Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Sabbath of Remembrance: Thou shalt not Hate

This weekend is Purim. Those who show up to services in synagogues around the world will hopefully rejoice in the fun and frolic of this holiday. Let’s not forget that there is a serious side in preparing for Purim. I am not referring today to the customs of shlach manot or preparation of food gift packages to friends and to the poor. I am not referring to the optional fast day which tradition calls the fast of Esther. Instead, this Shabbat we will read the Torah portion- parashat tzav- which comes from the book of Leviticus. At the end of the Torah reading, when we come to the last set of verses, we will bring out a second Torah in addition to the one we read and open it to Exodus and read several verses reminding us to remember the evil Amalek. This was the biblical figure who attacked the Israelites from behind in their journey into the desert. This was the most vulnerable part of the Israelite encampment because the women and the children were at the back of the formation. The Torah tells us to “blot out” Amalek’s name and then it also tells us “not to forget” him. Because it is a mitzvah to read these verses at the end of our Torah reading, the rabbis fixed this Sabbath and called it Shabbat Zachor-the Sabbath of Remembrance.
Why do we pay attention to this little known ancient barbarian or tribal chieftain who terrorized the Israelites? Is it because of the connection to Haman, the evil one who almost succeeded implementing a policy of ethnic cleansing  of the Jews in Persia, thereby setting up the story of Purim which we shall read Saturday night at Temple? The answer to this question is in part yes. But I must believe that there is more to it than simply remembering the evil man in either story. Someone said to me recently, does not this kind of rabbinic mandate to blot out his name ultimately perpetuate hatred in people? How can Judaism advocate us to hate anyone?
There is a possible outward appearance that by remembering our bitter feelings to Amalek or Haman or any of these nefarious leaders over history that we indulge the emotion of hatred.  But the rabbis taught us to remember them not to hate them. Remembering does not mean hating them forever but it does mean rejecting their actions. It means learning from what they did to our ancestors and being careful today because good and evil are shaped by history and experience.
I know critics within Judaism say that we are obsessed with those who are trying to annihilate us. Maybe we should take a broader perspective and resist being so dependant emotionally upon a siege mentality towards our own history. Yet, I wonder if that change of heart does not create a slippery slope for us when we start to soften the impact of the demagogues and tyrants of the past, the successors to Amalek?
It is certainly a balancing act for Jews in observing Purim to intermingle our celebration of Jewish heroism and remembrance of how close we came to extinction. Maybe that is why humor is the only safety valve that the rabbis had at their disposal that would enable Jewish communities to cope with the ongoing potential threat of a Haman in any period of Jewish history. That is why we use the groggers on Purim and cheer for Mordechai and Ester and put on plays to make fun of ourselves. It is all about balance in our spiritual health. Humor itself is an effective tool or emotion that we have to offset the pressures and the anxieties of life.
We would be wise not to focus so much on the man Amalek or even Haman or any other despotic ruler against the Jews in history that such emotional energy saps our love of humanity and our trust of the good people who have been our friends. We have many of them. Let us learn from all our experiences to beware the potential threat and to still celebrate and make holy our lives. Enjoy Purim and Chag Sameach.

Monday, March 14, 2011

finding the creative voice

Finding the Creative Side: Part Three
Part of the problem between us and God may relate to a problem that focuses on ignoring the creative side of ourselves. Let’s face it when we start asking questions about god and speculating about why we are here in this universe and whether God really cares about us we are tapping into the creative wellspring that makes us human.
As a parent I remember asking my daughter to do creative things like be a ballet dancer and study the piano. She did both of these activities for years. Like most parents we started our kids off on them for physical training, mental acuity and discipline. They did them all and we took pleasure especially when they actually enjoyed themselves. But we knew that it was about developing their creative instincts.
I wonder whether we cared as much about those instincts when it came to religion. Sure we took them to Hebrew school and Sunday schools. It started out as fun in the early years. But we all knew what happened as they grew older. They began to see that serving God was akin to serving Pharaoh when it came to after school Hebrew or getting up early to Sunday school at Temple. They began to resent it and protest and resist us and we became Pharaohs to our children. What happened to the creative, God searching side, the side of our kids that showed us wonder with their imagination about God? What happened to it?
Not for all Jewish kids but for a lot of them Judaism became too much of a period of servitude rather than sacred service or growing the spirit. Too many other activities competing for their time is one rationale.  A world that does not value Torah learning is another one. Parents who are not involved personally in their faith and preach one line of expectation but who do not practice it in their lives becomes another explanation about why kids lose their interest in religion.  God can be found in the pages of the books in the Temple library but the problem is that few open the books and then God becomes invisible. If so, is it no wonder that people lose interest in their religious affiliation?
The challenge is to rekindle that sense of wonder. Grandparents can absolutely do this. Parents can too. Kids need to see their parents striving and learning. They may not show it but they will do it in their way eventually. They still model us for good and for bad. We are never too old to set an example for our kids and our grandchildren. So we all need to get going and get out of our comfort zones to become creative again. We can find God in ways we never thought imaginable. I love watching my congregants take on new hobbies and passions in the community. Social activism is definitely one way. I cannot tell how many people in my current congregation who are retired and were never active in a temple or the Jewish community. Yet when they retired they started to explore joining a temple and now they are amongst the most active in the congregation.  Retirement does bring us to the pathway of spiritual renewal. We just have to resist the all too familiar feeling of avoiding things that represent change. Change can be good. Change can help us grow spiritually.  Taking the time to really think about the way we conceive of God and building on that with continued to learning is absolutely a wonderful opportunity for growth.
You do not have to be a trained scholar to engage the Eternal One. Just be a person strives to discover and to learn. We are all on a journey in our lives. Deriving the most meaning and the truth of the life we live is part of the religious quest. God is part of that quest.  Take a step to read a book or write a thought. One day at a time.