The Blues

Dear Officer,
These must be deeply troubling days for you, watching the news, watching the streets. I was talking to a friendly security guard once, and I asked him about his family. He and his wife are both retired police officers who do freelance work. He told me that his son is in a police academy, studying to be an officer. "You must be so proud that he followed in both of your footsteps," I said. He paused, looked at me quite seriously and replied: "No. We told him not to do it. It's a terrible time to be a police officer." That was last year. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to count yourself as part of a police force today.
Jews have always valued the role of the police. We thank you profoundly for your service. In Deuteronomy, we read, "You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice," [16:18].  There is something regal about this verse, its weighty assumption that appointing people to guard over justice will ensure a civil society where fairness and safety reign. Immediately preceding this verse is the commandment that Jews celebrate the three major festivals - Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot - with a pilgrimage to the Temple. There, God will bless the people. Two Bible commentators connect these very different verses this way: no matter if you are obligated in the observance of these festivals and will, upon arriving, consult the priests there about Jewish law, "it will not be sufficient unless there are judges and officers at all your gates" [Hizkuni]. In other words, the spiritual world, in order for it to unfold, depends on upholding the integrity of society as a whole. You try to do that for us everyday.
Another interesting connection between these two disparate passages is articulated by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin [1816-1893], namely, that blessing will be found when people honor those who judge and assure their safety. If you want a blessed community, make sure that you demonstrate proper respect to those who work for the public good.
Hate to get all scholarly on you, but I wanted to share a modern reading of this verse with you from Jeffrey Tigay. He takes a different approach in hi commentary on Deuteronomy:

Prominence is given to the limits established by God on the rights of each authority. By dispersing authority and prestige among various officials and limiting their powers, Deuteronomy seeks to prevent the development of a single, strong focus of prestige and power. That these limitations are here made known to the public is an important and original feature of the Torah. It lays the ground for public supervision and criticism of human authorities, and prevents them from gaining absolute authority and prestige.  Knowledge of these limitations empower citizens to resist and protest abuses of authority.

There are real concerns about abuses of power within the police now. I don't have to tell you that. We see this tension in the interpretation above - is this verse about protecting judges and the police or about protecting the people - makes for lively debate and helps us understand some of the living tensions we are all experiencing in these dark days of episodic protests, riots and violence by police and against them.

Yet, with all the conversations about race and police brutality that are shaking the country, many question the behavior of officers without considering their public service and their safety. Without in any way justifying police violence, in the shadow of Dallas, we all have to feel the sting and irony of this painful situation. Police don't always make us feel safe, and officers like you may not feel safe because protesters are lashing out at you. It makes a mockery of authority. In our ancient Talmudic tradition, we read this: "Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive."
We know there are bad police, but that's not who you are. You've given your professional life to the service of our community. Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), former prime minister of the UK, had this to say about your commitment: "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence." We are told in Deuteronomy to appoint officers. It's not enough to appoint police officers. We have to find ways to honor and appreciate you more because you help us live up to our own highest expectations of ourselves.
God bless you,


After Orlando

For what are we?
— Exodus 16:7

For most of us, the very word “Orlando” surfaces images of childhood fantasies. Whether you are at Disney World, Universal Studios or an actor playing a Mormon missionary and dreaming of the place you’d most like to be stationed, Orlando represents something innocent in the minds of most Americans. Until now...
When events like this shatter a piece of our comfortable assumptions about safety, security and tolerance, we often move from the initial stage of bewilderment to anger and then to questioning basic assumptions about our shared humanity. It is this last stage that is most pernicious because it eats away at hope and optimism. Years ago, I came across this translation of a passage from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, in the introduction to Herbert Wiener’s Nine and Half Mystics. It gave him hope. It's always given me hope.

As long as the world moves along accustomed paths, as long as there are no wild catastrophes, man can find sufficient substance for his life by contemplating surface events, theories and movements of society. He can acquire his inner richness from this external kind of “property.” But this is not the case when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos. Then the “revealed” world begins to totter. The man who tries to sustain himself only from the surface aspects of existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger...then he will feel welling up within himself a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world’s catastrophes. From such inner sources, he will seek the waters of joy...

Rabbi Kook adds an important stage to traveling through the kind of emotions many of us are experiencing this week. When an event pushes us deeply out of the complacent and familiar, we are forced to search for a language of reason and meaning to get us out of the existential mess. When our revealed world - the one we know - totters, we stagger but then find that this itself releases a desire for something greater and more meaningful to carry us above the pain.
In the biblical verse above, Moses and Aaron encounter an Israelite nation who complain sharply against God because they were hungry and unsure of their collective future. They murmur so harshly that Moses asked himself and Aaron: what are we? Rashi interprets this to mean: “Of what importance are we?...Your sons, your wives, your daughters and the mixed multitude” are murmuring against us.  On the face of it, this is a crushing moment in the leadership of two biblical heroes. But in mystical literature, this reads as a turning point. Only when Moses and Aaron humbled themselves with this question, were they truly able to rise in service to the people.
How does this work? Fasten your seatbelts and we will read Rabbi Kook’s interpretation of this verse through the translation of Daniel Matt in The Essential Kabbalah:   

The greater you are the more you need to search for your self. Your deep soul hides itself from consciousness. So you need to increase aloneness, elevation of thinking, penetration of thought, liberation of mind - until finally your soul reveals itself to you, spangling a few sparkles of her light.”

