Shoftim: Don’t Be Like Them

If you drive on Highway 395 through one of the valleys that carved the eastern edge of California, you’ll arrive at the City of Lone Pine. The road is flat and straight, with towering hills on either side of the valley. You’ll come across Diaz Lake on your left, a few miles past Lubken Canyon Road. Don’t drive too quickly or you’ll miss the turnoff for the road that skirts the southern edge of the lake, hugging its shoreline. Follow it for a mile or two, and your destination will be on your left. It’s just a field now, with a few forlorn cows wandering aimlessly. But seventy-five years ago, hundreds of American citizens wandered aimlessly as well, living in a concentration camp built by the United States government. They lived there because they were of Japanese descent.

Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese descent was told to gather at a civilian assembly center. The closest one to here, the one where our own neighbors would have had to go, was at the Santa Anita race track, about 50 miles from here. After a few days, they would probably have been sent to Manzanar War Relocation Center, 213 miles from where we are sitting now, off of Highway 395 in the city of Lone Pine, just south of Diaz Lake.

The prisoners were not there because of what they did; they were there because of who they were, or, in many cases, because of who their parents or grandparents were. They were held there because they were not like us; they were different. They were the “other,” the famous word for someone who is dissimilar than us, usually of a lower status, who cannot be trusted fully. It’s not totally surprising that members of the Japanese community were mistrusted, given that Japan had vowed to subjugate or destroy us—but, then again, so did Germany. Even though Germany was also our enemy, some 1,237,000 people living in the United States at that time had been born in Germany; 5 million people had both parents born in Germany; and 6 million people had at least one parent born in Germany. Of the 12 million people of German descent, 11,507, or about 1 percent, were detained during the war. The number of people of Japanese descent who were interred was closer to 120,000, virtually 100 percent; of those, 80,000 detainees were US citizens.

In February of 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order, authorizing the internment camps. The constitutionality of the order was challenged by Fred Korematsu, who felt unjustly imprisoned and who wanted to return to his non-Japanese girlfriend, who lived outside the walls. The Supreme Court ruled against him. The legal basis for interring United States citizens was upheld and remained upheld until this year, when the Supreme Court explicitly repudiated the Korematsu decision when the justices upheld the recent ban on Muslims emigrating from selected foreign countries in the case Trump v. Hawaii.

It’s not difficult to understand why the Japanese were imprisoned when so many Germans and Italians were not: the Japanese looked different. It was easy to distinguish them and worry about them. This assumes that their skin and eye-shape tell us about their hearts and their beliefs. Of course, skin or eye shape or possessing Japanese “blood” do not tell us about the intentions of a person, but when we feel threatened, the desires to erect walls grows. I feel it within myself. I wish I could say with certainty that I would have been on the right side of history, overcoming my fear of the other, the potential threat that is among us.

It’s that threat that this week’s Torah portion speaks about. As the Children of Israel stand on the shores of the Jordan River, ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses continues to give them final instructions. Moses warns the Children of Israel not to follow the detestable practices of the others living in the land. Specifically, they are warned not to pray like them. The text accuses the inhabitants of sacrificing their children as burnt offerings. Moses also warns the Children of Israel to refrain from using sorcery or witchcraft or acting as mediums or psychics. In other words, the Israelites were not to act like the inhabitants of the land, especially if doing so might suggest that they could depend on forces other than God alone. The authors of Deuteronomy were afraid of the other, of any foreign ideas. I’m not sure that the people living in the land of Canaan actually sacrificed their children as burnt offerings. In fact, I highly doubt it. It’s just the kind of ridiculous allegation that people say about one’s cultural competitors, just like people accused Jews of killing Christian children to use their blood in Passover matzah. I believe the Torah makes those allegations against the inhabitants of the land because the Israelites were afraid. Perhaps they were afraid losing their shared faith. Perhaps they were afraid of anyone who looked or believed differently than they, just as we were afraid of the Japanese during WWII, and just as many are afraid of Muslim immigrants or immigrants from Central and South America.

It’s easy to look down on our biblical ancestors and on those in power during WWII or those in power now, who, in their own minds, are protecting us from Muslims and Mexicans. It’s easy, but I don’t think it is helpful. Rather, I think it’s important to recognize our natural tendency to fear people and ideas that are different than our own. I think it’s understandable that at a time of perceived or real threat, we are going to surround ourselves with people whom we can more easily identify as being “like us,” and, therefore, view as less of a threat. I don’t condemn the feeling. Not only that, I think cautious prudence is a good thing.

