A Reform Jewish Perspective on Tisha B’Av

The Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha B’Av on August 5 this year, is a day when traditional Jews fast in memory of the magnificent Temples of Jerusalem which were each destroyed in their turn first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then again by the Romans in 70 CE. The day also is a solemn one in memory of other historical tragedies associated with that date. For example, it is said that the beginning of the first Crusade in 1095, a time of persecution and slaughter of the Jews of Europe and in 1290 the expulsion of Jews from England both took place on that date. Tisha B’Av also coincides with the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

The meaning of this day of tragedies does not rank high in the consciousness of most Reform Jews, and that raises the question of what might we make of Tisha B’Av today

The destruction of the two Temples and the exile of Jews from our sacred land that followed, were occasions of death and suffering, and sorrow is appropriate. Certainly all the other historical tragedies associated with that date are important to remember too.

On the other hand, the centrality of the Temple in Jewish life ended abruptly with its final destruction and there seems to be little merit in reviving its traditions anew. Much of the Temple’s centrality revolved around its role as a place for animal sacrifice as a sign of repentance, thanksgiving or celebration. After the destruction and dispersion, though, the Jewish people found other ways worship built them around their synagogues and homes. Rabbis rose up from the community instead of priests and much of this has served us well as we wandered through the world. I know of no non-Orthodox Jews who wish to see a reconstructed Temple, a reinstitution of animal sacrifice, and a return of control over Jewish life to a hereditary priestly class.

While a tragedy of the time, the destruction of the Temple liberated Judaism to become what we treasure today, a religion based on the study of Torah, of prayer and of acts of kindness and compassion: a religion and a way of life that reaches deeply into everything we do. The very vibrancy and strength of the Jewish people over the centuries attests to the wisdom on what we have become and not what we once were. It may sound odd, but in that sense Tisha B’Av, in the age of a renewed Jewish Nation in Israel, can be seen as both an occasion of hope and optimism as well as one of remembrance and sorrow.

It is left to us to reconcile the remembrance of genuine tragedy with the possibilities for the growth and development of the Judaism that has been passed down to us. In that context I observe a fast on Tisha B’Av until mid day. During that time I study the traditional text for the day, the biblical book of Lamentations. At one O’clock I partake of a mid day meal grateful for the Judaism that has been bequeathed to us over the years, a Judaism that no longer slaughters animals and sprinkles their blood as a sign of gratitude or as a petition to God. I celebrate the fact that a Judaism without the Temple and its hereditary priestly class has been replaced by a Judaism we can all access and immerse ourselves in while we absorb the lessons our people gleaned over the centuries of wandering and before our return: that each of us should use our individual talents in our own way to make the world a better place.

Tisha B’Av for me is also the day when I begin preparing for the period of introspection culminating in the rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Impetus for beginning the process of repentance comes from the middle of the book of Lamentations.

“Let us search and examine our ways and return to he Eternal One!” (Lamentations 3:40)

This year, with war raging in Israel, Tisha B’ Av seems more real. Those who wish to destroy Israel use their women and children as human shields and somehow are convincing much of the world that Israel is not only the aggressor but guilty of heinous crimes. It is hard to imagine, but it is true.

Israel for its part must constantly balance the very legitimate needs of its self-defense with the impact its action have on its place in the world community. At the end of the day, we are as Balaam proclaimed long ago, “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9)

For Reform and Progressive Jews, then, Tisha B’Av can be both a day of mourning and a day of joy. We mourn for the destruction of the temple, but we rejoice that we have developed a strong, resilient means of surviving as Jews. We mourn not only for our fallen soldiers and citizens in Israel but also for the innocent people of Gaza sacrificed on their leader’s altar dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Mourning the tragedies of the past and the present we begin our annual process of intense self-examination. May we have the courage and the strength to search and examine our ways, strive to make our actions consistent with the will of the Almighty, and face the future with hope and courage!

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Author Excitedly Holding His First Book

photoThis was an exciting day!

My book is off the presses, and I received the first small shipment today.  I am thrilled beyond words!  I hope and pray that I will be able to get what I believe is the important message of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives to as wide an audience as possible. I wrote this book because I believe in the power of biblical stories–properly interpreted and understood–to transform our lives for the better.

