Saturday, April 26, 2014
Do Not Hate Your Brother In Your Heart(c)
Parashat Kedoshim, 2014/5774
By Rabbi David Baum
A teacher told me an interesting story this week. In her class, there was an Israeli child who was making fun of an African American boy in her class. The Israeli child kept calling him “poop skin” and laughing at him. The teacher took the boy aside and asked him why he is calling this child names based on his skin color. The child replied: “who cares if I make fun of him, he’s not one of us!”
It was at that moment that the teacher went to her desk, took out a ruler, and brought it to him. As she showed it to him, she asked him one question: “How does this make you feel?”
His face changed immediately – gone was the care free smile and he became angry: “I think it’s terrible - I don't like it.”
What made this boy react this way? The ruler was something the teacher keeps in her drawer, something she found in her class room years ago. On the rule was a picture of a face on it…covered with a swastika.
The teacher told him – I could have thrown this ruler away when I found it, but I keep to remind me of something – if you don’t like being treated in a hateful way, then don’t do it to others.
It seemed to me like a modern Hillel and Shammai story! In a famous story in the Talmud, a non-Jew comes to Shammai and asks him, “Take me on as a student for conversion, but on one condition, that you teach me the entire Torah on one foot” Shammai becomes incensed and actually chases the man away with a rod. The non-Jew comes before Hillel and asks the same thing, and Hillel says, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of the rest is commentary, now go and study it.”
Why was Shammai so angry? Maybe because the question can seem like an insult. We cannot read emotions through words, so I wondered: what if the non-Jew was demeaning Judaism? It makes sense doesn’t it? As we know, we have libraries of study, and even our Torah is five books long! How can one possibly summarize it a couple of minutes? It belittles the countless hours of study that a Rabbi spends in his (or her) life time!
With this in mind, Hillel’s response because even more interesting.
He tells the man – do you want to insult others, make unreasonable demands of them, and embarrass them?
That’s not what it means to be a Jew – don’t hate others – it’s that simple – don’t let hate into your heart. If you cannot understand this, than the conversation must end here.
It got me thinking about basic ethics – Judaism does a great job of teaching us what actions we should take – but what about how we should feel in our hearts?
We finally arrive at the heart of Leviticus, parashat Kedoshim, which contains the holiness code. "You shall be holy, for I the Lord God am holy." (Leviticus 19:2) Much of this section deals with ethical behavior. Do not steal or deal deceitfully. Do not defraud your fellow. Pay workers on time. Do not insult the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind. Do not hate your fellow. Do not take vengeance. At then, at the heart of this section is the Golden Rule - love your fellow as yourself.
This is a very famous line that most Jews can recite in Hebrew by heart; this famous line, which Rabbi Akiva declared as the greatest principle of the Torah (k'lal gadol ba-torah, Nedarim 9:4)– V’avahta L’Re’echa KaMocha,– but I am fascinated by what immediately precedes this mention of love – hate.
“Lo Tisnah at achicha b’levavcha – Do not hate your brother in your heart.” Leviticus 19:17
What exactly does this mean?
Ramban (Nachmonides – a famous Medieval commentator) gives us some insight when he wrote– “for people who hate have a tendency to conceal their hatred in their heart: ‘An enemy dissembles with his speech, inwardly he harbors deceit’ Proverbs 26:24. Our text is not saying that it is all right to hate openly; it is prohibiting the more common thing.” (Here, the Ramban is commenting on what one may think – that it is ok to hate someone out in the open, but not in the heart, but he says all hatred is prohibited, but especially in the heart which is the most common form of hatred).
And it’s true – when we look back at this story that I told, do we think that the child’s feelings towards people of color began when he first uttered those words?
Sun Zsu famously said in his book, the Art of War: “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”
Our rabbis often talk about our two selves – the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and the bad – they battle each other, and where does this battle begin? In our hearts, and it ends when the mouth is opened, because, as we know, words can never be taken back.
As Jews, we have become used to being hated throughout our history. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks confronts this fact, going through history. Finally, he writes: “Reviewing this history, it is clear that anti-Semitism is not a unitary phenomenon, a coherent belief or ideology. Jews have been hated because they were rich and because they were poor; because they were capitalists and because they were communists; because they believed in tradition and because they were rootless cosmopolitans; because they kept to themselves and because they penetrated everywhere. Anti-Semitism is not a belief but a virus.” He goes on to say, “Viruses are effective when they persuade the body’s immune system that they are part of the body itself. Viruses mutate so as to appear to host cells not as enemies but as friends.”
