Gather All The Guests: The Good and the Bad

This Sukkot, I have been consumed by two compelling images, one commonplace, the other largely ignored.

The lesser-known (from Deuteronomy 31:9-12) is called Hakhel (“gather”) – the commandment that on every seventh Sukkot, the population gathers to hear “this teaching.” The Rabbis elaborate on “this teaching.”

At Hakhel , they say, the king himself (no less) proclaimed various passages from Torah, culminating in “the blessings and the curses” (Deuteronomy 27-28), the frightening explanation that good and bad are divine reward and punishment for our behavior.

This message is hardly ideal sukkah reading, however. Indeed, most Jews no longer believe it.

Fortunately, the book of Job provides an alternative: we simply do not know why good and bad occur; the laws of nature are impervious to moral logic.

But just acknowledging our inability to know why bad things happen lets God too easily off the hook. I don’t particularly relish a daily Sukkah dose of Job either.

So I turn to my second image: the familiar Kabbalistic invitation to other-worldly guests (Ushpizin, in Aramaic) to visit our Sukkah. This image too is tied to the problem of evil.

Kabbalah brings enormous sophistication to the issue. Begin with the fact that as thoroughgoing monotheists, Jews cannot blame the bad on some other deity. If a single God created everything, that same God must somehow be implicated in the bad, not just the good. At the very least, an all-powerful God ought to have arranged the laws of nature better!

Kabbalah solves the problem by implying that God is actually not all-powerful. God intended only good, but the process of creation went wrong, allowing evil to become embedded in the otherwise good universe. We human beings now face the task of cleaning up the mess – hence, the concept of tikkun olam, the human obligation to “correct” creation’s flaws.

I return to the ushpizin, the Sukkah guests. Our Ushpizin Ritual names them as biblical heroes, like Abraham, Isaac, and David. But Kabbalah meant these names as euphemisms for the good and the bad that crept into creation. It is really personifications of the world’s good and bad whom we summon to our sukkah!

Recall now the image of the king, every seventh Sukkot, reading the blessings and the curses. The “blessings and curses” of Torah are not altogether different from “the good and the bad” of creation. I need not read the former on Sukkot, it seems to me, as long as I consider the latter. As the king once assembled the population to hear the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, we might assemble friends and family to hear the good and bad in our world – an updated version of the ushpizin, and a reminder of the tikkun the world needs.

Here’s my list for the seven years past.

2008: An elderly pensioner left penniless by greed that brought recession beyond imagination.

2009: A suffering child, now healthy, because she is insured through the Affordable Care Act of that year.

2010: A Haitian mother who died of cholera following the most devastating earthquake in memory.

2011: A liberal Muslim lawyer who joined the crowd in Egypt’s Tahrir Square hoping for freedom, but who got, instead, Islamic extremists who betrayed what the revolution might have become.

2012: A six-year old gunned down in Newtown CT, because we have no gun control.

2013: A homosexual couple, finally married, because the Supreme Court rejected the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

2014: An African father, dead from the Ebola epidemic.

Sukkot evokes gratitude: for the food, the brilliant autumn colors, and the gift of life renewed after another Yom Kippur fast. It should also prompt admission that all is not yet rosy throughout the world. God began creation, but left us to correct it: curing disease, preventing wanton cruelty, insisting on freedom, demanding equality, and standing up for the dignity of every human being. At least once every seven years, we should create our own Hakhel – a Sukkot “gathering” to acknowledge both the good and the bad that remain our human lot.

Luck and Chance; Plot and Character; a “Center of Narrative Gravity”

“There is no plot; there is only luck and chance,” says Cormac Samuel O’Connor, the protagonist in Pete Hamill’s Forever, a 2002 novel of an Irish boy who lands in America in the early 1700s and is granted immortal life as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. Eternal life! What so many have dreamed of! And Cormac lives it to the full, all the way to our time, as New York’s fortune unfolds around him.

With immortality on his side, he has lots of time to think about his life in process – and all he can come up with is, “There is no plot; there is only luck and chance.”

Is that really the best we can hope for?

In part, yes. Much of life really is sheer luck: where and when we are born; the parents who raise or ruin us; our natural endowments and the opportunities we do or do not have to realize their potential; whether or not we boarded The RMS Titanic, on April 10, 1912; whether we did or didn’t work in the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.

But with all that, there is a plot, as the reader of Forever surely knows. Forever is nothing but the plot of Cormac’s life. It took someone else to tell it, however.

