Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Chol Hamoed Pesach 07

This Shabbat is the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover – Chol Hamoed Pesach – and has special Torah readings and a special Haftarah associated with it. The Torah portion is, as you might expect, from Exodus and really introduces the Pesach – Shavuot season. Shavuot is 50 days after the first day of Passover and marks the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, 50 days after the Exodus. As you probably know, this involved two trips up the Mountain for Moses – when he came down the first time he found the people worshiping the golden calf they’d made and broke the first set of tablets.

On his second trip up the mountain, which is what this Torah portion covers, Moses is discouraged and begs God to make Himself known to the people in a way that will ensure that they know that it’s not just Moses talking to them, and to give Moses a clearer idea of who God is. This is where God passes by Moses and Moses is allowed to see God’s back. While God passes by, He declares Himself more explicitly than ever before in what have come to be called the 13 attributes of God
· Adonai, Adonai – God before and after
· El – Lord
· Rachum compassionate
· V’chanun merciful
· Erech apayim – slow to anger
· Rav chesed – abundant in mercy
· V’emet – and truth
· Notzer chesed l’alafim – bringing mercy to the thousandth generation
· Nosay avon – forgiving iniquity
· Va pasha – and transgression
· V’hata-ah – and sin
· V’ nakay – punishing the guilty

After that, God once again inscribes the tablets and Moses brings them down the mountain.

In the Haftarah we have the vision of the Prophet Ezekiel of the valley of dry bones rising up and coming to life which at the least symbolizes the rebirth of the Jewish people and, some say, the resurrection of the dead in the time of the Messiah.

All in all, a very upbeat, positive message for Passover. Of the attributes of God, all but one are about mercy and forgiveness and compassion, and even the last one – punishing the guilty – has to do with consequences of wrongdoing – the Torah tells us that the penitent is forgiven for the sin, just not exempt from the consequences.

So why all this compassion, mercy, and forgiveness? It certainly was not the norm for cultures at that time and the gods they worshipped, most of which were ferocious, demanding, and punitive – far from the picture the Torah paints of God. In my view, all of this is the direct result of monotheism – the belief in one God. Later in Deuteronomy when Moses repeats the story of the Ten Commandments, he clarifies the first two commandments by declaring the central tenet of Judaism, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.” “Listen up, Israel, the Lord our God is One.” And goes on to emphasize the importance of that tenet by the commandments to say the Shema upon arising and retiring, to bind them between our eyes and near our heart, to post them on our doors, etc.

That phrase and the first two commandments are sometimes seen simplistically as a declaration of difference – all those other guys worship multiple gods and argue about which gods hold precedence over others, but for Jews there’s only one God. And that’s true, but I think there is a deeper meaning here as well. Yes, we believe there is one God but another, equally valid translation of the Shema is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is Unity.” In this view, if we are the people of God, then not only is God one, but we are called to be one with God and with each other. Said another way, anything that unites is God, anything that divides is against God. Seen that way, the 13 attributes take on a whole new dimension – all of them, even the last one, are about inclusion. God does not turn the sinning or the suffering away, but abounds in mercy, compassion, and forgiveness and even forgives the sinner while punishing the sin.

To bring the discussion to a more human scale, our job as followers of this God is to unite people – to be uniters, not dividers. Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern philosophers (who happened to be Jewish) talked about two kinds of relationship – I-It and I-Thou. I-It describes a self-absorbed, guarded way of being; when in the I-It mode we regard others as if they existed primarily in relationship to us and the relationship is rarely a positive one. In contrast is the sensitive, responsive way of being he calls I-Thou, signifying how we are when we regard others as having an inner life of hopes and needs that we respect as we do our own. In the terms we are discussing, I-It would be divisive, I-thou inclusive. In a series of books I’ve been studying recently the I-It way of being is called “a heart at war” and the I-You “a heart at peace.” When we are being inclusive – compassionate, merciful., sympathetic, sensitive, our heart is at peace with others; when we are defensive, blaming, justifying our heart is at war – after all, isn’t that how we are in a war? We delegitimize the “enemy” and justify ourselves, our position, and ultimately our destroying them. It would be very hard to go to war if we considered the other side as human, and legitimate, as ourselves. Hitler, Pharoah, Stalin, Torquemada among others were masters at getting their followers to see Jews and others as illegitimate and sub-human, justifying torture and killing.

The root of I-It lies, I think, in betrayal – betrayal of ourselves and betrayal of God. God never said to us “you are my people and they’re not.” God said “you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people, for I, your God, am holy.” But what is holy? My etymological dictionary says it is related to the word “whole” - “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated,” so again, we find that holy and unity are intertwined. When we say (or act as if) we are holy and ___________ (fill in the blank – Christians, Muslims, Gay people, other races) are not, we betray the very essence of holiness, the very essence of God’s charge to us.

To bring this home to us in NTHC, we have seen a lot of division over the past years. We hold to our opinions – of services, of the Temple leadership, of Rabbis, of policies – as if they were both true and sacred, but every opinion we hold this way divides us and goes against the fundamental spirituality of Judaism. Not that it’s wrong to have opinions – we all have them – but I think it’s a betrayal of ourselves and of God when we treat our opinions of other people or their actions as if those opinions were attributes of the person – it’s not that I think so-and-so is an idiot, they ARE an idiot – I’m just calling it like it is.

There was a famous baseball umpire years ago named Jocko Conlon. Late in his career Sports Illustrated did a joint interview with Jocko, grizzled veteran that he was, another umpire who had been in the big leagues for some time, maybe 10 years, and a rookie umpire. One of the questions the interviewer asked was “how do you call balls and strikes?” The rookie replied in the best traditions of umpiredom “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” The experienced umpire said “I call ‘em like they are.” After a long pause, Jocko said “They ain’t nothin’ until I call ‘em.”

Now I don’t think other people are nothing, but I think that once we call them they become something, and I mean some thing. That in the act of “calling them” – of treating our opinion of them as fact – we make them an It to which we then relate. There are two things I’ve learned that I think are important here – one is a statement from a book called “The Mature Mind” by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet – “to the immature, other people are not real.” The other came from a Mormon friend of mine who asked a question that has haunted me since he asked it and that I invite you to have haunt you: “Are you willing to grant to others the same good intentions you grant to yourself – even in the face of evidence to the contrary?”

That question pierced me to the root – I realized that I never question my good intentions – the stupidest, most bone-headed things I do come, for me, from the best of intent. Yet I see evil and the worst motives in others’ actions. Surely, though, they don’t – for them the actions that seem evil and mal-intended to me must be coming from what for them are the best of motives. When I can grant that good intent to them, I shift from I-It to I-Thou and the world changes.

So maybe we can look at where we are dividing and where we are uniting, starting with our own private thoughts and moving out from there. When we do that, I think, we are fulfilling our destiny to be a kingdom of priests and a holy people.

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