Thursday, May 13, 2010

Blessings and Curses -- Sermon for May 7, 2010

Yes, I KNOW that 2 weeks ago I promised to finish talking about women's rights and the Wall -- but it didn't happen! But it will....

Instead, we got:

When A Blessing Becomes a Curse --
Sermon for Parshiyot B’har/B’chuqotai –
May 7, 2010 Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

It was the number of years ago that matches the number that the National’s phenom pitcher, Stephen Strasburg will likely be wearing when he arrives in the major leagues sometime next month. I had the privilege of reading the second of tonight’s 2 Torah portions at my Bar Mitzvah service. Tonight, I have repeated these words on Loren’s birthday – there seems to be something cosmic in that.

As I do so, it appears that the recent tiff between the leaders of Israel and the United States, allowed to get out of the headlines, has moved back from the brink. However, all is not rosy in our world tonight. The recent financial problems that have led to rioting in the streets in Greece, and threaten to take down the Spanish and Portuguese economies, which will threaten a domino effect across Europe and the world, should have us nervous. So should the failure to adequately prepare an emergency plan for an environmental catastrophe the likes of which we are now dealing with in the Gulf of Mexico. So should the continuing sabre-rattling coming out of Iran, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, designed to intimidate Israel and the West, as evidenced by a smoking car in Times Square last Saturday night.

So tonight, as we read the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell, symbol of America’s independence, from parshat B’har, as I gain comfort as a Jew in repeating my Bar Mitzvah portion, as we all seek to gain comfort and strength as Jews by repeating the traditional refrain of “Chazaq” as we complete the reading of Leviticus for another year with parshat B’chuqotai, let me recommend that we focus on this double portion that, quite uniquely, influences us as both Americans AND as Jews, and seek to learn and implement its lessons.

The center piece of B’chuqotai is a listing of blessings and curses. This is not the first or only time we have seen such a list in our Biblical text, and indeed, Torah is not unique, either in having such a text, or in its context. We have just received a series of commandments – in this case, mostly ritual commandments ben adam l’Maqom – between us and God. Now, we are being promised blessing – if we follow those commandments – or curse if we do not. The choice is ours, as it must be. Both the Babylonian Code of Hammurapi, which many textual scholars of the Bible cite as a significant influence on Torah, and the even earlier Sumerian Code of Lipit-Ishtar, have similar promises of blessing and curse, to be determined by our behavior, following lists of legal statutes.

The message here could not be clearer. We have free choice. Our behaviors are neither pre-destined, nor otherwise controlled by God, save through the influence of a little good old positive and negative reinforcement. Do what we have been told to do as part of the Covenant with God, and we will get all manner of blessings; fail or refuse to do so, and we will be cursed even more significantly. I have always been fascinated by the Biblical pattern regarding blessings and curses – curses are always more detailed and better spelled out than blessings! Skinner and Pavlov would be so proud 

But here is a modern spin on the question that the Biblical text sort of acknowledges, but does not directly address. What happens when the world evolves, and blessings become curses? The answer, I believe, is in the process itself – this can only happen because we – individually and collectively – fail to maintain our sense of balance in life, and our control over our behaviors, and in the process, allow things that were once good to harm us.

Ironically, the best historical example of this changing of blessings into curses over time comes in the evolution of Judaism from Toraitic to Rabbinic. The Bible is clear in its blessings – and conversely, in its curses. Follow the mitzvot and uphold our end of the covenant with God, and our ancestors would get the needed rains – not too much or too little, and only in their proper season. They would be blessed with great fertility – in the fields (good crops), and in the home (large families). But, by the Rabbinic period, fewer Jews were agriculturally based. To the potter, living with his family in a studio behind his shop in Jerusalem, good crops were an irrelevance. The rain, even in moderation and in season, was hardly a blessing with his leaky stone roof. Likewise, additional children to raise in the limited space of their studio hardly qualifies as a blessing anymore. And therefore, the Rabbis found themselves needing to change the actual system of rewards and punishments as they reformed Judaism in their time!

