Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told a story about a kingdom in which the grain harvested in one particular year was so badly tainted that it was unfit to eat. Whoever ate of the grain would become insane.
The King didn’t know what to do. If the people didn’t eat the wheat, they’d starve; but if they ate it they’d go mad. So, he turned to one of his closest advisors and asked what wisdom the advisor had to offer.
At first, his advisor suggested setting aside some untainted grain that the King and his court would eat so, at the least, they could maintain their sanity and lead the kingdom wisely during the time in which the people had sunk into madness.
The King, however, replied that “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy” by the people and no one will take what we say or do seriously.
The King considered the matter and finally decided that everyone, including him and his court, would eat the poisoned wheat, but he and his advisors would put a mark on their foreheads to remind themselves that they had become insane.
Jane Eisner, the Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Forward, wrote this week an op-ed that could well serve as the “mark” we put on our foreheads to remind ourselves of the madness into which we’ve sunk as a nation in this era of President Trump.
Ms. Eisner describes how Jared and Ivanka Trump are perhaps the most unqualified people ever to take on leadership positions in our nation’s history, that their ignorance of what’s required in the work they’ve been assigned by the President is equivalent to malpractice, and that their hubris is unprecedented in thinking that they can effectively perform in positions that require so much knowledge and experience that they do not have.
Do read Jane Eisner’s piece, save it and return to it from time to time to remind yourself of the madness to which we’ve sunk in this Trumpian era: http://forward.com/opinion/politics/369414/ivanka-and-jared-are-spectacularly-unqualified-and-why-that-matters/
For months I’ve returned home each day and turned on “Hardball” to hear Chris Matthews aggressively address the latest Trump outrages. I used to listen regularly to David Axelrod on the Axe-Files dissect journalistic and political phenomenon, to Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor on Pod Save America (formerly Saving It 1600 before Hillary lost) give the inside scoop on the most recent DC political machinations, and to NPR report what the Trump administration is doing. I have always read the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Politico, and Huffington Post. But increasingly, I am feeling so listless and deflated that I can’t seem to muster my righteous indignation enough to tune in regularly and read and listen to the news. I do check in from time to time, but not the way I used to.
Is it just me, or are you feeling the same way – exhausted, listless, and perhaps despairing?
We Jews just celebrated Pesach (a needed lift – I have to say), and I was relieved that at our Family Seder we stayed clear of the most contentious political issues because my family and friends feel burnt out as I do.
The larger challenge, of course, is what does this all mean for us and our democracy?
Does it mean that we’ve now left the building and are leaving Trump to do to the country what he has done to so many victims over the years?
I certainly hope not.
I know two things:
First, as the Chinese curse reminds us, we are living in interesting times, and there’s no telling what’s coming next. We have to gird ourselves and toughen up over the long haul.
Second, our democratic institutions are still strong, despite what Trump, Mitchell, Ryan, and many right-wing extremists are attempting to do, and there are many inspired servant-leaders in politics who are taking on Trump and Co.
In the meantime, we who are so exhausted need to remember that voting matters, supporting candidates we believe in matters and advocating for social justice reform, the environment, human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, diplomacy, reason, and common decency matter.
The Haggadah is an exilic document. For Jews, as long as the world is filled with injustice, cruelty, violence, and war, our work is not done.
Judaism teaches that the messianic era will come only when justice, compassion, and peace characterize relationships between individuals, peoples, and nations, when the hearts of parents turn to their children and the hearts of children turn to their parents (Malachi 3:23-24).
Through intention, determination, righteous deeds, and moral activism, our Jewish mission and the essential message of the Passover Seder is, through remembrance that we were once slaves, to address every injustice, every act of cruelty and every insensitivity to bring nearer the day when the prophetic admonishments will no longer be necessary.
My poem “Maror-Bitterness” that follows, is one in a series of d’rashot (commentaries) published this week in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal by a number of Los Angeles rabbis who reflected on the symbols of the Seder (“Rabbis Dish on the Seder Plate – April 7-13, 2017. Pages 36-38 – jewishjournal.com/culture/religion/passover/217641/rabbis-dish-seder-plate/). I recommend them all.
The Almighty called to the children of Jacob:
“I have taken notice of you / And seen your suffering / And sent to you my prophet / To relieve you of your maror-bitterness.