I do not believe the Bible is literal, historical or scientific truth. I believe its truth lies in the lessons the stories can teach us that can make us better people.  I strongly believe in God, but I am convinced Biblical narratives–as I explain in the book–can have meaning for those who do not.

There is a reason more people have read he Bible, translated the Bible and written about the Bible more than any other book. I hope my slender volume will help you understand why and that it will change the way you think about your life and your place in the world.

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The Burden of Being Israel

Once again the Mideast is in turmoil. Some even claim it is on the brink of war. Predictably, but sadly, much of the world is blaming Israel.

Let’s take a sober look at recent events.  Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and brutally murdered three Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel. In retaliation Israeli extremists kidnapped and savagely burned to death a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir.  Furthermore, videos show Israeli police brutally beating Mohammed’s cousin,Tariq Khdeir. The Palestinian crime was met with cheers in the Arab world. The Israeli crime was met with shock and revulsion in the Jewish world.

Why I wonder does the world seem so much more outraged by the crimes perpetrated by Israelis against these Palestinian boys and the crimes perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis? Why does the world not take note that Israel prosecutes and punishes its terrorists, but Palestinians glorify and memorialize theirs by building parks and monuments in their names?

Why does the world begrudge the existence of a solitary tiny Jewish State when there are more than 20 Islamic (and or) Arab states.  In Israel Muslims serve in the Knesset and on Israel’s Supreme Court. Many are respected doctors, lawyers and business executives. By contrast in many of the Arab states a Jew cannot legally set foot. And yet, Israel is always made out to be the villain.

There are things I wish Israel would do differently. I wish Israel would never blow up houses in retaliation for Palestinian crimes. I wish Israeli policemen would never do what they did to Tariq Khdeir, no matter what the provocation.  Three armed Israeli policemen have no excuse for what they did to an unarmed Palestinian youth, and I hope these men spend years in prison for their disgraceful act.

Nevertheless, the fact remains. Israeli terror is an aberration. Palestinian terror is standard procedure. The fact also remains that Israel has been trying to live in peace with its Arab neighbors for 66 years. It is hard to make peace when you do not have a partner in the enterprise.

My prayer is that the Arab world will cease to sanction and sponsor the murderous terrorist campaign against the very existence of the Jewish State. Make no mistake. That is the issue. It is not about this border or that settlement. It is about whether or not the Arab world will countenance the existence of a Jewish state in the vast landmass of the Middle East.

At heart I do believe that one day the Palestinian rejectionists will come to realize that Israel is not going to simply disappear. One day, I pray, they will realize that it is in everyone’s best interest to live in peace and cooperation. It is in everyone’s best interest to renounce terror, and it is in everyone’s best interest to renounce the teaching of Jew and Israeli hatred that has poisoned the mind of nearly three generations of young Palestinians and other Arabs.

How long will it be until that “one day” comes? That is a difficult question. But we must persevere. We must persevere in our resistance to terror and in our pursuit of every option for a peaceful solution. We can do no more; we dare do no less.

 

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Another Thought About Balaam

Another Thought About Balaam.

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Another Thought About Balaam

Shabbat Balak has passed, but the beauty of studying the same portions of the Torah each year is that I always discover new insights. Today while leading Torah study at my synagogue (Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, where I am Rabbi Emeritus), I learned the following:

Balaam’s animal that speaks to him is a female. How consistent this is with the theme that it is often the female in the Bible who guides, instructs (or shapes the events surrounding) the clueless male. Beginning with Eve women like Rebecca, Tamar, the six women of the Exodus (discussed in an earlier web site essay), Samson’s un-named mother, Hannah, Ruth, Vashti and Esther are much more savvy than their male counterparts.

Bur there is more. Balaam was a world class sorcerer. The Sages claim that Balaam communicated directly with the Almighty (B. Zevahim 116A) and that he was the gentile equivalent for brilliance of Moses’ himself. (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20) And yet in the story, Balaam is totally oblivious to the presence of God’s messenger while his animal sees the angel clearly. Wow!

When we think of dumb animals, asses are the metaphor! They don’t come dumber than that. And yet the ass gets it and Balaam, the smartest man alive, is clueless!

What does that teach us? There is something we can learn from everyone! Never look down on anyone!

