Thursday, December 20, 2012

Through the Cracks We Can See the Light


The breadth of terror cannot be deciphered through a gruesome body count, nor can it be encapsulated by a detailed recounting of a given calamity. The quintessential experience of terror occurs as its eerie message gradually permeates, and subtly haunts, countless bystanders who are ostensibly disconnected from the original assault. The aspiration of terror is not confined to a particular moment; rather, it is realized by the inevitable cultivation of a pervasive, and effectively inconsolable, anxiety. Twenty children and six adults were brutally massacred, yet no number is able to capture the extent and the comprehensiveness of our pain. As Judaism proudly affirms the infinite dignity of each and every individual, “26” seems to be a woefully inadequate description of the loss. Those “26” were not the only ones killed a week ago; a real part of every American was irretrievably lost. Each of us who experienced this tragedy, on whatever level or from whatever distance, is eternally tainted.

There is an important Jewish concept that  מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, our patriarchs’ experience did not exist in isolation; it is, rather, a premonition for future generations. My undergraduate thesis adviser, Professor Daniel Pekarsky, suggested that this concept should be foremost in our vision of Jewish education; we can, indeed we must, contemplate our own existence through the legends of our predecessors.

This perspective becomes jarringly relevant as we contemplate our position in the yearly Torah reading cycle. In a remarkable tale, Jacob’s sons have recently descended to Egypt, hoping to fetch food amidst a difficult famine. Unbeknownst to them, the viceroy, the very minister responsible for allocating food, is their estranged brother, Joseph. Joseph, deliberately declining to reveal his true identity, tactfully conceives of a series of mini-plots that will ultimately delay their mission. It will, he figures, provide him with the opportunity to detain his maternal brother, Benjamin, while simultaneously attaining information regarding his father, Jacob. As we approach the climax, Joseph instructs his servants to plant his prized goblet in Benjamin’s sack, and, as a punishment for Benjamin’s alleged betrayal, Joseph insists that Benjamin remain with him as a slave, while the brothers are free to return home.

Judah, in a display of great courage, frantically pleads with Joseph. וְעַתָּה, כְּבֹאִי אֶל- עַבְדְּךָ אָבִיו, וְהַנַּעַר, אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁ וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי-אֵין הַנַּעַר—וָמֵת .  “Now when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, since his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul; it will transpire, when he sees that the boy is not with us, that he will die.” In this impressive sign of parental love, Judah insists that the thought of losing another son will be so unbearable that his father will surely die. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a19th century German scholar, comments that, “as soon as [Jacob] sees that the lad is not there, he will die on the spot. We shall not have time to explain the matter to him, and try to make him see the matter in a less serious light.” In other words, the unimaginable pains of child loss would undoubtedly debilitate any loving father. The loss of a child, in a certain sense, accelerates, or may even perpetuate, the fatality of a parent.

By means of his love the father becomes part and parcel of his son. Onkelos, a second century rabbi renowned for his generally precise Aramaic translation of the Torah, offers an insightful interpretation of the words “his soul is bound up with the boy’s soul.” Rather than using the expected Aramaic term for “bound up” (ק,ט,ר),  Onkelos verbosely suggests that Benjamin’s soul is “beloved to [Jacob] as his own soul.” Any pain inflicted on Benjamin is simultaneously inflicted on his father. By enslaving Benjamin, Judah suggests the Joseph is concurrently enslaving a piece of Jacob, and a real part of Jacob will be irretrievably lost.

The core of Judah’s message is clear: the consequences of Joseph’s actions will not be confined to those directly affected by his verdicts. These decisions will have extensive ramifications that will go beyond the limits of any perceived reality. The pain will not just affect those that immediately surround him, but will continuously spread, as it strangles an array of hopes and dreams. Such is the power of tragedy.

As we contemplate the pain of a loss, I pray that we have the strength to appreciate the potency of our love. The “26” lives lost took with them a piece of each of us. Parents are now trepid as they send their kids to school; students now cringe as they climb onto the once hallowed yellow school bus. This mass murder stole our serenity and kidnapped our resilience, as it shook our optimism and faith in humanity. It created a schism, and irreconcilably warped our apparently naive vision of the world. There is no way to heal this schism, no magic potion to reincarnate those lost, and no plausible plan to reinvigorate our passion. Yet, we must move forward. Like Judah, we must stand up for love, and tirelessly defend human dignity. We must always be there for each other, for, at the end of the day, all of our souls are inextricably tied.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Experiencing the Omer

        What an exciting time it is in the Jewish calendar! In the span of just three weeks Jews throughout the globe have reaffirmed our freedom with the holiday of Pesah, we have celebrated renewal Rosh Hodesh Iyar, and we danced through the streets of Yerushalayim on Yom Haaztmaut, as we marked 64 years of Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisroel. Simultaneously, however,  we revisited nightmares of the Holocaust on Yom Shoah, and recalled the soliders lost defending this country on Yom Hazikaron. These are, without a doubt, two of the most depressing and trying moments of the Jewish year. There is a tension, an uncomfortable coexistence of two seemingly divergent depictions of the collective Jewish reality; are we amidst a time of unparalleled bereavement or are realizing the reinvigoration of a once hidden joy?