So too, there is a plot to our own lives, but it will take someone else to tell it. However much we keep a diary or write our memoirs, the final plot comes clear only to those who see us in perspective after we are gone: whoever gives our eulogy; the people who remember us, and then string together the story of what we meant to them beyond the chance and circumstance of fate and fortune.

I write this on erev Yom Kippur, the day before the holiest day in the Jewish year – a day that features the master image of another book, “The Book of Life.” The famous prayer for these High Holy Days (Un’taneh Tokef, by name), calls it also our “Book of Memories” — “memories,” however, of not just what, by chance, our lives became, but of how we managed the endowment of our days; and managing the endowment of our days is not like managing a daily calendar or a stock portfolio. It is the way we superimpose some moral compass upon the “luck and chance” that is our lot. As Un’taneh Tokef also says about our Book of Life, “our signature is on every page” – our moral signature, that is. We call that character.

Good books have plot but also character. When it comes to the Book of Our Own Life, we are not the final arbiter of the plot, but we are in charge of character. Regardless of the luck and chance that come our way, we get to choose the personal moral space that will define us. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it “the center of our narrative gravity.”

Standing on the threshold of a new Jewish year, we cannot predict or promise the outcome of our life’s plot. We can, however, decide the strength of moral character that we will demonstrate, as luck and chance and plot unfold.

Life, Death, and Love — But Especially Love

This year we actually got a look at Pluto, some 3 billion miles away. That’s only 4-7 light hours however — still paltry, compared to the closest star (other than the sun) which is 4.24 light years distant. Even if we somehow land a space craft on it, we will barely have scratched the surface of what’s out there.

At least we know such stars exist, however. Imagine what we do not know and may never know about the universe, most of which will always remain hidden from our sight.

Then too, there are the spiritual quandaries that have haunted human imagination for millennia: Why are we here? What happens when we die? These too are matters that remain hidden from our purview.

Hence my fascination with Deuteronomy 29:28, part of the synagogue reading prior to Rosh Hashanah: “The hidden things are God’s concern; the revealed matters are for us.” Human beings are great detectives, but in matters of science, the more we know, the more we know how much we do not know; and for the existential mysteries of life, there aren’t even any obvious clues to follow. These are the hidden matters that are known to God alone.

But being human, we cannot help but wonder about them, and toward that end, we get the High Holy Days (yamim nora’im, “Days of Awe,” in Hebrew). Now is the annual opportunity to contemplate these hidden things, of which, I offer three.

The first two are life and death. It is not given to us to know why either occurs. More awesome than how the universe came into being is the remarkable fact that it did. Within those unfathomable eons of time and space, moreover, we have somehow been graced with a tiny window of something called human life; and within that mystery of human life generally, there is that infinitesimally breathtaking thing we know instinctively as our own individual selves.

The will to life is everywhere, from the grass that sprouts through cracks in the sidewalk to the sci-fi fictions of attaining eternal life. Rosh Hashanah celebrates this mystery of life. It is the “birthday” of the world, we say, and even more, the birthday of humanity.

On Yom Kippur, by contrast, we contemplate death, for on that day, we neither eat nor drink, as if we were already dead. Our mounting physical feebleness throughout the day reminds us that youth is just a preamble to old age; that sickness will eventually, but inevitably, drain our energy; and that suffering is frightening and real. At Yizkor we remember our dead, and we prepare ourselves for our own end, that may not come for years, we pray, but will come someday – that is certain.

Third, the last and greatest of the hidden things we will never completely fathom, is love. The Haftarah of Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath that separates Rosh Hashanah from Yom Kippur will celebrate the mystery of love – God’s love for us, and by extension, our love for one another, and even the love we must reserve for ourselves, for we are made in God’s image. More than I am dumbfounded by the inexplicable actuality of life and the inescapable reality of death, I marvel at the unpredictable acts of love that fill each dawning day.

I will spend these Days of Awe in my own awe at what I will never understand: the why of life and death, and the saving grace of love. I will vow to love more and wiser and better — to love especially the people I love anyway and to show them that I love them. Rabbi Akiba used to say, “Happy are you, because God loves you; happier still are you, because God lets you know it.” Like God, I can show people that I love them.

Love is a hidden thing that I will never understand. But showing love is a revealed matter that is in my power — a power I dare not squander.

