Thursday, October 29, 2009

Got Your Marching Orders?

Below is my D'var Torah for this week. Enjoy!

I grew up greatly admiring some of the great explorers of history. Vasco da Gama. Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand Magellan. James Cook. William Bligh. Okay, maybe not so much William Bligh; he was definitely a bold explorer, but his legacy is obviously mixed. Lewis and Clark. Roald Amundsen. Richard Byrd. Amelia Earhardt. Neil Armstrong. This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are many more!

Living lives that center so much on familiar ground and familiar routines, we admire those who are able to break free, who go forth boldly with confidence. But that’s not to say that we plan to emulate them. We wish we had their chutzpah, but our self-awareness informs us that we largely do not. We find comfort in the familiar. The great explorers of history are admirable primarily because they did what we know we cannot.

And yet most of us, at one time of another in the course of our lives, will venture into uncharted territory. Some will do it unintentionally. It will take us out of our ‘comfort zone.’ But when it happens and we end up acquitting ourselves well we can and should celebrate our accomplishment. Modest accomplishment is still accomplishment. Not all of us can be a Christopher Columbus, but each of us can rise to the occasion when forced out of our usual box.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is forced out of his box. He didn’t set out to break new ground. But he received a call. G-d called him to step outside his box, to go forth in trust and confidence, to perform the audacious act of breaking with the patterns of his past. And he did. The reason we revere Abraham today, the reason we identify with him, is that he had the courage to step out and see the possibilities over the horizon.
Most of us would not ascribe to ourselves a Divine Call. Our rational sides don’t see G-d as interfering in our lives and charging us with a new mission. And yet, there are times in our lives when we see a clear vision of what we’re supposed to do. If those clear visions defy the existing, rational plans and notions of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, then our response is often to squelch the visions. Most of us try to stay on the rational side of life, and for good reason.
But sometimes the vision of what we’re supposed to do, despite being in conflict with accepted ‘wisdom,’ is so clear that we are compelled to follow it. I have to tell you that I made my best decisions in life, those which led to lasting good for myself and for others, when I defied reason and followed such visions. And that was certainly the case with Abraham.

Abraham’s life comes to us through the narrative largely as a life lived for good. If we’re reading only the simple text, we might take issue with him on a couple of points, but the Torah does not lend itself well to that sort of fundamentalist reading. No, we’re supposed to read between the lacunae and read the ‘story behind the story.’ That’s the enterprise called ‘midrash.’ Much midrash has already been done for us, but there is additional midrash to discover.

Abraham went forth on faith, and found his way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but that isn’t the end of the story. He then kept his retinue alive during a famine. And he took to the field at the head of an army to rescue his nephew, Lot and fellow residents of Sodom and Gomorrah in the war of the kings. And he later argued with G-d for the lives of those same people. And he was willing to give everything to G-d, even the son for whom he had prayed so long. Through it all, Abraham was imperfect – that is to say, human. But his legacy is a life lived large, a life that mattered, a life that impacted for the good on so many. And it started with his answering a call, responding positively to a specific vision.

Each of us will receive our call, our vision at a different time and to a different cause. Our task is not to be chomping at the bit to break free from the fetters of a predictable life. Rather, it is to be open to that vision when it comes. To discern that vision. To differentiate between the vision for good, and the interference of the desires of our eyes. It isn’t easy. It can be frightening. But if we are to reach our own potential, there will come a time when we will have to Go Forth.
There is a delightful midrash of a Rabbi Zusya, a midrash that I retell often. Zusya, nearing the end of his life, was ashamed of the smallness of his accomplishments and cried out to G-d: “I’m sorry I wasn’t an Abraham, I wasn’t a Moses!”

G-d’s response was: “I don’t blame you for not being Abraham or Moses. I blame you for not being Zusya.”

