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Chaos & Order

10/08/2021 04:01:45 PM

Oct8

Rabbi Brent Spodek

One of my favorite new movies is The Martian, with Matt Damon playing NASA astronaut Mark Watney. He’s part of a mission to Mars, but tragically, his team needs to evacuate during a sandstorm and he accidentally gets left behind on the Martian surface without a ship. He has to figure out how to survive in this unfamiliar and chaotic environment until NASA can send a rescue mission, which might take years. 

 

So he builds a greenhouse in what had been his base camp and begins growing food. As long as he is inside the greenhouse, everything is fine - he can breathe without his spacesuit, and he can help his little potatoes keep growing until he can eat them. But outside the thin greenhouse wall is the toxic chaos of the Martian atmosphere, and when that wall is ruptured, all that chaos comes rushing in, overturning the order that he had carefully cultivated. 

...

This is the reality of our lives, albeit in miniature form. We live in the apparent order of a greenhouse, orderly and predictable and we invest tremendous resources to make sure the world we experience remains orderly and predictable. Every once in a while though, we discover that the world which we experience as orderly is actually just a small island of order in a vast ocean of chaos. 

We deeply fear chaos. 

One of the central ways our tradition praises the Holy One is as the one who brings order to chaos - וּמְסַדֵּר אֶת־הַכּוֹכָבִים בְּמִשְׁמְ֒רוֹתֵיהֶם בָּרָקִֽיעַ כִּרְצוֹנוֹ - literally ordering the stars of the night sky in a tidy fashion, like a cosmic, divine Marie Kondo. 

Of course, like most of religion, this liturgy tells us very little about the Holy One, but reveals deep truths about ourselves. We need to perceive an order in those stars.

A wonderful article that my friend and BHA president, Jesse Lunin Pack, shared with me, explains that what is possibly the quintessential aspect of being human - imagining and planning for scenarios that have not yet happened - is predicated on predictability. I can plan a menu for Shabbat dinner next week because I assume certain realities so thoroughly that I don’t even ask “Will the air be breathable next week?” or “Where will I be sleeping next Friday night?” or “Will we be living under military curfew next week?” I can assume the answers to those questions because for better and for worse, I live in a reality that I experience as predictable and orderly. However, when certainty is not available, our lizard brains go haywire, spurring us to move and get to a situation where we feel safe

Safety is practically defined by having confidence about what is likely to happen next combined with confidence that we have the resources to handle whatever might happen next. 

If a kid is running and unexpectedly falls and scrapes their knee, they experience chaos - they had (unknowingly) predicted that their next step was stable and they would keep moving forward as they ran; in fact, the situation was not as predictable as they thought, their next step was not stable, and now they are crying on the ground with a bleeding knee. 

An adult, however, probably wouldn’t experience this as chaotic - even if we can’t express the particulars,  we are confident that the blood will clot, the immune system will fight off any infections, and if needed, we can easily access additional resources, like bandaids and bacitracin. 

In fact, more than we fear pain, we fear uncertainty about when pain will begin and end. Studies show that uncertainty about whether our job is stable takes a greater toll on our health than actually losing our job. British researchers found that people who knew they would receive a painful electric shock felt less agitated than those who were told they had a 50 percent chance of getting the electric shock.

As some of you might remember, some years ago, my wife was in the ICU with leukemia, which thankfully has been fully cured. I can say that now, but of course, back then, I had no idea what was happening next, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. So I, of course, laser-focused on installing an outdoor thermometer and weather center in my yard. I couldn't control Alison’s illness, I couldn’t control the financial peril we were facing, but I could control - completely and absolutely - which weather station to install. Even better, that weather station would (ostensibly) forecast what the weather would be like in the future, which is all I really wanted. I just needed something to convincingly tell me that the sun would indeed come out tomorrow.  That thermometer was my little greenhouse of order in the hostile and downright martian sea of chaos that was my life at that moment .

The weird thing is that even though we fear chaos, we also deeply need chaos. The most terrifying moments of my life have been the chaotic ones, but so too have some of the most valuable moments of my life.  One of the best things I ever did was spend months biking and camping with Alison. We traveled the west coast and the east, not knowing what was in store for us on a given day not knowing where we would be sleeping most nights. It was blissful.

It's true that the unexamined life might not be worth living, and the corollary is true as well - the unlived life might not be worth examining. 

I balance my checkbook and mow my lawn so as to keep things neat and orderly, but in the words of Mary Oliver, “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.” I want to live while I am alive.  

We survive by way of order, but we live by way of chaos

The ancient Israelites had 49 days between liberation at the splitting of the Red Sea and receiving the yoke of the Torah at Sinai. We celebrate our liberation with Pesach, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah at Shavuot and we celebrate those 49 intermediate days with the counting of the Omer. The Sefat Emet, a Hasidic master from pre-war Poland, teaches that those 49 days are a time of essential spiritual anarchy, and we need to hold on to them forever, because those days are the source of Judaism’s vitality and strength.

...

I go hiking with my kids a lot, and there is a rope swing at one of the swimming holes we like to visit. When my kids found it, both of them were both terrified and desperate to get on it. 

This swing is unmaintained, almost certainly illegal, and absolutely a liability nightmare. It's chaos - and that’s what’s appealing about it. I could see the obvious risks of letting them do it - injury, paralysis, death. But I could also see the less obvious risks of not letting them jump - fear, timidity, unnecessary risk aversion. 

