Balance and the Quest for Cosmic Survival

The world in which we live is filled with ennui and the stresses of everyday life interspersed with the occasional small victory.  We look to the characters and tales of comic books as a means of escape. Everything is larger than life.  Heroes are endowed with superpowers or enhanced abilities.  Dangers come from extraterrestrial threats or devious villains.  And the plots are improbable, if not impossible, challenging logic and reason.  And still, we watch to forget briefly about our mundane world or the worries that weigh us down.

More and more, though, the issues we see on the screen, echo the concerns that we face in our own day-to-day lives.  In Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, we see that in the midst of battling for galactic salvation, characters confront their own foibles and choices.  Steve Rogers, Captain America, has consistently placed the needs of the many over his own personal desires.  He is a man out of time.  Frozen for sixty years, his contemporaries are gone, the love of his life has died, and still he remains motivated to serving his country and its values.   In apposition to his character, we find Tony Stark, Iron Man, brilliant, self-absorbed, yet still driven to do good, so long as it is on his own terms.

Over the course of the cycle of Avengers’ movies and this film in particular, both characters evolve and change.  Captain America is given the chance to travel back in time and live out his life with his beloved Peggy Carter, choosing self-interest after a life of self-abnegation.  Iron Man, in the ultimate battle with Thanos, chooses to take the infinity stones and defeat Thanos, knowing that it would likely cost his life.  He chooses self-sacrifice and the good of the world, over his own personal joys and successes.

The choices are presented as binary.  Either one values one’s own needs and interests or suppresses them to serve the greater good.  But are they in fact, binary?

Two thousand years ago, the sage Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Hillel makes the point that there is a need for self-interest.  No one is going to intercede on our behalf to make certain that we are happy or that our needs are being met.  Ultimately, no one else is going to advocate for our beliefs and positions, if we don’t start with ourselves.  Lest this lead to self-absorption, Hillel cautions that one needs to consider the needs of others, as well.  If we don’t, we become selfish and something less than fully human.

The pivotal point made is the final one, “if not now, when?”  In the eternal now, we must hold both at the same time, balancing self-interest and communal needs.  At every moment those factors ought to be held in equilibrium.

Rarely are we faced with the need to hold a potential world-ending villain at bay.   But most of us go through the daily dance of trying to balance our own needs with the demands of work, significant others, friends, and community groups.  At work we’re frequently trying to juggle completing our own assignments with helping support the needs of the rest of our team.  At home, we try to carve out some time for ourselves and our interests amidst the requests of family or significant others.

Finding the balance between selfishness and selflessness is the key to avoiding becoming completely burned out from constantly meeting everyone else’s needs or becoming so self-satisfied by putting yourself first that no one can bear to be around you.  Discovering the answers to when to say yes and when to say no, when to step forward and when to step back, might not make us superheroes, but can make our lives more fulfilling and complete.

ISRAEL AT 71

Today we celebrate.  Israel is another year older.   Seventy one years ago, leaders on the Yishuv, the provisional governing body for the Jewish community of Palestine, met in Tel Aviv to declare that the seeds planted some fifty years earlier by Theodor Herzl at the First Zionist Congress had borne fruit, and with the end of the British Mandate, they were declaring the independence of the Jewish state, to be known as Israel.

In the decades that have followed, not only has Israel made the desert bloom, but the country itself has bloomed and thrived.  Israel is one of the world’s leaders in technology, medical advances, and sophisticated agricultural techniques.  Israel is the first country to send a privately funded satellite to the moon, a leader in autonomous driving, and trailblazer in artificial intelligence.  From barely being able to feed its own citizens, Israel now exports food and food technology to the world.  From relying on foreign support, Israel is now self-sufficient.

But how well is Israel meeting the dreams of its founders?  Its Declaration of Independence proclaims, “It will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture.”

Granted, Israel is more advanced in many of these areas than many of its neighbors.  But is more freedom and tolerance than Egypt or Saudi Arabia something to boast about?  Is more peace than Lebanon or Syria the bar to be measured against?  Is extending more civil rights to women than the Gulf States or equal protection to the LGBTQ community than anywhere else in the Middle East the standard to aspire to? Is that the vision of freedom, justice, and peace envisaged by our prophets?

