Friday, June 13, 2014

Gun Violence and Seeing the Promised Land

About three weeks ago just after the shooting near UC Santa Barbara, the satirical newspaper “The Onion” ran a little article that, sadly, proved not so satirical.  It read: “In the days following a violent rampage in southern California in which a lone attacker killed seven individuals, including himself, and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Tuesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. ….At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past five years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.””[i] 

We are living in, what I believe to be, a particularly dark moment in our country’s history.

A different sort of dark moment is marked for our ancestors in this week’s Torah portion Shelach.  The parashah records our ancestors’ actual arrival at the border of the Promised Land only 2 years into their wandering. Moses directs twelve tribal leaders to scout and assess the land, its inhabitants and cities. When they return, they report on the land’s goodness, but 10 of the 12 also warn that the obstacles in front of them are simply too overwhelming, in particular detailing the giant-sized residents.  Overtaken with insecurity, they assume that they must have looked like grasshoppers in the eyes of the land’s giant inhabitants.   This sends the entire Israelite population into a fear-fueled panic. Despite the desperate pleas of the undeterred Joshua and Caleb, the people beg to return to Egypt. Enraged, God seals the fate of their entire faithless generation: none of them, save for Joshua and Caleb, will ever see the Promised Land again.

We can deduce from the story that the 10 scouts did something wrong in their reporting, but the Torah never actually specifies what exactly their failure was.  Most commentators assume the scouts’ sin was their exaggeration of the challenge in front of them – their warped sense of their enemies’ size, which caused them to fall victim to their own insecurities and fears.  This ultimately led not just to their own demise but to that of their entire generation.  

This explanation resonates I think.  We can see obstacles that stir insecurity and fear inside us; and if we allow these concerns to run unchecked, they can certainly drive us to betray our values and ourselves.  We see this in our lives and world today all the time – how often does insecurity derail relationships, does anxiety stop people from moving forward in their lives, does fear paralyze and blind us to what is still possible. 

It’s certainly playing out when it comes to our response to gun violence.  My 5 and 7 year olds have regularly rehearsed lock-down drills, so they can be prepared should, in the words of my son, “a bad person come into the school with a gun and shoot, because it happens a lot mommy.” Just this week, our nation added another school shooting to its growing roster, and this week, two different corporations launched products for schools to help protect the students and staff in the case that a shooter entered their school.  1) a bullet proof blanket with backpack like straps that a person puts over themselves while cowering on the ground or in a closet during a lock down.  2) a metal device that can slip over a classroom door making it nearly impossible to breach, thereby preventing a shooter from entering a classroom.  And although on the one hand, I am glad to see the development of protective devices that might lower shooting fatalities, on the other hand, I can’t articulate appropriately the growing frustration and anger and terror I feel about this situation.   It’s hard not to see anything but the growing reality that gun-violence is now just part of a normative list of other life-threatening risks we all face, like car accidents and disease.  

But let’s not give up so quickly, and instead return to the Torah portion for a moment, because not everyone sees the problem the same way.  18th-century Chasidic master the Baal Shem Tov understands the real sin of the scouts as their skewed perception not of the land’s inhabitants, but of the land itself. In the portion, when the scouts arrive in the land, the Torah offers a substantial description of its bounty.  In particular, the text details that a single cluster of grapes proved so abundant that “it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of [the scouts].”  Really big grapes! But when the scouts report back to the people on what they saw, they describe the fruit of the land in simple, brief terms, focusing instead in hyperbolic terms on the intimidating nature of the people already living there, whereas the Torah text itself offers only a brief, nondescript verse on them.

According to the BeShT, seeing the fruit of the land should have cued the scouts to recognize that the hard work would have a worthwhile payoff. This explains why the Torah’s description of the land emphasizes the quality of the terrain and the beautiful crops: the Torah had the end game in mind. If the scouts had understood this, they would have focused on the promise of what was ahead, just as Joshua and Caleb implored them to do, but instead, they saw the task as too daunting and ultimately not worth either the risk or the reward.

Sadly, we too are so easily daunted by the magnitude of major systemic challenges that we quickly throw up our hands: the obstacles that stand in front of us are giants in our midst. Who are we, so small and insignificant, to even attempt to conquer them? It would be great to see an end to gun violence in our country, or even our city, but the real challenges far outweigh the potential rewards. Like the scouts, we list the obstacles one after another – race, class, the right, the left, the NRA, the 2nd amendment, mental health systems, prisons, police, gang violence, bullying, gun stores, and on and on and on, and we forget the promise of the end game – a safer, more peaceful country and world. 