I first learned this lesson–very painfully–in the sixth grade. Back then I was pretty OK in school. Reading, English and history were strong subjects. I was even OK at math, and I say proudly, I was the best speller in the class. And if I am honest, I looked down on those students who had trouble grasping these subjects.

Then I had shop.

I was the worst. It took me forever to finish my first project and before I painted my “magnificent” dog door stop, I went to the teacher Mr. L. A. Molinari for instructions on the final steps. He told me what to do, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked him to please go over it again. Mr. Molinari snapped at me in anger, saying, “You weren’t listening! You’re through for the day!” And I had to sit–fighting back tears–doing nothing for the rest of the period at my work bench while the rest of the guys continued their work.

I get it now. In shop I was the dummy. Mr. Molinari pegged me as a slacker even though all I wanted was to be sure to do the right thing. In the meantime all of those guys (only boys took shop back then) who were not as good in English and spelling as I was were way more proficient than I was at shop.

What a vital lesson that has been for me in my career as a rabbi! We all learn in different ways. We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the story of Balaam the ass, dumbest of animals was able to help the smartest person in the world see the light.

What’s in It for Me? What does this story teach you and me? Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma said it best: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

To that I would humbly add: And the one who does not look down on anyone!

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Balaam Tried to Destroy Us, But Ended up in our Prayerbook!

Each morning, weekday, Shabbat, Holy Day or Festival, we begin our service with the prayer Mah Tovu. As thinking Jews, we should not be content to simply intone our prayers mindlessly! We will enrich ourselves and our worship if we make the effort to understand what they mean, what their literary-historical context is, and most importantly, how can they help us live more meaningful Jewish lives!
When I first came to Israel as a student in 1970, I purposely woke up in time to hear the radio station begin its broadcast day with the singing of Mah Tovu! We say Mah Tovu each and every morning when we enter the sanctuary to remind us of the lesson of the biblical story from which it comes.
As the children of Israel were on their forty-year journey from slavery in Egypt toward the Promised Land, Balak, King of Moab was afraid that we would overrun his land. So he hired Balaam, a world famous sorcerer, to put a curse on us so that his forces could defeat us! Despite all the riches Balak could offer, Balaam-– try as he might–could only bless us with the words: “Mah Tovu! How lovely are your tents …”
Balaam is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah! He was smart enough to be considered a prophet and even the intellectual equivalent of Moses! (Numbers Rabbah, 14:20; B. Sanhedrin 106A) And yet he was so dumb that he was clueless to what he should have done when his donkey—an animal synonymous in all cultures with stupidity—perceived God’s will.
Indeed, it is a perplexing exercise to reconcile Balaam’s brilliance and his spiritual blindness, but in the end he sees the light and blesses Israel with the words we use to begin our prayers.
What does it mean that we begin our prayers every morning with the blessing of a non-Jew who set out to curse us? It means that no outside force–-no Balak, King of Moab, no Pharaoh, no Haman, no Torquemada, no Tsar, no Hitler, no one–can ever destroy us! Only we can destroy ourselves. We can destroy ourselves by turning away from our sacred Covenant! We can destroy ourselves through apathy and assimilation! We can destroy ourselves by ignoring our obligation to care deeply not only about Jewish life in our own communities but about the viability of meaningful Jewish life in all of North America, Israel, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, Africa, Australia and New Zealand–everywhere.
No! No outside force can destroy us, but we can destroy ourselves by failing to apprehend and appreciate the message of the prayers we say, and failing to find purpose and meaning in our lives as Jews! Now that we have that understanding, let us begin our service with Mah Tovu!

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Excerpt from What’s in It for Me? How Could God Be So Cruel to Moses?

Originally posted on FindingOurselvesInBiblicalNarratives:

Tomorrow Jewish congregations around the word will read the story of “Moses hitting the rock” (Numbers 20). It is a controversial story with a vital lesson for all of us.

After nearly forty years of leading the Children of Israel through the wilderness, Moses is near the end of his rope. He snaps when the Israelites complain yet again that they have no water. God tells Moses to address a certain rock, and water will come forth. Instead of addressing the rock, Moses, still in mourning over the death of his sister, Miriam, loses his temper and shouts, “Listen you rebels. Shall we indeed bring forth water from this rock (Numbers 20:10)?” And then he bangs his staff three times against the rock as water comes gushing forth.