All streams of Judaism are still not on equal footing as we move into the eighth decade of Israel’s existence.   Minority cultures feel pressure to abandon their unique practices and become part of a homogenized Israel.  Adoption rights for LGBTQ citizens are inferior to their heterosexual peers.  Treatment at checkpoints, in administrative matters, and in access to government services differs depending on whether one’s identity papers are marked Jewish or Muslim.  The vision of the founders is at best incomplete, at worst subverted.

Centuries of persecution in Europe led to the creation of political Zionism, a movement by which Jews could become “normal,” living in their own state, protected by their own army, represented by their own government.  In short, becoming like all the other peoples of the world.  And in many ways, Israel has become normal.  It suffers from the same petty politics found anywhere in the world.  It experiences crime, corruption, and scandal in measures equal to other nations.  Like any other state, compromise becomes the means of navigating the complexities of modern life.

As we celebrate the anniversary of the modern Jewish state, we read from our Torah the injunction, “kedoshim t’hiyu – you shall be holy.”  Our sages explain that kedoshim t’hiyu means perushim t’hiyu – you shall be separate or set apart.  Sometimes we have to be a little less normal to be who we truly wish to be.  We have to be a little less focused on the compromises of realpolitik and a little more uncompromising on establishing freedom, justice, and peace.

At seventy-one, we celebrate all of the accomplishments achieved by Israel.  At the same time, let us turn our energies toward making the dream first imagined by Herzl, and later brought into the world in a small hall in Tel Aviv, fully realized for all of its citizens, all of its residents, and all of its neighbors.

The Olympics and Elul

Next week we begin the month of Elul, our month to begin preparing for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and the marathon of fall holidays.  I think the recent Olympic games serve as a fitting analogy for this period of getting ready for this period of insight and reflection.

Most of the Olympic events can be measured in minutes, some in mere seconds.  Preparing for these events takes considerably longer.  Olympic athletes train for years in preparation for their participation.   No detail is too small for consideration; no adjustment is too minor if it can lead to improvement.  As we examine our lives over the course of the past year, considering the times we missed the mark, reflecting on our failings and on our successes, we have the opportunity to begin making changes to our behavior.  While we’re not focused on tweaking our stance or turn or stride, we are looking at adjusting our readiness to listen, our preparedness to comfort, and our build up to frustration.  Just as Olympic athletes don’t complete their training in mere weeks, making changes to our character requires time and attentiveness.

For each of the stars of the Rio Olympics, such as Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, or  Katey Ledecky, there are hundreds of athletes who participate in disciplines that receive little or no attention or who never move past the preliminary stage of their events.  But they showed up, they participated.  In so many areas of life, we will never be stars.  Few of us will be the smartest, the wealthiest, or the most successful.  The month of Elul is about showing up and being actively engaged in life and relationships.  We might not be the best, but we are working on getting better as parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and co-workers.  We’re making strides are being faster to respond and  slower to anger.

Our sages tell us that Elul is an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – I am my beloved and my beloved is mine, referring to our relationship with God.   It might be helpful instead to think of Elul as an acronym, for Ani L’acheri V’acheri Li – I am responsible to another and another to me.  Our responsibilities extend beyond those we love and those with whom we are in close relationships to those who are neighbors, casual acquaintances or even strangers.  If we look to one of the preliminary races in the women’s 5000 meter,  Abbey D’Agostino of the United States tripped and fell and in the process brought down Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand.  Neither athlete had met the other prior to the race.  D’Agostino got up, then helped Hamblin up before trying to continue.  D’Agostino’s knee then buckled and Hamblin waited until her competitor was able to move on again.  Both women were then able to finish the race, far outside their personal bests.  But this really was a personal best for them and for all of us.  Reaching out to and supporting others, for no other reason other than they are human and in need or in pain is the real message of the month of Elul.  Elul is a reminder that we don’t live a singular existence, but we live in relationship with others.  Working on those relationships, practicing kindness and compassion, shouldering some of their burden and letting them shoulder ours is how we ought to learn the lessons of the Olympics as we prepare for the Days of Awe.

Lessons in Character from Rio – Part 2

Speed-walking usually endures its fair amount of disrespect.  The form and gait of the walkers appears awkward to the casual observer.  It lacks the gravitas and history of the marathon.  It doesn’t have the speed and power of the sprints or even the level of on the track competition of the middle distance races.  To most onlookers, it looks like something anyone in your neighborhood could do on the week-ends, not the provenance of world class athletes.