In other words, our clear vision of what we should do is not only a possibility – it is a sort of marching order. If we are true to ourselves, we will respond positively. Even if, and when, it is not convenient. Even when it is not comfortable. Even when conventional ‘wisdom’ would tell us to ignore it and take a different path. Because if we ignore it, we will not be able to rise to the greatest potential that is within us. Unlike Zusya, who pleased G-d simply by being not only Zusya but the best Zusya he could be. Who, at the end of his life, did not need to be ashamed of accomplishing more. Rather, when we don’t answer the call we will be forced to go through life thinking ‘if only.’

Monday, October 26, 2009

Don't Ask Don't Tell...Again

I want to start this post by telling you that this is not one of my hot-button issues. I believe that Don't Ask Don't Tell should be repealed, but I don't see it as one of the most compelling issues facing our country at this time. I think there are far more pressing things on the President's plate, on which he seems to be dithering. Afghanistan, for one. But having posted before my advocacy for repealing this law, and seeing that there has been some additional talk about its repeal, I feel compelled to comment on it again for the sake of clarity.

Earlier this month, President Obama declared in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group: "I will end Don't Ask Don't Tell." This elicited a standing ovation, even though the President offered no promise of a timetable or specific steps he was planning to take toward the promised end. I'm sure he has learned the lesson of Presidnet Bill Clinton, who aimed to tackle the same issue - gays and lesbians serving openly in the military - at the very start of his presidency and got himself embroiled in the fight over the issue that produced the DADT Law to begin with! (I think it's good when a sitting president learns from his predecessors; I wish Obama would also have learned from Clinton's unhappy Health Care Reform experience, but it seems he has not. But I digress...)

Clearly, conservatives in general are not for the repeal of DADT, and in advocating for its repeal I have 'broken ranks.' But that does not bother me...I'm not running for election to any office, and frankly I find that conservatives tend to be far more independent-minded than liberals in any case.

If you remember from my original post on this subject, I expressed my opposition to DADT on two grounds: Ideological, and Pragmatic. Recent information from the Department of Defense has indicated that all the military services have exceeded their recruiting and retention goals in the recently-ended fiscal year. Many conservatives would argue that this kills the Pragmatic grounds for repealing DADT - if indeed it every existed. If all the services are exceeding their goals without the repeal of DADT, both in pure numbers and in terms of quality of manpower, then that kills the Pragmatic argument, doesn't it?

Perhaps. But the cases of Dan Choi and USAF Lt Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, among others, point to the fact that the armed forced are being denied services of highly decorated and esteemed troops because of sexual orientation.

And of course, this doesn't speak at all to the Ideological argument for repealing DADT. And I think that argument, made in my original post, is compelling.

I will be curious to see if President Obama's statement to the HRC will be the start of a congressional push to act legislatively on the issue. I hope so. It's a simple issue and won't require a 1000+ page bill!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Remember the Rainbow

This is my 'd'var Torah' I'm giving this evening at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

When I was a rabbinical student, I had a student pulpit for two years in Niagara Falls, New York. As is the case with all work locations, this one had its ups and downs. One of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of my visits to Niagara Falls, was that the hotel where I stayed was very close to the Falls themselves. I often had occasion to view spectacular rainbows, either from the park right outside my hotel, or sometimes, even from the window of my room.

In this week’s Torah portion we read that the rainbow is a symbol of G-d’s promise not to destroy all life with a flood ever again. It’s a sign of His ‘peace treaty’ with humanity. When we look upon the rainbow, we are supposed to take heart that G-d, no matter how badly provoked, will not destroy us and our world.

There is some midrash on why G-d choose specifically the rainbow as a this sign of His peaceful intent. The midrash focuses on the shape and orientation of the bow.

Of course, the bow shape alludes to a war bow, as in a bow-and-arrow. The rabbis noted that, at the end of a battle between two armies on the ground, the side suing for peace would unload and unstring their bows and hold them vertically as a sign of their peaceful intent. That way, the other side would not suspect trickery.

The word ‘rainbow’ does not appear in the text, just the Hebrew word ‘keshet’ which simply means ‘bow,’ as in something bow-shaped, which is the same word used for a war-bow. So there is some justification to see that symbolism in the rainbow.

