Monday, September 25, 2017

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, stand up for the vulnerable.

Today I stood with Faith In Public Life against the Graham-Cassidy bill, which would strip healthcare from more than 32 million people, and worse.

Here is the text of my speech:

Last week, the Jewish community celebrated the holiday of Rosh Hashana, which marks the new year on the Jewish calendar. This Saturday, it will observe Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Today marks the mid-point between these holy days: this entire period from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is known as the Aseret Yamei HaTeshuvah, the ten days of repentance. These holidays are among the most important of the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashana is not only the new year, but is also the day on which, our tradition tells us, we stand for judgment, not only as individuals, but also as nations. 

On Rosh Hashanah, each nation is led in, with its governors going in first, to stand before the True Judge. We are obligated to do cheshbon hanefesh – to take an accounting of our souls, as individuals and as a nation.  On Rosh Hashana, judgment is rendered, and on Yom Kippur, the verdict is sealed. In between, there is a last chance. As individuals, and as nations, we have one last opportunity to make right what we have done wrong. 

There is no mystery about how to accomplish this. The liturgy of these holy days tells us:
 מעבירין את רוע הגזירה
Through repentance,
Through prayer,
Through justice
We can overturn the evil decree.

Repentance is not easy. The Jewish tradition is explicit: God does not forgive wrongs that one human being does to another. Only the victim can offer forgiveness, and only the person who committed the wrong can make amends, and the process of doing so requires real work: they must acknowledge their wrongdoing, they must ask forgiveness and repair the breach by making restitution, and then, if the opportunity arises again to commit the same wrong, they must not give in to it. Only then is full repentance achieved.

Today, at the mid-point between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I find myself standing here once again to ask our representatives to take an accounting of your souls. 

This week, I ask you, to consider it as if you stood before your Maker. As you are judged by the True Judge, how will you account for yourselves?

How will you defend taking health insurance away from over 32 million people? How will you account for making the most vulnerable among us – the elderly, the children, people with disabilities, the poor – how will you account for making them more vulnerable, and for many of them, for their deaths?

What will you say is a justification for making it impossible for those with pre-existing conditions to get care? How will you justify the evil of terminating coverage – and the lives that depend on that coverage – with lifetime coverage limits?

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Jews throughout the world will read the words of the prophet Isaiah[i] in which God condemns the superficial piety of the people, who ask why God did not hear their prayers or respond to their fasting and self-affliction. 

God’s answer is blunt: 

“Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your business, and oppress your laborers, Behold, ye fast for strife and contention, and to smite with the fist of wickedness…”

God continues, if you want your prayers to be heard, what you must do is, “to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the cords of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke…. to share thy food with the hungry, and bring the poor that are cast out to thy house, when thou seest the naked, cover him, and hide not thyself from thine own flesh…”

This is the prayer that God will hear. 

Your words are of no interest to God without your hand helping those who have less than you, and your prayers and pieties are disgusting, as long as you do not help those who are struggling.

This period of time is a period of repentance, reconciliation, and repairing the breaches between people. You who have power, it is not too late. The judgment has been made, but the verdict has not been sealed.  If you want to do what is right and good, there is still time:

Acknowledge that the Graham-Cassidy bill is immoral; make restitution by voting no; and  when your colleagues try once again to raise another bill that hurts the vulnerable, merely for the sake of “showing that they’re doing something, refuse from the very beginning to go along with it. Then you will show that you have truly repented. 

The Republican health care bill that strips children, families and elderly people of affordable coverage is the very definition of an unjust law.

Isaiah (10) warns, “Woe to you who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.”

[i] Isaiah 58:1-12

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Responding to Charlottesville

Montgomery County, MD, like all of the DMV is diverse.  MoCO, is particularly diverse, and so Charlottesville hit people here hard.  Here is the faith response from our community.
(I begin speaking at 1:04)

I was pleased, although not surprised, to run into several of my fellow-speakers yesterday at the Ministers March in DC.  I would like to think that progressive faith has finally awoken again.

