via Our Highest Hope
A Reflection on Micah
As I put the finishing touches on the 6000-word essay, I am writing for The Oxford Handbook on the Minor Prophets, a memory from the beginning of my career comes vividly to mind:
His mother walked into my office shortly before I began my internship as Rabbi at the fledgling 58-family Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland in 1973. “My son was scheduled to have his Bar Mitzvah on May 18 before my husband was transferred and we moved here,” she said with a slight air of desperation.” Can we celebrate it here on that date?”
Since the congregation had no B’nai Mitzvah scheduled, I quickly answered, “Sure.”
“You must understand,” she continued, Jeff has great difficulty with Hebrew, does not have a lot of self-confidence. I worry that with all the time we lost in our move that he won’t be ready.”
“Don’t worry,” I replied with all of the confidence befitting a wannabe rabbi who had never prepared a Bar/t Mitzvah student in his life, “I guarantee that that when the big day comes you will be very proud!”
It took hard work to keep that promise, but at his Bar Mitzvah Jeff did beautifully.
He effectively taught the congregation the essential lesson of Parashat B’hukotai that if we all followed God’s commandments, we could indeed create a just, caring and compassionate society. Yes, we can create a world where, in the words of the parasha, – No one shall cause fear (Leviticus 26:6)!”
That magical phrase appears eleven times in our TANACH, most famously in the Prophet Micah (4:4) who dreamed of the day when all of us would sit under our vines and our fig trees with none to make us afraid.
To me those words represent the highest possible hope for humanity: a world where no one will have to fear war, physical or sexual assault. If we are to uphold our end of our Covenant with God, we must not only dream of a world where no one will fear that he or she will go to bed hungry, lack adequate clothing or a home to protect them from winter chill and summer heat. We must work in whatever ways we can to make that dream reality.
Yes, that is our highest goal: a world “with none to make us afraid!”
As Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)
Some years ago I arrived in Jerusalem after a short stay and a long bus ride from Tiberias in the northern part of the country. At first I thought I would rent a car to travel a bit around Israel before coming to Jerusalem. Then I thought that I will save some money and be much more in contact with Israelis with whom I can speak Hebrew – one of the main reasons for my trip – if I avail myself of public transportation. Specifically that means Israel’s very good public bus system.
So at 8:10 one morning I boarded a lovely Egged coach at the Tiberias central bus station and began my journey. There were only a few people on the bus so I had two seats to myself – one for me and one for my carry on which was a bit heavy. Most of the other passengers were soldiers so I felt both very comfortable and very safe. My luxury excursion began as we made our way up into the mountains, and I enjoyed some magnificent panoramas of Israel’s breathtaking Galilee region.
After about an hour we arrived in Afula where the driver announced we would have a short rest stop. Many passengers boarded the bus at Afula, so my luxury two-seats-to myself-ride ended abruptly when a young man about twice as tall and twice as wide as I am claimed the seat next to me. Now I was scrunched next to the window with my carry-on on my lap. He looked like a typical young Israeli and we chatted a bit in Hebrew about the kind of innocuous things that strangers on a bus talk about.
When he received a call and began talking rapidly on his cell phone, I could not understand a word that he was saying. Frustrated, I said to myself, “I thought my Hebrew was better than that.”
Then I realized with a shudder that the man was speaking Arabic and that it was clearly his native tongue.
His name is Sameer, and he is a Muslim from Nazareth. He was not subjected to any discriminatory examinations or questions at the station. He boarded the bus just like everyone else.
“That is the way it is in Nazareth and in the north,” he said. “Muslims, Jews and Christians live side by side in harmony.”
“In Jerusalem because of proximity to the territories,” he continued, ” I feel uneasy just as Jews feel uneasy when they venture deep into the old city.”
I took a cab from the Jerusalem bus terminal to my hotel. My driver was a Muslim named Nael. He was pursuing his livelihood just like anyone else. The man who checked me into my hotel is named Muhammad. Same goes for him.
Yet, if you believe the anti Israel propaganda that spews forth from increasing numbers of places, you would think that the Arabs in Israel walk about in chains. Of course Israel must be very conscious of security, and for some Arabs and Palestinians in some parts of the country life is very difficult because of the acts of horrible terror that have been perpetrated against the Jewish State.
