Called Out

The hero or heroine in fiction is so often a child or teenager. From Twain to Tolkien and Cair Paravel to Castle Rock, the story is (usually) better that way. Yet so often, the Bible went the other way. Abraham was 75 when called by G-d. Moses, 80.

But not this week. Jeremiah counters the Lord’s call, stating “I am but a lad.” To no avail. The Lord still demands he become a prophet, and now.

When the call comes, it does not matter the age. When the call comes, we are asked to serve.

Seniority has it’s place in government and in governing. Experience usually takes years to build, to learn, often the hard way. But rank is no guarantee of wisdom.

The lesson for our leaders, and for us, is to take wisdom, and leadership, where it’s found. And, if we feel the call, to believe in ourselves.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Shelach 5774: Wingmen of the World

History repeats itself. That’s one of the things wrong with history. – Clarence Darrow

The prophet this week is the one who bookends the Bible with the later scriptures. He was also one of the 12 original spies sent by Moses in this week’s portion. As such, Joshua was in the perfect position, as generals are wont, to fight the last war.

But what Joshua does not do is fail to send spies. And he does not make the mistake of assuming that any group could fall into the same sin as the original ten. Worried as he is, he could have chosen only one. Still, he knows personally the power of a committed wingman.

So indeed, Joshua sends two spies. He sends them in secret, answerable only to him, their mission a mystery to the people they serve. And he sends them with specific instructions to gather tactical, battlefield intelligence rather than general cartographic and agricultural surveys.

It is crucial our elected leaders learn the lessons of history, but also, the right lessons. That’s equally true in business, and at home.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Naso 5774: It’s a Long Game

The angel arrives with a prophetic charge. The child will grow to be a fierce warrior (and a prophet in his own right) who will lead a successful rebellion against the Philistines.

Salvation – sometimes sure – is not necessarily swift. Samson was not yet born and it was clear even he would not be leading armies from the sandlot. Creating a new paradigm to win a long fought war can take decades.

That’s the lesson of the prophet Samson. It is as timely today as it was then.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Bamidbar 5774: To Eternity & Back

It has been made into a song. It is recited daily by those who wrap tefillin. And, it has adorned many a wedding invitation.

But it is this week’s HafTorah that is the source of the verses that are G-d’s eternal pledge to the Jewish people: “I betroth thee forever. I betroth thee with justice and judgment, with kindness and mercy.”

You will not find a better, more succinct description of John Locke’s social contract, or of Thomas Jefferson’s principles of governance. That is, a government’s claim on it’s governed, a king’s claim on his subjects, is indeed forever. If that is, the qualifier verses are met: justice, judgment, kindness, and mercy.

When lawmakers, law enforcers and even yes, law interpreters act fairly, impartially, and in justly, they may claim allegiance. We may not always like the laws or those who make them, but we are bound to them if they act appropriately.

Injustice opens the possibility to rebellion and subversion.

Similarly, government must be kind and fair. That does not mean, equality of outcomes, and it does not always mean success. Nor is kindness measured by a budget’s size or the number of zeroes in a check.

But unkind and unfair tactics are a telltale sign of a government rotting from within.

The Lord’s promise holds true as much in prophetic times as medieval ones and modern days.

And that goes too for our homes and our businesses.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics,the prophets, and the parsha.

Bechukosai 5774: Forget Me Not

“The sin of Judah is inscribed with an iron quill, with a diamond like fingernail; engraved into the slate of their heart…” – Jeremiah (17, 1)

The prophet’s vision is one of destruction, and later, of repentance, rescue, rebirth.  But the opening salvo describes a sin so deep it is not easily abandoned, nor lightly forgotten.  The latter is not a bad thing.  

Too often people forget where they came from, they forget their roots, and once successful, they forget the privations long before their privilege.  This happens to anyone, and elected officials and their staffs – the modern day courtiers and nobles – are no less immune to it than others.  

Even when, as the prophet promises, the good times come, the diamond tipped quill will leave a legacy.  We all, in our national, our public and our private lives, would do well to remember it.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Behar 5774: Here’s Hoping

“They guard it because they have hope. Faith and fading hope that one day it will flower. That a king will come and this city will be as it once was before it fell into decay.” - Gandalf the White

Jeremiah sits in prison for prophesying the siege, destruction, and exile. He receives a word from the Lord, asking him to buy a property.

It must have come as a shock to him, and though he may have gotten a good deal, he might also have felt like PT Barnum’s proverbial sucker. The prophet probably got offers to buy a bridge or two in Brooklyn. Even given that the New World hadn’t yet been discovered, it still might’ve looked like a better investment than Israeli real estate.

And therein lies the lesson. The darkest times, the deepest holes, the blackest nights, require hope. It was the lesson of the prophet. It was the lesson of the founders of the modern Israel, whose 66th birthday we celebrated this week.