When Comfort Seems Impossible

The scene is all too familiar. The husband (let us say) of a friend has died — suddenly, from a massive heart attack – and you are getting out of your car for a shiva call.. You thought you might be out together enjoying a movie this Saturday night. Instead you are visiting on Thursday, and you wonder what to say when you get inside.

Some scenarios are worse. It might be a son or daughter who dies: in a car accident perhaps, no fault of their own. Either way, you are about to visit the grieving family. It is the Jewish thing to do, and you’ve done it before. But you wonder again: “What will I say? What comfort can I offer?”

In a week, we get to Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. It began after the defeat by Rome and the destruction of the 2nd Temple, and we generally treat it as a time of national disaster. But it was equally personal: soldiers who died in battle; families whose homes were burned by marauding soldiers. Widespread famine and more deaths. People made shiva calls then too – and had the same question:

“Comfort? How can I comfort someone whose father never came home? Whose daughter was raped and killed by enemy soldiers?”

This is the time of year when our calendar instructs us on tragedy and trauma; when we remember again that every day of life is a gift, a tenuous extension of the day before, which was itself nothing to take lightly. Why should we be here at all? Why should human life even occur in this remote outpost of the universe that just “happens” to have the right gaseous makeup, and sufficient evolution to lead to you and me? Then too, instead of reading this column, you could be one of the two million children reported by the United Nations as enslaved for sex around the world, or running for your life in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Liberia, or a dozen other failed states where life is cheap and you know for sure how tenuous it can be. “All flesh is grass,” says this week’s Haftarah; “All its goodness like flowers of a field. Grass withers and flowers fade.”

So you exit your car, and wonder again, “What can I say to comfort?” Again, the Haftarah has anticipated you, as if it knew the inner dialogue that haunts you. “One voice cries out, `Speak!’ Another asks, `What is there to say?'” Precisely. You will go inside and have to speak. But what is there to say?

Then comes the answer. “Comfort,” God says, “Speak tenderly.” There it is, “Speak tenderly.” The Hebrew phrase is, “Speak to the heart,” that is (say our commentators) “words that are accepted by the heart,” not the rational faculty we call mind. There is nothing logical to say right now. Go find reasonable grounds for a grieving mother to heave a sigh of relief, when she has just buried a daughter! Impossible!

But lacking something profound to say does not mean that you should settle for small talk. A loving embrace, a heartfelt look from eyes that understand, some fond memories of the person who died, and a few short sentences that mean, “I love you; I’m sorry; it’s awful; I don’t understand either; but I am here with you in your moment of grief” — that is the comfort we have to offer. As Jewish wisdom puts it, “Words spoken from the heart enter the heart.”

“Do not reason with people when their deceased lie before them,” advise the Rabbis. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting. You can park your car outside the next shiva home knowing that having been through Shabbat Nachamu, you are positively prophetic in your power to comfort. Step confidently through the doorway and “speak tenderly.” What comes from your heart will go directly into theirs.

You cannot Source Out Moral Responsibility

Complex things require two kinds of people: experts to do them and ordinary people to watch over what the experts do. That’s the rabbinic lesson from this week’s Torah portion. “Watch over” the sacrifices, our text says – implying not just that expert priests and Levites do them, but also that ordinary Israelites must “stand over them” while they are going on. “From this,” Rashi summarizes, “we learn to establish ma’amadot.”

The word, ma’amadot (singular, ma’amad), from the root amad, meaning “to stand,” designated representative groups of Israelites from all over the country who took turns traveling to Jerusalem to “stand over” the sacrifices that the priests and Levites performed. As the Talmud describes the situation, all of Israel was divided into districts. The yearly sacrificial calendar was then allocated equally among the districts. When a district’s turn to sacrifice arrived, it sent a delegation of priests and Levites to the Temple to make the offerings. In addition, a ma’amad (a representative group of laypeople, regular “Israelites”) accompanied them to observe what they did.

What exactly did the Israelites add to the occasion just by watching? They hardly had the sacrificial expertise to correct anything going wrong; and they watched from an observation point well beyond the sacrificial area itself. They simply watched.

But that’s precisely what they added: watching. They watched over what was, after all, activity on their behalf.

That’s still a far cry from fully representative democracy, but give the Rabbis credit for getting the principle right: what represents the people requires oversight by the people. Experts perform the task, but the people retain ownership of, and responsibility for, it.