God is furious! Moses has made it appear that he – not the Almighty had caused the rock to issue water. However…

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One of Israel’s Greatest Triumphs

Today, the very upscale Mamilla mall that connects King David Street in Jerusalem to the entrance to the Jaffa Gate of the Old city is one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the world.  When I first came to study in Jerusalem in 1970, though, it was a depressed industrial area with a slum-like look.  How Israel has changed!

When I was last in Israel, at the entrance to the mall was a bronze sculpture of a man playing his violin on a street corner or a promenade.   Some of his strings are broken, but he perseveres.  His violin case is open before him, and it holds the spare change that passers-by have tossed into it.  It is how the man supports himself and his family.

If the $16,000 asking price had not been way beyond my budget, I would have purchased that sculpture for to me it is a magnificent symbol of one of Israel’s greatest triumphs. Between 1990 and 2000 Israel absorbed more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.  To give perspective on what that means it was a feat akin to the United States absorbing the entire population of France!

As you can imagine, it was not easy.  There were logjams in housing, job training, language training and many other necessities of starting a new life in a new country.  Doctors in the FSU worked as orderlies; PhD. engineers worked as janitors; and symphony orchestra level musicians stood or sat on street corners and played with their instrument cases open, hoping for a few shekels from those who passed by.

Whenever I visited Israel during those ten years, the sculpture that caught my eye at the entrance to the Mamilla Mall was an all too familiar and all too sad real life scene.  I still see the faces of these great musicians, and I still feel the sadness of their sacrifice.  Back home in the Former Soviet Union they held esteemed chairs in prominent orchestras.  But they sacrificed all that as did so many in other walks of life. They sacrificed their present to come home to Israel in order to give their children and grandchildren the future and with that future the freedom and opportunities, which the Jewish State would offer.

As we know, Israel triumphed and overcame those hard times!  Because Israel successfully absorbed so many highly educated Soviet immigrants, her economy has boomed, and it has become one of the leading high tech nations in the world!  Indeed Israel now has one of the strongest economies on the planet.  So many people from visionary leaders to dedicated factory workers have shaped the Israel of which we are justly proud.

For me, the symbol of that absorption triumph and is the sculpture of an elderly man playing on with broken strings with an open violin case before him.

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Trend toward Older Mother’s Is 1000’s of Years Old

The fifth of the seven traditional blessings recited at a Jewish wedding proclaims: “May the (Akarah) barren woman rejoice with happiness in the company of her children.” The blessing is an acknowledgement and an affirmation of the recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible of the woman beyond normal child bearing age who has children. While the term Akarah means “barren woman,” it is used exclusively – and in no fewer than seven cases – in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a woman who has children well beyond the normal child bearing age. The first of these is Sarah, Abraham’s wife and co partner in the sacred Covenant upon which all of Jewish religious thought bases itself. In that Covenant God promises Abraham and Sarah and their descendants: protection, children, permanence as a people and the land of Israel. But those promises are conditional. To merit them we (as God said directly to Abraham) must: “Be a blessing in our lives (Gn 12:2), “Walk in God’s ways and be worthy (Gn 17:1) and fill the world with Tzedakah, “righteousness” and Mishpat,“justice.” (Gn 18: 19) Sarah, of course, feels completely left out because she has no children. In despair, Abraham cries out to God: “What reward can you give me seeing that I shall die childless?” (Gn 15:2). Desperately Sarah invites Abraham to use humanity’s first known fertility procedure–having a child with a surrogate-–so that she can be a mother. She invites Abraham to cohabit with her handmaiden, Hagar who bears Ishmael. Eventually-–at the age of 90-–Sarah herself gives birth to Isaac. Isaac in turn marries Rebecca who is an Akarah for 20 years until she conceives and bears twins, Esau and Jacob. Jacob marries four women, but really only loves one, Rachel. And Rachel is also an Akarah for many years before giving birth to Joseph. Three of Judaism’s first four matriarchs, then, did not become mothers until middle age, and in Sarah’s case, well beyond. Leah, who bore children shortly after her marriage, is the only exception. Much later, Samuel, arguably the second most significant figure (behind Moses) in the Hebrew Bible is born to Hannah who is also an Akarah. The (unnamed) mother of Samson, the mighty warrior who delivers Israel from the Philistines is also an Akarah. Finally, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha each invoke God’s help to intervened and help two different women (both identified by the term Akarah) to give birth. Hannah and Samson’s mother share a vital common trait. They are steadfast, understanding and faithful, while the men around them (their respective husbands and Eli the High Priest) are clueless to the meanings of their divine interactions. What modern lessons are we to glean from these disparate but related biblical accounts? The fact that a disproportionate number of the Bible’s great figures are the offspring of an Akarah must be seen as a compliment to women who give birth during middle age or beyond. The many biblical Akarot (plural of Akarah) who give birth is testify to the correlation between desire to have a child and the level of nurture and love that child will receive. We all are all too aware of the many children born almost at random to young women who have neither the emotional maturity or the financial wherewithal, or the family support to become mothers. Often their children are the results of careless “accidents”. The middle aged woman who gives birth, by contrast, almost always does so with great intentionality and desire to become a parent. More often than not the children of such women are eagerly desired, lovingly nurtured and raised in a home where finances are more than adequate to see to the child’s needs. The Bible in its praise of middle aged mothers goes even further. It sees their years of desire and longing as worthy of special reward. They not only give birth, but they “rejoice with happiness in the company of their children” who are destined to play an important role in the history of the Israelite people. (This essay appears as a chapter in Cyma Shapiro’s recently published book: The Zen of Midlife Mothering)

