Friday, February 26, 2016

The Priest's Clothes and The Judge's Robe©

The Priest's Clothes and The Judge's Robe©
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
February 20, 2016 – Parashat Tetzaveh

Last Shabbat as we all now know, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Justice Anthony Scalia was a controversial figure but no one could deny his brilliance almost unparalleled in the history of the court.

What ensued almost immediately after his death was an interesting bi-product of our democracy. The questions started emerging: who will be the next judge? Who will appoint this judge, the current president there are many things we don't know like who will appoint who will this be? Will this person be male or female? What part of the country will they come from? Will they be Harvard or Yale educated like the recent justices? These are all the questions I’ve seen online, but here’s one question I haven’t seen: what will this court justice wear. Did you know that there are no rules for wardrobe as to how a Supreme Court justice may dress? Can you imagine if our next supreme court justice wore Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors?!?

So today, I’m not going to tell you which president should appoint the next judge, and I won’t tell you what gender or background the judge should come from. But I will tell you one thing: I think the judge should wear a simple black robe, just like all the other judges, because clothes matter, and these clothes, in particular, matter. It is said that clothes make the man, but can man also make the clothes? Today, we are going to see that through the judge of today, and the priest of the past.

As I thought about this issue, I read something very interesting: from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner. In her research, she found that there is no rule to tell us what a justice has to wear while sitting on the bench, but there is precedent. In England, the court system that our country's system is based upon, judges wore colorful robes and ornate wigs, but it didn't happen the colonies.

The first official portrait of the first chief justice, John Jay, shows him in a robe of black and red with white borders. The 'story' is that Thomas Jefferson himself objected to the pomp and circumstance of wearing colorful robes and big wigs: As an ardent supporter of modest republican citizenship, Jefferson was against “any needless official apparel,” especially “the monstrous wig which makes the English judges look like rats peeping through bunches of oakum.” It is believed that by 1801, when John Marshall became chief justice, the justices were in the habit of wearing black. It seemed that the attire of our judges did matter to our founding fathers.

In this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, we learn about the clothes of the high priest in great detail.

The Supreme Court and the Priesthood actually have a lot in common. There’s a lot of secrecy in both. There are no cameras allowed in the court room proceedings, and no pictures are allowed either. If it weren’t for the book of Leviticus, we wouldn’t really know what happened behind the closed doors of the Mishkan and the Temple. And on Yom Kippur, when the high priest goes into the Kodesh HaKodashim, no one knows what is happening. It’s a mystery. But probably the most interesting thing they have in common is the fact that they both have uniforms, and the uniforms are very important.

What do the clothes of the priests teach us about our people? How important are clothes?

In our parashah, we read about the importance of the clothes of the priest. In chapter 28:43, we read the line:

43They (the priests clothes) shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die.

Rashi says that officiating without being dressed in all of the proper garments is a capital offense. So we know it is important, but the question is, why?

The answer can be found in the first verse of this story:

וְעָשִׂ֥יתָ בִגְדֵי־קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֑יךָ לְכָב֖וֹד וּלְתִפְאָֽרֶת׃

2 Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment.

That is what the intricate design of the priests clothes were supposed to convey – something to take your breath away.

Dr. Raymond Schindlin quotes the Letter of Aristeas, a possibly fictional first-century BCE account of a visitor’s impressions of the Temple as the writer saw the vestments of a high priest named Eleazar (Aristeas 96, 100):
We were struck with great astonishment when we beheld Eleazar at his ministration, and his apparel, and the visible glory conferred by his being garbed in the coat that he wears and the stones that adorn his person. . . The total effect of the whole arouses awe and emotional excitement.

The Midrash tells us that in the case of the high priest, he is clothed in white linen which literally mimicks God as God is said to be dressed in light and glory.

Clothes are important, clothes are one of the few things that set us apart from animals. The midrash tells us that God dressed Adam and Eve, and all humans after them, in garments of light.

It was actually an act of creation.

But here's the thing about that – we may have been created on a higher level, but our actions determine whether we stay on that level.

