Tuesday, December 31, 2013

MLK and a 19th-century rebbetzin teach us about confidence (Torah portion of Bo)

When I was in rabbinical school, I once attended a leadership training seminar in which all those who attended had to share one of their anxieties about assuming a position of  communal leadership.  When it was my turn, I mentioned that one of the things about which I was apprehensive was that it seems to me that religious leaders need to cultivate a charismatic speaking style and stage presence, and that was something that I thought did not come naturally to me.

Later on, in the presentation, the speaker addressed my concern and told us a story that was very new and surprising to me.  He said:  Everyone agrees that one of the greatest orators and leaders of the twentieth century was Martin Luther King.  But when Martin Luther King was a seminary student, he was preoccupied by what he perceived as a lack of dynamism in his speaking style.  He felt that he had a lot of ideas -- and a lot of leadership potential -- but he was unsure whether he would be able to transmit his message effectively enough to move people.  So one of his professors assigned him and some of his classmates to travel around to various small churches, and to get some experience in preaching on a regular basis.  Martin Luther King would later credit this experience as what truly taught him how to be a preacher and how to motivate a room of people.  He would say that his speaking style never came fully naturally to him; he always had to work at it.  But he knew that, if he wanted to accomplish the things that he felt God meant for him to accomplish, he would have to hone this skill, and he did.

[NOTE: Whereas this is the way that the story was relayed to me, I have since learned from Taylor Branch's masterful biography of Martin Luther King, Parting the Waters, that even though King wanted to expand his repertoire of speaking styles, he arrived to the seminary as an already talented orator, and he won several awards in preaching while a seminary student. He was also known in his college and seminary years as a person full of confidence.]

This story was stunning to me because I never would have imagined that great oratory skill didn’t come naturally to Martin Luther King.  And this story was important for me to help me to gain confidence in public speaking - something that I knew that, as a rabbi, I’d be called upon to do from time to time.

We find a similar insight at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Bo, from the book of Exodus.  Our Torah portions are usually after the first significant word in the first verse of the Torah reading.  The Torah portion of Bo begins with the words:  vayomer adonai el moshe: bo el par’oh.  This is usually translated as:  “And God spoke to Moses and said:  Go to Pharaoh…[to tell him that if he doesn't let the Israelites go free, Egypt will be afflicted with another plague].”   The Hebrew word "Bo" is translated as the English word "go."  This is the way it is translated in just about every English version I have ever seen.

But there's one problem. The Hebrew word "bo" doesn't mean "go."  In fact, it means the opposite:  it means "come."  If God really wanted to say "go to Pharaoh," God would have said lech el par’oh.  The verse actually means, “come to Pharaoh.”  The difference in meaning is subtle -- but Jews have a long tradition of reading the Torah with a subtle eye.  What could this somewhat peculiar construction mean to us?

My favorite explanation for this peculiarity is given by the Rebbetzin Feige Levin of Bendin.  She was the daughter of the Hasidic master known as the Sefas Emes, who was a prominent Torah commentator in the late 19th century.  (It's exciting and somewhat unusual to find an early example of a woman in a traditional community who was a teacher of Torah and whose interpretations of the Torah were incorporated into traditional Jewish texts.  In her case, her interpretations are recorded in the writings of her husband, Hanoch Tzvi of Bendin, in his work called Yechahen Pe’er  יכהן פאר.)

According to Rebbetzin Feige Levin, God knew that appearing before Pharaoh was an exceptionally difficult task for Moses.  We know from elsewhere in the Torah that Moses had a speech impediment, and speaking in public was something that agonized him and made him very anxious.   In addition, it is presumably very difficult to appear before a major world leader and make a very unpopular request.  So Moses probably dreaded this task of pleading with Pharaoh.  But it was something that needed to be done, if Moses was to liberate his people from slavery.  For this reason, God says Bo el par’oh -  "Come to Pharaoh" - because the implication is "Come WITH ME to Pharaoh."
God says, "I know this is a very difficult thing for you to do.  I know it's something that makes you anxious and apprehensive.  But you should know that you're not going alone. Come with Me to Pharaoh, and I will be beside you the whole time, supporting you -- because this is the task to which I have assigned you."