In the portion, Joshua and Caleb’s gaze stayed fixed on the promise of the future while still acknowledging the challenges ahead.  There are many Joshuas and Calebs in the fight against gun violence.   Here are two.  Take Dr. Gary Slutkin, the infectious disease doctor who determined that patterns of gun violence follow the exact same patterns as infectious diseases.  And so, in the early 2000’s, applied the same method of addressing and stopping the spread of infectious diseases like malaria to gun violence. The results were drastic reductions of violence in each of the communities where the system was applied and this continues to prove effective today.  If you haven’t seen the film the Interrupters, inspired by his work, I would commend it to you.  Or take Rabbi Joel Mosbacher and the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, which is engaging communities and congregations around the country in advocating that local mayors, gun retailers, firearms manufacturers and large buyers like the military sign a “covenant” of gun overhaul measures. Among its 30 points, the covenant calls for voluntary limits on selling certain types of weapons and large-capacity magazines, sale of guns only through federally licensed dealers and mandatory safety classes for buyers.   Neither is a perfect solution.  But it doesn’t take perfection or a grand leap.  It just takes one step forward toward the vision of something better.   When it comes to the scourge of gun violence in our country, we’ve forgotten to hope and dream for what might be possible again, resigning ourselves to the fact that the best we can hope for is status quo, and in doing so, we’ve set ourselves right back in Egypt.  The Baal Shem Tov’s insight into Parashat Shlach reminds us that if we don’t keep our eye on the prize, our destination right in front of our mind’s eye, we’ll never get anywhere.   Ultimately, the true lesson of this week’s Torah portion beckons powerfully in our day too.  Let it sustain us as we continue our efforts to cultivate peace and freedom throughout our land.
Shabbat Shalom



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Known: Vashti's Story

(I wrote this poem on the occasion of my synagogue sisterhood's Vashti's Banquet.  It references a number of biblical and midrashic sources, as well as commentaries, including modern, on Vashti and her story.)

 I am known
you know
from the pen of men.
Ink's indelibility
forever staining my name,
co-opted for the sake
of an agenda that was not my own.

I am known
you know
according to the Scroll
named after that other
more known
who replaced my throne
next to the king
whose desires I would not entertain.

I am known
you know
for my inaction,
condemned for my not doing.
Denied a voice, a verse,
a claim to my own fate,
to carve out
my own words.

My own story –
intoned by the voice of others -
no full due is credited me.
I am simplified,
made insignificant.

It is the will of the eunuch,
the ultimate powerless,
so threatened by me,
who writes and seals
my censored story's supposed end.

Not even my husband,
most powerful in the land,
schemed to punish me,
to banish me
from his kingdom.
Only remembering me
to know his need for another,
in his bed.

I am known
you know
this day
in circles of sisters
who praise my refusal,
who elevate me,
coronate me
a new queen:
of self-determination,
an exemplar of justice pursuit,
and yet a victim
of my own untimely circumstances.
Still story known by names
I never claimed for myself.
Still victim,
Still used,
with others twisting,
diminishing my story and me
to simple straightforward
for their own purposes,
not mine.

My story, my name
not mentioned even 10 times,
in Esther’s scroll,
has echoed and beckoned for generations.
My story, my name
has been recorded
recounted, re-written,
for ages.

Midrashic ink flowing with the colors
of boiling blood and cool deep sea.
Did you know,
I am known
by the Babylonian rabbis
as a goat-tailed, scaly-skinned whore?
The symbol of their exile’s source,
So detesting of my rule,
my power, my story-
they imagined me a monster.[i]

Though not all
despised me so.
Did you know,
I am known 
by the rabbis of Israel
as a source for their pity?
They told of how their Mighty God
Watched over me, took me in,
saved me time and time again
from life’s cruelties and crushing force.

So listen as I tell you
that there is more to my story
beyond the twists and turns 
of one chapter of a scroll.
Not inactive or reactive,
but determined and willful.
Not pure evil or good
but dimensioned and full.
Not so easily fit or forced into
a simple, bowed up box.

So might you entertain my desire,
this new night of feting,
to tell you my story more full
than you could possibly know
so that you might
know me better?

