Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Right Place at The Right Time

Parshat VaYakhel
19 Adar I, 5771
February 23, 2011

Last night I met Rabbi David Saperstein, head of the legendary Religious Action Committee – the political arm of the Reform movement.
Rabbi Saperstein gave us the history of the RAC. This took a long time. The RAC was party to the iconic moments of the last half century: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act were drafted in the RAC’s conference room. They were the first Jewish organization to oppose the Vietnam War. They provided relief during the Ethiopian famine. They’ve done a lot.
            At one point Rabbi Saperstein was asked how he came to head the RAC. He seemed a little taken aback, and then said, “I was just in the right place at the right time.” Then he regaled us with stories of his activism as a young rabbi.
The Talmud teaches:
R. Joshua ben Levi asked Elijah, the prophet, "When will the Messiah come?" "Go and ask him himself." "Where is he sitting?" "At the gates of Rome." "What will identify him?" "He is sitting among the poor lepers; while all of them untie all [their bandages] at once, and rebandage them together, he unties and rebandages each separately, saying 'I might be needed, so I must not be delayed.' "
--Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a
Mashiah too will be in the right place at the right time, when redemption finally arrives. I think that Rabbi Saperstein will be rather amused by the comparison, but he might grant me that, in every serendipitous moment, there is a piece of our souls that has been waiting a long, long time to be revealed.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Parshat Ki Tissah
12 Adar, 5771
February 16th, 2011

A story:
Rabbi Brokah the Seer was often found in the market of Bei Lefet. Elijah the Prophet (maybe a millennium dead by this point) was often found visiting with him (this is a supernatural story).

Rabbi Brokah said to Elijah: “Are there people in this marketplace who are deserving of the world to come?”

Elijah said, “No.”

After a while, two people walked into the market. Elijah said, “those two are deserving of the world to come.”

Rabbi Brokah went up to them and asked them, “What do you do?”

They said, “we are comedians – we make sad people laugh. Also, when we see two people who have a quarrel between them, we work to make peace for them.”
Talmud Masekhet Ta’anit 22a

One great criticism I have of Americans is that we lack a true sense of humor. Our comedy is plentiful, but more corny than insightful (“take my wife please”). Exceptions are Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, but both came out of disliked minorities.

Others have explained it as an American earnestness that brooks no sense of the absurd. Graham Greene, in both The Quiet American (about Vietnam) and The Comedians (about Haiti, and the most serious book you’ve ever read), wrote about our indefatigable belief that everything is fixable with the right know-how and enough elbow grease. This self seriousness frowns at pointing out that we, our bodies, our natures, and our world are in fact flawed – the source of all humor.

There are in our community, at this particular time, too many people who are seriously ill. Let us pray every day for their health, let us support them in their time of need. Let us also remember that real sickness is not something simply solved with the right combination of doctors and drugs. Real sickness is always a painful struggle. What makes us worthy of heaven is to be able to sit with people, to cry with them, and then to laugh with them at the absurdity of this world.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spiritual but Not Religious

29 Shvat, 5771
February 3rd, 2011
            I have heard, even in my short career, one phrase hundreds of times, “Rabbi, I am spiritual, not religious.” Many take it even further: religion, in quite a few people’s minds, is the enemy of true spirituality.
            For years I’ve struggled with how to understand and address this division. I got into Torah and then a life of mitzvot because of deep spiritual affinity. I never understood the separation.
            I believe now that I was incorrect, and that religion and spirituality, while they overlap, are divided.
            Spirituality lives in an individual’s direct, personal connection to God. Its foundation is hitlahavut – passion. It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. It makes us feel alive.
But spirituality is also self-centered. It tends to ignore bonds between people, and does not know that God’s voice becomes textured when spread over community and time. Though it is smart, it is not wise: it rarely involves a relationship more than a generation old. In a word, spirituality is thin.
Religion, on the other hand, is as thick as it gets. It incorporates generations of learning and has grown wise and thoughtful. Religion is patient in a measure that spans lifetimes, and knows the depth of things. Its foundations are hesed – care and tzedek – justice. Religion helps us understand life.
It is often so thick, however, that it smothers spontaneity and individuality. It struggles to see people as different from one another. Religion does not thrill with its quickness, and prefers rhythm over syncopation.
The two are indeed different.
But remember that the holy Rambam taught us that apex of life is to be found in the middle of extremes. Remember also that each of us has two sides to our hearts. Enough with the idea that they are exclusive: it is a fallacy; we know it not to be so. Let us fill ourselves with both.