Be Like Our Ancestors – Seven Guidelines For A Meaningful Life

Friends,

I was reading Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney, by Lee Cockerell who served as V.P. of Operations at Walt Disney World. One of the things which struck me in particular was his 7 Guidelines for Guest Service which he based on the personalities of the 7 Dwarfs. Each bit of advice is as unique as the Dwarf’s personality, and despite the kitschy angle (which I of course admire…kitsch is not a bad word in my house), each point is meaningful and to the point. I wondered how I might apply this idea and these principles to Torah characters. It did not hurt that there happen to be 7 patriarchs and matriarchs, three forefathers, and four foremothers (I always come close to saying four threemothers). Here is my first pass. My goal with each was to be unique, concise, and grounded in text, written or oral. A shekel for your thoughts….

Seven Guidelines Bookmark 2

Cover nakedness, feed the hungry, end vulnerability – my remarks from an interfaith prayer breakfast focused on addressing world hunger

[For anyone who is interested, these are the words I offered at a prayer breakfast on August 5, 2016 for faith leaders hosted by Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska and Church World Service focused on fighting the battle against hunger. In attendance were Congressman Fortenberry and Lt. Governor Mike Foley. It was a non-partisan and truly ecumenical event bringing together key leaders from our community and some from Washington, DC who are directly involved in the fight against hunger.]

I was asked this morning to offer a reading from scripture and a prayer. Considering the rare opportunity to be among colleagues, I thought it a good occasion, rather than simply read a scripture which we all know, to teach a scripture, one which is germane to our topic this morning of feeding the hungry.

In the great book of Jewish wisdom, the Talmud (Bava Batra 9a) we find an argument about charity. The rabbis of old famously loved to argue about minutiae in Jewish law, but out of seemingly trivial arguments, there always emerges an important truth.

In one section, we find the rabbis disputing who is in more dire need, the one who is without clothes, or the one without food. They go back and forth on which type of need should be more closely examined before giving. One rabbi says give immediately to the naked, but examine the hungry. Another rabbis says examine the naked (not sure what this would look like), but give immediately to the hungry. The truth emerges from the great sage, Rav Judah, who synthesizes both arguments, as they each rely on the same prooftext from Isaiah, chapter 58 verse 7. [What God desires] is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked to clothe him.” The keys words for Rav Judah are “when” and “naked.” “Naked,” is not so much talking about clothing (or lack thereof), but rather that the person’s suffering is plain to see. And so for Rav Judah, nakedness is hunger, and hunger is nakedness. That is to say, vulnerable. And the word “When” makes our response to vulnerability immediate. We are supposed to cover the nakedness of our fellow man right away. In other words, the instant that suffering is evident, we, without hesitation, are commanded to soothe the pain. Thus Rav Judah infers, to share your bread with the hungry, means you do so right away— without reservation, without question, without any coercion or expectation. We give because we can. We feed because it is right.

In this light, when we look at the prooftext from Isaiah, we discover even greater purpose to our acts of charity. In Isaiah, the Israelites have lamented why their fasts and prayers have failed to satisfy God.

They ask: “Why, when we fasted, did you not see? When we starved our bodies, did you pay no heed?”

Isaiah answers that their calls to God have fallen flat:

Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast?

[In other words, you focus more on what you give up than on what you give out!]

So Isaiah explains: This is the fast [God] desire[s]:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of lawlessness
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your vindicator will march before you;
The Presence of God shall be your rear guard.
Then when you call, God will answer.
When you cry, God will say, Here I am!

And so we pray today.

Baruch atah adonai, shomeiah Tefillah.
Blessed are you God, who hears our prayer!

Let us say, Amen

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam she’asah li kol tzarkee.
Blessed are you Lord our God Ruler of the Universe who provides for our every need.
Let us say, Amen.

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam pokeiach ivrim.
Blessed are you Lord our God ruler of the Universe who opens the eyes of the blind.

Let us say, Amen.

Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, malbish arumim.
Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the Universe, who clothes the naked.