You see I was the daughter
of a great Chaldean king,
whose own fate was sealed at a feast
when I was but a girl.
A chandelier cut from its chains
landing upon my father's brains
in front of my very eyes.
Chaos erupting in the drunken room
I found my way to the newly crowned king,
who pitied me, took me in,
married me to his own son,
the prince who would one day be king,

Entertain the fact that
I myself did entertain
my fellow unknowns
at a fete of women,
a grand banquet,
in the palace of non-other than the king himself.
And know that this celebration
was no proper ladies affair.
Said to rival the licentiousness of my own husband's desires
my fete was set in the innermost rooms of the castle,
just under the nose of the king and his men,
So brazen and emboldened was I.[iii]

But before you bedeck me
in ribbons and jewels,
call me "equality's champion,"
know too that in my chamber
I took great pleasure in demanding
my own maidservants, Jews as they were,
 serve me on their seventh day.
And I preferred them without their clothes,
only their trays and washbasins in hand.

Do not seem so surprised,
measure for measure[iv],
I never asked
to be your role model or revulsion,
Neither Beauty nor Mystique,
neither least or most desired queen.

Know this:
They will tell of my execution,
they will write of
the eunuch’s perverted desire
to have my head presented
and served
on a platter
at the seat of the king.
Some will speak of the king
strangling me himself
In his drunken rage,
Fires so burning inside.[v]
But they do not know,
No one does,
Where I abide.

The throne upon which I now sit
I whittled and carved myself
from craggy crystals, thorny roses,
And knotted roots from brush that grew
out of the Chaldean sands of my Babylonia.
For I sit enthroned
in the echoing halls
of the banished,
of the monster-ed,
of the simplified,
of the misunderstood.
Our stories left unfinished,
our fates un-written,
our red-ribbon hauntings,
our legends, our standings
not fully known
to any soul.

So dine and revel
this night
in my own banquet’s tribute,
but do me the honor
of judging me
for yourself.

Not by the story
you knew or
you wanted,
but by the fuller tale
that you now know.

I am known.

[i] TB Megilah 12b
[ii] Ester Rabbah 3:5 and Midrash Panim Acherim B:1
[iii] TB Megilah 12a-b
[iv] ibid, Rashi
[v] Esther Rabbah 4:9, 12, Leviticus Rabbah 12:1

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Character Counts: Cookie Thievery and Idolatry

(The following is my sermon from Shabbat Ki Tissa)

The Cookie Thief by Valerie Cox*
A woman was waiting
At the airport one night,
With several long hours
Before her flight.
She hunted for a book
In the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies
And found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book,
But happened to see,
That the man beside her,
As bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two
From the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore
To avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies,
And watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie theif”
Diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated
As the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice,
I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took,
He took one too.
When only one was left,
She wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face
And a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie
And broke it in half.

He offered her half,
And he ate the other.
She snatched it from him,
And thought: “Oh brother!
This guy has some nerve,
And he’s also quite rude,
Why, he didn’t even show
Any gratitude!”

She had never known
When she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief
When her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings
And headed for the gate,
Refusing to look at
The “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane
And sank in her seat.
Then sought her book,
Which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage,
She gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies
In front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,”
She moaned with despair.
“Then the others were his
And he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize,
She realized with grief,
That she was the rude one,
The ingrate.  The thief!

