Our Highest Hope

A Reflection on Micah

As I put the finishing touches on the 6000-word essay, I am writing for The Oxford Handbook on the Minor Prophets, a memory from the beginning of my career comes vividly to mind:

His mother walked into my office shortly before I began my internship as Rabbi at the fledgling 58-family Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland in 1973. “My son was scheduled to have his Bar Mitzvah on May 18 before my husband was transferred and we moved here,” she said with a slight air of desperation.” Can we celebrate it here on that date?”

Since the congregation had no B’nai Mitzvah scheduled, I quickly answered, “Sure.”

“You must understand,” she continued, Jeff has great difficulty with Hebrew, does not have a lot of self-confidence. I worry that with all the time we lost in our move that he won’t be ready.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied with all of the confidence befitting a wannabe rabbi who had never prepared a Bar/t Mitzvah student in his life, “I guarantee that that when the big day comes you will be very proud!”

It took hard work to keep that promise, but at his Bar Mitzvah Jeff did beautifully.

He effectively taught the congregation the essential lesson of Parashat B’hukotai that if we all followed God’s commandments, we could indeed create a just, caring and compassionate society. Yes, we can create a world where, in the words of the parasha,  – No one shall cause fear (Leviticus 26:6)!”

That magical phrase appears eleven times in our TANACH, most famously in the Prophet Micah (4:4) who dreamed of the day when all of us would sit under our vines and our fig trees with none to make us afraid.

To me those words represent the highest possible hope for humanity: a world where no one will have to fear war, physical or sexual assault. If we are to uphold our end of our Covenant with God, we must not only dream of a world where no one will fear that he or she will go to bed hungry, lack adequate clothing or a home to protect them from winter chill and summer heat. We must work in whatever ways we can to make that dream reality.

Yes, that is our highest goal: a world “with none to make us afraid!”

As Rabbi Tarfon once taught: “It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:16)


For Credibility’s Sake See Israel for Yourself

Some years ago I arrived in Jerusalem after a short stay and a long bus ride from Tiberias in the northern part of the country.  At first I thought I would rent a car to travel a bit around Israel before coming to Jerusalem.  Then I thought that I will save some money and be much more in contact with Israelis with whom I can speak  Hebrew – one of the  main reasons for my trip – if I avail myself of public transportation.  Specifically that means Israel’s very good public bus system.

So at 8:10 one morning I boarded a lovely Egged coach at the Tiberias central bus station and began my journey.  There were only a few people on the bus so I had two seats to myself – one for me and one for my carry on which was a bit heavy.  Most of the other passengers were soldiers so I felt both very comfortable and very safe.  My luxury excursion began as we made our way up into the mountains, and I enjoyed some magnificent panoramas of Israel’s breathtaking Galilee region.

After about an hour we arrived in Afula where the driver announced we would have a short rest stop. Many passengers boarded the bus at Afula, so my luxury two-seats-to myself-ride ended abruptly when a young man about twice as tall and twice as wide as I am claimed the seat next to me. Now I was scrunched next to the window with my carry-on on my lap.  He looked like a typical young Israeli and we chatted a bit in Hebrew about the kind of innocuous things that strangers on a bus talk about.

When he received a call and began talking rapidly on his cell phone, I could not understand a word that he was saying.  Frustrated, I said to myself, “I thought my Hebrew was better than that.”

Then I realized with a shudder that the man was speaking Arabic and that it was clearly his native tongue.

His name is Sameer, and he is a Muslim from Nazareth.  He was not subjected to any discriminatory examinations or questions at the station.  He boarded the bus just like everyone else.

“That is the way it is in Nazareth and in the north,” he said.  “Muslims, Jews and Christians live side by side in harmony.” 

“In Jerusalem because of proximity to the territories,” he continued, ” I feel uneasy just as Jews feel uneasy when they venture deep into the old city.”

I took a cab from the Jerusalem bus terminal to my hotel.  My driver was a Muslim named Nael.   He was pursuing his livelihood just like anyone else. The man who checked me into my hotel is named Muhammad.  Same goes for him.

Yet, if you believe the anti Israel propaganda that spews forth from increasing numbers of places, you would think that the Arabs in Israel walk about in chains.  Of course Israel must be very conscious of security, and for some Arabs and Palestinians in some parts of the country life is very difficult because of the acts of horrible terror that have been perpetrated against the Jewish State.

My experience convinced me that in order to have credibility every one should visit Israel to see with his or her own eyes what it is like there before commenting about its political situation. It is complicated to be sure, but putting the bulk of the blame on Israel  before you see it with your own eyes hardly reflects reality.

The Golden Calf: Lowest of Lows

No sooner does Israel declare her allegiance to God and God’s covenant then she falls off the wagon. Moses is gone forty days and nights, and during that time the Israelites become frightened. They are still very much in a slave mentality. And without the guidance of a visible leader, they lose it. They turn on Aaron and demand, “Give us a god we can see,” because who knows what has become of this Moses.

Aaron, to his discredit, utters not a whimper of protest. He tells the people to bring him their jewelry, and fashions an idol, a golden calf for them to worship.

“Why,” I have often been asked, “is Aaron not punished for his complicity in the peoples’ apostasy?” From a historical perspective, the answer is simple. It was Aaron and his descendants who had taken control of Israelite life at the time the Torah attained its present form. His descendants give us the Torah as we now have it.

The logical follow-up questions then are: Why is the story recorded at all? If Aaron and his descendants had the power, why put something in the biblical narrative, which reflects so negatively on the first high priest of Israel?

The answer is that the memory of the golden calf incident was much too vivid to extirpate. It would be akin to editing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy from the history books of the United States.

