by Rabbi David Zaslow

Last night President Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Of course, there is no “right” way to respond to the death of such a tyrant. The issue of “rejoicing” over the fall of an enemy like Osama Bin Laden is complex. Many of us are not rejoicing over his death, but celebrating a renewed hope for peace. Rather than celebrating his demise, some of us celebrate the bravery and success of our Navy Seals, and wish to express our gratitude to those who executed this mission and returned unharmed. Many of us are not happy that bin Laden was killed, but are happy for what his death represents in terms of the demise of Al Queda that we hope will follow.

The somber reality of Bin Laden’s death becomes blurred with naturally positive emotions that are embedded in the gestalt of the situation. The Holy One created us with a three-layered brain, and when we look at brain anatomy the response to the death of a mass murderer is even more fascinating. At the level of the brain stem, what Dr. Paul MacLean calls the Reptilian Brain, we respond to a tyrant like Bin Laden in a fight or flight mode – it’s hunt him down and kill him first before he kills again. On hearing of Bin Laden’s death the brain stem responds with relief and a sense of “yes,” which emulates a sensation that feels very similar to joy. But it is not really joy, it is actually a relief that the danger may be over. It is very much like the indigenous hunter’s celebratory sense of victory – not a joy that an animal has been killed, but a sense of relief that the hunt is now over.

In the higher regions of the brain, the Neo-Cortex, we reason that with this death there will be a better chance that terrorism and religious extremism will go into rapid decline. The higher brain functioning helps us rationalize and apply logic to any emotional situation. Mediating between the lower and upper level of the brain, the Limbic Brain responds emotionally, i.e., from the heart. A situation like the news of Bin Laden’s death releases in most of us an odd mixture of fear, anxiety, excitement, hatred, revenge, and the odd sensation that seems to imitate gladness. Again, it is not necessarily gladness that the criminal has been killed, but an adrenaline induced relief that he will not be able to strike again.

If we were family members of a loved one killed on 9/11, certainly a sense of relief and “joy” that justice has been served is a healthy response. As a nation we saw this sense of relief played out at the gates of the White House, at the Philadelphia ballpark last night, in our own towns and cities today, and among some of our Twitter and Facebook friends. An emotional response to the relief of our nation’s pent up anger over 9/11 is natural. If the emotional response is limited and kept in check, it may even be healthy.

Last night our President’s body language displayed relief and a sense of victory without gloating. His words indicated that he believes, as many of us do, that a measure of justice has been served by this carefully executed military action to capture Bin Laden. On a personal level, who is not human enough to have experienced some of each of these emotions in the past twenty-four hours? Who among us can really judge how our fellow citizens are reacting to this news?

Collectively, many of us sense an overriding national unity coming from the news of Bin Laden’s death – an interfaith unity that is the seed of hope for a future free of tyrants, free of mass murderers, free of extremists who hide behind their religions to justify evil. As our cousins in Arab nations are putting their lives on the line for freedom in what some have called the Arab Spring, I am personally trying to lift all my conflicting emotions up to the Holy One. Yes, at the level of my inner reptile I am relieved and “glad” that Bin Laden is dead. I confess I even cheered (limbic brain) last night, and yes, I am making a more sober (neo-cortex) assessment of the whole situation today.

Today in our Omer count it is malchute sheh b’gevurah, the day when we take our G-d given strength, power, and discernment and connect it to the earth and our sense of grounding. Neither can it go unnoticed that Bin Laden was taken out on Yom HaShoah, the day we remember our six million. Regarding Osama’s soul, G-d will have to decide if redemption is even possible for a person who has caused so much destruction. Regarding our response to his death, let us all rededicate ourselves toward making peace in the world – toward being the peace we want to see in the world.

In Psalm 97:10 King David speaks to each of us when he says, “you that love the Holy one, hate evil!” Yes, it’s okay to feel enmity toward those who do harm. It’s unnatural not to hate evil. And on the flip side, it’s dangerous to permit hatred to turn into bigotry. Actions like killing of Osama Bin Laden must not be in the service of vengeance or arrogance, but in the service of G-d’s will, freedom, human rights, and justice for all. Let us not rejoice over Bin Laden’s demise, but celebrate the hope that peace may now be a bit more possible.

