Thursday, October 26, 2017

Time Capsules

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time capsules, the notion of packing up the specific things that most potently and meaningfully symbolize the culture of some specific place and time and sending them off to the future either by actually shipping them out—like the so-called “golden record” packed into both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to bring evidence of the earth’s culture to whatever alien civilizations they encounter when for the first time they come within a couple of light-years of a star around which revolve at least some earth-like planets in about 40,000 years—or merely by burying it in the ground for future generations to unearth and enjoy, like the one manufactured by Westinghouse and buried on the site of the World’s Fair in in 1939 with the intention that it remain sealed for five thousand years and then opened in 6939. What 70th century residents of Queens will actually do with a Sears Roebuck catalogue, of course, remains to be seen. Maybe they’ll order some thing from Sears!

There are a lot of these things, actually. Some are huge. The “Crypt of Civilization” time capsule created between 1937 and 1940 at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven, Georgia, for example, is actually a large room crammed full of things (including a set of Lincoln Logs, a bottle of Budweiser beer, an adding machine, some Artie Shaw records, and a baby’s pacifier, among thousands of other things including about 650,000 pages of microfilmed books and other documents), and is scheduled—if that is the right word, since there’s obviously no one to schedule it with—to be opened only on May 28, 8113. (The date was chosen because it was as far into the future as written historical records were believed at the time to bring us back into the past.) Others, of course, are much smaller. But all were created intentionally for the purpose of communicating through the transmission of specific things with people in the distant future.

And then there are accidental time capsules, rooms or boxes of things that were not set aside to communicate with the future…but which somehow managed to remain intact over centuries and thus successfully to offer people of a different time and place a glimpse into a world that would otherwise be lost to them almost entirely.

The Cairo Genizah would be the best example of such an inadvertent time capsule. Constituted of more than 300,000 documents that were stored haphazardly in a back room of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo, the Genizah was neither hidden from view nor intentionally preserved for future readers…but ended up nonetheless providing a bird’s eye view into Jewish life from the ninth through the nineteenth centuries. Of particular interest were documents that provided a sense of what life was like for Jewish communities in North Africa and in the Mediterranean basin from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. The richness of the documents cannot be overstated: countless Jewish communities that were presumed to have left nothing at all behind emerged from the Genizah in all of their variegated richness. Personal letters, bills, contracts, k’tubbot, communal records, religious tracts, court records, children’s notebooks, prayerbooks—scholars whose names will forever be linked to the Genizah like Solomon Schechter or Shlomo Dov Goitein managed to rescue entire communities from oblivion merely by reading their literary detritus, much of it the kind of thing we routinely discard today either by burying it or just by pitching it in the trash once it’s been digitized. (To learn more, I suggest reading Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah, published by Schocken in 2011 and very enjoyable and interesting.)

About five years ago, the world learned of a second such treasure trove, the so-called Afghan Genizah, a storehouse of thousands of Jewish documents and manuscripts, some of them more than a thousand years old, that were found in caves that the Taliban had been using as hide-outs. (Click here to see the article on the find published in 2013 in the Daily Mail in the U.K.) How exactly the cache of documents was found and by whom, and how they were brought out of the country remains unknown—and not only to me personally. Some choice documents were purchased—although it was not made public from whom—by the National Library of Israel. (Click here for a very interesting CBS News account of the library’s coup in acquiring these documents, which also fails to say how exactly they bought them and from whom.) But this “Afghan Genizah” is another example of an inadvertent time capsule, one that somehow managed to do what “real” time capsules are meant to do—convey the physical evidence of a thriving, rich, vibrant civilization now vanished almost entirely without a trace to people living long afterwards who would otherwise have known nothing at all about it.

And now I come to the real topic of this week’s letter: the treasure trove of documents unearthed just a few months ago in a church basement in Vilnius, Lithuania. What’s actually going on is hard to say. In 1991, a similar trove of documents was found in the same church basement…and now, 26 years later, they’ve found even more. (You have to wonder how big that basement is exactly. The new cache is made up about 170,000 pages of material, not exactly something you could overlook in a box in some corner!) But, whatever, the material has been announced…and its story is both arresting and horrific at the same time. The Nazis, as is well known, were planning to create some sort of ghoulish museum and research center in Frankfurt relating to the Jewish people once they finally finished exterminating them and, to that future end, an effort was made to gather together a trove of Jewish documents, artifacts, books, religious appurtenances, and manuscripts for use in this future archive. More weirdly still, a team of about forty Jewish scholars was appointed to gather this material in Vilnius—and kept safe from deportation to the camps until their work was done. (One, at least—the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever—actually survived the war and went on to a career as a well-known poet in Israel, where he died in 2010 at age 96.)

