Friday, October 12, 2018

Was Noah a good leader for humanity?

If there is one lesson that American Presidents have learned over the past 16 years or so it is that when a natural disaster, like a Hurricane, occurs it is absolutely crucial that the public see and feel that the nation’s chief executive officer is involved and on top of marshaling resources to support communities affected by the ravages of a storm. We have witnessed the opposite when the public perception was that the president was not engaged directly with the people impacted by the Hurricane. When that happens rest assured there will be serious political consequences afterwards. The last three American Presidents have had to deal with massive hurricanes and we have seen the results when a President was truly engaged versus those who only appeared to be involved and compassionate with those who have suffered.

The Torah portion is Noah and the sages also have a lot to say in support and in criticism of Noah who had to exercise communal leadership for this catalysmic act of divine retribution.  Our commentators have a wide variety of views as to whether Noah was truly a hero or engaged leader for building the ark and following god’s orders. What were some of the criticisms that the sages leveled against Noah and were they legitimate? Staying silent and not appearing to be an advocate for one’s people or community  is not a good example for leadership in any age. The same is true in politics as it is religion that if a perception exist in which people think that a leader is not totally engaged on the people’s behalf then that leader will likely confront harsh and adverse  repercussions.
One of the most poignant but subtle attacks against Noah was his reaction to the idea that God was going to destroy humanity.

The most important book of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, speaks to Noah as deserving of criticism. The sages like to contrast Noah with Abraham with the intention of saying both were good men but Abraham was unique because he had a degree of compassion that surpassed Noah. How so?  In chapter of six of Genesis God says to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come to me”……” and behold I will destroy them from the earth. Now go make an ark of gopher wood” (6:13).
The rabbis say, “Noah held his peace and said nothing, neither did he intercede. Whereas when God was about to destroy the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomarah, Abraham said to God, “ Will you also destroy the righteous and the wicked.”
Now the rabbis add on with further criticism of Noah in comparison to Abraham. Rashi, the most famous of biblical commentators, observed  the difference between Abraham and Noah in that Noah needed God’s support to perform his duties but Abraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”

 There are even some scholars who take a more middle of the road approach to Noah in contrast to Abraham. They ask what is the meaning of the verse in Genesis, “Noah was a man righteous and whole hearted in his generation” (6:9).  In one Midrash they ask, “what does the phrase “in his generation,” mean? The answer is mixed for some sages say it to his credit and others to his discredit. Was Noah righteous in his generation but not in others? This could be compared to a man who places a silver coin amongst copper coins, then the silver appears attractive. So Noah, therefore, appeared righteous in his generation of the flood. Still others interpret Noah to a jar of balsam placed in a grave which gave off a goodly fragrance. Had it been placed inside the house how much the more so would the fragrance be appreciated. (Tanhuma).

Finally, back to Rashi who commented on verse seven which says “Noah went into the ark before the waters of the flood.” Rashi says, “Noah had little faith, only half believing that the flood would actually come and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to go inside.”

Clearly the rabbis do not hold Noah in the highest esteem. Were trying to diminish Noah so that they could build up Abraham? The most important critique we read was that he was silent and said nothing to defend humanity. He did nothing to challenge the justice of God’s decree to vanquish human civilization. And that is contrary to biblical figures like Abraham, Moses and Job who did challenge God when they believed God was being unfair or unjust against the Jewish people. If there is anything that is a distinguishing feature of Jewish theology it is that we do challenge God and even criticize God when we believe God is decreeing a punishment against us which we believe to be unjust.
Indeed why wasn’t Noah a stronger advocate on behalf of humanity before god? Why didn’t he speak out to God to try to intervene and convince God to hold his wrath? Noah is not a bad man but could he not have been a better advocate for humanity? If there is one thing we as a people have learned it is that silence in the face of any injustice is not the Jewish ethos we prize in assessing effective leadership. 

As Americans we have, embedded in our societal values, a belief that one should speak out when we feel justice is perverted. Our compassion as a society demands we speak out not only against God but against leadership when we strongly disagree. That ethos stems directly from the Torah.