Yohann Diniz, a French athlete, was the favorite to win the men’s speed walking competition and led the race for most of the event.  He then developed very public gastrointestinal difficulties and collapsed.  The combination of heat, humidity and dehydration did not help the situation and most people would have just stayed down and then exited the race.  Many, realizing that they had lost the possibility of receiving a medal, would have given in to the pain and discomfort.  Most would probably have avoided the public embarrassment of shoving sponges into their shorts drawing even greater attention to the intestinal distress.  But Yohann Diniz, got back up and re-entered the race.  Not only did he resume the race, he completed it.  He finished the race in seventh place, not on the medal platform as he had hoped and expected, but well ahead of most of his competitors.  His perseverance is something that makes him a champion, no matter what his final standing was.

How often do we see people give up on projects less significant and after having invested less effort?  We see students give up learning to play a musical instrument because it’s too hard or it takes up too much time or drop out of a sports league because they don’t want to be so competitive.  How many projects have we put aside simply because they were too tedious or taking more time or effort than we initially anticipated?  How often do we let our children take the easy way out, put in the minimal amount of effort on a project to get a passing grade?  How often do we do the same thing at work, just doing enough to get by?

In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough writes extensively about  perseverance and grit, as important traits to develop in order for children (and by extension, adults) to succeed.    In the book he quotes  Dominic Randolph, head of Riverdale Country School, as saying, “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Learning how to deal with failure and adversity is what makes Yohann Diniz and hundreds of other Olympic athletes champions.  Few people are born with the incredible natural talent of a Usain Bolt or a handful of other athletes.  Most learn through experience, working through the trials and tribulations until stage by stage they demonstrate progress.  Most of us learn the same way.  Removing obstacles from our children’s or out own lives might make things appear to be easier in the short term.  For the long-term, however, it actually makes life more difficult.  We remove the opportunities to learn by overcoming adversity and become risk-averse and entirely too comfortable with mediocrity and taking the path of least resistance.  We need some adversity and setbacks in our lives so that we can achieve lasting success.

 

 

 

 

Why I fast on Tisha B’Av

Fasting isn’t fun.  With it come the headaches from dehydration and caffeine withdrawal and the crankiness from the headaches.  But still I fast.  Why?  It isn’t so much the destruction of the Temple.  After almost  two thousand years, I’ve more or less gotten over its destruction.   And the creation of the every form of Judaism that we’ve experienced  for the last two thousand years are a result of  that destruction.  The siddur, the Mishnah, the Talmud and the entire midrashic tradition emerge as a consequence of what happened two millenia ago.

In that case, why fast?  If I’m not in mourning and if I feel some sense of benefit, why should I endure the discomfort that results from denying myself food and water in the midst of the summer heat?

I fast for a sense of balance and reality.  We have a number of communal celebrations of Jewish victories.  At Pesach we celebrate emerging free from Egyptian bondage (although I’m not sure how much a celebration that is after five or six days of matzah).  At Chanukah we celebrate spiritual freedom and at Purim physical survival.  We celebrate revelation at Sinai on Shavuot and divine protection at Sukkot.  The three pilgrimage festivals or shalosh regalim celebrate bountiful harvests in spring, summer and fall.  We celebrate when things have gone right.

But our experience of life isn’t of things always going right.  We have our moments of elation, when we’ve reached the mountain top, celebrating success or special moments:  a birthday or anniversary, a promotion or raise, public recognition or the completion of a successful project.  But we also know the valleys, the times when things have not gone well:  failed relationships, lost jobs, unsuccessful assignments, painful moments of pain and self-doubt.

On Tisha B’Av we have the opportunity to reflect on those times when redemption did not come.  We can think of the trials and tribulations of the Middle Ages:  blood libels, host desecration accusations, public disputations, forced conversions, massacres during the Crusades and expulsions.   We consider Jewish lives and souls lost during the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, and from England and France and various German states.  We look back upon the restrictions on Jewish life and property throughout Europe limiting where we could live, what we could wear and how could we work and similar restrictions in North Africa and the Middle East. And we think about those who were lost once restrictions were lifted and they ran fleeing the life of persecution and restriction that they had experienced to enjoy the anonymity of the majority.

