Monthly Archives: August 2018

Hiding Yourself

A text version of my Shabbat sermon from 8/25/18 –

     This morning’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, contains more laws than any other portion in the Torah.  The laws cover a vast variety of topics, from proper ethics in business to adulterous relationships, to the importance of treating the poor and marginalized with respect and dignity.  All told there are 27 positive commandments in the portion, and 47 negative commandments, for a grand total of 74.  

     And in that long list of commandments there are a couple of my favorites, maybe not exactly what you would expect, but I would like to share them with you this morning, and then try to explain why I find them so compelling.  These come from the beginning of Deuteronomy chapter 22, where the text reads as follows:  “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it, you must take it back to your fellow. You shall do the same with his donkey, you shall do the same with his garment, and so too with anything that your fellow loses and you find – you must not remain indifferent.” 

     There is a difficulty in the passage that comes from one of the key Hebrew words.  Its repeated twice, and is clearly understood as being important by the text, but not fully clear in terms of what it means.  The word is והתעלמת.  In modern Hebrew it means to disregard or ignore something, and that is the way the translator in our Humash is working with the word – and so our translation says, when you see this ox, or sheep, or object, and you know it isn’t yours – והתעלמת – don’t ignore it, don’t remain indifferent, you have to do something about it.  And our translator is really working with the commentary of the great sage Rashi, who says the word והתעלמת means ‘don’t close your eyes, pretending the thing isn’t there.’  

     And what I love about this is the psychology of these verses.  The Torah knows me better than I know myself!  The Torah knows when a difficult or challenging or unpleasant circumstance confronts me, I might have a tendency to look the other way, or pretend the thing just isn’t there and walk right on by.  And so the Torah reinforces its commands about returning these lost objects by telling me והתעלמת!!  Don’t ignore it!  Instead, walk towards it, take care of it, confront it if you need to.

     Many of you know that the rabbinate is a second career for me.  Before I began rabbinical school I worked for four years as a sort of psychiatric social worker at a place called the Genesis Club, a psychiatric rehab program in the Boston area.  Our mission was to help people who were struggling with major psychiatric illness – like manic-depression or schizophrenia – to transition from the state hospital back out into the community.  

     I carried a case load that was fo all intents and purposes randomly assigned.  There was a young man named Jim, who was as sweet as they come, and before he became sick could throw a 90 mile an hour fastball, a true major league prospect.  There was an older gentleman named Robert who had a brilliant mind, was a trained physicist, but because of his illness had become homeless and was struggling to put his life back together.  And the list could go on and on, each person I worked with had their own compelling story, their own challenges and struggles, and their own hopes and expectations and goals.  I was very fond of those people and I loved that job, and felt truly blessed to have had the opportunity to be a source of support for them as they worked so hard to have the kind of lives any of us hope to have.

     But there was one young man that I worked with with whom I struggled terribly.  I was at the time 24, and he was younger than I, big and strong, very aggressive, and prone to intense outbursts where he would scream and yell, throw things, and although I never saw him strike another person, it always seemed like he was just on the edge of doing that.  I was scared of him, A, and B, virtually every interaction with him was unpleasant.  So I came up with a coping strategy – I would avoid this young man at all costs.

     And so it went.  If I came up to the top of the steps, and saw him down the hallway, I would quickly retreat and head back downstairs.  If I entered the lunch room, and he was there, I would eat in some other area or go out to lunch.  I was supposed to meet with him on a weekly basis, but I managed to work it out so that we only met every other week, or maybe even every third week.  On the one hand I felt guilty about it, but on the other hand it was much easier, as it so often is, to take the easy way out. 

     At a certain point my boss called me into his office.  He asked me specifically about the young man, how was my work going with him, how was he doing, was he making any progress?  After hemming and hawing for a moment or two I fessed up, and told my boss that I was so uncomfortable, and frankly so scared of the guy, that I really didn’t want to deal with him, and so I had in essence been shirking my duties.  And my boss said something that has stayed with me all these years – that was almost 30 years ago – and that I work very hard to keep in mind in my day to day interactions with others.  He said ‘oftentimes the people who are the hardest to deal with are the people who actually need you the most.’  I walked out of his office, found the young man, and walked right up to him – ‘lets talk,’ I said, and we did.  It wasn’t easy, but at least I knew it was right.

