Friday, August 18, 2017

The Difference Between Light and Darkness: Re'eh 2017

The Difference Between Light and Darkness
D’var Torah for Parashat Re’eh
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
August 18, 2017

The laws enumerated in the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, have been criticized as excessively strict.  This week’s portion, Re’eh (“Behold,” Deut. 11:26—16:17) is a case in point.  Referring to contemporary foreign cults and idol worship, Deuteronomy demands nothing short of complete destruction.  “You shall utterly destroy… their gods… And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place” (Deut. 12:2-3).  There is little room for doubt. The Torah states its case clearly, without equivocation or ambiguity.

However, the harshness of these decrees must be viewed in light of the times in which they were written.

Around the year 900 BCE, following a period of great civil unrest, the Kingdom of David broke into two parts: the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah.  Nearly two centuries later, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom, and now they set their eyes on the bigger prize, Jerusalem.  With the threat of war and destruction imminent, terror gripped the Judeans and some went as far as to offer prayer and sacrifice to just about anything and everything under the sun. 

In the general disarray, many cast justice aside, and there were even those who sought to reap fortunes from the chaos and confusion.  God’s commandments of compassion and kindness were abandoned.  Laws governing civil behavior—including rules regulating the harsh and inhumane treatment of slaves (the labor force of the time)—were no longer observed or enforced.  The earth’s resources were being depleted with little concern for conservation and replenishment. The entire civilization was in danger of collapsing from within.  It was with this in mind that the Deuteronomist warned:  “You shall not do as all the things that we do here this day, every man [doing] what he deems fit“ (Deut. 12:8). 

This portion does not mince words.  There IS right and wrong, it says.  Especially at times of upheaval, when moral direction fades and people take to doing as they see fit, there can be no equivocation, no obfuscation of the law in such a way as to permit violence and hate. At such times, the moral compass must be realigned, leaving little room for doubt, to establish clearly and for the ages the difference between right and wrong, between holy and evil.

Now nearly three thousand years later, it seems that the common saying, “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” still stands true.

In the past decades we have seen many changes in our lives. Globalization and the high tech revolution have brought about vast fluctuations in the job and production markets. Medical breakthroughs have extended life expectancy, but not without a huge increase in the expenses associated with living longer.

The 20th century saw other changes as well—ancient empires crumbled and fell; new nations emerged; alliances shifted; power changed hands.

In America, the vast social turmoil that followed World War II reached a peak in the 1960’s, with groups that had previously been marginalized and discriminated against now claiming their rightful place in society and the economy. African-Americans, women, the LGBTQ community, Hispanics, Jews and other minorities demanded equal rights and wider recognition for their contributions to this great country.

Now, half a century later, the pendulum seems to have swung back again.  Aided and abetted by religious extremism and nationalistic fanaticism, reactionary right-wing populism is sweeping the world.  Today, what began as a grassroots movement has become a wildfire that threatens the very core of America’s soul. 

The election of Donald Trump galvanized and energized groups that until recently had been relegated to the fringes of society.  There is a direct line of relationship between Nazi Germany and this summer’s double vandalism at the Boston Holocaust Memorial.  There is a clear line between racist lynchings in the 1920’s and the June 2015 massacre of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by white supremacist Dylan Roof.  And all these lines of evil came together last Friday night, exactly one week ago, at the Alt-Right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA.

For many of these hate groups, Trump’s election was seen as a personal affirmation.  And Trump’s failure last Saturday to denounce the Nazis and white supremacist marchers, and in fact his praise, three days later, of the “very fine people” who supposedly were also there amongst the torch-bearing, anti-Semitic epithet-spitting mob, drew words of thanks and high praise from David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

What Trump angrily and repeatedly emphasized was that there was violence on both sides of the Charlottesville rally. That much is true. It is also true that historically there have been—and still are—leftist extremists who have resorted to violence.  But to equate between them all is to make a mockery of right and wrong.  There can be no equivalence between a group that preaches bigotry and hate, and a counter-group that calls for inclusiveness and diversity.  There is a world of difference between racist neo-Nazis, and those who would resist their hateful, murderous ideology.  To equate between “all sides” is in fact to allow each person to do as “he deems fit” and to encourage even more acts of evil, violence and hate.

