Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Last Friday I went early to my bakery here in Yerushalayim to buy my challot for Shabbat. That morning, as is the case most Fridays, I am of the first customers of the day. The man behind the counter, a Jew in his early 70's with a round face and a Yiddish background, is a most jovial soul. He greets me with enthusiasm despite the early hour. He never fails to share a kibbitz and a warm Gut Shabbos when I check out. This past week I told him how much I appreciated his warmth. I told him that even were the challot not so good it would be worth buying them here for the spirit of Shabbat he imparts with each sale. And then something surprising happened. The smile in his eyes disappeared and his face turned somber. He said to me "Why do you think I greet each customer with so much warmth and joy? It's because if I would not I would break up." And then,with a sigh as he began to tear, he went on, "In another week will be my son's yahrzeit...what choice do I have." I do not know the man's name. I do not know the details of his story. But in that brief moment as I checked out with my Shabbat challot we shared an intimacy deep and compelling. We met for a moment in what Buber would call an I-Thou encounter. I felt his sadness and he felt my care. We were for a brief moment, one. And when I left, I took more than the challot with ,me. I carried his grief.

In the second of the parshiyot of this week, Kedoshim, we read of the mitzvah "V'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha", "Love thy neighbor as thy self". No mitzvah is more central to Judaism than this one.In fact Rabbi Akiva said of this imperative "This is the great principle of the Torah".Typically we will assume the mitzvah to love our neighbor challenges us as to action, what we need do to enhance another's circumstances. Often we miss the point that the imperative to love another is as much manifest in how we do something as in what we do.
Love calls for engagement. It demands intimacy in the encounter.

Buber called the encounter where two persons rendezvous from the essence of their beings "meeting". In meeting I and the person I am relating too are fully present to each other. We are not hiding ourselves in our actions. I am not doing for you or you for me so we don't really have to be with each other, as is sadly so often the case. No, I am doing for you so as to be with you. The action is a way to manifest my presence to you and you to me, not a means to avoid the awkwardness and discomfort of presence.

You say you don't know what I mean. Let me give an example, one of which I am most familiar. A man lays sick in a hospital ward. His situation is grave, the outcome uncertain. His wife and/or children are busy running around his room doing anything and everything to aid him in his circumstances. To the observer it appears they are showing love. After all they seem tireless in their resolve to lessen their husband and/or father's distress. Yet lets look at the situation a bit closer. The man in the bed is sufferring. Illness robs a person of his/her esteem and sense of value.Moreover in many situations a person is fearful and anxious about the future. What does a person need in those times of duress more than the compassionate word, the chance to share worries, the opportunity to feel accepted in their state of debility, to know they are not just patients to be cared for but persons of value even while compromised.What are the wife and children doing in our example? With all the efforts they are making to 'help' they are in fact, perhaps unconsciously, running away from the intimacy the sick man most needs to find comfort. They are too fearful to stop, fearful of the silence, fearful of the intimacy of the 'meeting' with their husband and father. All their actions at the core are designed for avoidance. And the message the sick one takes in, at the unconscious level if not consciously, is that "I am not okay...My situation is too difficult to even talk about."

Over and over again we make the mistake in our lives of loving another by doing for them rather than being with them.
To love our neighbor as ourselves requires we risk investing our self in the moment with another and being behind our eyes.

I have a pet peeve in this regard. Like you, I am greeted many times over the course of a Shabbat with a "Shabbat Shalom" or a "Gut Shabbos". At one level receiving the blessing from another is a wonderful gift and affirmation. It makes me feel good about myself. I feel I belong. I have community. Yet all too often the person extending the Shabbat blessing is, at the very same time he is speaking the words and shaking my hand, looking away, perhaps at someone behind me yet to be greeted or to the place s/he is headed towards. The loving act of extending a Shabbat blessing then feels like a dis rather than an affirmation. I feel invisible, as if I don't matter enough to be with me even in these few seconds of greeting. The content of the blessing, a sign of respect, is in direct contradiction to the context in which it is given, a context which fosters a sense of diminishment.

How we do for another matters as much as what we do.To love our neighbor as our self we need to give our selves as much as we give our resources to them. We need to focus on context as much as content.We need to be present, fully present, to the ones we care for and to each other!

Was it Woody Allen who said, "80% of success is showing up?" We might paraphrase and say, "80%of loving is being present!"

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reflections on Yom Hashoa

Today is Yom Hashoa. Last night I attended the ceremonies commemorating the day at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. As I sat in the cold with the few thousand others gathered at that venerable site I noticed the incredible diversity of the assembeled.
People came from everywhere. Most were Jewish, many not. They were old and young.
Religious and secular. They spoke a myriad of languages. Their lives and interests were as diverse as their family names inscribed on the passes they wore around their neck. Yet on this night we were one. What divided us was insignificant relative to the grief shared and the memories cherished of a generation lost to the ashes of the Shoah.

Only an event like Yom Hashoa ceremonies could bring this group together. Only the death of so many so tragically could foster a bond between we who survive.

I recall a film by Elie Weisel called "Jerusalem" in which he talked about his experience coming to Auschwitz as a boy with his father during this awful time.
He remembered getting off the transport with so many Jews and enterring the gates of hell. Only he didn't realize it was hell. On the contrary, he remembered all the stories he had heard as a boy of Jerusalem and of the ingathering to come in Messianic times. He had heard that to Jerusalem would come Jews of all varieties, modern and traditional, religious and secular, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, young and old, and from all the countries speaking all the languages. As he first came to Auschwitz and saw the diversity of Jews streaming through the gates Weisel wondered "Could this be Jerusalem? Is this the Messianic ingathering?"

Sadly, oh so sadly, he would quickly learn that, contrary to the signs before him, Auschwitz was the anti-Jerusalem. Yes, this was an ingathering...but an ingathering to hell not to the heaven on earth of the days of Mashiach.