My experience convinced me that in order to have credibility every one should visit Israel to see with his or her own eyes what it is like there before commenting about its political situation. It is complicated to be sure, but putting the bulk of the blame on Israel before you see it with your own eyes hardly reflects reality.
No sooner does Israel declare her allegiance to God and God’s covenant then she falls off the wagon. Moses is gone forty days and nights, and during that time the Israelites become frightened. They are still very much in a slave mentality. And without the guidance of a visible leader, they lose it. They turn on Aaron and demand, “Give us a god we can see,” because who knows what has become of this Moses.
Aaron, to his discredit, utters not a whimper of protest. He tells the people to bring him their jewelry, and fashions an idol, a golden calf for them to worship.
“Why,” I have often been asked, “is Aaron not punished for his complicity in the peoples’ apostasy?” From a historical perspective, the answer is simple. It was Aaron and his descendants who had taken control of Israelite life at the time the Torah attained its present form. His descendants give us the Torah as we now have it.
The logical follow-up questions then are: Why is the story recorded at all? If Aaron and his descendants had the power, why put something in the biblical narrative, which reflects so negatively on the first high priest of Israel?
The answer is that the memory of the golden calf incident was much too vivid to extirpate. It would be akin to editing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the history books of the United States.
Hence, the priestly redactors of the Torah did the next best thing regarding the golden calf episode. They buried it. They did not place it in its logical place after the Ten Commandments and the laws, which followed them. Those who edited the final version of the Book of Exodus hid the golden calf incident in the midst of two long, and to some, boring accounts of the intricate details of the building of the desert tabernacle.
The Torah records: God tells Moses to hurry down from the mount as the Children of Israel have run amok. They have forsaken God’s wishes in favor of building an idolatrous calf to worship. God threatens to destroy the entire people, but Moses stays God’s hand, and asks, “How will it look to Egypt?” The Egyptians will think that You destroyed the people because you were not powerful enough to deliver them to the Promised Land. Now God might not have been a bit worried about how it would look to Egypt, but the point is that God and Moses were in partnership; and God heeded Moses entreaty to forgive the people’s great sin.
Then, Moses himself loses it. When he sees the people reveling before the calf in orgiastic fashion, he becomes so enraged that he hurls the tablets of the Covenant to the ground, smashing them to bits.
Eventually, God calms down, and Moses calms down. When it is time to put the incident behind them, God seems to take Moses to task for smashing the tablets. “Hew out two tablets of stone like the first,” God commands (Exodus 34:1).
The implication is that although Moses had a right to be furious, he had no right to smash the tablets. This time, he has to hew them out himself instead of God providing them as (the text seems to suggest) God did the first time. The lesson for us
is that we take much better care of something in which we have invested time and energy to create.
The rabbis take the story and its lesson a step forward in this marvelous Midrash. “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught: Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed…” (Palestinian Talmud, Shekalim 1:1).
Wow. The Midrash teaches us that we can learn at least as much from our mistakes and failings as we can from our triumphs. We all make mistakeseven big ones. But if we turn our failings into instructive lessons rather than letting them destroy our sense of purpose and self-worth, they can be of enormous benefit.
The golden calf story is a strong warning to all of us not to overvalue material things. One of my favorite prayers is, “Help me, O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain.”
Ray Stevens makes this prayer concrete for us aptly in a popular song of yesteryear:
“Itemize the things you covet as you squander through your life – bigger cars, bigger houses, term insurance for your wife!…Did you see your children growing up today? Did you hear the music of their laughter as they set about to play? Did you catch the fragrance of those roses in your garden? Did the morning sunlight warm your soul, brighten up your day? Spending counterfeit incentive, wasting precious time and health, placing value on the worthless disregarding priceless wealth.” (Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman,” 1968)
In essence, God brought us out of Egypt not just to be free of Pharaoh’s oppression, but also that we would be free to journey to Mount Sinai and accept responsibility for the Covenant God made with Abraham. Accepting responsibility means that we use our talents to create a more just, caring, and compassionate society. It is easy to lose sight of those values in our rush to make a living. During our time off, we rush around with the goal of amassing bigger, better, and shinier material goods.
