November 17, 2018

21 Years Ago: The Truth Hurts

Before God created the human being, according to alegend of the Midrash, He consulted the angels of heaven. The angelof peace argued, “Let him not be created; he will bring contentioninto the world.” But the angel of compassion countered, “Let him becreated; he will bring lovingkindness into the world.” The angel oftruth argued, “Let him not be created; he will be deceitful and fillthe world with lies.” And the angel of justice countered, “Let him becreated; he will attach himself to righteousness.” What did God do?He threw truth into the Earth and proceeded to create the humanbeing.

The Rabbis knew that there is a fundamentalincompatibility between human beings and truth. We don’t want truth.We can’t tolerate truth. Especially truth about ourselves — ourfailures, our limitations, our finitude. Once a year, at Yom Kippur,Jewish tradition forces us to face the truth.

Yom Kippur is an unusual holiday. We are such apassionately life-affirming culture. We cherish and sanctify life.Any ritual law of the tradition may be suspended to save or protect ahuman life. We say “L’Chaim!” (“To Life!”) over every glass ofwine.

But on Yom Kippur, we confront death. We rehearsedeath. We deny the body — fasting (which, for Jews, is a form ofdeath), abstaining from sexual intimacy, and removing our jewelry andfinery, our fashionable clothes, our polished, comfortable shoes, todon the simplest of garb. Tradition dictates the wearing of a kittel– a death shroud. In medieval monasteries, monks slept each night intheir coffins, to remind themselves that the wage of sin is death.That’s morbid. But to don a shroud once a year, to seriously confrontdeath, is cleansing. For, in the face of death, all therationalizations, all the excuses, all the defenses fall away, and weare forced to see who and what we really are.

The philosopher Franz Rosensweig taught that onYom Kippur, the Jew is given the unique opportunity to see his or herlife through the eyes of eternity. From the vantage of eternity, whatin our lives matters? What is real? What is important? What isvaluable? And what, from eternity’s perspective, are all the needlessobsessions and worries that waste our souls and sap ourstrength?

Despite all our evasions, the truth is that wedon’t have an endless string of tomorrows. Life is finite. And life’sfinitude forces us to have priorities and makes our choicesimportant. Pretend for a moment that you had only 25 hours to live.To whom would you run to say, “Thank you” or “I’m sorry” or “I loveyou”? What relationships would you attempt to resolve, to repair?What would you be proud of in your life? What would you regret? Whatwould you most miss? Now, why are you waiting? I have been a rabbilong enough to know that the saddest, most bitter tears at thegraveside are those for the life not lived, for the love not shared,for the tenderness not expressed, for the words unspoken.

“Teach us to number our days,” prays the Psalmist,”to get us a heart of wisdom.” Ordinarily a morbid thought. But oncea year, confronting the truth liberates us from the bondage ofillusions and excuses so that we can begin the new year with renewedstrength, with renewed vision, with renewed hope. Gemar Tov. May yoube sealed in God’s Book of Life for a year of sweetness and peace.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Don’t Win the Battle

A professor in seminary once asked us to find themost important section in all the Torah. We offered Creation, theShma, the Exodus, the revelation at Mount Sinai. No, he argued, it’ski teze l’milchama (Deuteronomy 21): “When you go out to war against yourenemies, and the Lord God delivers them into your power and you takesome of them captive, and you see among the captives a beautifulwoman, and you desire her, and would have her. You shall first bringher into your house, and she shall cut her hair and her nails, anddiscard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in yourhouse, mourning her father and mother…and then you may come to her,and marry her, and she shall be your wife. And if not, you mustrelease her.”

 

“L’Amour,” by William Mortensen,1936.

 

Why would anyone think this the most importantsection of the Torah?

In my den, over my breakfast table, or in mydeepest thoughts, I can be a moral hero. It’s easy to be a tzadik intheory. Deep in the heart, everyone thinks of himself as a goodperson. But to moralize in the abstract is the height ofsuperficiality. Morality is what happens in the real world, in themarketplace, in the world of conflict and competition. And thechallenge of morality is not to recite pithy rules but to look deeplyat the darker parts of our own souls; to examine and know the drivesand desires that distract our moral vision; to appreciate ourinfinite capacity to rationalize, compromise and excuse our own moralfailures.

