Archive for March, 2017

Lego Land

“Lego Land”


Parashat Terumah

Neil F. Blumofe

4 March 2017


Earlier this week, as part of our 10,000 Faces of Torah initiative, I was leading a Torah study on this week’s Torah portion in a house filled with wonderfully engaged participants.  Most folks there had not really studied in a concerted way – and as we spoke together, introducing the topic of building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, out of very rich materials gained in Egypt as the Israelites were leaving slavery – the people assembled were now in the desert learning how to relate to each other in their newly discovered freedom.


As we learned about the ancient rabbinic concept of — ein haKadosh Baruch Hu makeh et Yisrael eleh im kein borei lahem refuah techilah – or in other words, threats and danger do not appear to Israel unless God has set up a remedy for them first.  This is a concept central to our understanding of Purim – where the machinations of the villain Haman have already been mitigated by the presence of Esther, who has previously been chosen to be the queen to King Achashverosh – and this concept is also relevant to our Torah portion, as understood by the great medieval sage, Rashi – the Tabernacle exists — it is already in place to neutralize the damage of the orgiastic insurgency of the Golden Calf.  While the episode of the Golden Calf is yet to come in our linear reading of the Torah – according to our teaching, this difficult episode of impatience and betrayal was already anticipated in the scheme of things and the antidote to its potential harm – the building of the Mishkan — has already been injected into the world.


While we were studying, the realization that the Jews are often their own worst enemies, surfaced.  Very often, our tendency not to give our neighbor the benefit of the doubt degrades our relationships – and our tendency to be unduly influenced by antagonism and disapproval coarsens the fabric of our delicate community.  We were speaking about this a few days ago as we were all affected by the grim, ironic realization that over the past several weeks, over 100 Jewish community centers, schools, synagogues, and cemeteries have been threatened by bomb threats, vandalism, and violence.  We have seen picture after picture of the gravestones of our loved ones toppled over and we have seen our most vulnerable – children and seniors — being evacuated from places that are meant to serve as places of refuge – that are meant to serve as sanctuaries from the ever-present, creeping indignities of everyday life – the places that are currently threatened are the very places build by Jews as buttresses against such insidious antisemitism.


These baleful events exacerbate the apprehension that many feel as we all struggle to recalibrate and respond to a whirlwind of new national leadership and a perceived breakdown of the previously organized signposts of our media and of our culture.  The boundaries between fact and fiction are more porous than ever – and our ability to customize our own worldview while at the same time being manipulated by the viewpoints of others, seems to be unprecedented.


And here we are, in the specter of this disquiet, finding the common thread of our own difficulties with each other.  It seems, that in reaction to the difficulties of this world, we take out our stress by struggling against those with whom we are meant to find common ground and shared experiences.  As Jews, we attack each other – as the easiest, softest targets.  This congregation is not immune from this affliction.  As we find ourselves in a clash of ideals, we discover perhaps to our surprise, our own inherent trigger warnings attached to our staked-out political positions – and we compensate for our unease by disengaging from each other, and even boycotting or badmouthing this community, sacrificing it to our so-called higher ideals or prevailing priorities.  I think that this is a grave mistake.


In a time such as this, such behavior underscores that many of us are truly alone – unwilling to invest in a Jewish community that at times may cause some turbulence and friction – and at the same time knowing that out in the larger world, there are those who have already dehumanized us and who don’t think twice about threatening our children and grandparents.


And however difficult it may be to affirm, we do have the principle that even in the darkening hours, there are remedies already in place that provide a cure.  I welcome all of us to cultivate the gifts of perseverance and resilience as we move in this community – allowing for civil disagreement without turning everything into a zero-sum game.  I ask us to make our synagogue life a higher priority, knowing that our potential disbeliefs and distrusts – and certainly the ills of this world will not be solved by our disengagement.  I am confident that this community will long outlast current political alliances and will thrive beyond specific administrations.