Indeed, the golden calf is alive and well. It lives in our cities and towns, and if we allow it, the turbo-charged golden calf of today will take over our hearts and minds, as well.
The golden calf narrative is a quintessential illustration of the middle ground of biblical understanding. Who knows if there was a golden calf, and whether God became furious at our worshipping it. I do not take the story literally, but the truth of the Bible is not literal truth. On the other hand, I do not simply dismiss it as an ancient fairy tale. The truth of the story is in its message, a message that can change our lives if we take it to heart.
In recent decades we Jews – Reform Jews in particular — have submerged mention of the afterlife to the degree that many Jews frame the question to me as an assumption: “We don’t believe in life after death. Do we, rabbi?”
I would respond, “Yes, we do!” We just do not place the emphasis on after life as our Christian friends do. NOR are we as specific about the details.
For Jews attaining the reward in Olam ha Ba, the world to come does not depend on what we believe. It depends on how we live our lives.
My belief in life after death has two parts: What I hope and what I know.
What I Hope:
I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive in some way rewards from God in a realm beyond the grave. I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.
Speaking personally, my father died at age 57 and my mother, who never remarried died at age 88. She was a widow for more years than she was married. My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.
I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong and vigorous not weak and frail as they both were before they died. I hope and pray also that in some indescribable way they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.
I cannot, of course, prove that any of this is true. Yet I cling tenaciously to my hope.
What I Know:
But there is also an aspect of after life of which I am absolutely sure. Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.
At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel, The Rabbi the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager, and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches: “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise, know they are loved, and they rejoice.”
Each time we do something worthy because of their teaching or example, our deceased loved ones come alive. If we listen, we can hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred Covenant of our faith: Be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2) Study and follow God’s instruction! (Genesis 17:1) Practice and teach those you love to practice righteousness and justice (Genesis (18:19)!
And then, when we turn their teachings into our actions, we know – we absolutely know – that our loved ones are immortal, and they live on in a very real and special way.
When asked to comment on the Israeli film, Oslo Diaries, I noted that I see it as a valuable perspective on a missed opportunity for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. it is a sobering reminder that there were sincere proponents for peace on the Palestinian side. I also noted but that that the movie is a “hatchet job,” on Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
A friend wrote that if it is a “hatchet job,” it is a deserved “hatchet job.” He then went on to ask rhetorically if Netanyahu’s silence in the face of right wing sentiment against Yitzhak Rabin and Netanyahu’s words contributed to Rabin’s death. (Indeed that rhetoric is replayed often on Israeli television as the anniversary of Rabin’s death approaches each year.)
History has made Rabin the fallen crusader for peace, and indeed his death was a tragedy that set back progress to peace that has not begun to move forward since.
Still, to simply blame Netanyahu for the sorry state of current Israeli- Palestinian peace negotiations or lack thereof is an oversimplification.
I wrote back to my friend:
As you recall, I began my remarks about the film by saying, “I am no fan of the current Prime Minister of Israel.”
Further, I hope he will be indicted on criminal charges, and on more than one occasion I have publicly called for him to resign.
I also believe history will hold him accountable as your letter suggests, for his rhetoric in the days before Rabin’s assassination.
So I don’t disagree that he “deserves” it.
We often make the same mistake with Netanyahu that many who oppose President Trump make. In attempts to vilify them (even if they “deserve “it) we fail to apprehend and appreciate what makes them popular enough with so many people that they are elected (in Netanyahu’s case repeatedly) to the highest office in the land.
Netanyahu is now the person who has served Israel as prime minister longer than anyone else in its history. Is it only because Israelis are fools or greedy grabbers of Palestinian lands and oppressors of The Palestinian people? Or do we from the safety of Sanibel fail to grasp the existential threat to its existence, which Israel has lived (or perceives with lots of good reason that it lives) since well before it officially became a state? Do we fail to understand that most of Israel’s population descends from those who fled as refugees from Arab countries that robbed their families of homes, possessions, fortunes and lives?
