Plagues and Exile: Healing and Home — Why Jews Don’t Suffer From Amnesia

In 1947, still fresh from serving in the World War II French underground, Albert Camus completed his classic novel, The Plague. The story pictures a modern-day outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in the otherwise unremarkable Algerian city of Oran. The protagonist, Dr. Rieux, tends daily to the plague’s victims, until at last, having taken its toll, it passes.

“The tale he had to tell” the book concludes, “could not be one of final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done and what assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror… by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.” At the end, Rieux learns two things: “that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good,” and that, with people, “There are more things to admire than to despise.”

Early on, Camus establishes another theme, “exile.” The plague-infested city of Oran is closed off to outsiders, and practically shut down to those who live there. People stay home, afraid to venture out. The government dithers; it won’t admit the situation’s severity; doctors and nurses lack vital equipment; hospitals run out of beds; corpses pile up; the sick and dying are housed in a football stadium. Sound familiar?

With the whole world apparently toppling, Camus pronounces the city’s inhabitants as living in exile.

Interpreters of The Plague sometimes see it as a parable for political oppression, the trueplague that returns with regularity, the Nazis being but the latest example. It can also be just what it says, however: an actual plague, like our Covid-19. In either case, whether medical or political, we are there now: a murderous virus is running rampant; we are unprepared; with a president who gives us no good reason to imagine that he understands the situation or would do the right and moral thing even if he did.

Sociologists define terror not simply as unimaginably bad things happening, but the sense that they happen without rhyme or reason, with no predictability, no way to know what tonight, tomorrow, or the very next hour will bring. The problem is, of course, the suffering and dying, the enforced loneliness and idleness, the stock market in free fall, the work we cannot do and the food we cannot get. But it is more: it is the irrationality of it all, the never knowing where the dreaded bacillus lurks: in the smile of a neighbor who passes too close beside us, perhaps; on a park bench that we inadvertently touch during risky morning walks. It is the terror of it all that never leaves us.

Camus was prophetic: we here face again what he called “the never-ending fight against terror”; and while we face it, we are indeed like exiles in a world that goes merrily on its newly twisted way without asking our permission or even notifying us in advance. Like The Plague’s Dr. Rieux, we are “unable to be saints, but, refusing to bow down to pestilence, we strive our utmost to be healers.”

But how can we be healers while a virus metastasizes through our streets like a sci fi nightmare, and we dare not read the morning news lest we be cruelly reminded of the political and moral morass of incompetence at the top? How can we be healers in exile?

Well, we Jews know a thing or two about that. Jewish history is precisely about exile. The theme of exile appears at our Bible’s very outset – Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, which we should see as dramatic foreshadowing for the Babylonian exile with which our entire biblical history virtually ends. The entire Bible in between is mostly about exile: Abraham and Sarah, driven from their comfortable home to a Land that God will show them; the announcement that even from their new home, their progeny will face a centuries-long exile; then Egypt itself. Exile is Israel’s master theme.

Yet our Bible doesn’t stop there. The final message is not the exile. It is Second Isaiah’s Nachamu, nachamu ami. “Take comfort, take comfort, my people”: words of healing! Enough is enough. The constrictions of exile will eventually open wide to the expansiveness of restoration, revival, recovery – so many words for healing!

Camus describes the Oran “exiles” as uncertain about their future, panicked over their present, and fixated on memories of the past. But he departs from the Jewish script when he concludes, “They came to know the incorrigible sorrow of all prisoners and exiles, which is to live with a memory that serves no purpose.” That’s where he is wrong. Memories can be precisely where we find our purpose in the first place.

If terror is the pure irrationality of it all, Jewish memory is the guarantee of a larger pattern beyond the immediate patternlessness. That larger pattern is not scientific so much as it is metaphysical, a matter of faith that Jews have managed to acquire because we take our historical memories seriously. Every Passover we review them: the calm but sobering lesson that every generation unleashes forces bent upon destroying us, but that in the end, we will prevail. Way back in 1964, Look magazine ran a famous article called “The Vanishing American Jew.” Well, we haven’t vanished; we’re still here; never mind that you can’t buy copies of Look anymore.

We become healers in exile when we champion our memories as models. In an unredeemed world, we say, there will always be recurrent exiles – for everyone, not just Jews. But exiles pass; restorations rise up in their place.