Hence, the priestly redactors of the Torah did the next best thing regarding the golden calf episode. They buried it. They did not place it in its logical place after the Ten Commandments and the laws, which followed them. Those who edited the final version of the Book of Exodus hid the golden calf incident in the midst of two long, and to some, boring accounts of the intricate details of the building of the desert tabernacle.

The Torah records: God tells Moses to hurry down from the mount as the Children of Israel have run amok. They have forsaken God’s wishes in favor of building an idolatrous calf to worship. God threatens to destroy the entire people, but Moses stays God’s hand, and asks, “How will it look to Egypt?” The Egyptians will think that You destroyed the people because you were not powerful enough to deliver them to the Promised Land. Now God might not have been a bit worried about how it would look to Egypt, but the point is that God and Moses were in partnership; and God heeded Moses entreaty to forgive the people’s great sin.

Then, Moses himself loses it. When he sees the people reveling before the calf in orgiastic fashion, he becomes so enraged that he hurls the tablets of the Covenant to the ground, smashing them to bits.

Eventually, God calms down, and Moses calms down. When it is time to put the incident behind them, God seems to take Moses to task for smashing the tablets. “Hew out two tablets of stone like the first,” God commands (Exodus 34:1).

The implication is that although Moses had a right to be furious, he had no right to smash the tablets. This time, he has to hew them out himself instead of God providing them as (the text seems to suggest) God did the first time. The lesson for us

is that we take much better care of something in which we have invested time and energy to create.

The rabbis take the story and its lesson a step forward in this marvelous Midrash. “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught: Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the Tablets broken by Moses were placed…” (Palestinian Talmud, Shekalim 1:1).

Wow. The Midrash teaches us that we can learn at least as much from our mistakes and failings as we can from our triumphs. We all make mistakeseven big ones. But if we turn our failings into instructive lessons rather than letting them destroy our sense of purpose and self-worth, they can be of enormous benefit.

The golden calf story is a strong warning to all of us not to overvalue material things. One of my favorite prayers is, “Help me, O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain.”

Ray Stevens makes this prayer concrete for us aptly in a popular song of yesteryear:

“Itemize the things you covet as you squander through your life – bigger cars, bigger houses, term insurance for your wife!…Did you see your children growing up today? Did you hear the music of their laughter as they set about to play? Did you catch the fragrance of those roses in your garden? Did the morning sunlight warm your soul, brighten up your day? Spending counterfeit incentive, wasting precious time and health, placing value on the worthless disregarding priceless wealth.” (Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman,” 1968)

In essence, God brought us out of Egypt not just to be free of Pharaoh’s oppression, but also that we would be free to journey to Mount Sinai and accept responsibility for the Covenant God made with Abraham. Accepting responsibility means that we use our talents to create a more just, caring, and compassionate society. It is easy to lose sight of those values in our rush to make a living. During our time off, we rush around with the goal of amassing bigger, better, and shinier material goods.

Indeed, the golden calf is alive and well. It lives in our cities and towns, and if we allow it, the turbo-charged golden calf of today will take over our hearts and minds, as well.

The golden calf narrative is a quintessential illustration of the middle ground of biblical understanding. Who knows if there was a golden calf, and whether God became furious at our worshipping it. I do not take the story literally, but the truth of the Bible is not literal truth. On the other hand, I do not simply dismiss it as an ancient fairy tale. The truth of the story is in its message, a message that can change our lives if we take it to heart.



As I See It: The Soul and After-life

In recent decades we Jews – Reform Jews in particular — have submerged mention of the afterlife to the degree that many Jews frame the question to me as an assumption:  “We don’t believe in life after death.  Do we, rabbi?”

I would respond, “Yes, we do!” We just do not place the emphasis on after life as our Christian friends do.  NOR are we as specific about the details.

For Jews attaining the reward in Olam ha Ba, the world to come does not depend on what we believe.  It depends on how we live our lives.

My belief in life after death has two parts:  What I hope and what I know.

 What I Hope:

I hope, and in my heart I believe, that good people receive in some way rewards from God in a realm beyond the grave.  I hope that they are reunited with loved ones and live on with them in a realm free of the pain and debilitation that might have marked the latter stages of their earthly life.

Speaking personally, my father died at age 57 and my mother, who never remarried died at age 88. She was a widow for more years than she was married.  My fondest hope since her death is that they are together again enjoying the things they enjoyed on earth and as much in love with each other as the day they stood beneath the chuppah to unite their lives.

I hope, pray, and even trust that they are young, strong and vigorous not weak and frail as they both were before they died.  I hope and pray also that in some indescribable way they are able to feel and share the joy of the happy events that our family has shared since they left us.

I cannot, of course, prove that any of this is true.  Yet I cling tenaciously to my hope.

What I Know:

But there is also an aspect of after life of which I am absolutely sure.  Our loved ones live on in our memories, and those memories can surely inspire us to lead better lives.

At the beginning of Noah Gordon’s marvelous novel, The Rabbi the protagonist, Rabbi Michael Kind thinks of his beloved grandfather who died when he was a teenager, and recalls a Jewish legend that teaches:  “When the living think of the dead, the dead who are in paradise, know they are loved, and they rejoice.”

Each time we do something worthy because of their teaching or example, our deceased loved ones come alive. If we listen, we can hear them call to us as God called to Abraham in establishing the sacred Covenant of our faith:  Be a blessing! (Genesis 12:2) Study and follow God’s instruction! (Genesis 17:1) Practice and teach those you love to practice righteousness and justice (Genesis (18:19)!

And then, when we turn their teachings into our actions, we know – we absolutely know – that our loved ones are immortal, and they live on in a very real and special way.