This might not be a popular opinion with the lawyers, but I’m not sure it’s always better to be safe than sorry - more than occasionally, I think we feel sorry for how safe we’ve been. 

To answer the obvious question, I didn’t let them on the swing on the day we found it. I checked with friends I have who grew up there, I scoped it out and watched other people use it. Once it was clear that it was very, very unlikely they would suffer any significant injury, we let the kids have at it. They had the time of their lives and lived to tell the tale with nary a scratch. One day, I hope to be as brave as them and do it myself.

The ancient rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of this tension - too much chaos, and life cannot endure; too much order and life endures, but not necessarily a life we would want to live. 

The Talmudic sage known as Rabbi Yochanan teaches that when King David began digging to build the foundation for the sacrificial altar in the Temple, something incredible happened. The tehom - the primordial chaos upon which the Holy One imposed order and in so doing, created the world - came rushing up from the center of the earth with tremendous ferocity and threatened to engulf the entire planet in a chaotic flood. 

When the tehom surged upwards, King David used magic to calm the surging waters and save the world. That sounds good, but not so fast - the watery chaos known as the tehom receded so deep into the earth that wells dried up, crops failed and human survival was again in peril, this time from too little chaos. So King David wrote the fifteen Sherei HaMaalot, the Psalms of Ascent to bring waters back up to a safe and useful level.

No chaos can be as dangerous as too much chaos.

And yet...

In the past year and a half, we have faced a level of chaos that many of us have found not invigorating, but terrifying. 

Obviously, COVID has been and continues to be a chaotic force, upending order in our health care, our schools, our very lives. There were days earlier this summer, when I - and perhaps many of us - thought we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, only to realize it was the headlight of an oncoming Delta train. Perhaps you remember January 6, when it seemed entirely plausible that the American government - and the order it provides - could actually fall, and in June, a twelve story apartment building in Miami did fall, killing nearly a hundred people. 

Buildings fall, public health systems fail, and governments can and do fall. I suspect I am not the only person here who has found the chaos of this pandemic and the past administration to be not invigorating, but terrifying. 

How do we live when we realize that the order upon which we rely is as thin as the mylar sheeting Mark Watney used to keep the chaos of the martian surface at bay? Do any of us know the magic King David used to keep chaos at an orderly level?

...

My teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker teaches how nearly a hundred years ago, Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, the Bridge of San Luis Rey. In it, Brother Juniper witnesses the catastrophic collapse of a bridge in Peru, which sent five people to their deaths. Now, Brother Juniper was a pious man, and he knew that God's justice was perfect. If these people died, there was a good reason for it, and he, Brother Juniper, was going to find it. So he investigated those who died and learned everything he could about their human sins and foibles. If these five people died before their time, that must mean, ipso facto, that they deserved to die. There is order in the universe, insists Brother Juniper, and my research shows these deaths were not random, but orderly. They died for their sins, however minor or petty they might have been. Brother Juniper is delighted when his work comes to the attention of ecclesiastical authorities, as he expects to be celebrated for his faith and his defense of God’s justice. Instead, both Brother Juniper’s book and its author are burned at the stake for heresy. 

Why should this sincere act from a pious man be condemned as heresy? What is the sin in insisting that that there is order in the universe, that neither our sufferings nor our joys are the function of random chaos? After all, from the book of Deuteronomy straight through to William James, conventional religious thought holds that there is an unseen order in the universe, and that our supreme good consists in adjusting ourselves to live in harmony with that order! What was Brother Juniper’s sin?

The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonidies, addresses this exact question in his magnum opus, Moreh Nevuchim, The Guide for the Perplexed, which I learned with some of you last spring. He argued that the reality we know and experience - you know, reality - is but a tiny fraction of the entire universe. Things are indeed somewhat orderly and predictable in our tiny sliver of the universe, but our reality is to God’s universe what Mark Watney's greenhouse was to the martian landscape - a tiny illusion of order in vast chaos. 

I pride myself on having an orderly garage - the firewood is stacked here, all the holiday supplies are there, each in a box labeled Pesach or Hanukkah. So it's great that I have 50 linear feet of well organized shelving in my garage, but I live in a universe that is understood to be a hundred billion light years in diameter. It might be a very, very, very little bit of order in an eternity of chaos, but that little order soothes me. 

The human need to find order in chaos is so strong that one of the central precepts of Zen Buddhism is not-knowing. Of course, we know things - I know that my name is Brent, that I am standing in New York State and that the Mets have not won the World Series since 1986. At a deeper level though, there are things that not only do we not know, but that we can’t know. Why did the Holocaust happen? Why do babies die? Why do humans suffer?

Not-knowing, which is sometimes thought of as “beginner's mind” is the practice of continually setting aside fixed points of view, and simply recognizing that right now, it's like this. Perhaps it is not as it should be, or as I desire it to be, but right now, it's like this. We hold on to understandings which allow us to feel like the chaos is held in check, but when we allow those structures to crumble, we might be able to perceive our own center, a place of emptiness and profound silence. This is the darkness where things are not yet differentiated. In Jewish thought, this void is the ain sof, the undifferentiated chaos from which the world emerged and to which it will ultimately return. 

We once had a grand, magnificent Temple that stood in Jerusalem; it was the axis mundi, the literal, physical center of the world, until it was razed to the ground, rebuilt and razed again, a cycle of destruction that we mourn every summer on Tisha B’Av. That ordered structure inevitably fell, but at the center of the center, the Kodesh ha-Kodashim, was the sanctuary of silence, the available void which was always the actual center of our worship. 