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Judaism is not merely a religion, but a nature-based montage of spiritual practices we call mitzvot intended to elevate consciousness, and to help each of us to realize our own Divine essence, and unique destiny. Every lunar cycle is associated with some festival or holy day that helps each of us along our own unique journey toward self realization. To communicate directly with God one needs to go no further than taking a walk in nature. In reality, one needs to go no further than where we already are: sitting in our homes, sharing a meal with a loved one, or doing our daily prayers. God is in the synagogue, but not just the synagogue; God is is in nature, but not only in nature. Judaism celebrates God as being Omni – Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent. No limit. No image. No form. Rather, God is imminent and all things at all times.

As we enter the month of Elul, our consciousness shifts with the season. We sense the early urgings of the oncoming Autumn. Our consciousness moves inward, and we begin the process of self reflection that marks the beginning of the high holiday season. As we enter Elul we are not just at the beginning of a new season, but at the beginning of the beginning. So, we ask ourselves “what am I beginning? What am I beginning to begin?”

I hope that the notion that consciousness is embedded in nature, in the season, will inspire each of us to follow the lead that God is showing us in the natural world around us. Our task is to begin to begin. Begin to go inward, and reflect upon the past year, and the new year ahead of us. Elul is coming. Soon we will sound the shofar each morning as a wake up call reminding us that God is as near as the next breath.

Aug 5 2012

Time is a Mystery

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Time is a mystery. Time is precious. Time is a precious mystery.  The unusual word “anamnesis” describes memory as an actual recall of a past event. When I say “actual” I mean that the event in the past is experienced as if it were still occurring in the present. To our Christian friends this sense of anamnesis is experienced at every mass. In Islam it is experienced during the Hajj. In Judaism this sense of actualizing the past is experienced on Friday night when we recite the kiddush over wine, and at our Passover seders. 

With the month of Elul upon us this looking back and looking forward is a natural tendency in each of us. The Romans even thought of the sensation of looking at the past and the future as a god Janus was their god with two faces – one looking into at yesterday and one looking at tomorrow. From Janus we get the name “January,” the month that begins our civil calendar. At this time of year each of us is yearning, longing, and hoping. Yearning and longing for something in the past, and hoping for something wondrous in the future.

May the memory of all that is been miraculous and wondrous in your life be the Ruach spirit that guides us gently into the horizon of 100,000 tomorrows. May the teachings of all our rebbes be the guiding energy that links us in the deepest ways to our communities and to the Shekhinah. May God to bless each of with an incredible, miraculous, transformative, and healing Days of Awe. May the Holy One bless us to remember that memory is a living force; that memory does not die; they life is really light; that life is eternal; that light linked to life makes all our remembrances actual, really actual. May we remember that when we remember it is God’s guiding force moving through each and everyone of us, and that this force is especially discernible and available in the season we call the Fall, in the days we call the Awesome Days. 

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Beloved 85 year old Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca is an active Catholic. Last week he’s told by the reporter who wrote his biography that his mother was Jewish. I get called by the NY Times for my reaction. A small story that’s shaking up the baseball loving corners of the Jewish, Catholic, and old timer Baseball worlds.

At the same MOMENT the call comes into me from the NY Times (believe me, this is not a daily or weekly occurrence in my home) Devorah and I visiting with her cousin Bruce who was a pretty major UPI baseball and football sports photographer for the SF Giants and the Oakland Raiders. Ok, so what’s the big deal? Me and my cousin are discussion religion (he dislikes “organized religion) since he’s a professed athiest. His religion is the photo-shoot and his synagogue is behind home plate where he can get the best shot.

The call comes in to get my reaction to Branca finding out he’s Jewish. “Excuse me Bruce, I have to take this call from the NY TImes.” OK, I’m name dropping to Devorah’s cousin and I know it, but this “coincidence” is all pretty funny. Plus how often do I get to proclaim outloud “I Have to take this call from the NY Times?” This may be part of my fifteen minutes of fame and I do not want to waste it.

Now, the story beneath the story. Ralph Branca is famous for pitching what is called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” In the final game of the 1951 pennant series Bobby Thompson of the NY Giants got a home run off Branca thus winning the series for the Giants. To us Dodger fans it was one of the worst moments of our lives (the others being when the Dodgers moved to LA and when JFK and MLK was shot). Believe me, his grief at giving up that home run was inconsolable. The moniker “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ has haunted him for 6 decades. I mean, it wasn’t just giving up a home run, it was giving up the entire pennant; giving up “our” chance to play the NY Yankees in the World Series. Sounds trivial to a non-baseball fan, but to a baseball nut this is still one of the most famous moments in baseball history. For real! Ask anyone who knows baseball…sixty years ago this October 3, and that one pitch by Branca will never be forgotten. It haunts him to this day. He is 85 years old.