What is real morality? The Torah offers us a studyof the moral worst-case scenario: the most amoral of settings, themost unrestrained of moral actors, the most vulnerable of victims. Hesees her on the field of battle and desires her with all the lustsand passions of battle. With rape, looting and wanton acts ofviolence all around him, no one would know, no one would care. Afterall, what is she? A captive, an enemy, the spoils of battle. He wantsher. And just at that moment, in that most unrestrained and amoral ofall circumstances, amid the smoke and screams and confusion of war,the Torah says, Stop. She is not an object. She is a human being. Andyou must uphold her humanity and protect her dignity. All is not fairin love and war!

The genius of the Torah’s ethic, argued myprofessor, is found in this unique combination of realism andidealism. The Torah does not reproach him for his drives. It does notcondemn his desire. Desire is natural; it is not evil. But neitherwill Torah allow its untamed, savage explosion.

“Who is a hero?” asks Pirke Avot. “One whoconquers his yetzer, his drives.” One does not uproot the yetzer. Itis part of us. But neither is it given raw expression. Torah permitsthe expression of drives and desire only in the proper relationshipto human dignity. So this ingenious rite is followed by allowing thecaptive woman to mourn and heal, and by allowing our soldier’s ardorto cool and his judgment to return. She is actually made ugly — herhead shaved, her nails pared — and she lives untouched in hishousehold for 30 days. If, after that, he still wants her, he maymarry her and afford her all the protection of his household.Otherwise, she goes free. He may not sell her as a slave — thenormal fate of captives.

On all the battlefields we find ourselves — incorporate offices, in community politics, in the marketplace, inpersonal relationships — when passions are high and indiscretionsoverlooked, when anything goes, the Torah demands reverence for thehumanity and dignity of the other. What’s at stake, after all, is notjust the other but your humanity as well. Ki teze l’milchama, whenyou go out to war, don’t win the battle and lose your soul.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion byRabbi Feinstein

SEPTEMBER 5, 1997 So Where Are You?

AUGUST 29, 1997 What’s Wrong with aCheeseburger?

AUGUST 22, 1997 Finding the AdultWithin

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries

 

Finding the Adult Within

“So, tell me, what are you looking for in awoman?” I ask.

“Someone kind and gentle, intelligent, educated,cultured, witty, fun, a professional, independent, but interested intraditional things, Jewish, haimish, warm, family-oriented…andthin, tall, attractive, blond, well-dressed.” He continues, but Irealize already that I know him. He’s my 3-year old. The open mouthof the infant: “I want, I want, I want.”

I know what he wants: a Playboy playmate who willadore him, cook like his mother but make no demands on hissoul.

He isn’t alone. He belongs to a whole culture ofchildishness.

My kids’ favorite video is “Hook,” the Peter Panstory, as told by Steven Spielberg. In this version, Peter fell inlove with Wendy and left never-never land. The boy who said that hewouldn’t grow up has matured to become a driven corporate executive,chained to his cell phone, without time for his wife, his children,or his humanity. Stripped of all imagination, playfulness and love,he is everything Peter Pan always abhorred about adults.

Suddenly, his children are kidnapped by his oldnemesis, Captain Hook, and Peter is challenged to one final battle.He returns to never-never land to save his children and, really, tosave himself. He is powerless against Hook until he recovers thatpart of himself denied these many years: the child within, hisspontaneity, imagination, capacity for enchantment — all taught tohim by the wise, loving Tinkerbell.

It is a touching, enchanting film. And it is deadwrong.

The problem of our civilization is not that wehave lost touch with the child within. Our problem is that too manygrown-ups refuse to be adults. Our problem is not that we have losttouch with the sources of enchantment. Our problem is that too manyhave lost touch with the wisdom of maturity.

Judaism loves children. All of our festivals –Pesach, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, Chanukah — put children at thecenter. God wakes up each morning, relates the Talmud, takes one lookat the world, and decides to destroy everything until He hears thesounds of children learning, playing, and laughing. He then decidesto let the world go on one more day.

