Friday, September 25, 2015

Harvey & Sheila, and Ben / Parshat Ha'zinu 2015/5776

Allen Shermans songs were a delightful staple of my childhood. Do you remember Harvey and Sheila? Harveys a CPA. / He works for IBM. /He went to MIT / and got his PhD. Sheila worked, At B.B.D.& O. / She works the PBX, / And makes out the checks. Harvey and Sheila met in an elevator, fell in love, married, and lived a modest, middle class life. She shopped at A & P /
He bought a used MG / They sat and watched TV / On their RCA. They had children, joined the PTA, and moved to West LA. As their fortunes increased, they bought a house with a swimming pool
            Traded their used MG
            For a new XKE.
            Switched to the GOP,
            That's the way things go
            Harvey's rich, they say that he's a
            This could be,
            Only in the USA!

Allen Sherman was reflecting on the sociological pattern many have observed: Young people of modest means often sport liberal politics. When they make and are more affluent, their politics grow conservative. Of course, the GOP of Shermans day did not have to contend with the rabid political polarization of our time and there was nothing like the raging right Tea Party of today that is pulling the GOP further and further to the right and transforming it into a party Ronald Reagan would not recognize.

I was reminded of Harvey and Sheila when I heard Ben Carsons now infamous declaration Sunday morning on NBCs Meet the Press. Chuck Todd asked him, "Do you believe that Islam is consistent with the Constitution? Carson replied, "No, I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that. The response was swift and outrage poured in from both Democrats and Republicans. Initially, on Monday morning, Carson doubled down, but by Monday evening he had backed down and said that he could support a Muslim president if they disavow Sharia law and declare their loyalty to the Constitution.

I was struck by this specter of the Harvey and Sheila phenomenon. For far too long, African Americans were viciously and violent prevented from entering the mainstream of American society, but things changed so that Ben Carson could attend medical school and rise to the highest ranks of his profession. What is more, there is no question that Carson could be elected president after all, there is an African American president in the White House. This is not to say racism has been erased sadly, far from it but Ben Carson, for one, is not encumbered. He has made it, and made it big. And having done so, it appears that he now turns around and would deny the same opportunities to the next group climbing the American ladder of opportunity and involvement. Apparently the memory of oppression and bigotry hasnt stopped him from savoring his success and stopping the line just behind himself.

This weeks parashah, Haazinu, consists of an ancient Hebrew poem[1] which is framed as one of Moses summary sermons to Israel. It opens grandly:
            Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
            Let the earth hear the words I utter!
            May my discourse come down as the rain,
            My speech distill as the dew,
            Like showers on young growth,
            Like droplets on the grass. (Deuteronomy 32:1, 2)
The poet exalts Gods magnificent generosity and kindness toward Israel, contrasting it with Israels stubborn ways and disloyalty to God. The poet reminds Israel that when God found them, they were anything but powerful and successful. Yet God nurtured and nourished them like a mother eagle caring for her young:
            [God] found [Israel] in a desert region,
            In an empty howling waste,
            [God] engirded him, watched over him,
            Guarded him as the pupil of [Gods] eye.
            Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings,
            Gliding down to his young,
            So did [God] spread His wings and take him,
            Bear him along on His pinions;
            Adonai alone did guide him,
            No alien god at [Gods] side. (Deuteronomy 32:10-12)
But Israel grew strong and independent:
            So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked
            You grew fat and gross and coarse
            He forsook the God who made him
            And spurned the Rock of his support.
            They incensed [God] with alien things,
            Vexed [God] with abominations.
            They sacrificed to demons, no-gods,
            Gods they had never known,
            New ones, who came but lately,
            Who stirred not your ancestors fears.
            You neglected the Rock that begot you,
            Forgot the God who brought you forth. (Deuteronomy 32:15-18)

Torah couches Israels disloyalty to God in terms of idolatry. God brought Israel out of servitude in Egypt, gave them freedom and Torah and love and protection in the Wilderness, brought them to the Land of Israel, yet they repay Gods gifts by spurning God and pursuing idols that are no-gods.

The no-gods of Israel are her success and affluence, which have blinded her to her humble beginnings and the moral values arising from that experience. No wonder Torah repeatedly reminds us repeated, You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20); and The stranger residing among shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am Adonai your God (Leviticus 19:34); and You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 19:10). How soon we forget.

To be a Jew is to always beat least in our minds and soulsthe stranger, to know the plight of the stranger, to understand the experience of being other. It is a fundamental part of our history and collective memory. To be a Jew is also to un-Other them: to befriend the stranger and make them part of the community. God berates the Israelites in the words of the poet of Haazinu for forgetting this fundamental truth. The no-gods they worshipsuccess, affluence, power, influence, landednessthreaten the moral ground of Torah, which is predicted on protecting the have-nots and promoting inclusive community.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] One of the two oldest pieces of Hebrew poetry we have. The other is Shirat ha-Yam, Exodus chapter 15.

Friday, September 4, 2015

You're the Best! / Parshat Ki Tavo 2015-5775

Click here to download pdf version of this drash.

We have all known parents who speak about their children only in the superlative: Hes the smartest kid in his class. Shes the best reader in her grade. Hes the most artistic kid in the school. Shes the best player on her team. Setting aside how listeners (especially other parents) may feel when subjected to this parental patter, we might wonder: What effect does this have on children spoken to, and of, in this hyperbolic manner? Do they feel supported by their parents belief in their abilities? Do they feel pressure to live up to their parents expectations? And what effect does singling them out have on their relations with their peers?