85 and VERY actively Catholic. Was G-d punishing him for giving up that home run? Was this the “cross” he was destined to bear? Was this all a test of his faith? These are questions Branca has asked all his life. And now…now he finds out he’s Jewish. That his mother hid their family’s Judaism from him? That his aunt died in Auchwitz. That his brother suspected they were really Jewish. That the family should have known. Is this part of the “cross” he still bears? Is this part of some Divine plan to inspire the tens of thousands of lost Jews to somehow reconnect to their faith? Poor Ralph Branca. I davvened for him this morning. He must be shaken up to some degree. Jews want to reclaim him. Catholics don’t want to let go. Old time baseball fans are watching and going “wow!”

Here is what Jewish storytelling scholar Penninah Schram wrote to me this morning from NY: “May G-d use this little story for healing!” Here’s what I say, “Amayn!”

Click here to read the original story in yesterday’s NY Times
Click here to read the follow-up article that I was called to give my reaction

Nov 16 2010

Peak Experiences

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Just as there are certain times in our lives when we have peak experiences, so there are certain times of the year when nature affords us the opportunity to have exalted spiritual experiences. In Judaism, we think of lifecycle events as turning points that represent a pinnacle in our lives. Brit milah, naming ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and memorial services all represent times when our physical existence reaches to the heights of our souls. In our communal history we can think of Mount Sinai as the “peak” experience (pun intended) of the Jewish people.

Last month Debra and I were performing a wedding in Vermont. When we checked into the hotel in Burlington the concierge pointed out that we just missed the peak of the autumn leaves by two days. In New England the change of leaves from the green of summer to the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn is measured and marked with precision. Autumn foliage, in that region, is a tourist attraction. Scientists can tell you the exact day that the trees in a particular town or forest are at their peak. From Canada to New England, and south into New York and Pennsylvania, the changing of the leaves makes a descending wave, leaving in its wake some of the most gorgeous colors exhibited by nature anywhere in the world.

Although we missed the peak in Burlington by two days, the autumnal scenery was spectacular anyway. The next morning as we drove south to the wedding  on Highway 100 we passed through the very woods where Robert Frost wrote some of his most famous poetry. Later that day as we checked into our hotel in Pittsfield the desk clerk informed us that the peak colors would be arriving on Wednesday. We told her that sadly we were only staying through Monday.

So there we were in Vermont – two days late for the peak in Burlington, and leaving two days early for the peak in Pittsfield. So, I figure that somewhere on the drive from the north to the south we must have driven past the elusive “peak.” Of course we were so busy enjoying the beauty of the ride that we never said “oh, look, this must be the peak.”  No road signs announced, “You are now having a peak experience, don’t take this moment for granted. Soak in the colors in front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You won’t see colors like this again until next year.” No, Debra and I were so busy enjoying the experience that we never knew it was happening.

What a metaphor for life! While traveling from north to south each of us is certain to pass the peak. The concierge in the north might tell us we missed it, and the desk clerk in the south might warn us that if we check out too early we’ll miss it there as well. Yet if we’re living life fully, in joy, with gratitude to God and each other, does it really matter if we’ve marked the peak?

Certainly, rituals are markers help us recall our communal peak experiences, which is part of the beauty and power of our Jewish tradition. But what matters most is our ability to simply be in the moment when the experience is happening, whether we know the exact moment of the peak or not.  Maybe now, even as you are reading these words you are at a peak. No need to capture it or even note it. Enjoy the colors of autumn. But since you’re here, try just saying “barukh Hashem, blessed is G-d!”

 

Oct 1 2010

Noah’s Ark

by Rabbi David Zaslow

My friend and teacher Avraham Sand cites Tatiana Rona: “Do as Noah did and build an ark. An ‘ark’ in Hebrew is taiva – which means also a ‘word.’ Your ark shall be your words of meditation and prayer. Enter into your ark and let the waters lift you up, rather than drown you with everything else.”