I think anti-Semitism has a root – hatred – and it continues to infect.
We thought that the world would see the truth after the Holocaust – but it still exists. We see a man trying to kill Jews in Kansas City, a man who said he hated Jews more than any other minority. In Ukraine, a synagogue was fire bombed, and notices, fake or not, were given to Jews to register with the central office reminding this population of the Shoah.
How do we counteract this hate? The Torah tells us immediately – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Loving others is not easy – it’s actually easier to hate, and sometimes, it might be more fun. Loving others means to love difference, and each unique person.
We are all unique – each human being. The Mishnah states, “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – His image- but they are all different.”
Hate loves when we can paint everyone with one brush – love demands that we look at each person as if they are God’s image.
Hate is an emotion, but Love demands action.
A modern Bible scholar, Abraham Malamat translates this famous phrase, V’ahavta L’Recha KaMocha not as love your neighbor as yourself to but TO your neighbor…he writes: "The Bible is not commanding us to feel something - love - but to do something - to be useful or beneficial to help your neighbor."
So how can we be useful to our neighbors?
We are the constant survivors of hatred– we must say Never Again – never again will we allow hate to go unabated, to infect the hearts of man – not just anti-Semitism, but all hate.
And we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the same traps of hate. Recently, there was a shocking story – five Ultra-Orthodox men in America brutally assaulted a gay-black man who was walking through their neighborhood. The main assailant was quoted as saying, “stay down, f----t, stay the f--- down,” while the other man cheered him on.
I wish Hillel was there to see this, I wish Rabbi Akiva was there to see this – but they weren’t, we are.
So we must stand in their place and say, Never Again.
We must march with Jews and non-Jews against hatred. That’s why telling the story of the Shoah is so important, because it reminds all humanity that violence and murder due to hatred can happen again, and we must counteract it with acts of love.
I hope you can march with me this Sunday to say Never Again, and to remember those who lost their lives to the virus of anti-Semitism and hatred.
We Jews play an essential role in the world – God demands that we should be holy, for the Lord our God is holy – but love and holiness take action –
Rabbi Sacks writes, “A world without room for Jews is one that has no room for difference, and a world that lacks space for difference lacks space for humanity itself.”
This Sunday, on the March of Remembrance (CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION), we not only march for ourselves, we march for all humanity, for the past, the present, and most importantly, the future.
Monday, April 14, 2014
“What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat!”©
by Rabbi David Baum
Acharei Mot 2014/5774 - Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
In one word – how would you describe the feeling of Passover?
Many people say joyous, and in fact, our greeting for Passover is, hag kasher v’sameach, have a happy, and a kosher Passover.
But let’s think back to Passover – is it a happy holiday?
There’s an old Jewish joke: “What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.” We focus on the ‘we survived, now let’s eat part, but the first part? We tend to skip over that.
Let’s think back to the story – we have the killing of infant boys, drowning them in rivers, we have perpetual slavery – think about slavery for a moment. Who in here has seen the movie 12 Years A Slave? The movie is a true story about, Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. The movie shows the bitterness of his ordeals – the beatings, the hard labor, the inhumane treatment, both physical and mental, but also the fact that there was really no way out. If you escaped, you were immediately killed. The only way out of slavery was death. Can you imagine living like this? Eventually, after 12 years, he is freed and returns to his family in New York.
Now think about this, in our seder we say the words, “B’chol dor va’dor chayam adam L’rot et atzmo kielu hu yatzah mimitzraim” “In every generation, one must look at him/herself as if he/she had personally left Egypt.”
We have to put ourselves back into the shoes of the slave – imagine if you actually lived through it – what is the purpose of reliving those dark days? How can you possibly relive the suffering and also be happy?
Our parashah, Acharei Mot, deals with a similar issue, and the Torah hits us with it right away:
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.” Leviticus 16:1
As Aaron is about to begin his service again, he is reminded of the bitterness of the loss of his two sons, but it’s not just Aaron, it’s also Moses, who lost his nephews, and the people, who lost two up and coming leaders.
