Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Yom Kippur Story

Yom Kippur begins on Sunday night. This story happened, not on Yom Kippur Eve, but instead it happened late one Yom Kippur afternoon in the synagogue of Berdichev. The famous Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, who was known for his great love and compassion, fell asleep on the pulpit just as he was about beginning the day's concluding service.

Actually, he didn't really fall asleep. Those who knew, well realized that this great Rabbi would never really go to sleep in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Rather, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak did what every wonder-working Rabbi does on Yom Kippur. He ascended to the highest heaven to stand before the throne of judgment in order to find out what the destiny of his beloved community would be for the coming year.

Levi Yitzhak stood in the presence of the great judge sitting on a grand throne -- with the scales of judgment before the Creator of All. The Rabbi eagerly searched the scales of his little town of Berdichev. When he finally did find it, he was shaken. He was terrified. The side of the scale with good deeds was high up in the air with a few pitiful items on it, while the side of the scale with the sins was so full, so heavily weighted that it was as low as it could go, strained to the breaking point.

In desperation, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and with panic and fear welling up inside he said to God, Master of the Universe, I know that the record of my people in Berdichev is dismal, but what do you expect,dear Lord? If you would have put us into a Garden of Eden, you could expect us to act like angels, but, dear Lord, You placed us into a harsh and difficult setting. What alternative do my poor downtrodden, miserable people have? Sometimes, we must take extreme measures, just to survive.

Levi Yitzhak was overjoyed to find the good Lord in a very receptive mood. With a benign, parental smile, God said to him, "Levi Yitzhak, you have a point. I haven't been fair. I promise that the Jews of Berdichev are going to have a fine year." As a matter of fact, Levi Yitzhak found God in such good humor that he suspected that this might be the moment to convince God to save not only the Jews of Berdichev, but to save all of humankind -- to send the messiah, the redeemer, to save the world.

And so, Levi Yitzhak turned to the good Lord and said: "Master of the Universe, Merciful Parent, how long? Haven Your poor children suffered long enough? They're drowning dear God. They're on the very edge of desperation. Before it is too late, show us Your grace and mercy and send us Your redeemer."

Slowly and behold, God was willing to discuss the matter with Levi Yitzhak. He said to him: "Levi Yitzhak, you put forth a very cogent argument. There is much meritin it. Please sit down. Convince me."

And so Levi Yitzhak was about to sit down to convince the Lord to save the world. When, out of the corner of his eye, he glanced down at his little town of Berdichev, and he noticed that Hayyim, the laundry man, (Hayyim) who was as old as time and as ugly as sin, to whom no one paid any attention -- neglected, isolated, lonely Hayyim -- [Hayyim] had fainted.

Hayyim had been fasting from the previous day; it was getting very late; he could not hold out any long and so he fainted. Levi Yitzhak knew well that he had to rush down to his synagogue and conclude the service so that Hayyim would eat -- otherwise Hayyim would die.

So, here was his dilemma: Whom shall he save? Shall he convince the good Lord to save the world, or shall he save the life of Hayyim, the laundry man?

Actually, the choice was an easy one... Levi Yitzhak turned to God and said, "I would love to sit here dear Merciful Father and convince You to save the world, -- but where is it written that the price of saving the world is the life of Hayyim the laundry man?" And with that, he turned to rush down and conclude the service.

(And) as he was descending from the heights, rushing to save the life of Hayyim, the story concluded, he heard a chorus of angels calling after him: "Levi Yitzhak, you are saving the world!"

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Labor Day and Day of Rest

At the alternative service at Temple B’nai Brith yesterday, my friend Marya Axner led in us a reflection on the rhythm of labor and rest in Jewish life. When we are being true to ourselves and true to God, we don’t work until we fall down exhausted and rest only to work again. Six days we labor, trying to make the world better. On the seventh we rest, thinking about things that matter. When we return to work, that sense of what matters is the mission statement that keeps us on track and helps us do what’s important, let go of what’s inconsequential, and be able to avoid burnout and keep on making a difference for the long haul.

It takes a lot of work to be able to rest.

Practically speaking, to make Shabbat, we have to prepare meals, buy or bake fresh challah, keep candles and wine at hand, sometimes invite guests. To put the week aside with a clear conscience, we have to organize our work in the workplace and our work to take care of our homes, our causes, and our communities so that everything gets done when it needs to and no one is left in the lurch. Even if we have done this, it’s not easy to cast off the uniform one’s mind and soul wear all week and don the splendid robes of the kings and queens we are supposed to become on Shabbat. It’s impossible to do if you work down to the last minute. It takes time, to leave those cares behind and put oneself in the frame of mind to receive a beloved guest, the Sabbath, which the tradition also pictures as a Queen who deserves all the honor we can give her.

I speak about this from personal experience. I am always true to the Sabbath, in my fashion (as the song says)…but it is not easy, only beautiful and right. Here is a poem I wrote about it nearly twenty-five years ago:

A Song of Songs, by Dennis Fischman

I have been a lover to the Queen before.

For me, she set her tender feet

to walking the long road stretching

from yesterday to tomorrow

and I met her halfway

as evening drew a woven shawl around

the bare shoulders of an innocent world

at the fork in the road I stood, singing

“Come, my friend, to meet the bride”

and our twinned flames spurted into falling night.

But now, though she seeks me, I sit

Amongst my books and papers, murmuring

“Not yet: I’m not ready yet,”

Muttering and fidgeting, as if my word

Could hold back the stars.