This is the message of Re’eh, “Behold,” a message that is as true today as it was three thousand years ago. There can be no equivalence.  There IS right and wrong in this world. And now is the time to clarify, not to obfuscate, the world of difference between them.

It’s the difference between light and darkness, between life and destruction.  It’s an ancient lesson, yet one that our country needs to embrace now more than ever.  It’s our very soul that is at stake.

May the lights of these Shabbat candles show us the way to the promised lights of an even greater Shabbat, a great Sabbath that will shine brightly with justice and compassion, with kindness and love between all God’s creatures, for all of God’s creation.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.  Amen.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, July 7, 2017

One God, One People: Balak.17

One God, One People: Balak
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
July 7, 2017

The morning prayers of our Jewish rituals begin with the famous line, “How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob, thy tabernacles, O Israel!”  The verse comes from this week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2—25:9), as part of the prophecy of Balaam, the blind seer enlisted by the king of Moab to curse Israel.  From high on top the mountains of Moab, where Balaam could view the entire Israelite camp, the curse he had intended to cast was turned into the famous blessing.

“How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob, thy tabernacles, O Israel!” This verse comes to mind every time I fly to Israel.  As the plane completes its descent over the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Tel Aviv appears like a beautiful vision, its houses, tall skyscrapers and roads spread like a living magic carpet.

Tel Aviv is the first modern city built in Israel.  Founded in 1909, its name combines the old (tel, an ancient archeological mound) and the new (aviv, spring).  Today, more than a hundred years after its first houses were built on sand dunes, Tel Aviv truly has come to be what its founders had in mind.  Ultra modern steel and glass structures vie with older two- and three-story buildings with those rounded corner balconies that typify Bauhaus architecture.  Multi-lane super highways intersect narrow, winding roads that bear the names of the earliest pioneers.  Young yet firm saplings stand next to twisted, bent sycamores whose leafy branches provide wide shade from the merciless rays of the hot summer sun.

The aging population of the older sections of the city is slowly giving way to a vibrant segment of students and business people whose lifestyle has given the city its nickname, The White City—the city that never sleeps, where restaurants and pubs stay open through the night and where the traffic never stops.

Down on the ground, the neat patterns observed from above give way to a hodgepodge that defies any semblance of order.  And yet the city continues to burgeon and grow, with 41% of Israel’s population now living in Tel Aviv and its environs.

It’s a mixed multitude that lives here; nationalities can be identified not only by the many languages one can hear on the street, but also by the many types of foods.  Opinions and attitudes span the gamut, and politics—everybody’s favorite (and loudest) topic of discussion and argument—range from one extreme to another.

Truth be told, the Jewish people has never been easily defined by either identity or culture.  Even in the famous verse from this Torah portion, we are identified by two names: Jacob and Israel.  The 12 tribes that once formed our ancient people have, in modern Israel, turned into more than 30 political parties!  Yet they are all united by one concept: the need to exist and survive.

Israel is surrounded by enemies who have taken an eternal vow to destroy the Jewish State.  And yet the majority of Israelis feel secure within their borders, confident that the IDF—the Israel Defense Force—holds a military and intelligence superiority that holds back all enemies.

This confidence, however, isn’t share by all Jews.  Half of the Jewish people live outside the State of Israel, and their perception is much less secure.  The fault lines between Israeli Jews and Jews of the Diaspora lie along societal, religious and political lines, at times forming a gulf that seems unbridgeable.  In my many trips back and forth, I have come to understand how differently the two groups view their existence.  For one thing, Israeli Jews cannot understand what it means to be a minority. Diaspora Jews, on the other hand, both in the US and certainly in Europe, know that feeling all too well.

For many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, the Six Day War represents a crucial benchmark.  For the most part, those born after the 1967 war have no idea how close to destruction the State of Israel was then.  There is little memory of the mass graves that were dug in the sands outside Tel Aviv in the terrified expectation of the number of civilian casualties Israel feared it would suffer. 