I carried you on eagles’ wings / And shielded you from the pursuers’ arrows / So that whenever you taste the maror / You will remember / Who I am / And who you are / And why you are free.
As I took notice of your ancestors / I call upon you today / The descendants of slaves / Who know the heart of strangers / And their fear and desperation / And do for them as I have done for you / And liberate them / The oppressed and the tempest-tossed / The poor and the discarded / The old and the lonely / The abused and the addict / The victim of violence and injustice / And everyone who tastes daily the maror-bitterness / That you know so very well.
As you sit around your Seder tables / I call upon you to act / With open, pure and loving hearts / On My behalf / And be My witnesses / And bring healing and peace into the world.”
Poem by John L. Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles
As we contemplate the massive refugee crisis and the bigotry and fear that Trump has stoked in his efforts to exclude these tempest-tossed human beings from entering the United States, and as we remember that 36 times (double chai) the Hebrew Bible reminds us that we were strangers in Egypt and therefore (per Jewish tradition) that we must resist becoming cruel, this poem by the African American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) speaks powerfully to the heart and soul of every compassionate human being:
“Speak proudly to your children / Where ever you may find them / Tell them / You are the offspring of slaves.”
We are headed into Shabbat Hagadol (the “Great Shabbat”), the Sabbath that always precedes Pesach. It is called “Great” because of the second to last verse in the Haftarah portion Malachi (3:23) where it is written: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the ‘great’ and awe-inspiring day of God.”
On this eve before Pesach, I know I am not alone in my increasing distress and anxiety about President Trump’s and his administration’s utter lack of respect for our democratic institutions, our intelligence agencies, the judicial branch, the fifth estate, the social safety net, the nation’s health care, public education, science, and climate change.
And now there’s more about which to worry in the wake of Trump’s knee-jerk military response yesterday to Assad’s nerve gas attack without informing Congress in advance or seeking its counsel while continuing to refuse to welcome desperate Syrian refugees into America or to provide humanitarian aid to the beleaguered Syrian population.
I keep waiting to hear what Trump’s foreign policy is other than a transactional exercise in which “winning” is the end game. There doesn’t seem to be anything cogent, strategic or visionary about it. His utter disrespect for diplomacy and the nurturing of international alliances, his maddening disregard for facts, his self-centered manipulation of the news cycle to distract the country from the congressional investigation of his campaign’s collusion with Russia, and his massive and obsessive blaming everyone else for everything while never taking responsibility for anything, worries and sickens me about where this country is going, what is happening to our democracy, and what moral standing America will be able to claim when Trump’s term is over or he ends up impeached.
The irony on this Shabbat Hagadol is that Trump has no idea what ‘greatness’ really means. His dominant message has nothing to do with the exceptionalism of America. Rather, it’s about how much better he is than all his predecessors and political adversaries.
Many worry how Trump will handle his first significant crisis. I have comforted myself with the knowledge that he appointed some substantial, seasoned, reasoned, and knowledgeable people to lead the nation’s security and defense establishments. I have taken comfort in the strength of our democratic institutions as well as in many of our political leaders who are as deeply worried as are the rest of us. And I take comfort in the fact that most voters did not vote for Trump so I can’t be in the minority about my worries and concerns. I want to believe, as well, that millions of Trump voters have awoken to how badly they chose on election day, which must be true given his historically low approval ratings.
What makes this holiday of Pesach “great” is its moral and religious vision, the universalism of its message, and its acknowledgment of how inspired leadership and the actions of morally based communities can actually change history for the better.
Shabbat shalom and Hag Pesach Sameach
The international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is deeply disturbing to Israelis and Jews around the world because it unfairly singles out Israel while ignoring all other nations that commit far greater human rights violations. However, BDS has become a significant distraction from the real existential threat confronting the State of Israel, the occupation of the West Bank and a lack of resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This past month Israel’s Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan brought the BDS fight home for the first time. He has sought to expand his ministry’s recently launched intelligence division that is collecting information on foreign BDS activists by compiling a database of Israelis working with the BDS movement.
The editors of the Israeli daily Haaretz reacted strongly against Erdan’s efforts:
“With frightening speed, Minister for Public Security and Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan is becoming the Israeli heir to notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy.” (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/editorial/1.778768)
Haaretz also reported that Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht have voiced their opposition to Erdan’s efforts and stated that the Public Security Ministry has no legal authority to gather intelligence and maintain a database on Israeli citizens.