The temple has long fallen, and if it is ever rebuilt, it will fall again. But that sanctuary of silence endures, as it ever will. 

Recognizing and even worshipping that void, that silent sanctuary, where nothing is known or knowable, requires an awareness that the world in which we know things is but a small part of the universe. It is the awareness that we all live in Mark Watney’s greenhouse, and while we might experience predictable order inside of it, outside, there is a vast arena we can’t know, and more importantly, our misguided efforts to impose a false order on that chaotic universe is both heretical and harmful. 

There is no one, fixed, absolute order that is true in all times and all places. There is, at most, a provisional guess based on the little bit we know, underneath which is the terrifying, beautiful, necessary, watery chaos. 

I can say all of these things, but while I love watching my kids embrace the chaos of life as they fly off the end of the rope swing into the water, the truth is that the chaos terrifies me. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals and graveyards to know that chaos, while occasionally romantic, usually brings tremendous pain and loss with it. There is nothing romantic about the chaos of Covid. 

Like Mark Watney on Mars, we live in a small bubble of order within a vast sea of chaos. 

Unlike Watney, however, we are not only ignorant of, but generally resistant to acknowledging the chaos beyond the thin mylar walls of our reality. There are, however, those ceasural moments when the martian air comes rushing in, the waters of the tehom come surging up and we realize that the order on which our lives are predicated can be washed away in an instant. 

The structures of the Temples fell, as did Brother Juniper’s moral economy, as does the barren order of King David’s magic. The chaos of the tehom is always there - there is no real reason why this person and not that person died on a bridge in Peru or a twelve story building in Miami or in a global pandemic. 

But the only life we can possibly live is in that greenhouse, with its limited, attenuated order. We are, after all, but dust and ashes - we emerged from that primordial chaos, and one day, hopefully far in the future, we will return to it. Mark Watney’s greenhouse didn’t conquer the Martian chaos, but it did carve out a very small arena in which Watney could live. However limited the order is, it is only in that order that we can live. 

Thornton Wilder ends his tale of Brother Juniper by saying “love [is] the only survival, the only meaning,” and indeed, love is the only thing I know for certain, and perhaps the only thing worth knowing. 

The real problem with Mark Watney’s greenhouse was not that its order was limited and contingent; that is the reality that we are all always in. The real problem was that he was entirely isolated, without human contact or connection. 

Judaism’s greatest articulation of the fundamental inscrutability of the universe is known as the Voice Out of the Whirlwind, in which the Holy One chastises Job for daring to ask why he suffered so. The Holy One thundered at Job for speaking without knowledge and assuming there must be some order to which even the Holy One is bound. The book of Job ends with the Holy One’s profound declaration that there is no ultimate order.

The Book of Job ends there, but the Torah doesn’t. Immediately after Job’s recognition that the painful chaos of the universe will endure is the Song of Songs, opening with the line, “Give me the kisses of your mouth, for your love is sweeter than wine.”

We love in many forms - we love our partners and our friends, our children and our parents. We find happiness in many, many wonderful forms of connection, but our happiness and well being rest on those human connections. 

There is enormous chaos in the universe and very little order. But the apparent order of the world is where we live and where we have space to connect with each other, to allow that divine electricity known as love to surge between us.

Shana tova; In this coming year, may we draw invigoration from the chaos of the world, may we find sanctuaries of silence, greenhouses that keep the chaos at bay, and in the pockets of order we experience, may we all find the love we seek. 

Gmar Hatimah Tova.

Love at the End

10/07/2021 01:11:16 PM

Oct7

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Not a single member of my immediate family would be alive today, if not for modern medicine.

Not me, not my wife and not my kids. 

The medical establishment has certainly made some terrible errors - thalidomide and Oxycontin come to mind, but it has done far, far more good than harm in this world. I am tremendously grateful for the blessings that have come to us by way of doctors and scientists.

These days, however, my gratitude for the miracles of modern medicine is tempered by my anger - anger at those who spurn those blessings. Those who refuse to get vaccinated against Covid, instead preferring horse de-wormers or blueberry antioxidant shakes. 

I’m furious at the feebleminded fools who seem content to drag us into a third year of this nightmare. 

I am absolutely apoplectic whenI hear people I love - let alone those I don’t - spout nonsense rather than do something that would keep themselves - and all of us - safer.

And... as I often do when I feel myself being overtaken by fury, I return to a talmudic teaching about an obscure verse which refers to the Wars of the Lord which take place at "Waheb b’ Suphah.” 

The rabbis of the Talmud teach that Waheb b’ Suphah really means ahavah b’sofo - there is love at the end. 

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba says: Even a parent and child, or a rabbi and their student, who are passionately learning Torah together, can become enemies with each other. But they do not conclude their studies until they love each other; they do not get up until there is love at the end. 

A War of the Lord, a Holy War, the rabbis teach, is one in which there is Love at the End.

A traditional beit midrash or yeshiva is not an environment of peace and harmony - it's a place of disagreement and friction. The entire Talmudic tradition is an anthology of tension: "Rabbi X says this, Rabbi Y says that." There is no attempt to gloss over the differences or pretend that everyone is really just saying the same thing. 

Yet in the Talmud, that massive compilation of disagreement that creates Judaism as we know it, there is no record of Rabbi X protesting outside the home of Rabbi Y, no record of Rabbi Y physically attacking Rabbi X. How does an argument become something in which there is Love at the End?

...

