May 19, 2018 / 5 Sivan 5778
This has been the week of the split screen. Jubilant celebration pit against desperate agitation. Pictures of smiling, well-dressed politicians inaugurating a sparkling new American Embassy in Jerusalem juxtaposed with shots of Palestinians in Gaza wielding slingshots, silhouetted against the backdrop of burning tires, acrid smoke, and barbed wire. Split screen. Two pictures snapped at the same time, 40 miles apart. Two pictures that could not be more different.
As painful as it has been for us to see these two images juxtaposed in the news, it has been doubly painful to feel those images juxtaposed in our hearts and in our communities.
For some, the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was an answer to fervent prayers and to decades of hard work. They say Jerusalem has always been our holy city. The heartbeat of the Jewish world. Jerusalem is where our Temples were built, where our ancestors offered sacrifices, where our people have lived and prayed and wrestled with God for more than three thousand years. Jerusalem is and will always be the capital of Israel. This move is about recognizing a reality on the ground, a reality which does not preclude the resolution of conflict, but which does acknowledge that Jews will not abandon the city of Jerusalem. Any future peace agreement will include the acknowledgement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the Jewish people. Why not move the embassy now?
Besides, they say, this move is not a sudden reversal in policy. Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995. In 1995, the House and Senate voted to acknowledged Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and set aside funds to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. For the last 23 years, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have ignored the stipulations of the Jerusalem Embassy Act and refused to move the Embassy (even though Congress has since passed additional legislation to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel). By moving the Embassy, President Trump was not just carrying out a campaign promise, he was also responding to and actualizing a decision made through the democratic process. A promise which our government has reneged for more than two decades.
It is high time, they say, to celebrate Israel. 70 years of surviving and thriving against the odds. 70 years of struggling to resolve the conflict, 70 years of compromises, negotiations, and diplomacy. 70 years filled with terrorism and two intifadas. Even today, Hamas urges its people to run at the fence, to destroy Israel. We cannot allow their blatant disregard for human life to hold us hostage, we cannot allow their violent tactics to dictate the course of Israel’s future.
While this group celebrates, for others, the relocation of the US Embassy was too much, too soon. They say that while the Embassy Act has been on the books, our presidents have been prudent to delay. It’s too volatile, too dangerous. Just look at the protests that have been happening in Gaza for the past many weeks. 60 dead. Thousands injured. Among them children and bystanders. Is moving the Embassy worth so much pain and loss of life?
The embassy move was meant to be a celebration of conflict resolved. An incentive for Israel to work hard for peace. Instead, by rushing to move the embassy now, precisely on Israel’s anniversary of independence and Palestinian’s Naqba day, we have made peace in Israel even more unlikely. For Palestinians, the move was a slap in the face, proof that the United States has chosen sides and is no longer an impartial mediator. And, they say, we worry that moving the embassy will further radicalize the hard-right groups in Israel and make them less likely to negotiate with Palestinians.
Furthermore, they say, the fate of Jerusalem has yet to be decided. The international community sees Jerusalem as an occupied city. The international community does not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Acting unilaterally to move the Embassy, without the approval and agreement of the international community, risks not only Israel and our interests in the Middle East, but also threatens our safety at home. Now the United States will be a target for all those countries who hate Israel.
Oy. What do we do in the face of split screens?
After the destruction of the Temple, our ancestors dispersed around the world. Their experiences were varied. Some found hardship, others opportunity. But no matter what they encountered in their travels and in their lives, they were looking at the world through the split screen of experience. On the one side, they saw the picture of their trauma: destruction of the Temple and displacement. On the other side, they saw the opportunity and challenge of the moment. Two screens.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we are in our ancestors’ shoes. We’re grappling with trauma. Living in a new place where we don’t quite fit in. Trying to maintain our connection with our spiritual home. In the place of sacrifice, we have to find something that will make us feel instantly connected and loved, safe and hopeful for the future. We have to devise a new ritual to start the day.
If I were an ancestor, I would create a ritual filled with sunshine and warm fuzzy feelings. My morning ritual would be as follows—wake up with the sun shining without an alarm, watch 10-15 minutes of cute baby animal videos on YouTube, write out 10 gratitudes, remember all of the miracles God has performed and praise God for all the blessings in the world, and then listen to joyful music while getting ready for the day.