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How Rabbi Fuchs Taught Me to Respect the Goat by Anna Albano (Guest Blogger)

(Anna Albano, well-known editor, translator, and blogger in Italy who writes under the name Faccio Testo has given me a very precious gift! Not only did she see the need and enthusiastically agree to translate What’s In it for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives into Italian, she also wrote the beautiful essay below. I hope she will include it in the Italian edition of the volume. I reprint it here with Anna’s permission. She has my deep gratitude!)

 

“What about those who don’t believe in such a God, or any God at all?

Can Jewish learning and practice be meaningful and beneficial to them?

Indeed, it can—without a doubt.”

I think this sentence contains the profound meaning and right use of the book you are about to read, whether you are a Jew or not. Rabbi Fuchs will take you to an extraordinary journey from Creation to Mount Sinai with extraordinary energy. “Extraordinary” means “out of the common order.” In that common order Eve would be the villain in the Eden story. Rabbi Fuchs beautifully revolutionizes this point of view (he places it “out of the common order”): Eve, he writes, “was willing to risk the uncertainty for the possibility of a life filled with meaningful achievement, satisfying relationships, and the ability to bring new life into the world. She was eager to abandon life as it was in Eden … We should see Eve as a truly heroic figure whose bold action inspired God to create a new society … “

In this sometimes whirling tour you will always find a focal point: we are here to make the world a better place, whether we believe in God or not. Just like God, we have the power to think, to analyze, to decide through our free will. Rabbi Fuchs succeeds in finding a meaning for our presence on this earth also (if not especially) for non-believing people. The smart idea is contained in a short Hebrew word, “k’eeloo,” meaning “as if”. Taking the “k’eeloo” way means behaving as if we were under God’s eye. It means to take action to bring justice and compassion in the world we live, it means complying to mitzvot even if we don’t call them such. It means to respect the people and the house we have been given by God, of which we are the tenants and not the owners.

What has a goat to do with all the above? In the story narrated by Rabbi Fuchs a goat had horns so long that he could touch the stars. Then a man showed up desiring to use this starry quality for his personal purpose and took a little piece of the goat’s horn. Then other men arrived with the same intent. In short no horn was left.

We must respect the goat. Our material needs should always be put under scrutiny and subjected to higher spiritual necessities.

This book can be our faithful beautiful goat. Read and re-read it, make it your companion. I have the privilege to be Rabbi Fuchs’s Italian translator, and the privilege to have had him as my first Rabbi. The title of this book, What’s in It for Me? suggests there is something for anyone. The moment I finished reading I knew what it is: an on-going refreshment of soul, an on-going Shabbat for everybody.

 

Anna Albano, Milan, Italy,

 

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