Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
As 2011 comes to a blessed close, our world continues to escalate in its brutality, is more politically fragile, economically distressed, religiously challenged, and morally confused than ever before. In times such as these it is worthwhile for us to consider who we are and how we might measure our personal, societal and international successes and failures. In this I am reminded of Churchill’s words that a successful person will “be… able to go from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm.”
This week’s Torah portion Vayigash has something to teach us about the importance of attitude in life. In these closing chapters of Genesis we come to the climax of the Joseph narratives. The crown prince meets his brothers after 20 years of exile and reveals himself to them. As they cower he forgives them and makes peace. Finally, he settles his father Jacob in the land of Goshen.
Pharaoh has occasion to meet Jacob in these chapters as well, and one old man asks another: “Jacob - How many are the years of your life?” He responds, “The years of my sojourn on earth are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life-spans of my fathers during their sojourns.” (Genesis 47:8-9)
This seems an odd response given Jacob’s life. Recognizing Jacob as a kvetch, the Midrash (B’reishit Rabba 95) brings an incredulous God into the conversation:
“Jacob [says the Eternal]: ‘I saved you from Esau and Laban; I brought [your daughter] Dinah back to you [after she was raped and held captive], as well as Joseph [who you presumed to be dead at the hands of a wild beast] and you complain that your life has been short and evil?’ [If so] I’ll count the words of Pharaoh’s question to you and your response, add them together and shorten your life [by that number of years - 33] so you’ll not live as long as your father Isaac, who lived to 180.’ Jacob lived 147 years.”
What has happened to Jacob? He had 4 wives, 13 children and many grandchildren. His son Joseph had become the second most powerful man in the world and he himself had encountered God twice, in a dream and at a river, but Jacob can only complain!
Where’s the gratitude? That this conversation with Pharaoh should come just after Jacob had been reunited with Joseph, his favorite son, is disheartening and disturbing.
Truth to tell, we all know people like this who see their lives as through a negative prism: Parents who fixate on their children’s weaknesses and failings; marriages that dissolve because one partner won’t let go of past slights, the bad times and the other’s flaws; and our own refusal to overcome disappointments.
In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey concludes that the most well-balanced, positive and proactive people, who live happily with others at work and home, are successful because they balance four dimensions of their natures; the physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional.
We may need to care more for our bodies, eat better food and less of it, drop excess weight, get sufficient rest, keep stress and negativity at bay, and exercise more.
Or maybe spiritually we’re closed to the experience of mystery, awe and wonder.
We may have become intellectually stagnant, our curiosity suppressed and our minds inactive.
Perhaps we’ve become jaded and numb to feeling, focused too much on ourselves and without empathy.
The Midrash surmises that Jacob’s negativity and propensity to complain, despite his many blessings, shaved years from his life. Writing 1500 years ago, the rabbis anticipated what psychiatrists and scientists would conclude today, that some illness and even early death can be avoided if we took better care of ourselves in body, mind and soul and paid more attention to our relationships with each other.
The 19th century writer Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this of a ‘successful life’:
“A person is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his/her task; who leaves the world better than s/he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best s/he had.”
Wiser words have not been uttered.
Shabbat Shalom and a happy, healthy, meaningful, and balanced New Year!
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December 26, 2011 | 8:05 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
As the year 2011 comes to a blessed close, the lyrics of “What a Wonderful World” originally set to music by the great Louis Armstrong (lyrics: George David Weiss, George Douglas, and Bog Thiele) has been reinterpreted by David Attenborough on the BBC with exquisite nature photography - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8WHKRzkCOY
“I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (zal), filled with wonder always, put it this way:
“Our radical amazement responds to the mystery, but does not produce it. You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed [hu]man[kind] with the mystery of birth and death. We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it.
The awareness of the ineffable is that with which our search must begin…The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide…reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”
May your soul rejoice and your heart sing!
L’shanah tovah chiloni
Rabbi John Rosove
December 22, 2011 | 8:26 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
We are carrying torches.
In the dark night
the paths shine beneath our feet,
and whoever has a heart
that thirsts for light –
let him lift his eyes and his heart to us
and come along.