The Shoah is the tragedy of our own age with which we are still trying to come to terms.  the wounds are still too fresh for us to fold into the list of the other tragedies that we have experienced.  For me, Tisha B’Av is much wider than the destruction of both First and Second Temple.  And it is even wider than the other tragic events associated with that date: the fall of Betar during the Bar Kochba revolt, the expulsions from England and Spain and the outbreak of the First World War.  Tisha B’Av is my day to think about all the times when redemption did not come, to see the world as it is, not as a movie with a happy ending.

In Judaism we look optimistically toward the future, yearning for peace and Messianic times.  We see previous redemptive events as precursors to future redemption.  To experience the joy of redemption, we also need to know the pain and sorrow of failure, just as we experience these emotions and events in our personal lives.

I fast because on most days I experience satiety, having enough to meet my needs.  I mourn because on most days I’m able to find the joy of success, even if many of those successes are small.  I look back on tragedy and failure because on most days a brighter future beckons.

 

Lessons in Character from Rio – Part 1

Mara Abbott is my new hero.  After cycling for 137 kilometers, having led all women up the steep mountain climbing stages, and alone in the lead, she was passed by three competitors with 100 meters to go. Within sight of the finish line, instead of finishing with gold or even another medal, she finished fourth and off of the platform.  Many people would have been angry; most would have expressed frustration.  I’ve been known to be frustrated when the person in front of me gets the last of the ice cream flavor that I’ve wanted.  I can’t imagine the level of frustration seeing your medal hopes disappear that close to being realized.

When asked about it, Mara Abbott said, “You’re just riding as hard as you can, just concentrating on that. There’s nothing else going.”  She didn’t look for someone to blame or offer excuses; she just talked about riding the best race that she could have.  I don’t believe that I have ever seen a greater public example of equanimity or hishtavut.

I will admit that I struggle with equanimity.  My fuse is often significantly shorter than it ought to be. More often than I like, something insignificant will lead me to lose my equilibrium, whether it be a phone survey that feels like a waste of my time or trying to balance cooking three different meals at once.  At other times, the more significant issues of economic and professional uncertainty lead to the roller coaster of emotions: nostalgia over previous situations, wonder concerning whether I could have / should have done something differently, imagining the possibilities of a wonderful opportunity and questioning why didn’t I get a chance there.

In the Tzava’at HaRivash, the ethical will of the Baal Shem Tov, he writes,

“I have set (shiviti) the Lord always before me” (Tehilim 16:8). Shiviti in the sense of hishtavut, “equanimity.” Whatever the occasion, it is all the same to him[who possess this quality], whether people are praising him or they are humiliating him, and so too in all matters. And similarly with everything he eats, whether he is eating delicacies, or he is eating other things, it is all the same to him, since the evil yetzer is entirely removed from him. Whatever happens to him, he says, “Surely this comes from God, the blessed Holy One, and if in Your eyes it is fitting, etc.” His every intention is for the sake of Heaven, but from his perspective, it makes no difference. This is a very high level.”

 

This level of inner balance is currently beyond my grasp.  I still sit amazed watching the physical balance achieved by Olympic athletes: the gymnasts, swimmers, runners and others who remain amazingly centered in the midst of anxiety, stress, and fierce athletic competition and still remain true and on course.

 

Their physical prowess helps provide inspiration for maintaining spiritual and emotional equanimity, holding true between the heights of possibility and the depths of disappointment.  But it is Mara Abbott who serves as my spiritual guide. Life is the race that we’re on.  The important thing is to keep going, concentrating on the moment, putting my focus on what is happening now.  The past is over, the future has not yet arrived, all that we can control is how we react to events of the present and remain in the race.

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from the Road

There seems to be an interesting convergence between this week’s Torah portion  and the events of my own life this past week.  In the second parashah of the double portion Mattot-Masei (Numbers 30:2-36:13), we read Moses’ recounting of the journeys of the Israelites from Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land over the course of 40 years.  What initially seemed to be a direct, albeit not the fastest route from Egypt to Canaan, became a more meandering course waiting for the generation of slaves born in Egypt to die and give  way to the generation raised in the freedom of the wilderness.