The Editorial went on: “The struggle against the Israeli occupation, whether from Israel or abroad, is legitimate, just and moral – and every person of conscience is entitled to participate in it. Moreover, the means of struggle in question, boycotts and nonviolent sanctions, are legitimate in view of the illegal status of the settlements.”
Minister Erdan shot back: “A newspaper that calls on Israelis to oppose the struggle I am waging against the boycott against Israel and the BDS, apparently does not really understand what is happening here…Instead of Haaretz simply admitting that they support a boycott of Israel, they launched an attack on me, …I will continue to act so that those who want to bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state will pay a price for their actions, and those who get bent out of shape, you already know what will happen to them.” http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/227148
Haaretz described ominously the significance of Erdan’s attack on sympathizers with BDS: “Databases on political activists have always been a hallmark of the darkest regimes. It is there, under the darkness of tyranny, that authorities gather information on regime opponents and compile blacklists. With his actions, Erdan is aspiring to have this sort of regime in Israel.”
I believe that Haaretz is right. However, lest I am misunderstood, I oppose BDS because too many of the groups that support it are out to delegitimize the State of Israel. I also oppose BDS as it is applied against only West Bank settlements because I don’t believe BDS can be successful as a non-violent political tactic in ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
BDS is a significant challenge, as Don Futterman, the Director of Israel’s Moriah Fund, noted this past week in “The Promised Podcast.” But BDS is not an existential threat to the State of Israel, though it could become one in ten or twenty years when large groups of western young people who have been influenced by the BDS movement come into power and influence in their respective countries. https://tlv1.fm/full-show/promised-podcast/2017/03/30/the-bds-and-the-rat-bastard-conundrum-edition/
Focusing too much of our attention on BDS obfuscates the real existential challenge facing Israel – the occupation and the continuation of the status quo that will end Israel as a Jewish and/or a democratic state.
Those who place the settlement movement as more important than Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic nation are the greatest threat to Israel’s future, not BDS.
Note: I speak only for myself and do not necessarily represent the views of my synagogue or any other Jewish organization.
I offer this d’var Torah at the end of a week that for me has been exceptionally disturbing in the wake of the President’s dishonesty, self-centered heartlessness and bullying tactics along with the Republican congressional leadership’s efforts to make good on its promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rather than correct its problems, and thus take health insurance from twenty-four million poor and older Americans over the course of the next decade.
I have found myself these past eighteen months since the presidential campaign began and especially since 11/8 and 1/20 to be in constant need of a mental, emotional, and spiritual corrective to the corrosive spirit that has taken over so much of this country.
Learning Torah has always been for me such a corrective endeavor. And so, I offer here an edited d’var Torah that I posted originally three years ago concerning Betzalel, the master architect and builder of the Tabernacle.
God instructed Moses to choose Betzalel to design and build the Tabernacle that would carry the tablets of the law (Exodus 38:22-39:31). On the face of it, these verses describe a matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan for an ancient structure. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites that would impress itself upon the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of Jews to come.
Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. Only someone with extraordinary qualities of heart, mind, spirit, and skill could do the job.
We learn that Betzalel was endowed with wisdom (chochmah), insight (binah), and understanding (da-at). Rashi suggests that chochmah refers to the wisdom we learn from others; binah is the understanding we acquire from life experience; da-at is mystical intuition.
Though Betzalel was apparently the right choice, God asked Moses if he himself believed that Betzalel was suited to perform this sacred task. Moses replied: “Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!” Not yet satisfied, God instructed Moses: “Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Betzalel.”
Moses did so and the people replied: “If Betzalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too.”
The rabbis emphasized that Betzalel was not only God’s and Moses’ choice but the people’s choice.
This simple story of Betzalel’s selection teaches that Judaism regards a person’s devotion to God, Torah, and the people of Israel to be the key virtues of a Jewish artist.
Mark Chagall went further when he wrote: “The artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art’s sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life.”
The story of Betzalel and the commentary that was written over time are reminders that each one of us, the artist and non-artist, ought to train ourselves to continuously direct one of our eyes heavenward and direct the other eye upon human affairs thereby drawing us nearer to one another in love and support and to the cosmic core of the universe.
