Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Tale of Two Trees

On the front page of this morning's Boston Globe, a tale of two trees.
The first photo showed a tree in the Boston Garden on Tuesday, covered in snow in a lovely wintry scene.

The second photo showed the same tree in the Boston Garden the very next day. It looked like we had gone backward in time to autumn, as if the day before had never happened.

This past Shabbat we observed Tu B'shvat, the trees' birthday. Every year at the full moon of the winter month of Shvat, we think about, eat fruit from, and celebrate trees. The date goes back to the time of the rabbis, when this day was designated for counting the age of all trees for the purpose of bringing tithes. In other words, Tu B'shvat started as tax day for the trees.

From this prosaic beginning, entrenched in an agricultural economy, our holiday has blossomed into a myriad of celebrations. In Israel, the early Zionists enshrined Tu B'shvat as a tree-planting holiday. For 20th century Americans, Tu B'shvat became a day to think about the environment. And for the mystics of Tsfat in the 16th century, it was a day of bringing divinity closer to us by eating fruits of different categories.

During our mystically-based seder this past Shabbat, one verse jumped out: "A person is like a tree of the field" (based on Deuteronomy 20:19). Are we truly like the trees? What can we learn from the life of a tree?

Those photos in today's paper gave me one answer. One day we appear dead and without any hope. The next day we spring back to life.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once said:
Today is Rosh Hashanah for all the trees. It's a secret Rosh Hashanah. You know, you look at a tree from the outside (at this time of year), nobody knows the tree's at the end. Just God and the tree know. You see, friends, we all have little New Years between us and God. Nobody knows I'm at the end. Nobody will ever know how broken I am. Just me and God. And at that moment, God can give me a New Year.

Like the trees, we feel the wind blow about us, we suffer droughts and storms. Like the trees, we change over the seasons. Sometimes we appear to be dormant, quiet, and unadorned while, deep inside, we are growing, learning, reflecting. Suddenly, new buds sprout and we return, refreshed and renewed.

Like the trees we not only endure, we thrive.

Enjoy the trees and take care to protect them, and all of God's creation, every day of the year.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Time Will Tell

As elections go, if the news is bad, I take a philosophical approach: time will tell.
If the news is good, I celebrate. And then I step back and remember: time will tell.

Our own recent election was full of drama, suspense, high emotions. The Israeli elections were also treated with high drama, as commentators speculated on the results with dire forecasts.

All in all, I felt great relief when I heard the election results from Israel this week.
Here are some reasons why.

The best news of the Israeli elections was the voter turnout. One of the highest in recent history, 67.7 percent of the citizens voted.

More good news: 53 of the members of Knesset (MKs) are new, including 26 women, among them 
  • Pnina Tamano-Shata, the first Ethiopian woman elected to the Knesset.
  • Activist Stav Shaffir, catalyst for the 2011 movement for social change and, at 27, the youngest MK in the Knesset, joined on the Labor list.
  • Our Boston-Haifa partner, former Mayor Amram Mitzna and former chair of the Labor party, is returning to the Knesset on Tzipi Livni's Hatenua List.
  • Long time Jewish educator and advocate for religious-secular dialogue, Ruth Calderone, was voted in on the immensely successful Yesh Atid (There is a future) list.

Imagine what it would mean for half of the House of Representatives to be voted out of office, bringing in new voices? (Click for more details about the new MKs)

Elections make everything feel very urgent. The language of campaigns, and those who cover them, conveys a sense of ultimate threat or messianic promise-neither of which any democratically-elected government can fulfill.

Israel, like any country, is a complicated place. We can be smarter than the analysts and prognosticators and remember that the lives and thoughts of citizens will produce far messier - or you might say more interesting - results than headlines or sound bytes.

As we have been discussing in our Engaging Israel class, there is much more to Israel than the left-right divide, or the religious-secular divide. While the results show the Knesset split down the middle, with 61 votes for the parties on the right and 59 votes for the parties on the left, Israel is not a polarized society.

In fact, the big winner in this election was the center. Many who voted for Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish home) were actually secular centrists. Many who voted for Yesh Atid (there is a future) were actually religious centrists. Russian immigrants who had supported Yisrael Beiteinu (the right wing party, Israel is our home) in the past, fled the combined Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party to vote for Yesh Atid. Sound complicated? That's the point. The multi-party system in Israel thrives on the demographic stew of Israel's population and adjusts at every election as lives change.

For a ten-point summary of the complex lessons of this election, I recommend David Horowitz in the Times of Israel.

The following statement from New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch affirms my hope that change is possible and bolsters my belief that continued vigilance is necessary:

"Israelis went to the polls yesterday to elect a new parliament. Congratulations are due to all who were elected. The task of guiding Israel at this time will not be easy. The challenges they face -- social, economic, and security -- are immense.

"There is reason for hope. Widespread predictions of a shift to a harder right-wing coalition have been upset by a surge in support for parties at the political center. Moreover, Israelis elected a number of progressive champions whose track records show their determination to upholding equality and democracy. On election night, spokespersons from all major parties spoke of their determination to promote social justice.