G-d wasn’t looking for just anyone to put up a down payment. He demanded it of Jeremiah. “A leader,” Napoleon noted “is a dealer in hope.”

That goes for nations and neighborhoods, at corporations and in congregations.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Metzora 5774: Lepers & Lemmings

How many of us remember last week’s sermon?  One from last year?  (It’s OK, you don’t have to admit anything out loud.)  Well, the idea for this post comes from a sermon I heard two years ago, delivered by Rabbi Marc Saperstein to the Cornell CJL (yup, Cornell alumni and native Ithacans, it was the Sermon Contest finale).

The four lepers in our HafTorah are literally (and, yes, figuratively), mi’chutz la’machaneh, outside the camp.  They are forced to sleep outside the city walls, in the midst of a wartime siege.  There isn’t a barn or hut or chicken coop safely behind the gate (and its armed guards) they are allowed to use.  Which means they owe their coreligionists nothing.  

Yet, when they find the Aramean camp abandoned, and with food and water, and even supplies, to help their besieged brothers, they decide – after some debate, yes – to alert the King and his guard (not to be confused with the Kingsguard GoT fans).  They decide, despite how they have been treated, despite the shunning and the exile, to act responsibly for king and country.  They forgive past sins and treat their countrymen as they’d have liked to have been.  

This is of course a great lesson for a metzora, someone who could not put others first and was willing to benefit from demeaning friends and hurting neighbors.  But it is also a lesson for each of us.  

There are times when to do what’s right, to stand on the side of good, means to do for another who’s an opponent, or to speak up for one we disagree with.  It means turning around and throwing your lot in with the folks who just tossed you outside the city gates and locked them behind you.

It’s hard to do in politics, it’s hard to do in our communities, and it’s hard to do at home.  That’s probably why the prophet teaches it.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.   

Tazria/HaChodesh 5774: Leaving the Building

The whole concept of presidential transitions is strange.  It takes months to get sworn in with a skeleton government and cabinet.  Across the pond, a new prime minister is at 10 Downing within hours of election, usually with his or her shadow cabinet ushering out their colleagues of the losing party and taking their offices.  

This works on the way out as well.  Ex-presidents – at least since Harry S. Truman was so poor on leaving office that he was forced to move in with his mother-in-law – have enjoyed a cabinet secretary equivalent salary for life, as well as free postage, office space, and a US Secret Service detail.  Former prime ministers, if they’re lucky, become leaders of the opposition, and while every ex-president maintains the title for life, a former prime minister is just another MP (or MK, as the case may be).  

There’s a lesson here.  And it’s one we see in the Haftorah.  The prince, or king, is to enter and leave the Temple and its courtyard by the same gate.  Commoners are to enter in one direction, and leave on the opposite side.  People may be – and possibly should be – changed by life circumstance, by wielding power, and in this case, by interaction with the Almighty.  They are different when they leave.

But the message to leaders is that you should remember to be the same person you were before grasping the scepter, the sword, or the ceremonial pen.  It was a lesson in the Temple.  It’s a lesson for all time.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha

Shemini/Parah 5774: Dreams, Dreams & Reality

“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective–distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” - Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Whether he’d read it or not, when Mr. Tolkien looked for inspiration to describe Mordor, or even Rohan, he needn’t have looked further than Mr. Clemens.  The land was barren.

It was, in the words of the prophet, “the ruins to be built, and the desolated land to be tilled instead of being desolate in the eyes of every passerby…I will have rebuilt the ruins, replanted the wasteland.

And therein is the lesson.  Destruction can be reversed; desecration revitalized.   

Nations must know that no blow is too heavy.  They must know they can rebuild, replant, reform.  They can return.

And people must know this too.  In their lives, their livelihoods, and their communities.  

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Tzav/Zachor 5774: The Messenger Shoots

 It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish, as my old gaffer used to say.” – Sam Gamgee, Lord of the Rings

By G-d’s command, it was the prophet Samuel who proclaims Saul king of Israel.  And by G-d’s command, it is the prophet Samuel who disproclaims him king.  The former is a direct challenge, and usurpation, of Samuel’s authority.  The second is worse.  Samuel’s life is in danger.  It’s no less treason just because you’ve got Divine right.  

And for reasons the prophet never fully lets on, he wants Saul’s rule to continue.  Samuel cries out to the Almighty the entire night, praying for a reversal.  

There are two lessons here.  One, even when a decision means personal gain – and no one had more to gain from a failed kingship than the prophet – if it is wrong for (pardon the pun) king and country, it is still wrong.  Leadership is deciding what’s best, not what’s in it for me.

And, a leader fights such decisions as forcefully as able.  

But, the third and final lesson is that when the decider has decided, and the order irrevocably issued, the servant must fulfill their charge.  Without delay.  Even at personal risk.  

That’s the lesson of Samuel, and of Zachor.  Those lessons ring as true in the Purim story as they did centuries earlier in the prophet’s times, and millennium later, in ours.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics and the parsha.

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