And finally: Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech, ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aaretz.
Blessed are you, Lord our God ruler of the Universe who brings forth bread from the Earth.

Let us say, Amen,

Oh God, hear our prayers, let us share the task of fulfilling the needs of our fellow man, open our eyes to their suffering, allow us to cover the their pain, and provide us with plentiful bread from the Earth that we might share with all of your creation.

Ken yehi razon. May that be your will.
Let us say, Amen.

Why we need #blacklivesmatter

I simply cannot understand #alllivesmatter. I know that people who post it think they are clever, responding to a hashtag with a hashtag. They appear to congratulate themselves for their belief in absolute equality. But let’s be honest, #alllivesmatter popped up as an attempt to denigrate the #blacklivesmatter movement. It is not that I disagree with the words themselves. Of course, all lives matter. Every single person is created in the image of God and preservation of life is the single most important value in Judaism, and in all religions for that matter. Let us just consider it a given, that life matters. On that we all agree. Still we are confronted repeatedly by acts of violence against black people in which police officers have used excessive, often lethal, force. Time and again, the American public has been asked to accept that these people were killed because they threatened the lives of police officers. While it may have been true in some of the cases which received national attention, it certainly was not the case for all of them, and we have yet to see true accountability or justice for the lives that have been taken. We have been forced to view these cases through the smokescreens of the victims’ criminal records (if they had them), or current misdemeanor activity, or the way they dress, or their level of education, or their use of recreational drugs. All of these are distractions, efforts to make us believe there was cause for the police to be extra cautious and more ready to pull the trigger. But none of that matters. What matters was whether or not a weapon was drawn and whether there was clear, imminent danger to the officer. Otherwise, someone suspected of a crime, or even guilty of one, deserves their citation for a broken tail light, their day in court for illegally selling CDs, or their chance to prove their innocence if wrongfully accused. They do not deserve to die based on suspicion or even based on past behavior. And more to the point, the thing that elevated the suspicion for all these victims was the thing that they share in common. They were black. While I am not a lawyer, I believe it to be a reasonable assumption that being black is not probable cause for suspicion or a justifiable reason for a police officer to treat a citizen any differently than they would another person. Time after time, however, we are watching black men being shot without justification. Then we are all supposed to believe it was an unfortunate misunderstanding that escalated to a situation which necessitated the use of lethal force. The shooters in these cases are rarely brought to justice, and the families, friends, and all of us as witnesses are asked simply to move along. The victims have been treated as though their lives are expendable, but we all agree, no life is expendable. All life matters, and since the victims in these killings time and again are black, the phrase was born “Black lives matter!”

This is not, as Rudy Giuliani called it, “inherently racist.” It is not a proclamation of an ideal that black is better, nor is it a call to violence. The gunman in Dallas acted on his own, and violence against the police is not the direct or logical conclusion of a “Black Lives Matter” protest. Black Lives Matter is about ending violence. The shooting in Dallas was a horrific, pre-meditated murder of five brave officers. The Dallas police, performing their sworn duty, were there to protect the rights of the protestors to express their frustrations in a non-violent way. The biggest fallacy is that to support “Black Lives Matter” is to be anti-police. All police officers are blessings. They are heroes, but even heroes must be held accountable when they show poor judgment, especially since the stakes are so high. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is really about- accountability. It is an appeal to common sense. As has been the motive and the right of the black community since long before the Civil Rights movement, they wish to be recognized and treated as equals before the law. They are asking that their lives be awarded the same value and respect as everyone. They want what we all want, justice. So when someone says or hashtags “Black lives matter,” they are not singling out themselves. They are rather demanding equal regard. They are asking not to be profiled, and not to be treated with heightened caution, or dismissed as expendable because of their skin color.

