Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Noah and his learnng curve

This week we learn about Noah, his triumphs and his failures.  Or at least, his actions that we perceive as failures.

Here's the beginning of the parshah:
ו:ט אֵ֚לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
This is the story of Noah: Noah -- a righteous man, he was morally unblemished in his generations. Noah walked with God.

In Hebrew, the phrase and syntax of the sentence; Noah walked with God imply two things:
God's pride in Noah
Noah lived in keeping with God's instruction.

Put another way, Noah walked on God's path. Keep in mind, the whole notion of halachah derives from the theme of walking: walking on God's path, keeping His commandments ... obeying God.

Throughout Genesis to this point, two major themes are:
and responsibility

Genesis reads like a text in developmental psychology, We'll explore this phase of man's development as well as the meaning of morality. And let's see where blind obedience fits in.
Let's take a look back.  First lesson in responsibility: the story of Adam and Eve. God asked Adam why he ate the fruit. Adam blamed both God and Eve. Eve blamed the snake. They did not take personal responsibility for their actions.

Was this a test the first two people failed? Or was this part of mankind's learning curve...

A tenth century sage, Rav Saadia Gaon, said that the truth of Torah could be established by reason. However, this would be a long, difficult process.

Ultimately, people learn by making mistakes. Or, by learning from others' mistakes. Adam and Eve taught that we really should take responsibility for our actions -- and it's all to easy to not do so.

Next story: Cain and Abel. Cain kills his brother, but he doesn't deny it! In one sense, he does take personal responsibility. After all, he admits  his guilt. So what's the problem?... Okay, outside of killing his brother...

Cain's issue isn't personal responsibility. It's the difference between what he wants to do and what he should do. Cain refuses to take moral responsibility.

But morality is about more than the individual and how he treats others. We must look at the community.
And so we come to Noah. As we saw, God singled him out as a righteous person in a horribly corrupt world. And when God told Noah about his plans to destroy the world -- and save Noah and his family -- Noah did everything God said to do.

So why do our sages debate whether Noah was righteous? Didn't God say he was!

The question comes over an enigmatic phrase: he was a righteous man in his generation.

Not a righteous man, period. God qualified his praise.

Here's a talmudic viewpoint:
Rabbi Yochanan said that Noah was only righteous because the rest of the people were so corrupt. Noah might not have been so righteous had he lived at a different time.
Resh Lakish answered that Noah would have been righteous in any generation. After all, if he could be righteous in a violent and sinful world, just think how good he could be in a different setting...

Remember: humanity is on a learning curve.  The reason the rabbis even call Noah's goodness into question is this: Noah saved himself, his family, and the animals.
He did -- exactly -- as God commanded. It didn't occur to Noah that perhaps he could save others. He could have questioned the Creator. He did not.  Did he even know that was possible?

Noah represents the stage of communal responsibility. However, the first stage of development really is: I must look out for myself.

It's later that we learn -- our world is much much better when we take responsibility for each other.

A few decades ago, an experiment called the Prisoners Dilemma showed that cooperation yielded better results than competition. Prisoners could choose:
If you testify against the other, you go free, she gets ten years.
If you both testify against each other, you each get five years.
If you both remain silent, you'll both face a possible year in prison but on a lesser charge.

Inevitably, the result was: I'm out for myself, so I will testify -- five years is better than ten.

But this was a one-time event. When the "prisoners repeated the experiment, they learned that cooperation yielded better results! It took time to get to that point.

It's something we have to learn. We must grow into this  sense of mutual responsibility.

Noah -- mankind -- had not yet learned the morality of being responsible for the community.

Noah's life did not end happily. How could it be otherwise? He emerged into a broken world -- a world of death and destruction.  Noah had his family, but no one else.

Did he struggle with guilt, that maybe he could have saved others?

Noah remains a figure of pathos. Yes, he was a righteous man -- and yes, he did as he was told. But Noah did not question.

Noah did not realize that God gifted us with free will. That means: our Creator never expected -- or wanted --
us to follow blindly.
We choose.
We question.
And we assume that the Kadosh Baruch Hu expects is to exercise compassion ... and to rebuild shattered worlds.

Among the many things we learn from Noah, a basic theme is the formation of communal responsibility. Morality means that we are responsible not just for ourselves -- we are responsible for our community.

We often give lip service to Hillel's great saying:
If I am not for myself, who will be.
followed by ... If I am only for myself, what am I?
And: if not now, when?