Rebbetzin Feyge Levin and Martin Luther King both remind us that the things that God intends us to accomplish in our lives are very rarely the things that come most easily for us.  In fact, they are usually the things accompanied by maximum struggle and self-doubt.  One of the roles God plays in our lives is as the force that stands by our side and gives us the confidence and strength necessary to do the difficult things we know we ought to do, so we can best grow into the roles for which we are intended.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The early life of a mystery religious leader (Torah portion of Shemot)

Let me tell you a story about the early life of one of the most significant religious leaders in world history - someone who was effectively a founder of one of our world’s major religious traditions.

At the beginning of this story, this future religious leader is growing up in a palace, living a life of spectacular material comforts:  a life very different from the spiritual path that he would later help to chart for millions of people.  As a member of the king’s family, he has plenty of whatever he wanted.  He is certainly unaware of any suffering or poverty that existed outside the palace’s walls.

The king does his best to insulate him from witnessing any pain, any injustice, any suffering.  But one day he does venture out of the palace walls.  And what he sees there challenges him deeply - and changes him forever.  After seeing the terrible suffering that goes on outside the walls of the palace, and after beginning to identify with those who were suffering, he knows he can no longer return to the palace.  He renounces his role as a member of the ruling family and begins his role as a spiritual leader - and as a liberator, with the goal of liberating those who were suffering.

If you have been reading carefully, you know who I have been describing.  It’s obvious, isn’t it? --- well, maybe not.  It could be Moses, whose early life is described in this week’s Torah portion of Shemot.  But it also could be, surprisingly enough, the life of Gautama Buddha -- who certainly also qualifies as one of the world's most important religious leaders, and is effectively the founder of Buddhism (just as you can make a case that Moses was a founder of the Jewish people).

When I first studied about Buddhism in college, I was struck by how similar the story of Buddha’s early life seemed to the story of Moses.  But, of course, with some important differences.

Buddha was the son of a king, and grew up in the palace.  His father had heard a prophesy that if his son experienced any suffering, he would discard his opportunity to be a ruler and instead become a religious leader.  And, in fact, one day Buddha ventures out of the palace walls and sees -- all for the first time - a poor man, a sick man, a dead man, and a monk.  This experience first makes him aware of how distant his existence in the palace had been from your typical human existence.  He becomes driven to find the way to relieve humanity of that suffering.  Those who have studied Buddhism know that his way is recognizing that all temporal phenomena are illusion, and one can learn to transcend one’s inevitable suffering by realizing that it is not part of one’s ultimate reality.  (That’s a vast oversimplification, but it will have to do for now.)

So how is the story of Moses similar and different?  Moses isn’t actually the son of the Pharaoh, but he is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised in the palace.  While the Torah doesn’t tell us anything much about Moses’ early life in the palace, there is a well-known Midrash -- a traditional Jewish story, thousands of years old, based on the Torah -- which says that Pharaoh heard a prophesy that some day in the future, Moses would take Pharaoh’s empire away from him. Which -- as you can imagine -- makes Pharaoh a little bit wary.  (Exodus Rabbah 1:26)

Moses ventures outside of the palace walls, and for the first time, he sees the injustice of slavery:  he sees an Egyptian taskmaster mercilessly beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses sees that there is no one around to come to the aid of the Hebrew slave, so he strikes the taskmaster - and the taskmaster dies.  Moses realizes he is now a wanted man who must flee Egypt.  But before the chapter is over, Moses intervenes in two more conflicts - in a conflict between two Hebrew slaves who are arguing, and in a conflict between the seven daughters of Jethro and some aggressive shepherds that are molesting them.  In each encounter, Moses comes to the aid of the underdog in the conflict.