So when there is a crisis of a natural disaster like a flood, hurricane or earthquake the nation’s leader is expected not to be silent. The leader is expected to be a fierce advocate in bringing compassion and advocacy on behalf of the citizens that leader represents.
Can we  go one step further by suggesting God expects us to exhibit compassion in times of travail even if we have brought on our own suffering? In Noah’s case the answer is yes. We have seen the reason why being silent and not advocating is contrary to our belief system. Americans have had to use that advocacy when natural disasters have hit our communities and the people needed the government to get involved in helping our fellow citizens find the resources to rebuild after a devastating hurricane.

The rabbis have opened our eyes to a different dimension of the Noah story where Noah is a good man and righteous but not altogether meeting the standards of other great leaders who would have taken a much more proactive course of action to protect the people. Presidents and other leaders could do well to remember that following orders and staying silent, even if for honorable reasons, may, in fact, send the wrong message about how to be a leader in a time of crisis.  Paraphrasing from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for silence and a time for speaking out.” Noah missed that opportunity and God help any leader who does the same when a natural disaster hits our community.

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

God created everything except the ability to Lie.

This is my most recent newspaper column. It is about lying and telling the truth. A very important lesson for clergy and elected officials running for office. This is especially relevant when we have a mayoral candidate who is a Holocaust denier. Read on and tell me what you think?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Hilton Head has a problem: Time to speak out against hate.

We like to believe that all is well in our community. For the most part it is except that we have the beginnings of a mayor's race where two of seven candidates have publicly espoused views of denial and creating fake truths about  the Holocaust and another who expresses admiration for Adolph Hitler. It is time to face up to this problem. I have written over the last few weeks and published two articles in my newspaper column some of my own perspectives on this matter. Needless to say that National attention has been focused upon us. Hilton Head likes to think of itself as a world class community rating no 1 in America for resort living. World class means many things. Now are we being tested as to whether we are a world class community or not with the way we respond to the onslaught of two candidates for mayor who seem to be comfortable with such views.
Thanks for reading these two articles and I appreciate your reactions and viewpoints.
Happy New Year.
Rabbi Bloom

Friday, August 3, 2018

Torah Portion Ekev Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 8:3 Man does not live by bread alone."

We spend our lives working, raising kids and planning exactly for these so- called golden years. We hope that we can call them our golden years. Isn’t this the time when we have financial resources to live without having to work. And if we do work it is because we want to and not because we have to work. Isn’t this the time when we begin to acquire some level of perspective and wisdom about the struggles we went through and the challenges we faced earlier on in life? Isn’t this the time when we reassess the past and recognize the success we had on multiple levels which we might have not appreciated earlier on in life? And isn’t this the time as we watch our children follow the pathway of work, earning a living and giving to their children as we gave to them that we begin to rethink about what we needed  to survive in or previous years versus what they need today to survive and be satisfied in the world?

The Torah portion give us some insight about the meaning of a life well lived. In the Torah Portion Ekev, Deuteronomy Chapter eight verses two-three. We read, “He subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the LORD decrees.” What does that mean for us? How shall we apply this verse to us and our lives over the years?

This verse combines something that strikes a familiar chord about life. Struggle is part of life. Hardship contrasted with moments of beneficence whether we call God the source of these moments or not. Judaism has struggled for a long time with this verse. Generally in the popular culture this verse was used to give us perspective that man does not live by bread alone meaning  don’t count on the road of life to be easy. Don’t be surprised when bad things happen or when good things can happen.  The other part of the verse is that God is testing us to see how we cope with these ups and downs.

It is hard to involve God this way because holding God  responsible as the arbiter of our fates good or bad often creates more theological problems that it solves for us. We see these issues, for example,  play out in biblical books such as the book of Job as he lashes out at God for causing him so much suffering. Joseph shares his faith with his brothers when their father Jacob died by saying that God put him through all the suffering of his kidnapping, his servitude in Potiphar’s house and then his servitude in jail for valid reasons which were to solve the  problems  with his brothers and make peace. We look at biblical women who enjoyed the rapture of joy when they were able to give birth to children. These same women suffered great anguish because they had trouble and suffered much emotional trauma  at not being able initially to have children. The upshot is what most of us know which is that there is no easy ride for most of us in this world. Have we not come to understand that life is all about facing struggle and challenges as well as liberation and joy?