Noah didn't know that he could have taken greater responsibility for his community. Maybe he could have saved them, but he didn't think to try. Humanity was young; it took Noah to teach us that it could be different.

And note, psychologists tell us, this a developmental stage that must be learned.

We can excuse Noah. We cannot excuse ourselves.

 For instance, when it comes to the synagogue, how many times to we hear:
they shouldn't do things that way. But who is they? There is no "they." It's us.
Or, it's a shame people don't make synagogue and Judaism more of a priority. Do we hear this from people who are among those who don't come?
On the other hand, we have lots of people who know that our communal life depends on every one of us.

Noah teaches us that yes, we should listen to God. He also teaches that we must do more. It's not enough to follow God to the letter. We should -- we must -- err on the side of compassion. And we must understand that we cannot be moral ... if  ignore the needs of others.


How can we describe Jerusalem?

In the Talmud: Ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine were taken by Jerusalem."
(Talmud: Kiddushin 49b)

From Psalms:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Psalm 137:1-6

From the prophet Isaiah: For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 2:3

These words -- all from holy sources -- are not just lip service. They are not metaphor. In oh so many ways, Jerusalem IS our beating heart.

Three thousand years ago, King David made Jerusalem the capital. Not just the political capital, but it was -- and is -- the beating heart of the Jewish people.

Jerusalem remained the political and spiritual capital of Israel for one thousand years. Even after its destruction by Rome, it remained our spiritual center ... as it is today.

Today, you can walk her streets and marvel that our history -- our long, sacred, precious history -- is right there. You can feel it. You can breathe it. You can imagine through millennia our people studying, praying, and living there.

In Jerusalem, we can sing her praises.

Through most of our history, Jews have been a vital part of Jerusalem, except:
the Romans temporarily barred us from entry after the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 ce
the massacre perpetrated by Crusaders in 1099. However, nearly a century later, Muslims recaptured the city and invited Jews back.
a twenty year period -- 1947 to 1967 -- when East Jerusalem fell to Jordan. That was the first and only time Jerusalem has ever been a divided city.

But now! Now we can we can enter the Old City -- home of the Temple Mount -- the Kotel -- and locus of Jewish life from ancient times until now.

And Jerusalem's place of honor in Jewish hearts and souls makes recent events so horrible.

Jerusalem is old -- any city that old will see her share of violence. Because of Jerusalem herself, she has had more than her share ... much more.

That does not make it easier to stomach the brutal murders of four rabbis who simply went to their Jerusalem synagogue to dovven the morning prayers. Nor does it ease the pain caused by the murder of the Israeli-Druse policeman trying to protect the worshippers.

That was not the only terror attack of recent days. We've seen terrorists intentionally running people down with their cars. We've seen the Palestinian leadership call for a Day of Rage every Friday. And the Hamas leadership thinks it's just fine to target Israeli political leaders for murder. Case in point, Israel just foiled a Palestinian attempt to murder Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister.

Hamas justified their reasoning this way: Israelis ie Jews are desecrating Muslim holy places Therefore, we should kill them.

EVEN IF they were guilty as accused, does that justify murder? We could list the Jewish synagogues and other holy places destroyed by Arabs in wars over the last seventy odd years ... it would be a long list. But Israel does not -- has not -- targeted any religious sites -- whether Jewish, Muslim, or Christian.

The Israeli government protects them all.

But much of the uproar focuses on whether Jews are even allowed on the Temple Mount -- which is a holy site to Muslims and houses the Dome of the Rock.

When I lived in Israel, Jews could freely access the Temple Mount. There were steps leading from the Kotel to the mosques. I walked up there once. It wasn't comfortable. Muslim guards looked ... unfriendly... I didn't stay long.

Jews don't pray there. Israel has gone out of its way to maintain it is a holy place for Muslims.

But now, we can't even go there lest we be accused of inciting Palestinians to murder. Decades after the Holocaust, others demand that we make the Temple Mount judenrein -- clear of Jews.  Anything less is viewed as a desecration and call to war.

So terror threats in Jerusalem mount.

And what are we to do?

As always, we must stay informed. Not everyone knows Jewish history, let alone the story of modern Israel. It is incumbent on every Jew to learn.

We must never lose sight of the innate holiness of the land of Israel and its capital, Jerusalem. That holiness often seems broken. It is our job to restore it.