Here is the text (more or less) of my remarks above:

I’m going to be a bit unseasonal for a minute.  The Jewish holiday of Purim is celebrated in the late winter/early spring - February or March. It is, superficially, a festive holiday marking the salvation of the Jewish people from the evil advisor to a foolish king (yes, really). The advisor takes umbrage at the fact that a Jew refuses to bow down to him, and so he marks the entire population in that kingdom for slaughter. This fate is averted by the actions of a woman, the niece of the man who refused to bow, who earlier in the story had just happened to become the consort of the king. She takes her life in her hands and goes to see the king to ask that the decree of slaughter be averted. 
A very abbreviated version of the story of the book of Esther -- but what is remarkable about this religious book is that nowhere is God explicitly mentioned in it.
Nevertheless, the tradition teaches that God is, indeed, present in the story, but hidden.  The sages say (Hullin 139B), “From where do the Hebrew Scriptures [the Torah] bring the name Esther? From the verse in Deuteronomy 31:18. ‘But I [God] will surely conceal my face הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי [“haster astir panai“ ]. '” The name Esther is interpreted the phrase for a “concealed God.” 
In the Purim story, it is left to humans to act. In the story of Esther, God is not missing, merely hidden. God is never directly mentioned in the story, but God acts, unseen, through us.  In the fourth chapter of the book of Esther, Mordechai, Esther’s unbowing uncle, comes to her and tells her that she must use the power and privilege that she has to save her people, and adds, “and who knows if it were not for just such a time as this that you were raised to power?”
Just as in that story God moves the characters into place but leaves them to act, so it is up to us to act. Those of us with privilege must use it. We must all stand together at this time, and at all times.
It is, I think, not merely serendipity that the portion in the Hebrew scriptures that Jews read last week begins with the command: to see. “See, I place before you the blessing and the curse,” it says.  Which we will choose?
Although this is a moment in which many of us are afraid, it is also, partly, a blessing. The fear that some of us have always lived in because of racism has become recognized by many who did not really see it before. Anti-semitism, which is often dismissed as unimportant because some Jews are light-skinned and benefit from that, has been revealed as a still-powerful force.  Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-semitism:  these have the same root, and when you see one, you will see the others. All the intersectional forces which strip power from some of us can be seen clearly – if we have the will to see it.
And whether we choose to see or not – that will determine which path we walk down. 
 Jewish tradition warns elsewhere (Midrash Tanhuma, Mishpatim 2 )“‘With the justice that a person with power does, he sustains the earth, but the fraudulent person destroys it. If one …[sets oneself] aside in the corner of the house, and says, ‘What have the affairs of society to do with me? What’s in it for me to take part in their disputes? Why should I listen to their voices? I’m fine [without this],’ this person destroys the world. This is the meaning of ‘the fraudulent person destroys [the world].’”
Tomorrow there will be an eclipse. Light will seem to be swallowed by darkness. But it isn't really. It's just that the view of it is blocked for a few minutes.  Just now in the world, we too look around us and the world appears to be darkness. Like an eclipse the light seems to be blotted out, but that glorious light continues whether we see it or not. But in this world, to make sure that the light is revealed, to uncover the concealed face of God, it is upon us to act: first for those who are threatened, to help keep them safe; second to our lawmakers and leaders and anyone who by words or by silence, by acts or by inaction, lets racism and white supremacism flourish. They must know not only that we oppose them, but that we will act to oppose them and to vote them out; and third, to the people who believe such evil and especially those who act on it and teach it to others. We have to find ways to reach them, and educate them and end the cycles of ignorance, poverty, and violence in our nation.
Esther had to choose, Do I risk my life and go before the king to save my people or shall I pretend nothing is wrong and live my life of luxury unruffled by the storm outside my door? We too, must learn to see, and then we must choose.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1972: "… morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible."

And here's a bit of lagniappe. I didn't say it, but it seems appropos to the events of Charlottesville and their tiki torches.