Why is he reminded of this right before we read about the customs of Yom Kippur? Rashi sees it as a warning, ’… that he should not die in the way that his sons did”, Ibn Ezra even sees this verse as telling us how they died: “This parashah signifies that the sons of Aharon brought incense into the area behind the curtain” (to Lev. 16:1).
But the Etz Hayyim Humash notes that “this is one of the parashiyyot whose name and opening words set the tone for all that follows” (to Lev. Ch. 16).
So what follows? Today, on the days immediately preceding Pesach, we read about Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur and Pesach actually have some things in common. On Yom Kippur, we are supposed to wear kittels, and on Passover, there is a custom to wear a kittel to the seder which is our family custom.
There are many reasons for this given, but one of them is that it is close to the garment, the white linen cloth, that the Cohen Gadol wears as he entered the kodesh hakodashim, and so we invoke Aaron the high priest, who lived through the suffering of the death’s of his children, but it’s also the garment that the dead wear when they are buried.
It seems kind of dark doesn’t it?
Our people have always been heavily influenced by the societies that we live in. There are times when societies focus on suffering, like say, the Middle Ages, but I think we live in a time where we focus on the other side – being happy. David Brooks wrote a wonderful article about this subject this week in the NY Times:
“Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness.”
I myself felt compelled to go to a presentation on happiness with Dr. Tal Ben Shachar, so I’m just as guilty! We live in a culture that is obsessed with being happy all the time. Take a look at the most popular song in the U.S. – it’s called “Happy” by Pharrell
But can we live a life only with happiness and ignore suffering?
In our parashah, we read about two goats – one is meant to be sacrificed as a sin offering, the other is meant for Azazel. It is not to be sacrificed, but sent off into the wilderness never to be seen again along with the sins of the people. This is what we commonly refer to as the ‘scape goat’. Looking at this is a ‘scape-goat’ as a metaphor, we often times look at suffering as the thing that holds us back from achieving greatness and true happiness, but this is not the case.
Brooks continues: “It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”
What does it mean to be ‘formed’ through suffering? When I thought about this question, I immediately thought of a custom in our family of using the actual root for maror (bitter herbs).
My grandfather always insisted that we use the actual root, not the store bought horseradish, for maror, and his job every year was to take the root that we use for bitter herbs and grind them himself, with his own hands. As he got older, he recruited my little brother to do the task, and Richie would do it with a mask and goggles on, and it took a long time. When I ran my own Seders, I continued the tradition – we don’t use the store bought horseradish, we use the real deal, but I always wondered, why not use a food processor?
I do it, without the gloves, the mask, or the goggles, and it takes me no time and no tears! No suffering!
Well, perhaps I’m missing something; perhaps I’m avoiding the bitterness and pain that comes from making the maror.
As many of you know, my grandfather is a Holocaust survivor. For years, we never really heard his story until I came back from the March of the Living. He opened up and started telling us about the horrors he experienced; actual slavery, physical, mental, and spiritual. When you hear these stories, you cannot help but be disturbed, and changed, but do I wish I never heard them? No.
Passover is an embrace of both suffering, and of happiness. We embrace all of what got us to become who we are. What would Passover be with maror, the bitter herbs? What would I be without my grandfather’s story of actual slavery?
I wish he did not have to suffer, I wish no one did, but we cannot go back in time to change events – we can only come to terms with them, and find meaning in them.
Brooks continues in his article, “The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.”
Now we return to the kittel – it doesn’t just represent death, but also renewal and re-birth. It’s the same colored garment that the daughter’s of Jerusalem wore as they went into the fields on Tu B’Av to find their soul mates, which also occurred on the heels of a great tragedy, Tisha B’Av.
Tragedy and rebirth need each other; they must live together.
The Haggadah quickly introduces the theme of brokenness at the beginning of the seder with Yahatz, right before we begin the Maggid section. Rabbi Neil Gilman talks about why we do this:
“Its trajectory will take us from brokenness at the outset to wholeness at the end. In the words of the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4), when we instruct our children, we “begin with the disgrace and end with the praise.” That trajectory is expressed verbally throughout the Haggadah, but frequently, in Judaism, theological reflections are also articulated in another language, ritual behavior. Here we echo the opening words of the Haggadah - “This is the bread of affliction...” - by the ritual of breaking the middle matzah. It will eventually be made whole again through the act of eating: the first half at the beginning of the festive meal, and the other half at its conclusion, for the afikomen.”