Along religious and political lines the differences are just as marked.  Separation of State and Church—a hallmark of American political thinking—does not exist in Israel.  The current government of Israel consists of a coalition that includes ultra-Orthodox parties that hold wide sway over many aspects of life—to the chagrin of the largely secular population. 

The differences between us sometimes threaten our unity, and that, along with the reemergence of anti-Semitism, poses one of the greatest dangers that the Jewish People face today.  This is partially due to political and social changes, but also because of the proliferation of extremism on the Internet and social media. There is little nuance or subtlety in an anonymous world where almost anything is possible and everything is permissible. 

But we must never let the differences between us outweigh our unity.  Judaism is more than a set of laws and rituals dictated from above.  There is no dogma that mandates uniformity of belief.  Judaism is both a way of thinking and a way of life founded on a core of common beliefs.  But plurality, adaptability and acceptance are also built into the system, permitting a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. This has always been part of our people’s strength and one of the sources of our creativity and inspiration.

To the untrained eye, this may seem jumbled and confusing, but from higher up—from the top of a mountain, from a jet or from heaven itself—the tents of Jacob and the tabernacles of Israel are indeed wonderful. The many colors are striking; the varieties of languages, foods, music and art are stunning.  To the politically na├»ve, Israel’s government system may seem baffling, but in its diversity one finds true freedom.

It is no coincidence that Balaam’s prophecy employs the word “tabernacles” as a synonym to “tents.”  During Israel’s wanderings in the Sinai Wilderness, the Tabernacle was the dwelling place of God among the People.  Today, it is still the place where Jews come together not only to worship God’s oneness, but also to celebrate the opinionated, diverse, multi-cultural, multi-faceted and beautiful unity of our Jewish People. 

It is a unity that must not, and cannot, ever be permitted to shatter.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

Friday, June 23, 2017

Man Of God, Man Of The People: A Tale Of Two Brothers--Korach.17

Man Of God, Man Of The People: A Tale Of Two Brothers
D’var Torah for Parashat Korach
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
June 24, 2017

Since olden times, in trying to make Torah more easily grasped, rabbis, teachers and even artists have attempted to distill its core and craft it into something like a Readers’ Digest version, one that omits the details while yet retaining the essence.

The famous story from the Talmud of Hillel and Shammai, the two leading rabbis of the early 1st century, is an example.  In this story, a heathen approaches Shammai and asks to be taught the entire Torah while “standing on one foot.” The stricter of the two rabbis, Shammai, repulses the man with a builder’s yardstick.  The heathen then approaches Hillel with the same request.  The gentler Hillel teaches him: “What is hateful unto you do not do to anyone else; that is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.” That is indeed a pretty good distillation of the Torah’s teaching.

I make no claims upon a shorter, more concise or abbreviated version of the Five Books of Moses.  I do, however, have two images in mind that illustrate what I see as the revolutionary message of the Torah and Judaism.

The first image is that of Moses parting the Red Sea.  In this powerful scene, Moses is instructed by God to lift his staff and extend his hand over the sea. The image has been illustrated countless times.  Retold over and again, it is embedded in our minds, recalling the Exodus, that great moment in our people’s history that crowns Israel’s emergence from slavery to freedom.

Less frequently repeated is another image, one found in this week’s Torah portion, Korach (Numbers 16:1—18:32).  Like his cousins Moses and Aaron, Korach was a Levite.  Disgruntled at being passed over for a position of greater power, Korach leads an armed rebellion.  Though he and his men end up being swallowed up by the earth, Korach’s rebellion is not over. The next day, the Israelites gang up on Moses and Aaron, blaming them for the catastrophe.  Displeased, God causes a plague to break out in the camp, triggering even more death and destruction.

It is at this moment that Moses—Moses, not God—sends Aaron on a mission. “Take your censer, your incense burner, take fire from the altar and go out among the people, for the plague has broken.”  Without a moment’s hesitation, Aaron obeys. He runs out into the conflagration and, standing “between the dead and the living,” holds up high his censer, putting a halt to the plague.