The best modern example – who among us does not like sweets!? The few that would raise their hands have likely LEARNED not to like them, because of the danger they pose to us personally, because of a lack of self-control, or a physical condition like diabetes. Or take the example of the public schools’ lunch program. Originally this was a brainchild of the Armed Forces in the aftermath of World War II, motivated by fear that if the public schools did not provide a hot and nourishing lunch to the nation’s children, when they grew up, the physical caliber of incoming soldiers would be greatly reduced.

Just a few weeks ago, the same military establishment stepped to the front of a new debate – now demonstrating that the lack of proper nutritional basis in that SAME school lunch program is a leading factor in the obesity explosion in this country which, wait for it, has severely decreased the number of teens physically fit enough to enter the Armed Forces! The blessing has become a curse through our own neglect and mismanagement.

But perhaps the gravest example to both Americans AND Jews, and therefore, especially to us as American Jews, of a blessing becoming a curse and not being dealt with, is the one that is a far greater example of a lack of self-control leading to gluttony, the one that is a significant influence on every one of the concerns I raised above – Middle East peace, the war on terror, economic destabilization, and the attack on the environment. And, despite this truth, we continue NOT to change our behaviors, and allow this former blessing to become an even more dangerous curse.

I speak, of course, as I have before, about our over-dependence on gasoline and oil driven and manufactured products in our daily lives. This psychotic addiction is an even bigger threat to the future of America and the Middle East than the death of respectful disagreement, or its replacement with divisive rhetoric and polemics which can so easily escalate to violence. And yet, we continue to do virtually nothing to seek treatment for this addiction. In fact, those in a position to set policy seem to be determined to take even more advantage of our addiction.

It should be clear by now that America’s addiction to oil, which leads us to have to import millions of barrels of it from such allies as Venezuela and whichever side in the eternal internecine Muslim conflict in what used to be referred to as the “Fertile Crescent” we are supporting against the other this week, is a huge complicating factor in both America’s relationship with Israel as she confronts Palestinian terror (supported by Arab regimes which can use their oil supplies as economic blackmail) and in honestly dealing with a war on terror that, despite our military focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan, is deeply rooted in the house of our needed economic ally, Saudi Arabia (our major oil pusher).

Is it any coincidence that the only Middle Eastern countries that America seems to have any diplomatic leverage with are the ones most removed from having oil on their land? Israel. Egypt. Jordan. Why have we never pushed Kuwait, or Dubai, or the United Arab Emirates, to help in the struggle for Middle East peace? Surely they could be great influences on their Arab brethren. Probably for the same reason we failed to hold them responsible for kicking THEIR Palestinian serfs and slave laborers out of their fiefdoms, thereby ADDING to the pressure on Israel – we didn’t want to insult those who supply the junk for our oil jonesing!

Is there a more obvious reason why Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of both Osama bin-Laden and the Wassabi tract of Islam that is the most dangerous and disruptive supporter of terror in the Arab world, has been spared the diplomatic treatment heaped upon both Iran and Iraq, the military destruction we have sent upon Pakistan and Afghanistan? What else could it be but fear of being cut-off from our supply and our suppliers.

And no, as the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico appears to FINALLY be teaching politicians of both colors – red and blue – the answer to our economic overdependence on countries that are, or could easily become, our enemies, is NOT to increase drilling on and off our own shores, putting our own ecological balance at risk! What the Exxon Valdez spill somehow failed to teach us is, at least for the moment, finally being recognized in the Gulf. And, is anyone else but me concerned by the disclosure that the same Halliburton Co., which received so many no-bid contracts in our war efforts in Iraq, with its direct connection to Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President in the last administration, was given total control in setting energy policy, and in so doing, REFUSED to allow any inquiry into the illegal private meetings he had with energy company executives which led to those policies, is up to their hip-waders in the blame pushing going around the continuing gusher in the Gulf?

But how long can we honestly expect this sanity of ecologically informed policy rethinking to be maintained in the Halls of Congress!? After all, even Obama had been calling for increased drilling until the explosion! Surely, as soon as the headlines stop, and the pictures of formerly cuddly birds and animals coated in goo disappear from our screens; the minute the campaign contributions from those big oil multinational corporations, whose failure to pay income taxes on our shores means that you and I are paying THEIR share of the clean-up that THEY are responsible for, start to line the politicians’ pockets again; we will have drilling forced down our throats off MORE of our shoreline, and in even more pristine and delicate ecosystems. Already, the Governor of Virginia, smelling more than oil in the water, is pushing his state hard to position themselves to become the NEW site of offshore drilling. The dollar signs of the false blessing of economic opportunity have blinded him to the all too real curse of a danger that will haunt his great-grandchildren still!