A few weeks ago at our Friday afternoon Torah study, I was learning together with Julie Meslin, who is often here with her daughters Wilhelmina and Olette. Julie has a beautiful, gentle soul, and she shared an insight into this very question that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but in essence, she said it all comes down to compassionate curiosity. You just have to keep asking yourself, “Why might my opponent feel this way?” until you come to an answer for which you can have compassion. 

We were having this conversation just a few days after Georgia had passed an “election security law” which the New York Times called “a breathtaking assertion of partisan power in elections.”

A number of us there that night were angry and pained by the wickedness of the Republican legislators who seemed quite content to gut American democracy in pursuit of their power. 

“Why might they do that,” Julie asked?

“Because they are racists,” someone answered. 

“Is that an answer you can have compassion for?” she asked. “If not, keep going.”

And so we kept going - they are racists, they are power hungry, they are insecure. And after every answer, Julie asked “Is that an answer you can have compassion for? If not, keep going.”

Finally, someone said, “They are afraid. They wrongfully think that black people are a threat to them, and they think they need to do this to keep their families safe.”

Julie asked again, but with a caveat - “I”m not asking if you agree with them or endorse their position, but can you have compassion for someone wanting to keep their family safe, even if the way they do that is completely wrong and even evil?”

To my surprise, I found I could. 

The compassion that Julie was teaching doesn't mean agreeing with the position the person holds; it means finding compassion for the person who holds that position. 

So let's go back to my frustration and anger at those who refuse to get vaccinated. How can I have compassion for, how can I be curious about, people who are so obviously wrong and are foolishly extending this pandemic nightmare?

I’m reading an incredible history of genetics by Siddartha Mukerjee and in it, he cites the nearly unanimous 1927 Supreme Court decision authorizing medical authorities to forcibly sterilize the feeble-minded - a legal category which included depressives, feminists, dyslexics and rebellious adolescents. In the decision, the court wrote “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is more than broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Let me repeat the last line of this near unanimous Supreme Court decision: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is more than broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”

Now, I really want everyone to be vaccinated, but the government’s authority to compel vaccination was used as the basis for forced, involuntary sterilizations? That doesn't sound good. 

And knowing that American eugenics helped fuel Nazi Germany’s efforts at ethic cleansing makes it sound a lot worse. 

I want to be very clear, because there is a subtle, but essential point here. This is not a sermon about vaccines - this is a sermon about how we understand those with whom we disagree. 

I - and everyone in my family who is old enough - has gotten the vaccine, and for that, I am profoundly glad and grateful. More than that, I absolutely and unambivalently support the efforts of institutions of all sizes, from BHA to the Beacon City School District to the Federal Government to mandate vaccines. 

And... those opposing vaccines and masks, those who have caused so much suffering with their foolishness, might be less deserving of my hatred and scorn than I might have thought. 

Learning about that supreme court decision didn’t change my position, but it did change my sense of judgement. 

You might be wrong, but that doesn't mean you are crazy; you might be foolish - even willfully so - but that doesn't mean you are evil. I have to disagree with you, and perhaps even draw clear boundaries to protect myself from you, but that doesn't mean I have to hate you. 

The trick, as Julie taught us that night, is remaining connected to a point of compassionate curiosity. 

Part of why it's so hard to have compassion for people with whom we disagree is because we often have positions that are incommensurate. 

This one thinks that two consenting adults should be able to marry each other regardless of sex or gender, and this one thinks that only a man and a woman should be able to marry. And indeed, sometimes there are real, substantive conflicts between values - as Isaiah Berlin famously put it, “total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs” and so sometimes, we are doomed to choose between foundational values.

Sometimes, but not always. 

A few years ago, during a swelteringly hot August, my son, who was 7 or 8 at the time, and I were visiting a friend of mine in Western Massachusetts. My friend and I sat on the pier discussing the joys and challenges of middle aged life, and our boys were splashing around in the water. They had been playing wonderfully together all weekend, but now they were squabbling on the shore of the lake. 

This one wants to get out of the water and play baseball

This one wants to stay in the water and keep splashing around. 

They were fighting because their positions were incompatible - they obviously can't be simultaneously in the water and out of the water - and so we have a crisis! 

But on the recommendation of my friend and BHA board member Karen Mayer, I had been reading a wonderful book called Getting to Yes, which highlights the difference between interests and positions. Positions are what we have decided upon - in the case of the boys, one’s position was that they should get out of the water, and the other’s position was that they should stay in the water. Interests, however, are what cause us to decide on this position or that. 

Neither boy was saying what motivated one to want to stay in the water and the other to get out. So I asked them. 

One wanted to stay in the water because it was hot; the other wanted to get out because he was bored. So I asked, “What if we played some football in the water?” The hot one gets to stay in the water, and the bored one gets to play a game. Cheers all around! My friend went back to the house to get a football, while I awaited my call from the Nobel Peace Prize committee. 

These boys had irreconcilable positions, but not irreconcilable interests

Now, these boys were 7 or 8 years old - it's not surprising or inappropriate that they couldn't come to a place of compassionate curiosity about their friends' interests. But what about us adults? Why is it so easy for us to despise our opponents?

After all, sometimes, our opponents are not merely deplorable. Sometimes, they are really despicable people. What sort of compassionate curiosity am I supposed to have for people who hate me, who want to kill me and you and our children?

I aspire to have compassionate curiosity about people with whom I am in conflict; it is not, to put it mildly, my natural inclination. 

Thank God though, there are people out there from whom I can learn. 

