In Praise of “Ordinary”

Student: Teacher, what is the point of Isaac? Abraham was the first Jew. Jacob became Israel. Why even bother with Isaac?

Teacher: Maybe just because he existed. As the bridge generation between Abraham and Jacob, the Torah had to include him.

Student: But the Torah frequently leaves things out. Last week’s sedra, for example, was called “Life of Sarah,” but it said virtually nothing about Sarah’s life. The Torah always reports selectively. So it cannot be accidental that this week’s reading begins, “These are the generations of Isaac.” Why “Isaac,” who, truth be told, is easily forgettable? The Torah even says next, “Abraham bore Isaac,” as if it assumes we need reminding.

Teacher: Come now, who could forget Isaac? What about the akedah [the binding of Isaac]? How many people are almost sacrificed by their father?

Student: Actually, the Torah overlooks that point altogether here. It tells us, “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” but not how old he was at the time of the akedah.

Teacher: Maybe recollecting the akedah was just too painful. Why dwell overly much on trauma? Better to move on to Isaac’s marriage and the birth of Jacob.

Student: But teacher, we spend every Rosh Hashanah remembering the akedah. Had our tradition wanted just to move on, we would have some other Rosh Hashanah reading. No, in some way even “easily forgettable” Isaac must be important enough to warrant saying, “These are the generations of Isaac.” I want to know why.

Teacher: The Rabbis asked that very question – so do what they did. Read on. Let the Torah provide its own answer.

Student: There isn’t much to read. After finding out that “Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah,” we get nothing of importance.

Teacher: Nothing?

Student: No. Nothing. Only that “Isaac prayed to God because his wife could not become pregnant”; and then, that he gets rich and settles in a comfortable oasis — like someone today whose business prospers and who moves to a fancy uptown address.

Teacher: You call that nothing?

Student: Compared to Abraham and Jacob? Of course that’s nothing. Abraham and Jacob are monumentally heroic characters. Abraham intercedes to save a whole city of Sodom. Jacob dreams of angels going up and down a ladder connecting heaven to earth. How important, by comparison, is praying for your wife, going into business or moving to a new neighborhood?

Teacher: You miss the point. Isaac’s story matters precisely because of its ordinariness. Of all our patriarchs, only Isaac is a real person with real problems. The akedah teaches him how little we human beings are in charge of our lives, and how much of life we spend simply trying to muddle through. Sure, his business prospers, but look at his record as a husband and father. He lies about Rebekah in order to save his life, and he gives his blessing to the wrong son.

Still, he loves his wife enough to pray for children on her account — better than Abraham, by the way, who prayed for a child only so he himself could become a father of multitudes. And upon hearing Sarah laugh in desperation at the unlikelihood of giving birth in old age, Abraham is of no help at all. He laughs too; and he should have cried, either for joy on Sarah’s behalf, or (if he didn’t believe it) out of sympathy for her anguish. Isaac, by contrast, feels Rebekah’s pain and puts aside everything to pray for her.

Then years later, he messes up the blessings. He is properly aghast, however, and when Esau cries out for at least some blessing, Isaac duly provides it. Isaac is any of us on our death bed, looking back at the messy business of trying to be human.

Real people love, but make mistakes; they alternately succeed, then fail, then try again. Isaac is you and me, consumed with life’s day-to-day struggles. He is imperfect, but his very imperfection supports the Torah’s claim that we are indeed “the generations of Isaac.

Principles Not Programs: The Resurrection of Denominational Religion

Denominational religion is not yet dead, to judge by the biennial of the URJ (the Union for Reform Judaism) that took place last week in Orlando, Florida. It wasn’t only that it attracted some 5,000 attendees from all over the world. Nor was it just the superstars it attracted to its stage: actor Michael Douglas and Vice President Joe Biden, for example. Nor, even, was it the media mastery with which its message was delivered. It was the message itself, a message that demonstrated the transformation of Reform Judaism for the computer era.

Denominationalism’s very raison d’etre was irreversibly altered when computers transferred power from the center to the periphery. In the print era, synagogues (to take the Jewish case) required a denominational center to produce and distribute such necessities as programming guides and religious-school curricula. Computers offer these things on line – cheaper, quicker, and customized to boot. Denominational headquarters thus devolved into inefficient bureaucracies creating materials that could not compete with the internet’s ever-expanding and abundantly creative open market.

Had money been no object, the old denominational order — like General Douglas Macarthur’s fabled old soldiers — might not have died, but simply faded away. The economic collapse in 2008, however, hastened the near demise. What does a denominational headquarters do when it has spent half a century gearing up to disseminate what member synagogues no longer need?

The answer came clear last week. To begin with, the biennial caught up with the long-term trend from a “service” to an “experience” economy, by becoming a massive and spectacular experience itself; and then highlighting the need to understand how people experience the synagogue, rather than what concrete services they get from it. The call for “audacious hospitality” was everywhere, stretched to make attendees sympathetic to what people actually experience as they walk through the synagogue doors.

