A Life Changing Event

Three years ago today  I was on my way from Fort Lauderdale to speak at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida, I suddenly realized that I was hearing nothing in my right ear. I thought it would pass. It did not, and it has not since.

The ear specialist had no explanation. He believes it is inner ear nerve damage and that it is permanent. An MRI showed a virus, but still there was no explanation. “Sudden complete hearing loss in one ear is unusual, ” the doctor explained, “but it is not unheard of.”

Life has been different ever since. Crowd noises are deafening. Large gatherings of people are no fun, and most of the time if I want to hear what someone says to me, I must look straight at their lips.

As I continue to adjust to the reality of having only one hearing ear, I am so very aware that so many people deal with much greater physical challenges.

It is my nature to look at things that happen to me in life with the same question I ask when I study a biblical story or narrative: What can I learn from this that can make me a better person? What can I take away from this unfortunate incident that can help me to better fulfill my Covenantal obligation to the Almighty to use whatever abilities I have to make the world a better place?

There is an old saying that has taken on new meaning for me since my hearing loss: “God gave us only one mouth but two ears, so that we would listen twice as much as we speak.”

Now I have only one ear that hears and that one–without my hearing aid–at considerably less than 100%. Listening is much harder now. As a result I choose to spend more time than before alone, reading, thinking and writing. When I am with people it is a much greater struggle than previously to absorb all that they are saying. I must concentrate on every word.

As I do, my silent prayer is: “Help me, O’ G-d, to really understand the word שמע, “Listen!” Help me to really LISTEN to thoughts, nuances and feelings better than I ever did before, even when I had two ears that heard.
Amen

An After Note on Partnering with Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman

A few days ago in a joint post Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman and I each shared our views on the mystery of God.

At the time of our posts Rabbi Edelman wrote me that she had tried mightily, but there was nothing she could do to remove a strange series of random letters, numbers and other characters that appeared at the end of our post. “OK, no big deal,” I replied.

Yesterday when I checked on our joint posting I found to my delight that Rabbi Edelman had magically transformed the collection of markings into a large beautiful question mark.

Today I see that question mark not as a nice decoration but as the main point both of us are trying to get across. We believe in God, but we still have lots of questions and doubts. The goal is to continue to ask them and struggle with them.

In a speech I heard several years ago Rabbi Harold Schulweis spoke of the phenomena of young people who become Ba’alay Teshuvah. The term describes those who were secular or who had even viewed Judaism with disdain. Somehow, though, they “saw the light” and became Orthodox Jews. They would describe their transformation as saying they chozrim b’ teshuvah, they “return in repentance” from the lives they had previously led. The word teshuvah also means, “answer.”

Much more meaningful, continued Schulweis, than “returning with the answer,” is to become chozrim b’she’elah, those who “return with the question.” The ideal is not for us to simply accept Orthodox belief and adopt Orthodox practice. The goal is to take our Judaism very seriously and struggle with it. We should freely question everything! But we should also infuse our lives with acts that affirm and re-enforce our Jewish identity and ideals.

The word Yisrael, Israel, does not mean one who believes in God or one who knows about God. It means, “one who struggles with God!” There can be no greater area of uncertainty than the nature of God, and faced with that uncertainty we have three options:

  1. Become Orthodox in our belief and practice.
  2. Discard religion because we can’t imagine a just God ruling over a world with as much evil in it as ours.
  3. Continue to ask and struggle with the questions that trouble us and try our best — with Jewish rituals and observances as inspiration –- to live up to the ideals of ethical conduct our Torah teaches the world.

Clearly Rabbi Edelman and I choose option three, and that is why I find her beautiful question mark such a perfect way to punctuate the messages we shared on the mystery of God.

Rabbi Renee Edelman and I each share thoughts on God inspired by the Torah reading for the Sabbath during Passover

God in Our Lives

Rabbi Renee Edelman

A little girl stands before the Community on her 12th birthday. It is Chol HaMoed Sukkot, the day that she will become a Bat Mitzvah and chant Torah for the first time. Her hands shake, as she stands behind the open Torah and begins to chant her parashah. She has lived with these words for two years. First, learning the Torah portion in English and Hebrew, and then learning the trope and putting the two together. Her voice is strong even as she shakes. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Cantor Lorel Zar Kessler cocoon the child. Even now, looking back upon that day, I felt that my stance matched the description of the Parashah. Rabbi and Cantor became the cleft in which I rested, and with the Torah before me and the congregation before the Torah, was the presence of God.