Rabbi Kook believed that were an individual to reach this very elevated station of personal growth, he or she would abandon the ego and his or her individuation, melting into a state of unity, “becoming one with everything that happens.” At this stage, “you gather everything, without hatred, jealousy, or rivalry. The light of peace and a fierce boldness manifest in you. The splendor of compassion and the glory of love shining through you. The desire to act and work, the passion to create and to restore yourself, the yearning for silence and for the inner shout of joy - all these band together in your spirit, and you become holy.” [Orot Ha-Kodesh 3:270]
In other words, when we reach a true state of righteousness, we don’t see the differences among us. We rise above all the fractiousness and smallness of being human and achieve wholeness. For Rabbi Kook, this is not a serene, lonely state but a fierce boldness with the capacity to allow love to shine through oneself to others.
Now is the time for a fierce boldness of love and unity that comes from every person transforming the same question - “What are we?”  - from the rhetorical, self-deprecating question of our human capacity for evil to the “What are we?” question of how little divides us ultimately when we overcome judgment and jealousy, pettiness of heart and smallness of spirit.
So what are you?
Shabbat Shalom

Race and Restlessness

What we need is restlessness, a constant awareness of the monstrosity of injustice.
— Rabbi A.J Heschel

It's hard to think of others when our own people are under siege and yet, there is a universe of struggle going on right now about which we cannot be willfully blind. Migrants and refugees wander across Europe seeking temporary homes and facing the bleak reality that a future of uncertainty may be their only certainty right now. And on top of it all, winter is coming, which makes all homelessness colder, harder and harsher.

When we look internally at the troubles in this country, it is easy to get distracted by presidential campaigns and debates and not look beyond to the deep problems of gun control, race and financial and social inequalities that have plagued this country in recent years. 

We have just opened the book of Genesis in the Torah cycle, and the first eleven chapters of the book that we covered this past two weeks signal a message that must be internalized. The story of humankind in its broadest sense dominates our sacred text. We were born into a much larger community than our own. Our universal story precedes our particularistic story. We must be the stewards of the planet, caring and nurturing the expansive garden we were put into in our primordial story. We are partners in a holy covenant but have perhaps forgotten our part of the deal.

Specifically, in the Torah reading of Noah, we encounter this boat-builder's descendants and a curious story that has been interpreted in ways that has been deforming and devastating. In these large stories of world-building and destruction, we find a small and intimate account of Noah falling asleep drunk and naked in his tent. His grandson Canaan finds him in the tent and reports it gleefully to his brothers. His brothers take the high road and cover their father, making sure not to turn in his direction when doing so. "When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, 'Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.' He also said, 'Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be his slave,'" [9:24-27].

The curse of Canaan was read in ancient midrashim as possibly referring to those of African descent. It was taken more literally in some Christian circles as a defense of slavery as a biblical mandate, suggesting that this brutal behavior was encoded into the way human hierarchies must always be. And we have not yet, thousands of years later, fully rid ourselves of this plague.

In 1963, at the opening address at the National Conference on Religion and Race, Rabbi A.J. Heschel told the audience that racism is "an eye disease, a cancer of the soul." Later, this essay was collected in an anthology called The Insecurity of Freedom: the essay is entitled "Religion and Race." Here are his words:

Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God's beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a child: to torture his child? How can we hear the word "race" and feel no self-reproach?

Decades later, we encounter Ta-Nahisi Coates' heartbreaking letter to his 15-year old son about being black in America - Between the World and Me. It's painful reading. Coates tries to update the letter James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year old nephew. Following this "tradition," I have written a letter on being white and Jewish to my 14-year-old daughter on race in America and our Jewish responsibility for all of humanity straight from Genesis. It seems at times if for every step forward on matters of race in America, we take long steps back.

 It's time to restore a very delicate equilibrium that has gone awry. We may never get back to the Garden of Eden, but in a broken world, we still need to aspire to the wholeness we once had. 

Shabbat Shalom



The Place

This week was exhausting existentially in our homeland. Ideology and fundamentalism became tools of violence in a land so desperate for peace. These were not external threats, but internal zealotry born of an arrogance and certitude that should make us pause, wonder, feel immense shame and anger and then take a painful look inside.