     I said moment ago that that word from the Torah text – what is it?  והתעלמת – is tricky to translate, and in our Humash the translator understands it as ‘to not ignore’ something.  Applying the verse to my story of the young man, it would be to not ignore him, to not close my eyes to him – we might say, to truly see him.  And that was what I tried to do, after the conversation with my boss.

     But there is another way to understand the word from the verse, and I’d like to share it with you before I wrap up.  There is another Humash in my office where that word – והתעלמת – is translated as ‘do not hide yourself.’  So the end of the verse would read ‘you will return any lost object of your brother that you find – do not hide from yourself!’  What exactly does that mean?!

     And the way I’ve come to understand it is this:   when you hide from others, when you ignore the responsibilities that you have to help others, to be there for them, to give them support and care – when you pretend they aren’t there, when you allow them to disappear – there is a part of you that disappears as well.  We might say it like this:  when you hide from others you are hiding from yourself as well – from who you are supposed to be, from who you have the potential to be, from who God wants you to be.  

     It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be quite hard.  My interactions with the young man were always challenging, and that never changed.  But in walking towards him instead of walking away I was at least there for him, and I think on some level he knew that, because so many other people had walked away from him in his life.  And in walking towards him, in truly seeing him, in those challenging conversations and difficult moments, I also was growing and learning, and instead of hiding from myself, I came to a deeper understanding both who I truly was and of who I should strive to be.  

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Almost Cut My Hair

Actually my beard, and I did cut it.  After shaving my face clean I am beardless for the first time in many years.  It is an interesting experience to see my simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable face staring back from whatever mirror I happen to look in.  I confess the lack of that all grey beard does indeed make me look quite a bit younger.  That being said I am already growing it back, because as I always say, it beats shaving.

It is an odd thing, how we see ourselves, how we understand our own identities.  It isn’t something we pause to think about all that often, but every once in a while it catches you and hits home.  A lot of it at the end of the day is surface level.  The clothes, the hairstyle, the beard (or lack of one!), the home, the car, all of the material items that become part of our image, even in our own minds.  But peel those things away and there is some kind of core, independent of all of the societally imposed images and ideas of who we are and who we should be.  Here is the thing, almost counterintuitive – that core is invisible, in some ways undefinable, untouchable, but it is stronger, more powerful and profound and true that all of the accoutrements.  There is a wonderful verse from I Samuel, chapter 16:  “God does not see the way people see, for people see the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

It is that heart that we should strive to see, both in ourselves and in others.  What was it that Polonius so famously said to Laertes in Act 1 of Hamlet?  “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

And so to ‘Almost Cut My Hair,’ the title of this post.  It comes from one of my all time favorite rock and roll songs, and is the title of the third track on the classic CSNY album Deja Vu, released in 1970.  In one of the great recorded rock vocal performances, David Crosby rants against the ever intensifying pressure to conform to expected norms.  ‘Get a job!  Clean up your act!  Dress like a normal human being!  And last, but certainly not least, get a haircut!’  In the end the song’s protagonist stays true to his own values, and makes the decision to walk his own path, difficult as that may be.  Here are the lyrics from the song’s first stanza:

Almost cut my hair/ It happened just the other day/  It was gettin’ kind of long/  I could have said it was in my way/ but I didn’t, and I wonder why/ I feel like letting my freak flag fly/  and I owe it to someone…

Every once in a while you have to let your freak flag fly.  You owe it to someone, and that someone just might be you.

 

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On Saturday the Rabbi…

Went to shul, of course!  Yes, even when I am away, even when vacationing, if I can I go to shul.  The truth is I’ve always liked it, going all the way back to my Hebrew school days.  The other students in my class would complain when we were brought in to sit in services, but I didn’t mind.  There was something about it, hard to identify, difficult to pinpoint, maybe impossible for me to explain.

The truth is, I would rather sit in the pews.  My guess is if you polled a group of rabbis about this question, a fair number would tell you they want to be on the bima conducting the service.  I’ve even known a few rabbis who have said to me ‘why would I go to shul if I am not running the service?’  But I enjoy just sitting quietly, doing a bit of davening, following the Torah reading and checking some of the commentaries, just the sort of quiet head space of it all.  Isn’t that part of what shul is supposed to be about anyway?