No miracle happened for us.
No cruise of oil did we find.
We walked through the valley, ascended the mountain.
We discovered wellsprings of hidden light.
We quarried in the stone until we bled:
Let there be light!
by the Zionist Poet Aharon Ze’ev (1900-1968)
December 20, 2011 | 7:50 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
On Sunday, December 11 Alan Dershowitz appeared on Israeli television and called upon those critical of Israeli government policy and violations of human rights to “cool it.” Dershowitz was probably worried that even legitimate criticism of Israel feeds the global delegitimization campaign against her. I have written about that campaign in a substantial article in The CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (Fall, 2011) and posted a link to the article both on this blog and on my synagogue’s web-site www.tioh.org.
Is Dershowitz right? I don’t believe he is. Since Jew-haters don’t need a reason for their anti-Semitism, our behavior should not be based on what they or anyone else thinks. Ben-Gurion emphasized this point when he remarked that “It’s not what the Gentiles say that matters but what the Jews do that counts.”
As a progressive Reform Zionist it is my belief that in order for Israel to be a secure and great Jewish society reflecting authentic Jewish values there can be no dichotomy between Judaism’s prophetic and rabbinic strains of universalism and particularism. Jewish nationalism must emphasize the importance of each strain and envision our people’s national independence as a means of serving humanity as a whole; that is, to be “a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 42:6) Progressive Reform Zionism requires that social justice, egalitarianism, and equality be applied to all the major issues confronting Israeli society including Palestinian rights, minority rights, immigrant worker rights, women’s rights, poverty, education, and justice. The fundamental Jewish affirmation that every human being is created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, means that each person, regardless of background, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and national identity is of infinite worth and value.
Like every great western democratic society, Israel is imperfect. Based on the above principles we Jews we can never settle for what is. Rather, it is our obligation to insist that our great Jewish society in Israel and Diaspora must live up to the highest standards of ethics and justice as articulated by the Biblical prophets and our rabbinic sages.
One of the leading advocacy organizations fighting on behalf of women, Bedouin, Palestinians, Muslims, foreign workers, and religious pluralism is the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). It was created based on the above principles twenty years ago and has been a champion of human rights and civil rights ever since. The IRAC is joined by other critically important NGOs including The New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, B’tzelem, and Hiddush.
Anat Hoffman is the IRAC’s Executive Director and one of my personal heroines. She spoke this past week at the Biennial Convention of the Reform Movement’s Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in Washington, D.C. attended by more than 6000 Reform Jews from around North America, England, Europe, Latin America, South Africa, Australia, the former Soviet Union, and Israel. I am proud of the work Anat, the IRAC and Israel’s Reform movement are doing. Here is but a small sampling of their activity:
1. In response to gender-segregation generally, but specifically imposed on certain Israeli bus routes by ultra-Orthodox Hareidi rabbis (in violation of Israel’s 1992 “Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty”), the IRAC has taken groups of Israelis and American Jews to those bus routes, loaded the buses, women entering the front door of the bus and sitting where ever they pleased thus defying the Hareidi ban much as Rosa Parks did in the American south when she sparked the civil rights movement. While actively integrating those bus routes IRAC won a case in 2011 in which the Supreme Court ruled gender segregation on public buses illegal, a huge victory in IRAC’s goal to identify and end all forms of gender segregation in the public sphere in Israel, at the Western Wall and Western Wall tunnels, in funeral halls and cemeteries, in banquet hall elevators, grocery stores, and even pizza parlors;
2. In response to the presence of large numbers of Sudanese refugees who escaped Sudan and entered Israel across the Sinai desert and therefore have no rights in Israel, while the Israeli government wrestles with the issue of immigration generally, the IRAC and the Reform movement’s Rabbinic seminary, the Hebrew Union College, set up a child-care center for the children of these immigrants in the HUC building next to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem;
3. Jerusalem’s Reform Congregation Kol Haneshamah created an anti-tag corps to spray paint over the vicious anti-Arab graffiti painted by extremist Jewish groups throughout the holy city. Such graffiti includes “Death to all Arabs!”
