The themes of a parasha don’t change much over time. The words are the same this year as a year ago. So as the years continue, I find myself coming back to the same big themes each time we read the parasha anew. In the past I have written about Vayishlach and the question of borders, the issue of demarcation. Jacob’s wrestling occurs just before he crosses the Jabbok river, the dividing line between the land of the Israelites and the land of the Edomites in the ancient world. When his family settles near Shechem, the abduction of Dinah raises the question of division and borders again: what will be the lines of separation between the children of Israel and their neighbors? Will they intermarry, and on what terms?

Indeed, even the name of the parasha itself–Vayishlach, ‘And he sent,’ implies a crossing. Parshat Vayishlach, like parshat Vayetzei before it, dwells on questions of separation and unity, division and integrity. And the essence seems to be in Israel’s name: ki-sarita im elohim v’im anashim v’tuchal – “for you have wrestled with God and with man and proved able” (Gen. 32:29).

In my line of work I like to point out that Jacob is working out the questions of a young adult. He leaves his home of birth for a long sojourn away, and in the process marries, has children, finds a vocation. Parshat Vayishlach marks the moment when he seems to truly grown into his adulthood, as he acquires a new name, puts to rest the lingering questions of his adolescent rivalry with his brother, establishes a home in his homeland. The narrative now turns to his children. Jacob is at home.

“Where do you feel at home?” is the biggest of the big questions, in my view. It is the question we constantly ask ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, as we situate ourselves in space and time. When we feel at home we feel at ease; when we don’t feel at home, we feel excitement or anxiety; we experience displacement. Thus the value of hospitality to strangers in virtually all cultures, and the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim in ours.

The idea of home is inseparable from the idea of borders, of inside and out. When does a stranger become a guest, and when does a guest become “like family?” How do we cross the thresholds of difference, approaching one another in degrees of kinship and sameness? These are the eternal questions.

Of course, in today’s world, there are fascinating additional wrinkles: How do we maintain our integrity as individuals even as we find similarity and forge a commons? (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the most eloquent writer on this question, what he terms the Dignity of Difference.) And given that the Internet is changing our very notions of time and space, what does it mean to maintain integrity as a nation, or as a person? (Witness two stories out of Israel today: One in which Israeli intelligence appears to have used a computer worm to damage the Iranian government’s nuclear centrifuges; the other in which Facebook has been used to identify Israeli soldiers who participated in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, including their home addresses. It is one of the biggest changes the Internet has wrought: we can conduct warfare from the comfort of our own homes.)

And yet, we all–even those young adults so seemingly at home with homelessness–keep trying to make home. We keep trying to do the work of Jacob, as though it were a compulsion. And so it would appear to be. One of the refrains I have heard in my conversations with young adults this fall, more so than in years past, is this: “I’m not using email on Shabbat.” They’re not doing this from a place of commandedness by halakha (Jewish law), but out of a hunger to find a center, a yearning to be grounded and free from distractions, at least for one day a week. (Judith Shulevitz’s book may well have helped.) Admist this time when they move from place to place on a yearly basis, when they, like Jacob their ancestor, are neither in their parents’ home nor the home of theirs that is yet to be, they–like all of us–long for coherence, hunger for home. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Shabbat shalom.

 

 

We got a thoroughly amazing piece of news yesterday at Northwestern Hillel: A hate group that has previously picketed us plans to do so again as Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday night. This is part of a tour of theirs around the Chicago area today and tomorrow, visiting synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. (I am not identifying them by name—not only because doing so would generate automatic internet spam from their supporters, but also because it would give them exactly the attention they don’t wish to have. But their name rhymes with Shmestboro Shmaptist Church.)

Yes, this news was amazing because it complicated an already very busy day in our office. But what’s even more impeccable about the timing of this incident is how it coincides with the mainstreaming of hateful religious rhetoric in American public conversation. The New York Times this morning reports on an emergency interfaith summit of religious leaders to respond to the rise in hate speech. The epidemic is epitomized in the planned burning of the Koran by a church in Florida this weekend. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it, As Jews we know religious persecution. We know book burnings. Now is a time to speak up.

