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Leadership, Doubt, and Hamilton – Va-era 5779

The whole family and I saw Hamilton at the Benedum Center on Wednesday night. Really, it was awesome. We already knew the soundtrack; my kids have it mostly committed to memory, and, thankfully, they have the good sense to, when singing along with the soundtrack in the car, NOT audibly recite the four-letter words.

One of the themes that the musical tangles with is leadership: what makes a good leader; what was truly revolutionary about the leadership of the American Revolution. When Alexander Hamilton, “young, scrappy, and hungry,” arrives in New York to seek his fortune, he clambers into the spotlight, while the more politic Aaron Burr cautions him to “talk less, smile more.” When George Washington announces that he will not seek a third term as president, we see King George across the pond, guffawing about how ridiculous it is for a leader to yield power to somebody else. Hamilton is not a reluctant leader; he vows over and over not to “throw away his shot,” and makes all the moves to position himself as a leader. He is not afflicted with doubt. He spends every waking moment writing, speaking, publishing, and his gift with words and ability to lead with the pen is formidable.

Alexander Hamilton

Let’s contrast now with that other epic musical that we feature each week here at Beth Shalom, the Torah, and in particular, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our Teacher, who is filled with uncertainty.

We read today in Parashat Va-era about Moshe’s doubts. In fact, there were a few places where Moshe expresses doubt since we started Shemot / Exodus last week.

  • Last week, when God instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe says, “Mi anokhi?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11).
  • He further protests (4:1) “What if they do not listen to me?” and (4:10) “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
  • And in Va-era, when prompted by God to go to Pharaoh, he describes himself (twice: 6:12 and 6:30) as “aral sefatayim,” literally, “my lips are uncircumcised.” i.e. that his speech is impeded.

What exactly does this mean? Rashi tells us that the word that is usually translated as “uncircumcised,” “arel,” actually means, “obstructed.” The prophet Jeremiah uses the term in reference to the ears and the heart, suggesting that these organs can also be obstructed. Moshe is uncertain of his abilities as a leader because he is not a public speaker. He is obstructed. In some sense, Moshe is the anti-Hamilton.

From the moment that we meet Moshe, in fact, we rarely see him emerge from this state of self-doubt.

But I would like to make the case that Moshe’s uncertainty is what makes him a good leader. Doubt is healthy and natural. Consider your own doubts.

Or, consider mine. I remember a teaching session back at Temple Israel of Great Neck when I expressed my own doubt about God always hearing prayer.

One of the attendees confided in me afterwards that he was uncomfortable with his rabbi expressing doubt. I offered the following in response: we all have doubts. Even rabbis. But the way to approach faith is not by eliminating all doubt (which is impossible), but to acknowledge it.

Maimonides, for example, strongly rejected the idea that God has any kind of physical form, or human-like body parts. But we all know that the Torah and many rabbinic texts reference God’s arm, or God’s face, or God’s hair. So which is “true”? And, by the way, how can God hear prayer without ears?

Doubt is a universally-human trait, and anybody who claims to be 100% certain about any spiritual matter is exaggerating. It would be deeply disingenuous of me to stand before you and say that I agree with everything in our tradition, that I accept every word of the Torah as the absolutely true word of God received by Moshe on Mt. Sinai, that I approach God and Judaism unquestioningly. And I sincerely doubt that God gave us intellect and reason specifically so that we could ignore that gift in matters of faith. And I am 100% certain that Rambam would stand with me on that one.

To achieve honest faith, we must acknowledge our doubts. And as American Jews living in skeptical times, when religion holds far less sway than in past decades, we must openly embrace these doubts and those that have them, so that we can keep the door open for those who might otherwise leave. We in the Conservative movement maintain an intellectual openness that is essential today.

These are deeply skeptical times; we do not look to the heroes of past years, or turn proudly to our institutions for uncorrupted inspiration. The 20th century, the American century is long over. As a society we are struggling to maintain traditions, religious and secular, in the wake of the fall from grace of our once-glorified political, social, and religious leaders. Our suspicions about authority of any kind – government, corporate, religious, even medical – run deep. All the emperors are naked.

Add to this the fact that we are quite far removed from the ancient daily struggles that kept our ancestors coming back to God. We do not face the immediate life and death challenges that our ancestors – Israelite subsistence farmers – faced: the dependence on rain, the helplessness in the face of disease and famine and war, the great natural risks involved in childbearing, and so forth. And thank God, we live in an open society in which we can draw spiritual inspiration from many wells, not just the Jewish one.

All of these things conspire to make it very hard for any of us to feel very deeply about religion, let alone achieve faith in the face of doubt. Indifference is rampant. No thanks, Rabbi Adelson. I’m good. No need for me to come to shul (synagogue).

