Friday, October 19, 2012

Talking...No Strings Attached (Guest Post by Rabbi Paul Drazen)

Note from Rabbi Wernick: In light of the recent discussions and news of the Christian Jewish Roundtable, and my colleague Rabbi Paul Drazen's leadership for USCJ in it, I have invited him to blog about the topic this week. 

My interest in interactive communication was revealed to me at a young age when I tried to have a conversation with a friend using two cans connected by a string. Perhaps some of you will remember doing the very same thing. Though my home-made phone hardly worked, I was intrigued by the idea of being able to communicate with another person intimately across the divide of space. In some ways, the can and string contraption of my youth is the spiritual godfather of modern communications devices. Though the ubiquity of wireless phones has introduced a steady stream of meaningless conversation into our daily lives – often belonging to strangers with loud voices, these phones area also portals for engaging and important communication that bridges spatial divides.
Engaging and proactive conversations are the ones I treasure, personally and professionally. Indeed, the underlying goal for the many conversations we have in our work at United Synagogue, especially in areas of public policy or interfaith work,  is for our words to build bridges across the many divides of life. In our conversations, the purpose is not to convince the others to change their minds or beliefs, but to foster an understanding of what speaks to others’ hearts. The goal is illumination, to share sincerely held, heartfelt stands and beliefs.
When the conversations are good, that is what happens. But sometimes, as with the tin cans and string, the communications effort fails.
Two weeks ago, in the middle of Sukkot and the start of the long (at least for government workers) Columbus Day holiday weekend, members of the Jewish community who have been in dialogue with counterparts in many Christian denominations through the venerable effort known as the Christian-Jewish Roundtable were shocked to learn that many of the Protestant partners in that conversation had sent a letter to Congress, asking for a formal review of Israel’s human rights violations with an eye towards ending aid to Israel.  There is a plethora of descriptions of the content of the letter itself [See for but one of the stories.].
For the Jewish groups who had participated faithfully in these discussions -- USCJ included -- news of the letter came as a shock and felt like a betrayal by partners who had seemed committed to speaking frankly, earnestly and sincerely across the divide of religion and political belief. It was not just the content of the letter to Congress but the fact that it was sent three weeks before our next scheduled Roundtable discussion, on the eve of an important Jewish festival.
The childhood yearning I had for friendly conversation persists.
I hope that – despite this setback – we can return to our interfaith roundtable and speak as friends. 

Paul Drazen is the Director of Special Projects and Special Assistant to the CEO at USCJ.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Peculiar Commandment to Be Happy

As the final days of Sukkot draw near and Shmini Atzeret, Hoshana Rabba and Simchat Torah wink in the distance observant Jews around the world can be heard taking a collective sigh of relief.

Not that it hasnt been wonderful, this alternate universe we enter into each fall, this mandated season of celebration and togetherness.

Of course it has been wonderful and joyous and also difficult.

And sometimes draining.

If it was only a party, we would not have to be commanded to be happy.

Vsamachta bchagecha! we are mandated. And you shall be happy in your holiday observance.

Vhayeeta ach samayah! we are instructed. And you shall be only happy.

At first flush, this seems an odd thing, this commandment to be happy.

Must we really be commanded to be happy?

Imagine commanding a child to be happy on their birthday. And if Rosh Hashana commemorates the birthday of the world, all of humankind should rejoice at this joyous celebration.

Yet as anyone who has taken the time to read the Machzor knows, the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is suffused with the awareness of our mortality. It is in our liturgy. It is in the wearing of the kittel.

On the High Holidays, we stand before God, petitioning to be included in the Book of Life for one more year. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we are essentially rehearsing for our final days, putting our spiritual houses in order, contemplating our inevitable death so that we might know how to live.

And then, with the arrival of Sukkot, we have survived Gods judgment and the critical hour of the weighing of our souls and we are delighted to find ourselves still among the living.

Yet, if we are overjoyed to have merited one more earthly year, the question remains: why must we be commanded to be happy on Sukkot?

An obvious answer is that Jews live with knowledge of the fragility of happiness. How many celebratory moments public and private have been shattered by violence throughout Jewish history? Why else break the glass at a Jewish wedding, recalling the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem during one of lifes peak moments?

So, we can understand the commandment to be happy as a wise yet sad commentary of the existential state of living at the nexus of simcha and tsaar joy and sorrow.

Yet this year, the message of Vsamachta bchagecha was driven home most poignantly for a community in Minneapolis and for me as well, because of my deep connection to this particular kehilla.

With preparations for the festival of Sukkot underway, a disgruntled former employee entered a business in Minneapolis Accent Signage Systems and opened fire, killing the owner, the manager, a UPS driver and several employees.

The business owner, Reuven Rahamim, was an active member of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, one of our kehillot, a shul where I have deep personal ties, where I had served as a Kadima USY advisor, whose previous rabbi Hayyim Herring had also been my own.

Immediately following the shooting, articles and tributes flooded the Internet, attesting to the fact that a man who served as the cornerstone of the civic and Jewish community had been brutally murdered.

Reuven Rahamim. It is worthwhile to ponder his last name Rahamim -- which means mercy.  By all accounts, Reuven Rahamaim was a man who fulfilled the promise of his name, which is one of Gods attributes, repeated throughout the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy.

So, the family of Reuven Rahamim and his friends and congregants and workers are left with shattered lives, yet still mandated to be happy during the festival of Sukkot through Simchat Torah which literally translates as The Happiness of the Torah.

And the friends and family and coworkers of all the victims of this latest workplace massacre are left shattered and wondering how they will ever be fully happy again.

This year, I fully understand Gods mandate to celebrate in the face of sorrow. Vsamachta bchagecha is a commandment because sometimes being happy is very, very difficult.