But the reason I’m bringing this up now is that we have entered the month of Elul, the month directly preceding the High Holy Days. It’s during Elul that we are supposed to reflect on our actions so we can correct our behavior for the future. I think one of the principles of Elul, and I would extend this beyond Elul as well, is for us to judge a little less and understand a little more. I think we should be understanding and even kind when we confront aspects of ourselves that are less than ideal. I understand the fear of the other even though I’m another to someone else. I can understand those who feared people of Japanese descent during WWII. I can understand the fear of Muslims moving across borders in droves, or the concern about Central and South Americans who look and speak differently than us. More than that, I appreciate people who keep a watchful and proactive eye on our collective safety. The rabbis had a term for all these very deep, human feelings: the fear of change, the fear of people different than ourselves, the desire for power and safety and status. They called these natural human desires our Yetzer Hara, our evil inclination, but that is an unfortunate phrase. These feelings are not evil, they are just automatic; they are feelings that promote self-preservation. We are not evil if we have these feelings; moreover, these desires are necessary for us to thrive as human beings.

But these natural emotions and inclinations cannot be our ending point; they must be our starting point. Our job in life, and certainly during this month of Elul, is to examine when our Yetzer Hara, our natural inclinations, are leading us into actions that are harmful to ourselves, our families, our communities, or the world. Fear drove Executive Order 9066. But if our forbearers would have engaged in more thoughtful, sober reflection, they would have acknowledged that they were not keeping the country safer. Those of Japanese descent were no more likely to join our enemies than were people of German or Italian descent. In fact, there was a large group of people of Japanese descent, most of whom were not detained, living on Hawaii, and there were no security concerns reported. If those in the government would have plumbed the depth of their own fears, they would have realized that their fears were based on racism rather than actual threats, and they would have refrained from committing some dreadful acts. My goal is not to condemn the past; it’s to learn from it and to apply those hard-earned lessons to our present and our future.

So, during this time of Elul and especially during this week, when we read about the dangers of foreigners, I am reflecting on these lessons that apply to my own life as much as to national policy.

The first lesson: Don’t fear the Yetzer Hara. Do not fear the feelings of greed or desire or jealousy or whatever negative feelings arise in our souls. Not only do I refrain from fearing those feelings, I also refrain from condemning my own self-centered thoughts and feelings. They are gifts from God as well.

The second lesson: Just because I feel something doesn’t make it right. Feelings aren’t proof of goodness. Feelings may not be bad, but they can easily lead to bad behavior. We can’t always trust our gut to tell us the truth.

The third and final lesson: We can change the way we think about a situation and, if we do, we can direct our negative feelings toward positive action. I believe that we can act better when we reflect on our feelings and the consequences of our past actions, and consider the possible consequences of our future actions.

My great uncle Richard Diamond was serving on the battleship Arizona in December of 1941. Family lore says that he was on shore leave when the Japanese attacked. If I picture myself living at that time, I can imagine initially supporting the detainment of the Japanese during WWII. I’m not proud of that self-realization, but I can imagine feeling the fear of not knowing who was our friend and who was our enemy. I also believe that I could have put that fear into its proper context and hopefully made better, smarter, and more ethical decisions. Perhaps our government could have arrested people they knew were loyal to the Japanese government and worked with the local Japanese community to develop intelligence and sources from within. I hope that’s how they handled the German and Italian community. First, we experience the ignoble emotion; then we acknowledge it; and, finally, we challenge it so we can rise above it and refrain from overreacting.

I don’t revel in having Japanese internment camps as part of the recent history of our country. What I do revel in and celebrate are the lessons that we all can learn as we thoughtfully address the challenges that lie ahead of us. As a country, I hope that we are reflecting on this dark period of history as we are facing another time of fear of the other. And I hope we can all take these days leading up to the holidays to reflect on our own Yetzer Hara, our own desires and emotions, so we can make sure that they are leading us away from harm and toward the good.

Ki Teitzei – Double Portion to What is Right

My grandfather used to smoke a few packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life. I know I shouldn’t have, but I loved the smell of his cigarettes, even though I knew they were harmful. Nonetheless, I would ask, “grandpa, when are you going to stop smoking?” And he always gave me the same answer: “Tomorrow.” The next day, I would see him smoking again and I would say, “Grandpa, you said you would stop smoking but you still are. When are you going to stop?” He would ask, “What did I tell you yesterday?” I said, “Tomorrow.” He said, “My answer hasn’t changed.”