These rigs in the Gulf have been allowed to move ever deeper, as more oil gets snorted into our gas tanks and pretty plastic products. But with that move has come no thought of how to handle a disaster that far under water. Until now, when it is too late. Anyone remember Irwin Allen’s 1970s horror flick – The Towering Inferno? From WestwoodOne Radio’s “The Osgood File:”

Here's the plan [for the clean-up]: crews will try to position a 100-ton concrete-and-steel box over that blown-out well in the Gulf of Mexico. If it works - big "if" - they're hoping the thing could collect something like 85 percent of the oil that's pouring out of the hole. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says it would be wonderful if the box actually does that, but it's not something she's counting on. "I hope it works. It has not been used at that depth before, but we are still proceeding as if it won't." National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger says a good deal of damage has already been done... "There was no pre-planning for this type of an incident. There should have been, and they should have had fisherman under contract who were trained in haz-mat handling and were able to disperse booms, they should have had booms on the ready. All these lessons should have been learned from the Exxon Valdez disaster and were not."

Let me see if I understand – Homeland Security is in charge here, because someone correctly noted the nexus of energy resources and homeland security. But we have done nothing yet as a nation to institute policies to change behaviors to break the cycle of addiction that continues to enslave us like we were back in Egypt? We’ve allowed ourselves to chase new and greater supplies to feed the addiction, but failed to put any safety protocols in place in the event of the inevitable spill? The blessing of technological advancement has become the curse of ignorance and ecological indifference!

But honestly, we have noted the following before as well. Short of seeing oil-covered birds and marine life, the only other stimulus strong enough to possibly get us to seek out a 12-step program for our national oil addiction is when it starts to hit us in our pocketbooks. The increase in energy prices over recent years is a significant factor in the economic turmoil now being felt in ripples emanating from Europe. Only high gas prices appear to have any influence on our own personal driving behaviors.

It has been a couple of years since I preached on one of the earlier price spikes at the pump. Honestly, how many of us have changed our driving behaviors, our consumption patterns, since then? I don’t see a decrease in the size of cars in our lot tonight. I have seen virtually no increase in alternative energy vehicles. Are we even driving less? Heck no – we aren’t even complaining as the price at the pump has slithered snake-like towards $3 per gallon again – even as we are being reassured that low supply is not the cause. In response to fears after the Gulf explosion, we have been told that we have a 19 year supply of gas and oil in the pipelines on American soil already. So then why IS the price at the pump going up? Even if it is ALL attributable to the weakened strength of the dollar, how much has that loss been caused by our economic dependence on our enemies?

[Segue alert – will be tied up in a moment!] Friends, our movement and our world lost a great teacher, mentor, and role model this week, with the passing of Rabbi David Forman. David grew up in the anti-war movement of the 60s, then turned the lessons he learned there towards his love of Israel, becoming one of the first Reform Rabbis to make aliyah in the 70s. His life work was motivated by a tireless devotion to speaking out against injustice WHEREVER it was found. He was a believer in the dictum “My country, even when, ESPECIALLY when it is wrong.” It led him to speak out and act for needed change.

When Reform Jews were nor recognized by the Orthodox establishment, David spoke out, and even ran for Knesset. When Palestinians were being mistreated, he helped to start Rabbis for Human Rights, and insisted that only if Israel maintained the highest integrity of ethics, even towards the Palestinians, was it worthy of existence. Where many of his generation confused being for peace as being against war, and being against ALL war because they saw no reason for America to be in Vietnam, David saw the need and responsibility to serve his country, and make sure that its efforts were “clean.” He was severely wounded in Lebanon in the early 80s, as part of the IDF. Even after his daughter’s school narrowly missed being bombed by terrorists, David still fought for human rights for Palestinians.

