Pass the Ice Water, It’s Elul

If you are tied into social media, you are probably aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. It is a viral phenomenon in which people challenge each other to dump a bucket of ice water on their head, in the name of raising awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal degenerative disorder more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Its origins are unclear. According to what I could glean from Wikipedia, there were a series of videos of cold water challenges to raise money for charities, then at some point it got picked up and attached to ALS. It then continued to spread as celebrities, politicians and others got in on the act. The basic idea is this: one is challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water on one’s head or donate money to charity. Once one goes through with it and makes a public video, they can challenge others to do it as well and, in a version, those challenged have 24 hours to follow through.

While at one point it seemed that the water dumping was supposed to be a way of getting out of giving a donation, the challenge has changed and now it is to dump water and give money—it is a way of raising awareness and funds. And it has been very successful: The ALS Association raised over $40 million in July and August alone, which is almost double what it raised in all of last year.

And yes, I got in on the act. I was challenged to do it by Rabbi Cheski Edelman, our local Chabad rabbi. And I enlisted my boys to help me get a bit creative:

The Ice Bucket Challenge is not without its detractors. Some see it as a lazy form of engagement that doesn’t really engage one in the work for social change. Others see it as drawing attention away from other worthwhile causes. Some have more deeper issues with the challenge: that ALS research uses animal testing, or ALS research involves stem cell research, or that doing it in California is problematic because of the drought. Still others kvetch that while raising the money is good what we really need is government support and research grants.

I can’t deny that privately raised funds should go to augment publicly funded research and not replace it. And I recognize that there are philosophical and even theological reasons for shunning an ice water bath. But the criticisms that it is a lazy form of social action leave me cold.

The criticism strikes me as perhaps driven by envy. One of the interesting things about the internet and social media is that we never know what is going to go viral and what is not. (Like an actual virus, how it will spread, who will catch it, are difficult questions for which to anticipate answers.) The Ice Bucket Challenge happened to start out as a small thing, then happened to get connected to ALS, then happened to go viral. And because it went viral fundraising for ALS became tremendously successful. Sure there are other worthy causes. But in this case the stars aligned a particular way, and the result is that millions of dollars were raised for a disease that often goes overlooked. The ice bucket challenge may not have created world peace, but it did a world of good.

What struck me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the fact that what was going viral in this case was not a silly cat video, or a dance craze, but an act of tzedakah. Yes it was funny and fun, but ultimately it was a mitzvah—a sacred obligation and good deed—being passed along from person to person. A text in the ancient Jewish collection Pirke Avot, “Teachings of our Ancestors,” teaches mitzvah goreret mitzvah, or “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah,” i.e., engaging in one mitzvah conditions a person to engage in another, and then another. In this case, because of the challenge’s public nature, it’s not just the one person doing a mitzvah who is conditioned to do another, but one person conditions another person to do a mitzvah. The mitzvot grow exponentially. With the Ice Bucket Challenge, tzedakah grows exponentially.

This week we have just entered the month of Elul. Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, and so ushers in the High Holiday season. Once we reach Elul, we begin to do the spiritual work of the High Holidays: looking inward, noting where we have been on our journeys, and noting where we want to go. We acknowledge the missteps we took, we make amends when necessary and we make commitments to do better in the future. This is the work of teshuvah (repentance) that we are called upon to do at this season.

We do not do this work alone. Yes, we have our own individual atonement to make. But we are all doing this work at the same time, and so are joined together in common cause as a community of reflection.

So we can take a cue from the Ice Bucket Challenge. During the High Holiday season we publically declare our intention to improve ourselves and our world. One good deed can inspire others to do likewise. An act of teshuvah can also inspire another to do likewise. Teshuvah grows exponentially. No water required.

A Week at Camp

I just returned from a week serving on the faculty of URJ Camp Kalsman, a Jewish summer camp affiliated with the Reform movement up in Arlington, WA. This was my first time serving as faculty, though I have visited camp plenty of times as Yohanna has served on faculty in the past and both of my boys attend as campers. And TBH sends several kids to Camp Kalsman, in addition to Camp Solomon Schechter located in Tumwater.

It was a great week of fun and creativity. Four other rabbis were with me this same week, and we had a great time leading services, developing a creative Torah study, tutoring b’nai mitzvah students, telling stories, giving divrei Torah and just spending time with the kids. The week was doubly productive because during my down time I was able to do some reading, planning for the High Holidays and the year, and connecting with the other rabbis about ideas, issues and topics of mutual interest. (Unfortunately, the timing was such that I wasn’t able to get a column out last week! Apologies!)