It’s hard to make changes in our lives, even if the changes are for the better. That’s why this time of the year is so important. The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is the time when we say to ourselves, “Not tomorrow, today.” Let’s not wait to elevate our lives and make them better.

I actually think that one of the little secrets to improving our lives is hidden in this week’s Torah portion. In our story, the Children of Israel have been wandering around the desert for forty years and they are about to enter the Land of Israel. Moses is giving them some final instructions and laws that will help them to thrive.

But the spark of wisdom is hidden in a very odd law. Remember, this law was written at a time when men were able to marry more than one woman, so we have to look beyond that practice to discover the wisdom. But let’s agree that marrying more than one person may not be appropriate for our times, even though in some circles, it is making a comeback. The Torah describes a man with two wives, one that is loved and the other that is unloved, and both wives have children. Back then, the first-born child received a double portion of the inheritance and took over as the head of the family. This was done because they believed that families ran better with a clear leader who had authority and wealth. We may have different beliefs today about what makes for a good family and society, but in their time, these rules helped them to flourish. The Torah imagines a situation that must have been all too common. The older child who should be receiving the double-portion of the inheritance is from the unloved wife, while the second child is from the loved wife.

So what would we naturally want to do? We want to follow our hearts and give the double-portion to the child of the wife that is loved. The Torah knows where our heart is leading us. In fact, almost every older child in the early stories of the Torah are usurped by the younger child. So the Torah is warning us: “I know you want to follow your passions alone, but that’s not the wise move.
Let’s be clear, this story is not just about loved and unloved wives and double portions of inheritance. It’s really teaching us about where we should devote our time, our money, and our attention.

We all have the metaphoric equivalent of children from our beloved spouse and children from our unloved spouse. In other words, we all have places we want to give our time and money and attention and places where we are not as moved to give. So, what’s the equivalent of giving the larger inheritance to the younger child of the beloved spouse? It’s when we give the larger portion of our time, our attention, and our money to the activities we love to do. We all have our own list of things that we love. For some, we just like to sit and gab with people, for others, we want to watch TV or get lost on social media. Some of us are passionate about travel or reading novels or exercising. For me, I love to eat and could get lost for hours watching pointless YouTube videos. It’s not a problem to have activities we love doing, the problem is when our priorities are only based upon what we love rather than priorities that are also based upon what is good or right.
If we only lead with our hearts, we give a double portion to the child of the loved spouse. If we only lead with our desires, we do the things that delight us and ignore the things that enrich us. The message is not that we should never do things that delight us. The message is to understand what is important to make us and the world better and devote ourselves to those activities first.

But how do we not simply follow are passions exclusively? First we have to realize that sometimes we have room in our life to follow passions. That’s great. But other times, following our passion becomes a way for us to avoid doing things that are good for ourselves and the world. In these cases I have three ways that we can do good and still feel good.

Take a Dive

Sometimes we follow our passions and do what is fun because it helps us avoid the negative feelings of doing what is good and important. That’s exactly what I experience when I was here three years ago and learned about our amazing Winter Shelter where we provide a meal and a place to sleep on Sunday nights between December and March. I knew that they needed people to work at the shelter, but frankly I was afraid that working with the homeless would make me uncomfortable. One way to handle it is to slowly overcome our fear and discomfort, one Sunday, just serve dinner, the next Sunday stay until the residents of the shelter go to sleep. The Sunday after that, serve as a host and sleeping over for the night. There is nothing wrong with doing that. But there is another tried-and-true way to deal with the fears that lead us to follow the fun rather than focus on the good, and that is, just jump in.
Part of what communities do is remind us of what is good, not just what is fun. When I heard that the Winter Shelter needed a volunteer, I didn’t think about it, I didn’t stew in my insecurities, and I didn’t arrange to go to concerts every Sunday from December through March, so I would have a convenient excuse for not participating, I just said “Yes, I’ll do it.” Sometimes we all need to take a dive into the tasks that we fear.