Matthew Stevenson was a Jewish student at New College in Sarasota, Florida. On Fridays, Stevenson would regularly have people over for shabbat dinner - he would light candles and make kiddush but very few of his guests were Jewish - there just weren't that many Jews at New College. Instead they were Christian, atheist, Hindu — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. 

In fall of 2011, Stevenson invited Derek Black, another kid from his dorm, to join them. This was notable because Black was one of the leading lights of the White Nationalist movement - his father, Don Black had created Stormfront, the Internet’s first and largest white nationalist site, and his godfather, David Duke, is a former Grand Wizard of the KKK and one of the country’s most infamous racial zealots. Although he was still just a college student, Derek was a white nationalist leader in his own right - he had started the Stormfront Youth web page and and hosted a daily AM radio show which gave him a chance to tell his listeners that “massive, nonwhite immigration” was leading to a “a white genocide in our own country.” 

Derek tried to keep his white nationalism quiet while at college, but his identity was revealed and the campus was in an uproar. He moved off campus and was essentially isolated from other students, and that’s when Stevenson invited him to Shabbas dinner. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Stevenson said at the time.

Just a few years afterward, in 2013, Derek wrote a statement to the Southern Poverty Law Center, publicly renouncing his former views. He is now a committed anti-racist activist, currently pursuing a PhD in history at the University of Chicago, focused on the intelecatual history of race as an idea. 

Matt Stevenson was faced with an opponent who was worthy of hatred; an adversary who wanted him dead. Confronted with someone dedicated to eradicating his humanity, Stevenson - incredibly - remained committed to and connected to the humanity of Derek Black. 

I am inspired by Matthew Stevenson, even as I am ashamed to admit how much I struggle to remain connected to the humanity of those with whom I disagree on matters far, far more trivial than what he wrestled with. It is only small comfort to know that I am not the only one in this community - or in our lineage - who struggles with that very issue. 

The rabbis tell the story of wicked King Manasha, who lived an evil and cruel life - conscripting thousands of slaves to build temples to idolatry, after which he had the slaves sacrificed to his wicked spirits. On his deathbed, however, he was about to make a full and sincere confession. The angels of heaven knew that if Manasha’s confession was heard by The Holy One, the Manasha would experience Divine forgiveness. The angels were outraged at the injustice, so they locked the gates of heaven so Manasha’s confession couldn't enter. But the Holy One dug a hole under the Throne of Glory, heard Manasha’s words and forgave Manasha. The Angels were furious at God, and so the Holy One turned to the angels, shrugged and said, “Look - It’s my business to forgive. This is who I am - this is what I do. If I didn’t forgive, humans would never be able to confess.”

The Quaker tradition calls moments like this, “Listening words into speech.” The Holy One knew the necessity of Divine softness, compassionate curiosity even about one as wicked as Manahse. Without it, the words - and the connection they build - simply would not flow. The Holy One showed compassion for Manashe, and drew his words out, which was the only way - Menashe was not going to be bullied into confession. Mathew Stevenson showed compassion for Derek Black and turned his heart more fully than force ever could. 

When we come to conflict with force, our only options are kill or be killed; when we come with compassionate curiosity, we can transform friction into connection. 

...

We stand here on this night of Kol Nidrei, asking for atonement and release from all the ways we have fallen short - all the ways in which we have been feebleminded, obstinate or just plain mean. We ask that the Holy One of Blessing have compassionate curiosity about us and show mercy to us, just as mercy was shown even to evil king Menashe, even to Derek Black. In this coming year, may others, human and Divine, have compassionate curiosity about us and may we, in turn, have compassionate curiosity about those we encounter. 

Gmar Hatimah Tova.

Plans for Blind Dating on Sukkot, God Willing

09/10/2021 03:28:22 PM

Sep10

Rabbi Brent Spodek

For the past few years, BHA has celebrated Sukkot on Main Street with Open to the Sky, our collaborative, open-source community Sukkah. It was built to facilitate serendipity, and part of the magic of Open to the Sky was its radical openness - I...Read more...

Digging for Connection

09/10/2021 02:09:38 PM

Sep10

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Earlier this summer, my family and I went canoe camping up in the Adirondacks, which was beautiful - we were together in the forest, happily singing as we paddled under clear blue skies.

At least for the first day. 

We caught a fair bit of rain the second day and by the third morning, as the edge of Hurricane Fredrick made its way through the mountains, things were not so beautiful. We were wet, our gear was muddy and there was no real prospect of either of those things changing any time soon. 

So that third morning, we broke camp and hauled canoes and damp sleeping bags down to the edge of the Raquette River for the next leg of our soggy journey. Back and forth I went with canoes on my shoulders and bags in my arms, grumbling in my mind that the weather clearly had a personal vendetta against us, that my kids were slackers who weren’t doing enough, that Alison had brought enough food to feed an army division for a month, not four people for a few days. Grumble, grumble, grumble. 

At very least, I knew enough to keep my mouth shut so that my negativity could stay in my own head. 

Then, my eldest kid came over to me, put their hand on my shoulder in exactly the way I do when I want to reassure my kids that I love them as I tell them that they are screwing something up and said, “Hey dad. You know how you are telling me and Abe that the first rule of a camping trip is no whining, no complaining? Well, you’re being a bissell fabissinah. Why don’t you do what you tell us to do - if you have something you want to say, say it; if not, please stop huffing and stomping - you're bumming everyone out.”