I have bought no wine, no braided bread—

and here she comes,

laughing, giving voice to song,

“Return us, and we shall return”

and I know

once again, I’ll cajole her with sweet incense

to stay one hour more

and she’ll slip away, whispering

“observe” and “remember” in the same short breath.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Election Distraction

Should we end the war in Afghanistan as quick as we can, or possibly send in more troops? Can we provide health care (not just insurance!) to everyone who needs it, and will that mean putting private health insurers out of business? Is the recession slowing down, and for whom: is it good news if unemployment is still in double digits in certain regions? How do we stop nuclear proliferation, and global warming? Is it really a sign of progress when a woman in Iran stands up for the right to wear pants without being flogged for it, but women in many parts of the U.S. have to travel for hours to get the reproductive services (including both contraception and abortion) that the Constitution protects? How can the states pay for vital services and schools without going bankrupt?

All these questions, and many more, are serious and should be at the top of the agenda. But in Massachusetts, we're arguing about whether the governor should be able to appoint an interim U.S. Senator to take Ted Kennedy's seat or whether we have to wait five months to elect somebody. Huh?

OK, I know these questions are related. I have a Ph.D. in political science: no need to rehearse the arguments with me. The point is that whether it's an appointment, an election, or a coronation, it's also a distraction. Whoever we elect will only do as good a job as we force him or her to do. We should be focusing on the issues, not the candidates.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

...and Beyond?

It would be much easier to dismiss Tisha B'Av from duty on the Jewish calendar and stop mourning the destruction of the Temple if history had come to an end. So comforting it would be to believe that the Judaism we have is the ultimate goal of a long dialectical process and that what is, is permanent.

We know that history goes on, however. Some years ago, I read an article which predicted that Judaism would continue in America for generations--but that it may not look anything like what we've been used to up to now. It made me wonder. What will go the way of the burnt-offering and the red heifer, into the realm of historical curiosities? Will Jews meet in chat rooms instead of synagogues? (In restaurants, more likely!) Will we study the collected works of Marge Piercy instead of the prophets? Will we all be involved in giving circles and social action and only let rabbis and cantors do the praying? Or, contrariwise, will an ever-tinier group keep the traditions of the synagogue alive while other people start saying, "I'm part Jewish" the way other people now confide, "I'm part Cherokee"?

On Tisha B'Av, and throughout the season of reflection that ends with the High Holy Days and begins again each year, it would be well for us to mourn--in preparation for turning the past into the future. The rabbis of 2000 years ago mourned the Temple even while they made the synagogue the hub of Jewish community. We must be ready to be as strong and creative as they.

Monday, September 7, 2009

From Temple to Synagogue...and Beyond? (part II)

Is Tisha B'Av a day of grief for us, 2000 years after the Roman Empire turned the Temple into a battered, solitary wall? As I started to say yesterday, my answer is "Yes--and no."

Yes. The destruction of the Temple was more than a symbolic blow, more even than the bitterness of actual conquest. With the Temple lost (as I discussed in my 1991 book Political Discourse in Exile), the Jews could not carry out many of the commandments of the Torah, by which they had lived. Their purpose, their identity, their culture were all in jeopardy. Tisha B'Av can stand for all the time (personal, like when my first wife left me, or social, like when the towers fell in New York and the Pentagon broke open to the sky eight years ago this week) when the world and all meaning seem to crumble.

But no! We do not need to mourn the daily ritual of animal sacrifice. We have not missed the hereditary priesthood and levitical caste living on the labors of the rest of the population. We have found other ways to express our gratitude and our ongoing relationship with the power of the universe, the source of life and justice. Practically everything that we now know as Judaism came about after the Temple was destroyed...because the Temple was destroyed. The rabbis who built the day of mourning into the calendar also build institutions like prayer, study, and fellowship that define Jewish identity today. In the moment after the Temple fell, of course they mourned. But today? Shouldn't we be rejoicing on Tisha B'Av? Shouldn't we be dancing?

And yet.... (see tomorrow's post for concluding thoughts)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

From Temple to Synagogue...and Beyond?

The summer months in America are typically a time for vacation and relaxation. Few Jews and hardly any non-Jews realize that on the Jewish calendar, we are in the middle of a season of reflection. This time of reflection began on Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, which fell on July 30 this year.

Tisha B'Av marks the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Before there were synagogues, the Temple was the center of religious and cultural life for the entire Jewish nation. The rabbis (textual scholars and teachers) who created the observance of Tisha B'Av clearly wanted it to be the most mournful day of the year. They found ways to believe that not just Solomon's temple was destroyed on that date by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., but the second temple, too, by the Romans, in 70 C.E., on the very same date. Many other historical tragedies were linked to the ninth day of Av. On the ninth day of Av, we read the book of Lamentations, in a haunting melody whose paradoxical sweetness tears the soul. The rabbis set up a series of special haftarot (prophetic readings chanted in the synagogue) leading up to Tisha B'Av--prophecies of rebuke--and a longer series from Tisha B'Av into the month of Elul--prophecies of consolation. Anyone who follows this whole progression must sense the enormity of the disaster that Tisha B'Av signified to the rabbinic tradition.

Today, for Jews of the 21st century, can we still feel the same way? Is Tisha B'Av a day of grief for us? I would answer, "Yes--and no." For why I would answer that way, please check in tomorrow.