Monday, February 23, 2009

Reality is a Mask- Purim Ponderings

Purim Thoughts: Reality is a Mask

Every Jewish Custom carries deep meaning. This applies to not only customs with a Biblical or Rabbinic Basis, but indeed all customs of the Jewish People- even those that are folk-customs. These customs (as long as they do not contradict Jewish Law) flow from the collective soul of the People and express fundamentally important ideas.

One of the common folk-customs of Purim in many communities is the wearing of costumes and masks as part of the festivities. One of the reasons given for this is that concerning the events Purim marks - everything was “disguised”: Events consistently took turns that defied the “common wisdom”
• The Jews had a secure and important place within the Persian Empire and all of a sudden that security evaporated like a morning mist and all of a sudden, they were faced with starkly utter annihilation.
• The intelligent, refined and pious Esther is kidnapped and forced into the mindless existence of the harem of a coarse and despicable King - a disaster by any measure –and somehow out of this sorrow emerges the key to salvation.
• Mordechai saves the life of the King and his deed is recorded and left to oblivion in some dusty tome of chronicles. This lost memory is restored at exactly the right moment to derail the gathering force of Haman's planned annihilation of our people. Had this been remembered to the King any earlier or later than that fateful night Mordechai, Esther and the Jewish people would now be a dim historical footnote.
• We cannot point to any instance of G-d’s direct involvement in this story, yet –clearly, the whole drama was scripted by Him.

This sense of wonderment prevails because we tend to see our world and its perceived cause and effects as a self –contained reality. We see politics, economics and all the forces of nature as the actual causes of those events and are surprised when actual history does not “play by the rules” and emerge as we thought it should.

However, the Purim-custom of Costumes and masks tell us the real story. All of the flow of life Nature, biology politic and economics are only masks and costumes. In a mask, we appear to be someone else until we find the person behind the mask. Our costume makes us seem to be someone else but only moves by the wearers movements.

On a deeper level the mask’s whole persona is really our own personality and being “filtered” through the mask.

By wearing costumes, we express the primary lesson of Purim:
Those forces which we imagine control destiny: the laws of physics, political machinations , military might, the massages of the media and their effects are all but a mask and glove through which G-d observes, directs, and controls all of the flow of Human history (without negating individual free will). Sometimes –as in the finale of the Purim story - the mask is removed and the costume is doffed.

So, as you choose a costume for Purim remember that which we experience as the reality of life and the events of history are but a mask and costume for the One (metaphorically of course - G-d has no discernable parts) Whose Eyes observe all, and Whose Hand that moves all.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Reality is Perception

Parshat Bo:

Moses is told “This renewal (of the moon) is the first of renewals (of the moons)”. With these words the Jewish people were given their calendar, one using lunar months but faithful to the seasonal cycle of the solar year.

Unlike the solar year, where nature undergoes fundamental changes throughout the cycle, the lunar cycle engenders no changes to the moon or indeed, the earth. The only substantial change is our perception of the moon –how much of it we, on Earth, can see.

This tells us something powerful: Count, live, according to the Moon, to your perception as articulated in the Torah. What is ultimately important is not raw existence- but how we perceive it, how we use it, how we elevate it.

We perceive the Brightness of the Moon -e.g. the G-dly presence and potential in using the world for the positive things we are asked to do. We perceive the Darkness- the negativity of relating to the world in way we are asked not to it. It is this perception that we choose; this perception is the true purpose and reality of the Cosmos, far more real that anything that we might at first glance consider concrete and immutable.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Wonderful Article on Gazaa by David Harris of the AJC

by David A. Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
January 26, 2009

Dear Ms. Trine Lilleng,

You were an unknown Norwegian diplomat till this month.

No longer.

As first secretary in the Norwegian Embassy in Saudi Arabia, you recently sent out an email on your office account in which you declared: "The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from World War II are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them by Nazi Germany."

Accompanying your text were photos, with an emphasis on children, seeking to juxtapose the Holocaust with the recent Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Clearly, you are miscast in your role as a diplomat, all the more so of a nation that has sought to play a mediating role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In fact, you're desperately in need of some education.

Let's begin with your current posting. You've been in Riyadh since 2007.

If you're so anguished by human rights violations, perhaps you could have begun by devoting some of your attention - and email blasts - to what surrounds you.