Also this week, we were privileged to have in Austin a world-renowned scholar of Jewish Mysticism and Zohar, which is the foundational work of the Kabbalah.  As Melila was visiting, she taught that this world is linked together in a unified oneness, as the Kabbalah states – [our lives] constitute a chain linking everything from the highest to the lowest, extending from the upper pool to the edge of the universe.  There is nothing – not even the tiniest thing – that is not fastened to the link of this chain…Down to the last link, everything is linked with everything else – so divine essence is below as well as above – in heaven and on earth.  There is nothing else. 


According to our Torah, this is the way that we fix our Golden Calf moments.  As we construct our Mishkan, we make kerashim – vertical planks that were held flush by two tenons that inserted into two mortises and were made strong by their mutual support – like legos.  We realize that in our study of the Mishkan we can frame our perspective, and realize that ultimately, we gain support from being in relationship with each other – also like legos.  In learning about this sacred architecture of the Torah, and in our hopes of bringing meaning into our world, we can recast our hardening perspectives with a modicum of gentleness.  The world will not readily offer inherent safety and security – we must forge those bonds of kinship and commonality in the hard work that we do by finding common ground all around us, and linking ourselves to the circumstances of our neighbors – this kind of work begins within this sacred structure – if we are finding our motivations and rationale beyond these sacred kerashim, then we are failing each other and absconding from our responsibility – we are then unwittingly allowing the ascendancy of those who wish us harm.


In response, we are to give each other the benefit of the doubt – as we try mightily to make sense of what is around us.  We must do so with generosity and an increased tolerance that none of us really know what we are doing and none of us knows what is coming – and that we must not operate from exclusive self-interest.  We know and we take solace that there are remedies awaiting our discovery – already built into our world – so, let us not fixate on the ailments themselves and the deliberate misdirection of our politicians – but rather let us concentrate on these positive, powerful countermeasures of blessing, grace, and mercy that are previously God-given – and let these be the ways — the tenons — that hold us together.


Shabbat Shalom.


06/03/2017 at 11:23 Leave a comment

The Great Society

“The Great Society”


Parashat Mishpatim

Neil F. Blumofe

25 February 2017


In the spring of 1964, addressing the students at Ohio University, President Lyndon Johnson declaimed, “and with your courage and with your compassion and your desire, we will build a Great Society.  It is a society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled.”  In this time, the American people needed direction, and they needed help.


After the ravages of World War II, and in the thick of the Cold War – and most immediately after the assassination of the president, John F. Kennedy in 1963, it seemed that economic and social conditions for the people were not stable and it seemed too that America was adrift.  The vision of the Great Society called for dealing with some of the most difficult areas that hampered the progress and the promise of America.  After Roosevelt’s New Deal, after Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society was meant to address the inequality of civil rights, was supposed to tackle the blight of poverty, and was geared to improve education, lower medical costs for older Americans, and improve access to healthy living for millions of Americans.  In addition, the Great Society established the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Foundation for the Humanities – in addition to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – which includes the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio.


Improvements were sought too in transportation, consumer protection, environment, housing, rural development, and labor.  Before Johnson left office, giving way to President Nixon – 226 out of 252 major legislative requests had been met, federal aid to the poor had risen from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968, 1 million Americans had been retrained under previously non-existent federal programs and 2 million children had participated in the Head Start program.  Federal expenditures on education rose from $4 billion to $12 billion and spending on health rose from $5 billion to $16 billion.


To seed the dramatic oratory of 1964, there were practical if not controversial plans and policies drafted.  More than any rhetoric, it was the details and the commitment to work with various coalitions on the finer, specific points, that determined the implementation of much of Johnson’s vision of the Great Society.


And here we stand, just after the giving of the Aseret haDibrot, the 10 Commandments, after the revelation of the people, and after the shaking, smoking mountain again comes to rest – and after our experience of slavery and not having an effective voice to advocate for our rights, we are now guided to fill out the broader vision of a trajectory of and purpose to our lives, guided by Divine inspiration, in the exquisite cellular detail of what we do, every day.


