rabbi’s camp.’ A once a year retreat in rural Maryland for Conservative rabbis from around the country, that is marked by great davening, deep learning, and sincere and serious sharing. I am convinced one of the reasons ‘campers’ come back year after year is because we can truly let our hair down. We pray and learn together during the day, we play guitar and drink scotch and wine at night. We wear t-shirts and jeans, old sweaters and junky baseball caps. We talk and share, compare shop, tell our funniest funeral stories and saddest wedding stories (yes you read that correctly), and wrestle with issues both congregational and movement wide.

But I think more than anything else we support each other. The rabbi business can be lonely. RTI is a place where rabbis can unburden the burdens, openly voice the doubts, and allow the vulnerability to seep through the polished and professional veneer. In letting our hair down we let our hearts out, something we rarely have the chance to do or the place to do it in. This can be difficult, even painful sometimes, but it also can leave you feeling a little bit lighter, brighter, and clearer, and a lot more grateful. You know you’ve got colleagues who are also wrestling – intensely wrestling – with what it means to do ‘God’s work.’

Of course the title of the song has a double meaning. Heavy is the key word. Not weight wise, or course, but existentially. ‘Its heavy, man!’ Deep, hard, mystical, full of awe, troubling, difficult, glorious, inspiring. Back in the day ‘heavy’ could mean any of those things, or all of them. In other words, a one word description of life. Or, maybe, of being a rabbi.

Here are the lyrics to the song:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I’m strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We’ll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

If I’m laden at all
I’m laden with sadness
That everyone’s heart
Isn’t filled with the gladness
Of love for one another

It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

He’s my brother
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother…

And here a link to the Hollies version of the song on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oT57tjz9py8

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Hardening Hearts

this the text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/16/16 –

There are certain ideas in the Torah that for whatever reason seem to capture people’s attention.  They come back to these ideas again and again, struggling to understand them, learn about them, or come to terms with them.  Perhaps the most obvious example in the Torah is the binding of Isaac story.  But as compelling as that story is, and as well as we know it, I am asked more often about another idea that appears in the narrative of the Exodus.  We find it both in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, and in this week’s portion, called Bo.

We are all familiar with the story.  In the process of freeing the Israelites from Egypt, God brings a series of how many plagues against the Egyptians? 10!  After each plague Pharaoh is on the verge of letting the people go, fearful that another plague will soon appear.  But each time, before he acts and frees the Israelites, the Torah tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was “hardened”  or “strengthened” and therefore he decided not to let the people go.

What troubles people – what people ask me about each year when we read these stories – is that it seems to be God Who hardens Pharaoh’s heart.  God says as much in a conversation with Moses:  ואני אקשה את לב פרעה “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 7:3)  When I study the text with people, they often ask:  “How could God do that?  Why didn’t God allow Pharaoh to let the people go after the first plague?  It almost doesn’t seem fair, and in the end, the Egyptians paid for it as much as Pharaoh himself.”  In other words, how could a just God, Who created human beings with freedom of choice, not allow Pharaoh to make his own choice, repent, and let the people go?

As is so often the case the classical commentators struggle with the same issues that we modern readers do.  They offer a variety of explanations for this hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.  The medieval exegete Nachmanides cites two different explanations.  The first is that some sins are so destructive they  make repentance impossible.  In this case, Pharaoh was deliberately attempting to destroy the Israelites, and so God did not see fit to grant Pharaoh the free choice enjoyed by others.  Hardening Pharaoh’s heart was a way of ensuring Pharaoh’s punishment would match his crime.

The second explanation that Nachmanides offers is based on a close textual reading.  Although we commonly think that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart after each of the plagues, when we pay careful attention to the text we discover that through the first five plagues God does not do any “heart hardening.”  Instead, Pharaoh seems to be the cause of his own troubles.  For example, after the plague of Arov, wild beasts, the Torah tells us: ויכבד פרעה את לבו – “Pharaoh hardened his own heart.”  So the sense from the first five plagues is that Pharaoh DID have free choice;  but each time, he chose wrongly.  Then by the sixth plague, Pharaoh’s free choice is taken away, and God does indeed begin to harden his heart.