Our tradition loves children, but we revereadulthood. Our tradition adores the spontaneity and imagination ofchildren, but we revere the wisdom of maturity.

This week’s Torah reading contains a sectionrecited in the daily Shema, a section that teaches the first lessonsof adulthood: “If you will obey the commandments that I enjoin uponyou this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all yourheart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season….Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow down tothem. For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He willshut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground willnot yield up its produce, and you will soon perish from the good landthat the Lord is giving you.”

Adulthood is about making choices. And choiceshave consequences. We must live with the consequences of our choicesbecause, despite our childhood fantasies to the contrary, theuniverse does not revolve around any of us. If we choose values thatare real, eternal, expressions of the Source of Life, we grow inwisdom and prosper spiritually. We make the world our home. We learnto love and to hold others close. We create life. If we turn away andchoose the never-never land fantasies of the culture around us — itsaddiction to entertainment, amusement, distraction — then we shriveland starve.

Somewhere out there, there’s a 38-year-old man whohas just learned this wisdom.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.

All rights reserved by author.

 

Read a previous week’s Torah Portion by RabbiFeinstein

AUGUST 15, 1997 Make the Time Count

AUGUST 8, 1997 ‘What’s the Meaning ofLife

AUGUST 1, 1997 A Warning toRevolutionaries

‘What’s the Meaning of Life ?’

Love answering children’s questions. I’ll visit a classroom and face an eager chorus of “DidGod create dinosaurs?” and “Where do people go when they die?” Then,at the end, there’s always one wise guy, who smirks and asks, “What’sthe meaning of life?” I love that kid. I admire his chutzpah, and Ilove the question.

This may be the last taboo. In our culture, people are encouragedto reveal every intimate detail of their lives, every personalsecret. In public meetings, at social gatherings and, if that weren’tenough, on national television, people shamelessly share every foibleand fantasy, every nuance of sexual adventure and interpersonal sin,every addiction and fixation. We’ll listen with rapt intent asstrangers recount their bouts with drugs and drink, theirinfidelities, their broken relationships with parents, spouses andchildren, the bizarre and the spectacular lengths they’ve gone toobtain thrills. That’s permitted. It’s even celebrated. But ask,”What’s the meaning of your life?” and the conversation stops dead.

Try dropping my young friend’s question at a cocktail reception ora summer barbecue. “So, what’s the meaning of your life?” People willlaugh. They think you’re joking. Isn’t that strange? Don’t we all, atsome point, need to ask this question with seriousness andreflection?

Why the laughter?

A homework assignment: On your way home, stop at a drug store andpick up a package of 200 4-by-6 index cards and a box of pencils.When you return home and find a quiet moment alone, write down on acard all that life has taught you. In medieval times, Jews left theirchildren a special will. More than instructions for dividing theproperty, it contained a summary of a life’s wisdom. Write one foryourself. To force your concentration, keep it short — no more thanan index card.

What have you learned from life? From growing up, from school,from marriage (and divorce), from raising kids, from making a living,from building a community, from saying goodbye to loved ones? Whathas life taught you? It might take 100 attempts — 100 cards written,then tossed out — to arrive at just the right words. When you doarrive at just the right words, cherish that card. Save it, look atit and update it each Rosh Hashanah.

You deserve to know the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of yourlife. Each of us, according to a mystical teaching, carries one wordin God’s message to the world. Wouldn’t you like to figure out whatyour word is? And if anything, God forbid, were to happen to youtomorrow, wouldn’t you like your children, your grandchildren, yourfriends to know?

The Torah portion this week describes a miracle. Moses findswords. This man who once protested, “Lo ish devarim anochi” –“I am not a man of words,” (Exodus 4:10) — now stands before hispeople with something to say. “Elah ha-devarim asher deber Mosheel kol Yisrael” — “These are the words which Moses addressed toall Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”

The 40-year journey has not only brought Israel to the PromisedLand. The 40-year journey has brought Moses to words. He hasdiscovered the message and meaning of his life’s struggle. And forthe entire book of Deuteronomy, the once mute prophet will articulatehis words.