I found it more than a little bit humbling to realize that I’ve spent all these years studying Torah in the hopes it would make me a better person, and yet there I was, being taken to school by my teenager - in Yiddish, no less. They were, of course, absolutely, completely, 100% right. 

I was using silence as a weapon - perhaps there are others here who are familiar with this habit. It involves making sure that everyone knows that I am unhappy, without ever explicitly saying that I am unhappy. I let them know by the way I glower, the way I put a bag down with just a bit too much force, the petulant tone I use to spit out curt answers to any questions that come my way. The genius of this approach is that silence gives me plausible deniability - if anyone dares to ask me what is wrong, I can spit out, “Nothing. I didn’t say anything!” Thankfully my kid could see right through that absurd alibi.

If I was half as mature as I like to think I am, I might have honestly said “I’m bummed out from all this rain, my shoulders hurt from carrying all that gear and none of this has anything to do with you. I’m sorry I've been taking it out on you.” 

But, I didn’t do that. 

When my emotional manipulation game is on point, I make everyone guess what they are doing to make me unhappy without ever owning up to the ways I am the agent of my own unhappiness.

We all are, even as many of us endure hard, difficult and even horrifying things. 

It's easy enough to get into a conflict, to stew in bitter silence, but it takes presence of mind and real maturity to step away from it. The rest of our paddling journey was indeed soggy and muddy, but infinitely better than it seemed like it might be in the morning, because while I brought the attitude of a petulant teenager, my actual teenager brought some actual emotional maturity and gave me the opportunity to get my own head screwed on straight.

The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, teaches כִּי הַשָּׁלוֹם תָּלוּי בְּדַעַת וּמַחֲלֹקֶת, הוּא הֶפֶךְ הַדַּעַת/ peace is dependent upon self awareness, while dispute stems from the opposite of self awareness. 

Self-awareness is a funny thing - it is the habit of looking at our own looking. If I look out a window at a tree, I might notice its color, the shape of its leaves, the sway of its branches. I might also, however, notice the window itself - the beads of dew drying on the glass, the web a spider has spun in the corner, the frame which highlights some things while obscuring others. 

Self awareness, or da’at, which Rebbe Nachman teaches is the foundation of peace, involves recognizing that we have no control over what happens to us - the things that happen outside the window of our consciousness, but we might have some ability to affect how we perceive things through that window - to be aware of what we are choosing to highlight and obscure, even if it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. I certainly wasn't aware of choosing to be fabissinah that soggy morning; at least not until my kid helped me choose a different path. 

As we probably all know, however, it's often not so easy to choose a different path, in large part because we rarely have any awareness of our own choosing. 

In his groundbreaking work on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman taught of the dangers of “amygdala hijacking,” those moments when the most ancient part of our brain - the part that is excellent at perceiving danger and asking “Do I eat it, or does it eat me?" - takes over and squeezes out any other ability our mind has. When the amygdala takes over, we no longer are asking if we are in danger; we know we are in danger and we are only processing if we should flee, fight or freeze. It is very, very hard for us as individuals - or us as a nation - to engage our da’at, our self-awareness, when we feel afraid and under attack.

In 1988, two of the most important rabbis of the day - Yitz Greenberg and Meir Kahane - debated about the future of Israel. Kahane, who founded the now outlawed but still very powerful Kach party in Israel, argued that following the Holocaust, Judaism must be muscular and demanding, and could not afford to take any risks. “If there is one Arab in the country who is not willing to accept the status that was given to him,” he argued, then “that Arab must go.” Greenberg argued just the opposite, saying that “Our [Zionist] dream is realized. We have come back to the land of Israel, but there is a population there and they are human beings.” We must take risks for peace. 

This tension - between the risks of defense and the risks of openness - is the animating tension of Jewish life, at least since the Holocaust. If it's helpful, this is also the animating tension of the X Men comic series, which not incidentally, were written by post-Holocaust Jews. In that superhero universe, the Nazis targeted mutants as well as Jews, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Magneto carries Kahane’s banner, insisting that the mutants can never trust humans and must be prepared to fight them with power and strength, while Professor X, confined to a wheelchair, uses the enhanced power of his mind to argue that if we are brave enough to face our own fears, we can come to a place of trust and understanding, even with those who would be our enemies. 

One need not be a mutant superhero to address conflict directly and maturely, but it does take a level of courage that not everyone has. 

Among those who lack that courage are the twelve sons of Jacob. A quick refresher - the 12 sons hated their brother Joseph, he of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat. In fact, they hated him because of that coat - it was the embodiment of Jacob’s love for Joseph, a connection far beyond what he felt for any of his other children. I know that feeling - maybe you do, too. That feeling of not being loved, not being recognized, of being taken for granted. 

That resentment can eat us alive from the inside out, and that is exactly what it did to the twelve brothers. 

When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than any of them, they hated him, וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם - they could not speak him to peace. (Gen 37:4)

This would seem to be precisely the sort of behavior the Rambam was urging against when he taught, “When a person feels they have been wronged, they should not hate the offender and keep silent ... it is his duty to talk directly to the offender and ask, “Why did you do this to me?” (Hilchot Deot 6:6)

If the brothers had been able to speak to Joseph they might have told him of their anger at his talebearing, and of their distress at seeing the many-colored coat. They might have spoken frankly about their sense of humiliation at the way their father favored Joseph’s mother Rachel over their mother Leah, a favoritism that was now being carried through into a second generation. If the brothers were more courageous, or simply more mature, they might have taken ownership of their feelings and invited Joseph to respond with integrity. 

