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.
On March 26, I posted a blog announcing the publication of a new Haggadah “A Jubilee Haggadah Marking the 50th Year Since the 1967 War” that brought together thirty Israeli and American Jewish peace activists (including me) who offered commentaries on aspects of the traditional Haggadah. See https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/a-jubilee-haggadah-marking-the-50th-year-since-the-1967-war/
I opened the blog announcing that
“A new Haggadah has just been published by SISO (“Save Israel – Stop the Occupation”). It is called the Jubilee Haggadah because it marks the 50th year since the 1967 War, a turning point in the history of the modern State of Israel that the writers and editors conjoin with the biblical Jubilee commandment – “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” (Leviticus 25:10) – and with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty.
The Haggadah is part of a new initiative begun by prominent Israeli individuals and organizations in partnership with Jewish leaders around the world who believe that the prolonged Israeli military occupation poses a very real threat to Israel’s safety and well-being, and undermines the moral and democratic fabric of Israel and its standing in the community of nations. See SISO’s website – https://www.siso.org.il.”
I received a thoughtful and friendly reply in Hebrew from Dr. Zioni Ben Yair (I do not know him) that said (translation is mine):
“I certainly sympathize with the need to break free from the corruption of the occupation [of the West Bank] because it contradicts the Torah and Haggadah and it’s making us an undemocratic apartheid state. Nevertheless, I believe we must continue to use the Haggadah as it is without changing even a single letter. The Haggadah has been read during all 82 years of my life, in different situations, in different countries and under different and unique circumstances, and in many cases, there are no proper reasons for change and new formulations….We need to be able to continue to read the Haggadah literally as we are used to doing from time immemorial.” (See Dr. Ben Yair’s original Hebrew letter: https://rabbijohnrosove.wordpress.com/2017/03/26/a-jubilee-haggadah-marking-the-50th-year-since-the-1967-war/#comments
This past week in The Forward, J.J. Goldberg wrote a piece he called “Is Passover Broken Beyond Repair?” in which he discusses a plethora of new Haggadot written over the decades that is a fitting response to Dr. Ben Yair’s comments – see http://forward.com/opinion/israel/368555/is-passover-broken-beyond-repair/?attribution=author-article-listing-2-headline.
Once you read JJ’s article, I suggest asking who is right – The traditionalists who wish not to change a word of the traditional Haggadah, or the innovators of new Haggadot who seek to apply the historic Jewish experience of victimization and liberation to others?
In my response to Dr. Ben Yair, I noted that the traditional Haggadah is a compilation of Midrashim, commentaries, stories, rituals, and symbols that entered the Haggadah over the centuries for specific reasons. A prime example is the custom of opening the door for Elijah, a relatively “recent” addition to the Seder (500-600 years ago) that was introduced during times of anti-Semitic persecution and violence provoked by the blood libel accusation.
Jews opened their doors to show Christians who were sensitive to the New Testament’s deicide accusation against the Jews who happened to be passing by that nothing horrific and sacrilegious was taking place in Jewish homes.
I suggested to Dr. Ben Yair, whose letter shows his concern about the corrupting effect of the occupation on West Bank Palestinians, on the soul of the Jewish people and State of Israel that for the Seder to remain meaningful today, in our generation, its themes of liberation, justice, and compassion must be applied not only to our own Jewish conditions but to the injustices suffered by peoples everywhere.
What do you think?
This past week I was invited to speak to fifteen soon-to-be-ordained rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. I was joined by two long-time friends and colleagues on a panel and we were asked to share what has kept us excited, inspired, passionate, and creative in our work as congregational rabbis (I am now in my thirty-eighth year of service).
This question, however, isn’t only a question for rabbis. It’s also for everyone who works hard, takes pride in their work, seeks excellence, wants to make a contribution, and hopes to maintain a healthy balance in their lives.
It so happened that the Torah portion this past week was Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). At the beginning of the portion there appears a relevant verse to the question we were asked to address:
“The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept burning on it.” (6:2)
The English translation that appears in most editions of the Bible, however, is incorrect. Here is the relevant Hebrew of the final phrase of the verse: “V’esh ha-mis’bei-ach tukad bo – The fire of the altar burns in it [It does not read “tukad alav – burns on it”].”