One of the names of God in Hebrew is Makom; God is a place, the ultimate place, so to speak. Makom is an odd way to refer to a Divine Being, but there is something about it that signals both grandeur and solace. When it comes to spiritual shelter, what matters is location, location, location. Many biblical verses refer to God as a refuge or place we hide to escape from our troubles when we feel ill at ease or afraid.

Stamped on many psalms is not the idea that God is a place as in a scenic vista or a magnificent sweep of landscape but a place we can go to when there is nowhere else to go. "Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies. I take refuge in You" (Psalms 143:9). Continuing the theme of protection, we read, "For You have been a refuge to me, a tower of strength against the enemy (61:3). God not only shields us. God is a tower when we are feeling small and powerless. "You are my hiding place. You preserve me from trouble. You surround me with songs of deliverance" (32:7). Not only do we hide in God, when we do so, we are surrounded by the loving cradle of song to sooth us. Sometimes we need to hide and do not know how. Then, too, the psalmist calls out to God, "Hide me in the shadow of your wings" (17:8).

Elsewhere, in the book of Isaiah, we have God as place using visual cues in nature: "Each will be like a refuge from the wing and a shelter from the storm. Like streams of water in a dry country, like a huge rock in a parched land" (32:2). God offers a place for us to hide when we are at our lowest and most fragile, and we suddenly grasp sight of a rich oasis. The problem is that we cannot always hide nor should we.

Turning to a more modern view of place, we study the living words of Israeli poet Tuvya Ruebner, who was awarded the Israel Prize for his poetry in 2008. Ruebner came to what was then Palestine from Czechoslovakia in 1941 during the British Mandate. He came alone. His family eventually perished in the Holocaust, but Ruebner's different path saved him. He became a member of Kibbutz Merhavia and a schoolteacher.

His poem, "When I arrived the place was," appears here in an English translation by Oded Manor.

When I arrived the place was
Filled with dust. No signature 
Of grass. Not
A single blade. A few grey trees
Stood here, there, shrouded
In sackcloth and dust. In my dream I saw
The rivers of my youth, the nights of my forests. Nowadays
Everything is green. In my dream I see
Filled with dust.

Sometimes we dream of a place that is lush and verdant but the reality turns out not to match the welcoming vision. Hardly anything is growing. Everything is covered in a film of dust that mars the deep green of nature. That happens to places when we have great expectations that are not met, when our disappointments become a storm cloud of reality.

When we speak of God as "Makom," we don't mean just any place. We mean a place of safety, of joy, of triumph, of home. Our homeland, too, has to feel like that makom, that place of vibrancy and shelter for all who live there if we take the mandate to live in God's image seriously. Because if it is not a makom - a safe and loving space - for all who live there now then it will cease to be that one day for any who live there. Let the repair and the healing begin.

Shabbat Shalom

A Banner Year?

The Israelites shall encamp troop by troop, each man with his division and each under this flag.
— Numbers 1:52

I must confess my ignorance. I never knew that a Confederate flag flew over the capitol building of South Carolina until the governor this week asked for it to be permanently removed. Having never been to South Carolina or visited its central government buildings, I couldn't believe that a state would permit such a thing when it has long been a symbol of white supremacy and a not-so subtle nod to a return to pre-Civil War segregation and slavery. I heard multiple comparisons to the flying of a Nazi flag after losing World War II but this comparison, though natural, seems somewhat fatuous and narrow. Symbols must always be contextualized and loose comparisons lead to sloppy thinking. 

Perhaps we focused so much on the Confederate flag this week because the much larger conversations on racism, serial killings and the easy accessibility of guns in this country are not resulting in enough change. The tragic shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church stirred a lot of bad feelings about the Confederate flag and what it symbolizes to those who see it as an image of oppression and those who see in it an image of sentimental Southern patriotism. But the flag literally masks the more painful subjects that need banner attention right now.

In ancient Israelite history, when we marched through the wilderness on the way to our homeland, we were instructed to encamp in an orderly fashion: surrounding the Tabernacle, each person by tribe, each tribe in a particular location, each division with its own flag. The instructions above are reiterated only a few verses later: "The Israelites shall camp each with his flag, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of the Meeting at a distance" (2:2).

The flags they were instructed to display had to represent in some way, their ancestral homes, much the way that we might imagine a family crest would be replete with letters and symbols that represent a family's business and personal interests, geographic location and religion. A modern scholar associates the word for flag in Hebrew  - a degel - with the Akkadian dagalu which mean "to look" or a variation of it which means "sight." To serve its purpose correctly, a flag had to be visible. Without visibility, the flag was useless. In the ancient Near East, military units of a sizable number would group together with their families as an economic and legal unit that needed to be represented symbolically. 