That much was known all along. But what was not known was that these same scholars used the limited time they had been given to spirit away hundreds of thousands of documents that they hid wherever they could in the city, mostly in underground bunkers and in remote attics. Even in the context of the Shoah, the fate of the Jews of Vilna is horrific: at least 90% of the pre-war Jewish population of 160,000 souls was murdered by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. The rest of the story is also fascinating. When the Red Army liberated Vilnius, some of the material was sent to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, whereupon a Lithuanian librarian named Antanas Ulpis started scouring Vilnius for more hidden Jewish documents, which he then gathered in the basement of the Church of St. George, where they remained for decades. The archive seems then to have been totally forgotten so that, when Lithuania became an independent country after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a quarter of a million pages of material were “discovered” in the church’s basement and transferred to the National Library of Lithuania. That was enough of a miracle…but now, all these years later, still more documents have been “discovered.” That’s a lot of “discovering” for hundreds of thousands of documents that weren’t hidden in the first place! But whatever the real story turns out to be, the bottom line is that the entire archive—all 420,000 pages of it—will now be housed in the National Library of Lithuania, where they will be digitized for use by scholars and general readers all over the world.

And what do we see when we peer through the looking-glass at a city that was once one of the most vibrant of all Jewish cities, the city that Napoleon (of all people) once referenced as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”? It will take decades before anyone wades through all of this material, but some treasures have already been announced. A postcard written by Chagall. Five different notebooks of poems by Chaim Grade, perhaps the greatest of all twentieth-century Jewish authors. Some unknown letters by Sholom Aleichem. And the autobiography of Bebe Epshtein, a fifth grader writing in 1933. She must have been about ten years old then, which makes it unlikely she survived to adulthood. (She would be 94 if she were alive. I suppose she could be! But she hasn’t come forward. And the chances of her having survived are very slight.) What is chilling about her book—which will surely eventually be published in its entirety—is its ability to remind us, yet again, that the communities destroyed by the Nazis were populated not by professional martyrs but by regular people, by families whose daughters attended the fifth grade in the Yiddish School on Makove Street that Bebe attended and who fully expected to live long enough to enjoy seeing their children grow to adulthood and produce their own families.

Judging from the media coverage, the world is—at least so far—mostly interested in the recovered artifacts that relate one way or the other to famous people like Sholom Aleichem. But far more interesting to me personally is the material that relates to regular people, to parents and children, to teachers and pupils, to shopkeepers and their customers. In the same way that the greatness of the Cairo Genizah does not rest in the blockbuster finds that made it famous—the handwritten letters by Maimonides, for example—but rather in the portrait the huge number of documents relating to non-famous people creates of a vibrant, rich society existing in its time and place, this second trove of documents in Vilnius is going to be primarily important for the portrait it will offer of a culturally rich and dynamic community that was utterly destroyed in a tidal wave of violence and destructive zeal the likes of which the world hadn’t ever seen before and will, I hope, never see again.

I’ve occasionally asked myself what I would put in my own personal time capsule if I wanted to leave some trace of myself for my descendants in the thirty-first or forty-first century to ponder. My answer so far: a thumb drive with everything I’ve ever written on it, another with all our family’s photographs, my grandparents’ naturalization certificates, a video clip of me performing “A Rabbi Who’s Conservative”…and a sample of my DNA. That should do it!  

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sensitivity and Reasonableness

I’ve been watching with interest the national debate about the ideal fate of statues in prominent places that serve to glorify as heroes the Confederate military and political leaders who fought both for the right of states to secede from the union and for their citizenry to own slaves.

Clearly, it was the Charlottesville march in August—which was formally organized in the first place to protest that city’s decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee—that gave the whole effort to deal with these statues one way or the other its feel of urgency. And, although the eventual fate of that specific statue remains unresolved, the fracas in Virginia prompted decisions in many municipalities and in several states, including New York, to remove similar kinds of statues and memorials. And further decisions are pending in many other jurisdictions, primarily but not at all exclusively in the South.  Nor does this national disinclination to fill our public places with monuments to the memory of individuals deemed unworthy of the honor just have to do with Confederate generals or officers in the Confederate government any longer—there are movements afoot now to remove statutes honoring Christopher Columbus, venerated in my childhood as the “discoverer” of the Americas but now recalled in many circles chiefly as an imperialist and colonialist who brought chiefly misery to the native peoples he “discovered” in the course of his travels.  Just this morning, in fact, I became aware of the effort underway to remove a bust currently on display on Fifth Avenue that honors Dr. J. Marion Sims, the physician revered by many as the father of modern gynecology and a brilliant innovator in women’s health issues but condemned by others for his use of female slaves as the subjects in his experiments. (For more about the Sims controversy, click here to see a very interesting essay published in the Journal of Medical Ethics on the topic.) Still, it is with respect to personalities connected with the Confederate States of America that the issue is at its most volatile, and by far.