"There is also reason for concern. The next Knesset will still include members who have supported legislation to constrict minority rights, to repress freedom of speech and conscience, or to trammel the independent judiciary and media.  The New Israel Fund will remain vigilant in our efforts to protect these core democratic principles and to ensure that Israel remains a free society.

"In September, on Meet the Press, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke eloquently about his support for human rights, for the rights of women, for freedom of religion, for freedom of speech, and for tolerance.  If Netanyahu is indeed charged with forming a new government, it's vital that he puts those words into action and incorporates those values into the governing coalition."

So I take a philosophical, or even spiritual, approach to these events. This too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever. My approach to Israeli politics (and to all electoral politics) stems from a place of humility. Humility calls us to recognize the limit of our knowledge and urges us not to judge too quickly. Humility also insists that we not abdicate our power, but, with patient attention, use it effectively. Time will tell.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Remembering Martin Luther King and Gun Violence

As we prepare for the long weekend and the observance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, my thoughts turn not to his birth, but to his death.

MLK's life came to an early and tragic end because of a gun. He was shot in plain daylight with a .30-caliber rifle. He was 39 years old.

This man who was committed to non-violence and courageously stood up to anger, hatred, and violence, was killed by a cowardly sniper's bullet.

So I ask myself, what would Martin Luther King Jr. say today about gun violence? Would he be satisfied with an assault weapon ban? Would he vilify the mentally ill? And, most certainly, he would not support adding more guns as the answer.

Whatever position he might take, I believe Martin Luther King, Jr. would urge us all to take a stand and not to give up. No matter how impossible it might seem, no matter how powerful the NRA has been, he would urge us to take action to stop this plague, a plague that randomly takes the lives of our children, whether on the streets of our cities or in a suburban school, in a shopping mall or movie theater or on a college campus.

This month, we have been reading the story of Moses in the Torah. Once Moses' eyes were opened to the horrors of slavery, he took action. But he did not succeed in changing the system. All alone, he killed an Egyptian taskmaster and fled to Midian when the deed became public. When God sent him back from Midian he joined his brother Aaron to stand before Pharaoh and proclaim "Let my people go." But even so, he did not succeed. Pharaoh only made the slave work harder.

Ten times, Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh. Ten plagues assailed Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Each time Pharaoh refused and Moses failed.

Why didn't Moses give up?

Why didn't Martin Luther King, Jr. give up?

One of the best known quotes by Dr. King sums up the faith that kept him going:
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

If we are to take this moment and change the way that guns are bought and sold in this country, we will need to take a stand and we will need perseverance. We will need to remember the legacy of Dr. King and the teachings of Moses. We will need to stand together and hold one another up. We will need dedication and we will need hope.
One last teaching from Dr. King reminds us that we don't need to be remembered by an entire country to make a difference. Each of us can make a difference:

If you want to be important-wonderful. If you want to be recognized-wonderful. If you want to be great-wonderful. But recognize that one who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve, you don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
Martin Luther King, Jr., from "The Drum Major Instinct" (1968)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Look Up!

This week’s dragon-mom controversy revolved around writer Janell Burley Hofmann, who used the Huffington Post to share the contract that she made with her 13-year-old son when she gave him an iPhone for Christmas.

My first instinct would be to ask, why does a 13-year-old get an iPhone? I myself just got my first smartphone (if you want to know, it’s a Droid Razor M). But I’m not about to quibble with parental discretion, especially when the gift came with a very thoughtful and accessible eighteen-point contract.

The author frames the rules by saying, “[I] hope that you understand it is my job to raise you into a well rounded, healthy young man that can function in the world and coexist with technology, not be ruled by it.” This is a worthwhile goal and one that most parents find mysterious and challenging: how to raise our children to be mensches in a world changing faster than we can comprehend, much less control.

What I appreciate about the contract, especially now as I’m getting sucked into trying out new apps and checking my email everywhere I go, is that these are words to the wise for adults as well. While the controversy is swirling around the peremptory nature of addressing children via a contract, I’m persuaded that the author intended it as the opening of a conversation, not as stone tablets handed down at Sinai. It’s a conversation we should all be having.

I did not plan to own a smartphone until sometime in the next decade. But when my six-year-old back-up cellphone died, I had few options. For the first two weeks, I treated it like a phone. Calls, texts. Then I began checking my email. Then I discovered a few apps to help me locate important websites: NPR, The New York Times, online whitepages, Facebook…. Soon, the apps became more entertaining. Someone put “Angry Birds: Star Wars Edition” on my phone and I couldn’t put it down for over an hour.

It is so easy for adults to be seduced into this bottomless pit of information, entertainment and trivia. Have a question? Ask the phone. I am in danger of becoming the person I dreaded when I avoided buying this portable computer in the first place, someone interacting with a small screen rather than engaging with the world around me.

Photo by Steve Garfield from Flickr
This same week, I found a wonderful feature in the Boston Globe (which I read in print form) called “Lift Up Your Eyes.”