Most importantly, our lives, our actions, must reflect our literal mission from God: be a light to the nations and a holy people.

To that end, I'd like to close with a letter -- and a call --written by the widows of the murdered rabbis...

Christmas baby, Yom Kippur Miracle

 Yesterday -- December 25 -- marks the birthday of an important, highly influential Jew. Not who you're probably thinking. The man's name -- Franz Rosenzweig.

Rosenzweig, born in 1886, remains on of Judaism's foremost philosophers. His work was on a par with that of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber. In fact, Buber and Rosenzweig not only became friends, they collaborated in writing.

I want to share a bit about Rosenzweig's background -- which led to what may be the most famous non-conversion in Jewish history.

Franz Rosenzweig grew up in Kassel, Germany, in a largely secular Jewish home. His family attended high holiday services, but that was about it. As a young man, Franz showed little interest in Judaism, though he did want to learn Hebrew. However, his thirst for learning took him to medicine, history, and especially philosophy.

These were times of great intellectual ferment for Jews. The Haskalah -- or age of "Jewish enlightenment," opened doors to European culture -- especially in Germany.

Before the Haskalah, Jews kept largely to themselves. This wasn't a choice. They weren't allowed to participate in the culture at large.
But in the nineteenth century, those doors opened. Jews became part of a multicultural society teeming with intellectual excitement.

There was only one drawback.  The doors didn't open very wide.

The more Jews found themselves able to join the European world, the more they learned that Jews were only marginally welcome.

One part of German life had not changed: the culture was Protestant and still not welcoming to Jews.

So, we have a young man like Franz Rosenzweig, who knew little about Judaism and was learning a lot about philosophy. By his mid twenties, he had serious questions about what it meant to be a Jew. He had no background, no milieu, to help him understand.

Here's what he wrote his parents at that point: "We are Christians in all things, we live in a Christian state,go to Christian schools, read Christian books, our whole culture is based on a Christian foundation."

I don't know what or even if his parents responded to this. Unfortunately, we can understand his angst. In Rosenzweig's case, it was especially hard.
He grew up as a Jew -- but as a Jew in name only. Like many of his peers, he had no clue what that meant.

Two of his cousins converted to Christianity. Within two years, he told them that he would follow suit. Like his relatives, he was determined to become a Christian. However, he said that he would need several weeks to prepare. He felt it important to know what he was leaving. Further, because he was a Jew, said that he would go to the baptismal font as a Jew -- not as a non-Jew.

If that last sentence leaves you scratching your head in confusion, you're in good company. It's a strange way to put it. What did he mean? After all, at the moment of baptism, he would no longer be a Jew!

Maybe intellectual rigor drove him to learn more about Judaism. And maybe, deep down, he was having second thoughts.

And so, he went with his parents to Rosh Hashanah services. Still determined to convert, he attended services on Yom Kippur.

The day passed and the concluding service, n'ilah, began. N'ilah comes from the word for locking --and at that services, our prayers reach a peak, growing in intensity --  because soon the Almighty will lock the gates of forgiveness.

Rosenzweig never described his inner experience at that service. We only know this: at n'ilah, he realized that he would remain a Jew...

And thus Rosenzweig's Yom Kippur experience became famous as a non-conversion.

But here's why and how we care about this today:
This was not a simple case of a young Jewish man changing his mind about conversion.
It's not even a testament to the power and awe of Yom Kippur ....
We care about this episode because
of what we learn about Rosenzweig after that fateful Yom Kippur.
and what we learn about us.

Franz Rosenzweig went on to write great works of Jewish philosophy. Further, he didn't let even the trenches of WWI get in the way of his drive to think and write. While he served in the Kaiser's army, he wrote sections of his book on postcards and mailed them home. Those postcard became his most famous book, The Star of Redemption.

His youthful lack of Jewish education drove him to focus on Jewish education, especially for adult learners. Just as Rosenzweig found his way back to Judaism, he wanted to make it easier for others to do the same.
In Frankfort, he founded an well-respected institution directed to that purpose.

And then he came down with ALS -- a cruel, debilitating nerve disease. He became paralyzed, found it hard to speak, even swallow. But ... his literary output became greater than ever.

When he spoke, he could barely be understood -- except by his wife. He dictated to her. When he could no longer speak at all, he acquired a typewriter that he used with his mouth. And when that failed -- and he could only communicate by blinking -- his wife pointed to letters on a card and he blinked at the appropriate letter.