This image of Aaron standing in the midst of the chaos, between life and death, between darkness and light, is one that stands out for me more than almost any other in the Torah.

Moses and Aaron, two brothers, each fulfilling a sacred mission:  Each is grasping in his hand the tool that represents his task.  In Moses’s hand is the shepherd’s staff; Aaron holds the incense burner, symbol of his role as the High Priest.  Moses holds his staff high over the waters of the Red Sea; Aaron holds his censer up for the people to see.  The miracle that each performs is so great that in both cases the Israelites are saved from impending disaster and their faith in God is restored.

The images are similar, and yet the differences between them are telling.

Moses at the Red Sea is an extension of God’s might.  His outstretched arm reminds the people of God’s might.  Though it is a powerful image, it isn’t new to them.  They have seen Moses communing with God; they have seen him descend from Mount Sinai holding the Ten Commandments. More than anyone else before or after him, Moses is the quintessential Man of God.

Aaron, on the other hand, is a man of the people.  He knows the people well. He grew up among them—a slave, not a prince.  He suffered Pharaoh’s cruelty when Moses had run away from it.  Aaron understands the people’s passion, their jealousy, their doubts and their fears. His love for them comes from the common fate and life they shared.  And so, without giving a second thought to the danger he was putting himself in, Aaron runs to his people and plants himself squarely “between the dead and the living,” as though to stem with his own body the raging plague.

That, to me, is the essence of the Torah’s teaching, for it says to me that prayer is not enough. It isn’t enough to simply have faith in God; one must also follow through with acts of courage, loving-kindness and, sometimes, even self-sacrifice.

Moses was a unique, singular human being.  No one else ever saw God’s face or conversed with God as one would with one’s fellow.  But Aaron stands for each one of us.  If Moses is the quintessential Man of God, Aaron is the true model of a Man of the People. 

“Be of the disciples of Aaron,” the rabbis teach us.  And what they mean by this is that we must do more than merely bond in faith with God.  God’s goal for the People of Israel is to be a holy nation, a nation of priests.  And what that means is that we must be there for one another; to tend to our fellow human being; to feel his or her pain; to listen to their plaints; to offer a compassionate heart and a helping hand; to give them hope when hope is lost.

The two images—of Moses holding up his staff and Aaron, his censer—convey the revolutionary message of the Torah: that holiness is as much in God’s hands as it is in ours, and that the one does not exist without the other.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Commencement Speech I Would Have Given: Shavuot 2017

The Commencement Speech I Would Have Given:  Shavuot 5777
By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
June 2, 2017

In a mock-commencement speech recently aired on the Stephen Colbert Late Show, comedian Hannibal Buress had some pretty depressing advice.  “Just know,” he said, “it’s statistically impossible for all of you to succeed.  That’s just life.  So good luck, or whatever.”

As humor goes, I’m not sure how great this line is.  Maybe it works better in context of the overall routine.  The Late Show, after all, is comedy, and often it’s very funny. 

And in a way, despite the gloomy send-off, perhaps there’s some wisdom in this advice.  After all, life is tough, and most fields are already crowded with people willing to do just about anything to succeed.  We shouldn’t lose sight of this. 

Still, even for a comedy show, in addressing a group of people who had just spent a fortune in time, money and hard work; who invested a tremendous amount of faith and hope; and who now, diplomas finally in hand, are facing the uncertain prospect of putting their education to practical use, a word of encouragement would probably go a lot farther than a dismissive dose of depressing reality.

The problem is in how we define success and how we go about achieving it.

For some, “success” is synonymous with power and money. It means having all you could possibly want or desire. It means being famous, number one, at the top of your field, with a million followers, surrounded by a fiefdom of yes-men and –women, all eager to satisfy your every whim and wish at a snap of the fingers. 

To achieve this goal, there are some who are willing to do just about anything.  They’ll spend outrageous fortunes to get there.  Some lie and cheat along the way, or take illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Some see nothing wrong with pushing others out of their way so they can stand up front and center, closer to the glare of the media, always in the public eye.

The problem with this system is, we can never have enough.  Whether it’s money, power, or fame, we always seem to want more.  There’s always someone ahead of us, always someone who seems to have more of what we want.

