November 2008


My friend Nathaniel Whittemore writes a beautiful piece today about what social entrepreneurs are thankful for (and he is good enough to include me among his list of respondents), which inspires me to reflect on thankfulness as well.

Tonight we enter the Hebrew month of Kislev, in which Hannukah takes place. During Hannukah, the traditional liturgy adds a paragraph thanking God for the miraculous achievements of the Maccabees. Significantly,  this paragraph is added not as its own blessing during the daily Amidah, the litany of eighteen blessings; instead, it is included in the daily blessing of thanksgiving.

Why is this significant? Because the ancient Rabbis had the option of mentioning Hannukah anywhere during the Amidah: during the blessing for redemption, for instance; or the blessing that mentions our hope for the coming of the Messiah. Yet the Rabbis decided to mention Hannukah as part of the blessing of thanksgiving, and thus we can legitimately ask why.

Gratitude requires a certain view of the world, a certain existential posture. It requires openness–the same openness that leads to curiosity, to learning, to inspiration and to courage. That basic openness is at the root of all that makes goodness possible in the world. If Moses had failed to open himself, would he have noticed the burning bush? If Judah Maccabee had failed to open himself, would he have had the courage to lead a revolution? If Dr. King had failed to open himself, would he have been able to inspire?

The Talmud says that “An embarrassed person cannot learn.” If we cannot open ourselves to the world and admit the limits of our knowledge, we can’t ask questions. At the same time, that openness to learning needs to happen in a context of wonder. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Humankind will not die out for lack of information, but for we may perish for want of appreciation.” The interpretive move that has poisoned the achievements of modernity was a move of closure, a move that encountered new knowledge with a spirit of doubt, instead of a spirit of gratitude. 

Thankfulness is a habit that has to be practiced. That is why Jews say blessings, and why all religious people pause in gratitude around mealtime. It is why the Jewish tradition mandates blessings for encounters with all sorts of natural phenomena, and why Jews are commanded to pray three times a day. It is easy to become selfish, to forget the miraculousness of our existence. It is particularly easy during the winter, when the night is long and the day is short. So we have Hannukah, when we literally light a candle just when we are ready to curse the darkness. And like all observances on the Jewish calendar, Hannukah concentrates our focus on a value habit we have to practice all the time, in this case the habit of gratitude.

So in that spirit, thank you for reading, thank you for being open to my reflections.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The tone of much of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is one of loneliness. In the very first verse we learn that Sarah has died, according to midrashic tradition upon hearing of the news of the Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham cries over his wife’s death, and sends his servant Eliezer off to his homeland to find a wife for his son. Eliezer’s journey is a lonely one, and his only companion is God.

Until he is welcomed by Rebecca. From the moment Rebecca enters the story, a new sense of promise emerges. She is open and friendly, kind and courageous–both in her welcoming of a stranger and in her decision to go to a faraway land to marry an unknown man. This warm quality of the story reaches its climax when Isaac brings Rebecca “into his mother’s tent” (Gen. 24:67) and is comforted. A midrash relates that as long as Sarah lived, a cloud of glory hovered over the entrance to her tent, her doors were wide open to wayfarers, and a lamp was light in her tent from one Shabbat to the next. When she died, all these things ceased. But when Rebecca came along, they returned. (Genesis Rabbah 60:16)

One of my favorite teachers, Parker Palmer, has a wonderful exercise in which he asks his students to think of a great teacher in their life. At this point, most people would ask the question, What is it about that teacher that makes them so good? But Palmer asks a different question: What was it about you that enabled that person to be such a great teacher? 

As I wrote about last week, we often tend to look at our stories from a familiar perspective. In this case, we tend to look at this story of Rebecca and talk about her admirable qualities: her openness, her hospitality, her lovingkindness. But we can also look at the story from the perspective of Isaac and ask, what was it about him that enabled Rebecca to be such a model? Rebecca was able to fill a void in Isaac’s life. It was not simply through her personality that the warmth of Sarah’s tent was restored; this came about through her partnership with Isaac, through her fulfillment of a need created by Isaac’s life–a need for comfort, acceptance, and love.

This past week the Northwestern community was shaken by the death of a student, Trevor Boehm. In the aftermath of this tragedy, many of us are asking ourselves what we could have done, or what more we can do. And I think part of the answer comes to us this week in the model of Rebecca. We are each capable of lighting a warm lamp within the tent of our friends and neighbors. The question we must ask ourselves is the question of the great Shoah survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl: What does the world demand of me? The world, and its inhabitants, our fellow travelers, needs something from all of us. Finding that something begins with an open heart.