Isaiah 50
י  מִי בָכֶם יְרֵא יְהוָה, שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל עַבְדּוֹ--אֲשֶׁר הָלַךְ חֲשֵׁכִים, וְאֵין נֹגַהּ לוֹ, יִבְטַח בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, וְיִשָּׁעֵן בֵּאלֹהָיו.  {ס}
10 Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeys the voice of His servant? though he walks in darkness, and has no light, let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God. 
יא  הֵן כֻּלְּכֶם קֹדְחֵי אֵשׁ, מְאַזְּרֵי זִיקוֹת; לְכוּ בְּאוּר אֶשְׁכֶם, וּבְזִיקוֹת בִּעַרְתֶּם--מִיָּדִי הָיְתָה-זֹּאת לָכֶם, לְמַעֲצֵבָה תִּשְׁכָּבוּן.  {ס}
11 Behold, all ye that kindle a fire, that gird yourselves with firebrands, begone in the flame of your fire, and among the brands that ye have kindled. This shall ye have of My hand; ye shall lie down in sorrow.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Health Care is a Moral Right

Yesterday, July 27th, was the third action for health care in the last two weeks in which I participated. I was arrested at the first two, I spoke at the third - I had the honor of following the great Rev. Barber.
I begin speaking at 11:47 (and a few other appearances later - including me singing slightly off key -oh, well!) plus keep an eye for excellent colleague Rabbi Ruti Reagan in a blue silk tallit, but you should really watch the entire thing - it's worth it, believe me.
Oh, also... did I mention... we won?

Here is, more or less, the text of my remarks:

Good morning,
I am Rabbi Alana Suskin. I am not anyone famous or important -except that as a rabbi, I am called to be a kli kodesh - a vessel for the holy, and in that role, two days ago, I was arrested in the Senate gallery for chanting alongside dozens of other people: clergy of all faiths, physicians, grieving mothers, and many more American citizens. Our message was clear: Kill the Bill. Protect our care.

I was in the Senate gallery that day because, as a rabbi and as a Jew, I am obligated to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  I came to the Senate to tell them, that it is a moral and religious obligation for our society to care for the sick.

Today, once again, speaking with one voice, we implore Senators to oppose any efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The Book of Isaiah warns, “Woe to you who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” The Republican health care bill that strips children, families and elderly people of affordable coverage is the very definition of such an unjust law. It would leave more than 32 million people without healthcare by 2026.

Who will comfort the grieving mothers, the bereft fathers, the children whose parents died far too young to raise them? Who will hold their hands and wipe their tears? I refuse. I refuse to let this state of affairs come to pass. There is no justification for slashing Medicaid and taking health insurance away from 32 million low-income Americans, people with disabilities, children and seniors -- while lavishing tax cuts on insurance companies and the very wealthy.

There is no excuse for letting insurance companies impose lifetime limits that cut off your insurance as you face life-threatening disease. It is immoral. There is no acceptable reason. We will not stand for it.

The Golden Rule, to not do to others what we would not have done to us, is a fundamental value held across faiths.  But Members of Congress who vote for the Senate health care repeal bill will still have coverage for themselves, while leaving millions of Americans at risk of bankruptcy, health emergencies and death. The American Health Care Act makes a mockery of the Golden Rule.

Hebrew Scripture teaches in many, many, places, that as a society, we have a duty to care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the oppressed.
In Leviticus, we are told, “If your brother is becoming poor, and is not able to support himself; then you must support him...” Jewish commentaries[i] explain, “If your brother is becoming poor, do not let him fall. He is like a load resting on a wall; as long as it is still not fallen, just a single person can hold it and prevent it from falling, but once it has fallen to the ground, even five cannot raise it up again.”
Once people fall into deep difficulty it takes a much greater effort to help them –if it is possible at all. Emergency room care isn’t enough: we must enable everyone to access health care.

Behold the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, satiation, and a quiet, peaceful mind was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy [ii].
We stand together today – and for as long as it takes – against repealing the ACA. We must vote down ANY bill that would strip healthcare from 33 million people.

In the book of Deuteronomy
we read:
אַחֲרֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם תֵּלֵכוּ …
You shall walk after the Lord your God…

The rabbinic sages
[iv] explain: What does this mean: …[It means] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be. As God clothes the naked, … so must you clothe the naked. As God, visits the sick…  so must you visit the sick. As God comforts mourners, so must you comfort mourners...