As I sat in sadness last night at Yad Vashem I realized that Weisel's vision was not so distorted after-all. What he saw in the unity amidst diversity at Auschwitz was anything but the Ingathering. Yet here in Jerusalem, the real Jerusalem, some 70 years after we do mark an ingathering, at least for this one night. We mark an ingathering to remember, mourn and pay tribute, an ingathering that only became possible out of the shadows of Auschwitz.

The Holocaust is perhaps the only unifying event for Jews and most non Jews and for Jews of all expressions. Once Israel, our homeland had that effect. Now, unfortunately, Israel and feelings about her cause as much friction as unity.
Only the Holocaust and the feelings it engenders in all good people bring about a sense of community. In ths strangest of ways, the singular event most sad and horrific in our national history, in its aftermath offers us a whif of what the Messianic times, where all peoples live as one with their diversity, might look like.

Yom Hashoa offers us the hope that a world in which men and women live together in a community of the caring is yet possible.

One night does not a season make, much less an era. But it does show us what is possible. If, if only we could focus on what unites us as Jews and as good people everywhere, and not on the things that divide us.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Need to Have

One of my favorite stories is told of Rebbe Zusya of Annipoli. Zusya was known to have had a life full of suffering and poverty. He was burdened with countless miseries.
He was often asked "How can you thank G-d each day? What about your suffering?"
"My sufferring?"Zusya asked amazed. "Who is sufferring? Not I. I am happy. Zusya is happy to live in the world G-d, blessed be He created. Zusya lacks nothing, needs nothing. Everything he wants, Zusya has, and his heart is filled with gratitude".
Zusya did not even understand the question.

We are on the threshhold of Pesach. We are about to usher in the holiday of our national becoming. What lesson will you take with you into the festival? What lesson do you need to hear?
May I humbly offer the one I will take with me this year.

I am struck by the obvious. In Torah terms this holiday is called "Chag Hamatzot".
The matzah is not only the mitzva of the yom tov. It is the symbol, important enough to give the festival it's name. Yet the matzah presents us an enigmatic message. On one level matzah is the bread our ancestors ate as they left Egypt, even as the Torah tells us that the Israelites left in a hurry and had no time to let the dough rise. While they surely would have preferred bread,circumstances required they make due with the matzah. It was this matzah, the unwanted bread, that became identified with the liberation and became its symbol.

At another level, in the Hagadah we refer to the matzah as the "poor bread which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt". The matzah then was the bread we would have found on the tables of our parents at dinner time in Egypt, in the house of slaves!

How can it be that the same food can be both symbolic of freedom and of slavery?
The message of the matzah seems contradictory.

I believe the message here is most profound. When the Israelites left Egypt no doubt they wanted to make changes, to live more like free men and women. They wanted to finally be able to bake real bread and experience the 'luxory' reserved for those who lived liberated lives. The last thing they wanted was to eat once more the bread of slavery, the poor bread, the matzah. But G-d in His wisdom thought otherwise. And while our parents had hoped to eat the more tasty and upscale bread, they had no time to wait to let the dough rise, and so once again they were to eat the bread they knew so well, the bread they ate as slaves.

What lesson were the People to learn from this? What important value was meant to be imparted to a nation just emerging?

The People were being taught that "things" do not make you free. From the outset G-d was telling them, by dint of their situation, that the bread you eat will never be the marker of the quality of your life. Who you are, what you are, will not be experienced through indulgence, no matter how luxurious or substantial. G-d was telling the Israelites "You can eat the same bread you ate in Egypt as slaves and be every bit as free, maybe more so, than if you ate the bread of kings."

Freedom is not about having. It is about not needing to have! With all his misery and deprivation Zusya was free. He was happy. He did not need to have!
We, with all our posessions and bounty, are enslaved and all too often depressed.
And why? because we need to have. It is not this gadget or that gadget we need. It is not this house or that house we need. It is not this car or that vacation. It is not the thing we need. We simply need to have! We are driven to acquire as if having will set us free or make us whole and happy.

The message of the matzah is indeed a message of freedom. We are being told that if we want to be free and happy we need to break our dependency on having. We need to have less, not more. Matzah is less than chametz. The Hebrew word for both has nearly the same letters. It's only a difference between a 'chet' and a 'heh that separates them. In written Hebrew that is the difference of but half a line stroke.
On Passover that small difference makes one cherished as the celebrated ritual of the holiday and the other reviled to the point that we irradicate it from the home.

It is not that regular bread is bad. On the contrary, bread is also the challah we eat on Shabbat. Bread is the staple of the meal. We make our blessings over bread. No, it is not the bread that is the problem. It is our need to have that is bad! And on Pesach that is symbolized by the bread our ancestors wanted to bake as they left Egypt. They wanted to have. They saw having as the indicator of freedom. On Passover, on this festival of our national becoming, we affirm that who and what we are will never be defined by what we have.

We eat matzah. We remove the bread. We say thereby that yes it's wonderful to enjoy G-d's world with all it's bounty but we must never make the quality of our life dependent on having. Enjoy, yes...need to have, no!

I can not think of a more important message for the times in which we live. Our lives are endless pursuits of having. It does not matter what. We simply need to have. We buy to buy.We spend to spend. And, in the end, we waste so much of our lives in trying to make the means to support our need to have.

What we fail to understand is that freedom is not about getting what we do not yet have. Happiness is not about acquiring. Freedom is about getting rid of the need to have. And happiness is the joy of experiencing what is already ours!

I hope you have a happy and meaningful Pesach with the ones you love!

Chag Kasher V'samayach

Remember "The Torah and the Self" the book. It can be bought online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also order a copy by contacting me directly through my email