This pattern is something we have probably all seen in our own lives.  A person who makes a series of poor choices, who continues to do the wrong thing time and again by choice, will eventually find themselves in a position where they can no longer choose.  They find themselves in a place where they are boxed in by the behavior they have enacted and the choices and mistakes they have made.  This is something that can happen not only in the lives of individuals, but also in families.

My guess would be we can all probably think of a family we know that struggles with some kind of deep division.  It might be a brother not talking to another brother or sister, it might be a child estranged from a parent, and sometimes it even extends so you’ll have an entire part of a family not communicating with another part of the family.  You may remember one of my favorite scenes from the Barry Levinson film Avalon.  There are two brothers at the heart of the film, Sam and Gabrielle.  It is Thanksgiving day, and Sam and the entire extended family are seated and waiting to eat.  But the Gabrielle and his wife are late.  The family waits and waits, and finally Same tells them to cut the turkey and begin the meal.  A short time later Gabrielle arrives.  He walks in, he sees them eating, and he is outraged.  “You cut the turkey without me!”  he yells again and again, and he storms out.  It is a hysterical scene, but it also cuts to the chase, because many of us have been there.  The question is, how did we get there in the first place?

Believe it or not, all too often the answer to that question is nobody knows.  There was a sleight at some point – the turkey was cut!  And then someone storms out.  The other feels insulted – how could my brother behave that way?  And then both wait for a phone call of apology.  And wait.  And wait some more.  When it doesn’t come, they get angrier, and they begin to remember older hurts and slights which lie just under the surface.  Then they happen to bump into each other at the bank, and both turn their backs, refusing to speak or even make eye contact.  And then the next thing, and the next.  And before you know it, because of a series of choices they made, one after the other, they no longer have a choice – their hearts are hardened.  Like Pharaoh they are boxed in and they can’t get out.  And by the time they get to the rabbi’s office – which they often do – the anger is too deep, the gap too wide, and the hurt too painful for anything to change.

Some of you may remember the author Steven Covey and his best selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  That book was required reading when I was at the Seminary, and truth be told I don’t remember all that much from it.  But there was a chapter about personal change, in which the following quote appears:  “Until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person cannot say, “I choose otherwise.”

It seems to me the message is clear.  Every choice we make is important in our lives.  Each time we choose, the impact of our decision is not only found in the present – it also potentially carries into the future.  Every poor choice sets us back and makes it harder for us to become the people we are intended by God to be.  Every wise and noble choice moves us forward, and opens up future possibilities of goodness and meaning in our lives, in our families, and in our world.

May we remember that and act upon it every day –

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The Difficult and Daunting Search for God

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 1/2/16 –

The young man who came to see me was disappointed with God.  He had always been a good person, doing his best to make the right choices and do the right things, to include dutifully coming to shul over the years when his family expected him to be there.  But some things had gone wrong in his life.  It hadn’t worked out as he had wanted or planned.  There was a career misstep here, and a failed relationship there.  A close friend had been sick and suffered.  He had always been told that God cared and that God took care of us – watched out for us, rewarded our good behavior and punished our bad.  But from what he saw, from what he had experienced, it didn’t work that way.  So he made a decision.  He would never set foot in a shul again.  After all, if God didn’t do what God had promised, why should he bother?  Why should he come to a service where God’s name was invoked, where God’s essence was praised?

This was painful to his family.  Judaism was important to them, synagogue life was important to them, the rhythms of the Jewish year, the holidays, the family dinners, were part and parcel of their lives.  But he would have none of it.  The system, as he understood it, had been proven false.  His heart had become hardened to the traditions and history of our people.

I knew that part of this was my fault.  Not in the sense of something I did wrong, but rather because of the system I represent.  He had gone to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, studied Hebrew and holidays and Jewish history.  And somewhere along the line he had learned about God.  This is what he had learned:  God is somewhere up there in the sky, looking down on us.  God watches us, our day to day lives.  When we ask something of God, God hears our request, and when our request isn’t answered, God has decided not to answer it.  When something goes wrong, when we don’t get what we hope for, when we fail or get sick or suffer a loss, God has allowed the thing that hurts us to happen to us.  That is to say, God could have prevented it, but chose not to.  In essence, he had learned that God is a micromanager, deciding on a case by case basis that some will have success while others will fail, that some will have lives of goodness while others will suffer, that on a given day one person will be in a car accident while another person will be spared.