No one wants the suffering for ourselves or for our loved ones, yet, without pain, how can we live a real life? We want to protect our children from all harm yet when we do  that and they get what the want. Haven’t  we  inoculated our kids from facing the challenges of life? Do we not handicap them at the same time when one day we will not be able to intervene to help or shield them? What have we done for them to give them skills for life? I am as guilty as the rest of trying to do these things  for my child. I suppose most of us have done the same. We worry and then there comes a moment when they surprise us and find a way to step up to the plate and meet those challenges just as we did.

The Talmud in tractate Yom 74b comments on chapter 8:3 and gives us some perspective about focusing on real priorities in life. They ask how can there be affliction when the Israelites were eating manna? What was the affliction? 
 Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi disagreed on this matter. One said you can’t compare between one who has bread in the basket and one who does not have bread in the basket. In other words the affliction was that there was no leftover food the next day in the basket after they ate the manna. So the people worried each day that they might not have any food to eat each day. Here there is a clear distinction.

The other rabbi said there is no comparison between one who sees the food and eats it and one who does not see the food and eats it. Though the  manna could taste like anything, it always looked the same and did not look as it tasted. But being unable to see the food that they tasted was an affliction.

I use this talmudic text to say that the symbol of  food to represent  life means life’s challenges.  The rabbis are pragmatic about life’s realities when contrasting those with versus those without food.  Yet the other rabbi gives us a different kind of message. One who sees the food he eats verses one who does not see the food. The idea of seeing makes all the difference of the world. The point is not about how it tastes but about not being able to see it. Thus  literally seeing the food is a deeper message which says not seeing could mean not appreciating and not grasping the meaning of having the food that God gives. 
Basically the spiritual message reminds us all that not appreciating what we have and how we survive is like being unable to see those blessings or being able to unable to understand the  blessings we have in life.

So the Torah says that God tested us with hardships of hunger and gave us manna and reminded us that Man does not live by bread alone but that man may live on anything that the Lord decrees.’ This verse along with the rabbis analogy is trying to enlighten us about facing the challenges of life as part of life versus those who do not do so. 

The real spiritual hunger is not seeing or grasping that which we hunger for in life. Food is one level going up the hierarchy.  To see the food is all about understanding and making peace with how we lived and how we continue to live in the world today.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Thoughts on the 9th of Av-Keeping the peace within the Jewish people.

 Modern Jews have trouble dealing with the tragedies of Jewish history. People often tell me that they feel that the sages focused too much on tragedy claiming how it spoils our attitudes towards a positive viewpoint towards being Jewish.
This time of the year is especially geared to remembering tragic episodes in Jewish history. Tomorrow begins the fast day called Tisha B’av or the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av when we remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the anniversary of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 in which the edict was signed expelling Jewish from the Iberian Peninsula.
 We started this series of remembrances by signaling on the 17th day they Hebrew month of Tammuz on June 30th. From this time until July 20th we remember the process by which the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem of the Second Temple in 70CE.  During this interval time leading up to the 9th day of AV, no marriages are performed. This period is called “The Three Weeks.” 
a. Some customs are no eating meat or drinking wines during this period.
b. One is not allowed to say the Shechiyanu prayer
c. No purchasing any new garments.
d. Parents or teachers may not chastise their children during these days.
e. No haircuts during these days for adults or children.
f. The day before the 9th of Av one should not travel for any pleasure.
Laws on the 9th of Av
  1. Be uncomfortable when going to bed.
  2. Do not wear tephillin
  3. Go to services and pray with tears of sadness.
  4. Read the biblical book of Lamentations.
  5. Study the book of Job
  6. A pregnant woman or nursing woman should try to fast.
  7. A woman from the 7th-30th day after birth is encouraged to fast as long as she feels she can do so.
  8. A sick person who is not dangerously ill may fast even if it is for a few hours.
  9. No washing of the body for pleasure. Health purposes is fine.
  10. 10.A woman may not enter the mikveh on the eve of Tisha B’av so that she will not be obligated to have sex that night and through the next day.
  11. 11.No wearing of leather shoes
  12. 12.No marital relations
  13. 13.Business transactions are forbidden until midday.
  14. 14.Work is allowed after midday.
  15. 15.No sitting on a chair until midday.
  16. 16.One may perform a circumcision after midday.