Of course, most of us look upon a rainbow and see something entirely different. The moisture in the air, whether from rainfall or from the mist rising from a massive waterfall, acts as a prism that takes the light passing through it and splits it into the different colors since each color has a different wavelength. (I’m really pretty clueless about physics and the other natural sciences, but this is something I seem to remember from high school.)

So, when we look upon the rainbow, we see a natural phenomenon. And the scientific reason for the bands of color is that the light-waves are different lengths. The splitting of the visible light into the seven basic colors just shows us that those are the colors, from which all other shades and hues are made.

Or is it ‘just’?

In the natural world, at least when there is a lot of ambient light, we are presented with a dazzling array of color. But when we see all visible light broken down to the seven different hues of the rainbow – orange, indigo, violet, yellow, red, blue, green – then we are reminded of the completeness of our world. Even though on any given day we might see more grey or more white than we wish, the rainbow reminds us that everything is there, if only we will see it all. And the rainbow itself helps us to see ‘it all’ even if our tendency to see only what’s immediately apparent often gets in the way.

In other words, the rainbow can help us to see the essential completeness of the world around us.

We all know the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ – shalom. Guess what? The root of the word ‘shalom’ means ‘completeness.’ In other words, ‘shalom’ is not merely an absence of fighting – that’s an armistice, or ‘hafsakat yeri.’ “Cease fire’ would be a direct translation of the Hebrew. No, the real intent of the word ‘shalom’ is completeness, the presence of all that is necessary for one’s well-being. A cease-fire is usually a good thing – every military strategist knows that it can also be a bad thing if it merely gives the enemy an opportunity to recoup his losses and prepare for the next battle. But it is not ‘peace.’

Of course, anybody here who lived through the Sixties is aware of the equating of the rainbow with the concept of ‘peace.’ Perhaps after the sign of the broken cross, the rainbow was the most widely-used symbol of peace then, and now.

So, here’s one of those happy convergences where the traditionalist’s understanding of the origin of the rainbow, and the science-minded person’s very different understanding – lead to the same basic conclusion. The rainbow is a sign of peace- probably the Perfect Sign. And as such, it is a sign of hope. If your enemy has unstrung his bow and is pointing it upwards, that’s a sign of hope. If, during a rain squall one can discern that all the colors are present, that’s a sign of hope. Hope is, unfortunately something that is usually in short supply.

I didn’t see a rainbow today. But I read the Torah and came across the reference to the rainbow as a sign of peace and, therefore hope. Don’t fail to see the signs counseling hope around us – whether in the realm of nature, or in the Holy text we read. To have the hope, and to march forward confidently in its glow – that is the most important thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Town Hall in Colorado Springs

Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting - my first - conducted by my representative in the House of Representatives, Doug Lamborn of Colorado's Fifth Congressional District.

I have to admit that I attended already well-disposed toward Rep. Lamborn. I agree with many of his views and recently met him personally, walking away thinking him personable and thoughtful. I attended his town hall, planned to focus on the subject of health care reform (big surprise!), to offer my support and see what kind of dialogue would ensue (see my last post).

There was a crowd of hecklers, about ten percent of the crowd present according to the Colorado Springs Gazette reporter present, who choose to express their opposition to Lamborn's well-known views by shouting insults repeatedly. The rest of the crowd, split between supporters and detractors judging from signs the various individuals carried and the timing of applause, behaved themselves reasonably well.

Whenever Lamborn mentioned the cost of the Democrat Party initiatives, a number of the hecklers shouted repeated challenges concerning the costs of America's fighting two wars; they yelled to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If you know me, you know that I'm in favor of both enterprises; even so, a agree that a case could be made against either war. But the heckling seemed pretty comical, considering that the Executive Branch of government (and not the House of Representatives) controls warfighting. I thought every graduate of seventh grade civics would know that.