As a white man, I am already aware my life matters. I do not see people like me being subjected to extra scrutiny or as the victims of excessive force.  I therefore do not need a slogan or to appeal to anyone that white lives matter. It is not an issue. I also do not need to see videos of police who perform routine traffic stops without shooting anyone. That is the baseline expectation. I do however feel the need to say “black lives matter” because their lives matter as much as mine. Right now, the black community is in need of being elevated, not to rise above anyone, rather to reach the same plane where all lives can co-exist and all matter the same. Until then, we must be witnesses, duty bound to speak up. The Talmud (Shabbat 54b) teaches, “Whoever has the capacity to protest to prevent a crime but does not is accountable.” The reason for this resonates in the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I therefore feel compelled to say, as a white man and leader in the Jewish community, in chorus with anyone who will join me and who truly believes in social justice, “Black lives matter!”

“Thus Shall You Bless The Children” – Sermon for Parashat Naso and Father’s Day

In honor of Father’s day, I want to share with you a midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31b) about the children’s duty to their parents.

When Rabbi Tarfon was just a little boy. I guess he was just Tarfon, then. Or maybe they called him little Tarfy. No matter. When Tarfon was a boy, his mom went out for a Shabbat walk in the park. She tripped on something and her shoe split in half. Being the Sabbath, little Tarfon could not fix her shoe. Being a dutiful son, he could not allow his dear mother to be stranded either. So he crouched down and held his hands under her feet and she walked on his hands until she arrived at their house.

Many years later, Rabbi Tarfon fell ill. His fellow sages of the community came to visit, and his mother implored them, “Pray for my son Tarfon, for he treats me with so much honor.”

“How so?” asked the sages.

So she told them about the broken shoe and walking on Tarfon’s hands.

To this, they replied, “Even if he did this 1000 times over, he would not even be halfway to fulfilling what the Torah says a child owes to a parent.”

This tells us, what a child owes to a parent is immeasurable. They must keep giving and giving never reaching the halfway point of what they truly owe. But this Sunday, I’ll settle for a coffee mug and a t-shirt. Why? Because that’s parenting. We don’t do it for glory or stuff. We do it for the joy which comes from raising children.

You know that joy that comes when children say you’re the meanest person that ever lived? You know that joy that comes from cleaning crayon drawings off your walls. You know the joy that comes from dislodging an entire roll of toilet paper from your plumbing. You know the joy that comes from catching every contagious disease that comes home from pre-school. I could go on….

I joke about it, but parenting is joy. There are the fun moments when they get their first hole-in-one at miniature golf. When they learn to ride a bike. When they finally understand the point of a knock knock joke is to have a punch line. When you are watching a movie at night, and the only place either of you wants to be is cuddled up under a blanket.

I’ll take those moments. I’ll take them in exchange for my work because they are as precious as they are few, and they are finite. I do not expect my kids to go so far as to let me walk on their hands…. even though they owe it to me.

The Torah is not entirely explicit about how to parent. It does however offer some guidelines. We find an outline in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso. The outline for parenting is the Priestly Benediction with which Aaron and his sons are to bless the entire nation.

The first line says, “Yivarechecha Adonai Veyishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you.”

This is the beginning of how we view God’s duties toward us. But with God as the parent of parents, we can cast ourselves in a similar role toward our children. The medieval commentator Gersonides takes the meaning of blessing beyond material needs. He says blessing is to perfect as far as is possible, one’s intellectual soul.

Tradition teaches that God perfects our intellectual soul with Torah, the study of which is a lifelong endeavor. As parents, we have the task of sharpening our children’s minds with a different type of Torah. We make sure they go to school, but the task does not end at the curbside. We must sharpen their minds at all times, helping with homework, stimulating their minds by reading to them, asking important questions, helping them define opinions, and to think critically. We can slip in education anywhere at any time. And according to the research on parenting, those most important lessons occur when we are not even trying.

Role modeling. That is the key to moral development and teaching our children empathy. A parent who curses at a driver who cuts them off should not be surprised when their child repeats the same words at the go-cart track. Or a parent who resolves conflicts with yelling or idle threats, like “I’ll give away all your toys,” should not be surprised when the child responds in kind. This is where the best role modeling can occur. Mitchie Kenney, a school psychologist in Texas, says it is important to admit openly when the parent has used a bad coping skill. We acknowledge it to the child, even apologize, thereby teaching proper responses along with the act of apology. Even in these difficult moments, we can always be blessing our children as we keep sharpening their minds.