Or were your eyes diplomatically shut?

Have you failed to notice the many legal executions, including beheadings, going on in your assigned country?

Have you ignored the often abysmal treatment of foreign workers, many from Asia, who also happen to be disproportionately counted among the victims of Saudi capital punishment?

Have you neglected the gender apartheid that surrounds you? Did you ever look out of your car to notice that Saudi women are proscribed from driving, and that's hardly the worst of it?

Have you checked the skyline of Riyadh or Jeddah lately to count the number of church spires or other non-Muslim houses of worship?

Have you bothered to inquire about the fate of homosexuals?

Okay, you were AWOL on those issues. Maybe you just didn't want to offend your hosts by speaking the truth, or maybe you're suffering from that diplomatic disease known as "localitis" or "clientitis."

But surely a woman like you, with such capacity for empathy for those in far-away places, and especially for children in danger, couldn't remain silent about other human rights transgressions, could she?

After all, could an individual so deeply moved by the plight of Palestinians in Gaza remain silent about what a New York Times columnist earlier this month described as "hell on earth" - Zimbabwe? Could a person so anguished by the fate of Palestinian children stay mum about a country where a girl's life expectancy at birth is 34, much less than half that of her Norwegian counterpart, and where the health care sector has vaporized, all thanks to the one-man rule of Robert Mugabe?

Could such a dedicated humanist possibly avert her eyes from the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, which has killed over five million people, many of them children, in the Congo in the past decade - not to mention the documented and widespread use of torture, rape, and arbitrary detention?

An observer of such acute sensitivity could hardly hold her tongue while Afghan girls attempting to go to school have been doused with acid by those who wish to deny young women access to education, reminiscent of the five years of Taliban rule, could she?

In neighboring Pakistan, where you served in the Norwegian embassy for three years, the beleaguered human rights community must have been fortunate to have such an impassioned voice for all that's wrong in this failing state. Or was that voice, perhaps, on mute?

The children of Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza border, have been in desperate need of just such a spokesperson as you for the past eight years.

After all, their town has been in the crosshairs of literally thousands of missiles and mortars fired from Gaza. Those Israeli children live with all the signs of trauma, knowing that, with only 15 seconds warning, they could be hit at any time in their schools, their parks, or their beds. Yet, during my visit there last week, for some reason, those children and their parents had yet to hear you speak out for them. What a pity!

And the children of Iran could use your help as well. According to human rights groups, Iran has no compunction about executing children or those who were children when their crimes were allegedly committed.

Oh, and by the way, your compassionate help would also undoubtedly be welcomed by others under the gun in Iran, including women's rights activists, union organizers, student protesters, independent journalists, reformist politicians, and religious minorities. And let's not forget, once again, the children of Israel, who, according to the Iranian president, don't have a right to live.

But wait! A Google search about you reveals nothing, not a single word, regarding your views on Zimbabwe, Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sderot, or Iran. Or, for that matter, Burma, Darfur, Syria. Shall I go on?

Only Israel, faced with those who wish to destroy it, manages to prompt your impassioned correspondence and righteous indignation. Why?

No less, your stunning lack of education extends beyond the contemporary world to 20th century history, specifically the Holocaust.

Your invocation of the Holocaust to describe what's taken place in Gaza is, frankly, nothing short of obscene.

Your claim that the grandchildren of the survivors are doing to the Palestinians exactly what was done to them goes beyond any norm of decency, much less honesty.

Approve or disapprove of the Israeli military operation, but there is no basis whatsoever for such a comparison.

When Israel entered Gaza in a war of self-defense in 1967, the population was 360,000. After Israel withdrew totally from Gaza in 2005, it was estimated at 1.4 million.

Would that the Jewish population under Nazi rule had quadrupled!

When Israel entered Gaza in 1967, life expectancy for women was 46. When it left Gaza, it was 73.

Shall we even bother to discuss life expectancy for Jews under Nazi occupation?

The Second World War in Europe lasted from September 1, 1939 to May 8, 1945 - 68 months in all. That means an average monthly extermination rate of nearly 90,000 Jews.

Compare that to the total number of victims in Gaza over three weeks - roughly guesstimated at more or less 1,000 - and recall that the majority were armed fighters committed to Israel's destruction, who used civilians, including children, as human shields, mosques as arms depots, and hospitals as sanctuaries.