The deliberate route that was planned to protect the Israelites from powerful armies along the coastal road, was transformed into a more tortuous journey from oasis to oasis, skirting the boundaries of the land that had been promised.  The realities of life and experience often alter the plans that we make, requiring us to have at least a certain level of flexibility.

I began the week with very definite plans: leave early Sunday morning, drive to the NewCAJE conference in Naperville, Illinois and then return to Louisville by early evening on Wednesday.  That is the schedule that I gave when I rented a car.

I got a little later start than I expected on Sunday, but made good time on the drive to Illinois.  The conference went well and I attended my first choice for most of the time slots.  The night before I was to leave to return to Louisville, my wife asked if I could return to Louisville through Evansville, Indiana and pick up our son who was spending some time with grandparents.  It was a little bit of an adjustment to my schedule, adding about an extra two hours to the trip, but not a major issue.

I left Naperville on time, following the route Google Maps had given me.  Rather than a direct route from interstate to highway to Evansville, I was routed along some surface streets to move from the interstate to Highway 41.  That was when the plan unraveled and reality reared its ugly head.  The car overheated, I was lost, the tow truck couldn’t find me and I felt abandoned along the side of the road for three hours.  Once the tow truck found me, we set out for the rental car return at the Indianapolis airport, following the address the driver had entered into his phone.  Four hours later as we passed the exits to the Indianapolis airport, I asked him if we shouldn’t have headed toward the airport, he assured me that he had the right address to drop off the car and he’d get me to the desk to get a new car.

Twenty-five minutes later as we pulled up to an empty Fed-Ex store, he was willing to admit that he might have entered the wrong address or his phone  was giving him bad directions.  Using my phone, we made it back to the airport and with a little trial and error to the rental car terminal.  By that time is was after 10 and I realized that I probably didn’t have the energy for over 3 hours of driving to Evansville, but should be able to make the two hour drive to Louisville.  I made it home to Louisville, but knew that I’d have to drive back out the next morning to pick up my son, after registering him for school.  I completed those tasks and returned the rental car, about twenty hours after I originally attended.

Our plans, whether Biblical journeys or simple road trips or navigating the paths of our lives, frequently don’t turn out as originally planned.  What lessons can we learn from random events and chance encounters?  What is our attitude toward the obstacles life presents when our plans go awry? What insights can we gain about our flexibility or lack thereof?

When life presents obstacles and detours our ancestors continued their journey through the wilderness, adjusting their expectations to new realities.  In our own lives can we adjust our expectations when facing unexpected circumstances?  What happens when a relationship or a job doesn’t work out as expected?  What do we do when we see our children having to struggle as a result of their own difficulties or one’s that we have created?

How we make the journey, embrace the challenges, and encounter the people tells us a great deal about ourselves.  We’re reminded that life is messy and uncertain.  Relying on living it only when things go according to plans robs us of so many opportunities to grow and expand our horizons.   We need to remember our ancestors’ journeys as we make our own ways through life, as we prepare to meet the unexpected.

 

 

Simple Kindness?

Kindness is a lot less simple than I used to think, at least according to  to what I’ve been learning by experience lately.   Earlier this week,  I attended the NewCAJE Conference at North Central College in Naperville, IL.  My car is older and I was worried about the wear and tear on it, as well as whether it could even complete the round trip.  I found the best price online from a reputable company and rented a car for the trip.  The drive up was uneventful; the car drove well, got good gas mileage, and I encountered minimal traffic.  The trip back was a little more eventful.

To drive home after the conference, I had to change my route to go through Evansville, Indiana, to pick up my son who’d been spending time with grandparents.  I entered the address in Google Maps and began to follow directions leading me along the interstate and through the toll booths leaving the Chicago area.  I was a little surprised when I was directed along a state highway in Illinois and a little concerned when I was directed off the highway onto surface streets meandering toward US 41.  I became very concerned when in the midst of corn and soybean fields, the high engine temperature light  came on and the power dipped precipitously.  So there in the middle of no where, on State Line Rd along the Indiana – Illinois border, the car died.  I called the roadside assistance line and let them know what had happened.

The relatively simple question, “Where are you?”, turned out to be more difficult to answer than I thought.  I told the person on the other end of the phone line that I was on State Line Road, about 50 feet from 169th St.(I paced in off while I was on hold).

