The Tenth of Tevet- Forestalling Disaster

Tomorrow, (Friday, December 13)  is the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tevet a fast day from dawn until Shabbat dinner (or nightfall when its not Friday)  In the year (425 BCE) the armies of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem. Over two years later, the city walls were breached, and on 9 Av of that year the Holy Temple was destroyed. The Jewish people were exiled to Babylon for 70 years.

 
Of the Rabbinically -ordained fast days, it is the most stringent in that we fast even on Friday before shabbat into shabbat. But why? Nothing really dramatic happened. The destruction and subsequent exile were not until much later.  

Perhaps the message is this…
The time to solve a problem is NOT when it has already become a disaster. If we are vigilant we can forestall problems at the very beginning. When the Jewish people saw the Babylonian armies gathered at their gates, THAT was the time to clean up their act.  Fast days are not for suffering. They are to remind us of our fragility and inspire us to repentance. They inspire us to change. Change is most effective before the problem gets too big.

So, whether we fast or not, we can use tomorrow as a moment to pause and see if there are any potential disasters gathering at the gates of our lives and take the inner and outer steps necessary to keep them from turning into real disasters, G-d forbid.
I wish you all a fruitful time of introspection,
Lee Weissman

Five “Lunar Lessons” In Honor of the New Moon

Lunar lesson 1: We have no light of our own.At our best, we reflect the light of our Creator.At our worst, we conceal it almost completely.

 

Lunar lesson 2: The service of G-d depends on lots and lots of new beginnings.

 

Lunar lesson 3: Don’t be afraid of the ups and downs, waxings and wanings. Even when your light grows dim, it is part of the process.

 

Lunar Lesson 4: We all look very luminous from a distance, get closer and you see the craters and wear and tear. And yet we are beautiful.

 

Lunar Lessons 5: There are times to be bigger and times to be smaller. It takes both great self-esteem and great humility to serve G-d.

 

 

The Curse of Being “Religious” – Part 1

The curse of being “religious” is that you are forever cringing at the behavior of one’s co-religionists. There is no avoiding the stark reality that no amount of religious observance seems to guarantee human decency. I cringe when folks confuse the crass or even criminal behavior of visibly Orthodox Jews with the teachings of Judaism.  Muslims recoil at the battering their faith takes at the hands of half-educated zealots.  Christians, Hindus, is there anyone who is spared the embarrassment of its lunatic fringe?  And worse, the lunatic fringe turns out not to be fringe at all.  The “lunatic” hater or cheat can be the otherwise very nice guy who prays right next to you, or the lady who seems to be the very pillar of the community.  One is never really safe from the curse.

Beyond the embarrassment, there is the nagging question. “Why?”  Why is it that people who engage in intense spiritual disciplines of prayer, diet, restraint of basic urges and study of scripture, exposed to the deepest wisdom of the ages end up behaving not much better than any old faithless ignoramus?  How do religions of love spawn haters? How do faiths that champion integrity produce cheats?  Where does the great chasm between theory and practice come from?

I have some ideas that I will share in the next few posts on this blog. What do YOU think?

My love/hate relationship with Halloween

Image by Rachel Levin (www.creaminta.com)

I admit it. I have a love/hate relationship with Halloween. I grew up with Halloween. Like every kid in my neighborhood in suburban Philly, I carved a mean pumpkin, threw a sheet over my head and visited all my neighbors. I came home with bags of candy, a few prized candy apples (from the hippies in the neighborhood) and ate til my stomach hurt.  I was not possessed by demons.  There were no witches coven meetings or any other pagan rights involved, just good clean American fun.

So what’s wrong with that. Its true that the origins of Halloween in pre-Christian European folk religion are a little obscure.  It was some kind of day of the dead where the spirits of the departed would come back to earth and wreck havoc if not given some sweets to placate them.  Mischievous little children with a natural sweet tooth made great stand ins for ghouls and thus the trick or treating was born.

The church didn’t like this so much so they co-opted it (a great strategy by the way) and made it into an “All Saints’ Day”  associating not just with dead people but with really good dead people. The apotrapaic  sugar fest was replaced by a Mass and Communion (and maybe a piece of cake afterwards).

It’s true that Neo-Paganism is kind of a fad.  Wicca has gone mainstream. If there were still Yellow Pages you could probably look up your local coven in them.  Maybe a few churches still have All Saints’ Day Masses.  I don’t think I know any pagans and I am pretty sure those cute little kids cramming my doorstep tonight will not be demon worshippers.

So what is the problem? Jewish Law is pretty clear that virtually anything connected with an idolatrous history would be unacceptable. (See the Appendix on Halloween).  Isn’t that just a technicality? Perhaps there is something deeper and more accessible behind it.