Our ancestors could have devised a spiritual practice of sunshine and cute animals, but instead they chose to start our day with a split screen. Light and darkness. Blessing and challenge. Every morning we say a verse from Isaiah יוצר אור ובורא חושך God forms light and creates darkness.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Though our ancestors lifted the verse from Isaiah, they edited it to fit their spiritual needs. The original verse reads יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא רע God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates evil. But our rabbis didn’t want the focus to be on fragments of light emerging in a dark world, they didn’t want there to be total balance between good and bad. Instead, they wrote the words יוצר אור ובורא חושך, עושה שלום ובורא את הכל God forms light and creates darkness, God makes peace and creates the whole. In other words, there may be light and darkness in the world, but the balance tips towards light.
Let me share a story with you that I learned at this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference. The year was 1948. Israel was struggling to fend of armies from Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Things were not looking good and the United Nations had just ordered Israel to withdraw from Beersheba.
During this time, famous conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was travelling around Israel with an ensemble of incredible musicians. They would stop at military bases and perform to improve morale and help with the war. Just as the order to vacate Beersheba came through, Leonard Bernstein and his Israel Philharmonic Orchestra arrived to perform.
In the midst of a dark and uncertain future, it was a moment of sheer joy. Thousands of Israelis, including patients from nearby hospitals, schlepped out to hear the gorgeous notes of Mozart’s Piano Concerto 15 in B-flat Major, Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
And while they listened, Egyptian armies saw thousands of Israelis assembling and became afraid. They were convinced that Israeli armies were gathering in Beersheba to attack Egypt. So, they pulled their armies from Jerusalem and sent them south. That redeployment changed the course of the war and enabled Israel to defeat her adversaries.
In 1948, our people did not allow their bleak reality to prevent them from seeing light. Though we may be living in a moment of split screens, in a moment of darkness, we can turn our eyes towards the fullness of the future. We can look towards the light.[Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od] *sung
27 Iyar 5778 — May 12, 2018
You do not have to be a basketball fan to be wowed by Lebron James.
His story is not only a basketball story. It is a human story. He is finishing up his 15th year in the NBA. He is 33. That is very old in NBA years, where many of the players are in their early twenties. And unquestionably he has the least talented team of any of the NBA teams still competing in the playoffs. All the other teams have multiple superstars. The Cavaliers don’t. They just have Lebron and a bunch of journeyman players.
And yet, Lebron has been playing not only better than any 33-year old has ever played. He is playing as well as he has ever played. Older Lebron is out-competing younger Lebron. All the metrics of basketball, points scored, assists, rebounds, minutes on the court, clutch shots made that win the game—all those metrics point to this year as his finest hour.
This seems to be a Lebron James sermon that would be good for basketball fans and sports enthusiasts. But stay with me now. This is a sermon that belongs in shul on a Shabbat morning, because it is about you, about me, about all of us.
But to make that case I need first to talk about a fancy word, an SAT word, that nobody ever uses. The word is quotidian, which has two definitions.
The first definition of quotidian is: “occurring every day, daily.”
Pause here. How do we understand what happens every day? How do we value what we do every day? Does what we do every day suffer for its familiarity?
All of which leads to the secondary meaning of quotidian, which is “ordinary or common place.” What we do every day runs the risk of becoming boring.
Think about your morning routine. You wake up. You try to coax another day out of your weary body. You brush your teeth, brew a pot of coffee, take the dishes out of the dishwasher, catch up on the morning news, shower and get dressed for the day. Maybe your morning routine involves prayers. Perhaps it involves a workout, yoga, running, stretching. Perhaps it involves calling people you stay in touch with every morning. Perhaps we reach for our cell phones and catch up on texts and emails that are somehow always waiting for us every fresh morning.
Think about the routines of your morning, how we do that day after day, forever. Does repetition lead to boredom?
In 1921, the poet Wallace Stevens answered this question yes when he coined the term “the malady of the quotidian.” Quotidian is not just boring, the poet tells us. It is a malady. What we do every day does not only suffer from repetition. We suffer enduring all that repetition.
Is Wallace Stevens right? Or might there be some other way to frame our daily deeds?
The Torah tells us that there was a sacrifice called the tamid. The word tamid means perpetual. This was a sacrifice that had to burn every morning and every evening of every day. The main point of the perpetual sacrifice was that it was perpetual. The light was always on. The fire was always burning. Forever.
How does that happen? Answer: It doesn’t just happen. In describing the tamid sacrifice, the Torah coins this evocative phrase, baboker baboker, morning in, morning out. Morning in and morning out the priest had to remove the ashes from yesterday’s sacrifices. Then he had to put fresh logs of wood in for today’s sacrifices. Ashes out, logs in. Baboker baboker. Every day. Forever.