4. Reform Israeli Jews, organized by IRAC, held solidarity candle light vigils at fire-bombed mosques (now 9) and contributed new copies of the Koran to replace those burned by right-wing vigilante Jews;
5. The IRAC is now pressing the government to charge 49 Hareidi Rabbis for extreme hate speech and racism. Of the 49 so identified by human rights groups, only 18 have been officially investigated by Israeli authorities. Of those 18 only 5 were charged with racist incitement. 4 of the 5 “apologized” and were released. One refused to apologize and was sentenced to 140 hours of community service in his own yeshivah;
6. IRAC initiated a case to file charges against Shmuel Eliyahu, Chief Rabbi of Sfat, for racist incitement, effectively ending his bid for Chief Rabbi of Israel and bringing awareness to and legal action against religious-motivated racism from rabbis receiving state salaries;
7. During Pesach every year, Reform Jews go searching for homeless Israelis in parks and invite them to community Seders and assist them to survive poverty.
These seven examples are the tip of the iceberg of what is happening daily in the State of Israel and in the West Bank. Alan Dershowitz’s advice to “cool it” to those who would criticize bad behavior cannot guide us in our fear of anti-Israel delegitimization and anti-Semitism. Rather, we need to heed Ben Gurion’s reminder that “it’s not what the Gentiles say that matters but what the Jews do that counts.” Israel’s human rights groups sustain not only Judaism’s values but also Israel’s good name.
December 18, 2011 | 5:57 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In February I will be spending the first part of my sabbatical leave enhancing my spoken Hebrew ability at Ulpan Or in Jerusalem. For Hanukkah the Ulpan sent me this story, and I share it happily with you.
It is Hanukkah in the year of 1776. The winter is hard and the cold is fearsome. We are starving for bread. We have no clothes to warm our bodies and no shoes for our feet.
At these moments, I am reminded of my father in Poland. I recall how much he suffered at the hands of the cruel Baron. I remember I was but a youngster and saw my father dance before the Baron. How terrible was the sight. My father was made to dress up in the skin of a white bear and he danced for the sport of the Baron and his guests. How great is my pain and shame. Father dances as a bear and the Baron jests and revels. I affirm in my heart that I will never be so humiliated myself. At my first opportunity, I set sail to America.
It is now the first night of Hanukkah. This very night, two years ago, I fled from my father’s home in Poland. My father gave me a Hanukkah menorah and said, “When you will light, my son, these candles for Hanukkah, they will illuminate the path for you.” From that day on, my menorah was as an amulet. Wherever I go, I take it with me.
Suddenly, I feel a soft, tender hand upon my head. I lift my eyes, and behold it is him, in all his majesty, General George Washington standing upon me. He asks me, “Why soldier do you cry? Is it then so very cold?”
I forgot at that moment that I am a soldier in the presence of my superior, and spoke before him as a child to a parent. “My master the General,” I said. “I cry and pray for your victory. I am certain with the help of God, we shall prevail. Today, the enemy is strong; tomorrow they will surely fall, for justice is with us. We seek to be free in this land; we desire to build a country for all who flee from oppression and suffer abroad. The Barons will not rule here. The enemy will falter and you will succeed.”
The General shook my hand. “Thank you, soldier,” he said, and sat at my side next to the menorah. “What is this?” asked the General. I told him I brought it from my parent’s home. Jews the world-over light this menorah to celebrate the great miracle of Hanukkah and the miraculous salvation of the Jews. The light of the Hanukkah menorah danced in the eyes of General Washington as he called forth in joy, “You are a Jew from the children of prophets and you declared that we shall prevail.” “Yes my master,” I answered with confidence. We will be victorious as the Maccabees of old, for our own sake and the sake of all who follow us to build a new land and a new life.
The General got up; his face was ablaze. He shook my hand and disappeared into the darkness. My faith was rewarded, victory was achieved, and peace reigned in the land. My General became the leader of our new country, and I became one of its citizens.
I quickly forgot those frightful days and nights at Valley Forge. However, that first night of Hanukkah, with General Washington, I carried in my heart always as a precious dream.