Rosh Hashanah is our most universal holiday. Unlike Yom Kippur, which emphasizes the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah focuses on God’s general covenant with humanity. The liturgy implores God to remember Noah—the father of all of humanity that remains after the flood. It refers to today as the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of Adam’s creation, the creation of all humankind. The themes of Rosh Hashanah are general, and focus on what it means to be human, and only secondarily on what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently over the last decade about what he terms the ‘dignity of difference,’ the capacity to hold, acknowledge, and celebrate our deepest differences. In one of my favorite passages from his book of the same name, Sacks asks, what would the experience of faith be like in a world in which the dignity of difference was truly enacted? ““It would be like being secure in one’s home,” he writes, “yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours.” Emphatically, Sacks rejects the notion that pluralism involves surrendering our uniqueness. Adaraba—just the opposite: in order to live together, we need to do with and through what makes us different, not by erasing it. We need to be secure in our own homes—our familial homes, our communal homes, our national homes and simultaneously concerned for and engaged with the homes of others.

That is the challenge of brotherhood, which forms one of the themes of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah. The question asked by the story of Ishmael and Isaac, of Hagar and Sarah, is this: how can brothers get along? It is the question of Genesis, and the question of the Bible more generally: how can we recognize that we share a common ancestor while simultaneously acknowledging and accommodating each individual’s uniqueness? How can we reconcile the tension implicit in the idea that human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image: one the one hand we are all equal, on the other we are each unique?

In the title of another of his books, Sacks puts forward his answer: The Home We Build Together. When we build a home together—not simply live next to one another as guests in someone else’s home, nor rent a home that belongs to a common landlord, but actually build a shared home—we forge a covenant. His model is the mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites. Every member of the community contributed to its construction. Everyone had a stake in it. And thus it created a physical, psychological, and spiritual center for a people. And today it continues to provide a model for what a society can be. “Society is made out of the contributions of many individuals,” Sacks writes. “What they give is unimportant. That they give is essential.” The home we build together is society.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy famously refers to three essential acts of the High Holiday season: teshuva, tefilla, u-tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity. Central to each of these acts is a spirit of openness. Teshuva is not possible unless we are open to critique of ourselves. We can only engage in tefilla if we are open to the presence of God in our lives. And tzedakah requires an openness, awareness, and concern for lives beyond our own, and an actual, tangible act of giving and generosity.

These are the acts of restoring and renewing our covenant—between God and Jewish people, but, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, between God and the world. Today is the birthday of the world—the whole world, and all its inhabitants. Today, and every day, our spirit of generosity begins with ourselves, our families and our communities, but ultimately extends to all of God’s creation.

It’s hard to write these words without sounding almost a little trite. But let me be clear: the challenge here is to both liberals and conservatives, to those who would reject religion altogether and those who would retreat into narrow and exclusionary religious perspectives. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (and a friend and colleague) has powerfully argued, this is the moment for a new approach to interfaith understanding and cooperation to emerge. We have a choice between producing a generation of religious extremists rooted in hatred, or a generation of religious peace-makers, rooted in the dignity of difference.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Shabbat Shuva, our choice is clear: u’vacharta ba-chayim, Let us choose good. Let us choose life. Let us drown out the hatred of the few with the openness and brotherhood of the many.

We’ve had a house guest with us the last few days, a fellow named Josh Stanton. Josh is a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College, and is the editor and founder of the Journal of Interreligious Dialogue. He and I are both attending the Interfaith Youth Core’s conference, which is being held this week at Northwestern.

Josh contacted me a couple of months ago about staying with us, and I immediately said yes. We didn’t know each other, but I feel a sense of openness and responsibility towards rabbinic students, so there was no question in my mind about hosting him.

IMG_0066This isn’t a post about Josh, though (he’s a very nice and intelligent guy doing important work to improve the world). It’s actually a post about my kids.