If we are commanded to walk after the attributes of God, well, it is also written in Exodus[v]
אֲנִי יְהֹוָה רֹפְאֶךָ
I, God, am your healer.
As God heals the sick, so must we heal the sick.

Senators now must answer a moral question: whom do they serve? Do they serve all the people, or do they serve only millionaires and powerful special interests? If they serve the people, they will reject this bill.

[i] (Sifra 109b on Leviticus 25:35)
[ii] (Ezekiel 16:49)
[iii] (13:5)
[iv] (Talmud Sotah 14a)
[v] 15:26
See more from the extraordinary Rev. William Barber at his site Repairers of the Breach.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Between the Straits. Delivered at All Souls Unitarian Church, July 2017

Here is (more or less) the text of this sermon:

In the section of scriptures that the Jewish community reads this week, the story of five women seems nearly an afterthought. Yet, unlike many biblical women, all five are given names, and this is an indication that we should pay close attention. These five women appear only one other time in the five books of Moses, but they bear an important message.
Earlier, the daughters of Tzlophchad (Makhlah, Tirtzah, Khoglah, Milcah, and No‘ah) come before Moses with a complaint. At that point, in Biblical law, only sons can inherit their fathers. The father of these five had had no sons. So the five women went and stood before Moses, before Elazar the priest, before the heads of all the tribes, and before all the community, to point out  that this meant that their family’s inheritance would disappear, and they demanded to inherit from their father. Moses heard their cause, and took it to God. And God said to Moses, “The daughters of Tzeophchad speak rightly, give them their father’s inheritance. Furthermore, from now on, the law is changed -and then the passage goes on for a while to explain exactly how the law is to be changed.
In the passage this week in which the daughters of Tzelophchad are mentioned, there is a further clarification of the law, and then they carry out God’s commands, and they get married, and everyone lives happily ever after.
Together, these two passages make up possibly one of the most extraordinary moments in the Torah, in the Five books of Moses – and that’s no small feat. This is, as far as I can recall, the only instance of a regular, everyday person taking a complaint up to the highest levels --and causing an unjust law to be changed –by God, Godself! And not just a regular everyday person, but five women who have no father. This is, biblically, almost the very definition of a powerless person, a person with no one to advocate for them, and so, they advocated for themselves, marching up to the tent of meeting, which is their version of the marble cladded halls of power, and demanding that an unjust law be changed.
And surprisingly, the rabbinic sages approve wholeheartedly. In the code of Jewish law and commentary called the Talmud, one of the most canonical and central of Jewish texts collected over centuries and compiled around the year 500, the rabbis say (bava batra 119b),
  בנות צלפחד חכמניות הן דרשניות הן צדקניות הן
  “The daughters of Tzelophehad are wise, they are darshaniot – which means something  like interpreters of Torah, but also means something like seekers, and they are righteous.”
The rabbis add, “That they are wise can be seen from the fact that they spoke in accordance with the moment.” The great commentator Rashi adds, “Their eyes saw what Moses’ did not. “
The rabbis continue, explaining that we know they are interpreters of Torah – in other words, learned equals of the rabbis- by demonstrating that the women must have been familiar with the law, and brought their claim through logic and argument.   And the rabbis conclude that (Sanhedrin 8b): The daughters of Tzelophechad merited that the law be written through them…This is to teach you that punishment is brought about through the sinful, and reward is brought about through the righteous.
Remember the daughters of Tzelophchad, because we’re going to need them in a bit.
It’s hot outside.  It is, in fact, humid, miserable, and oppressive. This period of the summer, for Jews, falls during a three-week period of mourning leading up the saddest day in our calendar, the 9th of the month of Av, the day on which Jerusalem fell and the Temple there was destroyed. This moment of our history turns out to be, in many ways, the defining one of Jewish memory, and a pivotal event in the creation of rabbinic (that is to say, modern) Judaism. So we might want to ask, of the many possible ways to remember this event, how do the sages choose to explain what happened?