I also enjoy seeing how things work in other congregations.  It is a big Jewish world out there!  In our own spaces we can get so tied down to OUR way of doing it, the tunes we use, the readings we do, when we sit and stand, even where people sit – it can all become sacrosanct.  There is an old joke in the ‘business’ – you could cut the entire Shema out of the service and no one would say a thing, but if you change the tune of Aleinu, beware!  Of course it isn’t exactly true, but it is true enough.

But a little bit of traveling will remind you that there are a million and one customs, a million and one different ways to do it, each community with its own version.  And yet in some profound way it is all connected, and you can feel at home in any shul, big or small, local or far away.  In one way or another the Torah will be read, the Shema recited, the Aleinu sung.  And you realize, when all is said and down, it is your place, these are your traditions, the people here are your community.  And the shul is your shul, too.

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Of Gates and Other Interstitial Spaces

Just as the beautiful back shore curves around to the west there is an ancient looking gate.  It has a small wooden tile roof, covered with moss.  The wooden door is often open,  unlatched, in some way beckoning the passers by to a mythic inner sanctum.  A low stucco house can be glimpsed, a stone path, flowers English garden style running alongside.  The gate posts are large, even imposing, made of great stones cemented together long ago by an old world stonemason, his practiced eye picking and choosing for shape and size as he worked.

What is astonishing about any gate is that it can suddenly bring you from one world to another.  Remember the back of the closet in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy fumbling through old coats and scarves and suddenly walking along a snowy lane.  Or in Tolkien’s work the various gates that lead into the Mines of Moria or the Old Forest or the halls of the Elven King in Mirkwood.  The gate is an interstitial space, a kind of tunnel between two distinct areas, or even better a mystic link between one world and another.  On one side is what we know, where we dwell and walk and go about our day to day life.  But just beyond the gate is another world.  Of Magic and adventure, of mystery and the unknown, of gorgeous gardens and storm tossed seas, where otherworldly creatures might dwell, or time works differently, or the rain falls in a certain kind of way that we’ve never seen before.

There are gates in nature and gates in time as well.  When dawn comes or night falls, when the year turns, when the clouds of a great storm move swiftly through the sky as the weather clears, when we peer into the darkness as we stand on the edge of a wood, these are all gates of time and place and mind.  Death and birth are gates, perhaps of an altogether different kind, but gates nonetheless.gates

And there are gates in Judaism.  Three volumes of Talmud are called the First, Middle, and Last Gates.  The huppah in the wedding ceremony is a kind of gate, the bride and groom entering that space as single and emerging from it as a married couple.  We speak on Yom Kippur of the Gates of Prayer and how they close at the end of that sacred day, a moment marked by the Ne’ilah service.  There is a traditional Shabbat song, Hasidic in feel, with the following lyrics:  ‘the entire world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to fear.’

Every gate is a narrow bridge, linking one world to another.  Every gate is an opportunity to walk into a never before seen space.  Every gate leads from what is known to what is unknown.  Every gate opens before us a series of new possibilities.  Gates can be entered and bridges crossed.  The main thing is not to fear.

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Flat Tires and Other Tests

     You may be familiar with the old story of a group of four college friends who decide to take a holiday weekend before a big exam they have on Monday morning.  Despite their best intentions, they realize Sunday night that they haven’t studied one lick all weekend, and so they devise a plan.  Early Monday morning they will call the professor, and tell him they’ve had a flat tire while traveling back to school, and won’t be able to make it back for the test.  This way they’ll have extra time to study.  The professor says OK, not to worry, you’ll take the exam Wednesday morning, and she gives them a time and a room to come to for the test.

     Wednesday morning precisely at 9 AM they arrive and find the room set in an unusual way.  There are only 4 desks in the room, one in each corner.  On each desk is a single piece of paper, turned upside down hiding the writing on its front side.  The students sit down at their desks, take out their pens, and the professor says ‘you may begin!’  The students turn the papers over and are surprised to find just a single question each sheet – which tire was flat?