What gets us through the suffering is holiness and ritual.
Brooks writes, “Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”
The Seder and this holiday teach us that the whole and the broken live together, and we come out different than we did before.
May we embrace true simcha, but realize that the sufferings of the past, whether it’s through the history of the Jewish people, or your own history, should not be ignored, but also embraced.
We don’t know why these things terrible things have happened to us, but we know that over time, they have made us more whole, and more complete.
They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat.
Tuesday, April 8, 2014
PESACH/PASSOVER PARODIES 2014/5774
A TON of Let Us Go Parodies (from Frozen)
I will be updated with more videos as I find them
Let It Go Parodies
And one from a South Florida colleague :)
Some from last year...
FOR THOSE LOOKING FOR SOME MORE 'SERIOUS' PASSOVER/PESACH LEARNING VIDEOS, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO VISIT THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY'S SOUND BYTES OF TORAH
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Abracadabra – The Power of Our Words©
Rabbi David Baum, Shabbat Tazria, March 29, 2014/27 of Adar 5774
I saw a strange scene that I would like to show you. A lawyer, Stanley Cohen, wearing a kafiya, making a comment after his client, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law was convicted conspiring to kill Americans and other terror charges. Mr. Cohen stood outside of the court room and this is what he had to say: “It’s not about words, it’s not about association, if you want to turn around and indict people for words, there are about 270 congressmen who have said some pretty incendiary things, maybe we should start there.”
What exactly did Abu Ghaith do?
The day after 9/11, at Bin Laden’s request, Mr. Abu Ghaith issued the first of a series of videotaped statements that helped Bin Laden spread his global message of terror, energize Qaeda fighters and recruit new ones. Abu Ghaith became Bin Laden’s spokesman, some might say a Goebbels ‘lite’ – spreading propaganda.
The jury found Abu Ghaith guilty of more than making pronouncements, but let’s just say they convicted him for being Bin Laden’s propagandist.
Is this ok with you? Is it a crime as much as planning an attack?
To find an answer, we have to look at how Judaism views how we use our words. This week’s parashah deals with two types of people – the person with Tzarat, a skin affliction, and a mother who has just given birth.
The mother who has just given birth goes through a separation process from the community, dependent upon whether she has a boy or girl. At the end of this process, the mother has to offer two sacrifices – a burnt offering, and a sin offering. The burnt, or olah, offering is understandable, as the commentator Abravanel says, “she gives it in order to draw close to her Creator, who has miraculously preserved her through the pain and danger of childbirth,” and the JPS explains that the sacrifice was often the first given before others to get God’s attention. It led up to the sin offering – why does she need to offer a sin offering? What did she do? Ramban, quoting the Talmud, says that she gave this sin offering because, as she is crouching in child birth, she exclaims publically, “I’ll never have sex with my husband again!” If the husband is lucky, it’s a false oath, so she has to atone for lying. But her condition is interesting – at this moment, no one can truly feel her pain – she is utterly alone. From personal experience, a husband cannot say to his wife on her delivery bed – I know what you’re going through, it’s going to be ok!
The Torah does not explain why the person is afflicted with Tzarat, but the Rabbis and commentators says that the metzorah is a person who has spoken with an evil tongue, ‘motzi shem rah’. This must dwell outside the camp until his tzarat is cured – he is also utterly alone. But they are alone in other ways as well – when others hear what they said about them, they are shunned. When you hear this person speaking ill, the listener must be thinking – ‘if they are talking bad about this person, what do they say behind my back!’ The evil tongue can break families and communities apart, making others lonely as well.
The evidence of lashon harah as the cause of tzarat comes from the story of Miriam. In Numbers 12:1, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe for taking a Cushite woman, but they also say, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moshe? Hasn’t He also spoken through us?” We see here that Moshe’s authority is challenged, and to set it up, it seems that they are trying to defame Moshe with this claim. Miriam is punished with tzarat and has to be removed from the camp for seven days. God singles her out, and punishes her not only with tzarat, but solitary confinement, loneliness– is this fair?
Words in Judaism hold a special significance. In the creation story, God doesn’t use His hands or tools to create the world, rather God speaks it into existence with words.