In the Talmud, and aso partly in another early text from the same period, a very early commentary (midrash) on the book of Lamentations, the rabbis retell the story of this tragedy: it begins with a party.

A tale is told of one of the wealthy men of Jerusalem who made a banquet, inviting everyone.

This man had a friend, Kamtza, and an enemy, Bar Kamtza.  [This wealthy man] made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. The [servant] went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man [who gave the party] found [Bar Kamtza] there he said, …what are you doing here? Get out. Said [bar Kamtza]: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.

[The host] said, I won't. [Bar Kamtza said] Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the [host]. Then let me pay for the whole party [said Bar kamtza]. [The host] still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out.

R. Zecharia b. Avqulos, who was capable of protesting, was there, but he didn’t protest. (In Hebrew)
Upon leaving, [bar kamtza] said, “I get thrown out in shame, and let them sit there in peace?!”

Said [bar kamtza to himself], Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them, to the Government.

He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. [The Emperor] said, How can I tell? [Bar Kamtza] said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar of the Temple]. So [the Emperor] sent with [bar kamtza] a fine calf.  While on the way he made a blemish …on the white of its eye, in a place where [Jews] count it a blemish but the [Romans] do not.

The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar [of the Temple – ie. That we do not follow the laws about sacrifices]. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Yohanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land....

This is … a very peculiar story. Given that the rabbis themselves redacted the Talmud, one would think they might not include this story, which does not put the rabbis in a particularly good light.

But the rabbis clearly felt the need to make this point: that the worst tragedy in our history, which resulted in persecution, famine, and the destruction of the central institution of our religion (at the time) was the result of a very human chain of events in which the leaders of the people turned a blind eye to one man publicly shaming another, followed up by that same set of leaders waffling in their responsibilities to act to protect their people from the malice engendered by their own actions.

In fact, in another section of the Talmud, one of the rabbis says specifically, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they did not rebuke each other: for it is said, Her princes are become like harts that find no pasture: (Lam. 1:6.)  Just as the hart, the head of one is at the side of the others's tail, so Israel of that generation hid their faces in the earth, (i.e. turned their faces away from the evil that the other did)  and did not rebuke each other.” (Shabbat 119b)

It seems to me to be a harsh, accurate, reflection on the failings of the leadership of the time. The rabbinic sages had a great deal to say about what a proper leader is. Elsewhere in the Talmud, they call out exactly the situation that seems to have been described in our story. They say, (Shabbat 54b-55a) Whoever can rebuke his household but does not, is held responsible for [the sins of] his household; [if he can rebuke] his fellow citizens, he is held responsible for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is held responsible for [the sins of] the whole world.

In other words, as Rabbi Zechariah b. Abkulas stood by and did nothing as a man was shamed, he is held responsible for not only the shaming – which in our tradition is considered comparable to murder – but for the results that followed.

This is possibly the exact opposite of the story of the daughters of Tzelophchad.
They are both stories about the relationship between regular people and people in power:
In the first story, the daughters of Tzelophchad feel wronged. They, through no fault of their own, have been deprived of their land, and they aren’t going to take it sitting down. And they don’t!

The second story is also a story about someone who is wronged, and who decides to do something about it.

In the first instance, the focus seems to be on the women and in the second, it appears to be on the leaders. And we might want to investigate why.

And this is the crux of the matter: in each story, both sides of the wrong have choices to make. As you recall, Tzelophchad’s daughters are lauded by the community, and even by God. They chose to stand up against injustice,  and they did it firmly – they didn’t ask, they instructed. And yet, they also clearly made a point of respecting the community they were in to do so, and so they were called wise, insightful and righteous.

Bar Kamtza made a different choice, he reacted to his – very correct- reading of the situation saying that he was going to get revenge against the leaders who failed to stand up for him, but in doing so he rained destruction down on everyone.