Does this story resonate?   Maybe we haven’t been a cookie thief, but perhaps we laid on the car horn those extra three seconds just to make the point of how wrong that other driver was for cutting us off, only to realize that they had the green arrow and we actually had the red light?  Or maybe it happened when, in a ridiculous disagreement with a boss, or an employee, or a student or a teacher, or a child, or parent or a sibling or partner, we just knew we were right and the other was wrong, so we chose to belittle our counterpart because of how ridiculous their perspective or opinion was, only to come to see that they, in fact, were right all along?  
And the sad truth is that, just like in the Cookie Thief, often by the time we realize how wrong we were, it’s too late.  The cookies have already been eaten, the other driver has driven off, and the person we belittled has walked away.
And so I wonder: what is this tendency that drives us to perceive of ourselves as right and others wrong, to see ourselves as blameless victims and the others as purposeful offenders?
Well, let’s take a look at this week’s Torah portion, to see if it can offer us any insight.
The portion details arguably our ancestors’ worst moment in the Torah – the sin of the Golden Calf.  You know the story: after not seeing Moses for a long time (he’s been up on Mt Sinai with God getting the remainder of the commandments), the people determine that they need a visible connection to the Divine and call upon Aaron to build them a golden sculpture of a calf. Aaron obliges and in a frenzy, our ancestors bow down and worship what they’ve created.  It’s the #1 no-no in the book – idolatry, but they don’t even realize they’ve done anything wrong until the moment they see Moses come down the mountain with the stone tablets in his hands. And by the time they realize just how wrong they are, it’s already too late. 
What’s of note in the story, however, is not what the people do, but rather, what drives God to respond.  You see, while our ancestors are busy worshiping their idol, God becomes enraged and plans to wipe the people out.  But here’s the interesting part - what offense does God cite to justify the punishment?  Idolatry, right?  Wrong.  The text reads: “I see that this is a stiff-necked people.  Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them so I will destroy them.”  The Israelites may have committed the crime of idolatry, but for what does God want to punish them?  Not their sinful act, but for a quality of their character, or in this case, the lack thereof - their stiff-neckedness – their obstinate nature.    
One of the late 19th century Mussar rabbis (Mussar being the ancient Jewish practice of character cultivation) Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel writes about this seemingly strange response from God.  “From here we see that a defect in character is even worse than a defect in action – more serious even than a grave sin like idolatry.”1 According to Finkel, character flaws are more serious than sinful acts, because they alter who we are at the deepest level, as the divine image in us is damaged in the process.2 The eating of the cookies, the long blow on the horn, even the cruelties to other people – those are just the surface results of a much deeper problem.  It’s why the Cookie Thief story’s ending resonates so deeply.  When we get so caught up in our pride, our own perceived infallibility, our own insecurities, our own stubbornness, we actually become that which we are so quick to condemn. I imagine you’ve heard that the characteristics and behaviors we find most repelling in others are actually insights into those qualities we dislike in ourselves.   It’s why even Maimonides teaches that we don’t just repent for our deeds – we must repent for our negative character traits as well.  The trick is, fixing faulty character traits proves a lot harder than apologizing for our bad actions.3
Mussar tradition defines stubbornness as an inability to alter one’s opinion.  But even stubbornness in and of itself is not a root problem.  As it happens, stubbornness is actually a symptom of an even greater character flaw – a lack of humility.
From a Jewish lens, humility is a tricky concept that doesn’t just mean being modest.  Rather, humility is the quality that stands between conceit and self-debasement.  As Mussar teacher Rabbi Alan Morinis puts it: “Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather, a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life.  Arrogance [or stubbornness] has an insatiable appetite for space.  It claims. It occupies.  It sprawls.  It suffocates others…The opposite extreme is self-debasement.  Shrinking from occupying any space whatsoever, it retracts meekly inside itself….[but] whether we see ourselves as nothing or as everything, we are still pre-occupied with the self, and both of these traits are, therefore, forms of narcissism. In Jewish terms, they are two variations on the theme of idolatry.”4  Idolatry isn’t just something we demonstrate externally with sculpted forms and images.  The idols can actually be inside of us –hubris or meekness in some ways – idols more dangerous than the golden calf.  Morinis again: “Without humility, either you will be so puffed up with arrogance that you won’t even see what really needs some work, or you will be so deflated and lacking in self-esteem that you will despair of being able to make the changes that are lit up so glaringly in your self-critical mind.”5 Complicated stuff.
But all is not lost.  We don’t have to throw up and hands and declare: Once a cookie thief, always a cookie thief.  Rabbi Shai Held points out that just as bad character can yield bad action and then that bad action can feed back into our bad character in a vicious cycle, the opposite is true as well: “Good character is manifest in good behavior, and good behavior in turn helps instill good character.  If you want to train yourself to be more compassionate, for example, start by doing compassionate things.  Compassionate character yields compassionate behavior, which in turn deepens compassionate character, and so on in a virtuous cycle.”6 
I love this idea of a virtuous cycle.  It’s the cultivation of virtuous cycles that leads to teshuvah around the otherwise vicious cycle of character flaw.  Morinis challenges us to do the following: “…ask yourself this: Do you leave enough space in your life for others, or are you jamming up your world with yourself? Or is there space you ought rightfully to occupy that you need to stretch to do? Your answers are the measure of your humility.”7  And if you have work to do on this, start with an action.  Identify an area where you have space to relinquish or to take up, and try to cultivate something different.  If you tend to dominate conversations, take a step back and consciously try to listen.  If you tend to stay silent, challenge yourself to speak up and contribute.  And then do it again.  And again.  These little acts add up over time in a virtuous cycle to change not only the way we are perceived, but more importantly, the way we are. 
Shabbat Shalom

* Many thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Slater for sharing "The Cookie Thief" with me and my IJS cohort.
1 R. Natan Zvi Finkel, Or HaTzafun, “Kashyut Oref”,p. 187 – as translated by Rabbi Shai Held in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 2014
2 R. Shai Held explores this idea extensively in his Dvar Torah on Ki Tissa 5774
3 Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:3)
4 Morinis, Every Day Holiness. P. 50.
5 Morinis. 46
6 R. Shai Held, Dvar Torah Ki Tissa
7 Morinis. p. 54.