We read this week as we did then, the end of Ki Tissa. Frustrated with the people Israel over the incident with the Golden calf, Moses returns to the mountain to receive the second set of commandments. Moses asks God to lead the people Israel, “You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16) Then Moses asks the question, which makes this parashah so special, “Moses said, “Oh, let me behold your Presence.” God responds, “I will make all my goodness pass before you…. But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live… see there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes you by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:17-23)

This is a substantially religiously uplifting scene. Moses leaves the camp after breaking the tablets. He leaves behind the noise of the people, their possessions and their fear, to enter the Tent of Ego. Moses is motivated by a pure desire to be in the presence of God. And that result is a religious moment so intense that Moses has to wear a veil over his face to shield himself from the radiance. By seeing God, as he does, Moses is able to lead the Jewish people with strength from within.

How do we get to be in God’s Presence, when we are not Moses and not able to see or speak with God? We find God in the moments of mystery. I have watched my kids when they are occupied and if the moment is right, I feel this bubbling in my chest that has no words and I am overcome with silent emotion. I don’t know why I received the feeling at that particular time, but I did and I can only call it God. When our bodies have betrayed us, and we are terrified of the future, and how we will take care of all we need to do; and we realize, that we are surrounded by friends and family members, who will be there, present for us, perhaps that is God. Not the illness, rather the cocoon of friends and family. Hearing a song on the radio that brings you back to a time of joy or one of despair and realizing that this song comes on for a reason. For me, who does not believe in consequence but in synchronicity- those moments that seem too planned, too directed, I call God. May we all find ways to deal with the mystery of God in our lives; whether by defining them or acknowledging them, or giving them a name.

Once a little girl stood on the Bimah chanting these words, cocooned by her Rabbi, Lawrence Kushner and her Cantor, Lorel Zar-Kessler and her congregation was the face of God, revealing God’s self to all present.

 

 

Much About God Will Always Be A Mystery

Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs

 

Two months out of Egypt, Moses is on Mt Sinai to receive God’s Torah, but he took too long, to return, and the frightened Israelites slid back into idolatry. They demanded Aaron make a god they can see, and he fashioned a golden calf.

Furious at this apostasy, the Eternal One threatens to destroy the entire people but promises Moses a more worthy group to lead. But Moses — in one of his finest moments — talks God out it.

When we consider the Torah reading for the Shabbat during Passover it is Moses who is on the verge of giving up. “God, you have to show this people and me that You are with us,” he pleads. And God obliges him saying essentially, “I will make my goodness pass before you as you stand in the cleft of a rock, but no one can actually see my face. (Exodus 33:13-19)”

To me this is one of the most instructive statements in Torah. There is a reason we worship God and do not expect God to worship us. While Torah gives a good idea of how God wants us to act, much about God remains a mystery.

Many find the mystery of God hard to accept and create God in their image of what is just and right.   A horrific event like a child dying shakes their belief in God to the core.

Shaken belief inspired one of the best-selling religious books of all time, When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner. Reacting to the death of his son Aaron at 14 from premature aging disease, progeria, Rabbi Kushner concluded that he does not believe that God can be both all good and all-powerful. So he chooses to believe that God is good, but there is a force in nature beyond God’s control that claimed his son’s life. His theory brings comfort to millions and offers a palatable answer to the question implied in the book’s title.

But I do not think he is right. I choose to believe – as the Torah portion for the Shabbat during Passover teaches – that there is much about God that we cannot know.   I don’t know why a child gets sick and dies, and I never will. What I do know is that every day that I breathe, God desires me to use whatever talent I have to try to make this world a bit more kind, caring and compassionate.

I wish I could know why bad things happen to good people or why bad people often prosper. I do not know whether God’s power and knowledge are limited, but I know for sure that mine are.

 

Health Care: A Privilege or a Right?

         On Passover, we free ourselves — and seek to free others — from slavery.  Today, many are enslaved by inadequate health care. Passover calls on us to struggle for their freedom!

       I had finally gotten into the endotontist’s chair after a night and half a day of intense pain. The staff prepped me, and the doctor made a cursory examination. “I’ll look further to confirm my diagnosis,” he said” but I think the tooth is cracked and will have to come out.” Then he gave me a most welcome injection of Novocain to numb the area, and ease the pain. The doctor said he would return in a few minutes after the Novocain took effect to examine the tooth thoroughly to see if it could be saved. During the “Novocain intermission” the dental assistant came in with a consent form. It indicated that if the tooth could be salvaged, the root canal procedure would cost $1300 and invited me to sign a treatment consent form acknowledging that fact.

         What choice did I really have? With the pain that I had experienced during the previous 36 hours, I would have signed any form that offered a reasonable chance of relief.

         Now, because I am the husband of a former Hartford City Public School teacher, my coverage includes “full dental” which made the $1300 charge moot. But even if I did not have coverage — even though I would feel a pinch — I could manage the $1300 without lasting damage to my family’s financial situation or lifestyle. Far too many others across our land, though, are not so blessed.