Last night 500 people attended what turned out to be a memorial vigil for Trevor Boehm, a first year student at Northwestern who had been missing for the last two weeks. Trevor’s body was found in Lake Michigan.

Sadly, students die at Northwestern every year, and as a Campus Rabbi I regularly attend the vigils and memorials that follow. But never have I seen so many people attend a ceremony like this. Perhaps it was because his picture had been pasted around campus on signs that said “Missing,” or because students had followed his disappearance in the campus newspaper. But it was also clearly because of who Trevor was. As indicated in the stories told by friends and acquaintances, this was an effervescent, loving, eccentric-in-an-endearing-way person. Many will miss him.

As I sat through the vigil and listened to the stories, I kept thinking of how tragic it is that we have to wait until someone has died in order to say all these wonderful things about them. In my own work, one of the most powerful elements of my conversations with students is when I tell them how great they are. It’s an old tool from community organizing, which is also central to mentorship: You ask questions to elicit a person’s story, you reflect back their strengths, and you outline a number of possible futures for them. So often our conversations lead to criticism, or stay on a surface level. When you reflect back someone’s strengths, it is a powerful moment.

I’m sure Trevor had his demons. From the stories I heard, he was constantly trying to improve himself, reading Dale Carnegie and the like. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience thinking, “I wish he could hear how much he is loved.” 

How can we create a culture in which people hear their eulogies before they die? This has to be a project of our colleges and universities. Not with an eye toward narcissism, but with the goal of honoring and supporting every student, every image of God, in our care.

An additional note: In the wonderful closing prayer offered by Assistant Chaplain Erica Brown, she referred to Trevor as “our son, our brother, our friend.” Strikingly missing from her list of relationships was “our student.” And strikingly missing from the speakers at the vigil last night was a faculty representative. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps it’s because the Chaplain’s office and the Counseling office, which coordinated the event, are part of the Division of Student Affairs.

But on the same day as this vigil, the former University Provost, Larry Dumas, passed away after a long fight with cancer, and the President of the University sent out a message to the entire university community. At his memorial service, we will rightly refer to Prof. Dumas as “our father, our brother, our colleague, our friend, our teacher.” If the university is to be a whole community, it must recognize that students and teachers exist in a braided relationship that forms the heart of a community of learning. We do not exist in isolation one from another, student from teacher, anthropologist from engineer, student affairs from development. We are all here together, and we must all support and value one another.

The story of the Binding of Isaac is one of the most difficult in the Torah. Yet it is a central part of our people’s story–recited every year on Rosh Hashanah and by some every day as part of morning services. And it is the final dramatic episode in this week’s Torah reading, Vayera.

Theologians and philosophers often look at the story from the point of view of Abraham. The Binding of Isaac is Abraham’s big test. As the angel at the end of the story tells him, God now sees that he has not withheld anything. Abraham would go the distance, would sacrifice that which is most precious to him, in order to serve God. In this usual view of the story, the question we ask ourselves is “Would we do the same thing?”

But we can also look at the story from the point of view of Isaac. And when we do, we see something different. From Isaac’s point of view, the question becomes how to make sense of the fact that his father has done this. Isaac is passive and accepting. He goes along, and he becomes literally and figuratively bound by his father’s decisions. His father has formed him, and this event will resonate throughout the history of their family for generations to come. When we identify with Isaac, the question we ask ourselves is, “How do we accept this inheritance?” 

In my work with students, it is the Issac view that seems most salient. For many young adults, the big question is how how to come to terms with the decisions their parents have made for them. How do they accept–or reject–their inheritance: their parents’ financial support, their parents’ dreams of their careers or spouse, and, frequently, their parents’ religious and ethnic identities. Particularly in a world in which we so value individual choice and self-authorship, the image of a passive Isaac who blindly accepts his father’s actions, seems jarring.

Yet as we grow older, we often discover a bit of Isaac in ourselves. As we will see next week, Isaac recapitulates his father’s story in multiple ways. Like Isaac, we frequently find ourselves reliving parts of our parents’ lives. When they have children of their own, young adults often find comfort and strength in the traditions of their ancestors, traditions which only a few years earlier they found anathema. 

It is important to take this longer view, especially in the heat of young adulthood. Development and maturation takes time, as evidenced by Abraham himself, who goes from being the iconoclastic son of Terach to becoming the father of many nations.

At the heart of the story of Abraham is a particularly Jewish conundrum. On the one hand, Abraham is the paradigm of breaking from the past, as the opening lines of his story suggest: “And God said to Abram, Go, get yourself from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, and go the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) The story of Abraham, and the story of the Jewish people, could not happen without this moment of shattering individualism. Abraham leaves behind everything he knows in order to found something new.