My young friend asks the question, and he is shocked when I answerforthrightly.

When God created the world, it was left unfinished. We are God’spartners, assigned to finish the work of Creation. The world that weencounter is a mixture of chaos and order, of good and evil, ofdarkness and light. It is our job, as God’s partners, to bring orderto the chaos, to bring good out of evil, to cast light into thedarkness.

There is a corner of the world that only you can fix. You mustfind that corner and, by applying your energies, imagination andintelligence, bring wholeness and healing. In that direction, youwill find the meaning of your life.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

All rights reserved by author.

A Warning to Revolutionaries

Once, I was a revolutionary. I belonged to the generation of long hair and crazy ideas. We did more than invent rock music and protest an unjust war. We believed that we could create a new society, populated by new people — people freed of the prejudices and life-choking rigidities of the past. We believed that we could change the world, and bring greening to America.

America did change. But our dream went unfulfilled.

My parents, in their youth, were also revolutionaries. They left their families to build the new State of Israel. Anu banu artza livnot uli’heebanot ba: “We have come to the land,” goes the old song, “to build it, and in turn, to be built by it.” The Zionist revolution offered the dream of the New Jew — released from the poison of galut, free, strong, proud, self-reliant, embracing the best of ancient Judaism, but with backs strong and faces tanned from rigorous work on the Land. The State of Israel miraculously exists today. But where is this greater Zionist vision?

Bamidbar, the Torah’s fourth book, is about why revolutions fail. It is a warning to revolutionaries, a rebuke to those romantics who still believe in the one cataclysmic event that will forever free human beings from their chains. It is a response to those who foresee that, out of the apocalypse, the New Man, the New Woman, the New American, the New Jew will emerge. Here, Bamidbar offers, is the ideal case study: The people Israel freed from Egyptian slavery with signs and wonders. Those who stood in the presence of God on the quaking, flaming Sinai. The people who heard Truth from the mouth of God. And, still, they are unchanged, unrepentant, chained to their fears. The dream is beyond them. Offered the gift of true freedom, they clamor for meat. God offers them the Promised Land, and all they do is scheme to

Follow the Leader

A yeshiva outgrew its downtown quarters and moved to the former site of an upstate boys’ academy. Finding a boathouse on the property, the Rosh Yeshiva called in one of the rabbis and ordered him to organize a rowing team.

“Rebbe, what do we know from rowing?” the rabbi asked.

“We can master Talmud, we can figure out rowing!” the rebbe said.

So the rabbi put together a team, and his young rowers began to practice on the river. Soon, they were good enough to challenge and beat a local prep school. They challenged another and won again. When they had beaten every school in the vicinity, the Rosh Yeshiva called the rabbi in again:

“Now, we’ll challenge Princeton!” he said.

“Princeton, Rebbe? We’ve been rowing six weeks; they’ve been at this 300 years!”

The rebbe insisted, and the race was set. Princeton won by 20 lengths.

The despondent rabbi was once again called in to the Rosh Yeshiva.

“How did they beat us so badly?” the rebbe asked.

“Rebbe, Princeton has a secret: They have eight men rowing and one man shouting.”

Some say there is a crisis of leadership in the Jewish community. But our real problem is not leadership. Our problem is followership. We have strong and wise leaders. We always have. But we have never been good followers. Why is it so difficult and frustrating to forge compromise and build consensus in the Jewish community? Why is peace, or even respect, so rare in Jewish communal discourse, even in the best of times? Is it the Jewish passion for principle over pragmatics, or our inborn individualism, or a deep suspicion of authority? “Jews are the only people in the world,” said Abba Eban, “who refuse to take ‘Yes’ for an answer.” Anyone who has served on the boards and committees that govern the Jewish community and its organizations knows how painfully true that is.

