In the Torah portion for this week, Nitzvavim-Vayelekh, we are told that all are standing before God to enter the Covenant-“your leaders, your elders, your officers, men, your children and women, the stranger amongst you, the woodchopper and the water-drawer-all the community of Israel”- (Deut 29:9-10).
The ancient rabbis and the later commentators drew an obvious conclusion: that the Torah intends to tell us that those at the bottom of the social and economic order-the stranger, the woodchopper and the water-drawer; are just as significant and important as the leaders, elders and officers. Unfortunately, that message has not only been typically lost, at least in the state of New Jersey it is getting worse for those at the bottom. While the overall poverty rate has declined in the nation as a whole-New Jersey is one of three states in which it has risen. (the other two are New Mexico and Washington). While the tendency in recent years is to blame the poor for their poverty and the economically miserable for their misery, as a religious person who values the Torah, it is hard not to feel a certain shame that my state remains one of the few where poverty is on the increase.
Mazal Tov New Jersey-we’re number three!
One of the ongoing debates among Bible scholars and Bible readers is understanding what it means that human beings are made “in the image of God”. (Gen 1:27)
Often “made in the image of God” is meant to indicate that human beings have an innate dignity, that there is worth to every one. Or, alternatively, that there is an aspect of God’s essence embedded in every one of us. Some Bible scholars argue for a more straightforward response. The Hebrew word for “image, “tzelem” literally means “sculpture”-therefore human beings are, quite literally God’s walking, talking icon. A sculpture of God.
Or, as we might put it, God’s avatar. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the reason we are forbidden to make an image of God is because God already has an image-us. Imagine life if we really treated one another like a walking, talking, breathing, moving avatar for God. We would be more solicitous and respectful of one another; we would cut each other a lot more slack; we would have more kindness and compassion for one another-and maybe, just maybe, just maybe; we would think twice, or maybe more than twice, before doing physical harm to one another.
As we bid goodbye to another week of pain in the world and the unbelievable cruelty of human beings one to the other-shabbat shalom
The horrific death of journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS has, quite appropriately, shocked and sickened all decent people. Now, the Boxing Rabbi knows very little about the art and craft of journalism, other than as a reader and viewer of journalistic work. However, I must wonder what some of those who practice the craft must think of the death of their incredibly brave colleague. I know that most journalists labor in relative obscurity, known mostly to their editors and friends, producing day after day outstanding pieces in the effort to tell the truth and write the “first draft of history” to the best of their ability. But the journalists whose names we tend to know, the TV pundits and pontificators, and Op-Ed writers, seem much more pre-occupied with their own fame, access and careers than with any kind of genuine truth telling. Watching “Morning Joe” this morning, there seems no other word to describe the likes of Chuck Todd, Mark Halperin, et al, than “smarmy” and condescending, and their greatest worry seems to be whether the latte their personal assistant hands them is sufficiently warm. What must they think of the likes of a James Foley, who gave his life in the course of (what is nominally) their own profession? Not long ago I was watching a “news” anchor on CNN ask a reporter in Tel Aviv with earnestness if the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier would change the dynamic in the war with Hamas. The Tel Aviv based reporter had to awkwardly and gently remind the “news” anchor that said soldier had been discovered killed and was buried three days earlier, at a funeral covered, in fact, by CNN. Do our current crop of celebrity journalists and pundits, whose words in fact do matter in terms of our national debate feel anything at all when they see the work of a James Foley? (The title of this piece is taken from the cheesy movie 300 as Gerard Butler asks the Athenian soldiers who they are, and in fact they reveal themselves to be something other than real soldiers). Is that now the truth behind the celebrity journalists of our time?
For several years, various Jewish publications have issued “top fifty” lists of the “Best Rabbis” in America. Needless to say, The Boxing Rabbi has never made such a list, until..wait for it.. today. Today, the Boxing Rabbi received an email from “Trip Advisor” saying that I am in the “Top Fifty” contributors to “Trip Advisor” in Westfield, NJ. Yay!! Top Fifty something! (I’m 39th in Westfield if you need to know). It’s not that I have gone to many places, I keep reviewing the same joints over and over again.
