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, April 21, 2022
In this Moment, April 22: End of Pesach, Paschal Goat Nabbed in the Nick of Time on Temple Mount; Is Love the Key to Meaning in Life? Jewish Voters' Priorities
As we head toward the conclusion of the festival, while services will continue to be presented remotely, primarily on Zoom, we are moving ahead with our long awaited transition back to in-person Shabbat morning services - this week (which also happens to be the 8th day of Passover and Yizkor). We'll be in the sanctuary for Friday night (with guest musician Koby Hayon and Rabbi Ginsburg, who will talk about his recent trip to Spain and Portugal, joining Cantor Kaplan and me) and Shabbat morning - so join us, either in person or online. Given the uptick of the infection rate, we are returning to a recommendation that people wear masks at our services if they are up to date on vaccinations; for others, masks are required. A reminder also that our offices are closed for the 7th day on Friday, and there will be no 1 PM minyan that day. Also, make sure to light your Yom Hashoah yellow candle next week. Holocaust Remembrance Day falls next Wed. evening and Thursday.
A few weeks ago, I speculated that the rare confluence of Passover, Easter and Ramadan might lead to a more peaceful holiday season. Unfortunately that's not been the case in Jerusalem, with provocations by extremists on all sides. But in the midst of the activity on the Temple Mount, there was one moment that I found both unnerving and touching, and maybe a little humorous: seeing the Israeli police confiscate a number of goats that fundamentalist Jews wished to sneak onto the Temple Mount for purposes of a Passover sacrifice. Such sacrifices ended when the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. For the past two thousand years, the vast majority of A-list Torah commentators have expressed relief that the sacrificial system is gone for good.Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of modern Israel, believed that in the Messianic era, human conduct will have improved to such a degree that animal sacrifices will not be necessary to atone for sins. There will only be non-animal sacrifices to express thanks to God. Incidentally, based on the prophecy of Isaiah (11:6-9), Rav Kook and others believe that the Messianic period will be vegetarian - we will live in complete harmony with nature.
Thankfully, for everyone's sake, most especially the goat's, the perpetrators were caught, and one little goat lived to graze another day. But the Temple Mount Faithful are breeding these animals for slaughter, so for them the long term prognosis is not good. Really gets my goat! Our services this weekend, are guaranteed to be 100 percent goat-free! Meanwhile, read this truly great poem by Yehuda Amichai.
The Song of Songs is read during Pesach and Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. These exquisite biblical books can be read in tandem, presenting opposite sides of the question of the point or pointlessness of life. Such is the perspective of a an essay on TheTorah.comwebsite. Ecclesiastes claims that everything, even love, is evanescent, while the Song argues that love is the answer, for as the poem states, love is as strong as death. Is the Song an answer to Ecclesiastes? Does spring compensate for autumn?
The interplay between the two is striking, and seems intentional. Ecclesiastes claims all is vanity, "Hevel Hevelim," whereas the Song counters by calling itself "Shir Ha-Shirim." The parallelism of this couplet is striking, as if they were meant to be juxtaposed, and they are read exactly half a year apart. What is the key to understanding life? Kohelet's emptiness or Shir ha-Shirim's vision of harmony? Vanity or harmony? Accepting inevitable death, or defying it with the power of love?
Or is the answer in fact "none of the above," and that nature is the secret to a meaningful life? On this Earth Day, it's a fitting thought. Walt Whitman wrote in his work, "Specimen Days and Collect,"
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons—the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night. We will begin from these convictions.
I've been reading the book, "The Sunny Nihilist: How a meaningless life can make you truly happy ," by Wendy Syfret. Fun reading to squeeze between hospital visits and funerals. Actually, it is surprisingly upbeat, much like Ecclesiastes. She sides with Walt Whitman, saying, "Like many millennials, I've found that accepting the futility of my small life has deepened my commitment to environmentalism. Understanding that the only constant is Earth itself, I find that its protection becomes more important than any singular interest of mine."