Energize don’t Enervate

Finally, I want to teach you a very helpful phrase that I want to popularize in the congregation that can help us to enjoy volunteering here and also help us to focus on important deeds. It is the distinction between energizing and enervating. There are times when I talk to someone and at the end of that conversation I feel inspired and excited and ready to accomplish great things even though the work seems hard. I walk away energized. Energizing conversations are not always about how great I am. Often an energizing conversation may be about ideas that improve the world. The question is, what is the tone of that conversation. There are also times when a conversation leaves me enervated, like a balloon that has lost its air or a battery that has been depleted. There is a clear psychological cause for enervation that is captured in one single Yiddish word: kvetching. Kvetching is when we focus exclusively on our own personal negative reactions to something. “Ick, I don’t like the food.” “Blech, I don’t want to go to that program, it seems stupid.” That leaves us enervated. So how do we turn an enervating kvetch into something energizing? We change from “I don’t like XYZ” to “I have a thought about making XYZ better in the future.” I am enervated by past or present failures. I am energized by the possibility of future improvements.

We can choose to energize ourselves or enervate ourselves. I can say, “I don’t like to exercise,” which is an enervating kvetch, or I can say, “What I really want do is be healthier and this will help,” or “I enjoy exercising much more when I have someone to exercise with.”

Let’s energize ourselves and each other.

I’ll tell you one place where we, as a congregation are working to energize rather than enervate is with voter engagement. Complaining about political situations is folly. Bringing people together to create something better than we have today is exciting. That’s why we are trying to bring as many people into constructive political engagement as possible. Help us to organize and energize and engage one another.
Our Torah talks about the importance of love and passion. Let’s remind ourselves to embrace our loves and foster our passions while focusing on what is good and right and important. Let’s remember that sometimes we have to dive in to overcome our fears, and that we can chose whether to enervate or energize. I know that I am energized by being here with you a feel the excitement and confidence that we can find the delicate balance that allows us to enjoy life and improve it at the very same time.

Eikev – Emotional Fires

I have to do some teshuvah, some repentance. We are fast approaching the month of Elul, which immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. During Elul, we are supposed to prepare ourselves for performing teshuvah so that by the time Rosh Hashanah arrives, we are ready to correct our mistakes. I’m starting a little early. That’s because, a few weeks ago, before our prayer of redemption, I made a joke about being redeemed from New Jersey, where I worked before returning to TAE. But the fact is, I enjoyed New Jersey and the congregation, and the many close relationships Sandy and I made. There is actually a great deal of beauty in New Jersey. So, I say to Cantor Perper in New Jersey, “In Thousand Oaks we used to have Shabbat services outside every Friday in July and August. Maybe we should try it here too.” He says, “Great idea. Let’s walk outside and find a place to hold it each week.” We walk outside and are hit with a wall of 100 percent humidity, temperatures in the nineties, and, perhaps most significantly, the din of a freeway right next to the temple. We held services outside, once, but the next week we were back in the sanctuary.

With all my continued affection for my former congregation in Mahwah, New Jersey, I am so pleased to be able to be back here and to see this beautiful hill that we face when we sing “Lecha Dodi.” As the sun sets, I love seeing the hill turn from beige to gold and then to pink. But from time to time, I can see another image in my mind’s fearful eye, of this pristine hill engulfed in flames. Perhaps it’s because of the terrible rash of fires that burned so much of Southern California this past December, fires that began on the day I was interviewing here. Perhaps it’s my childhood memory of my parents driving us to the Santa Monica beaches in 1970, where we watched the distant Malibu hills burn out of control. Luckily for us, back then, we were distant and safe; unfortunately, for those residents of Malibu and for us today, we are neither distant nor safe—maybe. If we really want to know how safe we are, we should probably speak with Jack Cohen. Jack is not a member of TAE. He doesn’t even live in California. Rather, he is a researcher for the U.S. Forestry Service based at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory. If the news reporters are to be believed, Cohen says, fires come roaring downhill like a flood or lava, engulfing everything in their paths. But, Cohen tells us, that just isn’t true. What actually happens is that embers float up and over the fire, landing perhaps half a mile away or more. His research shows that firefighters often pour hundreds and thousands of gallons of water on the fire line, but the fires simply skips right over them. We often hear reporters and firefighters say, “It was an act of God, there is nothing we can do about it,” but Cohen doesn’t believe that and has the research to prove it. He says that much of our fire suppression efforts don’t work. In fact, they may make matters worse. Because we try to stop all fires, the underbrush continues to grow. When an inevitable lightning strike does start a fire, it burns more ferociously than if smaller fires had clear out the underbrush.