Since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. when all sacrifices ceased, many Jewish commentators have interpreted the sacrifices (korbanot) as metaphors. The altar can refer to the human heart, and the fire that burns in the altar can refer to the fires of excitement and inspiration that burns also in the heart.
We were asked – What keeps our inner fires burning in service to the Jewish people?
I was moved by the question and took it to my congregants who study Torah with me on Friday mornings, and to my family and friends at our Seder. I asked the question more broadly: “What sustains you in your life and in your work?”
Here are some of their responses:
- Many of the men who learn Torah with me each week say that engaging with the ancient, medieval and modern texts ground them in who they are as Jews, as human and spiritual beings, and as inheritors of 3600 years of Jewish engagement with God, ethics, practice, culture, and history;
- My Seder family and friends said that whenever they read fine literature and poetry and then write themselves, or when they listen to and play musical instruments, visit museums or galleries and create art, work in their gardens and cook creatively, the embers in their hearts are stoked;
- Two people mentioned that the mastery they have attained in their work inspires them to learn more, teach others, publish, and carry on the work;
- A recovering alcoholic said that daily prayer and meditation brings her back to her best and most natural self;
- Many said that helping others and engaging in social justice work connect them to community and to higher ideals that inspire and sustain them;
- Several said that sitting quietly in a favorite place renews them;
- Many spoke of the love they feel for their spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family, and friends as the embers that feed their inner flames.
This is a season to ask ourselves this fundamentally important question – What feeds your inner flames?
I wish for you all more inner light that burns from your deepest embers.
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
Exodus 6:6-8 is the basis upon which the rabbis determined that 4 cups of wine are to be consumed during the Passover Seder. Each cup corresponds to one of the 4 verbs that describes how God freed the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage:
“… I will free you (ho-tzei-ti et’chem) from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you (v’hi-tzal’ti et’chem) from their bondage. I will redeem you (v’ga-al-ti et’chem) with an outstretched arm … And I will take you (v’la-kach’ti et’chem) to be My people, … I will bring you (v’hei-vei-ti et’chem) into the land…”
Wait! There are 5 verbs, not 4, and so we have to wonder why we don’t drink 5 cups of wine.
Some explain that Elijah’s cup is the 5th cup and is the most important of all because it symbolizes the future messianic era when justice, compassion, and peace will characterize all human affairs.
Others say that since the Haggadah is a Diaspora text (the first Seder was held in the middle of the night in Egypt), from the perspective of the Haggadah the 5th verb points to a state of being that has not yet occurred because the people have not as yet entered the land of Israel.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, some Israelis identify the 5th cup of wine as the “Zionist cup” representing the fulfillment of the Zionist project in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg (President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America – ARZA) suggests that perhaps there ought to be an additional cup of wine, a 6th cup symbolizing the need of every Jew to understand, acknowledge and reconcile the differences that characterize Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, political right-wing and political left-wing Jews, young Jews and old Jews.
A 6th cup of wine can be a reminder that the unity of the Jewish people must be a principle goal for us all. The concluding verses in the Prophetic Book of Malachi, the Haftarah portion read on this Shabbat Tzav, present both the challenge and the consequences of failure in stark terms:
“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He [Elijah] shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” (3:23-24)
May your Seders be filled with understanding and light, renewal and optimism, meaning and significance, good food and wine, loving family and friends, joy and hope.
Shabbat shalom and Chag 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.
A new Haggadah has just been published by SISO (“Save Israel – Stop the Occupation”). It is called the Jubilee Haggadah because it marks the 50th year since the 1967 War, a turning point in the history of the modern State of Israel that the writers and editors conjoin with the biblical Jubilee commandment – “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…” (Leviticus 25:10) – and with the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberty.
