Tuesday, March 23, 2010

To Life, To Life L’chaim

I stayed up late the other night to watch the US House of Representatives’ historic vote to bring health care to all citizens. I kept thinking, as the votes were counted, that it is about time that the United States joined the rest of the civilized world in providing affordable health care to all. It was quite a political/historical moment. Usually I don’t like to comment on political issues. There are many people who are paid lots of money to speak intelligently on political issues. I am a pulpit Rabbi and my main concern is the well being of the members of my congregation. So my political opinions are all my own and subject to change when I have the chance to do some more research on the facts.

But Health Care is not just a political issue, it is also a moral issue. Judaism has had a long standing concern for the most vulnerable in society. The poor and oppressed have, since the time of the Torah, been singled out as needed to be defended by those in power in society. The list from the Torah is long. We are forbidden to oppress the orphan and widow. We have to let a slave go free if we injure his body. When we free a slave, we have to make sure that he has what he needs to start life over. We need to set aside the corners of our fields to be reaped by the poor. If we drop something while we are harvesting, it is left for the poor to glean. Land can’t be sold forever; it must return to its original owners at the beginning of the Jubilee year. Indentured servants are freed every seven years. There is a tithe that is set aside for the Levites and for the poor. We are commanded to lend without interest, cancel those debts in the sabbatical year and not refrain from lending when the sabbatical year is pending. This is not an exhaustive list but it is still impressive.

The Talmud even tries to legislate exactly how much we should invest in charity depending on if we want to be stingy, moderate or generous. One should not give too much or too little. It was forbidden to live in a city that did not have a community fund for the poor, a soup kitchen and a doctor among other necessities. All of this points to a social need to care for those who were at the bottom of society. To bury the indigent, to provide for poor brides, to care for the elderly, all of these were an essential part of communal responsibilities.

What we have here is Judaism trying to adjust capitalism to be fair to all those in society. It is one thing when society encourages and promotes those who work hard and earn a living. If one works hard enough and is smart, one could also become quite wealthy. Acquiring wealth is the main goal of a capitalistic economy. Judaism is not comfortable with the reality however, that while some people will rise to the top, there will also be those who sink to the bottom. Therefore, Judaism teaches that we have responsibilities to those who have not succeeded. Rambam declares that there are eight different levels of support for those who are in need. Some levels speak to the motivations of the giver. Some protect the dignity of the poor. The highest level is to help a person get back to work so that they can, eventually, support themselves and their families and no longer be in need of support.

Health Care is a part of this system. Since it is well known that health issues can bring an individual and a family to poverty, we have an interest in preventing this kind of poverty. Since the poor get sick and don’t have the means to visit a doctor, there is a potential that serious disease could be spread throughout the community. We are not permitted to do something that could endanger life, and health care is one way we prevent loss of life. Remember also, it is forbidden to live in a town that does not have a doctor. It is not a stretch to say that if the health care is not affordable, then what use is the doctor to the poor in the town?

There is a story of the “good citizens of Chelm” who had a dangerous road leading to the city and people would fall off the cliff and get hurt. After deliberations the citizens of Chelm decided to build a hospital at the base of the cliff. While building a hospital in that location could certainly save lives, how many more lives could be saved by investing in a proper “guard rail” at the edge of the road? When I heard so many representatives, opposed to health care crying out that government was interfering in people’s lives, I thought of that guard rail. It was as if they were saying: “Why should we interfere with people who are not careful on the road? What right do we have to declare that one stretch of road is dangerous and another is not?” Yet, Judaism insists that we have a moral responsibility to look out for each other, by building guardrails, promoting preventative medicine and by providing, for everyone, affordable health care. What good is Medicaid if it does not prevent families from having to lose virtually all their savings and resources before they can access health care? Real health care is care that applies to all members of society according to their ability to pay.