I am thankful that many of you had a chance to meet him when he spoke here a number of years ago, so you could see his passion, his compassion, his honesty and dedication to ethical behavior. He was a friend as well as a teacher to me, and to countless other young Jews of my generation, and he will be sorely missed.

I couldn’t help but think about what David’s reaction to my words this evening would be. I hope he would applaud me for taking on the immovable elephant in our own house, maybe even see some of his influence there. But then he would ask me what ACTIONS I have taken to lead the way – and sadly I, like you, have done little. My big “protest” is an adamant refusal to put more than $40 worth of fuel in my car at any one time. Clearly, the time has come, and I need to do more, we all do.

If not for ourselves and our children, maybe we can convince ourselves to change our behavior for the sake of our country, or our homeland, or our planet. I am long past hoping that we will work to overcome our own weak behaviors simply for the sake of doing what is right and what is necessary for others and for ourselves, but it cannot hurt to state what should, by now, at last become obvious.

Otherwise, the industrial breakthrough that began with Siegfried Marcus, a German-born Jew living in Austria, who, around 1870, several years BEFORE Daimler and Benz, powered a cart using an internal combustion engine which ran on gasoline, which was considered, in its time, a blessing of unprecedented significance, may very well become, through our own addiction and stubborn refusal and inability to change, the beginning of the end of Western Civilization as we have come to know it. As overblown as that sounds, I do not any longer believe it is hyperbole. We need to act, and act now, before it is too late! KYR!

A Jewish Blessing for Mothers' Day

So, have you heard the one about the Jeiwsh mother...? Of course, who hasn't heard one!?

But seriously, it struck me this year that in almost 20 years in the Rabbinate, I had never attempted to create a prayer for the Shabbat of Mothers' Day weekend (insert your own Freudian crack here!), and decided to make up for it. What came out was :

A Jewish Prayer for Mother’s Day

Heavenly Parent – who gives the best to both mothers AND fathers – on this Shabbat, as we begin the weekend dedicated to mothers, we offer thanks for those attributes you have placed in mothers throughout time.

You are our Creator, and every birth of a newborn child reminds us of your role in the miracle of creating new life, with all its wonders and mysteries. Thank You for endowing mothers with the strength to carry and to bear their children, and the willingness to do it again after the first time!

You are a Nurturing Presence in our lives – we sense Your Presence in moments of comfort and moments of concern. Thank You for giving mothers the patience, the caring, the compassion, and the passion to be willing to give up everything for the protection of their children, and the ability to see in each tiny new step the potential for greatness.

You are our Guide and Teacher – when we walk in Your ways, we find peace and enlightenment. Thank you for giving mothers the wisdom to know when to step in AND when to step back in the lives of their children, how to lead without forcing, and when to follow silently, but protectively.

You are the Answer to all the mysteries of the universe – we try to seek Your truth, but know in our hearts that we are only worthy to glimpse a small piece of the world as You see it. Thank You for endowing mothers with that motherly 6th sense – to know when her child needs her, to know the answer to the question that cannot even be asked, to put aside her own feelings in a moment of her child’s need.

You are our God, but You are also the God of all Creation – even as we thank You for Jewish mothers and grandmothers throughout the ages, and apologize for the many jokes that have been told at their expense, we thank You as much or more for those mothers who are not yet Jewish, yet are raising our Jewish children and grandchildren with their love and Yours, to be the best Jews they can be.

And, God, with the care and compassion we have learned from You through our mothers and grandmothers, we ask you to keep faith with those for whom the words "Mothers' Day" are not the source of warm and fuzzy memories that they are for the rest of us.  Bring healing to those whose relationships with their mothers were dysfunctional or abusive -- rooted in something other than love.  Keep faith with those who yearn, but have been unable thus far, to become the mothers they dream of being.  Remember them as you remembered Sarah and Rachel.  And bring comfort, strength, and peace to those who continue to mourn the passing of their own child or grandchild.  Help us to recognize their needs on this day and support them as well.