Friday, January 3, 2014

What Judaism Can Teach Us About New Year's Resolutions

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the first directive is given by God to the entire collective of the Jewish people: to observe the first Jewish month.  “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.”  This moment, the first time God instructs the Jewish people collectively, marks the official beginning of Jewish time. Not that our ancestors weren't observing time before.  But this moment initiates the beginning of our ancestors marking time according to their own collective narrative, their own collective history and story.  At this point, for our ancestors, time begins again. 

Usually, we wouldn't read parshat Bo until early to mid-February, but the oddities of this Jewish calendar year have presented us with a powerful opportunity to read parshat Bo the same week as we observe the secular new year, the same week that we begin counting secular time again in the annual solar cycle.  So I got to thinking: if Chanukkah could help inform the way we experienced Thanksgiving this year – there was that whole Thanksgivukkah thing a while back -  then perhaps parshat Bo might have something to inform our experience of the secular new year as well.

There is an interesting difference in approach to time between our western, secular culture and Judaism, and that difference is really easy to see when we compare the words for month and year in English and Hebrew.  In English, the word month originated from a word that meant moon and year originated from a word that meant season. We can easily understand how the words evolved, and their roots make sense.  They are, after all, concepts of time and their etymologies source to the same time concepts.  But these words in Hebrew prove quite different.  In Hebrew, the word for month is chodesh.  The root of chodesh isn't tied to the moon or seasons or even to time.  Its root literally means “new.” And the Hebrew word for year, shannah, is connected to the root for “change.”   It is extremely instructive that the Jewish lens on these basic units of time moves us out of the surface definitions of these words and takes us into the deeper concepts of renewal and evolution.

We, as humans, of course, resonate with this connection of time and change or renewal – just think about those New Year’s resolutions so many of us make, implied in each the hope and yearning we have to make changes in our lives, to make new and renew our lives, our actions, our choices as a way of marking the beginning of a new year. 
The trick, of course, is that New Year’s resolutions aren't always so easy to keep.  It’s why the first week in January is always so crowded at the gym, but by the time you reach February, that big wave of newly resolved and well-intended people has petered down to just a little ripple.  Our human desire to wipe the slate clean and start fresh, although commendable, proves notably difficult in actuality to accomplish.

This is where that first directive of marking the first month or chodesh comes to offer us a powerful insight. 

Let’s think back to the point at which God instructs our ancestors to mark the first month of all the months of the year?  It is not delivered when the people cross the sea once they are free, when they have left the constrictive oppression of Egypt and the new era of living free has actually begun, but rather, while they are still slaves, still dwelling in their mud shacks in the land of Goshen.  They will be freed – it will happen at the end of the portion, but when they receive this designation to mark the first of the months, it is a moment when they are still living amidst oppression, a moment while they are essentially still living in their past.  And it is in that place of the past, before the apex moment arrives, that our ancestors are told to start over. 

To put it in our secular New Year equivalent, it would be to start going to the gym on Dec 17th, instead of waiting to start until Jan 1.  When should we change our behavior, when should we begin again?  Jewish tradition teaches that we don’t have to wait until the “right time” or when we feel everything is perfectly aligned.  We begin again in the midst of the chaos – in the murky middle.  We begin the practice and cultivation of change while still actively familiar with the situations and behaviors from which we are trying to move away.  Because to believe that an arbitrary marker of time will somehow wipe away the place from where we've come, the struggles and setbacks of the past, well that, as we know, is the stuff of good marketing campaigns, but certainly not of reality.

We are told to start counting Jewish time at a liminal moment poised between the great journey from slavery to freedom, from exile to return, from constriction to release. And that is not just the journey our ancestors took, it’s the journey of each of our souls, every year, every month, every day.

Ultimately, Judaism doesn't really care all that much about our secular new year’s resolution.  If we make one, great.  But if we find we don’t keep it, we don’t need to wait around until the next year to try again.  The opportunity to change and renew doesn't just come around one time a year, or even one month a year, but rather, any day, any moment, all the time. After all, Jewish tradition teaches that God renews the work of creation every day. 

There’s another funny Jewish confluence with the secular year this week. The beginning of the month of Shvat – think Tu b'Shvat – was yesterday, January 2.  Shvat is the month when we are told that in Israel the sap begins to rise in the trees, stimulating new growth internally, new growth that will soon yield deeper roots, new sprouts and blossoms.    May this day, this month, this year, be a year of deepening roots and new growth for us all.  And if not Shvat, then Adar, and if not Adar…well, you get the picture.

Shabbat Shalom.