And it has been true from the very beginning. We see ourselves, in the words of the divine promise, mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). But if everyone is a priest and holy, who has authority to lead? This paradox lies at the heart of Jewish community life. And this is precisely the claim used against Moses and Aaron by the rebel Korach in this week’s Torah portion: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

A healthy community must preserve a delicate balance between authority and dissent, containing a diversity of opinion within a unity of action. The curse of Korach destroys the balance by rejecting the very possibility of communal leadership and shared direction.

This curse of Korach is perhaps best perceived in the way our differences of opinion on matters of principle and policy so quickly and seamlessly turn into vicious personal attacks. Martin Buber was mistaken. Beyond the relationships of I-It and I-Thou, posited by Buber, there is a third: I-You-@’$%&*)@’!!, which is heard all too frequently in our communal discourse. “I don’t merely object to the position you represent, or the job you’ve done…I object to you. You are inadequate, corrupt, lazy and unfaithful to the Jewish future!”

Here is the source of our leadership crisis. Is it any wonder that the “mortality” rate among Jewish leaders, professional and lay, is so critical? Moses could command the ground to open and swallow his adversaries, and even he became discouraged at the carping, the whining, and the cruel personal invective aimed at him on a daily basis. What protection and support can we offer our leaders?

Every Monday morning, we read a psalm mizmor livney Korach, a song of the children of Korach. Somehow, in the unrecorded history of the Levites, a reconciliation was achieved, the community was reunited, and the children of Korach turned their discord into harmony. May we learn their melody as well.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

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The Spiritual Tourist

Near Mt. Amir in Israel. Photo from “Skyline” 1990

My neighbors completed an around-the-world trip. It was their dream, the trip of a lifetime. When we gathered to welcome them home, they eagerly described the journey’s highlights — the Sheraton in Bangkok, the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, a Clint Eastwood film in a Calcutta theater, Budweiser in Holland and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in Great Britain.

My neighbor, the “accidental tourist!” He travels the world to experience its wonders from behind an inch of hermetically sealed tinted-glass bus window. Bravely, he ventures out of the bus, protected by a huge Nikon camera slung around his neck — his life-support apparatus identifying him as a stranger, and keeping the outside world at bay. He sleeps at the Hilton, breathes filtered air and drinks bottled water. He wants to see the world, but he won’t let it touch him. So afraid of the new, the unfamiliar, the exotic, so afraid that it might shake his safe, secure, narrow world, so afraid of life, he visited all the world’s capitals, and, in every one, he ate at McDonald’s.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends 12 men on a mission, latur et ha’aretz (Numbers 13:16), to scout out, or more literally, “to tour,” the Promised Land. Upon their return, 10 offer the dispiriting report of the land’s fearful impregnability. Tourists they left, and tourists they returned. They saw the land but didn’t let it touch them, didn’t let it change them. They found no bond with this land; they were only visitors, not owners, not inheritors. Fearful and small, they knew that they didn’t belong: They didn’t belong in this place. They didn’t belong to this place. And the place would never belong to them.

Two men, Joshua and Caleb, heard a different commandment from Moses: Alu zeh (Numbers 13:17), “rise up,” or perhaps, “become an oleh.” Don’t go as a tourist; go as an oleh. Do not go in fear. Let the land elevate you; let the experience transform you; let this life moment move you. Go not as visitors, as sightseers, as strangers. This is your home. You are expected. You belong here. Fight for this place. Root yourself here.

The most important gift we give our children is a sense of their place in the world: You belong here. You are not just passing through. The world welcomes you and your unique contribution. You needn’t feel afraid, strange or unfamiliar. You have a right to be here. This world is yours, and, so, you have the responsibility and the power to transform and mend it.

But this courage is easily forgotten. The Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. An apt punishment. People who do not feel they belong are sentenced to a lifetime of aimless, rootless wandering.

At the portion’s end, we are commanded to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments, V’lo tarturu, “so as not to become a tourist” — so as not to shrink back in fear of the world, as if we don’t really belong here, as if we are just visiting, just sightseeing. Le’maan tizkiru, wear your tzitzit and be reminded there is work to be done to transform and mend the world. Be reminded who you are and why you are here. Your sense of belonging is the precious gift of your ancestry. Don’t leave home without it!


Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).