These ideas are of course not new, and the young man is not the first person to understand God in this way, nor to be disappointed in this God.  The Talmud tells the story of Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his day, a rising star in the talmudic academy.  But living in Roman times he sees terrible things.  He sees Jews being persecuted.  He sees great sages who are humiliated in front of Roman soldiers.  And one day, says the Talmud, he sees a young boy trying to get eggs from a bird’s nest, high in a tree.  And the boy knows the Torah commands that the mother bird should be sent away before the eggs are taken.  But in trying to get the mother to leave her nest the boy loses his balance and falls to the ground and is killed.  And Elisha ben Abuya, one of the great sages of his time, and perhaps of all time, loses his faith.  How could God let something like this happen?, he thinks.

The young man who came to my office did not know about Elisha ben Abuya, had never heard of him I am sure, but he suffered from the same malady and he subscribed to the same theology.  And he had the same question: how could God let something like this happen?

Being a crafty old rabbi, this was not the first time this question had crossed my desk, this was not the first person to sit in the chair across from me with feelings of anger and disappointment about God, and I knew two things – one, there are answers to that question.  And two, none of the answers is fully satisfactory.  So we talked for a while, and I gave him some of those standard answers, and he paused to think seriously about one or two of them, but I don’t think I’ll be seeing him in shul anytime soon.  The misconceptions he holds about how God works are too deeply ingrained for him to let them go, at least now.  But I thought, as he walked out of my office, if we talk about these things more often and more openly, it might help someone else, who is struggling in the same way, to find a different path, and to feel more comfortable walking into a sanctuary carrying doubts about God.

There is an odd passage in this morning’s Torah portion, the first in the book of Exodus.   The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt.  They are suffering, and the Torah tells us that they cried out to God, a cry for help, for release from suffering and slavery, and that the cry rose up to God.  And then the Torah tells us that God heard their cry, and that God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And then the Torah says this:  וירא ה׳ את בני ישראל וידע ה׳ – Elohim saw the Israelites, and Elohim – God – knew.

There are two things about the passage that strike me, one implied, and the other an unanswered question.  First what is implied – if the Torah tells us that God remembered, it means that at some point God forgot.  God forgot about the Israelites.  God forgot they were in Egypt, that they were slaves, seemingly, that they even existed.  I think this is the Torah’s way of telling us that there will be times in our lives when we will not feel God’s presence.  When we will look for God, call out to God, ask for God’s help, and there will not be a response.  Eventually, God did remember.  But for a long time – ימים רבים the Torah says – for a long, long time, God forgot.

And the second thing that strikes me about the passage – the unanswered question – is this:  what did God know?  If you look at the translation of that verse in your Humash, you’ll see it says “and God took notice of them,” but the Hebrew simply says וידע ה׳ – Elohim knew.  God knew what?  And I think the answer to that question is the very next word in the Torah, a word that you all know – Moshe.  Moses.  God knew that a human being had arrived on the scene who would through his own efforts and actions begin the process of freeing the Israelites.  God wasn’t going to do it.  What changed wasn’t that God was now paying attention to the Israelites when God hadn’t been paying attention before – what changed was that the right person had come.  And because of that God knew that soon the Israelites would be free.

Despite what the young man who came to my office had learned growing up, the tradition often teaches us that God is not a micromanager.  God is not looking at the lives of individuals and deciding that certain prayers will be answered while others will be rejected, that certain hopes will be fulfilled while others will be dashed, that this person will suffer while this other person will be saved.  That is not a God I have seen or known in the course of my life, or through my experience.  But I have known a God who blesses a Moses with the strength, courage, wisdom, and hope to lead a people to freedom.  And I have known a God who gives us as individuals the strength, courage, and hope we need to live our lives, to get up and face another day, to be there for people that we love, and to live with faith.  I tried in my office to introduce the young man to that God that I have known.  I hope that one day they’ll meet.  But my prayer today is that the young man should not stop looking – may he find meaning in his search and each of us in ours –

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2015 in review

for those interested here is a statistical year end summary of The Human Side of the Coin –

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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