They arrived in Israel with the shirts on their backs where they were absorbed, housed, taught a new language and the skills to make a living. They don’t trust the Arabs or any promises they would make.
Another significant percentage are refugees or descendants of refugees from the Former Soviet Union that backed the Arab world in their struggles against Israel. They, too, have no confidence that the Arab world will honor a commitment to peace with Israel.
Finally, there remain descendants of holocaust refuges who are well aware that Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League joined forces with Hitler, and vowed to perpetrate the destruction of Israel in a way that will remind the world of the Mongolian massacres.
Netanyahu – whether we like it or not — effectively speaks to their fears, and if we ignore those fears, we can never understand Israel’s reality, as we should.
So, just to say he “deserves it” should not blind us to the propaganda motive inherent in a film released just as an Israeli election campaign is getting underway.
The Hebrew Bible contains 23,145 verses and if I had permission to excise only one, I have no doubt which it would be: “Happy the one who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock” (Psalm 137:9).
Psalms 137 is a stirring lament over the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C.E. and the exile of a significant percentage of its population to Babylon. The rage and humiliation of the exiles, with their “harps hung on the willows near Babylon’s rivers,” is palpable as they commit to remember their beloved Jerusalem even as Judah’s captors taunt them: “Sing us some of Zion’s songs!” (Psalm 137:2-3, 5).
Coming as it does, so abruptly at the end of one of Scripture’s most poignant passages, verse 9 stuns the reader, and as Robert Alter writes in The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line.”
Perhaps the greatest strength of the Hebrew Bible is its honesty. As I wrote in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives, “The Hebrew Bible knows no perfect people. All of its characters have significant flaws.”
The same must be said of the biblical author.
We understand his (or her) anger at seeing his homeland conquered, his beloved Temple razed to the ground, and loved ones savagely tortured and killed. But to wish to brutally murder the infant children of the captors … that is too much. I find myself ardently wishing the editors had deleted the psalm’s final words.
Aside from the sheer horror they evoke, they distract readers from the power and beauty of connecting to the Jewish homeland, the way the poet, our people, and we ourselves do.
In the current debate about whether being anti-Israel is a form of anti-Semitism, we must remember that the land of Israel has been an inextricable part of our people’s covenant with God since God first charged Abram to go forth from the land of his birth “to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
In other words Since God first called us to be a people, the land of Israel has been part of what it means for us to be Jews.
Of course, it is possible to support Israel and criticize the actions or policies of her government just as those of us who love this country freely take its leaders to task for things they say and do.
But saying Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish State while failing to question the right of more than 20 Arab and Islamic states to exist is crossing a line to anti-Semitism.
In Leviticus Rabbah 36:5, Resh Lakish told the parable of a king who had three sons, each one brought up by one of his maidservants. So, whenever the king inquired about the well-being of his sons, he would add: Inquire also about the well-being of her who brought them up. So, too, whenever the Holy One mentions the patriarchs, God mentions the Land with them.
Psalm 137 is a magnificent statement of the centrality of Israel to our being. Can we ever forsake or forget Jerusalem? Never! But I would love to forget the psalm’s final verse!
(This essay originally appeared on the ReformJudaism.org blog)
O Christmas tree, cast along the curb,
What tales would you tell?
Were you decorated with tinsel
and heirloom ornaments
each filled with memory and meaning
and hung carefully on a branch?
Did you share a celebration filled with joy
and overflowing love?
Did you witness the reunion of generations
gathered from corners of the nation
or the world?
Did you see students return from college
in university swag
filled with new knowledge
and so glad to be home?
Or did you vainly try
to lift the spirits
of one alone and forlorn,
missing a dead spouse
and feeling forgotten
by family and friends?
O Christmas tree, cast along the curb
What tales would you tell?
(Reflection for January 4, 2019)
From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt, the story from the Torah Jews around the word begin to read this week, enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold.
Had God not freed us we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero.
People often complain that women are subjugated and powerless in the Bible.
Subjugated? Indeed, But by todays standards women in the 1950’s were subjugated. So it should not surprise us that 3000 years ago they did not enjoy the status we expect today.