The first night of Hanukkah the following year of 1777, I was sitting in my house in New York on Broome Street, with the Hanukkah light in my window. Suddenly, I heard a knock on the door. I opened the door, and incredibly, my General, George Washington is standing in the doorway. “Behold, the wondrous flame, the flame of hope of all Jewry,” he called forth in joy as he gazed upon its light.
The General placed his hand upon my shoulder and said, “This light and your beautiful words lit a flame in my heart that night. Surely, you and your comrades will receive due recognition for all of your valor at Valley Forge. But this night, accept from me, this medallion.” He hung the medallion of gold upon my chest and shook my hand. Tears came to my eyes; I couldn’t say a word. The General shook my hand once again and left the house.
I stirred as if coming from a beautiful dream. I then looked upon my medallion and saw a beautiful engraving of a Hanukkah menorah with the first candle lit. Below was written, “As an expression of gratitude for the candle of your menorah.”
This medallion is part of the permanent collection in the Jewish Museum in New York.
December 14, 2011 | 5:24 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
For some time some West Bank Israeli settlers have been assaulting Palestinians and Israeli settlements have been incorporating Palestinian deeded land without resistance from the Israeli army. This official passivity contrasts sharply with the Israeli army’s vigilance in protecting these same Jewish settlers and their settlements from assault by Palestinians.
The Israeli human rights organization B’tzelem has published many reports on Israeli settler activities including the estimate that fully one-fifth of all settlements are built on deeded Palestinian land and that Israeli settlements control 42% of all West Bank land.
I am heartened by this morning’s report (December 14, 2011) below from Media Line News Agency that the Israeli government has, at last, decided to get tough with violent settlers now that these settlers are actually attacking the State of Israel!
A few nagging questions - What about the illegalities perpetrated by Jewish settlers that have not been addressed? What about the rights of Palestinians who have been subjected to settler hubris, hard-hardheartedness and criminal behavior for years without response from the Israeli army and Israeli justice system (arguably the only independent justice system in the Middle East)? And what about the moral values of Judaism and the Jewish people that have not been upheld?
Deuteronomy 16:20 (7th century BCE) commands Tzedek tzedek tirdof! - “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue!”
The Mishnah (3rd century CE) reminds us He-vei mi-tal’mi-dav shel Aharon, ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, ohev et ha-bri-yot u’m’karvan la-Torah - “Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it, loving people and bringing them near to Torah.” (Pirkei Avot 1:12)
[See my Sunday, December 7 blog - Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War to more fully appreciate that the forces at play battling for the heart and soul of the Jewish people, Judaism and the State of Israel are powerful, deep and ancient.]
“Netanyahu Vows to Get Tough on Vigilante Settlers”
“Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vowed to get tough with violent settlers in the West Bank, a day after groups of them attacked an army base and broke through a border fence. “I will fight this phenomenon with all my force until it is eliminated,” he said on Tuesday and instructed Defense Minister Ehud Barak to devise a “heavy-handed” plan to combat the “calamity.” The incidents were the latest in a growing number of assaults on the army, which extremists regard as an enemy for dismantling unauthorized settlements, and on Palestinian mosques and olive groves. But the extremists didn’t appear intimidated by Netanyahu. Hours after Netanyahu spoke, unknown attackers tried to torch to an unused mosque in Jerusalem and scrawled anti-Arab slogans on the walls. Meanwhile, a settler activist posted a message on a website calling on soldiers to sabotage equipment and block evacuations of settlements. (Media Line – December 14, 2011)”
December 12, 2011 | 9:33 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In the morning liturgy, we express gratitude for consciousness and life (Birchot Hashachar), for the workings of the body (Asher Yatzar) and the Divine origins of our souls (Elohai N’shamah), and we begin each day (indeed, every moment) as if for the first time. This poem by the Ukranian born Israeli poet, Natan Yonaton, reflects this wondrous spirit.
“Again we begin anew, as all begin;
The plougher, the collector, the poet,
The falling leaves on the wind,
The pearls of dew
And the returning wave to the sloping shores.
Again we begin anew, as all begin;
We’ll sing the song with the same words
Which never tire, as the waves
That endlessly return
To the vast sea
To the sandy, sloping shores.”