The fact, is while some of those “Top Fifty” rabbis are great colleagues, the rabbis I tend to really admire never seem to make the list. Many of them are in communities too small to notice, or they tend to not know how to publicize themselves, or they don’t often get into the paper, or they don’t have famous congregants who push their names into the spotlight. Rather, day in and day out they work to make the lives of everyone around them a better, and work to teach Torah and Judaism in an impassioned and compelling manner. I spent the first ten years of my career in a small community, so I know how profoundly one can make a difference in such a place. So many times I will run into someone who will say, “Do you know my rabbi, she changed my life”. No one outside of their community, or the community of rabbis knows her name, but her congregant’s life will never be the same. If I could be on a list, it would be the list of great Boxing Rabbis in the Middleweight Category, but that probably won’t happen, either.
There is an old Yiddish joke which hinges on the similarity between the Yiddish word “fergessen” and the English name Ferguson. The punch line is dependent on knowing that the Yiddish word “fergessen” means “forgetting”. The joke isn’t all that funny, and you won’t get it if you are under sixty- the point is that the horrific events in Ferguson MO reminded me that we Jews are often in danger of forgetting that the African American experience has been fundamentally different than ours. American Jews are fond of pointing out that our experiences are similar, but this is not really so. My ancestors were slaves in Egypt, not in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. My relatives may have come over in steerage, but were not treated like actual steer. The other day I was in my gym, which is primarily African American in membership. A bunch of us were watching the television images of young men and women holding up their hands in Ferguson as heavily armed police approached them with assault weapons. I was disturbed, but they watched the screen with an intensity that I could not begin to match. To be an African American, particularly male, in America today is to be in a fundamentally precarious position that the rest of us cannot imagine.
This Shabbat is the last of the “three Sabbaths of Rebuke” that occur before the observance of Tisha B’Av. Each of these Sabbaths contains a Haftarah (prophetic reading) that admonishes the Israelites for the sins, and this Haftarah is the most difficult of them all. As you read, remember that this is what Isaiah says about his own people-
“Ah sinful nation! People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, turned their backs on God! Every head is ailing, every heart is sick, from head to foot..all bruises and welts, and festering sores… (Is.1:4-5)
The three Haftarot are followed by the grimmest day of all, the Ninth of Av, a day of fasting as we reflect on the destruction of our Temple and of Jerusalem, brought about, we say, because of our own sins.
The grim mood of this Shabbat’s Haftarah is suited to this very day, and these past weeks. This morning, we learned that a humanitarian ceasefire was broken by the enemy, as they engaged in a suicide bombing and attacks on soldiers, and at least one Israeli soldier has been taken captive. The death toll of Israelis is growing, and who with a human heart can fail to be moved by the sight of Gazan babies in the rubble, left unprotected and exploited by their Hamas master? Every head is ailing, and every heart is sick…
To be in Israel now is to live in a country that is subject to an indiscriminate, constant barrage of missiles, rockets, mortars and attacks, designed, make no mistake, to kill and maim innocents. The war that Israel is fighting is a war that goes to the very heart of Zionism-to live as a Jew in normalcy, in safety and security. But as Ari Shavit has reminded us, the Zionist experiment is inherently contradictory-because it is an attempt to create a western, peaceful democracy in a region which has known none of those things. I believed then, and believe now that this war is justified-that Israelis have to seek a way to live in security without the ever-present rain of missiles on their heads. Americans and the world are not getting a full appreciation of the agonizing fear and overwhelming anxiety and sorrow that is consuming Israelis these days.
But-as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this very Shabbat-there is no justice without self-examination and self-rebuke. Wash yourselves clean..learn to do good; devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged..(Is.. 16-17)
When this grim and agonizing war is over-and let it be soon- there needs to be an accounting of Israel’s political leadership. Prime Minister Netanyahu has done a largely admirable job in recent days, but there are many in Israel’s political class who has acted irresponsibly, trying to push the envelope to even greater war and violence, often for their own political gain. Netanyahu has not had to fight an implacable enemy, but members of his own cabinet who are working to undercut him and his authority. A series of dysfunctional governments have helped bring about many of the challenges, internal and external, that Israel is facing. Israeli citizens and soldiers deserve leaders who are worthy of their incredible sacrifice and love for their country.
Second, there is no honor in killing, only pain and sacrifice. The “body counts” so beloved of the media are a disgrace, and do not reflect the genuine grief felt in Israel over the death of innocents amongst the Palestinians. The majority of Israelis still yearn for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, even though most despair of it happening in their lifetime.
Even this grim Haftarah ends with a hopeful note-The Haftarah for this Shabbat concludes with these words: I will restore you as of old; and your advisors as of yore; after that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City-and Zion shall be saved in justice.
May this come speedily, in our day.