The free market philosophy is that, over time, the best services at the best prices will become available to everyone in society. The problem is that this philosophy can only work if all the service providers are committed to offering the best service at the best price. To prevent collusion between providers and to prevent agreements that subvert the free market to the benefit of the service providers, government needs to step in and foil those who would attempt to profit from the system in a corrupt way by creating an unfair advantage. We have seen how insurance companies all too often, move to protect their own interests rather than the health needs of the community. We hear stories of the abuses; the cancelled policies, the refused coverage, the exorbitant renewal premiums that make sure that those who are well, can get affordable coverage, but if one should have a condition that makes it impossible to get a new policy, the rates are adjusted to be so high that the policy becomes unaffordable and the sick must go without coverage. Regulation of insurance companies will guarantee that the best coverage will be offered at the best price and consumers will not be afraid to access their coverage due to fear of sudden cancellation.

I am sure that there will be many unscrupulous people who will try and defraud this new system as they have done with Medicare and Medicaid. I am sure that there will be provisions that will need to be adjusted, added or repealed. We are imperfect human beings and our ability to evade the law is great if we have the desire to do so. I have no doubt that we will be making changes in this Health Program for many years to come.

I can’t speak about if the Health Plan approved the other night will pay for itself. If it will or will not reduce the federal deficit. Whether or not it is good for the states that must provide the pooled coverage. Whether or not it will promote or kill jobs, or whether or not it will harm the economy. I will leave those questions to those who study this bill. I only know that we have a moral responsibility to see to it that every member of society has appropriate access to health care, so we all are able to live not only productive lives, but healthy lives as well.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show

Parshat Ki Tissa

Shabbat Shalom

This Shabbat we have read about the lowest moment in the history of our people in the wilderness. The people, anxious that Moses has been on the mountaintop so long, begin to fear that he has died and there is no one to lead them to the Promised Land. They have no leader and without Moses, who will bring to them the world of God? Our people were frightened and feeling alone.

So they start to demand a God that they can see. After all, Moses was their only link to the invisible God and now Moses is gone. Every other nation had a god or multiple gods that could be seen and worshipped directly. Can we really blame them for wanting a golden calf? Some scholars claim that the calf was really not a god at all; the calf was merely the pedestal upon which God would stand. God was invisible, riding on the back of the calf but the calf gave the Israelites a place to direct their prayers.

Others blame God for the golden calf. After all, God has left Israel in Egypt for hundreds of years. All their experience with religion had been in Egypt where there was a god for everything and the gods were larger than life. Some Sages claim it is like a parent that sets his son up in the hair styling business and puts the shop in a part of town where all the vain and shallow people congregate. Then the parent is shocked that his son has become vain and shallow. “Don’t blame your son,” the friends of the father say, “after all, you set him up in a bad part of town.” So too, it is God’s fault that Israel strayed, after all, God sent them to live among the Egyptians! Do you ever notice how when children get in trouble, they always find a way to blame the parent!

The details of the story focus on the sin of the people for demanding a god they could see. I look at these passages and understand that the people have a serious concern and there are no really good answers to their problems. Moses seems to have vanished. The people are lost and afraid. A god they can see would be their “security blanket”, to help them feel the closeness of God. The golden calf was an object they could point to, admire and direct their anxiety toward. I guess there is a bit of Aaron, Moses’ brother in me. I can’t help feeling sorry for the people. After all, could we honestly say that if we were in the same circumstances, we would have done better?

It is true that we don’t fashion gods out of gold anymore. But we do put our trust in lots of things that clearly are not God. We put our trust in our possessions, that they will protect us from hard times. We trust that our investments will be there to pay for our retirement and then are horrified to find out that when the economy takes a dive, that our investments are unreliable. And apparently we could not trust those who were supposed to prevent the misuse of our retirement funds, they too were fallible and could not prevent either Bernie Madoff or the financial crisis. Do we rely on our Doctors and Lawyers and Politicians to save us from tragedy? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. People used to rely on Insurance to protect them from tragedy, but today we know that sometimes it is very hard to get an insurance company to pay what they owe us.

