Thursday, September 14, 2017

Future Tense

This coming Shabbat, the 25th of Elul, 5777 (September 16, 2017), is the anniversary of the creation of the world. According to Talmudic tradition, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, God began to create heaven and earth. The month of Elul is a 29 day month, and if you count through the six days of creation, the 6th day of creation falls on the first of Tishri, which we call Rosh Hashanah (September 21, 2017). 

On Rosh Hashanah – the New Year – we commemorate the sixth day of creation, which is the day when Adam and Eve were created. It is for this reason that Rosh Hashanah is not a classic “calendar” New Year (it’s actually the first day of the seventh month), rather it is a day when we think about life, death and our existence as human beings. It is a day of judgment (Yom Ha-Din), and a day of remembrance (Yom Ha-Zikaron). Most powerfully, though, it is a day about the future, with the sound of the Shofar awakening us to contemplate how we plan on marching into our next year of life.

This week we are blessed with two Torah portions – Parashat Nitzavim and Parashat Vayelech – and both contain powerful expressions of forward thinking. Both are spoken by Moses, during the last few days of his life. Anticipating his own death, Moses chooses to spend his last days thinking about his people’s future.

At the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, in a farewell address to the people, Moses says “Today you are all standing before God your Lord – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, woman and child…” (Deuteronomy 29:9). Quite an impressive audience Moses is addressing. Yet despite the diversity of who is present, Moses also turns his thoughts to those who are not present: “But it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant…I am making it both with those who are standing with us today before God our Lord, and with those who are not here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). When addressing “those who are not here with us today,” who is Moses referring to? The commentator Rashi says “this is referring to the future generations.” In affirming the covenant between God and the Jewish people, Moses is reminding those who are present that they have the responsibility to think about future generations. 

Not only then, but in every generation when this Torah portion is read, Moses’ words speak to the present generation and reminds them that a responsible Jewish community is not only about the here and now, but it is also about the future. Communities that heed to Moses’ words choose to invest in their future – in youth, in young adults, and in education. Such communities are not stuck in the past, nor are they simply living for today, rather they are setting the foundations for the next generation. Especially because it is so easy to get caught up in who is present – “tribal chiefs, elders,” etc. – the true mark of success in any community is leadership that can look beyond their present audience and concern themselves with “those who are not present.”

The future is also about training leaders, assuring that each generation will benefit from the wisdom and talents of select individuals who will lead and inspire them in a visionary fashion. 

In Parashat Vayelech, Moses, who begins by saying “I am now 120 years old, and I can no longer be active” (Deuteronomy 31:2), stands before his chosen successor Joshua, “…and in the presence of all Israel, said to him ‘Be strong and brave, since you will be the one to bring this nation to the land that God swore to their fathers that He would give it to them” (Deuteronomy 31:7). Recognizing that his tenure as a leader is coming to an end, Moses stands before his people with dignity and grace, charging his successor to march forth and lead his people with courage. At the ripe old age of 120, Moses reminds us that one of the keys to the continuity of a community is leadership. What would have happened to the Jewish people had Moses not picked and trained a successor? The same thing that happens to any community that does not place leadership training as one of its top priorities: lack of direction and absence of vision. Rather than heading into the “Promised Land,” such communities often disappear into oblivion.

Sounding the Shofar stirs up many emotions within us. It makes us cry, it brings a smile to our faces, and it strengthens us with hope. In addition to all of these beautiful sentiments, may this year's sound of the Shofar inspire within us a vision to plan, build and invest in our future. 

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Lives, Who Dies: Hamilton’s Rosh Hashanah Message

Can the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” serve up some inspiration for the High Holy Days? Reflecting back on how I felt on the night of Feb. 25, 2016, on my way out of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York after seeing “Hamilton” (yes, with the full original cast!), I think the answer is yes.

“Hamilton” is a work of lyrical genius. It’s entertaining, creative and groundbreaking. But above all, Hamilton is a deep exploration of the human condition. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” These existential lyrics appear in many of the show’s songs, and the theme persists throughout the “Hamilton” experience. “Once I wrote this passage, I knew it would be the key to the whole musical,” Hamilton’s creator, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has said. The show is uplifting, depressing, funny, poignant, tragic and inspirational — all at once. The night I saw “Hamilton,” I laughed, cried, sang and felt troubled. Ultimately, I walked away still believing in humanity, filled with hope.

As I contemplate the coming High Holy Days, I look back on how I felt after seeing “Hamilton” as an ideal framework for a meaningful experience. Properly understood, Rosh Hashanah asks us to undertake a deep exploration of the human condition. Indeed, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer poses almost the exact same question as “Hamilton”: “Who shall live, who shall die?” As to “who tells your story,” the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings — like “Hamilton” — offer an honest profile of our story.

In “Hamilton,” we meet the founding fathers of America for who they really were: heroic, valiant yet flawed human beings. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is at once a larger than life, overachieving genius and a fatally flawed person whose life was scarred by dysfunctional relationships. Javier Munoz, who took over as the lead in “Hamilton” in July, believes that this honest and realistic portrayal of our nation’s founders (particularly their character flaws) is precisely why the musical’s story exerts such a potent hold on people. “They allow the audience to say, ‘I’m OK the way I am — flawed and human.’ It pulls them in closer.”