“But what town are you in?”  One app said I was in Beecher, the weather app said I was in Washington Township and Google told me that I was in Cedar Lake, IN.  The woman at the other end of the line wasn’t happy with my answer and wanted something a little more definitive, so I went with the first answer that I’d seen, Beecher.

“Beecher what?”  Since my phone has said moments earlier, “Welcome to Indiana,” I answered Indiana.  She told me that she’d expedite the request, since I was in the middle nowhere and the day was hot, so the tow truck shouldn’t take much more than an hour to get there. And instead of towing me all the way back to the Chicago area to get another rental, they would tow me to Indianapolis. This was after twenty minutes of conversation.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned, after repeated conversations with the tow truck driver that the soybean field I had stopped next to was in Beecher, Illinois; the corn field on the other side of the road was Cedar Lake, Indiana.  This confusion caused the tow truck driver difficulties in finding me.

I rolled the windows down and settled in for a wait.  Every now and then, I’d test the engine to see if it had cooled down enough to at least make it to a highway, but unfortunately the needle headed to the red line each time.  Even in the middle of nowhere, occasionally someone would pass by.  Many would keep going, but a few stopped to see if I was OK.  I told them that the car had overheated and the rental car company was sending a tow truck and that I’d be OK.  They would offer some words of encouragement and continue on their way.

After about an hour and a half in the shade-less heat, one car returned with a bottle of water the driver had purchased at McDonald’s.  He said that he’d offer me the sweet tea that he’d also purchased, but that his wife might kill him.  I thanked him for his kindness, especially because I was very hot and dry by this point in time.  When I tried to offer him a dollar for the water, he refused saying that I was dealing with enough that day.  He commiserated with me for a few minutes and then headed back to his home.

After another hour with several more people having passed by and few stopping to check on me, another person stopped to see if I was OK. I ran through my story and he offered a few words of encouragement.  He began to pull away and then backed up and offered me a few bottles of water, apologizing that they weren’t cold.  I thanked him for his kindness and gratefully accepted one of the bottles.

After another half hour, three hours after the car had broken down, the tow truck arrived.  The driver had brought me a bottle of Gatorade to help re-hydrate for which I was very grateful.

While stopped along the road for three hours, eighteen to twenty people passed by.  Six of them stopped to at least check on me and offer encouragement and two offered me water, one going out of his way to get the water to me.  These were amazing expressions of not so simple human kindness after a week that had been filled with kindnesses.

I was attending NewCAJE on scholarship, not having the financial resources for registration.  I was there to not only learn, but to network in search of employment in Jewish education.  Complete strangers offered me their time and encouragement, acquaintances gave me leads on positions, brainstormed with me, and looked through openings or my resume to help advise me.  No one compelled them to help me out and there wasn’t any reward for their service.  They, like the strangers along the road were acting out of kindness, recognizing our common humanity and common needs.

In contradistinction, many people who I had previously considered to be colleagues or friends, have remained silent.  I haven’t heard a word or seen an email or text or tweet expressing concern or encouragement.  Some have even seen me and  then turned the other way in public settings.   Simple human kindness is not that simple nor that common.

For all of those individuals who have taken the time to pause, inquire, encourage and actively support over recent weeks, I am grateful for the uncommon kindnesses that have been shown to me.  In the words of the patriarch Jacob, while preparing to cross the Jabok and re-encounter Esau, “קָטֹ֜נְתִּי מִכֹּ֤ל הַחֲסָדִים֙ – I have been made small by the kindnesses.”  All of these acts of kindness that I have experienced has reduced my ego and my sense of reliance on myself.  They have reminded me of the ties that bind us to each other and how uncommon supposedly “simple” acts of kindness, truly are.  כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה – My cup is overflowing with all of the acts of kindness I have experienced.

 

A Covenant of Peace

In an act of religious zeal, Pinchas, a priest, grandson of Aaron, executes Cozbi and Zimri, an Moabite woman and Israelite, while they are engaged in sexual intercourse as part of Moabite idolatrous practice.  Afterwards, God enters into a covenant of peace with Pinchas.   Is this covenant a sign of divine approval for Pinchas’ actions or is it seen as an antidote to his behavior?