Taken from “Again We Begin Anew” by Natan Yonatan (1923-2004), translation by Rabbi Maya Leibovich
December 11, 2011 | 7:34 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Last week I was privileged to hear a presentation on Hanukkah by Noam Zion, a fellow of and the senior educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who led 40 Rabbis of the Southern California Board of Rabbis in a superb 2-hour conversation entitled:
“Reinvention of Hanukkah in the 20th Century: A Jewish Cultural Civil War
between Zionists, Liberal American Judaism and Habad –
Who Are the Children of Light and Who of Darkness?”
Noam offered us a comprehensive view of Hanukkah from its beginnings (© 165 B.C.E.) through history and how it is understood and celebrated today by Israelis, American liberal non-Hareidim Jews and Habad. Based on Hanukkah’s tendentious history and the vast corpus of sermons written by rabbis through the centuries, Noam noted three questions that are consistently asked: ‘Who are the children of light and darkness?’ ‘Who are our people’s earliest heroes and what made them heroic?’ ‘What relevance can we find in Hanukkah today?’
Though religiously a “minor holyday” (Hanukkah is not biblically based, nor do the restrictions apply that are associated with Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Succot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur), Hanukkah occupies a place in each of the ideologies of the State of Israel, American liberal Judaism and Habad.
For example, before and after the establishment of the State of Israel the Maccabees served as a potent symbol for “Political Zionism” for those laboring to create a modern Jewish state. The early Zionists rejected God’s role in bringing about the miracle of Jewish victory during Hasmonean times. Rather, such leaders as Max Nordau, Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Jacob Klatzkin, and A.D. Gordon emphasized that Jews themselves are the central actors in our people’s restoration of Jewish sovereignty on the ancient land, not God.
For 20th century liberal American Jews Hanukkah came to represent Judaism’s aspirations for religious freedom consistent with the American value of religious freedom as affirmed by the first Amendment of the US Constitution. Even as the holiday of Hanukkah reflects universal aspirations, the Hanukkiah remains a particular symbol of Jewish pride and identity for American Jews and their children living in a dominant Christian culture.
For Habad, Hanukkah embodies the essence of religious identity on the one hand, and symbolizes the mission of Jews on the other. Each Hassid is to be “a streetlamp lighter” who goes out into the public square and kindles the nearly extinguished flame of individual Jewish souls, one soul at a time (per Rebbe Sholom Dov-Ber). This is why Habad strives to place a Hanukkiah in public places and why Hassidim offer to help Jews don t’filin. Every fulfilled mitzvah kindles the flame of a soul and restores it to God.
Noam concluded his shiur (lesson) by noting that the cultural war being played out in contemporary Jewish life is based in the different responses to the central and historic question that has always given context to Hanukkah – ‘Which Jews are destroying Jewish life and threatening Judaism itself?’
The Maccabean war was not a war between the Jews and the Greeks, but rather was a violent civil war sparked by intense enmity between the established radically Hellenized Jews and the besieged village priests living outside major urban centers (the High Priest in Jerusalem had already been co-opted by Hellenization). The Maccabees won the war because moderately Hellenized Jews recognized that they would lose their own Jewish identity if the radical Hellenizers were victorious. They joined in coalition with the village priests and together they took the Temple and rededicated it. That historic struggle has a parallel today in a raging cultural civil war for the heart and soul of the Jewish people and for the nature of Judaism itself.
The take-away? There is something of the zealot in every one of us, regardless of our respective Jewish camp. If we hope to avoid our past sins of sinat chinam (baseless hatred between one Jew and another that the Talmud teaches was the cause of the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 CE) we need to prepare our own constituencies to be candles without knives and to bring the love of God and the Jewish people back into our homes and communities. To be successful will take much courage, compassion, knowledge, understanding, and faith. The stakes, however, are very high - the very future of Israel and the Jewish people.
Is it any wonder that Hanukkah, though defined by Judaism as a “minor holiday,” is, in truth, a major battle-ground for the heart and soul of Judaism and the Jewish people?
During Hanukkah, which begins on Tuesday evening, December 20 (25 Kislev) I will reflect more on these themes in this blog.