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was keenly aware of the challenge of faith, of the power of doubt. As we wrestle with God and ourselves, the likelihood is that our experiences of the Divine are fleeting, if not entirely absent. How then can we justify faith? Heschel says in God in Search of Man (pp. 154-5) that

“Faith in the living God is not easily attained… Why, we often ask in our prayers, why hast Thou made it so difficult to find Thee? Why must we encounter so much anguish and travail before we can catch a glance of Thy presence?”

We must work hard, says Heschel, to find God. And although most of us want, even the skeptics among us, to find that connection to the Divine, very few of us do.

Honest faith, therefore, must reflect this struggle; lack of certainty is an essential part of faith. It is in the struggle that Jews find God, just as Yaaqov did, and so too did Moshe. It is in this cosmic wrestling match that we discover the power that Judaism has to alter our lives. That is why we are Yisrael, the ones who struggle with God.

And that is why we should fear the leader that has no self-doubt.

By emphasizing Moshe’s concern about his “uncircumcised lips,” the Torah is actually insinuating that he is the correct choice to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not his lips that are uncircumcised, but rather his heart — he does not want to accept that he is, in fact, capable.

But we know how the story ends.

What do we learn from all of this? That we can, as with Jeremiah (4:4), cut away that obstruction around our hearts, and pursue our faith with an honest acknowledgment of doubt. It’s what makes us human.

We cannot allow the fundamentalist groups in this world, who tolerate no doubt, to control the dialogue about any religion, particularly Judaism. We cannot allow the extremists in our midst to shift the conversation to some inhuman, unrealistic position that does not account for the complex nature of human thought. Uncertainty is an essential part of who we are. We do not unquestioningly accept every word of authority as truth. On the contrary, we challenge. We argue. We wrestle. And we occasionally do not believe.

Doubt is what makes faith real and honest. It is the essential nature of faith, that those of us who are sometimes uncertain still step forward to grasp the mantle of Jewish tradition. So cut away that which obstructs your ability to seek God wholeheartedly, and embrace the doubt.

And furthermore, uncertainty is what ultimately makes leaders great. The ability to re-evaluate, to re-frame, to re-work the plan when necessary, the willingness to concede your uncertainty is what allows for a true leader to thrive. I would pick Moshe over Alexander Hamilton any day. (I think.)

Shabbat shalom.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/5/2019.)

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Ani Ma’amin / I Believe – Shemini Atzeret 5778

We are in difficult times. Wildfires. Hurricanes. A horrific mass shooting. A president who thrives on insults and can’t distinguish between Nazis and “fine people.”

I’m going to talk today about faith, about commitment to our spiritual tradition, in the context of challenging times. Ani Ma’amin. I believe.

Belief is a funny thing. My sense is that we don’t believe in too much today, do we? We like our distance, our cool, reserved, “let’s wait and see” stance.

How many of us believe so strongly in something that we can actually put ourselves into it bodily? How many of us fully invest ourselves in a cause, for example, that we’re actually out in the streets, marching? How many of us feel so strongly about our tradition that we commit to the actions of the tradition, rather than merely checking the “High Holiday” or “Yizkor” box?

There is really no greater figure on the Jewish bookshelf than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam. He lived in the 12th century, primarily in Egypt, and wrote two major works: the Mishneh Torah, and the Moreh Nevukhim, the Guide for the Perplexed. These two works come at Judaism from two different perspectives. The Moreh Nevukhim is written for the skeptic, the one who has not yet bought into the idea of Judaism. It’s written to try to initiate the uninitiated; it presents the meaning of our rituals and customs and texts with an eye to inspiring connection. It is written in Judeo-Arabic, the language of the Jews of Egypt of the 12th century.

Spain - Cordoba - statue of the Jewish scholar Maimonides ...

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba, Spain

The Mishneh Torah, on the other hand, is a halakhic guide. Its title means, literally, the second Torah, boldly titled to almost suggest that if you read this book, you would not need to read the original Torah. It’s for the already-convinced, the committed Jew who wants to know how to do Judaism properly. It’s for the one who throws his or her whole body and heart and mind into it. It’s written in beautiful, crisp medieval Hebrew, easily understandable to those who have studied our essential tongue.

Sitting next to each other on the shelf, what might this suggest about the Jews that Rambam knew in 12th-century Cairo? Certainly, the Mishneh Torah suggests that there were some Jews who were committed to halakhah and wanted to know more, wanted to know from a master interpreter of our tradition what exactly makes a sukkah kosher, or what Psalms to recite for Hallel. But the Moreh Nevukhim, The Guide for the Perplexed, suggests that there were many that were not yet ready to believe, not yet ready to commit.