Rebbe Nachman taught that when Noah built the ark, he built the prototype for the Torah. Torah is the “word” of the Holy One, what the Greeks and Christians later understood as the “Logos.” We don’t just read Torah, we enter Torah as we would enter Noah’s ark. Torah keeps us afloat when all else in our lives is being flooded. It rescues us. It holds us above the waters. On the deepest level Torah is our ark. Every word we speak is an ark that we build. It can rescue or keep afloat those around us.

Rebbe Nachman also taught (in the name of his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov) that the “window” Noah was commanded to build atop the ark is from the word which means “light,” and which is related to the word zohar meaning “radiance” and “opportunity.” So as we build our arks out of our words, may our words keep us afloat, and may each word be radiant and travel across all the realms as radiant opportunities.

This week, let us build many radiant arks for one another. When you hear a kind word from a friend he/she is building you a radiant ark. When you speak a kind word you are building a radiant ark. Through this kind of sanctified speech we will help create many opportunities in each other’s lives. The mitzvah this week is for each of us is to build many arks with our words by speaking kindly. Suppress negative speech, critical judgements, and gossip. Join Noah and build your own ark.

Noah’s name means “comfort.” When you build an ark with your words the Holy One will bring out the comfort, the inner Noah, that is already deep within you. Noah’s name is a cognate of the words which mean “rest.” Every Saturday we yearn for what we call Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest. But at the deepest level this rest is the not just the cessation of work, but the deep “comfort” of knowing that all our work is done – there is nothing more to do but to bask in the light of the arks built this week.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Good evening and welcome. I was born in 1947, and moved to Ashland to complete my graduate studies in 1970. When I first arrived here, at the height of the hippie movement, new friends would ask me “what’s your sign?” And I would answer “Jackie Robinson with Israel rising.” You see, my birthday is December 23, 1947 which is almost in the exact middle of when Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues on April 15, 1947, and when Israel was reborn as a nation on May 14, 1948. These two events as distinct as they are from each other shaped my childhood, and influenced our nation as well.

This evening I want to speak about how Jackie Robinson changed not just baseball, not just major-league sports, but America itself. I’m not alone in the belief that April 15, 1947 marks the beginning of the civil rights movement that came into its maturity in the 1950s culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s.

How can a sport like baseball, and a team like the Brooklyn Dodgers, affectionately known as the Bums, be credited with having sparked what soon would be called the civil rights movement? It’s simple really. Social change does not begin in the ivory tower of academia. It does not occur because of postulates, theories, and suppositions made in doctoral dissertations. Rather, good doctoral dissertations and academic studies are reflections and analyses of what is going on in the lives of everyday people.

Often, sports, entertainment, science fiction, and religion are well ahead of the academic curve. Sometimes entertainment is a reflection of the current situation in society, but sometimes entertainment is at the cutting edge of social change. Sports like it’s literary and entertainment counterparts do the same. If segregation is the norm in society, then sports and entertainment will reflect that segregation. But sometimes, just sometimes, the commercial interests of the business of sports intersects with an urgent need for social transformation. That is exactly what happened to major league baseball after World War II. Branch Rickey knew they had to build up attendance at Ebbets Field or the Bums would be doomed to continue playing second fiddle to the great dynasty we know as the New York Yankees. And he knew that the secret to success would come from the untapped talent in the Negro League.

Not coincidentally, Branch Rickey’s personal Christian religious faith gave him an abiding belief in the equality of all people – Black, Asian, Hispanic, and those Anglo- Americans of European descent. So when he met with Jackie Robinson to discuss the possibility of him coming onto the Brooklyn Dodgers he didn’t ask this great athlete if he had the courage to fight for his right to play baseball, but if he had the courage not to fight. Both men knew that every despicable racist epithet imaginable would be hurled at Robinson, and that those first years would be torturous for Robinson. But they knew that he represented not just himself, but all people of color, and that his success and acceptance as a ballplayer would be measured not by a belief in civil rights, or theories of social justice, but by his performance on the field.

Robinson performed brilliantly as an infielder, at-bat, and holding the record for stealing home twenty times in his short ten year career in the Majors. What a metaphor, the first Black player in professional baseball holding the record for “stealing home.” Jackie was truly the catapult that hurled the Brooklyn Dodgers into history when in 1955 they finally defeated the great Roman Empire of baseball, the dynasty of dynasties, the team that gave us both Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio – the despised and fantastic New York Yankees.

