February 5, 2013
In the midst of our cold winter weather, I share a warm teaching from a second century text, the Wisdom of the Sages (Pirkay Avot). Who is wise?, Ben Zoma inquires, the one who learns from every person . And one Rabbinic sage further explains, that wisdom can be acquired from all the God has created.
The African scarab beetle is one prime example about gleaning sage wisdom from God's creatures. This beetle, often featured as a creepy crawly in movies set in the tombs and pyramids of Egypt, crawls through the desert sands. Entomologists have recently discovered that these lowly beetles navigate through the Sahara sands in a straight line by using the North Star as their guidance system. The fixed celestial point of the North Star is their GPS – and when the North star is not visible, they can no longer navigate in straight lines! From Monarch butterflies to sea turtles, the navigation systems that these remarkable creatures utilize are of a level of sophistication that modern science is only beginning to comprehend.
As the Jewish year navigates toward Purim and Pesach, our Torah readings at this time of year speak of the gift of Torah – the Revelation of wisdom granted to our ancestors at Sinai and lovingly transmitted from one generation to the next. The Ten Commandments are an evocative symbol of the mitzvot of our heritage – the values, rituals, teachings and ethical manual bequeathed to us since Moses. These core laws and values speak to us of honesty, integrity, the power of truth and the majesty of fidelity. The mitzvot of Torah articulate the time proven imperatives that govern our relationships and our celebrations, and imbue deep meaning to our lives. If beetles have over time come to trust that their journey in life is well lived by navigating according to a fixed heavenly point, it is easy to extrapolate that our lives are lived in more meaningful and rich fashions when guided by the Divine beacon of Judaism, the ultimate Heavenly zenith.
To quote Father Mulcahy from the classic TV series M*A*S*H, "as for the Ten Commandments, many of them are currently on the critical list". A cursory glance at the news headlines will evoke disbelief at the violations of trust, fidelity and integrity as truth and honesty are betrayed by all too many in their lives and relationships in every walk of life. Each betrayal or infidelity, lie, fraud or deceitful practice often leads to tragic consequences – often to good people caught in the ripple effect of someone's misdeeds.
Purim is our annual reminder that the courage to confront others with the truth and to speak the truth is paramount. Esther tried to masquerade as another and only once she left behind her pretensions and was true to her core identity as a Jew and spoke that truth was the tide turned. Instead of devastation befalling our people, the Jewish community in ancient Persia found a pathway beyond the challenges and intolerant realities of their time and created a transformed world. The Purim narrative ends on a happy note of tranquility, harmony and Jewish joys – leaving behind the trail of oys and laments.
Rabbi B. in JerusalemIn celebrating Purim (Saturday evening, February 23 – at 6:15 pm and Sunday, Feb. 24 – at 9 am) we recognize that joy always includes moral responsibility. Even in moments of simcha and celebration, we maintain with all the fun and antics, a clear head and always are to act responsibly. Making a l'hayim is to use, and never abuse the gifts in this world. And that wisdom is the core of our Jewish values regarding every celebration.
Passover energizes us to remember a dark chapter in Jewish history and precisely how we overcame that darkness with strength and faith. Our elaborate seder celebrations (on Monday and Tuesday evenings, March 25 & 26) and our festival joy is a counterbalance to the corrupt civilization of ancient Egypt and the immorality of that world. Judaism provides to us our GPS to remember the grave gridlock and debased dead ends that impacted upon our ancestors and the antidote: the seder is the road to liberation. Passover is our annual journey reminding us of the wisdom of our Sages – we have the power to transform our world and our lives from slavery to freedom. We do not have to be mired in the mud of the past and that persecutions in history do not determine our future. Passover is about our freedom to create joyous moments and transmit the treasured traditions of our people in the amazing ambiance of food, family and faith at the sederim in our homes.
We learn from beetles, from Torah, from Purim and Pesach the moral grandeur and the uplifting lessons how Judaism inspires, governs and guides our lives. This reality is the core of what animated Mayor Ed Koch, of blessed memory and was made clear in the assemblage of American and Israeli leadership, of leaders and politicians and the average New Yorker alike that paid homage to Koch at his funeral. Koch will always be recalled as the quintessential New Yorker: brash, outspoken, brusque and a man filled with chutzpah. He was above all a mentsch who championed in the political arena on behalf of those who had no voices in the system. He will always be recalled as a politician of the people – a man known for his absolute integrity and honesty in word and deed. In one story shared at his funeral, a constituent railed at him and chastised him in a letter for a decision the mayor had made. He replied, in his typical style, you have the " right to your opinion about me, and I have the right to my opinion about you and you are a fool ! all the best, Ed Koch ". His style may have been at times outrageous, but he was a man of courage and principled belief.
Above all, Koch was tenacious and passionate about his love for the Jewish people and unconditional support for Israel. This legacy of his absolute devotion to the Jewish people and our faith is made manifest in the monument which he had placed at his gravesite well before he died. And only Mayor Koch, a Jewish mayor would be buried in an ecumenical part of an Episcopalian cemetery (the only cemetery actually still operating in Manhattan) in a Dominican neighborhood – and near a subway stop !
In words of wisdom he quoted from the slain journalist Daniel Pearl (murdered by terrorists exactly eleven years to the day before Koch died) : My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish. His monument then has engraved the Shema Yisrael, the watchword of our faith in Hebrew and English followed by the phrasing chosen by Ed Koch that commences with the words: He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith!
Let us ask in the words immortalized by Hizzoner, the Mayor, Ed Koch. How'm I doing? How are we doing in fiercely living the joy of Judaism. How are we doing in navigating our journey in life with the Torah and Judaism as our North Star? How are we doing living Jewish values in order to deepen our lives and powerfully help others ? May we learn and acquire rich wisdom from beetles, from Purim and Pesach and from Ed Koch, of blessed memory !
With the very best wishes for a joyous Purim and a sweetly blessed Pesach from Laura, Yael, Aviva, Hillel (in Israel), Elie and Noam and myself to you and your loved ones ! Shalom !
Rabbi Howard R. Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center