When we once again see friends whom we have missed for a very long time, Jewish liturgy has us say, Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.” Alas, in every exile, there are those who really die, those whom we will not see again. But this our history promises; this we know for sure: The Covid-19 exile will end; and we will say for so many others who emerge to greet us as they always did, “Barukh atah Adonai, m’chayei hametim, “Blessed is God for reviving the dead.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer is credited with saying, “We Jews have many faults; amnesia is not one of them.” We Jews love to remember, because these times of trial, these moments of plague and exile, are not the only things that come redundantly; so too do times of healing that follow. We were slaves in the Land of Egypt; but we found our way home.  All America, all the world, is now enslaved. But we too will find our way home.




Open Letter to My Students in an Age of Pandemic: “Black Swans, Black Holes, and Why We Matter”

We are in the midst of a situation that Jewish tradition captures nicely as “ones.” Even though the transliteration looks like WUNS, it is, of course, pronounced OH-ness: a general term implying “force” – as being forced into a situation against our will. Most appallingly, the term denotes rape. Less appallingly, it is used legally to characterize a certain degree of liability. Suppose I let you use my home while I go on vacation. If you enjoy a candlelight dinner but accidentally set the house on fire, you are responsible. If a lightning bolt out of the blue burns down the house while you are out buying the candles, you are not. The cause of the latter misfortune is said to be ones: force majeure (in legalese), “an act of God” (the insurance companies say). The proper pronunciation is apt: OH-ness, as in “OMG: OH My God, how did this happen?”

Another term for the pandemic is “black swan,” a metaphor used humorously as early as 1694, when an anonymous work with the lengthy title, Ladies Dictionary, Being a General Entertainment for the Fair Sex : a Work Never before Attempted in the English Language gave as its example, “Husbands without faults (if such black Swans there be).” More seriously, it is used by economists to denote a totally unpredictable event that all the computer-generated algorithms in the world could not have foreseen. Black swans suck the stock market downward into dizzying depths – making financial black swans like the astrophysicist’s black holes: regions of space that absorb all light, leaving ever-growing blobs in space of deep dense darkness. That’s us, in the middle of the covid crisis: a black swan (Oh God, how did this happen?) and a black hole (so much darkness, when there used to be light).

Even black holes generate wisdom, however: in our case, how everything  leads to everything else. When we close schools, children stay home; if children stay home, parents miss work to care for them; if they are poor, their income disappears. Alternatively, major league baseball can’t start on time, so the soft market of ushers, vendors, ticket sellers, kiosks, restaurants and bars close down, maybe go out of business altogether. You get the idea. “The head bone’s connected to the neck bone; the neck bone’s connected to the shoulder bone” and so on. Ezekiel got it right.

We Jews say kol yisrael arevim zeh vazeh, “All Jews are responsible for one another.” Actually, the humanity worldwide is responsible for one another. We are all intertwined, we children of Adam and Eve. Why did the Torah teach about Adam and Eve? In order to assign all humanity a single set of parents, the Rabbis say. We are all family, it turns out. One of the reasons I chose to be specifically a Reform Jew was my admiration for classical Reform rabbis who insisted on this radical universalism. As the corona virus spreads, I pray for everyone (not just Jews), especially those who live on the margins of society and get routinely dropped off the real-life society page — left behind as historical footnotes that had to fend for themselves.

We also fear for ourselves, of course – at least, older people like me do. Early on, doctors warned me to avoid the gym, get groceries delivered, cut my own hair, attend no meetings – and I am one of the healthy ones. A woman I know is sick, maybe in the early stages of dying. Quite naturally, she asked to see her grandchildren. Should her daughter, the kids’ mother, take the kids to see her? What if their parting gift to their grandmother turns out to be the virus which assures (if not also hastens) her demise?

“Family systems” we call it. “Do not separate from the community,” Hillel reminded us. We do have a special connection to our own family, but we are increasingly a single “family system,” a single community, from which we could not fully separate even if we wanted to!

So much for the macrocosm., How about the microcosm – you personally, I mean? Personally, how are each of you doing? Black swans do more than drive the stock market downward. They fray our emotions, uproot our certainties, drive our state of mind downward into ever deeper eddies of vertigo. Acrophobia is “fear of heights”; aquaphobia, “fear of water”; agoraphobia, “fear of open spaces”; and now, we have, ones-ophobia, “fear of black swans,” of things spinning out of control — the discovery that we are not actually in charge down here – in a word, ones.

Tradition lists a very specific case of ones, however. The state of being affected by ones is the Hebrew passive-participle form, anus. When Jacob is forced by the famine to go down to Egypt where Joseph guarantees food, he is said to be anus al pi hadibbur. “forced by the word of God.” It is as if, sometimes, the hand of God can be found even in a black swan – an “act of God,” in a sense, after all.