What are we supposed to make of the dramatic similarities between these two stories?  First, it is not surprising for great religious traditions to share certain ideas.  It’s the ‘great minds think alike’ principle: there’s something universally powerful about the idea of a great religious leader growing up in circumstances of power and plenty and then throwing it all away for a chance to do something that REALLY matters.

But then again, it’s the differences in the stories which help to highlight what is most distinctive about each religious tradition. The essential difference is in the kind of liberation that each leader seeks to achieve. Buddha’s experience taught him that there must be a way for every human being to transcend his or her circumstances, no matter how terrible they are.  But it’s primarily an otherworldly liberation.  We liberate ourselves from the world by recognizing that all temporal phenomena are an illusion. 

Whereas when Moses sees injustice, he does not try to transcend it or to understand it as illusion -- he simply tries to overcome it. He acts - with force if necessary; with violence if necessary.  It is no surprise that he becomes the principle leader of a religious tradition that values spiritual life, but places its emphasis on the here and now and pictures and strives towards a world that is free of injustice.

As a religious pluralist, I am glad that our world includes both the religious paths of Buddhism and Judaism (as well as many other paths).  I can learn much wisdom from Buddhism, even as Judaism is my chosen path and tradition.  On this particular issue, though, I find myself more aligned with the world-engaging approach of Judaism than with the world-transcending approach of Buddhism. 

According to stereotype, Jews are uptight while Buddhists are relaxed.  Like all stereotypes, of course it's not really true.  But I appreciate the example of Moses as a person who will not rest or relax in the face of injustice.  Injustice spurs him to be maximally engaged with the physical world, rather than to withdraw from the physical world.  To paraphrase the words of the great 19th century Jewish sage Rabbi Israel Salanter:  There are some people who think that spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of other people’s souls. But in Judaism,   spirituality is being concerned with the welfare of your OWN soul - and the welfare of other people’s bodies.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Joseph's story, and Nelson Mandela's story: Parashat Vayyigash

Life imitates Torah: As we reach the climax of the Joseph story this shabbat in the Torah portion of Vayyigash, we think of another man who, like Joseph, knew from an early age that he was destined for something special. Like Joseph, he spent many years in prison separated from his family. Like Joseph, it was in prison that he developed the skills -- especially the ability to listen -- that would later make him a great leader. Like Joseph, he had the fortitude to forgive those who were responsible for his imprisonment and to achieve reconciliation with them. Like Joseph, once regarded as part of a despise minority, he ascended to national leadership. Like Joseph, as a national leader he was not without controversy, but he was able to steer his country through a crisis that, without his wise stewardship, could have led to complete destruction. And like Joseph, he lived long enough to see so many of his dreams come to fruition. Yehi zichro baruch - may the memory of Nelson Mandela be for a blessing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Statement in support of USH application for GreenFaith Certification

Our congregation is excited to apply for participation in the Greenfaith Certification Program.  This program will help us as a congregation to express our commitment to the protection of our environment -- a commitment we share with our neighbors of many different faiths, and that has deep roots in our own Jewish tradition.

One of the central themes of Jewish spirituality is our gratitude for and appreciation of the natural world.  This theme is expressed repeatedly in the Psalms, which encourage us to take nothing in the natural world for granted.  One of the most poignant passages in the Midrash imagines God taking Adam on a tour of the beauty of the natural world and warning him, “If you destroy it, there will be no one to come after you to repair it.”  (Kohelet Rabbah 9)   The Talmud’s famous story of an old man planting a carob tree whose fruit he knows he will never see  reminds us that Jewish tradition has always prioritized making thoughtful decisions to ensure that future generations will experience the blessings that we have experienced.  (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a)

Our congregation strives to incorporate environmental consciousness in all of our activities and decisions, from our decisions about school and office supplies, to our building maintenance and renovation decisions, to our use of energy and natural resources.  The Greenfaith Certification Program will help us to be ever more thoughtful about our community’s environmental impact and the messages we transmit about the environment to children and adults.