By “the people,” moreover, they meant “all the people.” Only a tiny fraction of the population had the time and money necessary to travel to Jerusalem, so another ma’amad was convened back home at precisely the time that the sacrifices were occurring in the Temple. Tradition associates that gathering with reciting the Amidah – our prayer that the Rabbis believed to be a substitute for the sacrifices. As sacrifice required an expert priest, so the Amidah required an expert prayer leader – someone known expressly as a sh’liach tzibbur (“representative of the people”). He was to be removed if he failed in the task, or even if he had a characterological flaw that made him unfit to represent the people before God.

Some sixteen centuries later, European philosophers developed “social contract theory” to justify conditions under which even kings might be removed, if they did not properly represent the people. Philosopher John Locke affirmed our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – Thomas Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness,” and the rest is history.

The idea, however, goes back to the Rabbis’ reading of this Torah portion. Leadership of the body politic requires experts, but even experts are answerable for their expertise and character. Failing either, we, the people, remove them.

We might remember that lesson as we prepare for next year’s primaries. We should demand precisely those two qualities of anyone who seeks to represent us – expertise and character.

The most important lesson, however, is that, ultimately, we, the people, are responsible for everything our leaders do. If our people suffer poverty (as they do) or the rampant and racist slaughter of innocents (think “Charleston,” for example); if our prisons are inhumane (as they are) or if we practice, or have practiced, torture (as we have and probably still do); then we, the people, are responsible for not watching over the policies enacted or permitted in our name.

One obvious objection is that the sacrificing priests and the leaders of prayer were not just exercising authority in the body politic; they were representing us to God. But that won’t do. From a Jewish perspective, what we do as a body politic does represent us to God. And God’s message this week is that you cannot source out moral responsibility.

Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father Our King”

Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father our King”: over the years, Jews have looked forward to this High Holy Day prayer as they have few others. It comes with verbal familiarity, music we love – and with problems: is God really a “Father” and “King” after all? Now my newest book handles all of that — the history, the music; the meaning, and more (Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Naming God: Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King” (Jewish Lights Publishing) —

Naming God is Volume Six of my High Holy Day series, “Prayers of Awe” (Jewish Lights Publishing) and like its predecessors, this book too assembles some 40 authors from The United States and Canada, but also Israel and Europe – rabbis, artists, composers, scholars, and thoughtful everyday worshipers, who tackle the meaning of High Holy Day worship in their lives.

The issue of Avinu Malkeinu runs deeper than the prayer itself. At stake is how we dare to name God at all, especially in prayer, which seems to presuppose our calling God something or other: if not Father and King, then what? “Our Mother and Queen?” “Parent and Ruler” solves the sexist issue, but sounds so distant! Children in pain never run into the room crying, “Parent! Help!”

In the end, what we name God says more about ourselves than about God – which is not to say that God is a fiction of our imagination. Nothing grand and glorious comes without imagination as the conceptual map to take us there. Love, loyalty, honor, character – these must all be imagined by artists and poets, who teach us how to find what we would otherwise miss. Life requires imagination to make sense of its complexity, and prayer is the longest running play of imagination that the human species has ever devised.

One of my own essays here (“The Many Ways that Liturgy Means”) is on that very topic – a way to appreciate prayer even for people who don’t believe in it. Disbelieving in prayer is like disbelieving in literature or in painting or in music.   These are matters of appreciation, not belief, and “Prayers of Awe” is a series that instils appreciation – like a do-it-yourself course in art or music, but in prayer.

Even people who think they disbelieve in God may find themselves praying, because contrary to “common sense,” the success of prayer is independent of the certainty that there is “someone up there listening.” Since names for God are metaphoric, all three terms — “someone,” “up there” and “listening” — are far from literally true. So we pray not because we believe in one any of them (God is not a “someone”; there is probably no “up there” up there; and if God listens, it isn’t in any way that human beings do). We pray because prayer is as much a human activity as listening to music and looking at art. You don’t exactly “need” Beethoven or Renoir, but life is impoverished without them.

Artists establish virtual universes: the sunflowers and waterlilies of Van Gogh and Monet are not exactly what you see in your back yard, but having experienced them in a museum, they are just as real, in their own way. So too is the exaltation of Beethoven’s “Ninth” and the pomp and circumstance of, well, of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” without which many a graduation would fall flat on its face. Great artistry intuits the depths of human experience and creates an alternative universe that explores it, and then changes us with that exploration. Prayer is such an art form.