We also all have our superstitions that we rely upon to protect us. The lucky charm that we take with us when we leave our homes. The mezuzah that we think will protect us at home and the Jewish jewelry that somehow brings us under God’s protecting wings. Dare we ask ourselves what we are really expecting to happen when we stand up and add our friends’ and loved ones’ names to the Mishebayrach for the sick? Is kissing the Torah s sign of respect or do we expect good luck? What about if we kiss the Rabbi? (No, that would be a bad idea. Way too many germs out there.) We may know that there is a God that we cannot see, but we rely all too often on things we can see to save us from the dark forces that surround us.

So then, what SHOULD we do to face the future with confidence and certainty? If Judaism, if God, knows that we are insecure human beings, what does our religion and our faith have to teach us about where we should look if we seek to find God?

The first place we should look if we seek the image of God is in the face of the people around us. Not just those who sit around us in synagogue, but those among whom we live, work, eat and play. Each human being is unique from each other, but all of us are created in the image of God. It is not in our differences that God can be found, rather, God is found in the core parts of each and every one of us, deep inside where we are all the same. I am not talking about raising up one person to the level of God; I am talking about finding that spark of the divine that exists in every person, old and young, male and female, religious and secular, Democrat or Republican, black, white, red or yellow, rich or poor.

I think Moses, when all was said and done, understood the fear and anxiety in the people. When he returns to the mountain, he too is unsure and insecure. Did he do the right thing in punishing the people? How could he blame them for their sin if they really did not understand the full meaning of a God that sees but cannot be seen? He needs God to forgive the people but this is the God who destroyed the world with a flood, and overthrew the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. What would prevent God from destroying the Israelites for this grave and serious breach of the new Jewish law? Moses does not know what to say to God about the people and he is unsure himself about the nature of this God, who saved Israel from Egyptian slavery, but demands complete and perfect loyalty. Moses returns to the mountain and returns to God with one request, to see the “presence of God”. What Moses actually sees is the subject of Jewish mystical literature. I am only concerned with what Moses hears.

He hears that famous passage :
וַיַּעֲבֹר ‘ה עַל-פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא ‘ה ‘ה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin:”

When Moses hears this he understands that God has forgiven the people, because the essence of God is forgiveness. If we are to understand that human beings are created in the image of God, then we must also understand that these qualities of God are the qualities that we too must cultivate if we are to discover the nature of God’s essence.

When we are gracious and full of compassion, we can see the point of view of others easily and can work to ease their discomfort and to calm their souls. When we do, we can “see” the image of God at work. When we are slow to anger and when we fill our hearts with abundant kindness, we are bringing the presence of God into the world. When kindness leads us to forgiveness of even the most dark sins, we can easily experience the divine in ourselves and in others. When we bring these qualities of God down to earth, we are creating the foundation so that together we can move forward. Life is no longer stuck in the present or in the past. When we bring God into the world, we also make possible the future.

A Hasidic Rabbi once offered this prayer to his students, “if you can treat every person next to you as if he were the messiah, waiting for just one more act of kindness so that his presence can be revealed and the world redeemed, if you can treat that person to every act of kindness, then even if that person is NOT the messiah, it will not matter.”

We bring God into the world when we reach out our hands to those who are in need, both Jews and non-Jew, no matter if they are in Delray Beach, the United States, Chile, Taiwan or Haiti. When we hear of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis or fire and we open our hearts, our hands, our homes and our wallets to those who are alone, afraid and suffering, we are bringing God into the world, and making the presence of God into a reality. When we visit someone who is sick, comfort someone who is bereaved, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, stand up for the oppressed and clothe the naked, we have created the image in which we can focus our prayers and our eyes.

The golden calf should never be worshipped; we should instead worship the golden heart. We should not berate others for not being pious enough, rather we should aspire to live the kind of life that we would like to see in others, and then shower all those around us with the kindness and concern that will make others sure that if they too seek God’s presence, they only need to emulate your actions and open their hearts to others. We need to be less judgmental, and more forgiving. We need to be less impatient and slower to anger. We need to be less strict with the law and more merciful in our dealings with others. And above all we must be kind.