Writing as a Jewish American, it’s interesting—and more than a bit validating—to see people caring about an issue like this at all.  

In our community, after all, we have always been expected not to care when we walk past churches that glorify the name of Martin Luther, a rabid anti-Semite whose solution to the Jewish problem, as he saw it, was to advocate that synagogues be burnt to the ground, that Jewish prayerbooks be incinerated, that rabbis be forbidden to preach in public, that Jewish property and wealth be seized, that Jewish homes be razed, and, ultimately, that the Jews of Germany be murdered if they decline to convert to Christianity. So how do I feel when I walk past a church that untroubledly self-defines as “Lutheran” as though that were just a reference to some abstruse version of Protestant theology promulgated by the church’s founder centuries ago? About the same way, I’m guessing, the Jews of Kiev feel walking daily past the great monument in St. Sofia Square to the memory of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, remembered by Jewish Ukrainians as the leader of the seventeenth-century uprising that resulted in the destruction of about 300 Jewish communities and the massacre of something like 100,000 Jewish souls—a calamity so shocking in its day that contemporary authors likened the devastation to the destruction of Jerusalem in ancient times.  Or how English Jews feel when they walk past the statue in Burgh-le-Marsh honoring the memory of King Edward I, who expelled the Jews of England from their homes and their homeland in 1290—ancient history to most Britons, perhaps, but just yesterday for students of Jewish history. Or when Jews living in or visiting Spain walk past statues, like the one in Cordoba, honoring the memory of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella—whose horrific decree of expulsion brought such unimaginable misery to uncountable Spanish Jews in 1492. Or how the Jews of Rivne would respond, had they only not all been murdered, when walking past the bust of Simon Petliura erected in their own home town that blithely overlooks his role in the 1919 pogroms that took the lives of somewhere between 30 and 50 thousand Jews in Ukraine…including in Rivne itself. Or how the Jews of Vinnytsia, also in Ukraine, would have responded—had they too not all been killed by the Nazis in 1942—when a new statue honoring Petliura was unveiled in that town just last Monday.

You see where I’m going with this. We’ve gotten used to walking past these horrors—not to mention walking past Ford dealerships without recalling Henry Ford’s deeply-felt anti-Semitism or past the mural honoring Charles Lindbergh that featured prominently at the San Diego International Airport without pausing to be offended the man’s unapologetic anti-Semitism…or, for that matter, past the bust of Ezra Pound, an open Nazi sympathizer and vocal anti-Semite, in—of all places—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C  All of this has become so natural for us, that it sounds—even to me—slightly childish even to bring any of this up for discussion. Do we really expect the Lutheran Church to change its name merely because it is named after a rabid Jew-hater? Clearly, we do not. (Speaking honestly and taking into account the Lutheran Church’s unapologetic anti-Israelism, why would we?) But maybe this would be a good moment to rethink that kind of timid acquiescence to the celebration of wicked individuals merely because they also did some praiseworthy things.

I’ve seen the point made in a dozen essays in these last week that there are no Hitler memorials in Germany today for two simple reasons: because such monuments would be illegal under German law (click here for a very interesting Politico essay by Joshua Zeitz comparing the way Germans deal with the heritage of Nazism and the way our Southern states do or could deal with the heritage of the Confederacy), but also because a huge and decisive percentage of today’s Germans are interested in profoundly distancing themselves from their Nazi past, not in embracing it. That is surely true, and for both those reasons, but the model doesn’t quite fit the controversy regarding the Confederate monuments in our country, and for the simple reason that the American relationship to the Civil War is, I believe, infinitely more complex than the contemporary German attitude towards the Second World War.