This is an orientation that can serve each of us well and, I suggest, can help direct the leadership of our country to fulfill the higher purposes towards which American democracy has sought to fulfill.
President Obama once said that the difference between him and Martin Luther King was that King was an inspirational prophetic leader and he, Obama, was a political leader. In biblical and rabbinic terms the Obama model compares with the functions of the priesthood that lead the earthly institution of the Temple’s sacrificial cult. After the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E., the rabbinic class replaced the priesthood as the institutional and legal authority.
This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) shines a light on these two modes of leadership and it’s all about Aaron and not Moses. Thirty times Aaron’s name appears. Moses is virtually absent except for three inferences.
Commentators explained Moses’ absence in a number of ways. One Midrash reminds us that God was preparing to destroy the people after the incident of the golden calf.
If God was to be so consumed by righteous rage and indignation to destroy the people, then Moses told God to destroy him too and to remove his name from the “Book.” Moses couldn’t conceive of his life without his people.
Stunned, God asked: “Moses, my beloved prophet, could you really stand to have your name taken out of this Book?”
“Yes,” Moses said “if it means saving my people.”
So God took Moses’ name out of this parashah to test the prophet’s humility and sincerity. Moses passed the test and God forgave the people of their greatest sin.
The parashah shines a light on the differences in two leadership styles as exemplified by Moses and Aaron.
Moses was the charismatic prophet – Aaron the institution-bound High Priest.
Moses needed no special clothing as the leader to reflect his authority – Aaron wore the “sacral vestments” as a visible sign of the dignity of his office.
Moses was willing to challenge God – Aaron would never do so. Instead, Aaron was encumbered by institutional and traditional constraints.
Moses broke new ground, met God on the mountain, forged a new world based upon a vision that was yet to be created – Aaron was contained, measured, conservative, and conventional.
Moses was dramatic and he defied custom – Aaron’s world changed slowly if at all.
Moses created a legal system from scratch – Aaron shunned disorder and chaos choosing instead to follow in detail what had been passed along to him.
Moses’ effect was inspirational revealing a soul that reached for the stars and communed with God. There was no one like him before, then, or since.
The question I’ve been pondering in light of this week’s Torah reading that contains no direct mention of Moses’ name, and in light of the vagaries inherent in the Trump era is this: What do people and nations need more – The prophet or the priest?
If truth be told we need both but in delicate balance.
Without Moses’ prophetic zeal there would be no vision nor any hope for an inspired, just, compassionate, and peaceful world.
Without Aaron, there would be little stability and order. Without law, humankind would succumb to the worst excesses of evil, avarice, greed, and selfishness.
The three times God addresses Moses by inference in this portion offer additional insight into what makes for wise leadership.
The first says: “V’atah t’zaveh et b’nai Yisrael… – You shall command the children of Israel…” (Exodus 27:20)
We need strong leaders to be confident enough to take command when necessary. However, a wise leader does not engage constantly and at every opportunity.
The second says: “V’atah hakrev eleicha et Aharon achicha v’et banav ito mitoch b’nei Yisrael l’chahano li… – You shall bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with you into the midst of the children of Israel…” (Exodus 28:1)
We need leaders that understand that they cannot effectively lead alone. A wise leader does tzimzum, contracts within oneself enough to allow others to step forward and lead as partners. Such a leader delegates authority to those who have expertise.
The third says: “V’atah t’dabeir et kol chochmei lev asher mileitiv ruach chocham… – And you shall speak to all those wise in heart and filled with the spirit of wisdom…” (Exodus 28:3).
The wise leader presumes that others too are wise.
Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership styles taken together include the virtues of vision, wisdom, humility, moral rectitude, a love of truth, a love of humanity, and a respect for the dignity of every human being.
The reason that the Trump era is so confusing is because the President is not a prophet because he is incapable of transcending himself and empathizing with the “other.”
Nor is he a priest because he can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and he is utterly unfamiliar with and not curious about learning the rules of the game and how the government actually works.
So, what do we citizens do?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the civil rights movement of the 1960s gave the American liberal Jewish community its moral voice.
Is this not what is now occurring not only for the Jewish community but for all reasonable people (regardless of political party) of all faiths, cultures, races, national backgrounds, and gender identities?
This engaged moral activism that we are seeing everywhere offers me both comfort and hope. This will have to suffice for now.