Thursday, December 22, 2011

Essence of a Miracle

2nd Day of Hannukah
Parshat MiKetz
26 Kislev, 5772
December 22nd, 2011

You’ve got to wonder what our Rabbis were thinking. Oil? Eight days? That’s the miracle? What about that other miracle, where the Jews won their freedom from an enemy better armed and more powerful? A lamp burning for eight days seems like one of those stories where somebody sees the face of a religious figure in a bowl of Cheerios: as miracles go, this one just doesn’t seem to cut it.

As with understanding anything of past years, imagination is everything. So, imagine for a second. Imagine that you, battle-scarred, grime-smeared, and battle-weary, stand inside the Temple in Jerusalem. When you got there, the place was a disaster: torn to pieces, the sacrifices of pigs to pagan gods still evident. Imagine that you have fought in a particularly vicious, bloody guerilla war. Imagine that the war was not just against a foreign invader, but also a kind of civil war, against Jews who allied themselves with the Greeks. Imagine that you have fought even against your brothers.

In these circumstances, I imagine this question: will God come back to this place, or are we abandoned forever? After this war, has God forgotten us?

 And as the light burned steadily, night after night, we knew that we were not alone.

חנוכה שמח
Happy Hannukah

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pressing Business


Parshat VaYeshev
20 Kislev, 5772
December 16th, 2011

Among our most important teachers in rabbinical school were Ignacio Ojeda and his staff, who ran the kitchen and the cafeteria. My guess is that they were conscious of their role as unofficial professors, and their part in turning aspiring rabbis, educators, undergrads, et al. in actual human beings, even if they never outright said it.

Their coursework was simplicity itself: how to be kind to people, even when working hard. They taught by example.

Coming into our cafeteria meant being greeted with a smile and by name, questions about your family, and, in my case, constant teasing because you weren’t married yet.*

I cannot overestimate how important those brief moments of kindness were. They took a relationship which had the single, paltry virtue of being functional, and raised it into a gift. It was a privilege to walk into their dining hall.

The Talmud teaches in the name of Rabbi Helbo, who in turn heard it from Rav Huna, that if you know a person will regularly greet you, you should greet that person first. Not to do so is to be called a thief. Brakhot 6b

To paraphrase the Mesillat Yesharim, you don’t need me to tell you that these words are true; everyone knows to be polite. But the truth of kind greeting is so obvious that it is easily set aside. Therefore let us reminds ourselves of what we already know.

Sometimes we assume that familiarity absolves us of the need for niceties. Sometimes we believe that the business we have before us takes precedence over personal connection. These conceits are very seductive, very convincing – we have known each other for years, we have important matters to which we must attend. These conceits are wrong.

Remember that everyone, literally everybody, needs to be seen for more than their function. Remember that with kindness, everything is forgivable, without it, little is acceptable. Remember that, in a spiritual community, there is no more pressing business than kind connection.

*Please do not follow their example!

Friday, December 9, 2011

What Defines Us

Parshat VaYishlah
13 Kislev, 5772
December 9th, 2011

It happened for the first time in 2009. Customers, lined up since 9pm the night before, literally burst through the Wal-mart’s doors at 5am, and trampled an employee, Jdimtyai Damour, to death.

This year, a women pepper-sprayed 20 others in the face. Her reason? To clear a path to the Xbox display.  A 63 year man collapsed in a Target when his heart failed. Shoppers stepped over his fallen body so they could continue shopping. He later died in the hospital.

Largely in order to deal with these incidents, retail chains started opening for 24 hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving, meaning that their employees leave their Thanksgiving tables to go straight to work, or lose their jobs.

Societies are defined not only by the values they promote, but also by those they tolerate. The toleration of the culture that Black Friday has spawned is one of the worst insults we can level at ourselves. What we allow is the statement, yearly, on our national day of gratitude, that the consumption of non-essential goods at rock bottom prices far outranks our valuation of human decency. Don’t believe me? Here’s how we feel about towels. 

I have a paperweight that reads, “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another. It’s from the Talmud - a lovely sentiment, just looking at it.

But the dirty little secret of the phrase is that, in context, it means that all of Israel is legally responsible for one another: that is, we bear culpability for each others actions simply through because part of the same nation. What our neighbors do reflects upon us.

This is deep wisdom about what it means to be a nation, about the impossibility of eschewing mutual responsibility, and it is true here as well. What is allowed to happen on Black Friday speaks volumes about us all, and is destroying the only truly ecumenical holiday in this country. It’s time for the end of Black Friday.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thank you, Jason

Parshat VaYetze
6 Kislev, 5772
December 2nd, 2011

Story number one.
Once upon a time there was a young man who had a real facility with puppets. In college, in the fifties, this man dreamed of a new kind of puppet – much more lifelike, for more than just kids, and was even asked to start a 5 minute television show. This show, called Sam and Friends, featured a lizard or amphibian-like puppet by the name of Kermit.
Despite his initial success, it took this man, Jim Henson, ten years of slogging through commercials before he was invited onto a PBS show called Sesame Street.  Mostly because of Henson’s puppets, Sesame Street became the greatest children’s show of all time. Another five years and Henson was able to spin off a new show, based on his vision that puppets were for everyone, called The Muppets. The Muppets themselves jumped straight into the childhood and life of millions of American kids, including me. When Henson died tragically in 1990, he was a legend to my generation.
It’s crazy just how much those puppets made a difference to us. Our world was one of pressure to achieve – pressure which has only increased to this day. The Muppets were somehow the opposite of that – heroes whose heroism was their tragic inability to do anything right: Fozzie’s jokes, Gonzo’s stunts, Kermit’s plans for the show, Piggie’s plans for Kermit. What kept them alive was a vision of kindness and loyalty to each other, which somehow got them through everything, and a huge dose of humor, which made the tough times a treasure. The Muppets taught us to how laugh at life. In middle school, that lesson means a lot.

Story number two.
I went to high school with guy by the name of Jason Segel. We weren’t friends, but he was a real decent human being. Being that we were in high school, this was something of a feat.
When it was time to graduate, I was surprised to find out that he had decided not to go to college, but rather pursue acting. I was socialized to regard college as about as negotiable as death and taxes, and I remember thinking him kind of insane.
But sure enough, Jason started to work and get real billing. Eventually becoming part of the Judd Apatow steamroller, Jason is now one of the most successful comedic actors in the country.
Jason, according to interviews, actually has a room in his house dedicated to the Muppets. So, post his success, he approached Disney with the first Muppet script in over a decade. The movie came out November 23rd, and my brother at I were there for the midnight showing. It is a fact that I cried when Kermit sang, “The Rainbow Connection.”

The life of an adult is one of which children cannot conceive. Our prospects become fuller as we get older, and paths that were beyond our young understanding reveal themselves. Life has more, rather than less, in store for us as we grow up. But it is equally true that our vision of what happiness is born young, and stays with us for life. The expectations of how we should feel, what we should value, what lets us know that we are safe, are loved, are alive – these are creations of our childhood. Eikhah says, “hadesh yameinu kekedem” – make our days new like they were in the beginning: bring us to the happiness we dreamed of as children, and that we slog through work to find as adults. What the Muppets had was what I think of as true happiness.
So thank you, Jason. The movie was great. You brought the best of our childhood back to us.