It is widely believed today that the Civil War was “about” slavery more than any other issue. But I can remember clearly being taught in eleventh grade that slavery itself was just a side issue and that the real issue being adjudicated on the nation’s battlefields was whether the nation was going to be a union of independent states able to come and go at will or a unified country willing to fight for its national integrity and from which no state had the right to secede. That view has obviously been seriously modified over the years, but I think I understand where it was coming from: we were taught to look past the slavery issue precisely so that we would find the war—and thus war itself—truly tragic. (I was, after all, learning about the Civil War precisely as the Vietnam War was unfolding day by day on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers and night by night on its television screens. And that, as people my age will recall, dominated everything…most definitely including the way history was taught to us in high school.) Nor did the point itself feel all that exaggerated: wasn’t our own country, after all, founded on the self-arrogated right claimed by the thirteen colonies to secede from Britain merely because the citizenry felt that it had become necessary “for one people to dissolve the political bands which…connected them to another and to assume…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them”?  It’s a challenging question to ponder, and so much so that the long-standing debate whether slave-owning Virginians like Washington and Jefferson would have supported or opposed the right of the southern states to secede never seems to end too conclusively. Clearly, the goal—the educational goal, I mean—of the history curriculum in high school was to make us feel more uncertain about the argument that the Civil War was justified than proud that the “right” side won.

Today, of course, it is commonplace to understand that the whole issue of secession, and thus the Civil War itself, was ultimately about the right to own slaves. (Click here for a very reasonable exposition of that argument prepared by the National Parks Service.) But people my age, taught that the Civil War was really about states’ rights, tend to think ambivalently about personalities like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It seems to me that we need to move past that ambivalence as we consider the fate of these statues. The ones mourning the horrific loss of life—and there were almost 300,000 dead on the Confederate side, almost all of them young men—should be maintained as parallel memorials to those dedicated to the dead on the Union side. But those celebrating individuals who led the Confederacy to fight for the right to dismember the union and thus to preserve their right to own slaves should be moved to museums where they can be viewed contemplatively in a context that recalls the past clearly without honoring the individuals themselves. In the end, the debate about these statues will serve a very positive role if it challenges us to renew our commitment to racial equality, to the eradication of race-based discrimination, and to a celebration of national unity. And also to a clearer understanding of what led to the bloodiest of all American conflicts, one that ultimately cost the lives of almost a million of our co-citizens, and how it could possibly have been averted had cooler heads prevailed.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Simchat Torah 2017

As so, as it finally begins to feel like autumn out there, we come to the end of our cycle of fall festivals with a slightly mismatched couple: Shemini Atzeret (our most obscure holiday) and Simchat Torah (in many ways our most joyous one). I’ll speak in shul about the nature of Shemini Atzeret, the redoubtable “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly,” and the specific reason we recite the Yizkor service on that day despite its proximity to Yom Kippur, when we also recite it. But since I more or less never have the chance to speak from the bimah about Simchat Torah, I’d like to write a bit about that festival here in this space.

It is, by all accounts, a relatively late addition to our festal calendar, a holiday not only unmentioned in the Bible but also unknown to the sages of the Talmud. And yet Simchat Torah has surely found its place in Jewish life, this annual celebration of the lectionary cycle that begins and ends on the same day as we wrap up our annual reading of the Torah with the last words in the scroll and immediately begin reading anew from a scroll pre-rolled to its very first lines.  I believe, in fact, that it is from that specific detail—not just that we finish reading the Torah each year and start reading again, but that we do so in contiguous aliyot on the same day so that the seam between last year’s reading and this year’s is somehow both obvious and barely perceptible—that the charm of the festival derives. That, after all, creates an interesting relationship between the way we live our lives and the way we relate to the Torah that guides those same lives forward, the former best conceptualized as a straight line that we follow forward through the years of our lives and the latter, more reasonably as an endlessly rotating circle that takes us back and back again to the same stories, the same laws, the same poems, and the same prophecies regarding a future that never seems quite to arrive.

The Torah is thus a text fixed in place, an unchanging foundation stone that rotates in place so that all of its facets and details end up on display on at least once in the course of the year but which itself, for all it endlessly revolves, does not itself undergo any sort of aging process. Perhaps the best model would be the earth itself, which rotates endlessly on its axis but which undergoes change so subtly and over such impossibly long periods of time that only in our own day have scientists become able to perceive those changes at all. The Torah works the same way. Our interpretations may develop over time, but the laws themselves are the same ones that challenged our ancestors millennia ago. The stories that we find either satisfying or troubling are also the same ones those same forebears contemplated annually as some baal koreh or another read them to them aloud. But it is precisely that combination of cyclicality and immutability, particularly when considered against the vagaries of Jewish history, that lends such romance—and also such noble grandeur—to our endless effort to keep reading, continually to confront the same texts over and over, to allow ourselves to live within the Torah in some analogous way to how the scrolls themselves live among us—physically in the Holy Arks in our sanctuaries and emotionally in our hearts and minds.