Okay, so what is it with me in baseball? Big deal, I was born between when Jackie Robinson came into the major leagues and the birth of Israel. Truth be told, it’s a pretty personal thing to me, as it was to so many kids who were born in the wake of World War II and grew up in one of the boroughs besides the Bronx. Brooklyn hosted a huge immigrant population, a population of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Gypsy, Puerto Rican, and black first and second generation families who themselves identified with the seemingly hopeless struggle of the Dodgers to defeat the Yankees. In a way, identifying the Dodgers as “Dem Bums” was to identify yourself with the struggle to make it in America.

In the mythic decade of 1947 to 1957 the Long Island Expressway hadn’t been built yet, and urban flight to the suburbs hadn’t begun. Brooklyn was home, a city unto itself. Many of its oldest citizens still believed that building the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan, was actually a mistake, and that Brooklyn should have never left its status as a separate city in the late eighteenth century.

It wasn’t so much that the Dodgers were bums because they couldn’t beat the Yankees, but that there was a little bit of the bum in every one of us, or should I say in every one of our parents and grandparents. If Brooklyn was our holy land, then Flatbush was Jerusalem and Ebbets Field was our holy Temple. Yeah, we were all monotheists, but rabbis and priests alike who visited this holy shrine worshiped the likes of Robinson, Da Duke, Pee-wee, Campy, Oisk, Gil Hodges, and Johnny Padres. We were not just fans, we were fanatics. True believers. Orthodox, ultra Orthodox. Missionaries. Crusaders!

In 1947 my brother, Jerry Stern, was twelve years older than I was. His new baby brother was like his little monkey, his little parrot, his 10 pounds of clay that he could shape it will. My first words of English, and this is no family legend, were the names of all the players on the Brooklyn Dodgers. My brother would bring me around to his teenage friends and show me off like we would a new iPad today. He would say Peewee and I would respond Reese. He would say Duke and I would respond Snyder. He would say Carl and I would say Erskine. He would say Jackie and I would dutifully respond Robinson. By the summer of 1950 rumor has it that he could do this forwards or backwards with me. He would say Furillo and I would say Carl, he would say Hodges and I would say Gil. He took me to my first games at Ebbett’s FieldI, and ingrained in me the ethos of civil rights. It sounds so naïve today, but in the early 1960s white Americans were asking the question to each other, “do you believe in integration?” We asked the question as if there really could be two possible legitimate answers. I was one of those kids in the 1960s who asked that question, and one of the ones who answered in the affirmative when asked.

Is it a coincidence that when my daughter graduated from college she moved back to Brooklyn after having grown up breathing the rarefied air of Ashland Oregon? And just last month she gave birth to my granddaughter, Amaya Zahar, my first grandchild with a Jewish mom an African American dad. How cool is that? My granddaughter born in Brooklyn, born in the wake of the civil rights movement, born just one mile from Israel Zion Hospital where I was born, and 1 mile in the other direction from Ebbets Field, where my conscience as an American was born and shaped.

So where does G-d come into all of this? The question really is, where is G-d not in all of this? Someone once asked a rabbi, “why do you always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi responded, “why do you ask?” G-d was everywhere in Ebbets Field when Jackie first stepped up to the plate on April 15, 1947. G-d was everywhere in the hearts of every Brooklyn kid, and dad, and big brother who rooted for the Bums, who usually ended the year with a broken heart, who said Hail Mary every time the Duke got up to bat. Even the Jewish kids knew how to say chant Hail Mary in Latin. Gd was in the incredible sense of common unity felt between every fan from every ethnic group imaginable that lived in Brooklyn after the war. The cries of “please Lord” or “Sweet Jesus” or “Ribbono Shel Olam” echoed like the sacred notes of the synagogue choir invoked on the Day of Atonement.

Where was G-d not in Brooklyn in those days? Robert Moses broke our hearts when he wouldn’t let Walter O’Malley build a new stadium for the Dodgers in the late 1950s. We boys wept when the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955. We were stunned into catatonic silence when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. We never forgave O’Malley, but the truth is we now know they tried to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

For years we had no team to root for. Certainly we couldn?t root for the Yankees, or our National League rivals the Giants. We tried St. Louis but that didn’t really fit. The Cubs, the Red Sox – now those teams had some resonance to us (they were also bums), but they were in Chicago in Boston. Who could we root for?