The Haggadah is part of a new initiative begun by prominent Israeli individuals and organizations in partnership with Jewish leaders around the world who believe that the prolonged Israeli military occupation poses a very real threat to Israel’s safety and well-being, and undermines the moral and democratic fabric of Israel and its standing in the community of nations. See SISO’s website – https://www.siso.org.il.
Critics will argue that this Haggadah does not provide adequate historical context nor, in the words of one of its contributors, Professor of Jewish History at Ben Gurion University Haviva Pedaya, a “political outline of how to bring about a solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Pedaya acknowledges:
“Nor is one party alone guilty for the complex situation. In broad visions, the discussion about the concept of the victim and the subjugator is most complex. But those people who ate potato peels on Seder nights, who recited by heart the Haggadah in the concentration camps, like those people who ate the manna in the desert or those slaves whose children drowned in mortar and were built into the pyramids – those people come to us with the demand: turn the face of the brother to the other and to responsibility.”
So many Jews and lovers of the State of Israel have come to accept what seems to be a historical inevitability, that Israel will forever occupy another people. This Haggadah addresses the moral consequences of failing to advocate for the only solution that can best assure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character – a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
SISO’s editor and publisher describe the Haggadah in these words:
“Thirty authors, artists, and thinkers from throughout the Jewish world have joined together — in commentary, song, and moral outcry — and proposed contemporary interpretations to the Haggadah.
From Amos Oz to Sarah Silverman, Achinoam Nini to Leon Wieseltier, Anat Hoffman to Carol Gilligan, in this fiftieth year, we are proclaiming liberty throughout this land for all its inhabitants.
The Haggadah is edited by Dr. Tomer Persico. The texts are rich, nuanced and diverse, and together with the original artwork and design (by leading Israeli graphic designer Michal Sahar) make this a beautiful work that invites reflection and conversation.
I am honored to be among the thirty contributors (page 4 – item 1). I offer a few commentaries to evoke the spirit of this Haggadah. The entire text that can be downloaded at nif.org/sisohaggadah:
“We were not born to be people of masters… We are condemned now to rule people who did not want to be ruled by us… The shorter the occupation lasts, the better for us, because an occupation is inevitably a corrupting occupation, and even a liberal and human occupation. I have fears about the kind of seeds we will sow in the near future in the hearts of the occupied. Even more, I have fears about the seeds that will be implanted in the hearts of the occupiers…” (Amos Oz – Davar, August 22, 1967)
“We must care for each other. We must see each other clearly… as equal under God … We must recognize each other’s humanity, aspirations, rights, emotions … at the end of the day, the only way to be saved by God from whatever ‘Egypt’ is enslaving you, is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Achinoam Nini – Noa – Israeli singer and peace activist)
“Now that we have returned to the land by the grace of God, and are privileged to move through all of the land of Israel and to settle in it, we have to protect ourselves and to safeguard our security – but not to base our existence on life by the sword. We are tested by our ability not to rule another people by ‘force,’ but to live here by ‘My spirit.’ In other words, to build a model society. If in Egypt we became foreigners who were denied all rights to existence, liberty, and the land, and in this lay the root of our subjugation, we must not do to others what we ourselves hate. The Palestinian people that lives among us also needs its land, its existence, and its liberty…. Only through a brave conjoining of all the children of Abraham who dwell in this land will God’s blessing to our forefather Abraham, and ‘all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him’ come true for us.” (Rabbi Michael Melchior, Jerusalem thinker, activist and former Israeli government minister)
“Of all people, Jews know the bitterness of being oppressed – and not being in our own country. That’s what makes the occupation so ironic. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between right and wrong, the situation is complicated and scary, but I’m guessing oppression will always prove to be on the wrong side of history.” (Sarah Silverman, comedian, and actress)
“The quarrel between Israel and Palestine has been a bleeding wound for decades, a wound that is hemorrhaging and is full of pus. You can’t keep waving a big stick and beating a bleeding wound again and again so as to scare it and make it finally stop being a wound and finally stop bleeding. A wound has to be healed. And there’s a way to gradually heal this wound.” (Amos Oz, January 2017)
I recommend downloading the entire Haggadah and using whatever commentaries you choose during the course of your own Seder.
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.