The Torah does not change, but we do. And as we grow through the years of our lives, we don’t alter slightly or inconsequentially, but meaningfully and dramatically.  That, in and of itself, is hardly an innovative thought—that we change as we grow older—nor is it a feature of life that we do not share with other people. But although all people grow from stage to stage as they become older, not everybody has a background against which to age that itself is fixed in place and unchanging in quite the way our Torah is. And so, as we hear these stories that do not change while we ourselves are in a state of ongoing metamorphosis, the Torah becomes the backdrop to our lives and the unchanging standard against which we measure our growth through the decades. When measured against the endless progression of Torah readings, the questions that present themselves as we grow older are, to say the very least, challenging ones. Have we become wiser or more foolish as the years have passed? Have we internalized the Torah’s deepest lessons by allowing the text to frame the way we see the world and to animate our understanding of our place in the world…or have we allowed familiarity to make us deaf to those lessons and unresponsive to their implications? Are we still as worthy of hearing the lessons read aloud each week as we were as younger people…or have we allowed the endless repetition of the same passages to lull us into a spiritual stupor, if not actually to put us to sleep? In other words, does the course of our lives forward through the years reflect the background that the ever-ongoing public reading of the Torah affords us…or have we come merely to pay lip service to the idea that the Torah is the foundation upon which the house of the House of Israel rests?

And that brings me to Simchat Torah, because it is that precise combination of flux and fixity, of change and changelessness, that the festival celebrates—for me personally, at least—the most meaningfully. There is a seam, obviously, between last year’s cycle of readings and this year’s, but other than enjoying hearing the people honored with the final aliyah of last year’s cycle and the first of next year’s called forward, we hardly nod to it. At a certain point, obviously, we switch scrolls—but there is no ritual that attends that switch, no benediction to recite, no prayer to offer up as we begin the cycle anew. We do it, but we make a point of hardly noticing that we are doing it. And, of course, that too matches the way we live as well: we nod vaguely to the seams between stages either as we move forward through adolescence to young adulthood, and from young adulthood to middle age, and from middle age to our older years. Yet, for all those seams obviously exist, we resist ritualizing them—there’s a reason no one manufactures “Welcome to Old Age” cards—and merely move past them on our lives’ journeys. And that is what Simchat Torah is all about: the notion that the endless cycle of Torah readings is meant to be the backdrop against which we live our lives, the seams often hard to notice…but the linear development of our lives measured against the endless cycle of Torah reading in a way somehow provocative and soothing at the same time.

I wish you all a chag sameiach. The link between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah often seems obscure—Yizkor and the Prayer for Rain dominating the one, and the celebration of the Torah itself the other. But they really do go together well. Yizkor reminds us of our mortality. T’fillat Geshem reminds us of our fragility. And Simchat Torah reminds us that growing older does not have to be a misery to be avoided for as long as possible…because in the opportunity Jewish life affords us to age against the living backdrop of the weekly Torah lesson lies the possibility of conquering the fears we all harbor concerning the aging process. Yes, tradition teaches, it’s true that youth is vigor and strength. But with age comes wisdom…and particularly meaningfully for those who age in a straight line drawn against an endlessly rotating circle of Torah readings and lessons.

Las Vegas

The death toll in Las Vegas is 59 as I write these words, but it will almost definitely be higher by the time you read this as some of the most seriously wounded people succumb to their injuries in the course of the next days. My first plan was not to write to you about it at all because it felt to me as though there really is nothing to say in the wake of a disaster like this…or, at least, nothing to say that could possibly contextualize a massacre on this scale and grant it some sort of ex post facto meaning. And, indeed, at least as of now, the claim by ISIS officials that the shooter was a Muslim convert acting on as an agent of the Islamic State being widely dismissed as not credible, it feels far more likely that this was not an act of terrorism at all—not of the international variety but also not of the home-grain strain—but just an act of meaningless violence directly entirely arbitrarily against innocents who merely had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So that’s comforting a little, but it somehow doesn’t feel quite right to explain—or, rather, to explain away—the incident as the just work of a deranged individual and then to leave it at that. Yes, it certainly does have that feel to it too. But just to wave a bloodbath like this away with reference to the fact that crazy people do crazy things and to consider that to be the final word on the matter…that sounds somehow too facile, too glib, too easy.