Robert Moses got his dream and saw a stadium built in Queens, Shea Stadium. Many of the Brooklyn ballplayers who didn’t want to move to Los Angeles played for the Mets. They became the people’s team, a team we could root for. And today their new stadium is a veritable tribute in stone to number 42, Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ebbets Field. I haven’t seen the new stadium yet. I’m going back to meet my granddaughter for the first time in two weeks. So, don?t dare tell my daughter, but maybe I’ll take my granddaughter there this coming Memorial Day. Maybe I’ll teach her her first words in English. I’ll say Jackie and she’ll say Robinson. I’ll say Pee-wee and she’ll say Reese. I’ll say Roy she’ll say Campanella.

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Rev. Martin Luther King used to teach that the liberation from racism was not just for Black Americans, but for white people as well. The religious leaders in the Civil Rights movement had the vision to understand that redemption is not just for the victim, but for the victimizer as well; not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressor too. This level of wisdom can help us understand the Purim and Passover stories as well as current events in our troubled world. In classical rabbinic commentary, Pharaoh was portrayed a stubborn despot whose heart was redeemable. Haman, on the other hand, is the archetype unredeemable evil whose name must be drowned out with shouts of protest. Why was Pharaoh redeemable and Haman not? Because as Pharaoh kept changing his mind between each plague he displayed doubt – an expression of humility. Haman (like Hilter, Stalin, Mao, Osama, and Sadaam) never even doubted his right to order genocide.

The job of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam was to liberate the Jews – this is obvious. But a closer reading of the Torah reveals that God wanted to be worshipped by the Egyptians too. God proclaims in Exodus 14:4 that “I will be honored over Pharaoh, and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.” There is a Midrash that postulates that Pharaoh repented in Exodus 15:11 after he saw his army drowning in the sea. He cried aloud “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” Judaism teaches that world redemption does not mean that everyone will be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Rather, everyone will follow the same high standards of ethical behavior: no murder, no terrorism, no suppression of minority rights, no lies about another’s history, no theft of truth. As God says in Exodus 9:16 “I have raised you up, to show in you my power that my Name may be proclaimed throughout the earth.”

This was a difficult notion for Christians to come to grips with, beginning in the eleventh century when they crusaded through Europe destroying Jewish and Muslim communities on their march to “liberate” the Holy Land from the infidels. They believed, as some still do, that the whole world must convert or be damned. At that time Islam was in a golden age of moderation, intellectualism, and tolerance for its minority subjects. Sadly, today Muslim extremists believe exactly what the Christian crusaders used to believe – that the whole world will eventually submit to Islamic law. They believe in their own form of violent, totalitarian exclusivity, and teach a twisted, anti-Semitic version of Jewish history in their schools. For example, they teach that Joseph was really a Muslim.

They have rewritten Torah stories and teach that Abraham brought Ishmael to Mt. Moriah, and not Isaac. A Muslim friend of mine actually was taught that our Torah is a “distortion” of an original Torah. These fundamentalists teach that their never was a Jewish Temple built by Soloman, and that if there was one it was a mosque. Finally, many people in the Muslim world are actually taught that the Holocaust was a hoax. Moderate Muslims, of course, reject this kind of twisted history, but too many citizens in Muslim lands believe it.

I heard this kind of distortion first hand just a few weeks ago from two wonderful Muslim students on my son’s tennis team. One nineteen year old girl from Bangladesh told me Jews were really Muslims at a lower level of spirituality. Another exchange student, who never met a Jew before he met Ari, told me that all of Israel (not just Gaza and the West Bank) is “really” Muslim land. Tragically, just coming to agreement about simple facts has become an obstacle to peace. Nevertheless, the goal of the Passover story is to liberate both the Jews and the Egyptians, and this should not be forgotten. I was honored to speak gently but clearly to the kids on the tennis team about a Judaism and a history they were never told about.

The world is at a tipping point: Will more nations move toward freedom and pluralism, or hold onto antiquated systems of governance, xenophobia, and sexism? As Americans we can hardly imagine what it must be like for a great people like the Iranians to live without the right to protest. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Tibetans to realize that they are now a minority in their own homeland. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Kurds and moderate Muslims who want democracy in Iraq to live with the fact that the insurgency is not just against the Americans, but against pluralism. We can hardly imagine what it is like for a Palestinian worker to be stopped at Israeli checkpoints everyday – checkpoints that were never needed before the terrorists became so active after Rabin made peace with Arafat. Pharaoh is the archetype of dogmatism, stubbornness, and short sightedness. But he is also the archetype of negativity that can be transformed. The prophet foresees the day when their will be a highway connecting Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It is written in Isaiah 19:25 “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” May we each blessed in our work of drowning out the name of Hamen, redeeming Pharaoh, and preserving Israel’s pluralism, security, and gratitude to God.