But attention to hospitality was just the sidebar story. The headline news was the Reform Movement’s decision to offer a message that matters. We live in an era of anxious identity. On the one hand, we must increasingly choose our own identity mix; on the other hand, everything is up for grabs, even motherhood and apple pie, all the more so the inherited Jewish identity of one’s youth, not to mention choosing Judaism anew if you find yourself in a Jewish orbit but were not born or raised that way. If Judaism is a choice, it better be worth choosing, and the old ethnic draws (Holocaust memories and Israel loyalties, not to mention Jewish food, jokes and nostalgia) are insufficient nowadays. The biennial broke new ground in its call to embrace Reform Judaism as a proper continuation of an age-old tradition and a profound statement of the human condition.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of human needs: food, shelter, and safety; then honor and respect to salve our egos. But higher up the ladder – the perch we mostly occupy – we need also to know that we matter. We strive in the end to count for something, not just in the eyes of others, but in those mirror moments when we contemplate who we have become, and who we might yet be. We imagine one more workweek, one more vacation, one more dinner out; and we wonder if that is all there is.

The Reform biennial offered a proud and joyous vision of a mirror image that might matter. It gave a rationale for choosing Judaism in its Reform guise.

In times past attendees left biennials with best practices. This year, they departed with best principles, reasons to believe that the world itself requires the amplified voice of progressive Judaism. Already the largest Jewish movement in America, and worldwide, Reform Judaism (it was said) can yet double or triple its influence – not by programs but by these principles:

  1. Absolute commitment to the State of Israel, but modified by the right — even the obligation — to critique and to oppose any immoral governmental policies;
  2. The recovery of the prophetic call for justice, righteousness, and compassion;
  3. Eliminating barriers to full participation by all who seek what Reform Judaism is;
  4. Serious grappling with the vast library of Jewish classics, to access their wisdom for our time;
  5. Responsibility to the Jewish People and its universal mission to add light to the world; and
  6. Striving, along the way, to enrich one’s own life, personally, through spirituality, community, and commitment to what God asks.

If denominational movements champion messages like these; if they celebrate their promise, in a world where promise is sorely lacking; if they call adherents to become their highest selves, in synagogues that exemplify the principles that will make them so; if they do all this, denominational identity will thrive.

What’s In a name?

We should not be surprised when God promises Abram (later Abraham), “I will make your name great.” Abram is already wealthy beyond measure, with pretty much everything he might want. True, he lacks children, and God will grant him those eventually, but meanwhile, God promises a great name. Why not? What do you give someone who has everything?

What complicates things is that our great sage Hillel (no less!) warns, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (Avot 1:13). How can a great name be Abraham’s reward if “a name made great is a name destroyed”?

In part the answer comes from the language Hillel employs for “made great”: the Aramaic n.g.d, meaning “stretched out, elaborated, extended.” My teacher in rabbinic school, John J. Tepfer, zikhrono livrakhah, “of blessed memory,” used the example of Shakespeare. “Suppose Shakespeare had received doctorates from Cambridge and Oxford, earned and honorary, and begun signing his name, “Dr. William Shakespeare, Ph.D., D.D.” Would his name have been any more glorious than it already is?

At least Shakespeare would have merited the doctorates. Other people’s names get enlarged beyond what their bearers are worth. Take Sir Joseph Porter, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. He was made First Lord of the Admiralty, because, as a politician, “I always voted at my party’s call/ and I never thought of thinking for myself at all./ I thought so little they rewarded me/ by making me the ruler of the Queen’s navy.”

First Lord Porter is just a fictitious dolt, however. Other people – the real-life variety – acquire outsized names that they take with all undue seriousness to wreak damage. The Maharal thus links Hillel’s adage to people who blatantly seek power by building reputations for evil. Think of Tomas de Torquemada, medieval Spain’s First Grand Inquisitor; or Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonssøn Quisling, the Norwegian whom few people ever heard of until he became a Nazi collaborator, and whose surname “quisling” became a dictionary noun meaning “traitor.” Sefas Emes goes farther, to include people who actually pursue virtue, but for the wrong reason – even serving God, but just to establish their names. They may do good things, but their lack of integrity will be their downfall.

The great name granted Abram, Rashi tells us, was nothing like that. It consisted in the addition of the extra letter heh, to make Abram into AbraHam. The letter heh is one of the ways we write the name of God. Its addition to “Abram” made his name (and him) more godly. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, also gets this gift — she becomes SaraH. Kish’mo ken hu, say the Rabbis — “People become like their names.” The midrash explains: “In times past,” God said to Abraham, “I alone could confer blessing. Now that I am part of your name, you can do it too.”

A name made great is a name destroyed – unless, of course, its greatness lies in outfitting the bearer to bless others, just like God.

These past High Holy Days, we read Un’taneh Tokef, a prayer we normally associate with reminders of how paltry we are relative to God. We are but dust and ashes, while God is the Judge, Jury, and Prosecuting Attorney in our court of last resort. God’s years are boundless, while we are mortals, doomed to die. But Rabbi Margaret Wenig points out the prayer’s surprising conclusion: “You [God] named us after you” (sh’meinu karata vishmekha). We are all like Abraham: God’s name is part and parcel of our own.

If so, we all can be a blessing to others. And in so doing, even our deaths are not the final word. When we die, people will say of us (as I said of my teacher, above), zikhronam livrakhah, “remembering us is a blessing,” because however long we lived, and whatever our worldly accomplishments, the only thing that matters is the blessing that we added to their lives. We are indeed mortal, but we transcend mortality by a name made great like God’s.

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.