I do not mean to say that God causes suffering so that we can benefit in the end, or even that we may learn something useful as a consequence. God just doesn’t work that way. But for those of us who will gratefully ride this swan to its bitter end, without ourselves or those we love getting hurt; for those of us who, thankfully, do not lose a job or have to wonder where the next month’s rent will come from; for you, my rabbinic and cantorial students, you who are charged with learning Torah not just from texts on parchment and paper but also from the vagaries of real life – you will that the dibbur, the voice of God, can speak to us in the depths of swirling vertigo no less than on the peak of Mt. Sinai.

Like the rest of the world, I too read the mainstream media to get the news. But those sources alone can cripple us. They only exacerbate the feeling of helplessness, endlessly reiterating the inevitable constriction of the social noose around our lives. In such an environment, it is our job to tune into another source of wisdom, the one that will never make the papers, the wisdom of Jewish tradition that becomes ever more necessary when all else fails.

Highest on my “alternative-wisdom” list are basic values like truth, kindness, decency, and love, that we used to think were as American as apple pie, until we discovered that the apples in the pie were increasingly rotten.  We need to say out loud, over and over, to everyone who will listen, that truth is not relative, expedient, alternative and fabricated; that ethical and scientific certainties are not just so much quicksand. We need to blow the whistle on a national ethos and rhetoric that has swamped kindness under a tsunami of cruelty and meanness. We need to combat the situation  where no one even expects decency anymore, least of all from those we elect, those with power; where, everywhere we look, love of others has come to mean others “who are like us,” just our own tribe.

The very heart of the monster is indeed tribalism, even as the very heart of the pandemic is the obvious demonstration that pathogens have no tribal map to instruct them where to go and who to spare: they are “equal opportunity deployers”; they spread their poison indiscriminately. Yes, there are enemies in the world; there is actual evil, God help us. But an enemy of Jews is an enemy to us all; evil toward others is evil toward Jews, sooner or later. America cannot stand alone: it too needs allies, friends, more outstretched hands – like the hand of God: Atah noten yad laposhim  we say in that final moment of truth that arrives as each year’s Yom Kippur at N’ilah. Poshim, mind you, “sinners” – all the more so, the good guys. But sinners can be good guys just as good guys can be sinners. In viral crises, we no longer get to hold people’s hands; we can all be good guys, Godly even, if we reach across the mandated 6-foot personal boundary as God does: mutually extending hands to one and all.

For in the end, we are all merely mortal. We will never know it all. We are not in charge down here. We should not be surprised by surprises. But equally, we should not despair, for modern Judaism, anyway — Zionists who founded Israel, and, once again (for me, anyway) my Reform forebears who charged into the morass of medieval Jewish prejudice and did away with it – yes, modern Judaism, anyway, has taught us that we are actors in history, not just passive recipient sufferers of the random black swans that interrupt the way we thought the world worked.

I believe with all my heart that the uniquely placed “we” who is ourselves — we cantors and rabbis, that is – are not powerless. We have been charged with the task of reminding people that God breathed a soul into us all. As the rest of the world falls apart, as even our very bodies are at risk, we at least have the certainty of our God-given souls, the part of us that rallies to provide truth, kindness, decency and love; the part of us that is buried so deep within that it can reach nowhere else but out, out into the world where we are all children of the single God, in need of one another more than ever.

Take your enforced time at home not just for zoom calls; use it to rediscover your soul. When you’ve had enough of the saturating sadness that makes the daily headlines, just stop reading it. Replace it briefly with the prayer book or with Psalms, to find some single line of eternity that you never knew was there — sometimes, even, something familiar that had its eternity tarnished but that now leaps off the page with new-found urgency, fairly shouting at you, “Don’t you see? This is really true! It really matters! It can sustain you.” Sing it, if you can; melodies sink deeper, faster, into our being. Share it on those zoom calls before and after meetings. Be grateful for the opportunity to be a rabbi or cantor whose expertise is the eternal verities that we call Godly, and the human soul that intuits them.


Missing Our Mothers

Reading the stories of Genesis can make us miss our mothers – mothers who cradle us, cuddle us, and cry for us.

I exclude Sarah, who hardly even talks to Isaac. Rebecca ranks higher, however, loving Jacob enough to pass him off to Isaac as her first-born and then assuaging Jacob’s guilt over the deceit by assuring him (27:13), “Your curse be on me. Just do as I say.”

Imagine, then, Jacob’s shock when he hears of Rebecca’s death, miles away, and many years past the time he last laid eyes on her. Yet her death is never mentioned in Torah! We are to infer it, says the midrash, from a laconic reference (35:8) to the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah. “Why record the demise of this practically unknown woman?”  commentators ask, if not to allude to a parallel death in Jacob’s life, his mother’s, too painful for Torah to acknowledge directly.