         Was it my privilege to be relieved of my acute dental pain because I am financially solvent? Or should such relief be a basic right?There can be no doubt about the answer in this land of the free and home of the brave! Adequate health care should be the right of every man, woman and child!

           Now we must find the way to make it happen. We must make  the freedom of adequate health care available to all.  From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, failure to do so because some lack the means is a sin (DT 15:9). But if we find a way to provide all of God’s children with this and other basic necessities of life then the Torah promises: “The Eternal One our God will bless us in all in all of our deeds and all our undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 15:10)

It is a wonderful blessing! It is a blessing we should strive unstintingly to achieve at Passover and throughout the year!

        

 

Hard-Hearted Pharaoh

High on my list of Passover FAQs:

a) Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart?

b) Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and facilitate the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Undoubtedly, Pharaoh’s arteriosclerosis is a conundrum. In the text, traditional Jewish commentators point out early discourses between Moses and Pharaoh that state, “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.” (E.g. Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28). Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text evolves into, “The Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia—the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)—took the matter out of Pharaoh’s hands, and evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz parallels the unchecked acts of evil that Pharaoh committed, to those of Macbeth. At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong. He certainly fears to lay hands on his King, Duncan. With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience becomes a whisper, and ultimately relinquishes control over Macbeth’s treacherous impulses.

When in Act III, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her hesitant husband to kill the King, voices her reservations concerning Macbeth’s reign of terror, Macbeth responds: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 55). In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own; Macbeth can no longer control himself.

So it was, with Pharaoh.

Rabbi Akiba (second century C.E.) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in

Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way:

“At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and at last it is like a rope of a ship.”

(Genesis Rabbah 22:6).

Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said:

“The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day.

It seeks to kill him.   If God did not help, a person could not overcome it.”

(B. Kiddushin 30 b).

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to repress the inclination to do evil. God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort.

In other words, only through diligent effort and appeal to God for help, can humans overcome the inclination to do wrong. When we persist in evil, when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than us. Those uncomfortable with such direct references to the Almighty, but who still seek guidance from traditional texts, might choose to substitute, “appeal to the voice of our conscience” for “enlist God’s help.”

In Pirke Avoth (3:19) we find one of Jewish thought’s most enigmatic teachings: “All is foreseen. Yet free will is given.” As the rabbis understood God, the Almighty knows exactly what will happen. At the same time, the rabbis uphold the ability of human beings to make moral choices of their own volition. So, for the Rabbis, the fact that God announces that the Almighty would harden Pharaoh’s heart (first in Exodus 4:21 and again in 7:3) does not mean that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s evil. The point is that Pharaoh was in no way receptive to God’s guidance.

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart. God allowed Pharaoh to continue on his chosen course. God allows all of us to do the same. Although most of us, at times, have wished that God would step in and change people, but such action would rob us of the free will that gives life meaning.

Rabbi Stephen L Fuchs

 

One More Look at Elijah Before Passover

 

Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?

Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE.  But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.

It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One.  He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world.  With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us.  One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!

By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:

  1. The end of the oppression of the Jews
  2. A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
  3. The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
  4. The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity

People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah.  The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.

As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work.  Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago.  Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.

When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.”  Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

Six Women Made Passover Possible

Passover will soon be here, and sociologists tell us that more Jews will participate in some form of Passover Seder than will participate in any other religious event during the year!

From a religious perspective, the Exodus from Egypt enabled all subsequent Jewish history to unfold. Without Passover we would still be slaves in Egypt! Moses, of course is God’s agent in the liberation and the story’s foremost hero. The Book of Exodus, however, makes it clear that the role women play in that event is crucial. Without the actions of no fewer than six women heroes, Moses never would have gotten so far as to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Without these six women the Exodus could not have taken place, and we would have no Passover to celebrate!

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. They were only following orders. Shiphrah and Puah teach us we always have a choice.

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!

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.

The heroic role of Pharaoh’s daughter also should not escape our attention. She defied her father’s decree and saved Moses.   For this she received the privilege of giving Moses’ his name, and she herself received the name Bit-yah, which means “daughter of the Lord.” (Va-yikra Rabbah 1:3; B, Megillah 13A).

The final female hero of Passover is Zipporah, Moses’ wife. She circumcised their son Eleazar when apparently Moses had neglected to do so (Exodus 4:24-26). 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 to teach us that God would have killed Moses had Zipporah not intervened and circumcised their son!

The heroism of the women who made Passover possible is a strong and accurate answer to those who claim that women always play a secondary or subordinate role in Jewish thinking.

(My book, What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives discusses the role of these six women in greater detail)