But in the case of the five women, they are given credit for doing things the right way, but in Bar Kamtza’s case, his role is nearly ignored, and it is the leaders who are held responsible, nd I believe that the difference did lie in the behavior of the leaders.
Moses listened. He took their criticism to heart, and he acted on it.
This made that event a stirring example not only of the power of common people to stand up for what is right, but of an example of what good leadership looks like.
In contrast, the leaders in Bar Kamtza’s case weren’t malicious, they were perhaps worse – they were apathetic.  Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulous did nothing as Bar Kamtza was humiliated and thrown out. And then together with the other leaders of the community, they failed to take any action at all.
The name for this three week period that Jews are currently observing is “Bein HaMeitzarim” which means “Between the straits.”
It seems to me that we stand here today, as Americans, “between the straits.” We are living in a moment in which our leaders are unwise, and we, the people, have to make choices about how to react to the deep unwisdom which threatens the social order.
We are, I believe, living with leaders far more like Zechariah Ben Avkulous, than like Moses. The daughters of Tzelophchad had the benefit of a leader who could hear  their wisdom and insight, and who valued their righteousness. That allowed them to stand before the community and repair what was broken.
And so it leaves us to wonder about what might have been. We know – we can see today – that some people love to blow things up. They want to see the crash. But today, it’s not just the  people who are hurting who want this – it seems to be the leaders as well.
What could have happened if Zechariah ben Avkulous stood up at the party and stopped the action, perhaps made peace between Bar Kamtza and his enemy? Perhaps he would have been unsuccessful at that, but at least Bar Kamtza would have seen that someone stood up for him. Perhaps he wouldn’t have then brought destruction upon the entire community.
And so, if our country is filled with bar Kamtzas who are hurt, and want to lash out at everyone, and our leaders are unwise, then, it must fall to us to be aware – to be Tzelophchad’s daughters – wise and insightful and righteous. If there is no Moses to help, then we must go all the way to the top and make sure that the inequity is fixed at its root.
The mystical book the Zohar says, “Rabbi Jose said ‘I was reflecting that the condition of mankind depends entirely on their leaders: when these are worthy, the world and all in it prosper, but when they are unworthy, woe to the world and woe to the people!’    -- Zohar, Sh’mot, Section II, 36b

In the medieval book, the sefer hakuzari, which is a dialogue between a king and a rabbi:
2. The Kuzari said, “Tell me how the upright and pious people of your religion behave.”
3. The Rabbi said, “An upright person is one who is concerned with his country. He provides all its citizens with their every provision and need. He leads them justly, does not oppress any one of them, and does not give to any one of them more than his rightful share ...”
4. The Kuzari said, “I asked you about an upright person, not a leader!”
5. The Rabbi said, “An upright person is a leader. All of his senses and attributes – both
spiritual and physical – submit themselves to his command. He thus leads them just like a real
world leader, as it says, ‘He who rules his spirit is greater than one who captures a city’ (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:32). He has shown that he is fit to govern – that were he to rule over a country, he would preside over it justly, just as he has done with his own body and soul.”

So what do we do when we have no leaders who are worthy? We must act after the model of the daughters of Tzelophchad.  We must be righteous and in justice and care for others, we must take our vision to the halls of power, and we must walk before the powerful and not ask, but insist, that the wrongs be righted.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Va'era: When God is hard within us

The Maor Eynaim (in his commentary on Brachot) says,
האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו, כך מתראה למעלה: אם בגדלות הוא, מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה
“A person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of aggrandizement (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.”

At the beginning of our torah portion, Moses is hesitant to appear before pharaoh. To reassure him, God tells Moses what will happen when Moses speaks to pharaoh. And God tells him, now, before Pharaoh has done anything, before Moses has even spoken to Pharaoh, before a single plague descends, that God will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply signs and wonders in Egypt.  

What most of us don’t realize is that God doesn’t actually harden pharaoh’s heart  until after the sixth plague – next week, actually- when the Torah finally says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

Many of the commentaries on this Torah portion reflect on the problem of Pharaoh's hardened heart. Some, on the troubling implication that if God hardened Pharaoh's heart, is there such a thing as free will or the possibility of repentance? Others focus on the two main characters who reflect opposite traits: Pharaoh is the arrogant king, full of pride; Moses is the hero, humble and reluctant. But both of these ways of looking at the story take for granted a particular view of the back and forth in the narrative over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart: that Pharaoh’s behavior is worse as he goes along.
And while most commentaries do accept this way of looking at the story, I stumbled across a comment by Rabbi Moses Schreiber (1762–1839), the Hatam Sofer that completely changed the way I saw the story.  He writes that until the sixth plague, all the plagues and warnings had had no effect because Pharaoh was so deeply involved in his own sin of pride… but with the last plagues, we are told that God hardened his heart, and that that was a sign that God was with Pharaoh. 