Esau’s version of his mother runs much differently, of course, so my personal award for motherhood goes to Rachel. Her mothering, alas, ends tragically and prematurely. Her first son, Joseph, is enslaved by brothers who manufacture reports of his death. When, later, she bears Benjamin, she dies in childbirth. Plagued by infertility, Rachel has just two sons: one who disappears and one she never knows.

Jacob buries her on the spot and marks her resting place for all time (35:20).

What Rachel lacked in life she gets in death, however, for tradition makes us all the children of Rachel, our quintessential mother. Jeremiah (31:15) enlarges the love unspent on Joseph and Benjamin to include the exiles who will pass her grave on their way to Babylonian captivity. “A cry is heard in Ramah — Rachel weeping for her children,” he insists. She awaits their return we are told; and there she remains, crying for us as well, for we too are in a kind of exile.

Our exile is from the world we once knew as certain, safe and sound: an innocent America, unquestionably on the side of right; where we went to school, worked hard, settled down, and got ahead. We lived close to family; knew our neighbors names; got the same nightly TV news; trusted the government. We were optimistic.

The reality was seamier, we now know: fears of nuclear attack, racist and gender bias, and widespread sexual abuse that no one acknowledged. We can’t go home again to those times and shouldn’t really want to. But languishing in today’s realities can prove unsettling: knowing more about the world in real time can rob us of the certainty of even wanting to call this world “home.”

We work longer but are no happier. We have fewer long-term hopes and less certainty about them. The newer generations seem less likely to remain Jewish, join synagogues, and care about Israel. The earth itself is endangered; and we cannot manage to save it.

We are, as it were, in virtual exile from a world that seems less and less to be our own. Whereas once we thought expansively, now we hunker down in self-defense against hackers, bots, and trolls that feed us lies and know our every move. It would be nice to have a mother’s embrace, guaranteeing that all will turn out right.

As an exile in a world that puts up endless walls and warnings, I increasingly listen for Rachel. She reminds me of another motherly presence that knows my anxiety: the Shechinah, the side of God, the Talmud says, that accompanies us into exile. Together, they give me hope. Exile is not forever, they say; tomorrow is a new day; so is the day thereafter. When despair threatens, I sense Rachel’s tears from Ramah, but I hear also the promise that she will wait for my return, into a world of renewed promise and passion. I believe the day will dawn when Rachel welcomes me back home.

Drained, Disillusioned, and Disenchanted

Watch for piles of synonyms! They usually herald an important cultural phenomenon that we are trying in as many ways as possible to understand.

Take the word “tired” – not just “sleepy,” but “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and fed up”; drained, disillusioned, and disenchanted”; the opposite of “inspired, stimulated, motivated and enthused.” I mean the tiredness that runs us down and wears us out: the soul-sickness of our times.

The Maggid of Dubno (famous for his parables) addressed tiredness while explaining God’s accusation, “You, Israel, grew weary of Me” (Isaiah 43:22). He pictures a noble who regularly buys merchandise from abroad and employs an agent to deliver it. On one occasion, the agent complains about the fee. “Do you have any idea how tiring it was to carry this to you?” he explains.

“Tiring?” the noble fires back. “Impossible! Anything I buy is so beautiful, that just holding it long enough to deliver it has to inspire you. If you found it tiring, you must have picked up the wrong package.” The Maggid was talking about Torah. If we find it tiring, we must be holding the wrong package. Whatever we thought to be Torah must be something else.

His parable applies elsewhere too. This week’s reading, for example, mandates tithing – not just the better-known tithes for the poor and the priests, but the lesser-known one by which the farmer sets aside produce to be consumed on a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The Torah considers a case where the farmer thinks the journey will be too hard: it is too far, perhaps, or the farmer has such a bumper crop that the 10% tithe generates too much food to carry.

Citing the Maggid’s parable, Itturei Torah asks, “How can someone find it ‘too hard’ to celebrate a magnificent harvest on a family trip to the holiest spot on earth?”

The analogy is not perfect, however, because journeys cannot be confused one with another – not the way the noble’s agent might have confused parcels. So sixteenth-century Moses Alsheikh adds a related observation. A journey, he says, is always to a particular place, a makom, in Hebrew; and one of the names for God is Hamakom, “The Place.” The point of any worthwhile journey is to get to “the place” in both senses: the physical destination but also the sense that wherever we are heading, God somehow dwells there. What makes the journey “hard” is not the actual travel, so much as it is the suspicion that God is no longer around to be found even when we get there – even in Jerusalem. Why be a pilgrim to the House of God if God isn’t in the house anymore?