A midrash on Numbers 2:7 posits that every tribe had a flag that corresponded in color to the stone it represented on the colorful breastplate of the High Priest, the kohen gadol. With this color alignment, you knew where you were located spiritually and physically in relation to a larger community. Flags are important ways that we demarcate space and stamp individuality on a location that may remain neutral without any mark. Noteworthy is that the first man on the moon placed a flag as if to suggest triumph and ownership of a space formerly uncharted.

We have flags of our towns, of our universities, of our states, of countries. A flag can be a highly moving symbol of belonging. Think of Francis Scott Key in 1814 seeing the stars and stripes of a flag that still waved high despite war that inspired him to write the American national anthem. Think of Israeli Olympic award medalists who wrapped themselves in Israeli flags as if to be totally embraced by a national symbol. Or consider the somber moments when the coffin of an American or Israeli soldier is laid to rest covered in a flag. The Veterans Association of America will provide a burial flag free of charge to honor the memory of a veteran that is then given to the next of kin. 

The history of the flag of Israel is itself fascinating. While the government settled on a rather striking and plain image that carries with it religious symbols like the Star of David and recalls the stripes of the tallit, a prayer shawl, the contest to design the flag suggested signs and colors associated with the number of work hours in a socialist day. Who we are or who we aspire to be often comes out in the flags we design.

Roman Mars did a fascinating TED talk on why we never notice city flags and how to design better flags, in case you were thinking of crafting something as a family. If you have an extra 20 minutes this week, listen and learn from an expert who has given this much thought.

It's not a bad idea to spend time this Shabbat thinking of what your family flag might look like or if you are part of a group like a workplace, school or camp, what symbols would mean the most to you that need to be included as a mark of identity in the small space that a flag takes up. One thing is clear: ancient Israelite flags were there to provide direction through high visibility to those who required shelter. They were never a source of offense or anguish. They accomplished the exact opposite - telling you where you belong rather than telling others where they do not belong.

Shabbat Shalom

Police State

You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
— Deutoronomy 16:18

The number of incidents involving police violence and then subsequent public protest in the past many months has been heartbreaking. In New York and Baltimore, Ferguson and North Charleston tensions are high. Only last week the violence traveled to Israel as thousands of Ethiopian Israelis protested unfair treatment by police following the video-taping of a police officer caught on security camera beating a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in the city of Holon for no apparent reason. In a New York Times column this past week, Guy Ben Porat, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University who has spent years researching how Israeli police manage different sectors of society, concluded that many Ethiopian-Israelis, especially males, see themselves the victims of over-policing and racial profiling.

There is the response of justice: who committed what crime, and what is the fairest way to adjudicate the problem? There is the response of pain: what are the underlying racial tensions and assumptions about authority that live underneath the brutality on both sides that must be named? And then there is the response of the spirit: how do we go about healing the immense fracture of trust that has taken place to shift perceptions, to change in visible ways the treatment of victims on both sides and to quell the anarchy that is rocking pockets of the world?

If you look at the verse above from Deuteronomy 16:18 you find a commitment - even before we entered the land of Israel - to prepare a judiciary and to create a body of officials to enforce the laws. The German nineteenth century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, emphasizes two aspects of this commandment: the commitment to have judges and police all over and that this be the appointment of the entire nation. Everyone must be committed to the system for it to take effect. In his words, " it is a question of making it a duty for the nation to appoint judges for the first time throughout the whole land...The representatives of the whole united nation are to appoint judges and executive officers throughout the land and in making these appointments be guided solely by the purpose that justice and true justice only becomes achieved through these appointments." We all have to commit and accept authority or else there will be a breakdown in governance. 

Interestingly, the next verse states: 'You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality..." One modern commentator writes that this entire passage is directed not at judges but at every member of a community who must not only ensure that an objective governance structure is in place but that we not judge our judges and officials unfairly, making negative assumptions about those in power who have given their lives to public service.

Last week's riots in Baltimore - which resulted in looting and the destruction of many homes and stores, dozens of cars and public buildings - also could have damaged something much more fundamental: that the belief in authority and the belief in humanity can coincide - even if they do so in a healthy tension. Nothing was healthy about what happened, and we have every reason to believe that unless a real diagnosis is made and named, this problem of police brutality and the resultant anarchy will persist.

In the verse above, we are commanded to place judges in every gate - gates that the Lord, our God gave us. In other words, at every point where people can enter and exit, the vulnerable spaces, we must strengthen a commitment to law and bolster a sense of order. But what happens when it is no longer the places that are vulnerable, but the people who man those places? Good people will not enter public service when they have to fear continuously for their lives. What happens to the collective psyche of people who feel vulnerable not because of their acts but because of their color? 

God gave us those gates. We don't own them. God merely trusted us as stewards of those gates, and we have broken the partnership by not being trustworthy stewards and protecting and enshrining justice. It's time to clean up.

Shabbat Shalom