God, the cosmic parent expresses similar superlatives through Moses in this weeks sedra, Ki Tavo:

וַיהוָה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְוֹתָיו.  וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

Adonai has affirmed this day that you are, as [God] promised you, [Gods] treasured people who shall observe all [Gods] commandments, and that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19)

This passage is one of several expressions of what has come to be known as the Chosenness doctrine: the belief that God chose the people Israel among all the nations to fulfill the covenant of Torah and that Israel thereby has a special and unique relationship with God. This ancient idea has been the source of untold and immeasurably grief and suffering[1], a favorite trope of anti-Semites[2], and popular tripe for Jews who would see the Jewish people as superior to others. Of course, having a special and unique relationship with God doesnt preclude God having special and unique relationships with other nations, and the purpose of chosennessto keep the covenant of Torahis conveniently ignored by both sides.

I sometimes think that the idea of chosenness, much like the my-child-is-best idea, resides at the intersection of the natural human desire to feel distinctive and unique, and the natural human proclivity to compete with others. Apparently, what happens on the individual level can happen on the national level, as well. Where does this leave Israel, Gods child? Pressured to live up to high expectations? Supported by Gods confidence in them? And what of their relations with peers?

The Torahs true perspective might be helpful when we approach the idea of chosenness, and also for parents who are inclined to speak of their children in the superlative. Lest we think that Israel is inherently superior, endowed with exceptional attributes, qualities, or powers, Torah tells us this:

לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק יְהוָה בָּכֶם--וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם:  כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת-הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם, הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶתְכֶם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה; וַיִּפְדְּךָ מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, מִיַּד פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ-מִצְרָיִם.

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that Adonai set his heart on you and chose youindeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because Adonai favored you and kept the oath [God] made to your ancestors that Adonai freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

Here we find that God chooses the Israelites and redeems them from Egypt not because they are inherently superior to other nations, but rather in fulfillment of a commitment made to Abraham who, from the perspective of Torah, was an arbitrary choice.[3] There is no suggestion from Torah concerning why God chose Abram. The Rabbis, however, fill this lacuna with copious midrashim attesting to Abrams extraordinary spiritual insights, strength, and resilience; they presume that Abram was an innately superior individual and that God recognized this even if Torah does not record it. However, is it possible that Abram was ordinary until God selected him, and the selection itself imbued him with a sense of purpose and potential that helped him become extraordinary? Is this what Moses was doing on Gods behalf in telling the Israelites that [God] will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that [God] has made; and that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to Adonai your God? Does this happen to our children when we shower them with accolades and praise?

In fact our passage from Ki Tavo is most often read as exhortation: Moses is calling the Israelites to fulfill their potential, making it a wonderful passage to be reading shortly before Rosh Hashanah, a day on which doing teshuvah (repentance) should focus us on our untapped and unfulfilled potential and promise, just as a new year of possibility unfolds before us. Exhortation can support and encourage a child or a nation to aim higher, but it can also have a dark side: it can also be construed as a branding of superiority that actually exempts the child or the group from exerting greater effort because, after all, they are destined for fame and renown and glory.

The Rabbis are wise to temper the notion of chosenness with an eloquent reminder that all human beings share in Gods holiness and none is inherently superior: after all, everyone descends from the same ancestor:

להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע מאה מטבעות בחותם אחד, וכולן דומין זה לזה, מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע את כל האדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהם דומה לחברו.

Humanity was produced from one human being, Adam, to show God's greatness. When a person mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the Sovereign of Sovereigns, the Holy One, Blessed be God, creates human beings in the form of Adam, not one is similar to any other. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

Rabbi Akiba frames our tendency to wish to see ourselves as special and unique, set apart and uncommonly (or even exclusively) endowed with certain attributes in a fascinating way. He affirms Israels sense of being uniquely beloved of God, but only after affirming that all people are beloved of God and everyone is created in the divine image. And what is more, everyone knows that they are. Israels sense of uniqueness does not stand outside humanity, but in the very stream of humanity, all of whom are beloved of God.

חביב אדם שנברא בצלם; חיבה יתרה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם, שנאמר "כי בצלם אלוהים, עשה את האדם" (בראשית ט,ו).  חביבין ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שנקראו בנים למקום, שנאמר "בנים אתם, לה' אלוהיכם" (דברים יד,א).  חביבין ישראל, שניתן להם כלי שבו נברא העולם; חיבה יתרה נודעת להם שניתן להם כדי שבו נברא העולם, שנאמר "כי לקח טוב, נתתי לכם; תורתי, אל תעזובו.

R. Akiva used to say, "Beloved is humanity, for they were created in God's image. Exceedingly loved are they, for it was made known to them that they are created in the divine image, as it is written, In the image of God, man was created (Genesis 9:6). The mishna goes on to say, "Beloved are the people Israel, for they are called children of God; it is even a greater love that it was made known to them that they are called children of God, as it said, 'You are the children of the Lord, your God. Beloved are the people Israel, for a precious article [the Torah] was given to them                 (Pirke Avot 3:18)

Put another way: British journalist[4] William Norman Ewer (18851976) coined the well-known epigram: How odd of God to choose the Jews, to which Prof. Anonymous appended, Not so odd; the Jews chose God.

Rabbi Akiba subtly and lovingly asks us to consider our chosenness in the context of everyones specialness. Many years ago, when my oh-so-wise husband thought one or another of the kids was acting, well let me tell you what he would say to them and I think  youll get the picture:  Yes, you are unique in all the worldjust like everyone else.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The prophet Amos suggests that designation chosen people might not be such a prize: You only have I singled out of all the families of the earth: therefore will I visit upon you all your iniquities (Amos 3:2).
[2] Inspiring Tevyes complaint to God in Fiddler on the Roof: I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?
[3] Adonai said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your fathers house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him (Genesis 12:1-4).
[4] Historical trivia: he was also a Soviet agent!