Psalm 87

Indeed, it shall be said of Zion, “Every person was born there.” (87:5)

For every person to be born in Zion either means that the world population shrinks dramatically or the boundaries of Zion, literally or metaphorically, expand to encompass the whole world. Let’s think of a messianic world in which we are citizens of planet earth whose capital is Zion.

If we lived in a truly messianic world in which there were no national conflicts and no meaningful borders between nations, in which people of all religions treated each other with absolute love and respect — wouldn’t that feel as if the messianic City of Jerusalem had expanded  to encompass the entire world?  The whole world would be Israel, a city/land of God.

In this messianic world any Jew living anywhere in the world could claim our birthright – Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport, fulfilling the Psalmist’s vision, “Every person was born there.” For a host of reasons, this will have to wait until we are significantly closer to peace and stability in the Middle East, but I have a dream! I dream of an expanded Birthright Israel in which Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is offered to any Jew on the condition that he or she visit Israel once every 5 years and participate in some kind of Israel service program. How many diaspora Jews would make a commitment to participating in the life and development of the Jewish state in exchange for Israeli citizenship? In my dreams, at least, the number is significant.

Psalm 86

I call to You all day long (86:3)

Years ago I met a man named Ken Wells, who used to sit at a table in the front window of a vegetarian restaurant named Gaia’s. Because I saw him every time I went there, morning or afternoon, I thought he owned the place. One day I struck up a conversation with him and found out that he was a local artist and a Buddhist, but he did not in fact own the restaurant. I admired his work, which I found flowing and whimsical, at a couple of bagel places where he was commissioned to do murals on the walls. Ken was my primary source of information on meditation, years before I did any serious learning from Jewish sources.

I invited him to be the primary speaker at an interfaith Thanksgiving service that was held at the synagogue. His message included a reference to his personal meditative practice in which he strove to spend the entire day, every waking moment, in a state of meditation.

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. My mental image of meditation was of a person sitting in a quiet space emptying his mind of thoughts. How can you drive, have conversations, engage in business, or create art, with an empty mind? Over time I learned more about meditation and began to understand what he meant. Meditation is a “I call to you all day long” experience of being connected and aware of the Divine Presence at every moment. When speaking to another person while in a meditative state, you have total focus on that person and what she is saying as a manifestation of the Divine Image. Safe driving requires a meditative-like awareness of your surroundings and complete focus on the task at hand. Creating art, creative writing, and even engaging in business require a mind which is at once completely focused and at the same time open to unexpected ideas, a state of mind which can existed in meditation.

Thank you Ken Wells, of blessed memory, for sharing this insight with me years before I had the capacity to understand it.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Psalm 85

Love and truth meet; justice and shalom kiss. (85:11)

Sometimes, love and truth conflict with one another. “I love you and want to say only good things to you and about you. I don’t want to tell you the truth, because the truth will hurt you.”

Justice might demand a disruption in the status quo. Rosa Parks sought justice in being able to choose where to sit. Martin Luther King, Jr., sought a just society in which the color of one’s skin wouldn’t prevent one from exercising the right to vote. Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel want the same right to communal worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, as Orthodox Jews. Gay and lesbian people want fair and just marriage equality so their partnerships and families have the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual partnerships and families. Each of these demands have created tension in society. Sometimes, justice and shalom temporarily contradict each other.

We all look forward to times when everyone is happy and there is no strife. However, an organization or a society does not mature during those times. It is only at times when a problem comes up and the organization has to struggle with questions of self-identity in order to find a solution that the organization can potentially become stronger. On a micro level, that’s how muscles work as well. When we exercise, we are breaking muscle tissue which then repairs itself and grows stronger. On a macro level, if the organization takes the conflict seriously, which means examining the root of the conflict and deciding which potential solution is most in line with its mission, then it will heal the wounds of the conflict and becomes stronger as a result. Organizations which make decisions opposed to their mission for the sake of expediency or making people happy have not wrestled with the difficult issues, and subsequently will be weakened.

When we tell the truth in a loving way we temporarily break society for the sake of justice but find shalom in a new status quo. In a world where two men or two women can go to the courthouse and get a marriage license without anyone raising an eyebrow, we would look back on a past when this was not so and wonder how people could ever have been so narrow minded.

Psalm 84

They go from rampart to rampart (or “from strength to strength”), appearing before God in Zion. (84:8)

“May you go from strength to strength” was part of a speech of congratulation of my childhood rabbi. It sounded so rabbinic, mostly because it was not at all clear to me what he meant. Did it mean “may you go from success to success,” a wish that would make sense given that he might be offering congratulations for an accomplishment? Of course, he might also be offering congratulations for a marriage or the birth of a child. We won’t know for some years whether the marriage is successful, and while the child may be successfully delivered, the larger task of actually raising the child has barely begun!

As a rabbi myself, I figured I needed to be able to give the phrase a plausible explanation and I did so as follows: “may you go from the strength that it takes to do what you did to the strength that it will take to do the next big thing.” A confession, though — prior to reading Psalm 84, I never knew where this phrase came from. Now that I know where it came from, my 26 word explanation of four Hebrew words seems a bit wordy.

The context in Psalm 84 is a description of a person engaged in a pilgrimage journey to Jerusalem, going along the highways, passing through a valley, and finally traveling me’hayil el hayill. Are we envisioning the pilgrim climbing the ramparts on the walls of Jerusalem on the final leg of his journey? I think it more likely that the weary pilgrim would have completed the journey on the streets into the city rather than on the walls around the city. Perhaps a better understanding would be “from effort to effort,” summarizing the long journey as a series of discrete efforts, each of which needed to be accomplished in order to complete the task.

“May you go from [this] effort to [another] effort” doesn’t sound as good as “from strength to strength,” but I think that’s what what my childhood rabbi intended. Each time we complete something, whether it be graduation from high school, a wedding, birth of a child, a new job, we praise the effort that went into the accomplishment. We praise the effort that went into the completion, not the quality of the final product.

What do you call a medical student who graduated last in his class?’ goes the old joke.  Doctor! While there is much to be said for the marathoner who runs to Jerusalem with a world-record breaking time, when all is said and done the plodder who also arrives in the holy city has done the pilgrimage mitzvah just as well.