The Jewish summer camp experience is such a wonderful opportunity. It provides kids (and the young-and not so young-adults who serve as counselors and staff) the chance to live in a completely immersive Jewish community where time is based around Jewish time, the schedule includes opportunity for song and prayer, the activities are infused with Jewish values and experiential Jewish learning is the framework. And those at camp get to develop connections and friendships with other Jews.

It is this last part perhaps which is the most valuable. For one, this is one of the few opportunities that these campers will be able to experience an environment in which they are not the minority, that their experience is the normative and they don’t have to make accommodations for living Jewishly.

Additionally, over the one, two or three weeks campers attend camp they build community based on shared values and mutual concern for one another. They learn to live with each other, share with each other, respect each other and support each other.

Camp fosters such an experience. It is why, as tensions flare up again in Israel/Palestine, that one of the things that gives me hope is Seeds of Peace, a summer camp that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youths for an opportunity to live together and learn from one another-simply to recognize the humanity of one another. The opportunities that camp creates are so vital to our society, not just internationally-as racial violence rears its ugly head once again in Ferguson, we are reminded that we so desperately need to find new ways of being in community and fellowship with one another.

I never went to Jewish summer camp growing up, though I did go to camp. I went to two different camps, first in Connecticut then in upstate New York, for 8 weeks over the summer starting when I was 10. (They were somewhat “Jewish” camps because most of the staff and campers were Jewish!) I can look back now and admit that I did not always have a great camp experience, primarily when I was younger. I was bullied, though we didn’t call it that then. And although my camp experience got better as I got older, that early experience still stays with me.

Camp Kalsman has everyone sign an anti-bullying pledge, and consciously addresses bullying in training the staff and in programs with the campers. It is in this way among others that camp not only has evolved and changed to meet changing norms, but that camp takes a very conscious effort to affirm the value of each individual and create a strong community at the same time.

I look forward to returning next year to again have the opportunity to do something that was so personally and professional enriching. And I hope those of you with kids of camp age consider sending your child to Jewish camp. Your child, the Jewish people and the world will be better for it.

Love and Spirit: Tu B’Av

While in February we tend to have a conversation as to whether Jews should celebrate Valentine’s Day, we may miss the fact that Judaism itself does have a day celebrating romantic love-Tu B’av, the fifteenth (“Tu” = 15) of the month of Av, which this year falls this week on August 11.

Tu B’Av is first mentioned in the Mishnah, tractate Ta’anit: “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What they were saying: Young man, consider who you choose (to be your wife).”

Later Talmudic interpretation would connect Tu B’Av to the grape harvest and other events, but it was the connection to this event of the matchmaking among the grapevines that gave the day its meaning of love and led to the development, especially in contemporary Israel, a holiday much like our Valentine’s Day.

The language of love is not unfamiliar to us as Jews. One of our central biblical commandments tells us to “Love our neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) The centerpiece of the liturgy, the Shema (also a biblical passage) says we must “love God with all our heart, with all our soul, will all our might.” This love speaks of the fidelity, trust and responsibility that comes from being in a covenantal relationship with each other and with God.

Which is not different than what we seek in our romantic relationships. When we find someone with whom we fall in love, we seek a connection that is founded upon fidelity, trust and mutual responsibility. The challenge has always been how we find and maintain these relationships.

love illuminatedI recently read a book called Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones, the editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. The column, which runs in the Sunday edition of the paper, features personal essays, reminisces and observations written by contributors about the many manifestations and challenges of love. Jones, having read nearly 50,000 submissions, sets out to analyze and break down what it means to find, nurture and keep love in our modern lives.

One observation Jones makes is that increasingly taboos and societal-imposed limits on who one can marry are dropping away (note the rate of Jewish intermarriage) while at the same time the internet is making the number of people one can meet much greater. And while this freedom to marry and large pool of potential mates makes finding a partner easier, Jones notes, it also increases the pressure on making the “right choice.”

What is interesting is the parallel to our spiritual lives.

Like in love, we are spiritual free agents today. Rather than just follow the practices of our upbringing, we seek our own connection and relationship with the divine. And much in the same way the internet has changed the way we meet people, so too has it changed how we learn, where we receive information, how we create spiritual community and how we form our identity. Like in love, this presents an opportunity and challenge-we have so many ways to make meaning, so how do we know which is the “right way”?

We each must find our own answer, but we again can take a cue from Jones’s book in which he writes, “love is for suckers, not for skeptics.” In other words, those who seek love need to be vulnerable, seeking, daring, diligent, self-limiting and self-critical. So too for those who seek meaning. Be open, and it will find you. Something to reflect on, and celebrate, this Tu B’Av.