I think we get the point of how serious our sages took these days and how they wanted the Jewish people to feel the pain of exile and loss as part of what it means to be a Jew. This led to the debate in modern times that Tisha B’av would suffice to include the commemoration of the Holocaust. Yet, the state of Israel decided differently and introduced Yom HaShoah in April on the hebrew date commemorating the Warsaw ghetto rebellion against the Nazis.

We also have an additional issue for liberal Jews with regard to the Ninth of AV.  In 1885 when the Reform
Rabbinate developed their first platform of ideas that would guide
Reform Judaism for over 130 years these sages disavowed the return Palestine and the rebuilding of the 2nd Temple. We have come a long way since then when it comes to Zionism. Reform Jews, however, still do not aspire to hold rebuilding the Temple and the sacrificial cult alongside it as a theological goal.
As a matter of fact many Jews especially secular Jews and not only Reform Jews, believe that we do not need Tisha B’av anymore since we have a Jewish state.
Just go to the main plaza of the Western Wall  on Tisha B’av and see the amazing contrast between how the ultra Orthodox stand at the wall and pray with prayers of mourning. Yet the overwhelming rest of the people who fill up the plaza are practically in a celebratory mood. What a paradox!

Many Rabbis today will quote from the Talmudic dictum that the Temple was not just destroyed by the Romans in 70CE but the real cause for the destruction of our most sacred institution was that the Talmud says we were cast into exile because of sinat hinam or baseless hatred within the Jewish people. In other words the teaching has been that because we were divided amongst ourselves we became vulnerable to the Romans. So the idea is that if we are divided today then we too are vulnerable to the same fate as our forbearers. Unfortunately this idea has a lot of relevance to the tensions Israel has these days between ultra orthodox and Reform and Conservative Jewry as well as secular Jews in Israel today. The most recent example is the new bill that the Israeli Knesset passed this week that has, through new directives and policies, fortified the Jewish character of the state of Israel. Whereas opponents of this bill  claim that this new legislation will diminish Israel a pluralistic and democratic state.

The first chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy which are read this Shabbat remind us of how important it is to remember history. Moses outlines the history particularly about the years of wandering in the desert and headed towards the Promised Land. Again Moses is trying to instill in the minds of the first and second generations about to enter the Promised Land a feeling for the past mistakes and triumphs. He too saw how baseless hatred could threaten the inner fabric of this new people chosen by God to introduce Torah to the world.

Mourning the catastrophes of our people’s past is appropriate. Having rituals that help us stay connected spiritually to that past is also fitting.
Reform Judaism may not be able to reconcile the hope to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem again. But we can make Tisha B’Av the ninth of Av a holy day which reminds us of not letting ourselves be the cause of infighting. History has taught us the results when a nation turns against itself and how it can subject its population to suffering at the hands of new oppressors. It is a good lesson for the leaders of Israel today and for our leaders in this country.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Reflections on my Sabbatical: The Meaning of the Sabbath

Shalom to all,
I just finished my first installment on my Sabbatical. So I published this new column on the meaning of the Sabbath and how we use time to be productive. But is being productive and efficient all that defines a human being?  So I hope you will take a read and click the link to keep this column alive. There are some insights here that might just provide some new thinking about the wisdom of our tradition in the hustle bustle world we all live in.
What do you think?
Brad Bloom

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Battle for the Soul of America: Finding our Better Angels.

This is my fourth of July newspaper column. I recently finished the new history book The Battle for the Soul of America: Finding our better Angels. by Jon Meachem. I strongly advise reading this great book. This is a message to give some perspective on being an American and what it will take to preserve our country. Let me know what you think.
Rabbi Brad Bloom