The second line of the Priestly Benediction says, “Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.” May God’s face shine down on you and be gracious to you.” Rashi tells us, that God’s face shining down means it is a divine smile. And since the verse concludes with “be gracious,” we are told to do it with grace, which means even when we are angry. God does this for us. And we do this for our kids. Think of young children walking in parking lots, or crossing streets, or visiting a crowded stadium for the first time. These are all unfamiliar and intimidating places. They may not want to listen, or even understand why they have to. They may even frustrate us. But especially in these moments they need our grace. They are only beginning to learn the rules of public safety. With them, and for our older children as they wade into unfamiliar and intimidating waters, like entering High School, or starting a job, we who have experience reach down to them, no matter what, take them by the hand, either literally or figuratively, and we reassure them with a confident smile, “You can do this.”

The last line of the Priestly Benediction is the most important. “Yisa Adonai Panav eilecha. Veyasem lecha shalom.” May God’s face be lifted to you and bring you peace. The commentator Ibn Ezra says this means we will overcome “fears of violence and starvation and of wild beasts so that we may not be harmed.” As such our job as parents is to raise our children up to lives of peace and stability. We must work to instill in them self-esteem and belief they can overcome challenges. We hope they may never come to violence, starvation, or wild beasts, but, even without those things, the road of life is filled with bumps. All of them can set a child back and cause them lose faith in themselves. Therefore, we raise them up, but psychologist, Dr. Wendy Mogel, suggests we raise them up in hands-off way. Rather than protect them, we teach our children how to cope with disappointments. In the book The Blessing of a B Minus, Dr. Mogel warns that against overprotecting children makes them like fragile “teacups,” cracking under the slightest pressure. “If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems,” Mogel writes, “we must let them have problems to solve when they are still young.” Whatsmore, we may have to let them fail. If they forget to study for the Algebra test, then they live with the consequence. She calls this “good suffering,” which will help them develop good judgment later. It is not easy for parents to do this. We want to swoop in and drill them on the quadratic formula. But according to Dr. Mogel, it is better to be like God leading the Israelites in the wilderness from a distance, as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. We stand back, offering shade and light when needed. Thus we let our children learn and develop self confidence, a feeling which can bring them the greatest gifts of all, stability and peace.

On this father’s day weekend, as it is every day, my wish for we parents and for all our children is this: what our ancestors said long before us.

May God bless us and keep us.

May God’s face smile on us and be gracious unto us.

And May God’s face rise up to us and give us Shalom.

Amen. Shabbat Shalom.

Whose God is Whose?

Until now, the rising tide of Islamophobia in our country has mostly made my heart hurt. It now has succeeded in making my brain hurt. Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of Political Science at Wheaton College in Illinois, was suspended for making a Facebook post which stated that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Prior to Wheaton College administrators taking offense to this statement, I believed that to be a generally accepted fact. Islam and Christianity join Judaism in being Abrahamic faiths. That means all three religions trace their ancestry to the same spiritual patriarch who worshipped the One God. Therefore, when someone rebuffs the statement that Muslims worship the same God as Christians and Jews, it makes my brain cramp.

A statement from Wheaton College as reported in the Chicago Tribune stated, “While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation and the life of prayer.”

There are fundamental differences between the two faiths. Of course there are. That’s why they are unique religions each with their own sacred texts and rituals which define their relationship to God. The same can be said of the differences between Christianity and Judaism. There are vast differences between Jewish and Christian views of God. The Christian scriptures (New Testament) express theology and eschatological predictions which are not shared by Judaism, and those readings of the Christian Scriptures affect the way they read the Tanach (the Jewish Scriptures or Old Testament). We may share a book, but we read it very differently. All three Abrahamic faiths define their relationship to God differently and regard revelation differently, but through those revelations we seek to establish relationships with one and the same God.

I have a hypothetical question: Would the administration of Wheaton College proclaim that Christians and Jews do not share the same God?