This morning, Jonah and Micah were having breakfast, when Josh came upstairs from the guest room into the kitchen. Josh and the kids hadn’t met yet, so immediately Josh introduced himself. And what was amazing was that the kids engaged him–not just in the momentary, “My name is Jonah, My name is Micah” part, but for ten or fifteen minutes (which enabled me to get upstairs and get myself ready to take them to school). They had a long conversation. By the time we were ready to go, Jonah asked me, “Abba, can Josh come to school with us?”

Josh commented to me that we have very engaging kids. “When I was four,” he said, “if a stranger said hello, I’d probably run away.” I replied that our kids have grown up with a very open sense of home. Every week they ask if we’re having company for Shabbat, because they expect it. We frequently have guests in our home. And they also have a second home at Hillel. All of this leads them to be very comfortable meeting new people and engaging them. I suppose I’ve taken a lot of this for granted, but this encounter with Josh reminded me of this very special aspect of the work that I do–which spills over into our personal lives in a very significant way.

I frequently write and teach about my favorite of the Big Questions that are so central to my philosophy, namely, “Where do you feel at home?” And I often teach a piece of Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference in relation to it:

What would faith be like? It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English, yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet one only partially understands. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need that confidence now. (p. 65)

I think this sums up the kind of people we’re trying to raise our kids–and our students–to be. I say this humbly, but if my kids are any indication, it looks like we’re doing something right.

Danny Gordis is a gifted writer, and he frequently hits the nail on the head. In his recent debate with Jay Michaelson (see here and here), I’m with Danny. But in his column today, I think Danny shows his hand to be simply another suit of the fatalism of which he accuses Jay.

Danny closes his column thus:

In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation. Add the issue of Palestinian suffering, and Israel seems worse than irrelevant – it’s actually a source of shame.

We’re not terribly alarmed, but we should be. These young American Jews, after all, will soon control the coffers of the federations, and will sit on the boards of synagogues. Their generation will either strengthen or abandon AIPAC, the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the American Jewish Committee (AJC). They will be the ones allocating funding to schools, setting curricula and communal priorities.

“Who is wise?” asks the Talmud. “He who can see what is about to happen.” Deep down, we know what’s about to happen. A gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we’re basically doing nothing. Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.

Can you name one? Neither can I.

Now this is in keeping with the general theme of Danny’s writing for over ten years, which essentially boils down to the message: Diaspora Judaism is doomed to failure. All Jews should make aliyah.

Wake me up at three in the morning, and I would probably agree. As my wife would tell you, I can be given to pessimism, and I read the same writing on the wall as Danny Gordis. Thick forms of cultural expression have a hard time surviving in America, and Morris Allen’s observation about the relative popularity of lifecycle rituals over calendar rituals  fits with my own.

And yet, Danny gives no credit to those of us who actually are laboring here in galut to help the next generation of Jews write the story of their lives in dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people. He collapses into a heap of fatalistic loathing at the end of his column–I would even call it anger. And in this he violates the same principle for which he takes Jay Michaelson to task: he loses hope, he becomes bitter. “Better that you should lose a lot of money on Hillel’s account,” stated the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, “than that Hillel should lose his temper.”

Danny, I can tell you there is an army of Jewish professionals in the diaspora–too small, underfunded, undersupported, underappreciated, but dedicated, creative, passionate, and hardworking–who have dedicated their lives to not only asking, but answering “how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.” We do it in all variety of ways–in academic settings, on trips, in conversations. Most important, we do it through relationships–not by lobbing verbal bombs from Emek Refaim, but by opening our homes, sharing our lives, and giving them our hearts. And Danny, we send them to you in the form of students who study in Israel–not just Birthright, but before, during and after college. When we send them to you, we need you to inspire them to a love of Jewsh life–the way you used to do with your amazing rhetorical gifts. What we don’t need is for you to fill them with fear and bile, and turn them off to your message (as several of my students who have heard you recently have described).

Danny, your column today was over the line, and you would do well to apologize to all the people whose contributions you slighted. In the meantime, we’ll read Jonathan Sacks.