It takes courage to operate with that level of integrity, in no small part because the person to whom you are speaking might not be willing or able to meet you there. 

But the brothers didn’t speak - they tried to win. Perhaps the brothers thought that they had won, because they threw Joseph in a pit and sold him to slavery. And perhaps Joseph thought he won, because even in prison, he enjoyed the love of their father in ways his brothers did not. 

The hard truth though is that at least when it comes to relationships, winning is for losers. What is it that we win, exactly, when we win a conflict with a loved one? There is that small moment of frisson when you hear those magic words, “OK - you’re right,” but then what? Do we get a trophy saying I won an argument with my spouse, my child, my parent?

We win when we transform conflict into connection.  

This is, I think, precisely what the author of Proverbs was referring to when they taught עֹכֵ֣ר בֵּ֭יתוֹ יִנְחַל־ר֑וּחַ - One who troubles their own house will inherit the wind. (Mishle 11:29)

What if the brothers had been able to say, “Hey, we feel lousy because our father seems to love you so much more than any of us. Seeing you in that coat makes us feel like dirt?” What if they had named their own feelings, without accusation or attack? There is no way of knowing, of course, what might have happened, but I like to imagine that Joseph might have responded with concern for these brothers that he loved, even looked up to. But lo yachlu dabro le-shalom. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to speak. As Nachmanides teaches, “Those who hate tend to hide their hate in their heart.”

Conversation does not, in and of itself, resolve conflict. Two people who are open with one another may still have clashing desires or competing claims. They simply may not like one another. There is no law of predetermined harmony in the human domain. But conversation means that we recognize one another’s humanity, which is no small feat when conflict emerges. At its best, conversation allows us to engage in role reversal, seeing the world from the other’s point of view. Think of how many real and intractable conflicts, whether in the personal or political realm, might be transformed if we could do that.

In the end Joseph and his brothers had to live through real trauma - bondage, imprisonment, famine - before they were able to recognize one another’s humanity.

Our Talmudic Sages were eloquent in speaking about the dangers of lashon hara, “evil speech,” the power of language to fracture relationships and destroy trust and goodwill. But there is evil silence as well as evil speech. Joseph’s brothers were unable to “speak to him peace” and so communication and connection broke down at the very point where it was needed most.

Words create; words reveal; words redeem. Words can be the narrow bridge across the abyss between one soul and another, between two human beings, and between humanity and the Divine. Language can be a pathway to connection, and connection is the redemption of solitude, the mender of broken relationships. However painful it is to speak about our hurt, however limited language actually is, it is far more harmful to stew in silence. Had they the courage and maturity to speak, Joseph and his brothers might have been reconciled early on in their lives, and thus spared themselves, their father, and their descendants, much grief. 

I have no doubt that as a nation and as individuals, we will experience moments of fear this year, moments when we are pained, when our amygdala pushes our da’at to the side. In those moments, I pray we all remember the teaching of Rebbe Nachman, that הַשָּׁלוֹם תָּלוּי בְּדַעַת. In those inevitable moments, may we have the courage and maturity to reveal our pain so as to heal our pain. 

Shana Tova

How to Have a Hard Conversation

09/01/2021 01:03:12 PM

Sep1

Rabbi Brent Spodek

We are fast approaching the Days of Awe and the public celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippor. 

In many ways, those holidays are the culmination of work that we are called to do all during the Hebrew month of Elul - the work of teshuva. 

Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but more accurately can be thought of as return, particularly in the context of our...Read more...

Days of Awe 5782

08/10/2021 02:19:25 PM

Aug10

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Dear Friends:

As you might imagine, planning for the Days of Awe has been a challenge during Covid, both last year and again this year. Last year, we were entirely virtual; this year, we will be meeting in person and on-line, but because of a lack of...Read more...

Scheduling Sadness

07/14/2021 01:30:54 PM

Jul14

Rabbi Brent Spodek

 

Francesco Hayez, Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Galleria dell' Accademia, Venice, It

The Evening of Saturday, July 17, 2021 marks the beginning of Tisha b’Av, the hardest day on the Jewish calendar. 

Read more...

Introducing our New Education Director

06/16/2021 04:16:33 PM

Jun16

Rabbi Brent Spodek

I am thrilled to introduce our new Education Director, Rishe Groner!

Rishe (pronounced Reesh-ah) is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and will be with us for the coming year as part of their Resnick Internship program. She is currently in Jerusalem and will be moving to Beacon later this summer. [NB: we are looking for an affordable one bedroom apartment in Beacon; if you have leads, please let me know.]

Rishe comes with an incredible range of experience - born in the Chabad community of Melbourne, Australia, she has served as a teacher and prayer leader at the Romemu Seekers program, Luria School in Brooklyn, Pearlstone Retreat Center, Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, Moishe House, Nava Tehila in Jerusalem and more. You can learn of her Torah by checking out her website, which is focused on sharing embodied and mystical approaches to Jewish life, reading this article about her, or watching this brief video we made for our community.

Beyond that, Rishe comes with the knowledge and energy to build on what Julia Alexander has done with our Masa program and take things to the next level in the post-Covid year in front of us! 

I want to give special thanks to the members of our education committee - Ashley Baker, Josh Kaplan, Jesse Lunin-Pack and Bekah Starr - who did an incredible job of interviewing a very strong field of candidates and then helping Rishe to get familiar with our community from afar! Our clergy and staff - Faith Adams, Julia Alexander, Ilana Friedman, and Cantor Ellen Gersh also were all instrumental in managing this complicated process. 

