Three Strikes and You’re Out — Or Maybe Not!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Three is the critical number. On that, both sides agree. Three generations, that is: the third generation is a turning point.

But “turning point” to what? There, the two sides differ. For Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, three successive generations of Torah scholars guarantees that “Torah will never depart from their offspring” (BM 85a). Sociologist Marcus Lee Hanson, however, warns that after three generations, family traditions die. For Rabbi Yochanan, a third generation ensures continuity. For Professor Hanson, it spells continuity’s demise.

Who is right?

Our own experience favors Hansen. His study of ethnic communities showed that immigrants (the first generation) love tradition. Their children reject their parents’ nostalgia. The grandchildren try to recover what their parents rejected. But the game ends there, at the third generation, because the fourth generation just doesn’t care.

American Jews today are living this fourth-generation nightmare, watching our young people identify as Jewish but remain “neutral to negative” about Jewish causes, Jewish charity, Jewish learning, and a Jewish future.

But maybe Rabbi Yochanan is on to something. He is discussing Torah, not ethnicity, and our commentators cite him in connection with the commandment in this week’s Torah reading (Bo) to tell our children the story of leaving Egypt.

Whether we have a future depends on what we take that story to be. Will it be historical memories of anti-Semitism, or even a Jewish state like all other states but speaking Hebrew on the streets – however much that moved so many of the older generations to tears of joy? Or will it be something eternal and profound: a call to believe in the Jewish mission of the centuries, of which both Israel and we may be a part?

Believing, alas, is what American Jews do most poorly. By believing, I mean no blind acceptance of the Exodus account in all its detail. It is a story more than it is history. What matters is the meaning we find in it. Telling it at our seders should evoke gratitude and wonder at the sheer thought of being part of something transcendent: a divine plan, no less — being covenanted into history to accomplish great expectations.

Most seders nowadays have traded in gratitude and wonder for fun family get-togethers, updated, perhaps, with activities and toy frogs to amuse the children. They may briefly flirt with seriousness when we enlarge the tale to include the Shoah and Israel, but, like it or not, these provide no transcendent meaning for the fourth generation, the one who Hansen says “just won’t care.” Yes, trips to Israel are important, and yes also, we should never forget the murdered 6,000,000, but neither is enough to sear the fourth generation’s soul the way it does their elders’.

By contrast, what would happen if we treated the seder as earnestly as we do Yom Kippur? Not for confessions of sin but for professions of belief: the insistence that the grand design of history took a turn for the better when an ancient people said, “Enough of slavery! We are on our way to Sinai, to a life of promise, and to God.”

The Haggadah’s famous “Four-Sons midrash” says that our story varies with the wisdom, wickedness, or foolishness of the child who asks. Our issue, however, is less the children asking than the parents answering. We are not wicked, but judging by how we squander the seder by replacing faith with fun, we are not all that wise either. Children should leave the seder table entranced, not entertained, by elders who believe they are still charged with a God-given task. Hearing their parents assert their faith in that age-old Jewish calling might really make this night “different from all other nights.”

Remember the child who doesn’t even know how to ask? We are the adults who don’t know how to answer. We are long on historical memory; short on faith that it means anything. And that is the recipe for disaster. Just ask Hansen.

Whatever Happened To All The Good Jewish Cheers?

Parashat Vay’chi

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

A football team with a losing season keeps its spirits high by joking, “The other teams may get the wins but we have all the good cheers.”

There is something to be said for having the good cheers, not just in moments of loss and despair, but in happier times too. It takes the right language to move us on to higher moral ground.

In that regard, it sometimes seems that it is Christianity, not Judaism, that has all the good cheers. So, at least, I am told, on occasion, by Jews who are taken with the repeated evangelical claim, “God loves you.“ Why don’t Jews say that, they ask. Why, similarly, is it the New Testament that says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Why can’t Jews have that cheer as well?

Actually, we do have those cheers! The Golden Rule was preached by Hillel, before it was by Jesus. And God’s love was standard doctrine among Rabbis back then. “Happy are you, O Israel, for God loves you,” Rabbi Akiba insisted. We don’t lack the good cheers so much as we have just stopped cheering.

It’s not those cheers alone that I have in mind. I mean also other ideas and concepts that deepen life’s meaning.

Take the sense that we are gifted to be alive, and charged with caring for God’s universe; that we are born with purpose; and that our worth as individuals transcends the money we are lucky to have and the education we are fortunate to get. Christians have words for all of this: “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry.” The idea, simply put, is that we are called to fulfill our purpose in life, that we are stewards of whatever falls into our hands as the area of that calling, and that we become ministers toward that end.