While fires may be inevitable, according to Cohen, he tells us not to despair. Quite the opposite. He says that the forests or hills around us may burn, but the way we design our homes and the areas around our homes can act like a protecting shield. We can protect our homes proactively by choosing the right kind of roof material, removing pine needles from our gutters, and moving wood and grass piles away from our decks and walls. These are all things within our control, and addressing them allows fires to burn our forests but not our homes.

You can imagine the thundering applause Jack Cohen received from the Forest Service when he first shared his research that much of our fire suppression efforts are wasted and should be redirected towards prevention. Let me demonstrate the reception … That’s right. Silence, indifference, and even anger. People want to see those helicopters and big jumbo jets dropping thousands of gallons of water. And many people do not want to go through the trouble of changing how they manage the area around their home. Cohen has made inroads on protecting homes from fires, but he has also created a powerful metaphor about how to help the emotional fires that may burn within the people living inside those homes.

Our rabbis talk about the desires and negative emotions that lead us to act badly and even sinfully. They call that collection of desires Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination, and they think of it as a fire burning out of control. While we may think that Cohen’s findings only apply to brush and forest fires, he also provides insights about controlling our own Yetzer Hara, our own negative emotions and desires that motivate sinful behavior. In the same way that forest and grass fires may be inevitable, the emotions we feel, which may lead to pain or despair or to performing shameful actions, may be inevitable, too. Greed and lust, avarice and indifference—we know the engines of our mistakes. We’ll soon be reading about those very desires during the High Holy Days. Often, we don’t even recognize those feelings burning within ourselves; we just automatically react to them to extinguish our discomfort or pain. We don’t realize we are jealous; we just snap at our spouse. We don’t realize we are scared and anxious; we just compulsively buy things without realizing why. But if we become aware that we are feeling those Yetzer Hara feelings, we often try to suppress them and keep them out of our hearts.

Some other religious traditions might say that the Devil is creating those feelings. Jack Cohen would never say that, and neither should we. Cohen says that the flames will come. Don’t try to stop them, just try to manage them better. Applying that to our emotions, we might say that rather than running from those emotional flames that burn within us, we are called on to feel them. We need to allow the negative feelings and even the emotional pain to take up some space in our minds and hearts. Rather than admonishing ourselves for having those feelings, we should simply recognize Yetzer Hara feelings within ourselves and describe those feelings. Inside ourselves we may say, “I’m feeling angry again. That’s interesting. I wonder why I’m so angry?” Rather than running away from our anger or trying to quench it with water, like a firefighter trying to stop a forest fire, we should just allow the feeling to burn through. Rather than being singed by our feelings, we should be curious about why we are feeling them now. When we can become curious about our Yetzer Hara feelings rather than fearful or ashamed of them, we then can prepare for the emotional sparks that will inevitably rain down on us. And when they do rain down, we can allow them to burn around us and not within us.

I believe that that is what the Torah describes in this week’s Torah portion. While they are standing on the shore of the Jordan River, ready to finally enter the Promised Land after forty years of wandering, God acknowledges to the Children of Israel that they suffered through the years in the desert. But through experiencing that Yetzer Hara feeling of suffering, they learned that they didn’t die, that they could experience hardship and not succumb to it. Like soldiers in basic training, God let the Children of Israel go hungry and then fed them with manna. But the Children of Israel cried like the children they were; they didn’t know what manna was. It didn’t even feel like food. Imagine eating Styrofoam and being told that it would nourish you. They turned up their noses at this strange stuff and complained that this is not like the Wonder Bread we knew in Egypt. But they allowed their negative feelings to burn through them; they survived those negative feelings, and manna became one of their foods, and God said, “See, humanity does not live by bread alone.”
We will feel the flames of struggle within ourselves. We will feel embarrassment and anxiety and envy and hatred. We will feel an alphabet of woes. So, when we do, let’s not fear the emotional struggles. Let’s not protect our kids from failure or bemoan the heartaches and setbacks that we will all face. Instead, let’s remove the flammable wood-shingle roofs that cover our hearts and the dry grass growing around our souls. When we do, we will not fear the emotional embers that will inevitably fall.

All this is easier said than done. But if living in this way is of interest to you or if you already live your life in this way, then please reach out to me so that we can learn from one another and support each other as we work to live a sanctified life.
Shabbat Shalom