All in all, I thought Doug lamborn did a good job conducting this town hall meeting. He maintained his composure, stood his ground, and yet fielded a number of unfriendly questioners with courtesy and seriousness. I'm proud to be represented by him in congress.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Conflict - for the Sake of Heaven

I just wrote this essay today; I think it is important enough that I am posting it here and also to my more 'permanent' collection of writings on my website ( I also may just use it was the basis of my sermon this Friday evening.

The title of this essay is a direct translation of the Hebrew phrase, 'mahloket leshem hashamayim.' It’s a rabbinic principle that disagreement and conflict are not intrinsically bad and can be good if channeled toward a good end. Everybody who has studied Judaism deeper than the weekly Torah portion is aware of the long-term conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shamai in the ancient academy. The two schools had completely different approaches to halacha (Jewish law). They disagreed with one another on virtually every point of law over a period spanning generations. But they had a common goal: that the people Israel would work to please G-d by living up to their individual and national responsibilities as G-d’s Chosen People. Because of this mindset, they worked through their disagreements toward a good result for their people.

The entire Jewish tradition is based on the premise that conflict is a natural and even healthy part of life. Did not Abraham famously argue (respectfully but argue nonetheless) with G-d over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Was not Jacob re-named Israel (‘he who strives with G-d’) because of his inner conflict over his G-d-ordained destiny? Did not the entire people come to be known by Jacob’s new name? (The appellation ‘Jews’ is later and represents the ancient split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms.)

But conflict has developed a bad name these days. Conflict, it is said, can only result in bad things: at the very least, bruised feelings, and at worst, outright war with every intermediate possibility between. To many people, the very existence of conflict indicates failure. As a pastoral counselor, I found this to be the mindset among many married couples on their way to divorce court; at a gut level, they took the fact that they’d had conflict to mean that they’d failed as a couple – that there was no redemption possible. They would never admit that; as I said, it was more at a gut level than a logical level. On a logical level, if we’re honest with ourselves, every occasion where two people disagree can only result in two basic outcomes: one party submerges his/her opinion and goes along with the other; or the two must resolved the disagreement through conflict. And in reality, at the end of the day only the second alternative is likely; one of the parties will likely tend to submerge his/her opinions enough times until he conflict becomes unmanageable. In other words, in one way or another, conflict is an inevitable fact of life for all but the hermit. But we do tend to hold idealized images of certain conditions – including marriage – which blind us to this reality and make it difficult to even accept the existence of conflict. Conflict has acquired, unfairly, a bad name.

Politics is an area where conflict always exists and is always in the open. At the risk of sounding as if I’m over-simplifying things, I’ll point out that there are essentially two competing worldviews in our American political arena: those of the conservative and those of the liberal.
If you’re a third-party person, a Libertarian or a Green or something else, please don’t flame me! I think that it is not just the two major political parties that are party to this conflict and the divide it creates; the smaller parties pretty much fit in on one side or the other. But that’s another essay, for another time.
Just for the sake of disclosure (if you didn’t pick it up already from any of my earlier posts in this blog), I’ll tell you that I’m a conservative. But as an observer I would point out that both sides of the conservative/liberal divide are full of individuals who are not helpful to the clash. The reason is that they are unable to step past their own positions and see the merit in the person on the other side. In other words, because I think your position is stupid/poorly reasoned/selfish/will lead to a bad end, I’m unable to put aside that I think you are stupid/a poor reasoner/selfish/a malefactor who would lead us to a bad end.