Now we see how the Maggid’s parable applies to our current plague of world-weariness. Life is a pilgrimage, after all: from place to place, from stage to stage, from birth to death. If life somehow seems “hard” — if we chronically feel “exhausted, weary, fatigued, and drained” — the problem is not the physical act of getting through the day so much as it is the sense that there is nothing godly about the day we are getting through; that we are just going through the motions; that it makes no difference what we do and doesn’t matter if we do it.

Unless we are still poor enough to be working for bare subsistence, we human beings need purpose. If our daily routine seems hard, we may indeed be like the noble’s agent: we are carrying around the weight of the world but the world we are carrying around is the wrong package. We need to set aside the world where nothing seems to matter; and pick up a world where the beauty of a sunset, a phone call to a friend, and a helping hand to a stranger betray the presence of God and purpose at the end of each day’s pilgrimage.


Walking Partners

A friend of mine recently found a “walking partner.” In case you didn’t know it, almost everyone has one these days (a dozen or more websites will connect you with just the right one). Sometimes it’s for running or jogging, but the default term is “walking” partner. Who you walk with matters.

The biblical walking partner of choice is God, ever since “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:24). Enoch’s great grandson, Noah, also walked with God (Genesis 9:1).

Walking with God turns up in our Haftarah where Micah chastises the ruling elite for “hating good, doing evil,” and “detesting justice.” Unscrupulous magnates in business and government, he says, “plan iniquity and design evil on their beds…. When morning dawns, they carry out their schemes because they can — they have the power.”

His oft-cited exhortation is, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

“Act justly” and “love mercy” are commonplace prophetic correctives. Less usual is “walking humbly with God,” which stands out here as a reprise of the theme struck by Enoch and Noah. Franz Rosenzweig considered it a cornerstone of Judaism, because it takes the pronoun “with” — the pronoun of mutuality. If we walk “with” God, then God must walk “with” us.

What a concept: God as our walking partner! Not an equal, mind you; but a partner. A humble walk with God each morning is likely to reinforce “acting justly and loving mercy.”

It all boils down to the company we keep: who our walking partner is.

Precisely that question bedevils the famous seer Balaam, in this week’s Torah portion. King Balak promises him endless wealth if he will only curse Israel. God intervenes, however, and Balaam reports back to Balak that he cannot curse those whom God has blessed.

But Balak insists and Balaam weakens — the quintessential example of morally good people inveigled into doing wrong by friends in high places.

As Balaam proceeds to his task, however, he leaves Balak behind and walks on alone” (shefi, verse 23:3). That one word shefi is critical.

It occurs only this one time in Torah. Why did Balaam leave the king behind? Why did he seek to be shefi?

Shefi does mean “alone.” So says the Targum and Rashi. The Talmud thinks also that Balaam “limped away” (Sanhedrin 105a) – that is, he went back and forth on the matter (says Itturei Torah) because he was morally torn over what to do. Finally, shefi can mean “heights,” so many translators say he went “to a high place.” All of that together provides the following picture.

The closer Balaam came to doing the wrong thing, the more he vacillated – as we all do when we know we are making a mistake. So he left the king behind and went on alone, hesitantly, in search of an isolated cliff where he might get his moral bearing. “Perhaps God will appear to me,” he says (v. 23:3). God does indeed appear. And Balaam must decide who to make his walking partner: God or King Balak who is awaiting his return.

In the end, Balaam cannot find the courage to abandon Balak. He tries to curse Israel and fails; then slinks back home having done no damage except to his own character.

It all goes back to our walking partners. Most of us resemble Balaam. We like to walk with God, but also with the Balaks whom we know, the people of power and means who massage our egos and our pocketbooks. When tempted, most of us hesitate, going now one way and now another.

Which is why we are supposed to start each day with prayer and study – the Jewish way of walking with God long enough to be sure of saying “No!” to the tantalizing offers of the Balaks who may show up later that day.

Doing the right thing is not easy. It helps to start the day with a walk in the park with God.


Grasshoppers or Giants?

Seeing isn’t always believing — or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Take the well-known optical illusion that displays two parallel lines of equal length with arrows at their ends. The line with the arrows pointing outward inevitably looks shorter than the identical line with arrows pointing inward.

More serious are the chasms of belief that divide democracies, including our own. People don’t just have differing solutions to the same set of problems. They see different sets of problems — because how we see the world depends on prior mental framing: a combination of rational thought, emotional conditioning, and whatever else goes into the complex part of us that we call “mind.”