Sep 1 2009

Highway of Holiness

Sermon delivered to Trinity Episcopal Church
by Rabbi David Zaslow
September 10, 2006

In one of your prophetic readings this week (Isaiah 35:4) the prophet Isaiah instructs us on how to walk on what he calls the Highway of Holiness where “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the voiceless ones shall sing…..” Compare this to what Jesus’ brother James is saying in one of this week’s readings: “Pure religion, undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, [and] to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).” He doesn’t offer us a creed to profess, or a series of theological ideas to memorize – but, rather actions, moral directives: take care of people in need.

The whole idea that James’ expresses is a perfect example of classic Jewish thinking – beliefs are fine, but they must be rooted in moral behavior. This is reinforced in another of your weekly readings. In Psalm 146: 1-9 King David invites his own soul to praise the Lord? How? By taking care of the hungry and freeing the oppressed. Listen to his words: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul…Happy is he who has the God of Jacob…Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises those who are bowed down….” The connection is clear between Isaiah, James, King David, and Jesus – if religion is to be authentic it must be rooted in action.

Today, on the Jewish calendar, we are on the 17th. day in the month of Elul. Elul in Judaism is a 30 day period of deep, introspective reflection parallel in function to Lent in the Christian tradition. It is almost as if Judaism is a witness to the transformative beginnings of Autumn when the leaves fall, everything turns inward and a very special miracle occurs – the trees let go of their seeds. As the trees let go of their leaves and seeds, so we let go of our own. We shed those inner leaves which are no longer providing nourishment to our beings, and we cast our seeds that allow us to move into the next phase of our lives.

Christianity is a witness to emergence – the visible emergence of those very seeds dropped by each of us in the Fall. But now they have spent their season in the dank, darkness of the rainy season, and only in springtime are they able to open, sprout, and grow. Advent and Lent transform grief through the promise of the upcoming resurrection. Elul, and what we call the Days of Awe, transform grief through the promise of forgiveness and new beginnings. Elul culminates in the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashannah, which this year will fall on September 22. Some would say that Judaism and Christianity have opposite theologies. I suggest that we have balancing theologies – we need each other to stay centered and steady. We are witness to the transformative power of the Autumnal equinox, you are witness to the rebirth and resurrective powers of the vernal equinox. This morning I am honored to share with you some key concepts from Jewish theology about the nature and process of repentance – a process that religious Jews throughout the world are engaged in right now. This is the precise historic “action directive” that Isaiah, King David, James, and Jesus were involved with in their day at this time of year. After all, what holds us back from walking on that Highway of Holiness everyday of our lives? Sin – the sense of separation from God. What gets us back on that Highway? Teshuvah, repentance.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the Chief Rabbi of what would later become the nation of Israel until his death in 1935. A brilliant scholar and mystic, Rav Kook struggled valiantly to bring together religious and secular Jews who were returning to the Holy Land from all parts of the world. Rav Kook wrote a book that was published by Paulist Press called “The Lights of Penitence” one of the most remarkable and beautifully written books I have ever read on the process of repentance, what we call Teshuvah in Hebrew. Rav Kook removes from the idea of penitence all negative connotations and makes it something desirous to experience. He does not use metaphor to decorate language, but to reveal deep spiritual truths and principles based on the Torah. His words and teachings are exquisite:

“The currents of penitence rush along. They are like the streams of flame on the surface of the sun, which in an unceasing struggle to break out and ascend endow life to countless worlds and numberless creatures. One is powerless to absorb the multitude of varying colors that emanate from this great sun that shines on all the worlds, the sun of penitence. They are so many, they come with such a mighty sweep, with such wondrous speed. They come from the Source of Life itself…the individual and collective soul, the world soul, each soul…cries out like a fierce lioness in anguish for total perfection, for an ideal form of existence, and we feel the pain, and it purges us….”

The Rebbe makes us want to repent and return to God as he describes how natural the process of Teshuvah really is, rather than something to be avoided: “At once the person senses negativity and…he/she is converted into a new being. Already he experiences…a complete transformation for the better….The higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All-Good, the Divine…Who abides in eternity.”