Having just completed the odyssey of the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays, I must say that I find it extraordinarily ironic that one of the best-known piyyutim (liturgical poems) of those days is “Vekhol Ma’aminim.” It includes a litany of statements about God that “all [of us] believe.” And yet, I know that in the sanctuary on those days, there are many who do not believe – do not buy into fundamental traditional understandings of our tradition, of Jewish theology, of the halakhic system, of mitzvot, and so forth. Many of us do not believe, even some of us who are singing along.

Whenever we say the word “amen,” we are saying, I am in a state of faith with you. I believe.

But tefillah, prayer, is not a portrait of what is; it is a vision of what could be. So it’s certainly possible to be in a state of faith that tefillah helps us along the path to building that vision. And that’s certainly where I am.

I believe in the power of Judaism to change your life. I believe in the richness of wisdom that is found in our ancient texts. I believe in the holy spark that may be found in all people, and in all of God’s creation. I believe in the power of that force that flows around and through us that we refer to as the Qadosh Barukh Hu, the Holy Blessed One, to change us and to change the world.

Maybe that makes me an outlier. But it puts me in good company.

A few years back, Elie Wiesel was featured at a performance at the 92nd St. Y in New York. He told a story about how his mother, who came from a well-known family of Vizhnitzer Hasidim, brought him on one Shabbat in 1943 to the court of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. Elie was 15, and although rumors had reached his home town, Sighet, Romania, about what the Nazis were doing to Jews in Poland, nobody knew for certain.

Elie Wiesel: 1928-2016

Also there on that Shabbat was a nephew of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, a young man who had been in Nazi-occupied Poland, but managed to find his way back Vizhnitz, in the Ukraine. The Hasidim there that Shabbat pressed him for information, but he would not say a thing. He simply could not tell them what he had likely seen: the ghettos, the Einsatzgruppen, SS mobile killing squads, rail transports to death camps in cattle cars, and so on. On all these things, the young man was silent. Instead, he only sang. He sang the words of Ani Ma’amin, Maimonides’ fundamental statement of faith in the coming of the mashiah. But embedded in the words, and in the melody, was the message that they needed to maintain faith despite the coming cataclysm:

(You can hear the recording of Elie Wiesel singing this song by clicking here.)

אני מאמין
באמונה שלמה
בביאת המשיח
ואף על פי שיתמהמה
עם כל זה אחכה לו
בכל יום שיבוא

Ani ma-amin
Be-emunah shelemah
Bevi-at hamashiah
Ve-af al pi sheyitmahmeah
Im kol zeh ahakeh lo
B
ekhol yom sheyavo

I believe
With perfect faith
In the coming of the mashiah (the anointed one)
And although he tarries
Nonetheless, I wait for him
Every day, that he may come

What did the Jews of Vizhnitz and Elie Wiesel learn that Shabbat? That whatever unspeakable horrors lay in front of them, they would survive. That whatever fate was awaiting them at the hands of their oppressors, that some of them would make it to the other side. That there would be Jews at some future time, Jews who would be on this Earth to greet the arriving mashiah. That even though there are dark times ahead, that they would eventually pass.

There is always hope for the future. Our tradition teaches us to be patient, and to look past the current darkness to the better days ahead. Ani ma’amin. I believe.

To be sure, Elie Wiesel lost his faith; he chronicles that moment in his first book, Night, his account of the Shoah, when he arrives at Auschwitz and is hustled out of the cattle car, and an SS officer points to the flames coming from the crematorium and screams, Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there-that’s where you’re going to be taken. That’s your grave, over there.And in that moment, reports Wiesel, he loses his faith. A God that could have allowed such a thing did not deserve his reverence. His faith, he says, was consumed in those flames.

At some point, later in life, he found Judaism again. But anybody who survived the camps had to struggle with belief. I had a congregant back on Long Island who, late in life, authored an account of her own Shoah story. It was particularly striking to me that, in the book, she conceded that, while she raised a family in Jewish tradition, and her children and grandchildren were believers, she could not find the same belief within herself.

And yet, it is that belief that enabled some to survive. It is that sense of “Ani ma-amin,” I believe, that has given our people hope for millennia, through destruction and exile and Crusades and Inquisition and expulsion and genocide.

I believe that we are here today because of our belief.

Because we will be here forever, if we all just reach a little deeper, if we all just put a little more of ourselves into learning our tradition, into acting on our tradition, in keeping the holy opportunities, the mitzvot of our tradition in front of us. If we let go of some of that cool reserve, if we put ourselves bodily into our rituals and customs bodily, if we pray with fervor, if we reach higher to keep the mitzvot, if we yearn to reach past the perplexity to seek answers, to act on that belief, we will survive whatever challenges we face.

Ani ma-amin. I believe. And I’ll wait, and continue to daven every day, until we get to the other side.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shemini Atzeret, Thursday, 10/12/2017.)

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