One of the lasting readings of the the Creation story in recent decades comes from the philosophical work Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the Rav). In Lonely Man, the Rav distinguishes between the story as outlined in chapter 1 with that of chapter 2. Human beings in chapter 1 are created male and female, and given the charge of mastering the earth and ruling it. This version clearly puts humans at the apex of the creation narrative–the culmination of six days of labor, after which God can look on everything God has made and proclaim it “very good.”

In chapter 2, by contrast, human beings are created alongside the rest of the world, placed in a garden, with the simple charge of tending it. Adam is created alone, not male and female simultaneously, and God first seeks a fitting helper for him from among the other animals. Only when that option is exhausted does God take a rib from Adam to create Eve.

These two stories provide the basis for the Rav’s distinguishing between Adam I and Adam II: Adam I, the scientific man, stands over against nature, Adam II, the natural man, is part of it; the world of Adam I finds equality between men and wome,  the world of Adam II explains gender politics; etc.

This observation of the Rav’s is among his most well-known teachings, probably because it resonates so well with the modern experience, of being simultaneously part of the world and apart from it.

Yet there is an important second step, often overlooked, to the Rav’s insight. The Adam I/Adam II distinction can easily become an issue of identity–trying to describe the human condition, or what human beings are. Much of philosophy has been caught up in that discussion for decades or centuries. And yet, in a seminar this quarter on secularism and religion, I find myself growing tired of the conversation–we can never adequately explain what human beings are. It’s intersting alright, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to improving anything. While the Rav certainly emphasized what human beings do as much as what they are, this part of his insight is too frequently forgotten.

In his books of the last decade or so, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has sought to move the conversation away from what human beings are to what human beings do. His 2007 book, The Home We Build Together, is a landmark in this regard. Sacks has been preoccupied for years with the questions that philosophers like Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor have asked–how can we understand the place of religion and unique cultures within a globalized world? Sacks’s contribution is to think about societies as things that all of us contribute to, instead of something that all of us take from.

His model for this is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, which was built with the contributions of “all whose heart moved” him or her. “A nation,” Sacks writes, “is created through the act of creation itself. Not all the miracles of the Exodus combined, not the plagues, the division of the sea, manna from heaven or water from a rock, not even the revelation at Sinai itself turned the Israelites into a nation. In commanding Moses to get the people to make the Tabernacle,” Sacks concludes, “God was in effect saying: To turn a group of people into a covenantal nation, they must build something together.”

We have just concluded the holiday of Sukkot, which concludes the holiday cycle begun with Passover and continuing through Shavuot. Those two holidays celebrate freedom from oppression and the establishment of law, the creation of the covenant. Sukkot is the final achievement: the creation of society through buliding, taking the contributions of the world itself to make something together. The Sukkah is our contemporary Mishkan.

At the same time, we experience this reality through the weekly cycle of work and rest, chol and Shabbat. The Rabbis of course understood that the work of building the Mishkan was the human counterpart to God’s creation of the world. The work we do not do on Shabbat is defined by the work done to create the Mishkan–and therefore this is precisely the holy work, the purposeful work, the melechet machshevet, we do during the week. The emphasis is on the doing, on the creating, on the acting–it is not simply on cogitating about being.

One of my former (and continuing) students, Jessica Fain, who is currently studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, wrote me a profound and wonderful line this morning in her pre-Shabbat reflection: “Rather than saying God is good, say good is Godly.  We should be looking for the Godliness in action.” Doing, creating, is how we walk in God’s ways.

Shabbat shalom.

Michael Oren, soon to be Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., is first and foremost an historian. But his academic and diplomatic/political lives come together in this short piece in the current New Republic on the erection of a memorial to World War I deserters at Ypres on the French-Belgian border. Yes, with the last of the WWI vets dying off, the Europeans are putting up a pole to honor those who refused to fight at all.