Our Torah now launches into great design in order to shape and give understanding to a principled order for the Israelites to thrive in their newly-experienced freedom.  With these standards of behavior, each person is meant to struggle to overcome their baser nature, and to develop an internalized social conscience as a bulwark against selfishness, arrogance, entitlement, greed, and consolidated privilege.  As each of these laws rolls past the Israelites in dazzling detail, they are energized, and as an extension of the revelation itself, the people as one exclaim, “kol asher diber haShem, na’aseh v’nishma – all the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will obey.”  Nothing will get stuck in subcommittee, there will be no Executive Order signed to subvert a reasonable process of debate among lawmakers – all have access to the same information – and all have found a shared spirit of cooperation — common ground to work together to improve their lives through individual restraint, accountability, and governance.


If we had a sustained conversation about the greatest ills and challenges of our community, what would we decide were our highest priorities?  How have things changed from the challenges that the Great Society was trying to address 50 years ago?  How have things changed since the giving of the Torah?  If we were able to restrain ourselves and not speak about specific personalities – dreaming that things will only improve if Moses or Aaron were relieved of their power — rather, if we could identify not superficial solutions but rather, moral and ethical resolutions worth fighting for to address our common maladies, how can we forestall a possible implosion of what we hold dear, and how can we advance from our narrow-minded positions inherited after the trauma of slavery?


Our sages have given this much thought – and they teach that the scaffolding of society debuted in our Torah this week stems from a commitment to reduce jealousy and avarice among us.  We are to care for those most degraded among us, for they too are created in the image of God.  Rambam and Sforno – two medieval commentators, suggest that we cannot truly know ourselves until we humanize our neighbor.  Until we see our neighbor as an extension of who we are, our self-interest will overshadow any attempts that we make to improve the condition of the world around us – as the mystics teach us, tikkun olam starts within ourselves – if we can put ourselves into perspective, then we can find a way to reach out to others.


No one will deny the wisdom of our tradition – I think that the sticking point is for all of us to admit to ourselves and each other who exactly our neighbors are.  Is this moral code applicable to everyone who desires it?  The difficult question for us to consider is – who do we feel belongs in our world, and who does not?  What rights do we give the outsider, or our enemy juxtaposed to the rights that we reserve for our close circle, our family?  Where is the boundary, and where is the cut off?  What are the rights and privileges of membership into our conception of the world, and what are the consequences of not belonging?


Are human rights truly universal – and if so, by what measuring stick are they assessed?  How much hypocrisy and injustice can we live with, as we make our decisions and as we enjoy the lives that we pursue?  How much effort, or sweat-equity do we want to invest in these questions in order for us to have comfort and feel satisfied that we have done something – how far are we willing to go to fight for the principles and standards in which we believe?  Are we even willing to have this conversation among people that we call our friends?


How much are the principles that we seek problematized by competing, contingent interests?  How fast can we hold onto nuance, thus increasing our risk for misunderstanding, censure, or condemnation?  After all of this, can we still feel that we have a community?


Mishpatim teaches us to start with the world around us – to cultivate respectful or at least cheerfully tolerable relationships among all of the people that we encounter.  From this place, expanding outward, we can create formidable bastions of justice that can withstand and curb the inevitable trespasses of wrongdoing and draconian presumption – and we can realize that this quest for integrity is no different than the challenges presented at the foot of Mt. Sinai so long ago.  Like the villain Amalek, the affliction of poverty and injustice will never depart from our midst.  As inheritors of our great Jewish tradition and the decisions of our American republic, it is now our decision of how comprehensively we are willing to address these issues with our courage, compassion, and desire, to keep hardship and suffering at bay.


Shabbat Shalom.

06/03/2017 at 11:18 Leave a comment

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