Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, December 23, 2021
In This Moment: Dec 23: Reasons to be Hopeful. Really. Moses, Jesus, and Frodo; Handeling the Messiah; Shabbatica Exotica
In This Moment
A special thank you to all who are helping in our annual Christmas Eve assistance at local homeless shelters. Above, a screen shot from the Homeless Persons Memorial Interfaith program, which we hosted on Tuesday.See the video on our website.And while you are on our archived livestream page, you can watch last Friday night's service, which included a stirring presentation by a young Palestinian student who is working with Jerusalem PeaceBuilders. You can also click here for an audio recording of the service. Listen for the story of how he baked hallah for his family in Gaza!
For the next two weeks, Friday evening services will be on Zoom only. Find the link in our Shabbat Announcements. Rather than wallowing in our current Omicron spike or the fact that all the kosher Chinese restaurants are closed for the Sabbath, we're going to make this a Shabbatica Exotica! Let's see who can sign in from the most exotic location! If it's a real place, station your laptop near a window so we can see (not that we wouldn't believe you)! Or you could bring us on a Zoom journey with an exotic virtual background. Either way, we all could use an escape. Dress is casual, and ugly sweaters are welcome. Click here to see an album of the remote virtual locations I've Zoomed from over the past two years, Oh, the places we've (not) been!
Still, reality bites, and I've been informed just this morning that due to the spread of the Omicron variant, community clergy will no longer be able to visit congregants at Stamford Hospital until this surge is under control. If you would like one of the chaplains to visit, please contact the main hospital phone number at 203-276-1000 and ask to speak to the on call chaplain. Please also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org so that I might call patients and include them in our daily healing prayers. No one should be going through illness alone.
Moses, Jesus...and Frodo
This week presents an interesting confluence. We begin the book of Exodus and the story of Moses, arguably Judaism's greatest hero. While often downplayed in our tradition (he's barely mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, for instance), Moses plays a dominant role in the last four books of the Torah, also known as the Five Books of You-Know-Who. Yet precious little is revealed about him. The first two thirds of his life are covered in a single chapter, in this week's portion of Shemot. The midrash fills in the blanks, however, and there's a lot to say about this hero and his journey.
In many ways, Moses's life trajectory matches other epic heroes of ancient and modern lore, like Jesus, another key figure for many this weekend, and, since the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy celebrated its 20th anniversary this week, let's add Frodo to the mix. Oh yes, and Harry Potter is having a 20th anniversary too.
All of them fit neatly into Joseph Campbell's archetypal hero narrative. We'll discuss this with a special focus on Moses on Shabbat morning. Click on the Parsha Packet to the right to check some ancient and modern sources, including Campbell's concepts. And click here to look at a collection of traditional midrashic stories about Moses, reprinted from Louis Ginzberg's classic collection, which now appears in its entirety online, "Legends of the Jews." It's fascinating to see the stories that never made it into the Torah, pages and pages of them. Despite a concerted effort to downplay his role, Moses never ceases to excite the Jewish imagination. Is he our Ulysses? Our Luke Skywalker? Or simply a little unlikely hero from the Shire, seeking his ring?
See below a photo from my 2013 visit to Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hallelujah! A Jewish Guide to the Messiah!
If you find the topic of the messiah and messianism too hot toHandelat this time of year, fear not! Simply download my comprehensive guide to all things Jewishly messianianic. I originally prepared it for a day-long Advent retreat I led for Christian clergy a few years ago, one of the most fascinating experiences in interfaith dialogue that I've ever experienced. And incidentally, aside from his famed "Messiah,"Handel also wrote oratorios about Queen Esther, Deborahand Judas Maccabeus. which, as you can see here, is perfect for Jewish choirs and even has its own Hallelujah chorus.
Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.
Omicron threw us all for a loop this week. It become the most dominant variant so speedily, and with so many breakthrough infections, which shut down Broadway shows and SNL in a blink. Everyone had to recalculate vacation plans and testing kits were hard to come by. But by week's end there was reason to believe that this flash fire of a variant might be more of a flash in the pan, if initial indications out of South Africa prove true.
But as if Omicron wasn't enough, there were plenty of other news stories to jar us this past week. The one about the third graders in Washington DC forced to reenact the Holocaustreally took the cake for me. The more I read, the more I thought that last week's SNL hadn't been cancelled after all. The story seemed like pure parody - warped parody at that. How is it possible in 2021 for third graders - third graders?? - to be instructed to pretend they are on a train to a death camp, to portray Hitler, to imagine themselves in a gas chamber? (click on the article below to expand it)
It really hasn't been a great week, to say the least. So let's cultivate hope, and there are so many reasons for hope right now. So many. All we have to do is look for them, and we don't have to look far.