Words like “calling,” “stewardship” and “ministry” matter, because they evoke a mindset that otherwise eludes us. How different life becomes when we believe that we are placed on earth as “ministers” of a higher purpose – like ministers of government who further human destiny; that as “stewards,” we must keep faith with what is in our care; and that we are “called” to fulfil that “stewardship” as our distinctive “ministry.” Why can’t Jews have cheers like this?

Granted, “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry” do not sound very Jewish. But that is because English was largely developed by the intellectual elite who served the Church. Over time, Christianity has cornered the market on its cheers. But only in English! We Jews have them all – in the original Hebrew!

Take “calling.” The middle chapter of Torah is labeled Vayikra, “God called,” the implicit lesson being that we are indeed “called” to the way of life that Vayikra details: sacrifice for others and seeking the sacred on a day-to-day basis.

As for “stewardship” and “ministry,” our commentator Sforno finds those concepts in this week’s Torah portion, when Joseph assures his brothers that he was destined for success because God had assigned him a task — his own distinctive “ministry,” if you will. Sforno calls him God’s shaliach, the technical term in Jewish law for a legal agent. But it is much more than that. Morally, sh’lichut (“legal agency”) means “ministry” or “calling.” Joseph was called to the ministry of stewarding God’s people through the famine.

Jewish law adds depth to these cheers. It stipulates, for example, that even in their absence, principals may be represented by their agents, but only if those agents act in their principals’ best interests. God appoints us, we might say, to act in God’s best interests, given the fact that God often seems so absent. Our “ministry” is to be proper stewards over God’s ongoing creation.

We Jews do have the right cheers – but in Hebrew, waiting for us to translate them and to reclaim them as our own, thereby acknowledging the Jewish commitment to the human condition into which we are born.

Reevaluating Esau

[I know this is late. I meant to get it posted in time for the relevant Torah reading this year (Parashat Toldot). But it is one of my best pieces, so I am posting it now — better late than never]

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Why would Esau abandon his birthright? He arrives home after a day’s hunt, smells his brother’s cooking, and trades the birthright away for dinner. Why indeed would he do that?

Details matter here. The first thing Esau announces upon entering the tent is, “I am weary.” Jacob makes him a proposition, “Sell (michrah) your birthright.” Esau despairs: “I am about to die. What good is my birthright to me?” And with that, the deed is done.

Esau deserves more sympathy than he gets, because we are conditioned to treat him as the “heavy.” But God is compassionate, the Rabbis say, so we should be too. Look again at Esau, then.

Are we to believe that Esau’s weariness is pure physical exhaustion? Could this mighty man of strength be so weak that he cannot pour himself some stew? That he cannot think straight enough to keep his birthright intact? Hardly. Take him at his word! “I am weary… about to die.” It doesn’t take much to diagnose Esau as suffering from a malady that attacks millions of us still: Depression.

The Rabbis emphasize the word used by Jacob, an unusual version of the imperative, michrah, “Sell!” It can also be read, machrah, not the imperative, but the past tense, meaning, “She (or it) sold” — as if rather than asking for the birthright, Jacob was observing that something or other had already sold it. Nachmanides indicates what that “something” was: it is Esau’s weariness, ayefut in Hebrew, a feminine abstract noun, and the real subject of the sentence.

On this reading, Esau arrives home at dark, his depression creeping in with the setting sun. “I am weary,” he announces, “ready to die. What good is anything to me?”

“Your weariness has sold the birthright,” Jacob observes.

And the Torah sums it up: “Esau treated even his birthright with contempt,” not because he is too tired to think clearly, but because his very soul is so weary of the world, that he is ready to die.

Thousands of readers will now recognize Esau in themselves or in those they love. Sufferers of depression present themselves as strong and filled with promise, while inside, they are weary beyond belief. Their own birthright — fresh air, sunshine, life itself — seems meaningless. People ask them to snap out of it — as if they could. But they cannot. They can barely get out of bed in
the morning. Like Esau, they are oh so weary — ready to die.

How, we may wonder, does Esau fare in the end? Years later, returning from servitude to Laban, Jacob encounters his brother who has done quite well for himself. He is wealthy, thriving, a man with family, land, and servants. But Jacob overlooks the obvious to peer into Esau’s soul. Having recognized, once, how “Esau’s weariness has sold his birthright” Jacob now judges anew. “Looking into your face,” he says, “is like looking into the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

Jacob recognizes Esau’s depression as a thing of the past: his brother’s face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. With his new-found peace of mind, Esau can even forgive Jacob for taking advantage of him when they were children. He kisses Jacob, assures him he is content with life, and calmly takes his leave.