We Acknowledge the Past, But Don’t Live There

This Tuesday coming up is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, a day of sorrow and commemoration for the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. There were two Temples, the first destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. Tradition teaches that both were destroyed on the same date.

These events were seen as highly traumatic for the Jewish people. With the destruction of the Temples Jewish sovereignty came to an end and the people were exiled as the central institutions of Jewish practice were abolished. Tisha B’Av is a day set aside for mourning these events, usually marked by fasting and the reading of the biblical book of Lamentations.

destruction of the templeWe still maintain the Temple as an important place in the religious imagination of Judaism. It is seen as the place where Israel and God were closest, and we turn to face its location during our prayer services. Yet Judaism has changed and evolved away from Temple practice It was out of these ashes that the Talmud was born and Judaism as we know it—as opposed to one centered around the Temple-based sacrificial system—was developed. We therefore approach the destruction with mixed emotions: we mourn for its loss and the trauma that brought, while at the same time we don’t hope for its actual rebuilding.

We look back and acknowledge the past, while at the same time recognize how that past brought us to where we are today. There is a wonderful story from the Talmud (Baba Bathra 60b) about the aftermath of the destruction:

It was taught: when the Temple was destroyed, large numbers of Jews became ascetics, not eating meat or drinking wine. Rabbi Joshua asked them, “why do you not eat meat or drink wine?”

“They replied, ‘how can we eat meat, when we used to bring meat as an offering on the altar which is now destroyed? And how can we drink wine, which was poured out as an offering, when we no longer do that.”

Rabbi Joshua said, “in that case you shouldn’t eat bread, since we used to offer meal offerings and don’t any more.”

“You are right,” they said. “In that case we will manage with just fruit.”

“But you shouldn’t eat fruit, because we used to offer the first fruits of the harvest at the Temple, and we don’t do that anymore.”

“Ok, well, we can manage with different fruits.”

“And,” Rabbi Joshua said, “we should not drink water, because of the ritual of water pouring that was practiced in the Temple.”

With that, the people were silent.

Joshua said, “You are right to mourn, it is necessary to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But to mourn too much is also also impossible, for it is too much to bear.”

Afterwards the rabbis made a rule: When a person builds a house, he should leave one corner unfinished, in memory of the Temple. If a person is preparing a meal, he should leave out one small ingredient, in memory of the Temple.

[This idea is also the source of the custom of breaking a glass at the end of a wedding—we take a happy event and add a bit of sadness.]

What this story teaches is that first and foremost we are survivors. When we experience destruction or loss, it is not that we must become ascetics and give up our lives as we know it. Rather we must continue to build houses and hold feasts. We must continue to enjoy meat and wine, bread and fruit and water.

At the same time, we acknowledge the losses of the past and how they impact how are lives are lived now. They are very real, and not to be ignored.

Taken together, what the Talmud is teaching us is, while we must acknowledge our pasts, we can not live in them. Indeed, all of our experiences make us who we are today, so while we take the time and space to mourn our personal losses destructions, we also acknowledge who we have become because of those losses and destructions. Those difficult aspects of our past have some redemption in the fact that they have brought us to who we are in the present.

This Tisha B’Av, we acknowledge the past hurts and destructions in our lives. And we celebrate our ability to rise out of those ashes and begin anew.

Only Prayers

There is an interesting passage in this week’s Torah portion, Mattot. We are coming to the end of the book of Numbers in our weekly Torah reading cycle, and the Israelites are poised on the eastern side of the Jordan river ready to enter into the promised land. Their years of wandering are over, they have come almost to the end of their journey. (Deutoronomy is essentially one long speech of Moses, in the narrative the Israelites stay put.)

At the end of this week’s reading, the heads of the tribe of Gad and Reuben come to Moses and the other leaders of the community with a request. They are cattle ranchers, and they noticed that the land they have just come to settle in, on the eastern side of the Jordan, is perfect for cattle raising. Is it possible, they ask, to be assigned this portion of the land as their territory? In other words, could they stay on this side of the Jordan and not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Israelites?

Moses considers this request and agrees on one condition: they first enter into the land with the rest of the Israelites, and once the land is settled they can return to the other side of the river and settle there.

On the one hand, an anthropological reading of the text can say that this story comes to fill in the back story as to how certain tribes wound up living where they did, especially that certain tribes are outside the land that was talked about in the text.