If you have any questions, please let me know, and stay tuned for an opportunity later this summer to meet Rishe in person and learn what we have in store for the coming academic year!

With blessings,

Rabbi Brent

Torah of Israel and Palestine

05/20/2021 11:28:59 AM

May20

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Dear Friends:

We just concluded the holiday of Shavuot, the commemoration of receiving the Torah in the wilderness. 

Why, our tradition asks, were we not given the Torah in Egypt, at the start of our epic journey?...Read more...

Meeting in Person

05/11/2021 04:23:10 PM

May11

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Dear Friends:

The last time we gathered as a community was at the Purim Carnival last March; since then, we’ve gathered only online or in small groups. But, 15 months, one presidential election and 100 million vaccines later, we’re ready to start thinking about meeting in person again!

Of course, we will be following the guidance of the NYS Department of Health as well as BHA member Dr. Paul Ostrovsky regarding best practices. 

I want to share with you some of the plans we are working on with the caveat that there are many moving pieces, and we might have to change plans at some point. But for now, here’s the plan:

The Summer

Starting on Friday May 21, we are planning to start davvening on Friday nights at the pavilion at the University Settlement Camp (USC)! Woohoo! 

Our schedule will remain mostly the same, with adult learning at 5PM-6PM, mini-minyan at 5:30PM-6PM, and everyone davvening (adults and kids) at 6:00 PM. Everyone is welcome to bring a picnic dinner for their family if they wish, but at least for now, we will not have a “formal” BHA dinner. 

For services, please bring picnic blankets and/or lawn chairs that you are comfortable sitting on; we’ll ask that people set up at least 10 feet apart from each other. At that distance, we are not mandating that everyone wear masks, though of course, those who wish to do so are welcome to. 

You can see a map of where we’ll be meeting here. We recommend you enter the park at the northern entrance, bear right and proceed up the hill.  Parking spaces, including handicapped spaces, are located at the camp office near where we are meeting at the pavilion.  When that parking is full, please proceed down to the pool parking lot near the southern most entrance.

We hope to have internet access there so that we can broadcast our learning and davvening via our facebook page. We do not intend to keep making use of zoom. BHA members are encouraged to join the WhatsApp group for communication and connection over distance - Visit the BHA Members Only page for the link.

In the event of light rain, we can easily move into the open walled pavilion and maintain adequate distance; if the forecast calls for heavy rain, we’ll move entirely on-line.

FridayFri, 22 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
The Language of Truth/Sefat Emet at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 22nd 5:00p to 6:00pThe Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) was a Hasidic Rebbe known for his keen insight, spiritual and emotional sensitivity, and accessible Torah. Join Rabbi Brent for a weekly exploration of his Torah commentary and the illumination it can provide us.

MORE INFO

FridayFri, 22 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
Mini Minyan at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 22nd 5:30p to 6:00pJoin our B-Mitzvah students and Cantor Ellen outside at the University Settlement Camp for a service for children ages 0-12. We will welcome Shabbat with song and dance, and we will end by lighting candles together.

MORE INFO

FridayFri, 22 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
Kabbalat Shabbat at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 22nd 6:00p to 7:00pJoin us outside at the BHA to welcome Shabbat with song and dance.

MORE INFO

FridayFri, 29 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
The Language of Truth/Sefat Emet at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 29th 5:00p to 6:00pThe Sefat Emet (R. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905) was a Hasidic Rebbe known for his keen insight, spiritual and emotional sensitivity, and accessible Torah. Join Rabbi Brent for a weekly exploration of his Torah commentary and the illumination it can provide us.

MORE INFO

FridayFri, 29 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
Mini Minyan at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 29th 5:30p to 6:00pJoin our B-Mitzvah students and Cantor Ellen outside at the University Settlement Camp for a service for children ages 0-12. We will welcome Shabbat with song and dance, and we will end by lighting candles together.

MORE INFO

FridayFri, 29 OctOctober, 2021

 
 
Kabbalat Shabbat at University Settlement Camp

Friday, Oct 29th 6:00p to 7:00pJoin us outside at the BHA to welcome Shabbat with song and dance.

MORE INFO

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe present some particular challenges this year. Two main things to be aware of: a) between adults and children, we generally have approximately 250 people in the building during the “peak” moments of the Days of Awe and b) our building has no ventilation system at all, and few windows that open more than a few inches. The ventilation is poor enough that most years, at least one person passes out from the heat in the building over the holidays. 

The good news is that we live in a beautiful part of the world with ample outdoor space. I am currently in conversation with some local camps to see if we can have our services there, and I am confident that we will find a way to celebrate the Days of Awe in a setting that is safe, comfortable, and gives us some flexibility in the event of inclement weather. 

The New Year

For Shabbat services we generally have no more than 50 people in the building at a time. It is my hope that for regular Shabbat services (after the Days of Awe) we will again be able to meet in our building, even if we have to make some adjustments to the building and/or our programs. 

Traditionally minded Jews preface nearly any statement about the future - even lunch in half an hour - with B’ezrat Hashem, or God willing. B’ezrat Hashem, I’m going to have a chicken salad sandwich soon, or B’ezrat Hashem, my child will be married in the fall. 

It’s a way of acknowledging that the future is always uncertain - sometimes we are aware of that, and sometimes we forget, but really, we never can be certain about what is happening next. 

So, B’ezrat Hashem, we’ll meet in person again soon - first outdoors and ultimately back in our communal home.  

Mon, October 18 2021 12 Cheshvan 5782