For many Americans, this horrific incident is all about gun control. And people are already lining up to express themselves in that regard, some to argue that this proves categorically how badly we need stronger and better gun control legislation in our nation and others to argue just the opposite: that incidents like Las Vegas only prove how important it is for the citizenry to be armed, and precisely so they can defend themselves against the Stephen Paddocks of this world when they lose their grip on reality, take up arms, and start shooting. But to file the whole incident away in the “gun-control, for and against” folder also seems, to say the very least, simplistic.

Of particular interest as we head into Sukkot, at least for me personally, is the way almost all commentators I heard on the radio or read in the nation’s press expressed their outrage with respect to the degree to which the shooter, aside from murdering all the people he actually killed, also succeeded in making all of us feel less safe. That is a big thing for Americans, of course: no one wants to feel unsafe or insecure. And the ability to sleep peacefully at night because we don’t expect some insane person, let alone an actual terrorist, to start shooting at ourselves or our children in some nightclub or at some concert or at work or at school…that is a key part of our American ethos. It’s what we want the government to do for us. It’s certainly what we want the police to do for us. It’s even, in a global sense, what we want our Armed Forces to do for us—not solely actually to make us safe, but to make it possible for us to feel safe as well. No one should feel the need to wear a Kevlar vest to a concert on the Vegas strip because someone might start shooting! Or anywhere.

As Jewish Americans, we hardly need to have it explained to us how intimately related the feeling of being safe is to the sense of wellbeing that we all crave. Our distant and recent history, after all, is littered with the remains of Jewish communities populated by people who felt secure in their places only to discover the hard way how little safe they actually were. So the ill ease that comes from feeling uncertain if we actually are safe or if we have only willed ourselves to feel that way is hardly a concept with which any of us is going to be unfamiliar: our whole Jewish ethos is so rooted in the yearning to be safe—and that our children and grandchildren be safe—that the notion permeates even our prayer life. Indeed, it is hardly accidental that almost all our most important prayers end with some version of a prayer for peace, by which we mean not only the cessation of strife between nations of the world in general and between the people Israel and the Gentile nations in particular, but also peace between neighbors and co-citizens in all the lands of our dispersion, and for American Jews particularly in these United States, as we make our way forward together into an uncertain future.

Oddly enough, it seems to me that the contribution Jewish Americans can make to the national discussion in the wake of Las Vegas derives directly from Sukkot because, whereas most Americans tend to think of security and safety as basic human rights that terrorists and deranged shooters aggress against, our tradition considers peace to be something reasonable to pray to God for—a blessing from God that society must either earn or else hope the Creator will choose unilaterally to bestow upon creation. In this regard, the sukkah itself is the symbol carefully to consider. A ramshackle hut with a roof made of rushes and leaves, a door that cannot be locked or even meaningfully shut (and most sukkot don’t even have doors), and walls made of burlap or canvas, the sukkah is the antithesis of the fortress. We provide our homes with complicated security systems. We all have doors with good locks on them. Our windows all lock too because, in the end, the goal is to be able to go to bed each evening feeling secure that whatever malevolent winds may blow during the night will leave us untouched, feeling as certain as possible that we will waken from our sleep in the morning free specifically not having to face violent turmoil or prejudice-inspired mayhem in the streets of our towns and cities.

The notion that for one sole week a year we abandon our sturdy homes and live—or at least dine—in huts that a particularly strong gust of wind could (and occasionally does) knock down is not meant solely to recall ancient times, however.

It is true that the Torah ordains that we build our sukkot as a way of remembering that our ancestors dwelt in similar lean-tos as they made their way through the Sinai for four decades of directionless wandering before finally being deemed ready to embark on the conquest of Canaan, the land promised by God to their ancestors as those ancestors’ descendants eternal patrimony. But the point is not merely to remember something that once happened, but to learn from it. The Israelites felt unsafe because they were living in an uncharted wilderness with neither roads nor roadmaps to guide them. But they were not without security…because the “clouds of glory” covered them by day from the harshness of the desert sun’s rays, because Miriam’s magic well simply disappeared and reappeared at every Israelite camp to provide them with clean drinking water, because the manna fell from heaven for all the years that the Israelites wandered across the desert, and because God watched over them and made peaceful their way forward towards the Promised Land. Because it was so apparent, the Israelites understood—except when they were being ornery, which was relatively often—that their sense of security, of wellbeing, and of safety derived not from the rickety shelters they slept in at night, but from faith in God…and from the reality of God’s watchful presence in the midst of the camp.