My faith teaches me to be a GIVER not a TAKER.   I am commanded to GIVE charity., even to give 10% of my income. On Purim, I am commanded to GIVE gifts of money to the poor and gifts of food to my friends.  From earliest childhood I put coins in my child’s hand to put in the charity box, so that her hand should become accustomed to giving.

Halloween is about taking.  It reinforces the “gimme gimme” culture that creates all sorts of badness. It has created a nationwide epidemic of cheating in schools  and a culture of callous lack of integrity in big business.  Maybe it begins with the little kids and candies. It begins with the expectation that all you have to do to get something sweet (be it a Hershey-Mini bar or a Ferrari) is wear the right clothes and be at the right place at the right time.

 

So, though I will miss the smell of the smashed pumpkin,  and the shocked look at seeing a 53 year old Chassidic looking Jew at their door, I think I will skip on going out tonight.

Am I really a good person?

Am I really a good person?
Abraham had had a very bad day. His G-d commanded him to sacrifice his own son. He climbed the hill, father and son both knowing what was happening. He bound his son, pulled back the knife and an angel called to him, “Don’t do it!” Relief? Yes. But imagine the stress, the worry, the tension. Abraham goes home to find Sarah, his wife of many many years, nearly his whole life, had passed away. Grief-stricken, broken, he has to find a burial place for her.
Here in America, you are met at the funeral home by a nicely dressed man or woman prepared to make it easy. Pick the plot, pick the casket, discuss the service. Done.
Not Abraham. He had the middle-eastern experience. Haggling, negotiation, subterfuge, all the elements of a good bargaining session. He could have screamed, “I have had a VERY BAD DAY! Now just shut up and tell me the price, already.” But he didn’t. He didn’t lose his cool. He was gracious and kind.
A character in Fiddler on the Roof once said, “Just because you had a bad day, why should I suffer.” Its true. If I had a bad day why should anyone else suffer.
That is what it means to be an Abraham, that is what is means to be a good person. I am not a good person yet, but thanks to Abraham, at least I know what one is.

The New Troll

The internet troll is perhaps as old as the internet itself.  In its beginnings, the internet troll was a murky figure who lurked chatrooms only to insert rare wry comments. I always assumed that they they were computer types, quiet men or women whose social phobias prevented them from fully engaging even in online exchange. They were people who were relative masters of the new technology who used the anonymity of the internet to express their sense of humor and love of irony.

The New Internet Troll is an entirely different sort of beast. He (my suspicion is that there are very few women) no longer has to be a master of the technology.  He no longer has much of a sense of humor and has replaced a mean snarkiness for irony.  The New Internet Troll, is a racist, sexist, misongynistic, anti-semitic or anti-Islamic (sometimes both!) technologized skinhead.  He mocks murder and mayhem, promises violence and oozes both anger and insincerity. The New Internet Troll is the poster boy for all this blog struggles against. He stands for the refusal to communicate, for the abuse of language and ultimately hate, the fundamental abuse of our souls.

If you trolls are out there and if you are reading this, I read my YouTube vlog and the comments you write and I have no idea what to say to you.  I don’t know how to tear the coverings of your heart. I don’t know what kind of love, what kind of words will get through to you.  May God help me find the words because you all are breaking my heart.

Jewish thoughts on Eid al -Adha

The Muslim celebration of Eid al Adha raises difficult questions for the sympathetic Jewish observer (That would be ME!)  On the one hand, Eid celebrates and commemorates what Jews and Muslims agree is one of the most powerful moments in the spiritual history of mankind. The willingness of our forefather Abraham to sacrifice his son, the willingness of his son to be sacrificed and the merciful response of the One True God to replace that sacrifice serves for both Jews and Muslims as the model of Divine service and message of hope for all mankind for all time.  It is an act that has powerful reverberations that ripple through history. On the other hand, the dispute over the identity of Abraham’s  son,  Jews claiming him to be Isaac (Yitzchak) and Muslims claiming him to be Ishmael (Ismail) stands at the center of our deepest differences.  This is where both Muslims and Jews stake their claim to a unique spiritual inheritance as the premier servants of the One True God.

It would be nice if there were truly some ambiguity here. While it is true that some few early Muslim sources do identify the son as Isaac, the vast majority of Muslim scholars disagree, citing this as rabbinic influence. In my opinion, Ibn Kathir’s analysis of the relevant verses in the Qur’an leaves little room for doubt. The Muslim tradition solidly holds that the rightful inheritor of Abraham is Ismail, making Ismail’s descendants the spiritual inheritors of Ibrahim. Certainly on the Jewish side, though sources note that Ismail is present and supportive of the event, all sources agree unequivocally that it is Yitzchak who is the sacrifice, making his descendants Bnai Yisrael the spiritual inheritors of Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our father.