So inevitably, at some point or another, our pursuit turns futile, and we either wake up to this truth or we get crushed by it. 

But there are other standards by which we can measure success, and other, more certain, ways of reaching our goals.

A rabbinic midrash tells that when God wanted to give humanity the Ten Commandments, God searched far and wide for a people who would be willing to accept them.  However, one group after another refused God’s offer, preferring instead to follow more worldly pursuits.  It was only the Jewish People who agreed, sight unseen, to accept God’s commandments and observe them faithfully.

Maybe that accounts for the high success rate among Jews.  Through our Covenant, we have a closer, more immediate relationship with God, with an extra measure of blessing. Just note the number of Jewish Nobel prizes winners, or the number of successful Jewish lawyers, doctors, teachers and businessmen in our country. 

Or perhaps consider for a moment the fact that Judaism is the third oldest extant religion, the third longest—and still-practiced! —way of life in the whole world, just behind the Chinese and Hindus—two groups that together add up to about 50%, half of the world’s population.  Yet the Jews, who account for less than one-quarter of one percent, have managed, against all odds, despite persecution and exile, and even despite the terrible Holocaust of the previous century, to reach the respectable age of 3,600 years old, and still going strong.  Now that’s success!

Many people have wondered at this astonishing statistic.  Some ascribe it to DNA and good genes; some go ahead and call it God’s blessing.  There are others, however, who see more sinister forces behind our success.

But there is really nothing mysterious here.  The truth is that when the Hebrew Nation accepted the Covenant with God, we took upon ourselves more than a religion, more than a set of customs, rituals and beliefs.  We became an eternal people, a community that transcends time and space.  In accepting the Commandments, we became a nation defined by our values: Law, justice, compassion, freedom and hope.

The Jewish People accepted the Ten Commandments on faith, but we did not become blind followers of the law.  Part of our success is due to our having learned to examine the law, to cast aside irrational opinion and ancient prejudice, and instead adapt the law to the times and conditions we live in. 

Once, on a visit to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, I was astounded to see a copy of Darwin’s The Origin Of Species, translated into Yiddish.  The Jewish People, while obstinately holding on to our ancient customs and way of life, have always also kept pace with new discoveries and new knowledge.  We explore; we question and inquire; we imagine and we create.  We never stop our quest for truth and knowledge.

The secret of our success is two-fold: It’s in the values we uphold, and in the ways we reach our goals.

The values come down to us through our prayers and through our ancient texts, where we learn what it is that God wants from us: To extend a helpful hand to the needy; to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to bring light and education to benighted cultures and civilizations.

And we reach these goals by also following the guidelines the Torah teaches us.  There’s no magic there.  Our success isn’t the result of cheating, lying or some other illicit behavior.  Rather, it’s because we do not belittle others or mock them. We do not take advantage of the weak—we help them instead.  Recognizing the Image of God in every human being, we enable everyone to help the community in any way they can. Seeing God’s hand in every living creature, we take care of the world around us and make it better for all.

That is the secret of our people’s success through the past three and a half millennia. 

This, then would be my advice to today’s graduates.  I would tell them that success isn’t only measured by how much money you make or by how many possessions you accumulate.  I would quote the passage from Pirkei Avot, the tractate from the Mishnah that in English we call “The Chapters of the Fathers.”  There we learn:

Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…
Who is brave? The one who controls his or her passions…
Who is rich? The one who appreciates what he has…
Who is honored? The one who honors others…

Measured by these standards, we all actually can succeed.  It isn’t luck, only perseverance.  Stay on the right path, but be willing to make corrections along the way.  Life ahead may yet be uncharted, but using the guidelines our people accepted so long ago will help you navigate through the storms, through the wilderness. 

There is a traditional blessing we say whenever we finish studying a book of the Torah, and today we address these words to all our students, both those who are graduating this year and those who are still on their exciting path of discovery and exploration: Chazak chazak v’nitchazek—“Be strong and of good courage, and we shall all be strengthened together.” 

Congratulations, and may you go from strength to strength.

© 2017 by Boaz D. Heilman