Take the reconnaissance team dispatched by Moses to scout the Land of Israel. The scouts report back in a panic: “We saw giants there,” and by comparison, “We saw ourselves as grasshoppers.” Why did they see the ordinary men and women there as “giants”?

The answer comes via a commentary by Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel [Wisser] — better known (for obvious reasons) by his acronym MaLBYM (spelled, Malbim, 1809-1879). The “scout story” is followed, the Malbim notes, with the commandment to look at then fringes on a tallit (the tsitsit) to remember God’s commandments, “lest you follow your heart and your eyes in lustful urge.” The Hebrew word for “follow” (tur) is the same as the verb “to scout.” The tallit warning  therefore, says, in effect, that “focusing on the tsitsit may prevent your ‘following’ your heart and eyes the way the ‘scouts’ did.”

What, then, did the scouts do wrong?

The Malbim answers the question by observing that “heart” is the biblical term for “mind”; “eyes” are just raw sensual urges. The Torah puts “heart” before “eyes,” because “the eyes follow the mind” — it is the mind’s prior depiction that determines what the eyes choose to see. When we embezzle funds or engage in illicit sexual entanglement, for example, it is not because our eyes just naturally lead us there. If the mind already instructs us against such things, the eyes will not “see” those options.

We now understand that the scouts were misled by their minds, not their eyes. God had no need for scouts, Rashi observes. Israel was destined for victory no matter what. Moses dispatched the scouts, therefore, to find out what the Israelites thought, not what they saw. Their “minds,” he discovered, had yet to take seriously the reality of God. So their “eyes” saw defeat, not victory. They could equally well have concluded, “Sure, we were grasshopper-like compared to them, but knowing God is on our side, we saw ourselves as bigger than they were!”

As a country, we face this issue every day. If we believe in an utterly amoral universe, terrorism may be “seen” as an unbeatable network of fanatics. But if we decide in advance that we are in the right – that God is on our side, that is — we need not look like grasshoppers compared to giants. In our personal lives too, through disappointment and even despair, whether we prevail is a matter of mind, not just sight. What the world is like does matter; we cannot choose to “see” whatever we like. But what our eyes see is never more than external impressions; only reason, commitment, passion and faith can tell us what the impressions add up to.

Fringes are just fringes, if you are not ready to see them as tsitsit, reminders of God. Canaanites were just Canaanites, until the scouts decided to see them as giants. Poverty, child abuse, racism, gun violence – these are serious problems in America. Take a look: you cannot miss them. Whether we are helpless grasshoppers at their mercy or giants able to conquer them is a matter of mind. If our collective mind wills it; we can do it.

Grasshoppers or giants?Despair or hope? Fear or resolve? Only the mind can tell the eyes which one of these it ought to see.

I’m Haunted: We All Should Be

It’s a week since Passover ended. But I remain haunted. Haunted by its message, especially in the light of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day that is coming to its end even as I write this.When it began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Looking back, I ask, “What question should we be asking now?

The answer begins with a Holocaust memory: Elie Wiesel’s account of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him as he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.

We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess, and I thought of him while reviewing Dayyenu, that celebration of God’s many mighty acts, each one being Dayyenu(“Enough!”); but it wasn’t enough, not for the concentration-camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses demanded of Pharaoh; and he didn’t. Neither did Hitler.

Originally, Hitler did propose letting Jews go; the problem was, no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution – undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. Even after August 1, 1942, when our government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, we refused to help. When Sweden offered to admit 20,000 Jewish children if America would feed them, we turned them down.

We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian official was asked how many Jews could be admitted after the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”

These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.

We Jews can properly disagree on many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to oppressed seekers of asylum is not one of them. When we say, “Never again,” we cannot just mean “Never, just for ourselves”! Yet here we are, closing borders and saying of others what was said of us: they will be a public charge; they are criminals; we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.

The failed states that created these refugees are not Nazi Germany: I know that. They are not cases of state-sponsored genocide: I know that too. And not all the refugees are alike: some are more threatened than others. But the horrors they do face — starvation, murder, rape, and more — can kill you just the same.

The helpless children among them remind me of another Wiesel account:  of an Auschwitz child publicly hanged but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all. Refugee children too are “dangling in the wind” while we decide their fate. Is America still “that great strong land of love” (in Langston Hughes’ words) or not?

The Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we recall that Wiesel named his Auschwitz testimony “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, “this night” is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness occludes all hope, when it chokes off every possibility of deliverance, night is just night.

We Jews (more than most) have known night. We know (better than most) that we should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.