The author, Jan Brogan, was urged by Jack Borden, fan of watching clouds, environmental advocate and creator of the website to look up at the sky every day as often as possible for twenty-one days. The experience that Brogan describes is a kind of spiritual practice. (my words, not his) On days 19-21, she writes, “It seems amazingly self-centered to have so narrowly focused my visual field until now that I did not bother to notice the medium I lived in.”  In other words, noticing the sky can be an opportunity for mindful awareness.

The article reminded me of a Hasidic tale that I love:

One day a Rabbi gazed through the window of his study which looked out upon the marketplace. People were hurrying to and fro, each attending to his or her own particular business. Suddenly the Rabbi saw a familiar face.

“Hikel!" he called. "Come in, I want to speak with you."
"Shalom, Rabbi, how are you?"
"Thank God, I am fine. Tell me, Hikel, what were you doing in the marketplace?"
"Oh, I'm very busy today. I have a lot of business to take care of."
"Hikel, asked the Rabbi, "Have you looked up at the sky today?"
"At the sky, Rabbi? No, of course not. I'm too busy to look at the sky."
"Hikel, look out the window and tell me what you see."
"I see people and horses and carriages, all rushing around doing business."
"Hikel, the Rabbi said, "in fifty years there will be other people in other carriages, drawn by other horses, and we will not be here. And Hikel, in a hundred years, neither the marketplace nor this town will even exist. Look at the sky, Hikel look at the sky!"

Looking at the sky, I am reminded of the importance of balancing my attention between the world at my fingertips and the world of eternity. Not so surprisingly, Janell Burley Hofmann made this same point in her words to her son:

"Keep your eyes up. See the world happening around you. Stare out a window. Listen to the birds. Take a walk. Talk to a stranger. Wonder without googling."

I think I’ll stop staring at my screen for a few minutes now.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013: A Moral Call For The New Year

As the cultural critics reflected on the past year, I heard several commentators talk about what a terrible year 2012 was. In many respects, events and incidents this past year feed the pessimist lurking within all of us, even inveterate optimists like myself. The horrific rise in gun violence, the ugly tone of divisiveness that accompanied the election campaigns, and terrifying storms like Hurricane Sandy are but a few of the sad memories of the past year. Each of these lingers into 2013 as we imagine more of the same in the year to come.

And yet, as I look back on the lives of people I know, there is much to celebrate and even more to appreciate. Families celebrating new babies, b’nai mitzvah, weddings and grandchildren bring smiles to our entire community. Our children’s academic achievements, no matter how small or great, give us pride and hope for their future. Many of us have been fortunate to travel to far-away places this past year, or to find pleasure in family vacations at local haunts. Even friends who have left jobs have created opportunities to seek out new directions and develop new skills.

Dare we celebrate in the face of the tragic events that overshadow our world? Can we feel joyful when others are mourning?

As we concluded Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, last Shabbat, I noted a similar tension between the trends of history and the lives of individuals.  The story of Jacob, and rabbinic midrash that elaborate on it, provide a model for celebrating life against the backdrop of historic events.

By the end of Genesis, Jacob and his entire tribe have settled in Egypt. They have escaped famine in Canaan. Joseph’s status as Pharaoh’s right-hand man has eased the way. However, as Jacob was preparing to leave Beersheba, God spoke to him by night. Just as Jacob had encountered God when he went into exile earlier in his life, here too God promises him protection, saying, “Fear not to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there into a great nation. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back…” (Gen. 46:3-4)  The reader knows, with some foreboding, that this descent will include the physical and spiritual bondage that will lead to the Exodus.

When Pharaoh and Jacob meet, the ruler asks the patriarch, “How many are the years of your life?” and Jacob answers, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life…” (Gen. 47:8-10) Indeed, Jacob has endured many trials, betrayals, threats to his life, and personal losses. His life has not been happy.

Jacob dwells in Egypt seventeen years before his death. The Rabbis suggest that in that time, for the first time in his life, he knew no sorrow. You might even say that, in his old age, he lived a life of happiness and joy.

In another commentary, the Rabbis also suggest that Jacob knew that his descendants would suffer as slaves for hundreds of years. The question beckons: could Jacob have been truly happy, or even without sorrow, knowing what the future would bring?

My answer lies in the classic words of the great sage Hillel, who taught:
“If I am not concerned with myself, who will be? If I am only concerned with myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14)

Though our hearts may break for the pain and injustice and terror in our world, we have  a primary obligation to take good care of ourselves. This means enjoying all the gifts that we have, ensuring that our days are filled with joy and gratitude and not allowing ourselves to fall into the clutches of despair.

However, we are not given license to indulge in our own pleasure alone. We must answer the moral call to take care of the world and our fellow creatures. Our fate is tied to theirs.

If not now, when? In every moment, we can cultivate awareness of both sides of Hillel’s coin. We cannot afford to wait to take care of ourselves; neither can we wait to bring justice and compassion to the needs of our world and the arc of history.

Being part of a religious community helps us to live in the seam between our private lives and the world. This is the balance that we seek as members of HBT. In that spirit, I urge you to please consider the volunteer opportunities that are essential to maintaining our high level of programming and community-building. Please find your place in our congregational life. Please step up! If not now, when?

And may 2013 bring us many occasions to celebrate, congregate, advocate and appreciate!