Do I stand with my Muslim friends in acknowledging our common appreciation of the ideas and values that underlie this remarkable event or do I stand against them in defense of my heritage, by staking my claim our unique inheritance?  Should my Muslim friends recognize our veneration of the self-same values they espouse or  see us as some kind of usurpers?  I believe the answer ultimately depends on how you understand who Abraham was and the nature of his mission.

The Torah (Breishit / Genesis 12:2-5) records the following promise made by God to Abraham (still called “Avram”) as God commands him to leave his home in Iraq for Canaan.

And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.”…

And Abram went, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him, and Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. 

And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.     

 

The noted medieval commentator Rashi glosses “the souls they had acquired in Haran”

as “whom he had brought under the protection of the Shechinah (presence of God). Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women, and Scripture ascribes to them [a merit] as if they had made them.”

Rashi is telling us that long before Abraham’s family had grown, he has a spiritual family consisting of those who converted to his way by embracing  the path of ethical living and uncompromising monotheism.  Abraham’s influence on people is so great that it is as if they have been re-created.  His message gives them a new life.  Amazingly, this spiritual family of the believers precedes the existence of his physical descendants. It is the physical descendants that are grafted onto the believers not the other way around.  The Torah declares him a blessing to all nations.  In other words, Abraham’s ultimate mission is not restricted to one people but it ultimately universal.

There may be echoes of Abraham’s uniquely universal quality in the Qur’an (16:120-122) as well.

Verily, Ibrahim was (himself) an Ummah, obedient to Allah, a monotheist and not one of the idolaters. (He was) thankful for His favors. He (Allah) chose him and guided him to a straight path.  And We gave him good in this world, and in the Hereafter he shall be of the righteous

The characterization of Abraham as an ummah, as an “entire people” in potential or as a unique but somehow universal exemplar reinforces the message of the Torah. It reminds us once again that his message and mission is not narrow and restricted to one tribe, to one family, or to one people.

Was it Ismail? Was it Yitzchak?  We disagree. Our differences stand and sometimes those differences are very important. There is also a time to set aside differences.   Jewish tradition tells us that when Abraham died, his two sons joined in awe of their heroic father to bury him. This reminds us that there are times to set aside our differences and focus on our common heritage.

I believe that the descendants of Ismail and the descendants of Yitzchak can stand together once again in awe of the tremendous test of our common father and of his son. We stand amazed that Abraham, the embodiment of kindness, could overcome his own nature in submission to God. We are mutely silent at the young man’s willingness, even eagerness, to give up his life in his prime. Above all, we stand in gratitude before the One God who replaced the sacrifice of the son with the sacrifice of a ram.  We are blessed to serve a God who accepts our meager sacrifice of the will and gives us second chance after second chance.

A medieval Jewish hymn recited by Sephardic Jews during the month of Elul concludes with this beautiful remembrance of the binding on the altar.

Those who call to You, who come to bow in prayer

in the time of our distress

just as they hasten to recall the binding on the altar

so may You recall Your sheep in mercy;

The sheep who look to that binding.

 

Awaken Your might

to rouse those immersed in slumber

and redeem them for Your sake.

For those who are stunned and terrified,

may they draw upon Your mercies and kindness

from the heavens on high.

 

Oh God, King Who sits on the Throne of Mercy.

 

To this I add a prayer of my own.

 

Ribbono shel Olam / Rab al Alameen! / Master of the Worlds!

Help us to be like our father Abraham..

devoted to kindness and hospitality

an influence on others to do only good

obedient even when it is so very difficult

and able to stand up to the many tests that face us.

Let us see a time when the spirit of Abraham’s message and meaning

unites and repairs a once fractured and broken world.

Fields of Heaven

The message of “Abraham’s Tent” is that peace depends on appreciating our shared values and putting them into practice. This story is very much about doing just that. This is the story of three men, Ziad, Nahum and Shaul, two Jews and a Muslim bent on creating a farming village where Jews and Palestinians are able to demonstrate their ability to live in peace. May our Creator bless their efforts with great success, that they should be a light to the many.
Thank you to the Huffington Post for publishing this wonderful piece.

Fields of Heaven :A Joint Israeli-Palestinian Farm May Take Root in West Bank by Harvey Stein

What did you learn from Ramadhan?

One of the beauties that both Judaism and Islam share is an appreciation for “gradual” spirituality. The changes that really matter don’t take place in a sudden realization or even after a weekend seminar. Changes take time. Ramadhan creates a space for gradual change, a space in time to grow and learn. So what did you learn from Ramadhan? How did you grow? Please take a moment to share your experiences.