Reading this story now symbolically, two things come to mind: The Gadites and the Reubenites were part of the larger community of Israelites, and even though they wanted to live in a geographically distinct area away from the Israelites, they needed to still be mindful that they are part of a larger whole, and they needed to support the other tribes. Or, in other words, single communities separated by geography need to support one another. This motivation is what perhaps drives our connection to Israel-we are geographically distinct yet feel a bond through our membership in the Jewish people. And this is why the pain over what Israel experiences and what Israel does is that much more acute.

The evil dark side is that Jews everywhere are being held responsible by others for what is happening right now. John Lloyd, writing in Reuters, notes:

…There’s a very large, and often very rich, Russian community in London – and there are no attacks on Russians or their mansions, restaurants or churches because of the Russian seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of uprisings in eastern Ukraine.

People from Sri Lanka didn’t live in fear when their government was pounding the Tamil Tigers into submission, with thousands of deaths. Chinese visitors are undisturbed by reaction to their government’s suppression of dissent in Tibet and its jailing of dissidents. And quite right, too. Who knows what Russians, Sri Lankans or Chinese abroad think about their governments’ actions?

Jews, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews in Western democratic countries for Israeli actions. That’s all Jews, whatever their views on the Israeli response to the rockets fired on Israel from Gaza. Sometimes, the reaction goes much further than disapproval.

Lloyd notes the increase in seemingly unchecked anti-Semitism, including riots and a fire-bombing of a synagogue in France. This has been just as horrifying to watch as what is happening in Israel and something we can not take lightly.

A second understanding of the Torah story this week  is that sometimes separation is what is necessary in order to move forward, and that an original vision sometimes needs to be amended. In the Torah the original vision of all the tribes living together in the land needed to be changed to allow for the fulfillment of the request of the Gadites and the Reubenites. But this was perhaps a necessary step for the Israelites to continue.

Etgar Karet, a noted Israeli author, wrote a powerful op-ed about “peace.” That word is probably doing more harm than good he writes, because it take the human actors out of the mix. Reflecting on both an interview he conducted with Prime Minister Netanyahu and on his son’s second grade class, he writes,

It turned out that Netanyahu, a courageous former officer in an elite combat unit who had faced impossible odds in battle, thinks like my son and his classmates do when it comes to peace. I don’t want to spoil the mood of my prime minister or a class of second-grade kids, but I have a strong gut feeling that God won’t be giving us peace any time soon; we’re going to have to make an effort to achieve it on our own. And if we succeed, neither we nor the Palestinians will receive it free of charge.

Peace, by definition, is compromise between sides, and in that kind of compromise, each side has to pay a genuine, heavy price, not just in territories or money but also in a true change of worldview.

That’s why the first step might be to stop using the debilitating word “peace,” which has long since taken on transcendental and messianic meanings in both the political left and right wings, and replace it immediately with the word “compromise.” It might be a less rousing word, but at least it reminds us that the solution we are so eager for can’t be found in our prayers to God but in our insistence on a grueling, not always perfect dialogue with the other side.

True, it’s more difficult to write songs about compromise, especially the kind my son and other kids can sing in their angelic voices. And it doesn’t have the same cool look on T-shirts. But in contrast to the lovely word that demands nothing of the person saying it, the word “compromise” insists on the same preconditions from all those who use it: They must first agree to concessions, maybe even more – they must be willing to accept the assumption that beyond the just and absolute truth they believe in, another truth may exist. And in the racist and violent part of the world I live in, that’s nothing to scoff at.

These words are very powerful. It strikes me that this conflict is one that is being waged by those on both sides who have a greater-almost messianic-vision of how things should be. These visions will only perpetuate conflict and not bring about a resolution. “Compromise” is a better word than peace since it is more realistic and descriptive of what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that people need to give up the visions of what they think things should be, and instead see where they can compromise and give up and separate from, in order to move forward.

How we get there, I don’t know. But here is one thing.

In Israel and all across the world this past Tuesday Jews and Muslims were getting together to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan and the Jewish fast of the 17th of Tammuz. The joint fasts were to be seen as “hunger strikes” against violence and as prayers for life and peace. The initial effort was organized by a colleague of mine from Rabbis Without Borders who lives in Israel.

We didn’t have a big event here in Olympia, but I did head over to the mosque at the end of the day to join in prayers and iftar, the breaking of the fast. It was a small scale opportunity to share an experience and join together in common cause and friendship.

I don’t normally fast on the 17th of Tammuz. It is a minor fast day, and there are even some authorities who say that in times of peace and security the fast will be optional. That is definitely not the case this year, and with the added kavannah (intention) mentioned above, I took on the fast this year.

It was truly a compelling experience. In another sphere of my rabbinic life and learning these days I have been reflecting on the nature of prayer. I will be sharing more on that later, but for now I can say that the fast itself-which unlike Yom Kippur we undertake while we go about our normal daily business-was a type of prayer. A continuous beseeching of God throughout the day.