The Hatam Sofer is paying very close attention to the language at the end of our portion and the beginning of next week’s. He notices that at the very beginning of next week’s Torah portion, God announces to Moses that he has made Pharaoh’s heart heavy (10:1) and that this follows closely the end of this week’s portion, in which Pharaoh admits the possibility that he might not be doing the right thing. Pharoah says (9:27), “This time I have sinned, God is the Righteous One, and I and my people are wicked.” Although after the plague of hail and rain, Pharaoh one more time strengthens himself against God, the crack has appeared, and God is able to enter his heart. 

It is only now that a change occurs. To stress the point:
Pharaoh isn’t getting worse – this is where he gets better. Until the sixth plague, the aggrandizement, the gadlut, in his heart has crowded out all else. But suddenly, God is able to enter, and that is when the possibility of pressuring Pharaoh to change begins to be possible. When the Torah tells us that God hardened pharaoh’s heart, it shows us that God is in pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh can no longer keep God out entirely - Pharaoh’s admission that he is in the wrong has made room for God and for change.
The late medieval midrashic collection, the Yalkut Shimoni suggests that this is the beginning of a radical shift in Pharaoh. It describes what happens to him after his downfall at the crossing of the sea: he is sent to Nineveh, Assyria, to become its ruler. He is still there when Jonah arrives to foretell their doom, and it is for this reason that Nineveh repents immediately, and is saved from destruction[i].

We are all the heroes of our own little stories. Even the very powerful spend their time worrying how they will be perceived. They arm themselves with pride and honor – they make their hearts – as the Torah describes pharaoh – kaved – heavy, which has the same root as kavod, honor. They fill themselves up so nothing else can get in, and that makes it difficult for them to change their path, to do right after doing wrong. Pride and arrogance tell them that they can’t show weakness, and thus cannot change their path.  But until they do, until WE do, nothing new can come in.

The context of the words of the Meor Eynaim is this:  when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum (contracted Godself) to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

This reminds me of the words of the American Christian theologian Anne Lamott, who spoke about a time when she broke down in grief long overdue, and how that grief helped her realize that it’s okay not to be whole in and by yourself. She said, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

Pharaoh, too, had to be broken open so that he could allow something in besides himself. But it isn’t only rulers who often can’t see beyond themselves. We, too, each of us, often get “filled up” with our own worries and preoccupations, and it prevents us from seeing the world and its needs. It is only when we allow into ourselves a crack of something that is not-us that we begin to walk the road to redemption.

[i] ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת שמות רמז קעו

דבר אחר בו בלשון שחטא בו בלשון עשה תשובה, הוא אמר מי ה' מי כמוכה נאדר בקדש והצילו הקב"ה מבין המתים והעמידו לספר כח גבורתו שנאמר ואולם בעבור זאת העמדתיך והלך ומלך בנינוה וכששלח הקב"ה יונה לנינוה להנבא עליה להחריבה שמע פרעה ועמד מעל כסאו וקרע את בגדיו ולבש שק ואפר ולאחר מ' יום שבו למעשיהם הרעים ונבלעו כמתים בשאול תחתית שנאמר מעיר מתים ינאקו, לא ידעתי את ה'

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Spirit Experience at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church, January 15, 2017.
Reflections for Martin Luther King day.
"The service features inspiring reflections by The Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore, All Souls Unitarian, DC, Rabbi Alana Suskin, Americans For Peace Now, Interfaith Prayers (Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim), and excerpts from Dr. King’s writings; Special Music by the Howard University Choir."
Rabbi Suskin begins speaking at 52:17.