My guess is “no.” While I am not expert on Christian theology, or Muslim theology for that matter, I can say with confidence that the connection to the Jewish God is foundational to Christian belief. We differ on whether or not God had a son of flesh and blood intended to be the Messiah and who will return to redeem the world. That is a fundamental difference in belief, but it is a difference in belief about the same God. I also point out the irony that in one key aspect Christianity is closer to Islam than it is to Judaism. That is, as I understand from sitting on panels with Muslim colleagues, Islam regards Jesus as a prophet, which Judaism does not. Judaism believes prophecy closed in the time of the Tanach. We therefore do not regard Jesus’s teachings as true prophecy (messages directly from God). While the administrators of Wheaton College may be holding Judaism close as partners in sharing God, they are pushing away partners who believe their most important prophet was truly a prophet.

I do not write this with the intent of starting a Holy War. To paraphrase Billy Joel, “I didn’t start the fire…” But I would very much like to put it out. We can start by accepting that we all, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, have strong similarities at the very roots of our faiths. I remember being astonished at first to learn that Jews living in Arabic speaking countries addressed God as—wait for it—“Allah.” After some reflection, though it quickly made sense. Allah means God. Whether in a mosque or synagogue, the messages being sent toward the heavens may differ in form and content, but the recipient of both messages is the same. We can also put out the fire by acknowledging differences between our religions and, without animosity, simply agree to disagree. After all, it is more likely that we are all wrong, than any one of us is entirely correct about the existence, nature, revelation, and intentions of God. (That is the essence of humility in religion, but that will be another article). We should all be able to agree that ultimate Truth will be revealed on God’s timetable, not ours. In the meantime, we can believe and worship differently with mutual respect and stop being offended when someone points out our sameness. Wheaton College is a private institution and can act virtually as they wish with Professor Hawkins’ status as it relates to their Statement of Faith which is binding upon faculty. However, they really need to carefully re-examine their reasoning and consider what they really mean when they claim to know whose God is whose.

There. My brain feels a little better, but my heart still hurts.

Salaam, Shalom, Peace. Amen.

From Yom Kippur – “Freeing the Captive”

An excerpt from my Yom Kippur Morning sermon. Perhaps even more important now.

[One way to practice] matir asurim (the core Jewish value of freeing the captive), is to be liberated from indifference to global responsibility. We have seen terrible images of refugees fleeing the Civil War in Syria. Those who have been lucky enough to escape, avoiding ISIS, find themselves with nowhere to go.  This is not a new problem, but it grabbed our attention recently. We have seen footage of Syrian men and women just trying to survive. It came into greater focus when the world saw a young boy washed up on a beach after his boat capsized near Turkey. That one image shocked us in a particular. In t-shirt and sneakers, he could have been any one of our own kids. The suffering no longer seemed so far away. We began to be freed from the shackles of indifference. But still, we might doubt. These are Syrians. We might assume that they hold strong opinions against America, Jews, and Israel. We may just say, therefore, leave them alone, and let other people deal with the problem. But this is where responsibility meets opportunity. If we were no longer to see this crisis as a regional problem, but rather as a global problem, then we can actually shape hearts and minds of a new generation. There is power in education. There is great reward in extending a helping hand. If we as Jewish Americans who support Israel step up to the plate, speaking up for Muslims half a world away, then we can help chip away at the false image they have been given. They and we can look upon each other as we really are. We can gain allies among those who might otherwise fall prey militants or terrorists. It is indeed a global problem, one over which we can exercise some control, if we look past geography, race, and culture, and see people in need. In coming months, here in Lincoln, we will likely see an influx of refugees. We will have the opportunity to meet these people face to face.  Then we can practice matir asurim, liberating each other from indifference as we share the best of ourselves.

Return of my blog – The Lincoln Rabbi

I just remembered I have a blog. Sadly, I have neglected it of late. At the urging of some friends, I am adding a few of my recent sermons and teachings. I may be digging back into the archives to post some more, and I will be adding some more in the coming weeks.