     This is a time of our year when we begin to think quite a bit about exams and being tested, not because soon students will be going back to school, but instead because the HHDs are coming, and one of the metaphors we use to understand the importance of those days is the idea of being examined, of being tested.  Certainly the most powerful prayer of the holidays is the Unetane Tokef, where God is imagined as a sort of austere professor, grading our exam books, in which are written the deeds we’ve performed during the past year, both good and bad.  The sense of the metaphor is very much that we are being tested, and even graded, even if it is a pass/fail course, passing meaning our names are written in the Book of Life.

     The truth is the idea of God testing us is much older than the HHD liturgy.  It is a concept that appears often in the Torah itself, our oldest text, most prominently known from the story of the Binding of Isaac which begins ‘And it was after these things that God TESTED Abraham…’   That is obviously an individual test, but there is another kind of testing in the Torah that grows more prominent in the Book of Deuteronomy, namely the idea of God testing the entire Jewish people, en masse.  And there is a reference to that kind of testing in this morning’s Torah portion, Parshat Eikev, where we find the following passage from Deuteronomy 8:  “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, – למען ענתך לנסותך that God might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts.

     And then the text gives a series of things which it seems to understand as part of that test.  But two of the things in the list – one, the manna, the food they were given to eat every day, and the other, that fact that their clothes would not wear out, are puzzling.  Why?  Because they are positive things.  How can something that is positive be a test?  Think of it like this – if you want to test someone’s physical endurance, you do that by making them run, or walk uphill.  You don’t do it by telling them to go take a nap!  

     So the commentators on the text are puzzled, and they try to understand how something positive – food to eat every day, and clothes that don’t wear out – how those things could be a test.  And the answer that they seem to settle on, that they find most acceptable, is this:  the Israelites didn’t know for sure whether or not the manna would appear every day, and they didn’t really know that their clothes wouldn’t wear out, so they worried about it!  Every morning when they woke up they didn’t know if they would have food to eat that day, and so the test was to see if they would have enough faith to go out and look for the manna, to see if their belief was strong enough in the idea that God would provide for them, and they would survive.  In other words, the test was a hardship – when things were tough, when things were difficult, when they were afraid they might not have food – would they still have faith?

     But there is another possible explanation of the test – sort of the reverse side of that coin – that I’ve always found compelling, which is this:  would they remain faithful to God even when they knew that every day that manna would be there, and there was no question in their minds that they would have food to eat and clothes to wear in the wilderness, it didn’t matter how long they wandered.  That test is almost exactly the opposite!  It is a test that comes from things being good, things being easy, and the question is, when everything is great, when you have absolutely no problems, when life looks like easy street – will you still look to God then?

     If you think about it, we have the answer to situation number 1, the hardship test.  The answer comes from Jewish history.  I am about chest deep now in Simon Shama’s Story of the Jews volume 2, and any broad read through of Jewish history immediately reminds you of how difficult it has been historically to be Jewish.  It didn’t matter where the Jews lived, it didn’t matter when, it didn’t even really matter if it was a more tolerant culture or a less tolerant one – it was enormously difficult to be Jewish.  And yet generation after generation after generation, those Jewish communities and the Jews that lived in them kept their faith.  That is the test of hardship, and the Jews always passed.

     We have a lot less information about the other kind of test, the test of a good and easy life.  That experience has been so rare for Jews, particularly in the modern period.  It has really just been the last 40 or 50 years when the doors have fully opened for Jews here in the States.  And that goodness, that openness, that opportunity, is testing us, no question in my mind.  And whether we will pass this test or not I think is a very open question at this point.  We can minimally say that this test of the good life is not an easy one.  Because when every opportunity is open, we take fewer Jewish ones.  When we can study any subject and work in any profession, we spend less time studying our tradition and thinking about our Judaism.  When we can belong to  – almost – any country club, we spend more time of the golf course and the tennis court and less time in shul.  When our bubbies and zaydies are no longer around to remind us of the old country and the importance of traditional observance, we forget where we’ve come from, and do fewer Jewish things in our homes.  

     The final results are not in yet, but in terms of the test of a good life, the mid term results have not been very positive for the Jewish community so far.  The good news is I think there is still time to study.  The professor will give us a couple of extra days, or we might say a couple of extra generations, to prepare.  The real question is will we be able to identify which tire is flat?!  Shabbat Shalom – 

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