How good are the clothes we wear, no matter how beautiful, when we act in un-Godly ways? This happened with the high priesthood. At points in history, the priesthood became corrupt. People stopped trusting it, and the beautiful garments did something completely opposite – they became shells of what they were meant to be. Sometimes, fancy clothes can do that to a person – it can make you think you have the power of God, but without the goodness and responsibility.

And so, we return to our justices clothes. I want to share what Justice Sandra Day O'Conner said about her robe: My fondest thoughts about my robe have to do with the tradition at the Supreme Court for putting it on. On argument days, a buzzer sounds about five minutes before the oral argument starts. The justices go to the robing room—the court’s version of a locker room. Each justice has a locker; attendants help the justices fasten their robes. Then the justices, without fail, engage in a wonderful custom. Each justice shakes the hand of every other justice before walking into the courtroom—an important reminder that, despite the justices’ occasional differences in opinion, the court is a place of collegiality and common purpose.

Justice Scalia was probably the most Conservative justice on the court, and he argued fiercely with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or as some call her, Notorious R.B.G, a liberal court Justice. One would think they were the bitterest of enemies, but actually, that was far from the case. She wrote a letter after Scalia's death that stated the following:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve.
From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.
Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the "applesauce" and "argle bargle"—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

Maybe a simple black coat helps them remember that they are there for a common purpose, something greater than themselves. Maybe we should put all of our presidential candidates in black robes!?! But it's not just the robes, it's the people in the robes. Thankfully, our Supreme Court seems to be one of the last places in government where people can disagree civilly.

It's February, and we are a number of months away from the election, but with each passing day, we come closer, and we have to decide how we want the world to see each one of us – will we make our clothes beautiful, or ugly, with our behavior? Can we disagree without being disagreeable?
Everyday we have an opportunity to put on clothes. Can you imagine if you also intentionally looked at yourself as if you were wearing a garment of light over your clothes. Perhaps we would act just a little holier in the world.

My blessing for each one of you is that you see yourself as if you are wearing the clothes that God dressed you in – a garment of light, and may you remember that in every interaction you have, and may it bring you to realize that we have a common purpose – to bring more of God into this world.  

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Torah's Choice For President© Parashat Mishpatim/President's Day 5776/2016

The Torah's Choice For President©
Parashat Mishpatim/President's Day 5776/2016
Rabbi David Baum

What are the top character traits you are looking for in your next president?   

One survey I read suggested this answer:  The top ideal quality picks are a candidate’s honesty and willingness to talk about the challenges affecting the nation.

This week’s parashah, Mishpatim, contains 53 separate commandments.  Perhaps the most difficult one to follow might be contained within these commandments:

“You shall not revile God, nor curse a leader (Nassi) among your people. ” (Exodus 22:27)

The word for leader used here is Nassi, which we translate today as President.  Can you imagine if this law was enforced here in America?  Chances are we’d all be in jail! 

Of course, there were no presidents back then, but there were kings.  Ibn Ezra says that the Nassi, the leader that the Torah is referring to is none other than the king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. 

It seems as if the 2016 presidential election has been going on since 2012, but we are finally at the first primaries of the season.  Yes, it’s time for us to choose our next ‘king’ or ‘queen’.  Often times, we focus on issues – will the candidate support the side of the issue that I care about most?  But perhaps the question should be, what are the qualities should we be looking for in that person?  Who was the Nassi that we are not allowed to curse?  And why can’t we curse them? 

To find the answer, we have to fast forward to Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

We see here certain requirements:  the king has to be one of your own, he cannot keep many horses or get more horses from Egypt, he should not have many wives or amass silver and gold to excess, on this throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written on a scroll by the Levitical priests, and he will hold on to that scroll and read it all the days of his life.

Maimonides explains this mitzvah in his Mishneh Torah:  Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to revere him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart...Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness...He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently...He should always conduct himself with great humility.

This week, there was a town hall debate with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire which will hold it’s primary on Tuesday.  A rabbi from the Conservative movement (capital C) asked the following question to Hillary Clinton:

“Another rabbi, Rabbi Simcha Bunem taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”

She answered by talking about her struggle with ambition and humility. 