Esau is a case study in hope. If Esau can be transformed into a mirror of the divine, then so can we. But first we must decide that daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of the soul, and the soul can find the most surprising cures, even when we least expect them.

In our day, God stores up miracles in medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, find a doctor. Decide that you have had enough of sadness. It is never too late to learn to shine like God.

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Ma’aseh sheyaha, as the Rabbis say – “Here’s a story for you.”

Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica -– one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of Jewish books, s’forim, as they are known: not the commercialized products reviewed in the New York Times, but arcane Hebrew texts from long ago that get newly reissued on occasion. With Passover arriving in a week, I decided also to buy a matzah tray for my kitchen table.

Noiach, the lovely man I deal with there, showed me several – one of them particularly beautiful, but so beyond my budget that I opted for something plainer and less expensive. As he began wrapping it, however, I changed my mind.

“No” I said, “I’ll take the expensive one, l’kuv’d yont’f “– literally, “in honor of the holiday.”

“Yes,” he nodded, knowingly, “l’kuv’d yont’f.”

I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuv’d” anything – maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents when I was little and still spoke the language. Whatever the case, the word l’kuv’d, which I hadn’t used in decades, somehow rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness – a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.

L’kuv’d is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew likhvod , “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere, however, in the Jewish conversation of the centuries and in all those s’forim I mentioned. Likhvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the dead not just the living. “Honor” is what Torah commands us to show parents and teachers. Embarrassing people is forbidden because it contravenes k’vod habriyot (“the honor due God’s creatures”); we destroy places of idolatry, not for God’s sake, but because their existence is an embarrassment to the people who built them. We Jews are a culture of honor.

How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz Chasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matzah tray by saying l‘kuv’d yunt’f” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. Because both of us read and revere those s’forim that he sells and I buy, we share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor – and we treat each other accordingly.

Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture of honor is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species”: the etrog; and the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav. Those s’forim that we Jews pour over liken them to the Jewish People bound together as one despite our differences, likhvod hashem – “in honor of God,” whose People we are.

In this culture of honor, we learn from one another. The very expression, “culture of honor” came from Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, an organization dedicated to transforming synagogues into moral and spiritual centers for the 21st century. We shared insight, music, and learning across denominations because as different as we are, we all insist that what God wants for organizational life, and for relationships generally, is honor.

The opposite of a culture of honor, says Rabbi Rosenblatt, is a culture of blame, where people cover their own faults by blaming others. It might also be a culture of nastiness or humiliation where we build ourselves up by tearing others down. But blame, nastiness and humiliation are not the Jewish way.

Sh’ma yisrael, we Jews say; and then: barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed, which can be translated as “Blessed is the Name [of God]: the glory of His Kingdom is eternal; or better: “The honor [that is typical] of His Kingdom is what’s lasting.” To be a Jew is to construct together a culture that models what the world can be: however much we differ, we treat each other with honor.


Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”

Parashat Nitzavim

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” we say, but we are often wrong. It is self-delusion to suppose that if we always make a sound decision, always expend the extra effort, and always do the right thing, we will equally always figure it all out.

Jewish culture especially glorifies the seductive illusion that everything is possible. Sometimes it works — our grandparents lived adjacent to the Lower East Side’s Eldridge Street synagogue, which we now renovate with donations from Scarsdale and Great Neck. But sometimes it doesn’t.

So the important message of Rosh Hashanah is not what we usually think: not the self-congratulatory celebration of Happy New Year, L’chaim! Shehecheyanu, and all that; but the line from Avinu Malkenu — choneinu va’aneinu ki ein banu ma’asim; “Be gracious to us for we have no deeds of our own” — or, at least, some day we won’t have any. Count on it. The day will come (if it has not come already) when our capacity will seem paltry, given lives that grow older and frailer, and the inevitability of meeting challenges along the way that prove insurmountable.

“On Rosh Hashanah,” we say, “it is written who will live and who will die.” As literal theology, I don’t buy that. But as metaphor for the human condition, nothing could be more graphic. Our fate is often written for us; we don’t always get to write it.

This is not to say that we are helpless, but we do need to replace the neurotic notion that we are completely in charge with the recognition that we are often quite dependent — on the weather; on politics and people; on fate, coincidence and circumstance; on any number of things.