In the same spirit, the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah offer an honest portrayal of Abraham and Sarah. On a day when we contemplate our own character flaws and imperfect lives, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s troubled relationship, the complex account of Ishmael’s birth, Sarah’s disturbing expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the infamous day when Abraham almost slaughtered his own child. Despite all of this, we also look up to Abraham and Sarah as people who helped shape the religion and faith with which we identify. We tell these stories on Rosh Hashanah — the anniversary of the creation of human beings — because they remind us that all people, including those we look up to as our founding patriarchs and matriarchs, are filled with character flaws. Much like the “Hamilton” experience, worshippers who read these stories in the Torah are “pulled in closer” to one of the existential truths that lie behind the Rosh Hashanah experience: human beings are imperfect, and despite that eternal truth, we never lose hope in our potential to achieve great things.

For two and a half hours, Hamilton’s creative blend of rhythmic hip-hop lyrics, powerful musical arrangements and thought-provoking messages sent me on a journey through the full gamut of human emotions.

Properly experienced, a Rosh Hashanah service should do the same. The rhythmic lyrics of the liturgical poetry should inspire us to sing and feel uplifted, the powerful music of the shofar should bring us to tears, and the rabbi’s message should be thought provoking. If your Rosh Hashanah experience involves laughter, tears and deep contemplation, and if sometime during services you should feel troubled, inspired, worried and then hopeful, Rosh Hashanah, like “Hamilton,” will have touched the deepest recesses of your soul.

 Of all the characters in “Hamilton,” the one who touched me most deeply was George Washington (played by Chris Jackson). His commanding stage presence and soulful singing of every lyric filled me with chills and brought me to tears. I felt privileged to convey my feelings to Jackson after the show, and after meeting him, I felt he was blessed with a deeply unique spiritual quality.

I was therefore not surprised that when I read through the show’s official behind-the-scenes book “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the chapter on Jackson featured a beautiful double page photo of him and the rest of the cast backstage holding hands in a circle, their eyes closed, with Jackson leading them in a pre-show meditation (something he does before each performance). His message to his colleagues: “Let’s agree that for the next two and a half hours, this is the most important thing we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — in the audience, on the stage and in the orchestra pit — will leave the theater a better person than when they walked in.”

Let’s hope that this coming Rosh Hashanah, we can approach our services as the most important things we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — the congregants, the clergy, the volunteer ushers — will leave the synagogue a better person than when they walked in.

Let that be the story we live to tell.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Love Your Neighbor or Love Your Life? You Choose...

If you were asked to pick one verse from the Torah that captures the essence of Judaism, what would that verse be?

Three rabbinic sages in the Talmud took a shot at it. The most famous is a verse from Parashat Kedoshim, one of the two Torah portions we read this week.

In the midst of a series of commandments that reflect the Torah’s desire to create ethical relationships amongst people, the Torah commands:

“You shall love your neighbor as (you love) yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

From this verse came the oft-quoted teaching of the rabbinic sage Rabbi Akiva, who said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – This is the greatest principle of the Torah.”

Rabbi Akiva drew inspiration from Hillel, a brilliant rabbinic sage and teacher from an earlier generation. The Talmud records the famous story about Hillel and Shammai’s encounter with a potential convert to Judaism:

A certain heathen came before Shammai and said to him: “Convert me to Judaism on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai shunned him away with the stick in his hand. He then went before Hillel with the same request, and Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereof; now go and learn it.
                                                                                                (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

Rabbi Akiva’s “greatest principle of Torah” is rooted in Hillel’s teaching. Together, these two teachings form the greatest “one-two punch” of great Jewish slogans that make us proud to be Jewish. After all, these “Golden Rules” of ethics can apply to all of life, and they present such a great face for Judaism. Can there be anything greater in the Torah than Hillel and Akiba’s “Golden Rules”? Who would dare to challenge such ethical greatness?

In the face of this moral grandeur comes the rabbinic sage Ben-Azzai, who, in response to Rabbi Akiva’s “You shall love your neighbor as yourself – this is the greatest principle of the Torah,” boldly – yet peculiarly – said: “This is the Book of the Story of Adam (Genesis 5:1) – this is even a greater principle.”

What can Ben-Azzai possibly mean by this? How strange! Can you imagine? Juxtapose the “two greatest verses” in the Torah:

                        “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”


                        “This is the Book of the Story of Adam”

This does not seem to match up evenly. Looks like no contest! What lies behind Ben-Azzai’s choice of an obscure, non descript, mechanical verse from the Book of Genesis as his choice for being an “even greater principle” than loving your neighbor?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (known as “The Netziv”) offers a deep and wise insight on Ben-Azzai’s teaching.

He says that the verse “This is the Book of the Story of Adam” is not to be understood as a mechanical or descriptive verse, but as a metaphor for the human condition. “The Book of the Story of Adam” is the story of Adam’s first day on earth, which according to rabbinic tradition, started out by Adam being created in the morning, and – twelve hours later, on the very same day – Adam had already sinned and found himself expelled from Eden.

The Netziv says that “The Book” being referred to here is a story that took place in one day, a day that started out on a positive and creative note, and ended up in negativity and downfall.

“This comes to teach us life’s wisdom,” says the Netziv, “that man has the potential to destroy his lot in life in one short day.” This wisdom, according to the Netziv, is applicable to everyday life, and serves as a powerful reminder to each of us how to approach each day of our lives. Conventional wisdom often teaches, “Each day of life is a page in a book.” Ben-Azzai’s teaching, as seen by the Netziv, argues something even greater: that each day of life is a book unto its own, and man is the author of that book on a day-to-day basis. This deep self-reflective wisdom may, indeed, outshine Rabbi Akiva’s “Golden Rule.”

So what is the greatest principle of the Torah? Loving one’s neighbor? Treating each day like a complete book?

You make the decision...