         On the one hand we mourn the 24,000 talmidim (students) of Rabbi Akiva, killed for a failure to respect each other. On the other hand, we bear witness a wave of blue and white flags flood the streets of Yerushalayim, marking 45 years since our capital’s liberation. The omer, it seems, is a confused and complex time.

         Really, however, it is a period of managing these dichotomies in our life. It is an opportunity to reflect, and to challenge ourselves to live life to its fullest, embracing both the opportune and the appalling. The first stage of achievement is ambition, the forerunner of anticipation is often anxiety, and the precursor to rebuilding is, unfortunately, destruction. We fail if view each of these different times as separate, isolated experiences; only when view them all in the context of holiness and see them all as crucial strands in the Supreme tapestry, can we really feel ourselves standing at Har Sinai, experiencing Hashem’s revelation.  

         This is a tension echoed by Hizkuni (a 13th century, French commentator) in his commentary on this weeks parsha, Acharei mot- kedoshim. Throughout kedoshim there are references to Aseret Hadibrot, each with a nuanced difference. L’dugmah (for example),  Hashem referrs to himself as Ani (I) instead of Anochi (the venerable I), and the commandments for Shabbat and kibbud av ve’em (respecting one's parents) are said in the passive rather than in the imperative. Hizkuni suggests that the reason for this is , בה לפי שכל הדברות כללות because all of the commandments are included in it. In other words, every experience that we have in life will be complex, and the key is to allow ourselves to experience it all.

      In one of my favorite teachings, the Mikhilta d’rabbi Yishmael on Parshat yitro (which was taught to me by Rabbi Ethan Tucker), we find the famous words.זכור ושמור,  שניהם נאמרו בדיבור אחד " (Remember and keep--the two different phrases used in the different recounting of the Ten Commandments--both of them were said in one utterance).Here, though, it is clearly not speaking about Ta’aseh and lo ta’aseh (positive and negative) mitzvahs. His other examples, show that what we are actually concerned about are two mitzvoth that seem mutually exclusive. That is to say, if I accept the paradigm of Shabbat fully as a day of zachor, elements of shamor are impossible, while if I accept it fully as a day of shamor, zachor is unachievable. The objective, it seems, is to somehow simultaneously accept both narratives, and realize that what initially seems to be an impossible tension, morphs into a rich, and fuller reality.

        Over this omer period, my kavana is to experience both elements, each individually, yet also as a unit, together. To allow the power of both realities to permeate my being, and to experience the time in the fullest of ways. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Let its Memory be for a Blessing

This week we begin the book of Shemot. What is fascinating about how most students learn this narrative is that before even reading the text for the first time, they have already been taught the outcome. Inevitably, the tragedy of Jewish enslavement seems less severe, because the student understands slavery is the first step towards redemption. The Torah intentionally devotes little time to the hundreds of years of Israelite enslavement--by chapter 14, the Israelites are already crossing the sea. Yet, it devotes more than three and a half books to the mere 40 years in the desert. The way that the story is told forces the reader to see the pains of slavery as the first step towards deliverance.

Today is a difficult day for our Jewish community. An institution that for years has nourished mentschlekite (integrity) and yiddishkite (Jewish being) in young students has closed its doors, for a variety of unfortunate reasons. At the end of this year, Jewish children will no longer be blessed with the gift of study at Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School. The school that was a staple of Jewish living and Jewish learning for so many, unfortunately, is no more.

When I heard this news, though not surprised, I was terribly saddened, and nearly brought to tears. It felt as though I was losing a piece of my childhood. But, I quickly realized that the real tragedy is not a building shutting its doors. The real tragedy, rather, will be if the morals that Gittelman so wonderfully cultivated became cheapened.

A well known teaching from Mishlei (proverbs) suggests that if you teach a child according to his way, he will never depart from it. The commentators disagree about the word “his.” Should it, in fact, be read “His”? The first reading teaches that each child is special, and nourishing that uniqueness will ensure faithfulness to his identity. The second suggests that to keep a child true to his identity, a child must be taught in G-d’s ways.

The beauty of RGHDS was that it never understood there to be a choice between these two models; rather, it saw both as nonnegotiable elements of a strong Jewish education. Each child was given personal attention and love, while simultaneously being challenged to think as a community—to imagine how to repair the world in Hashem’s image. From our adolescence we were taught to love both man and G-d; to respect both the transcendent and the imminent. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, Talmud Torah (education) was married to derekh eretz (strong character).

It is a shame that such a remarkable institution is closing down, but the real shanda (shame) will be if we neglect its messages. The Gemarah, in Berachot, teaches that the righteous never die, and I have often suggested that this is because their impact lives on for generations. Such is the case with institutions as well; its legacy must never burn out.

A famous Israeli folksong, Mah Evarech, depicts an angel deliberating on how to bless an unborn child. At the end of this beautiful song the songwriter cries: “the child is now an angel; if only G-d had blessed this child with life, these blessings would not have been in vain” The childs blessings seem useless without a body to house them. We have been given the blessings, and now it is our task to actualize them; it is our duty to be the body. Redemption from Egypt blossomed out of years of servitude, and a rebuilt and reinvigorated Jewish community can emerge from this time of difficulty. Moshe alone could not take the Jews out of Egypt; it took the participation of each Jew, packing their own bags, and heading on their own journey. Journeys entail a collective participation, so let us all work diligently to ensure that our heartbreak ends as positively as the Israelites—with Torah, once again, being given to the children of Israel.