So what question is in order now, one week after Passover and in the flickering twilight of Yom Hashoah? It is this: How can we not remember that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through; and when the Nazis would let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in? Jews, especially, have the obligation to ensure that history does not record our America as another Amalek.

Dust and Ashes Transcending Time and Space

The first human beings, says Midrash Rabbah, transcended space and time: they stretched from one end of the universe to the other; and they saw through time, from beginning to end. Their home, the Garden of Eden, adds Etz Yosef, was not just a corner of creation; creation was a corner of the Garden!

But we were expelled from Eden to become like every other creature; remembering, however, what it once was like to be not just “dust and ashes” but actually “like the angels” (Ps. 8:6).

It’s the dust and ashes part that occupies some commentators to the Levitical reading on the ritual status of a birthing mother. Bypassing discussion of the birth process itself, they question the wisdom of producing another human being who inevitably falls short of angelic greatness.

But they quickly balance this jaundiced view of human nature. The Chatam Sofer concedes that we are “dust and ashes,” but adds the dimension of distinctive human morality. Our own evildoing is what reduces us to lower-order creatures who merely crawl in the dirt without ever imagining a sky, much less a heaven. Righteousness, by contrast, elevates us to be angelic.

Other commentators agree, but wonder, nonetheless, about the miracle of human imagination. How can “dust and ashes” even picture a mythic time when we transcended time and space?

The usual metaphysical answer comes from Redak (David Kimchi, 1160-1235): only humans have a soul, he says; our bodies are earthly; the soul naturally aspires to what the body cannot attain. The 18th-century Metzudat David echoes the philosophical Enlightenment when he credits the distinctively human capacity for speech and reason.

I find the first explanation limited. Citing our soul as the root of human aspiration does not explain that aspiration; it merely names it. The question still stands. How is it that human beings, “just dust and ashes” really, still manage to “dream big”?

The second explanation at least explains the phenomenon. Credit human reason! It’s painfully elitist, however – reminiscent of Plato’s philosopher kings who soar above the masses because they alone perceive heavenly truths. Maimonides would have agreed, but if we simply reasoned our way to kindness, wouldn’t the smartest people always be the kindest? With that critique in mind, Judaism prefers the Chatam Sofer’s answer: imagination too is best explainable by human kindness, which is innate within us.

Yes: innate. Both reason and kindness must be innate. It is not just reason that stretches our imagination heavenward; kindness too demands an imaginative leap to human betterness.

Here is the flip side of the troubling notion that giving birth to another human being just adds more dust and ashes to the world. Equally, it produces the potential for more kindness.

The idea that kindness is simply part of who we are appears in an early interpretation of Job 10:12, carried in the 13th-century source Tzedah Laderekh. Meditating on his coming into being as an embryo, Job tells God, “You clothed me with skin and flesh. You wove me with bones and sinews, bestowed on me life and kindness.”

The interpretation reads “life [chaim] and kindness [chesed]” as if they are proper names of angels (Chaim and Chesed) dispatched to nurture the embryo into wholeness. We may be dust and ashes, but we are also like the angels — two angels in particular, named Life and Kindness: they are ingrained in us at birth, no less than “skin and flesh… bones and sinews.” Instead of the doctrine of “original sin,” Judaism gives us “original kindness.”

We are born as a very peculiar sort of dust and ashes: we are dust and ashes animated by life and by kindness, kindness that outlives the dust and ashes part, and actually does allow us to transcend time and space, just the way we used to.

Eating In

Who cares about sacrifices!” people often complain, when they get to Leviticus. “Wake me when Leviticus ends.” But the sacrificial system is less about sacrifices than about who gets to eat them — and that is plenty interesting!

Of the three major types of sacrifice, only the first (the olah) was wholly a sacrifice, if by that you mean an animal slaughtered and offered up entirely to God.

The second (the minchah) was a grain offering, mostly fried on the altar as a sacred meal for the priests — payment-in-kind for their work on behalf of the people.

The last, and most interesting, was the zevach sh’lamim, usually translated “a sacrifice” (zevach) “of peace” (sh’lamim) — like shalom, but also irenicusand pacificusin the old Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) Bibles. Part of this sacrifice was sent off to God in smoke, but most of it was eaten by the priests and the people doing the offering.

Put all this together and you get ancient biblical wisdom on eating. We nowadays know enough to focus properly on “what” we eat; but the rules of sacrifice remind us to attend as well to “where” we eat, “how” we eat, and “with whom” we do the eating.