But were they powerless? Not by a long shot. Without the role six women play the Exodus could not have taken place.
Shiphrah and Puah
Shiphrah and Puah were humble midwives. Pharaoh ordered them to kill every baby boy that emerged from his mother’s womb.
The most powerful man on earth – one worshipped as a god — gave them a direct order! The midwives, though, answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh.
Their bravery rings across the millennia as an answer to those Nazis’ who claimed they had no choice but to kill Jews because, “They were only following orders.” Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice. (Exodus 1:15-21)
Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid her baby in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree. Then she placed him in a wicker basket and floated him among the reeds of the Nile. What courage that took, but her gamble paid off! (Exodus 2:1-3)
Miriam, Moses’ sister watched the basket from afar. When Pharaoh’s daughter drew it out of the water, Miriam runs to her and suggests the baby’s own mother as its nurse. In so doing she saved her brother’s life. (Exodus 2:4-9)
Pharaoh’s daughter also is a hero. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses. For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name) (Exodus 2:5-10)
The final female hero of the Exodus is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so. The passage really does not fit into the flow of the story, so the rabbis could have interpreted it any way they wished. They could have deemed it crucial or inconsequential. The chose to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son! (Exodus 4:24-26).
The heroism of the women who played crucial roles in our Exodus from slavery is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking. The heroic women of the Exodus also provide wonderful role models for girls and women today to admire and emulate.
The now dented Pewter Mug won in 1966
Today marks the five month anniversary of my right shoulder rotator cuff operation, but today is more important for another reason: Our son Ben, our daughter-in-law, Kristin, and two of our grandchildren, four year-old Flora and eighteen-month old Logan arrived today from Connecticut for a visit.
Vickie and I are thrilled!
Aside from the sheer joy of seeing them, their visit takes my mind of the ongoing “it comes and it goes” pain I still feel in my shoulder. I had hoped that would be over by now, but I still ice regularly, go to PT three times a week and have need for an occasional dose of OTC pain killer.
And frankly, though I am trying to be patient, I find myself wondering if I’ll ever be able to play tennis again. It certainly won’t happen while this on and off pain lingers.
And then …
Logan came clomping down the stares dragging “the Pewter Mug” that I won in the fall of 1966 as champion of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), College Division, Draw II Fall Tennis Championships.
At the time I won it that Pewter Mug was probably my most prized possession on earth. It represented five of the best matches I ever won.
I was unseeded and not given much of a chance against Swarthmore’s Kirk Roose in the second round, but I earned a marathon (in those pre tie breaker days) 11-9, 6-3 victory. The semi final against Pakistan’s Sandy Salaun of Lehigh was also tough, but I won, 8-6, 6-2.
In the final my opponent was Bob Mendel of Franklin and Marshall. We split the first two sets, 3-6, for him and 6-4 for me. In the deciding set I jumped out to a 5-2 lead. “Don’t think this is in the bag, Steve. Stay focused,” I kept telling myself. And it wasn’t. Bob came charging back to tie it at five all.
Then (I can feel the nervousness I felt then as I type this) I told myself over and over, “Stay calm; don’t panic,” and I won the next two games and the match.
Now that tournament in Trenton, NJ, is a long way from Wimbledon in more ways than one. But I was over the moon at what I had achieved. There were long lonely afternoons of running on the dark indoor Hamilton College track that surrounded the hockey rink to prepare. I know those wind sprints pulled me through.
It was so long ago.
But today as Logan came clomping down the stairs with the “Pewter Mug” it all came rushing back.
Once upon a time I would have jumped up grabbed the precious mug from his tiny hands for fear that he would dent it.
Today, I could have cared less.
More than half a century later that mug and the other trophies I have won over the years don’t matter, But the life lessons I have learned from playing and teaching tennis surely do.
Playing competitive tennis has taught me: to always do my best, to be a good sport, to stay calm under pressure and most of all, to never ever look for any excuse for a loss except, “He played better than I did.”
I still hope to play tennis again, and if I do I will still try to win.
But having my children and grandchildren come to visit puts winning in perspective and gives that word a totally different definition, a definition I am thankful to understand.