When we feel alone in the wilderness, when we feel anxious about life and insecure about what the future holds for us, when we find ourselves looking for a Moses to lead us out of the wilderness and into the promised land, we need look no further than our own hands and our own hearts to unlock the secret of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. God is not on the mountain top where we must climb to find God. And God is not across the sea that we must sail far and wide to find God. And God is not deep within the earth requiring our strength and stamina to find God. God is in every meaningful relationship. God is found whenever we open our hearts and God is close at hand whenever we turn to our neighbor in compassion and kindness.

May we all find God today and every day, in our actions and in our hearts as we say…


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Chantilly Lace

Parshat Tetzaveh

Shabbat Shalom

There is a lot happening this week with our Torah reading. This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat we pause to remember Amalek and those, throughout history who have hated Jews for no apparent reason. It was enough that we were vulnerable and different, that made attacks on the weakest and infirm possible. On this Shabbat we remember that the only real recourse we have against those who have this causeless hatred of our people, is to be on our guard and always be prepared to do battle against them, as Joshua does in our Maftir and Saul does in the Haftara.

This is also the Shabbat before Purim. As Shabbat ends tonight, we will gather not only to read the Megillah but to also dress in costume and let ourselves engage in all manner of silliness. All too soon it will be Pesach and we will have some serious religious work to do, but for now, we can dress up and act out all in the name of good religious fun.

But, in the plain vanilla world of the Parsha, we had a Torah reading that would be greatly appreciated by those observing Fashion Week in the Garment District in New York City. Last week the top models in the country walked in shows sponsored by the greatest fashion houses in this country and around the world. Buyers from all over came to see what was in style for the coming year and begin to make the purchases that will show up in showrooms and department stores this coming fall. In the Torah, we see God as fashion designer, setting out the patterns for the clothing for the High Priest and for all the others who would officiate in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that is being constructed.

Why all the fuss about clothing? Because clothing does make a difference. If you suddenly come across some rather large teens in a dark alley, you may feel afraid until you realize they are dressed in the uniform of Boy Scouts. If you are feeling ill, a nurse in uniform can go a long way in helping you begin to feel better. I was in the airport in Atlanta with thousands of people walking in every direction. Suddenly, a group of soldiers entered the main hall and everyone stopped what they were doing to applaud the soldiers, thanking them for putting their lives on the line and defending our country. Clothing can and does make a big difference in how we look at others and how they look at us.

And it applies right down to Temple Emeth here in Delray Beach. It applies to the way we dress for prayer in synagogue. It always fascinates me that many Jews make such a big deal over head coverings when, according to Jewish law, there is no Halacha, no law at all that commands men to have their heads covered. In fact, Jewish law only requires women who are married to have their heads covered out of modesty. Somewhere in the thirteenth century Jews started to wear special hats that eventually evolved into Kipot. We don’t know when or where the custom started. Some scholars suspect that kipot evolved out of the special “Jews Hats” that some medieval communities forced their Jews to wear. Whatever the start of kipot may have been, it has become almost a standard of Jewish practice today and no man should pray without a kipah on his head.

The only real Jewish garment for prayer is the Tallit. A Tallit is any rectangular piece of cloth with special fringes at each of the four corners. The fringes consist of 8 strings and 5 knots and are called Tzitzit. The gematria of the term “tzitzit” equals 600 and if you add the strings and knots you get 613, the number of Mitzvot. We wear the Tallit so we can look at the tzitzit and remember to do all the mitzvot. Seeing the tzitzit is so important that we do not require a Tallit at night, since we cannot see the fringes in the dark!

Some of you know that I am a big supporter of women also wearing a Tallit. There is no Jewish requirement for women to wear a Tallit. It is one of the positive mitzvot that must be done at a particular time, so women are exempt from this mitzvah; exempt, but not forbidden to wear it. The exemption stems from a time when women’s time was not their own. They had responsibilities to the home, the family and to their chores that came before other time bound mitzvot. In Jewish history, there are not many women who chose to wear a Tallit, but there were some who did so, and nobody told them they could not wear it.