Start with the “where”. A straight line leads from the Temple cult to a synagogue Kiddushor oneg Shabbat:  all examples of eating as a sacred event in a sacred place. Synagogue meals expand the elemental sense of family beyond the accident of blood ties alone; they connect us with relative strangers in an effort to construct a story of shared identity, and destiny.

Our homes too are sacred: there too, we invite guests who attend as family around the intimate act of sharing food.

Restaurants are generally not sacred. By all means treat yourself to eating out, but not at the expense of meals eaten “in” — in synagogue and home with people you might never otherwise get to know.

As for the “how,” sacred meals are not swallowed on the run. They feature conversation, affability, nicely set tables, putting our best selves forward, and time allotted also to ritual, prayer and song. When we are done, an afterglow assures us that we have somehow experienced a deeper faith in friendship; a certain sense of how good it is to be alive; and a demonstration of what a life well led is all about.

Finally, the most important question: with whom do we choose to eat? Here, the third sacrifice, the zevach sh’lamim, becomes all-important. Targum Onkelos, a particularly ancient source for understanding Torah, generally translates the Hebrew into straightforward Aramaic: olah becomesalata; minchah becomes minchata.Yet sh’lamim becomes kudshaya, like the Hebrew kodesh, “holy.”

Jewish tradition usually considers the first two sacrifices (olahand minchah) holier than the third (zevach sh’lamim) because the third one could be enjoyed by ordinary Israelites, not just God and the priests. Onkelos defies that interpretation. For him, the zevach sh’lamim (the kudshaya) is the holiest one of all – for the very same reason. The midrash explains that with the sh’lamim, God, the priests, and ordinary Israelites are at one with one another.

Moses Goes to Law School

This week, Moses goes to law school. Contending with Pharaoh had been easy – it came with a magic staff and miracles. Even last week’s Ten Commandments were child’s play, compared to this week’s  crash course on bailment, theft, kidnapping, labor law, the indigent, mayhem and murder.

And this was just the first lecture. “This is what God calls freedom?” Moses must have wondered. Lawyers reading this will probably sympathize.

By the reading’s end, God sympathizes also. Moses is invited for a personal tutorial in God’s office on Mt. Sinai. God will personally dictate a set of course notes – to be called “the Torah.”  It will take some 40 days and nights.

But why so long? asks Abravanel. “How long does it take for God to write the Torah? Creating the entire world took only a week!”

Ah, says Sforno. This 40-day stretch was for Moses’s sake, not God’s. New-born babies, he reminds us, are not considered fully alive until they make it through the first 40 days. Faced with this wholly new challenge of mastering Torah, Moses was like a new-born.

So God gave him 40 days to adjust. “Come join me on the mountain,” God said. “I can dictate the details to you in an instant, but you’ll need more time than that — someday, people will call it a ‘time-out.’ Forty days in the rarified air of the mountain will provide a bird’s eye view of it all, the big-picture reason for being, and the confidence to start again.”

I love that idea: Time-out in life for us as well – like in major-league football, where play stops on occasion for teams to catch their breath, restrategize, and reenter the game refreshed and renewed. When living wears us down, we too should get to signal to whoever is running us around at the time, and retire for a while without penalty. As in football, life would stop temporarily, maybe with a commercial in some unknown planet where extraterrestrial beings are watching. Who knows?

When the time-out ends, we would bound back into our work and families, new strategies in place, as if reborn and newly ready to face whatever challenges life throws our way.

As it happens, tradition credits Moses with climbing the mountain not just once, but three times – for the first tablets, then the second ones, and, also, in-between, to plead for Israel after the Golden Calf. Three times, Moses huddles alone with God, to rethink, re-strategize, and (like the new-born baby) reemerge reborn. That’s my plan for us as well. We too should schedule a time-out three times in the course of a normal lifetime: as young adults about launch our independence in the world; in our middle years, our “mid-life crisis,” when what we have been doing may not sustain us through the years ahead; and when we grow old, when a lot of life may still be left and we need “time out” to consider what to do with it.

We may need others as well. I won’t limit it to three, because life regularly throws us curves, erects new challenges, and wears us down. At some point it dawns on us that life’s complexities cannot always be mastered just by trying harder and doing better. The solution, then, must lie in stepping back and looking for some hidden reserve deep down within ourselves — the kind of wisdom that comes only from taking time out to reflect on where we’ve been, and to recalibrate where we still most want to go. We call that “revelation.”

Revelation was not just for Moses atop Mt. Sinai; it is available to us all, atop whatever counts as our own personal mountain. Whenever we feel overwhelmed, we need time out to rediscover the still small voice of God within, the renewed discovery of our own self-worth, and the confidence required to reaffirm our purpose and know again how precious life can be.