And yet God’s promise to Abraham is that his biological descendants will inherit the land God will give him. Heaven forbid that one of Abraham’s progeny would choose to leave the fold, to go from his own promised land, his own father’s house! If the beginning of Abraham’s story is marked by a radical break with the past, his children’s story will be marked by a deep engagement, and formation by, their history. Thus the conundrum.

This paradox exists in every generation, of course. But it is particularly pronounced in the American setting. One of the central narratives of the American story is that of the rugged individual who comes from a distant land, boldly breaking with the past, often taking a new name. Yet these same immigrants also often want to perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors, they want their children to walk in their ways. And the working out of each generation’s engagement with the traditions of its forebears becomes the stuff of psychology and literature (see ‘The House of Ramon Iglesia’ being produced by the Jewish Theater Ensemble this weekend, for one example).

Of course the American story is on all our minds this week. (If you’re interested, see this letter of mine to my kids about how Election Day moved me to tears.) We can plainly see that we have broken with the past, and boldly set out on a new chapter in the story of our nation and the world. We sense that we are entering a moment in which new challenges and possibilities of identity–conversations and intersections of races, ethnicities, and religions; and, we hope, a new dynamic in the relationship of religious and secular culture–these possibilities are tantalizing and challenging, even threatening, at the same time.

It is this dynamic sense of possibility that Abraham represents. Yet we must remember that as much as Abraham sets a new course, he does so in a way that demonstrates integrity and a deep understanding of who he is. Abraham’s tent is open to all–it is symbolized today in the huppah, the Jewish marriage canopy, which has four open walls. But even when packed with hundreds of guests, there is no question that it is Abraham’s tent. Though Abraham is a man who leaves home, he is our paradigmatic host. And as my own Hillel Rabbi, Jim Ponet, taught me, one of the definitions of feeling at home is being able to invite guests. Abraham leaves one home, but he creates another.  That challenge is a human one, and Abraham’s example speaks to us all.

Dear Jonah and Micah,

It is very late at night. You are both asleep, and I should probably go to sleep soon too. But tonight is an historic moment, and I want you to have a sense of what this history means.

In some ways I wish you were a few years older than you are right now, because then you could understand how deep our frustration and fear have been, and how deep our hope and yearning are now. I think most adults I know had largely given up on the idea that our leaders could inspire us. We had good reason: too many of our leaders have let us down; too few of them possessed the combination of personal integrity, oratorical grace, and poetic imagination to stir our hearts. We grimly looked forward to what we figured was a bleak future of elections between the lesser of two evils. 

But tonight Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Tonight the feeling we have is hope. Tonight a political leader asked us to sacrifice. Tonight a man brought us to tears. And boys, it’s not because he’s the first African-American to be President. It’s because he inspires us. It’s because he reminds us of what we can be. It’s because we trust him–we trust that he’s smart, that he will appoint good advisers, that he will make good decisions. It’s because we have seen just how bad leadership can be, and he seems to be the opposite of all that. 

One of my favorite stories from the Bible is that of King Solomon. When King Solomon became King of Israel, he was young and inexperienced. God came to him in a dream and told him he could have anything in the world: riches, power, you name it. Do you know what Solomon asked for? A “lev shomeah,” a listening heart. Solomon asked for the ability to listen, to listen deeply, and thereby to become wise. And because Solomon asked for something so deep, so useful, so genuine–and not something as superficial as jewels or armies–God made him the wisest man in history, and made his reign successful. 

When Barack Obama says “I will listen to you, even when we disagree,” he shows me he has the same instinct as Solomon. And it is this instinct, boys, that is so rare and so crucial. I know we talk about listening a lot. But when you are a grownup, you’ll find that listening–real, deep listening–is the most challenging and most important thing in your relationships with other people. It is at the heart of a marriage, a family, a community, a nation and a world. And the fact that tonight we elected a leader who knows how to listen brings me to tears–tears of joy. 

One of my teachers defined leadership as the art of letting people down gently. I know Obama can’t possibly live up to all of the hopes we have for him. But I pray that he and we find the capacity to make good on enough of those hopes to keep inspiring each other, to keep hoping.

By the time you are old enough to appreciate all of this, Barack Obama won’t be the President anymore. You and I will likely vote in many more elections in the future when the choice is between two people, neither of whom we feel great about. But I bless you that, at least once in your life, you experience the kind of hope and pride in America that I feel tonight. Even at this, one of our darkest hours, there is a ray of light. 

Love,

Abba