It comes down to our recognition of the impermanence of our lives - not only our mortality, but the understanding that within a century or two, all memory of our ever having existed will have vanished, though maybe that is now changing, given the digital footprints we can leave behind. So we look for those things that can extend our existences beyond our little lives, in both directions - deep into the past and far into the future. Communing with nature does that, as does protecting the planet. So, to a degree, does love. Love and legacy go hand in hand - the deeper the love, the stronger the impact, the more it extends beyond ourselves and our little lives. Mitzvot are also an extension of that love - for God, for humanity, for life itself. But is that enough to make life "meaningful"? Ecclesiastes says no. Song of Songs says emphatically, yes!
On Passover, when hope springs eternal and spring inspires hope eternally, we are inclined to go with the optimism of "Song of Songs." Love does conquer all. Even death. But by October, we'll sink back into Ecclesiastes' creature comforts, enjoying the moment, the fruits of our harvest, everything, including love, while it lasts. Because nothing lasts forever.
Either way you look at it, as a "Song of Songs" romantic or an Ecclesiastes cynic, the answer is in our Bible and both of those books are authentically Jewish. The most authentically Jewish answer, in fact, is to shuttle between them both, just as surely as we shuttle between the seasons.
Illuminated manuscript above from British Library collection: Initial-word panel Shir (song) inhabited by a bear and a unicorn, 'Duke of Sussex's German Pentateuch', Germany, 14th century (Add MS 15282, f. 296v).
Shocking but not Surprising:
Jewish Voters' Priorities
Screen grab of anti-Israel display recorded this week near her Harvard dorm by a grandchild of a TBE member.
What issues are Jewish voters prioritizing? The answer given by this recent survey done by the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute is, everything but Israel, which is a remarkable transformation, though a trend that has been accelerating for a long time.
Compare these numbers to prior surveys over the past half century and the difference could not be more dramatic. I first saw this poll being discussed on Israeli television this week (see the screen shot to the left, with Israel and Iran, in enlarged orange and white letters, taking up the last two spots). There was no shortage of hand-wringing on the program, with a the bulk of the blame going to anti-Israel activities on the left. That's much easier to do, I suppose, than to look in the mirror - but the numbers speak for themselves, and they should be alarming, no matter who is at fault. No question that the other issues in this survey are all important.
Below you will find these numbers broken down by religious denomination. They show the differences between Reform and Conservative to be nominal, but the gap between the progressive movements and Orthodox to be massive on many issues, including Israel and anti-Semitism. Not especially surprising, but still shocking. But note that even among Orthodox, Israel was preferred as a top-two issue by fewer than one in five (!).
Here's the dirty little secret. Given the choices presented here, Israel would not have been one of the two issues I would have chosen. Maybe the problem is not Israel or us, it's that we are facing so many acute crises all at once, and at the moment, Israel appears to face less immediate dangers (or does it?). How often in our history have we confronted, at the same time, a global pandemic, an evil dictator intent on global conquest, and a serious internal threat to democracy, all as the planet simmers? But I am left wondering whether, if other legitimate crises were added to the list - mental health, for instance, or human rights...if there were fifty issues on the list, would Israel still finish at or near the bottom?
Where would Israel appear on your list?
An Israeli tradition returns - the Ein Gev music festival. After a Covid hiatus, enjoy this 77 year old Passover week excursion down memory lane with some of Israel's finest musicians, singing on the shores of the Kineret. The festival venue is modeled after the music shed in Tanglewood. The 1950 postage stamp above celebrates this festival just two years after Israel's creation.Listen to the first day's concert here. And the second day here. Ein Gev brings back fond memories for our TBE family. Below is a photo of some of the kids from our 2005 Israel group, watching the sunset from the shores of the Sea of Galilee, at Ein Gev, just across the water from Tiberius.
"Leading on Climate: Religious Communities United on Climate Justice." Webinar from 4/11/2022 in partnership with the Archdiocese of Hartford and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. An interfaith panel discussed climate justice as a moral issue that intersects with many other areas of social life, including health, education, and racial equity. Information about the event. I had the honor of being a panelist at this event.
How Do We Celebrate Passover Amid Anti-Semitism? - The Atlantic (Abigail Pogrebin) - I’m struggling this year to reconcile the lessons I’ve taken from the holiday: to help the world, but also to remember how often the world has turned on us. Maybe the seder needs to be a call not only for empathy but also for vigilance. And yet if I reorient my prayers, will the directive I’ve always most valued—to care and to act—be applied chiefly to my family, so that we forget the stranger.