Since the middle of the 19th century, when modern denominations of Judaism began, there was a strong backlash against any changes in Jewish Law. Somehow it became fixed that women should not wear a Tallit. In studying the history of this, it has always seemed to me that it was a way to keep women away from serious involvement in ritual matters. They were not allowed to wear a Tallit and without a Tallit they could not lead or participate in services. So, for over 100 years women were kept away from serious religious practice.

If you ask an orthodox Jew about this kind of segregation of the sexes, he might say (I am less sure of what orthodox women might say) that women have their own special role to play in Judaism. Women’s spirituality is based in the home and men’s spirituality is based in the synagogue. They are two equal but separate kinds of faith. I feel that in a modern world where men should be doing more to help raise a family and do the housework, then women should also be free to express their spiritual feelings in synagogue, on an equal footing with the men. And that means women should be free to wear a Tallit.

What complicates this matter is that women are exempt from the mitzvah of Tallit. It would be unfair to suddenly “require” women to wear a Tallit in shul. A requirement such as that would instantly create a whole new category of sinners in Judaism. It is not going to happen. There is no reason a woman should be required to wear a Tallit to come on the bima for an aliyah or to lead the service. If a woman should choose to wear a Tallit, then that is a decision that needs to be made with much thought and consideration.

Tallit is not a ritual that can be taken lightly. If a woman should want to wear a Tallit she should commit to it for a serious length of time. It is not something one wears for a special occasion but then opts out the following week. It takes time to get used to wearing a Tallit, and to feel the difference in prayer as one gets over the sense that “everyone is looking at me as if I am strange for doing this”. In many cases, women have chosen not to wear the same kind of a Tallit that a man would wear. To be a proper spiritual garment, it should, like a man’s Tallit, reflect our feelings of individuality in prayer. Men may personalize the kind of Tallit they wear, the color of the Tallit and the kind of Atarah, the neckband that can personalize their Tallit. Women today have their own types of Tallitot, made of more feminine material, in softer colors and reflecting better their spiritual needs. I have seen women make their own Tallitot, sewing the hems and tying their own fringes as a way of connecting with the meaning behind the ritual. I have seen grandmothers work on a Tallit with their granddaughters, incorporating the colors and style of each one into the new Tallit. I have seen women ask close friends and mentors to help tie one of the tzitzit to give that corner added significance. Under the atarah of the Tallit my sister wears, is a bowtie that our father used to wear. When she wears her Tallit, she is reminded not just of the mitzvot, but of our father, who taught all of us the meaning of the mitzvot.

If you are sitting near a woman who is wearing a Tallit today, ask her about the Tallit. There is often a story behind how it was made and why she chooses to wear it. I ask those women who are regulars here at Shabbat services to think about the spiritual influences in your life, and if there is a way to translate that learning into a Tallit that you might be proud to wear. Ask in the Sisterhood Gift Shop if they can find some examples of women’s Tallitot that you can see to get an idea about what a Tallit in your life might mean to you. What would the men in your life say if you wanted to wear a Tallit? What would your daughter say? What would your granddaughters say? Contemplate what a Tallit would mean in your life and think about what your mother might say, if you were to tell her? Many of the women in the last generation before us would have loved to contemplate what we are considering but it was just too far beyond their reach. We live in different times and I suspect they would be proud of how their daughters have chosen to express themselves Jewishly.

And as for the men, who ARE required to wear a Tallit in shul, there is no reason you have to settle for the plain small Tallitot that we keep in our lobby. Even a man’s Tallit can be an expression of his spiritual feelings and his own personal spiritual journey. Ask your children and grandchildren to think about what kind of a Tallit might reflect their appreciation for the spiritual guidance you have given them over the years.

The Tallit is a very powerful and meaningful ritual in Judaism, as much today as it was in past generations. The only difference is that we can extend it to the women who now pray and study by our side. I ask our women here today, don’t say, “Why should I wear a Tallit?” consider instead, “What could a Tallit mean to me?” Start that discussion, with your family, your friends and your Rabbi. It could be the beginning of an important spiritual journey and a closer relationship with God.

What we wear does matter. Think about it and follow your heart toward God. May our awareness of the Mitzvot lead us to God, and may we place before us a reminder of where our faith is taking us as we say…