Sukkot is intended to bring home that precise message. We have an obvious obligation to do what we can to make our streets safe, and our concert venues and our schools and our nightclubs and our workplaces too. To do otherwise would be national folly: all citizens surely have the right to go out for a peaceful evening of music without having to hope that they return home at the end of the evening without having been murdered! But behind whatever steps we take to secure that kind of security, Sukkot recommends that we recall that, in the end, true security can only come to any of us as a function of faith, that people suffer from all forms of madness including some that make people violent and vicious, and that the only real way to feel secure in the world is to think of us all as God’s creatures eager to do God’s will…and to hope that a world devoted to spiritual progress will be one in which the deranged among us will get the help they need, in which neighbors will resolve disputes without needing firearms to speak for them, and in which the simplest of all prayers—the prayer for peace among neighbors—is not merely embraceable as a hope or as a dream, but as part of day-to-day reality for all Americans.

Yom Kippur 2017

The name of the day, Yom Kippur, is known to all. The yom part is simple enough: yom means “day” in Hebrew, so yom kippur simply means “the day of kippur.” But that second word is quite a bit more challenging to explain. Usually translated, just a bit opaquely for most, as “atonement,” the term is clearly at the crux of the matter. But what exactly does it mean?

When the author of our most famous holiday hymn, the Unetaneh Tokef, finally gets to the point, he has the cantor proclaim to the community in dramatic, extremely moving terms that we are not necessarily doomed to the verdicts we deserve in the heavenly court because there are, after all, three means of expiation available to us…if we choose to take them up and if we are successful at doing so. And, indeed, the air in the sanctuary could not be more alive with electric energy when the ḥazzan finally sings out that t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah—repentance, prayer, and giving gifts of charity—have the collective power to annul the severity of the heavenly decree that we might otherwise be facing. That line is so famous—and so deeply imprinted in all who attend services on the High Holidays annually—that it is easy to forget to ask the obvious question: given the fact that we are in shul for the “Day of Kippur, shouldn’t the poet have summoned us to kapparah rather than to any of the above, or at least in addition to them? (I realize I’m using two different words for almost the same thing but without having explained myself. The word kippur in the name of the day is best understood as a kind of a gerund intended to denote not “atonement” precisely, but the act of attaining atonement, of seeking and achieving kapparah. Translating literally, Yom Kippur really means “The Day of Seeking Atonement”) But that poet—traditionally identified as Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, an otherwise unknown medieval—specifically does not go in that direction. If anything, in fact, he sounds as though he wishes to make a different point: that t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah can serve as effective conduits to this thing called kapparah that is clearly at the heart of the matter. But he gives no clear hint in his hymn what that thing actually is. Apparently, you’re supposed just to know!

Some light can come from considering the matter from the perspective of the biblical text. In the passage from Parashat Acharei Mot that we read in shul on Yom Kippur morning, the elaborate, complicated ritual the Torah ordains for Yom Kippur leads only to kapparah: kapparah for the High Priest and his fellow priests and their families, kapparah for the whole House of Israel, and kapparah for the Temple itself and all its ritual appurtenances.  In fact, the whole point of calling the day Yom Kippur in the first place is because its ritual is the conduit that leads the nation and its holiest shrine forward to a state of kapparah. And yet, for all that, the Torah does not define the term precisely or say why exactly it is so crucial that it be attained at all.

To understand kapparah, you need to understand the concept of “reification,” a ten-dollar word that historians of religious like to use to describe the technique of taking something that does not have physical existence, something like beauty or patience or hope, and speaking of it—usually in a myth or a poem—as though it did. (The word derives from the Latin res, which means “thing.” Reification is thus talking about something that lacks physical existence as though it were a “thing” that exists in the world. The word is pronounced in five syllables, by the way, with the first two pronounced “ray-if.”) And the particular instance of reification around which Yom Kippur revolves is the notion that sin can be imagined not merely as poor behavior or as unethical wrongdoing or as disobedience to the word of God, but actually as grime, as dirt, as some physically real overlay that literally, not figurately, pollutes the world and actually renders it unclean. In other words, at the core of the holiday is the poetic notion that transgression can best be considered as the kind of dirt that can be washed away…with enough soap, enough hot water…and enough elbow-power.

And the corollary of that thought is also profound: just as no sane defendant would ever dream of showing up in court covered in filth or dressed in a slovenly or unkempt manner, so too must we make ourselves worthy of being judged in the heavenly tribunal during these High Holydays. And so are we bidden to use the tools available to us, the ones the cantor declaims from the bimah, to scrape away the grime that we ourselves have used to layer over our finer selves, thus purifying and cleansing ourselves and preparing to enter the heavenly tribunal where, as the Machzor says, the celestial court convenes on Rosh Hashanah and remains in session until Yom Kippur.