Let me give you an example. The biggest, or at least the noisiest debate in American society right now is the one over health care – or more accurately, over the way health care is funded and dispensed. Most of the liberals I know want a unified (‘single-payer’) system similar to that in many other countries, including (but not limited to) Canada and those of Western Europe.
Yes, I know that this is not the 'program' that is on the table right now in the legislation that is being considered. But President Obama and many of his supporters are on record as favoring such a solution, and many experts agree that the legislation being considered in its many forms will put us on the road toward that kind of a system.
In other words, many liberals want a very (some might say radically) different system than what we in the US have today.
Most of the conservatives want the current system but with certain government controls (such as those which make it difficult for insurance companies to compete across state lines) removed or lessened, and other controls (such as those which might prevent companies from dropping coverage, or which might limit malpractice lawsuits) increased. In other words, the system that we have now but with tweaks and adjustments to make it better.
All this is no surprise; by definition it is in the nature of liberal thought to favor transformative change (and President Obama campaigned on that very principle), while it is in the nature of conservative thought to favor more modest change!
But to listen to the public discourse, the conflict doesn’t sound as benign as that. To many liberals, the conservatives are 'heartless bigots' who want to 'deny health care to the poor and vulnerable.' To many conservatives, the liberals are 'socialists' who want to 'keep the liberal-controlled federal government in power by controlling the jobs and well-being of a majority of the country’s citizens.' To conservatives, they (the liberals) are the 'heartless ones' who want to ‘pull the plug on Grandma’ and assemble ‘death panels.’
The reality is this: each side favors a very different approach to the difficult problem of providing the best level of affordable care to the most people. Most agree that health care costs are out of control and need to be reigned in while ensuring more Americans have the coverage for the care they need. But the rhetoric of the conflict is so powerful that, by and large, neither side can see the other as well-intentioned. Neither side can see the other as having the same goal. Neither side can see the merit in the other, because they can’t see the merit in the other’s position.
I'm using an example from politics to illustrate the problem when our conflict is not for the sake of heaven. But it applies to all spheres of relationship: from the most intimate, to the most global.
I was discussing this recently with a correspondent of mine from Berlin, a woman who is deeply concerned with the problem of conflict in civil life and who wants to promote the ancient Jewish concept of mahloket leshem shamayim to help combatants and potential combatants solve their conflicts by peaceful means. I think she is on to something. I am therefore offering the following as a suggested formula for employing the concept in conflict:
(1) Assume that the other has the same good intentions that you believe you have, and try to make them see that you have the same good intentions that they think they have. Yes, there truly are malefactors about but most individuals try, or at least see themselves as trying, to be benefactors. If you start the conversation by giving the other the benefit of the doubt, and working to make them see that they would be doing well to give you the benefit of the doubt, that would certainly make a good start. If in the course of the conversation you find that you gave the other the benefit of the doubt mistakenly, you can always adjust the conflict to that reality. But I guarantee it won’t happen often.

(2) Once you have made the leap of seeing merit in the opposition, you will be in a better position to see merit (or at least good intention) in their positions. Even if you can’t see the merit in their means to achieve the end result, you might see merit in their envisioned end result. And that means quite a bit. If two sides to a seemingly-intractable conflict see their positions as basically intending to reach a similar end, that automatically makes the conflict less intractable. It means that the negotiation necessary to reach a method of reaching the end will have much more of a chance of success.

(3) One must be extremely careful not to use ‘code words’ or ‘code phrases’ that cast aspersion on the other side’s intentions. These loaded words and phrases have the effect of closing down debate and discussion rather than opening it up. When the conflict in question is one in an intimate male-female relationship, one must understand that men and women communicate very differently. But that's a different subject for a different day!
(4) Even if agreement is ultimately elusive or impossible, this exercise is not a waste of time. It is far better to oppose someone on the basis of disagreeing with their solution, than because one thinks them of no or little merit. It changes the very character of the conflict.

You’ll notice that I haven’t used the word ‘compromise.’ A compromise is a device to reconcile two positions to hopefully make both parties somewhat happy by giving each part of what they seek. If one achieves steps one to three above, a compromise might be the vehicle by which an ultimate solution is found that all can accept. But the act of compromise in and of itself will not tone down the hurtful rhetoric that unfortunately seems to poison so much of our discourse today.
So let’s disagree and thus have conflict. But let’s try to keep our conflict leshem hashamayim and thus, we will go a long way toward ensuring a good result.