Have you ever heard the term, Abracadabra? It is actually an Amaraic word, the language of the Talmud, which literally means, ‘I create as I speak’.
Human beings are created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, therefore we too create as we speak!
When I read this parashah, I was reminded of a book I read by Kurt Vonneget called Mother Night. The book is about a man named Howard W. Campbell Jr. who is captured by Israel and put on trial for genocide. Mr. Campbell was born in America, but moved with his parents to Germany following WW1. His parents eventually returned, but Campbell stayed in Germany. He was well respected amongst the Germans, and he was approached by a U.S. Secret Agent to act as a spy for America against Germany before the war. Mr. Campbell was a well-respected playwright married to a German actress. Howard eventually agrees to do so, using his job as the broadcasting voice of the Nazi propaganda organization to pass on coded messages during his radio broadcasts through agreed-upon idiosyncrasies of his speech (pauses, mispronunciations, coughs, and so forth). Through his spying, Campbell saves many American and allied lives, and, in his way, helps bring down the Nazi regime.
But, there is a price.
There are many moments of truth for Campbell, but one comes from his father in law who has long suspected that Howard was an American spy. When Howard goes to say goodbye to him, the older man tells him that he now realizes that it doesn’t matter whether Howard was a spy or not.
“Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you have served us,” he said. “I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you.” He took my hand. “You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.”
By spreading propaganda, he helps the Nazis with their mission – to galvanize a people to hate Jews and others. It wasn’t his intention, but he helped the Nazis just as much, if not more, than he helped the allies.
Campbell is eventually captured during the war, but the Americans bring him to New York to live in anonymity. He is eventually found by white supremacists who view him as a hero. Eventually, tortured by his past sins, he turns himself in Israeli authorities.
Just before his trial is set to begin, however, a letter from Frank arrives verifying Howard’s claims of being a U.S. spy. Howard is set free, but instead of being happy, he decides to hang himself “for crimes against himself.”
One of the most enduring quotes from the book is following: “We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
When I read this story, I think of political pundits who spew vitriol to get ratings (it’s funny, when you meet them in person, they are much more reserved and nicer). The listener doesn’t realize that, to a large degree, it’s an act.
Glen Beck recently made news for something he usually doesn’t make news for. I think it was one of the bravest and most open things he’s ever said, and I commend him for it. On Fox News. Meghan Kelly asked Beck to reflect upon his time at Fox News, and he answered:
“I remember it as an awful lot of fun and that I made an awful lot of mistakes, and I wish I could go back and be more uniting in my language,” Glenn said poignantly. “I think I played a role, unfortunately, in helping tear the country apart, and it’s not who we are.”
“I didn’t realize how really fragile the people were, I thought we were kind of more in it together,” he added. “Now I look back and I realize if we could have talked about the uniting principles a little bit more instead of the problems, I think I would look back on it a little more fondly. But that’s only my role.”
We live in a time when all of us have our own platforms to the world. We desperately want to be heard by many, so we post comments online, make bold and shocking statements that we may not fully believe, but because of them, we are heard. Many have online personas in the virtual world where we say things we would never say out loud or act in our day-to-day lives outside of the internet.
We do this because we are scared of being alone, of not being heard or not mattering to others. But when we choose to speak in evil ways, not just gossip of people we know, but of politicians and leaders, we actually set ourselves apart and make ourselves even lonelier. Less people trust us, and more people who might have been indifferent grow to dislike us.
Because of the internet, we have more power to spread the word and be listened to more than ever before.
But we must remember the word, Abracadabra, I create as I speak.
What kind of world are we creating when we speak with an evil tongue? Who are we distancing ourselves from? Who are we influencing with our evil words? In many ways, this is one the great issues of our time. But, there’s a response to this.
Today is a special Shabbat, Shabbat HaChodesh a parashah of unity – how do we bring slaves together who are in their little huts, and who have a vague connection maybe only to their tribe? Through marking holy time together with holy words. Perhaps it’s something for all of us to think about as we post our thoughts online, or write editorials, or speak to each other.
Let us realize that words are powerful, and it is up to each one of us to make a choice – do we want to divide or unite? To be want to be loved by others and spread love; or alone and hated, or worse, create hatred?
Let us commit to speaking holy words.