In other words, it is not quite correct—just a bit self-serving—to imagine that we can avert an evil decree through prayer, repentance, and charity.  Those elements are crucial…but they cannot guarantee a good outcome any more than wearing an expensive suit to court can really affect the eventual verdict. What those things can do, particularly if undertaken seriously and wholeheartedly, is make us worthy of entering the tribunal in the first place…and, possibly, impressing the Judge with our sincere desire to live better lives, to do better and to be better if given the chance. And so, as we cleanse ourselves of the negative, base elements in our character that have prevented us from being the fine people we wish to be, we increase the chances that we will be judged mercifully and kindly by Judge God seated not on the throne of strict judgment but on the throne of mercy. And so do we follow the ancient advice of Pirkei Avot and prepare—or attempt to prepare—ourselves in the lobby before daring step into the ballroom. The goal is to use the tools available to achieve kapparah and then, at least ideally, to face Judge God with hopeful equanimity born of emotional catharsis. Nothing more…but also nothing less.

To attain kapparah is to be deemed worthy of engaging with God, of struggling with the words in the Machzor that invite us all to judgment. And that is what I wish for all of you as we enter this holiest day and prepare to pray that we are, all of us, written up for good in the Book of Life, and that God looks upon us and our families with mercy, with compassion, and with kindness.

Rosh Hashanah 2017

In our tradition, Rosh Hashanah is revered not merely as the opening day of a new year, but as the anniversary of several different things.  First in that line, of course, would have to be the creation of the world! But Rabbi Eliezer, one of the talmudic greats, teaches that Rosh Hashanah was also the day on which Joseph was released from prison…and also the day both Sarah and Hannah, respectively the mothers of Isaac and the prophet Samuel, became pregnant after long years during which they were unable to conceive.  Together, the three of them—Joseph, Sarah, and Hannah—symbolize the struggle against forces that appear so mighty that it’s hard even to know where or how to confront them, yet all three found a way out—Joseph to freedom, and Sarah and Hannah to motherhood—through some combination of their will to find a way forward and God’s propensity to look with favor on the struggles of people bearing burdens not of their own making. 

That is a lesson we can all take to heart. Which of us doesn’t struggle against forces that appear so insurmountably arrayed against us that we can hardly imagine where, let alone how, to fight back. For some of us, these burdens appear to have to do with our innate natures, the parts of our personalities hard-wired into our DNA. For others of us, they feel related to events in the past that, absent the invention of time machines, cannot be altered at all, let alone tailored to suit some specific wish we may harbor that the past be different than it actually was. And for still others these burdens appear to be rooted in the circumstances of our lives as they have unrolled to date—details so tightly woven into the fabric of the families we have created or professions we have chosen to pursue that attempting even minor alterations, let alone massive adjustments, seems outside the realm of reasonable possibility.  We all feel that way, I think, about at least some parts of our lives, about some aspects of the men and women we have become.

The midrash teaches an alternate approach. Joseph lived in a world in which slaves were thrown into prison without the benefit of preliminary hearings, let alone actual jury trials, merely because their masters wished to see them incarcerated. Sarah and Hannah lived in a world in which there was only one way to become pregnant and therefore no alternate route forward if the traditional method didn’t seem to be working. All three put their faith in God, and particularly in God’s ability to alter the apparently unalterable and to effect change in the world where the possibility of meaningful change feels somewhere between unimaginable and impossible. And all three ended up where they needed to be: Joseph as Pharaoh’s trusted counsellor, and Sarah and Hannah as the happy mothers of children. All would have thought, at least in their darker moments, that their fates were sealed. But all would have been wrong!

And that is the thought I would like to offer to you all, and also to myself, as this new year dawns. With faith and trust in God, and with perseverance…all is possible, even travel down the least likely avenues of self-improvement. And Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that Rosh Hashanah is the specific day that the three poster children of that thought found redemption from their unhappy states and were thus made free to move forward into the new phases of their lives they so ardently desired.  May God grant us all that kind of trust in God and that kind of faith, and may God watch over us all as we move forward into a new year. May we all be freed from burdens we have grown so used bearing to that we hardly notice them…but which nonetheless hold us back and keep us from becoming the versions of ourselves we wish to become. Above all, may this be a year of peace for Israel and for our brethren of the House of Israel in all the lands of our dispersion. And may the coming year bring only success, prosperity, and contentment to us all.