That sounds an awful lot like Wallace Stevens’ “malady of quotidian.”
But then the Torah shares why the priest does this every day: eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach loh tichbeh. A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar. Do not let it go out.
There is a higher purpose to all these daily rounds, namely keeping a fire burning, never to go out. The daily chores, and the higher purpose, are totally connected. Ashes out, logs in, make a perpetual fire possible.
The Torah here takes the stuff we do every day and reframes it from the malady of quotidian to the majesty of quotidian. The quotidian now has majesty because it makes higher purpose possible.
Which brings us back to the King of basketball, Lebron James. What we see now is the eish tamid tukad al hamezbeach, the perpetual fire burning on the altar. We see a seemingly ageless 33 year old, 15 year veteran outperforming much younger athletes and playing the best basketball that has ever been played on planet earth. But like the biblical kohein, who every single day had to take the ashes out and put the logs in, Lebron’s greatness this season did not just happen.
After Shabbat is over, google “Lebron running the court video.” It will show you what he did this past summer on an ordinary summer day, August 22, 2017, to be exact. The video is 1 minute 1 second long. It shows Lebron, already the greatest player in the history of the game, still working incredibly hard to perfect his craft. It shows him running the full length of the court and dunking, eight times, in 1 minute, 1 second. Pure work. Pure quotidian.
Why is he still working so hard on a summer day? Because you can draw a straight line from that practice and that hard work to the unparalleled success he has had this year. Perpetual fires do not just happen. Perpetual fires only happen if you tend them perpetually.
Consider the folks here at Temple Emanuel who prepare breakfast every morning after our daily minyan. They come in at 6:00 am, they open up the building, and what they do is pure quotidian. They toast bagels, brew coffee, set the table for 15 or 20 people, put out spreads, put out drinks, daven, encounter every person who comes to the minyan, serve breakfast with a smile, and then clean the whole thing up, do every dish, put away all the food, sweep everything clean. That is every morning of every day from 6 to 7 and then after davening from 7:45 to 8:30. And why do they do this every day? Because it makes a perpetual fire possible—a community that welcomes its members in warmth, prayer and friendship every morning.
What are the ashes you take out and the logs you put in? What is your perpetual fire?
If you are a teacher, you have your ashes and logs. Every day you face a classroom of students, lesson plans, grading papers and exams, parents who have concerns. Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that in a world where the very notion of truth is under attack, where reading and learning and knowing and having expertise are devalued, there is such a thing as learning, there is such a thing as truth, and you are inspiring the next generation to believe in it, to work hard for it, to pursue it.
If you are a doctor, you have your ashes and logs, a waiting room full of patients, hassles with the bureaucracy of managed care. Can you find a perpetual fire in knowing that you are bringing healing and relief and life to people who are stricken and desperate and are relying on you?
If you are a lawyer, you have your ashes and logs, timesheets that must be filled out, hours that must be billed, bills that must be sent out and collected. Can you find your perpetual fire in coming through for clients who count on you?
If you are a salesperson, you have your ashes and logs, widgets to sell, customers to schmooze, early morning flights to make, competitors to deal with. Can you find your perpetual fire in helping your customer get what they need and in helping your company and its employees thrive?
If you devote your energy to home, you know only too well your ashes and logs. Dishes, bills, laundry, garbage, carpool, making and cleaning up breakfast, lunch and dinner, homework. None of this ever ends. But can you find your perpetual fire in creating a home that is a sanctuary for your family, a place of love and joy and renewal, a home where your loved ones thrive because of the love and care you put into it?
Recently I was at a shiva for a family that had lost its father. After we davened maariv, one of the grown children was recounting a chapter of her father’s life that had remarkably not come up until then. The children did not mention it when I met with them at the house. The chapter did not come up at his funeral. But at the shiva, this daughter recounted that for ten years, her father was a caregiver who faithfully attended to their mother who suffered from Parkinson’s. 36 hour days for 10 years. That is a lot of ashes and logs. There is no glory in 36 hour days. No glamor. No headlines. No one is looking when the caregiver is present day after hard day. But at the end of his days, all those ashes, all those logs, led to a perpetual fire of character, loyalty, decency, steadfastness, a beautiful humanity. The perpetual fire of role modeling how important it is to do the right thing when no one is looking. That is the majesty of quotidian. Truly no King, not even Lebron, could do anything more important. Shabbat shalom.
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