Somehow, in the midst of this horrendous eight year illness, Rosenzweig and Martin Buber translated much of the Hebrew Bible into German.

Franz Rosenzweig -- brilliant, indomitable -- a driven Jew who grew up clueless as to what that meant.

We do live in a largely Christian world. And this time, it surrounds us. How do we maintain our Jewishness when Christmas pervades ... well, pervades everything!

That's when Rosenzweig's upbringing is particularly instructive.  He didn't know what it meant to be a Jew.

If we don't teach our children -- and more to the point, if we don't learn and don't continue learning ... we do have a serious dilemma.

Christmas especially can bring out issues people may have with their Jewish identity.

But to those grounded in Judaism -- who know they are Jews and know why -- those issues will not be the same.

And we cannot be grounded without education. Nor can we fall into the trap of thinking we already know enough. No one learned enough in Sunday school -- and none of us know enough now.

That is why this great philosopher continued deepening his own commitment to Jewish education. Franz Rosenzeig almost left Judaism because he didn't know what it was.

Once he embarked on his path, he didn't even let debilitating illness stop him. Instead, his soul just grew stronger.

I cannot think of a better role model for our times.

Holidays were great and whew, they're over

Whew, holidays are over. All that prayer – all that rejoicing …

Wait … did you rejoice? Did you pray?

I hope so.

Yeah, it gets tiring. All those intense holidays bunched up in one short month. You’d fire an event planner for that.

But God is the event planner… Torah itself spells out the holidays. Why? Doesn’t He know that we can only stand so much prayer?... We can only cope with so much synagogue time?

That’s a crass way to put it. But isn’t that how it feels?

Let’s go back to the days of the Bible … before synagogues, when we only had the Temple in Jerusalem.

People were only expected to go to the Temple for three holidays a year. Shavuot, Sukkot. Keep in mind, two of those holidays last several days.

We assume it was easier for them back in “the day.” However, consider this:
We have jobs – so did they. Many of them were farmers. There was no such thing as a day off.
We get tired. I suspect, so did they. However, part of their prep included schlepping sacrificial animals to Jerusalem.
And the schlepping.  We are so lucky to live here in Green Bay where a long trip is anything over ten minutes. Now, think about our forebears. Some of them lived in Jerusalem, many did not. Jews travelled long distances – mostly on foot.  Further, the trip to Jerusalem is uphill.

The Talmud describes their travel:
The Israelites decorated and brought their sacrificial animals.
They traveled in groups - and other pilgrims joined them on the way.
The best of all, they gaily sang psalms as they traveled...

Is this description true? Who knows. It surely was for some.

The real takeaway from this story: We should aspire to treat all our holidays in this manner -- to meet them in joy.

Note: I said aspire. It is hard. The world doesn't go away.

Now that we've described the way God wants us to greet our holidays, let's go back to the month of Tishri - including Shabbatot, this month is almost all holiday!We are still left with the question: why did God plan it this way?
It becomes obvious when we realize that Tishrei is the seventh month in the Jewish calendar.  And, it's a month that is almost all Shabbat.

We looked at two sides of holiday celebration.
The ideal is to meet them with joy and longing.
But we live in the world. This ideal IS difficult to maintain. It has always been so, even for our ancestors. I feel reasonably certain that their observance and celebration was as imperfect as ours today.

And here's the real question: How did we do as a synagogue?...

We did great, even though...
We didn't have minyanim for every service - but given our size, we did great!
Nor did we schedule all the services we might have done.
Personally ... I try very hard to stay within halachah on the holidays. And that is a joy. I'm lucky to have a job that makes it easy. And if rabbis don't do this, who will?

 BUT ... I wrote this sermon on Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Ideally, I should have done this between last Saturday night and before sundown Wednesday. After all, just as we don't write on Shabbat, we don't write on holidays.

I really wanted to write this.  I needed to write this. My own observance is hardly perfect.

True celebration and worship is a worthy aspiration. We should try as hard as we can to celebrate with full hearts.

We also recognize our limits.

Our task: every year, do our best to transcend those limits. Who knows, it might be easier than we think!

The more heart we put into our holidays, the more joy we'll reap!

Finally, why did I say that our holidays were great ... despite the limitations I mentioned?
People working together to make things happen.
Lots of warmth.
Best of all, lots of smiles!

Thank you.

Shabbat shalom