This should have been shabbat m’var’khim, the Shabbat immediately preceding the new month, when we pause in our morning prayers to invoke blessing on the month ahead. But the new year is an exception to the rule. Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Rosh Chodesh, a new month, but Jewish tradition dispenses with the normal blessing then because (says the Baal Shem Tov), “In the month that starts the new year, it is God who says the requisite blessing. Only by virtue of that divine act, may we bless the other months that follow.”

The recognition that we are unempowered, on our own, to invoke blessing for the coming year underscores the message that we cannot go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on everything and everyone. We will get tired, we will sometimes fail, we will need help. Some people learn this the hard way: millions of Americans who are in twelve-step recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go and let God”; and millions more who would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, bring back a teenage runaway, save a marriage, find a job. They do what they can; it is sometimes not enough.

The real heroes of the world are not the people who claw their way to the top as if immune to limitations. Forget Time Magazine’s annual story on the “Person of the Year.” Take the pictures of the rich and the beautiful that fill the New York Times’ style sections and wrap your garbage with them. Life isn’t like that.

The people I nominate for men and women of the year are the ordinary souls who muster the courage to go on, day after day, week after week, knowing they cannot solve life’s worst problems, but committed nonetheless to solving what they can and living with what they cannot. They, and we, will find comfort in a prayer with which Yom Kippur ends: precisely because we are dependent, “God reaches out a hand” to us. We are not alone in our shortcomings; some invisible force sustains us; and throughout the year-long silence following the echoes of Yom Kippur’s final t’kiyah g’dolah shofar-blast, that hand will be there for all who seek it.

Parashat B’chukotai

This final week of Leviticus is called “The Sabbath of Blessing” – a euphemistic reference to the content of the Torah portion, the curses said to await Israel if it fails to keep God’s commandments. The logic is as simple as it is unpalatable: God controls history and punishes us for noncompliance with God’s will.

Over the years, this thinking has been applied wholesale to Jewish tragedy — whether the destruction of the Temple in antiquity or the Holocaust of our own time, Jewish suffering is explained as divine punishment for sin.

I can think of few ideas as pernicious as this one. It is morally reprehensible to blame the Holocaust’s victims for their own agony. And what kind of God would mete out such punishment anyway? Finally, the notion that God determines history runs counter to everything we know about both God and history. Imagining God as a puppet-master manipulating the Romans or the Nazis is a profanation of the very word “God.”

The euphemism “Sabbath of Blessing” is not the only way we mitigate the pain of this parashah. Customarily, we read its curses quietly and rapidly, to get them over with quickly. Some people even leave the synagogue so as not to hear them.

The normal explanation for this behavior is the belief that by minimizing attention to the curses we prevent their coming true. But just the opposite conclusion ought to follow, the Chatam Sofer says. If we take the warnings seriously, they should be recited especially loudly and clearly, to make everyone hear them and heed them!

Yet we continue to read the curses sotto voce anyway. And I think we should, not because we superstitiously believe we thereby avoid their consequences, but because the very idea of God bringing curses upon us is so reprehensible that we slur over the verses that purport to say it. It is an embarrassment to God to imagine that God tweaks history to kill Jews – or anyone else, for that matter. No wonder we prefer downplaying the reading as much as possible.

The clear and evident point of the curses is to instill fear of God, an obvious consequence of hearing them read, if you believe they describe reality. If we no longer think that way, however, we need to redefine what we mean by “fear of God.” Here we can turn to Nehemia Polen’s discussion of Esh Kodesh, the sermons of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw ghetto.

Shapira saw first-hand the tortures endured under the Nazis; fear of punishment was all around him all the time; yet he hardly preached associating God with the Nazis! Having to face up to the theology that assumed the hand of God in history, he concluded that “fear of divine punishment,” is just a lower understanding of a loftier goal: attaining the awe that comes from comprehending “God’s grandeur.”

The curses of our parashah came from a time when imagining God as a micromanager of history was the best way to enforce the lesson of a God far enough beyond our ken to evoke awe. In our time, we have other ways to imagine that. How about the sheer force of numbers: our own earth that goes back 4,000,000,000 years; or the solar system that is 14,000,000,000 years old!

The awesome recognition of a God beyond ourselves is especially necessary today, given the possibility that we are likely, otherwise, to imagine we are God – and to do whatever we want, even to the point of destroying the world we live in.

So we should happily hear the curses muttered through at breakneck speed this year, not because they otherwise might come to pass, but to remind us that God does not actually manage history at all — in which case it must be true that we do. And we had better take that responsibility seriously before there is no history left to manage.