Oren goes through the logic and the absurdity of this. If World War I was an insane war, then the sane thing to do was not to fight. And most people came to view the war as just that, so deserters look good. As Oren points out,

In contrast to the United States, fortunate to have fought most of its wars overseas, Europe was host to two twentieth-century apocalypses that left it depopulated and permanently traumatized. Torn between ravaging communist and fascist tides, many on the continent came to see war as an inherently no-win, illegitimate endeavor. Consequently, desertion could be conceived as logical, even honorable–and not only from the killing fields of Ypres.

But this has now gone further, as evidenced in a number of European actions that seem to indicate that virtually all military acts are problematic (Oren lists failed peacekeeping on the Israel-Lebanon and Israel-Gaza borders, and failure to fight the Taliban, as evidence, as well has Germany’s harboring of an American deserter from Afghanistan.) While American and European histories diverge over the violence known on our own shores, these ideas have a way of migrating. Oren closes his piece with the question: “It sounds far-fetched, but it is impossible not to wonder: Will visitors to Valley Forge someday see a single pole?”

Some additional reverberations: The current confrontation in Iran, and in my little blogging universe, the conversation around Roger Cohen. Cohen issued a small mea culpa in light of this week’s events: “I erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness.” (Full article here.) Iran does indeed practice violence, and that was on display for all to see on Sunday. Cohen, the most European of the NYT columnists, seems to have been awoken from a daydream, perhaps because of some deeply ingrained aversion to any form of violence. Iran may as well be Israel now.

Okay, that was a cheap shot. But it brings us to reverberation no. 2, which is Israel. It’s hard to imagine the Israeli police responding to a democractic protest the way the Iranians have. Cohen would have to grant that. Israel does exercise violence, but its record against its own citizens is pretty darn clean. And, as I have often argued before, if a mass Palestinian non-violence movement arose, it would bring statehood quicker than all the armed intifadas in the world. Why? Because no one could argue with it. As a non-violent movement, it would take away any of the moral ambiguity that comes with violence, and that leads ultimately to societies erecting memorials to those who fled military service.

Final reverberation: I think that Oren is on to something important here. As Americans become more aware of human suffering, through the Internet and through travel to the developing world, I imagine we will take on some of the European sensibility towards violence. I see this phenomenon all the time among the college students I work with. Violence is problematic for them. But violence is also linked to forms of particular identity, because so many wars have been fought in the name of maintaining religious or ethnic or national purity. “Let’s all be humanists” is the motto of many today, and would seem to be the European slogan too. Our challenge is to develop a language for talking about difference that does not lead to violence. (On this score, Jonathan Sacks’s The Dignity of Difference is the best book out there.)

The main theme for my approach to Passover this year is that of opening. Think of the number of times we make openings at the seder: We open the door to welcome our guests, to proclaim ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’ and again to welcome Elijah the Prophet. We break open the middle matzah as we begin the Maggid section of the seder, symbolizing our opening up the story and opening ourselves to it and to one another.

The French rabbi-philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin explores this theme in his Haggadah. In his final comment, on opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments:

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.

The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

This paradox is physically enacted in opening the door of our home. Think of the security, the faith, it takes to open the door late at night, or to go to sleep with it unlocked, as is the custom on this ‘Night of Watching,’ this leil shimurim. By doing so to welcome the mysterious Elijah, we demonstrate a confidence in ourselves that empowers us to make ourselves vulnerable. We enact the definition of home propounded by my own Hillel rabbi in college, Jim Ponet: Home is the place we can welcome guests. In opening our doors at Pesach, we show that we are at home.

In The Dignity of Difference, his groundbreaking exploration of globalization and religious identity, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain imagines what faith in a globalized world could look like:

It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours… It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. (pp. 65-66)

This is the paradox of Pesach, the paradox of opening the door. Passover is our people’s most nationalistic holiday. At the same time, in order to connect with our identity as Jews, in order to be at home, we have to open ourselves—to the Haggadah, to one another, to guests, to the world.

Chag sameach. My sincere wishes for a joyous, meaningful, and liberating Pesach.