What was my prayer?

Please, God, let us

End the violence

Be kept from hatred and scorn

Stop creating false divisions

Learn to know when we need to pull back and compromise

See the death of all children as a fundamental tragedy

Deeply hear and understand each other’s narrative.

There is more to pray for I know. But for now, I’ll just leave it at that.


Peace Fast

My heart has been heavy this past week reading the news coming out of the Middle East.

Beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli yeshiva students, followed by the horrendous revenge killing of an even younger Palestinian boy, we are witnessing a deepening round of violence. As rockets land in Israel and airstrikes hit Gaza, a cease-fire is broken and we have spiraled into another round of violence. Extremism and violence has once again won the day.

While there are moments of hope and light-the families of the IsraeIi and Palestinian youths have reached out to eachother and both publically denounced the violence and hatred which led to the death of their children-that is overshadowed by the darkness. I grieve for the loss of life, the fear which grips all who live there and the zealotry that has led to this result.

I chose that last term purposefully because it brings to mind this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. We are reading this week in our Torah reading cycle in the book of Numbers. Our portion actually picks up in the middle of a story begun last week: The Israelites while wandering in the desert began to associate with (and have sexual relations with) the Moabites. This then led the Israelites adopting the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed at this sinful behavior, and orders Moses to carry out a punishment.

Just then an Israelite takes a Midianite woman and has sex with her in the Tent of Meeting, in the sacred central gathering space. Pinchas, a priest, takes a spear, goes in after them and kills them both by impaling them with the spear through both of their torsos. With that act a plague, which we can assume was a punishment for the previous idolatrous behavior, ends. And at that, last week’s portion Balak ends.

It is a bit of a cliffhanger. While we know the plague ends, what of Pinchas? Is there any more fallout from his act? This week’s portion opens with God offering Pinchas a blessing, recognizing that it was Pinchas’ action which ended the punishment. God offers Pinchas and his descendants a place in the priesthood and a brit shalom, a pact of peace. The Torah appears to condone his act.

The term zealot because that is the term usually invoked to describe Pinchas and his act. Pinchas was a zealot, who in his passion and zeal kills two people in the name of God. Is Pinchas rewarded for his act of zealotry? Is the Torah telling us that violence in the name of God is a good thing?

Its not quite clear. What is a brit shalom? What is a “pact” or “covenant” of shalom? One way of understanding this-an as some translations bear out-is God is making a special relationship with Pinchas, a “pact of friendship” in which, presumably, God has Pinchas’ back since Pinchas had God’s.

But why would God offer a pact of shalom? Maybe this is not so much a reward for Pinchas’ behavior as a check on it.

A colleague of mine from the CLAL Rabbis Without Borders program, Rav Hanan Schlesinger, writes,

Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.

God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence. The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective.

Another way of looking at this is that blessing one who demonstrated anger and violence with “peace” can be understood as disapproval-Pinchas needs more shalom in his temperament for his natural inclination is to act violently. Pinchas in his extremism demonstrated the opposite of shalom, so God blesses him with it.

A hint at this meaning is found in the text itself. Based on an early medieval tradition, in the Torah scroll, the vav in the word shalom is written broken:

Here too is a criticism of Pinchas. As one Torah scribe put it, the authors of the scroll “must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas’ action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.” (Thanks to Toby Shulruff for this cite.) Or maybe another way to put it is to say that Pinchas, through his act of violence, is broken or scarred.

Peace brought by violence is broken. Zealous behavior leaves physical and emotional scars. Revenge is not the way. Acts of zealotry is driving this conflict. Acts of compassion and control can hopefully end it.

This upcoming week, on Tuesday, is the 17th of Tammuz. In our tradition it is a fast day, a day of mourning, remembering the time the Babylonians breached the wall of Jerusalem during their conquest in the 6th century BCE. The day ushers in a period known as “The Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av-the Ninth of Av-a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple.

The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, both in the technical sense of being a sunrise to sundown fast (as opposed to a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur), but also in the sense that it is not widely observed outside of traditional circles. Maybe this is the year to make an exception.

Noting that we are also in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month marked by day-long fasting, Rabbi Schlesinger (an Orthodox rabbi) is part of an effort to make this Tuesday a joint day of fasting-for peace and non-violence. Rabbi Arthur Waskowalso notes such a project. By using the fast day to focus our spiritual energy in this way, then perhaps it can be the “brit shalom” that is so desperately needed right now.

This Tuesday we can fast for peace. So we can hopefully have peace fast.