Rav Kook is so careful to emphasize that the act of penitence is not just some chore to accomplish during the Days of Awe, but actually has the most beneficial impact on the body. He makes the Hebraic link between soul, mind, and body when he writes, “Penitence is the healthiest feeling of the person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by penitents, and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health….How we need penitence, how vital it is to illumine the horizon of life!”

Finally, the desire to return and to permit God to transform our lives may come after years of practice, self-discipline, therapy, and spiritual practice – or it may come in a flash. Rav Kook teaches, “Sudden penitence comes about as a result of a certain spiritual flash that enters the soul. At once the person senses evil and the ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being; already he experiences inside himself a complete transformation for the better…the higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All- good, the Divine, delight of Him who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it.”

Let’s take a deeper look at the process of repentance. The word “repent” comes from a Latin word that means “to feel pain.” When we make a mistake there is no way to obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God without feeling the pain that we brought upon others and to ourselves. However, revisiting the pain is just the beginning of Teshuvah – a transformative process leading to the feeling of regeneration, renewal, and spiritual rebirth. The word teshuvah in Hebrew means both “return” and “answer.”

Teshuvah comprises of a “return” to who we really are, and to what we really are at our godly essence. But teshuvah is also is our “answer” to God’s call for each of us to come home to the land of the soul. Following is a simple, four-stage description of the teshuvah process:

1) Confession: From the thought that we are sinning we acknowledge our mistakes and errors beginning with words charged with regret, heartbreak, grief and sorrow.

2) Repentance: We take an nonest inventory of our soul, what we call heshbon ha-nefesh, and make a plan of action for change of destructive behavioral patterns.

3) Forgiveness: This is the Divine response to our confession and acts of repentance. The sense of God’s forgiveness gives us the courage to carry out the program of change we established in our lives, and to be on guard that our behavioral patterns are forever changed.

4) Atonement: This is the final stage in the Teshuvah process. Atonement, from the Anglo Saxon word meaning at-one-ment is parallel to state of sublime, joyous, ecstatic unity that we experience after completing our inner work. The Holy One blesses each of us with after we are forgiven…we feel at one with the Creator and creation.

What makes us human is that when given free will we make mistakes. So, the Creator has given us this profound process to rectify errors. After making a wrong choice, we repent, get “washed clean,” and begin again. According to Jewish tradition with every mitzvah we fulfill, the world gets a little closer to the days of Messiah. So, why on earth, would G-d have even permitted us to sin? Created in His image why are we not simply born to be sinless?” To make us human, the rabbis respond. To give us the true sense that we are not robots, but fully human, full partners with G-d in creation. We are born good, we sin, we do teshuvah, and we end up being better for the experience – even though it hurts.

May we all have the courage to improve and enhance the good that is within us during the Days of Awe and every day of the year. May we each recognize the spark of God that is the soul itself. May we wake up tomorrow morning and really recognize our true selves, our godly selves. The Kingdom of G-d is, indeed, at hand. But it will not happen by G-d’s actions alone. It is up to us to reach the heights of our human potential by taking the first step on that Highway of Holiness. So, what is a church or a synagogue? Simply a rest stop along the way.

by Rabbi David Zaslow and Rabbi Victor Gross
Spring, 2009

As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel assures its citizens (Jewish and non-Jewish) the same rights and protection under the law. The question is not about Israel’s obligations to Arabs – that is clear. Under its constitution, Israel is obliged to treat its citizens fairly – which it valiantly tries to do under extraordinary circumstances.

In the Torah G-d commands us to treat strangers the same way we treat ourselves. We’re commanded to love our neighbors. In Torah the intimate link between brothers is clear – between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and even Moses and Pharaoh. Each has a unique covenantal relationship.

Einstein said, “no problem can be solved with the same consciousness that caused it.” The relational problems between Arabs and Jews cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that has existed for centuries. Both Arab and Jew must recognize their collective history and awaken to G-d’s promises as outlined by the prophets. Until people recognize, as Pogo did, that “they have met the enemy and they are us” they will continue to exist at the level that bred the problem.

We await the day when our cousins, the children of Ishmael, welcome us to our ancient homeland so we can coexist in peace. We look forward to the day when all shall live in peace, each under his/her own vine and fig tree, when none shall be afraid.

Coming soon– Reimagining Exodus: A Story of Freedom

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