Commentators seem divided on the question.  Many see this as God endorsing Pinchas’s action; it was Pinchas’ zeal that turned back divine anger and God rewarded him as a consequence.  Others see that perhaps the  the covenant of peace was a meant as a means of repair, a tikkun, for Pinchas’ character.  Nachmanides suggests that violence can damage a person’s spirit and the covenant of peace was meant as a means of restoration for Pinchas.  Hizkuni goes a step farther positing that Pinchas was afraid that he would never again be able to serve as a priest with blood on his hands and this covenant is a means of divine reassurance.

Zealotry is not just a problem of the ancient world.  We are surrounded by those who believe they have all the answers and everyone else is wrong.  Supporters of ISIS are the clearest example; their path is the only one and they are willing to destroy anyone standing in their way.   But ISIS isn’t the only example.  We see religious extremism in all the world’s faiths with individuals who hold up Pinchas as their example.  Not all extremists are willing to use violence to reach their ends, but many are.  All are convinced, however, that they have exclusive access to Truth.  And if they have Truth, everyone else has falsehood and deception.  A world filled with nuance and shading is reducing to black and white.

And zealotry extends beyond the borders of religion.  We can look at the headlines and see politicians and their followers who are zealous in their ideology, as well as social movements that are equally moved unalterable faith in their conclusions.  Zealotry breaks the world into us and them; you are either for us or against us without reservation.

Perhaps more than ever we need that covenant of peace, to repair wounded souls and bring a measure of peace and wholeness.  Our divisions seem to grow wider, we often talk past each other, rather than to each other and we have stopped listening to those with whom we disagree.  A covenant of peace, finding common ground without giving up difference in belief or perspective, without resorting to physical violence or harsh words, is what we need to establish civil discourse and peace.

 

 

A Tale of Two Conventions

It is the worst of times, it is the best of times, depending on which  convention you happen to have been watching.  The Republican National Convention presented a dystopian vision of an  America engulfed by crime, overrun by criminal illegal immigrants, having a military unprepared for conflict, and a government incapable of offering basic services to its populace.

Almost every speaker seemed to stoke the fears of the nation:  criminals overrunning the Mexican border, international terrorists run amok, both targeting Americans and free to roam because of American impotence, and jobs departing our shores because of government incompetence.   Xenophobia, religious intolerance, nativism and unbounded hatred of political opponents were the currency of political rhetoric.

Mr. Trump spoke of being the only one who could bring about change, the only one who could channel the voice of the people and the only one who could bring order to a lawless land.  He described the country in terms of our failures:  failures to control crime, violence, and terrorism, failures in education, jobs and trade.

On the other hand, anyone watching the Democratic National Convention would be struck by the sunny optimism and utopian vision of living in the greatest country on earth.  The First Lady reminded the nation of how far we have in that the first African American First Family lives in a building built by slaves. The President, Vice President and others spoke of American optimism and hope.  People spoke of overcoming difficulties, of coming together and finding common ground.   They reminded us of America as a land of promise and opportunity, where hard work and determination could lift individuals, families and the nation.

The truth lies somewhere between the two.  Things are not nearly as dark as Mr. Trump and the Republicans would have us believe, but also not quite as sunny as the Democrats would have us believe.  We are a nation that has real and legitimate problems.  Too many people live with uncertainty and insufficient jobs, too many neighborhoods face too much crime and too many schools have inadequate resources to provide a quality education to their students.

In spite of real problems and a chaotic world, our difficulties are not insoluble and the world around us is not entirely bleak. Attitudes toward the difficulties around is what makes all of the difference.  Almost two thousand years ago, the schools of Hillel and Shammai were locked in intractable disputes.  Eventually a divine voice, a bat kol, declared that both were the words of the living God, but Jewish law followed the school of Hillel.  The reason given for the preference for the school of Hillel was that they were kind and gracious.  It wasn’t that their opinions were better or more correct, but that their attitude was better.  They were more inviting,more inclusive and more positive.

How we view the world around us cannot change reality, but how we view it can change us.  The more open we are to hope and promise, even when seeing real problems, the more likely we are to see allies rather than enemies, possibilities, more than crises, a better future, rather than a troubled past and present.  It is neither the best of times, nor the worst of times, but a time heralding a better time to come.