On this special Shabbat, O God, we thank You for giving us mothers, even as we thank our mothers for helping to give us You. Bless them as You blessed our foremothers – Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel – with the grace of good humor, the wisdom and strength of tradition, with beauty inside and out. Amen

Monday, May 3, 2010

Zeicher tzaddiqim livracha

So, I just got back from the annual Faculty Retreat at Camp Harlam -- a great "perk" of being a faculty member at one of our outstanding URJ summer camp programs. A chance to escape, even if only for 24 hours, from the craziness of everyday life, and escape to the Poconos, to meet colleagues and friends old and new, and to put the next touches on what we will seek to do this summer. I was all excited to share enthusiasticly about this mini-vacation, until...

I came home and went online to catch up, and was confronted with the news of the deaths of not one, but 2 true g'dolim -- 2 men, each in very different ways, whose influence on me, and on literally a generation of Reform Jewish youth, was enormous. On Friday, God took Theodore Roosevelt Phelps Jr., better known as "Teddy," the truly larger than life cook at the URJ Kutz Camp for 21 years. And just this morning, our movement and our world lost Rabbi David Forman.

David -- please forgive the formality, but he was ALWAYS David to me, from the first day I met him -- was the most caring, compassionate, and ethical man I ever met. His love of Israel led him to make aliyah in the '70s -- his unshakable belief in doing the right thing and fighting for those who had no one else to fight for them allowed him to do so as a Reform Rabbi when there were virtually no other Reform Rabbis living in Israel, in the face of the truth that it was inconceivable that he would be recognized as a Rabbi or allowed to make a living as one once he got there. And then, with the help of his connections in NFTY -- not yet at that time the North American Federation of Temple Youth --, he actually found a job AS a Rabbi, working with NFTY's programs in Israel, and also with the myriad Reform Jewish college students and young adults who came to study in, visit, or live in Israel.

His social activism led him into a brief stint in politics, narrowly missing election to the Knesset as a leading member of Shulamit Aloni's moderate party seeking change in Israeli society. It also led him to found Rabbis for Human Rights, the religious (not Orthodox) group holding the Israeli government's feet to the fire in their treatment of Palestinians and all people. That faith and commitment to doing what was right in his eyes was not shaken -- not when he was wounded during the Lebanon invasion, not when terrorists nearly succeeded in blowing up his daughter's school.

I had the privilege of working with and learning from this dynamo during both my years of study in Israel. When Loren and I were honeymooning in Israel, she couldn't quite understand why I was dragging her to see the NFTY office while we were in Jerusalem -- until, that is, she met David there (which was my REAL purpose in taking her there in the first place).

I also had the privilege of introducing our congregation to Rabbi Forman a few years ago, and many of you quickly learned for yourselves why this man was a beloved teacher, mentor, and friend -- not only to me, but to so many others. His wife Judy, their four daughters, their husbands, and his grandchildren have suffered a painful loss. At a time when more people like him are so desperately needed, so has our world. As I said to my children as they comforted me as I read of his passing, I can only pray that they are so fortunate in their lives as to have a teacher and friend so caring and so honest as I did in David.

Teddy, on the other hand, even from his position in HIS kitchen (and anyone who was at Kutz in the 70s and 80s who didn't know that the kitchen WAS Teddy's soon learned the truth -- the hard way!) was a far different, but no less significant influence on our generation. Sure, anyone who had his chicken wings at an Oneg Shabbat, anyone who was ever fortunate enough to taste his challah (so good, that he would bake copious extra loaves every weekend and sell them for us all to take with us as we left for home, usually to pay for his next kitchen upgrade!) knows how talented the man was.

But even more than the kemach this giant of a man provided for our stomachs, he, as much as any Rabbi or teacher at Kutz ever did, taught all of us who were willing to learn the incredible life Torah of hard work and self discipline. It wasn't until several years after I had become a staff member on weekend events that I first saw Teddy OUTSIDE his kitchen -- because working 18-20 hour days was his norm. And God help the teen who didn't heed the rules, or thought they didn't apply to him -- Teddy would put that youngster in his place, in a way, and during a period, when few educators or other adults could expect to have that impact!

It was only in my later years at Kutz that I finally had the opportunity to get to know the man behind the mystique, and found the loving soul of a man who was deeply spiritual in his own way. That soul, kept hidden from far too many over the years, has now returned to its Maker. And Teddy, the man, even more than the icon, will be missed!