And this is ultimately what the struggle of the two pieces of paper are, aren’t they?  Leaders must have a belief in themselves, that they can do things better than someone else, that they have something within them that might be greater than others; and yet, at the same time, if they only hold that piece of paper, their egos will become so great that there will be no room for others, or worse.  On the other hand, if they have no ambition, and are completely humble, then they will be ineffective – they can’t be leaders. 

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said, “When humility brings about depression, it is defective; when it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity; leadership is about finding the right kind of humility, and also recognizing that the inner essence of you, the thing that you have that maybe no one else has, was given to you by God.  A famous Hassidic rabbi, Issacher Baer of Zlotshov, wrote that one must look at yourself as if you are a channel for the divine attributes.  You are a part of God, God is a part of you. 

Now that we know the qualities of a Nassi, we can see why we shouldn’t curse them, and in fact, how we should try to embody that quality, the balancing act of ambition and humility. 

Valid criticism of leaders is not only allowed, but vital to our future.  We even see it in the Torah, in last week’s parashah, when Yitro challenges Moses to delegate and become a different type of leader.  The prophets were famous for criticizing the kings of Israel, but only for the purpose of making them better.  But cursing a leader is a different issue – in fact, Maimonides teaches us that “cursing” is a form of anger, a destructive emotion. 

A 14th-century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati, points out that cursing the leadership, even if it has no physical effect, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage people from taking positions of public service. 

In this one mitzvah, the Torah teaches us valuable lessons.  It teaches us how to be the best leaders that we can be, to embody the right type of humility.  It teaches us how to be the best followers we can be, to criticize our leaders for the sake of making them better, but also giving us the warning not to curse our leaders, because cursing our leaders doesn’t just affect them, it affects us; it fuels our anger and it convinces others, including our children, that leadership isn’t worth it. 

And so, it’s up to us, not just our leaders, but each one of us, on how we handle ourselves during this season, not just how we talk to each other, but how we talk about our leaders. 

You might wonder what Hillary’s answer to the rabbi was.  Her answer I think is an answer that we can all gain great insight from: 

“Regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions. But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude.”

May we all seek to find that balance, between ambition and humility, and may we constructively criticize more, and curse less, and may we all practice gratitude that God is a part of us, and we are a part of God.   

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Shabbat: the Cure for Our 'Affliction' - Yitro 5776/2016

Shabbat: the Cure for Our 'Affliction'© - Yitro 5776/2016
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

I received a call yesterday close to noon from a friend asking if I wanted to go to the Pearl Jam concert with him.  But guess when it was?  Friday night.  I told him I couldn’t because of Shabbat.  It was then he said to me, you know, I kind of feel bad for you.  You have this life that is so restrictive, you can’t go out to bars and spend money on Friday nights, you can’t cook on Saturday, you can’t go to concerts.  You waste a whole day at home when you could be out doing things!  You miss out on so much!  How do you live this?  And I know, some of you might be thinking the same thing about me. 

And then, there’s another story, a conversation I had with a younger family member, a young person in their 20’s.  This family member confessed that she can’t sit and do just one thing anymore.  I am so tied to my phone, the internet and constant communication that I can’t focus on anything.  So I gave her an idea – one day a week, the best day would be Saturday because it is the weekend after all, just leave your phone at home and don’t use it, or the internet.  Try it, and you will see how your life will change. 

“Wow, that’s an amazing idea!”  How did you come up with it? 

And I thought to myself to my loved one, how could you live like this?  With no rest, no boundaries in your life? 

So today, I want to talk about why Shabbat is important for our people, and for humanity; and what Shabbat is really all about. 

In this week’s parashah, we see the famous 10 Commandments or 10 Utterances; the 10 big ideas that govern a society.  We learn about the importance of one God, not making false oaths, Honoring your parents, the prohibitions against murder, adultery, robbery, false witnessing, and coveting, and along with these commandments, we see a command to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, one day a week.  We can make an argument that when these nine other ideas are the framework for a moral and just society – so where does Shabbat fit in?  Why is Shabbat so important?