The ADL, whose very existence is all about alarming us, does just that by presenting its Top Ten Heartbreaking Moments of Hate for 2021 (guess what's #1, and on what date in January it occurred). And for good reason, they dubbed last weekend a "Weekend of Hate." But right on the front page of their website, the ADL also presents 2021's Top Ten Moments of Inspiration and Hope.And there were plenty of big, inspirational moments to choose from in 2021: A $26 million verdict against the white supremacists responsible for Charlottesville; the launch of a $1.1 billion foundation to help prevent Anti-Asian hate crimes; and meaningful legal victories against racially motivated violence – just to name a few.
Read Yair Rosenberg's profile of Israel's Prime Minister in waiting, Yair Lapid. No matter what your political views, you'll come away hopeful, cheering that this year, Israel took a giant leap in the direction of preserving democracy and forging a better society - setting an example to the rest of the word, including the US, as to how it can be done. Lapid shepherded a new government into existence, against all odds, and it was able to stabilize itself by passing a budget, against all odds, and marginalize the extremists who would have been sitting in the cabinet had his gambit not succeeded. Lapid, considered a lightweight for so long, may have saved Israel's democracy - and through the sheer force of his example, may have helped to save ours as well. He frames the struggle perfectly. It's not left vs. right or hawk vs dove, just as here it's not Democrat vs. Republican. It's extremism vs. democracy. The diverse coalition that forms the current Israeli government is designed to get very little done, and that's frustrating for everyone. But in stabilizing the democracy and working toward greater dignity for Israel's Arab minority, (you have to read the article to fully appreciate what he has done to even bring greater equality to Israeli society), Lapid has done more than enough.
Meanwhile here in America, I am proud to be putting Jonathan Sacks' definition of hope to work, by being one of over 800 leaders joining Martin Luther King III in a letter to President Biden and the Senate to prioritize voting rights in 2022. See the letter. Sacks wrote, Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.
A necrology is a counterintuitive place to seek hope, but take a look at the profiles of 18 noteworthy Jews who died in 2021. If ever you wondered whether any person can make a difference, scroll down past Sheldon Adelson and Ed Asner to Flory Jagoda, who wrote “Ocho Kandelikas,” and preserved Sephardic culture while simultaneously adding to it. So many of these lives can only bring us a sense of hope that people can change things for the better.
On the front page of an Israeli newspaper this week, you can see this photo of a car sinking into a huge sinkhole in the wake of a mega-storm that hit the entire country. So why is this hopeful? Because the caption is just perfect for a country that brings Judaism to life every moment of every day. It's a play on words from the first chapter of Genesis, with a nod to the 37th. Two biblical allusions in one headline! Actually, three. The Hebrew states, "Va-yehi Bor!" Which means, "And there was a sinkhole!" But in the Bible, "bor" means "pit," or "cistern," often a place with lots of water (fitting here), and also is a reminder of the pit where Joseph was entrapped by his brothers (also called a "bor"), though presumably not while sitting in his car. And here's the extra play on words. The headline rhymes with "Vayehi Or," "And there was light," the Universe's response to the first divine words uttered in the Torah, "Y'hi Or," "Let there be light!" The wordplay is clearly intentional. Any Israeli with a minimal elementary school education would get the reference immediately. The proof of that is that the newspaper used the headline in the first place. Israelis know their Bible. For everyone but the owner of that car, this classic wordplay is a touchstone linking a meteorological calamity to the our most sacred text and to our sacred language. If ever there was a reason to learn some Hebrew, it's so that we all can be in on this joke, so that we all might literally be speaking the same language, and on the same page.
This wordplay is precisely what can give us hope at a time like this. Yes the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble(another biblical wordplay, via George and Ira Gershwin, on Isaiah 54:10), but despite it all, there are things that are even more enduring than our landscape, which as we can see, is sinking. The eternal message of our sacred scriptures is more lasting, as well as our eternal connection to the land of Israel, to our fellow Jews and peace seekers everywhere, and our unshakable, hope-driven commitment to the future of humanity. For despite it all, God is telling us, by way of an unlucky car sinking in stormy Tel Aviv, our love is here to stay.