Naming God provides everything you want to know about Avinu Malkeinu – and then some: but it also tackles the bigger questions of how we name God, how the “art” of prayer works, and why we pray altogether. I am proud of the whole series – and of this, the latest volume, in particular.

Everybody Loves a Good Pope: Especially Jews.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis I on March 13, 2013; by December, he was Time’s “Man of the Year”; and in January, the Huffington Post announced rave reviews by the “Forward 50 list of top American Jews” as well.

Calling the Jewish People “Our big brothers” on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht certainly helped, as did his giving Rabbi Abraham Skorka (of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano) an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Argentina.

But this Jewish adulation is also a sigh of relief following an era when Jewish-Catholic relationships seemed again to be in jeopardy. After centuries of Catholic enmity over the Jewish “rejection” of Christ, Vatican II had surprised the world with its1963 affirmation that God still “holds the Jews most dear” and “does not repent of the calls He issues.” That is to say, Judaism has not, after all, been superseded by Christianity; Jews should not be reviled as Christ killers; and Christian anti-Semitism must cease.

That was the liberalizing era of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, however. With their successors, John Paul II and then Benedict XVI, the revival of conservative forces in the Vatican made Jews suspect the imminent return also of medieval Catholic separatism. When Francis reasserted the “common roots” of Jews and Christians, and the reminder that “a true Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” Jews concluded that the gains of Vatican II might be here to stay.

But the Jewish love affair with Francis isn’t all about self-interest.

An article in Haaretz (Anshei Pfeffer, “Pope Francis Cannot save Us.” Dec. 11, 2013) got it right: “In the total absence of truly charismatic political or spiritual figures, in a generation where Israel’s elected leaders and rabbis constantly make us cringe with their outrageous statements or despair at their hopeless blandness, Bergoglio… extends some hope that we may yet see some wise old men [sic] of faith in our lifetime.”

We would say “men and women” not just “men”; being “old” has nothing to do with it; and the issue is not just Israel. But otherwise, hurray for Haaretz for observing that the positive public voice of Judaism has been wanting. Whatever happened to the Jewish visionaries who spoke truths instead of platitudes, posited promises of Jewish purpose rather than threats to Jewish continuity, held out hope for a troubled world, and made us proud to know that our Judaism is deep and wise, compassionate and compelling?

Who remembers the days when Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke poetically and prophetically to reassure a worldwide audience that religion still had something important to say? Or when thousands of Reform Jews gathered biennially, to hear Rabbi Alexander Schindler demand that they act boldly, think creatively, and make a difference?

The relative dearth of such voices today is a generational flaw, not because rabbis now are less able, but because of the way they have been trained (their “spiritual formation,” in theological language). Heschel and Schindler took it for granted that as experts in Jewish tradition, rabbis think deeply, speak boldly, and command a bully pulpit. Seeing flaws in this “Big Man” model of leadership, their students (my generation) emphasized alternative strategies like team work, collaboration, and facilitating group process.

So far so good – but we went too far: confusing authoritarianism with authority, we stopped speaking authoritatively.

Congregations aid and abet this downfall of authority by making rabbis managers, bureaucrats and apparatchiks. Success is attending meetings and managing a process that slowly creaks along while people forget why it is creaking altogether.

The economy hasn’t helped either: those in positions of national authority (not just Jews but everyone) exhaust themselves just to avoid closing plants and programs – leaving little time or energy to think or to proclaim anything. The national mood too is at fault for thriving on negativity and crippling great vision with a lethal combination of parsimonious bookkeeping and meanness of spirit.

What is the point of religion in the first place, however, if not to insist on vision, especially where the complexities of life seem to foster helplessness and hopelessness, precisely our situation today?

So along comes Francis, a welcome reminder of religion beyond bureaucracy, and heralding the best that we must become. I do not agree with everything he says – his economics, for example; and, no doubt, he has his own conservative naysayers who cringe at the very things that make the rest of us stand up and applaud.

But most Jews are on their feet and clapping – not just for Francis, but for what he represents and what we miss. The responsibility for making up that loss cannot be laid on the shoulders of the rabbinate alone. We have all colluded in manufacturing our problem; we must all work together in solving it.

Synagogues can insist on rabbis with learning and vision – then expect them to learn and engage them in visioning. Seminaries can demand that students think deeply, not just hurriedly and passingly; philanthropists can invest in big ideas with a future, not just reactive strategies dictated by the past. Jews don’t need Francis; we need rabbis like him, because without them, it remains unclear why we should even remain Jewish in the first place.