Because it has kept us who we are – as Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, and a secularist said, “More than the Jewish People have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."  But I think it’s actually more than this. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously wrote in his book the Sabbath:  “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space.  It is a triumph frequently achieved by sacrificing an essential ingredient of existence, namely, time.  In technical civilization, we expend time to gain space.  To enhance our power in the world of space is our main objective.  Yet to have more does not mean to be more.  The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time.  But time is the heart of existence. 

The realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.  Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes more sole concern.  Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain.”

He goes on to say that human is constantly trying to subdue and manage the forces of nature.  He was right, and he still is right.  I wonder what he think if he were alive today, if he heard the conversation I was having with my friend and my family member.  It seems that today, maybe more so than ever before, we think that time is the final frontier to conquer and subdue.  We think we can subdue time with technology, to make things faster and more efficient.  But are we more relaxed now than we were 20 years ago?  We have more, but are we more? 

And Shabbat is the antidote to this control over time that we think we have. 

In the last couple of years, an online project started to help out people like the family member who felt that her life was so out of control.  It’s called the Sabbath Manifesto, a project by Reboot which affirms the value of Jewish traditions and creates new ways for people to make them their own.  The Sabbath Manifesto is a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.

Here are the 10 rules for the Sabbath Manifesto:
1.    Avoid technology
2.    Connect with loved ones
3.    Nurture your health
4.    Get outside
5.    Avoid commerce
6.    Light candles
7.    Drink wine
8.    Eat bread
9.    Find silence
10.    Give back

There are no explanations for how to do these things, but there is a comment section.  In the comment section, Leslie wrote: “I recently had a guy fix my laptop. He (Joe) has a small PC fix-it business near my town in Western Massachusetts. Joe is from Ghana. I was asking him about life there. He said, "People are connected to each other there. Here, people are connected to machines."’

Zachor et Yom HaShabbat L’Kodsho – Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 
In this commandment, we invoke God creating the world. 

Rabbi Ethan Tucker recently wrote:

“According to this version of the Ten Commandments, Zachor et Yom HaShabbat, or remember, Shabbat is an act of imitating God's behavior on the seventh day of creation. It does not emerge from Jewish, or even human, history; it predates it. Shabbat is an opportunity for human beings to be like God and to frame their relationship to the physical world of creation in which they live.  By imitating God's stopping and resting, we also acknowledge that we did not create the world, and, therefore, do not have the right to dominate it without limits. Creation is from God; it is perhaps, at least in part, for humans, but it is not simply the plaything of humans to do with what they will. Shabbat reminds us of our place in the divine world that graciously contains us.”

Can you imagine if you actually talked to people with your breath instead of through text?  Shabbat is a time when we communicate feeling the breath of our fellow human being.  Shabbat is very much connected to the creation story – God creates the world with words, but words can be typed or written; but the special name that God has with the Jewish people is YHVH – which, if said, sounds like a breath.  When we talk to the people around us, feeling their breath, and we recognize that they are created in the image of God, we start appreciating them, and ourselves. 

Our conversation becomes elevated, we tend to talk about the things that truly matter.

Creativity comes from letting things lie fallow – studies show that when you are in a creative rut, we have to take walks or go on long drives without music and let our minds go.  We cannot be distracted by music or emails, or texts – without ceasing our work, we hold ourselves back from future creation! 

On Shabbat, we allow ourselves to bask on the work we’ve done.  We don’t worry about creating more and more, because what use is there to create more if you cannot appreciate what you’ve already created? 

The Romans used to look down upon Jews because of Shabbat.  They called us lazy – who stops work once a week? 

But we are still here, and where are the Romans?  

“More than the Jewish People have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews."  Perhaps Shabbat was given to us not just to keep us alive, but for this very moment in time – as a gift to the entire world. 

I know there are people in this room who keep Shabbat, and I know there are many who don’t.  But, if you can, I humbly ask that you think of one thing, and you have over a month to prepare:  March 6 – 7, which happens to be a Friday and Saturday, is a national day of unplugging through the Sabbath Manifesto.  Go on the site, and think about how free you can be if you just let go of the control you think you have. 

May we all taste rest on this Shabbat and every Shabbat to come, may our lives slow down, may we let ourselves stop creating one day a week, so we can be more creative the other six days.  Amen.