Believe me, Ms. Lilleng, if the "grandchildren of the Holocaust survivors" had wanted to do exactly what the Nazis did to their grandparents, they would have unleashed their full air, land, and sea power. They would have thrown the Israel Defense Forces' ethical guidelines to the wind, kicked out the UN and Red Cross personnel on the ground, stopped humanitarian transports of food, fuel, and medicine, prevented media reporting, and left absolutely nothing - and no one - standing.

Unless, of course, they needed slave labor, in which case they would have carted off the able-bodied to work in Auschwitz replicas until they dropped. Or material for ghoulish medical experimentation, in which case, in the spirit of Mengele, they would have kept Palestinian twins alive temporarily.

But Israel didn't do any of these things. It's a peace-seeking democracy dedicated to the rule of law - unlike so many of the countries whose horrific sins you blithely choose to overlook.

What are we to make of your selective moral outrage and rank hypocrisy?

You ought to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself why Israel, and only Israel, makes your blood boil and leads you to speak out, even at the risk of grossly distorting both reality and history.

The answer, Ms. Lilleng, should be painfully obvious.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Freedom Needs More than a Revolution

History tells us of many revolutions that began with sublime ideals and visions of liberty, only to be followed by deep disappointment and even greater tyranny and oppression.

The French revolution began in a magnificent blaze of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" and rapidly evolved into the Reign of Terror and the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars that so devastated Europe. In the end, the French exchanged bondage of neglect under the Bourbon Monarchs for bondage of abuse under the revolution. True freedom remained as elusive as ever.

The Russian people had suffered under the autocratic rule of the Romanov Kings for centuries. When they rose up in revolution in 1917, they and the world were filled with hope for a life of freedom and a new, more just and equitable society. This hope was slaughtered in the cellars and torture chambers of the secret police and frozen in the slave camps of the Gulag. The slavery to the Romanovs was paradise compared to the bondage, absolute lack of freedom, and the slaughter of millions in the new Soviet state.

Attaining freedom is not merely about leaving a yoke of bondage behind; it is about a clear vision of a new paradigm for a better world. Otherwise, the revolution will be a true revolution -- it will revolve a full 360 degrees and the same ingrained patterns will reassert themselves, and sometimes even worse. A true revolution needs to be one of 180 degrees -- a whole new direction.

We see this theme articulated throughout the Account of the Exodus. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moses to instruct Pharaoh "Shalach ami vey'avduni" -- "Let my people go, that they may serve Me." Just letting the people go is not going to accomplish anything in the long run, if they're not going to something -- to something that's the alternative, indeed the antithesis, to Egypt. Most significantly, the encounter at the burning bush takes place at Mt. Sinai where the Jews would be given the Torah -- a truly revolutionary document that would, through the agency of the Jewish people, transform and empower all of humanity.

During the wanderings of the Children of Israel through the desert, we find that every time there were those who shirked their duty, they raised the cry "Let us go back to Egypt." Did they want to suffer again as slaves? Surely not. I think that what the Torah is telling us is that abandoning the new vision and mission leads back to Egypt. Perhaps a new Egypt, but a slavery just the same.

All that is true of nations and world history is true of what the Talmud calls the "small world" of each individual person.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means "constraints." We suffer under the constraints of the habits we maintain simply because we had them yesterday. We are slaves to ingrained pathways of our lives and our world, because we are too busy dusting the covers of our Book of Life to read its pages.

The Exodus was a truly spectacular and dramatic experience. But for this experience to have a lasting effect, we need to remember that not only do we have to leave the old habits ("let my people go"), we need a vision and program of the new ("that they may serve Me"). Otherwise, we end up not far from where we started from.

Since the The Hebrew term "Avoda" means not just work and service but creative artistry, the term Vey'Avduni -- "that they may serve Me" -- actually means "That they may transform themselves thorough Me." When we look to the Torah -- the receiving of which is the sole purpose of the Exodus -- we discover that the freedom to realize the potential of every aspect of our being lies within its Mitzvot.

Every area of life stands ready to yield purpose, meaning and fulfillment if we are willing to dare to be truly free. "Truly free" is not freedom from the bondage of whichever Pharaoh, king or Czar happens to be oppressing us at the moment, but freedom from the bondage of all self-imposed limits on our capacity to truly realize our G-dly potential.