Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Meaning of Easter

In a few hours I am to preach on the meaning of Easter to about 1000 people on the top of Aspen Mountain. In preparation I wrote a carefully worded and very safe talk that would educate everyone and offend no one.

About an hour ago, I awoke in my hotel on fire with a very different talk. I tried to sleep it off, but I couldn't. So I got up, went to my Macbook Air and feverishly wrote a new talk. I was taking dictation more than composing something of my own. When my fingers stopped typing, I was confronted with the speech below. This is the talk I will deliver at two different Easter services in the morning. I'm posting it now so I won't back down from sharing it later.

* * *

Easter is one of the most important holy days we humans have, and it strikes at the very heart of religion even as religion seeks to tame it to its own ends. Easter puts and end to our fear of death, the very fear that lies at the heart of religion itself.

The message of Easter, the radical message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, isn’t that he died for our sins—Jesus never made that claim, St. Paul did (Romans 4:25)—but that death itself could be defeated.

Jesus didn’t concern himself with death. In fact he courted death by confronting the government–sanctioned injustices of his own day. And he called us to the do the same. That is what it means to “take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It means to challenge the powers—political, military, religious, financial, cultural, etc.— that exploit and oppress and corrupt, and which enlist us in exploitation, oppression, and corruption by promising to show us a way out of death if we would only conform to their way of life.

But there is no way out, there is only the way through. Easter is not about escaping death, but about defeating it. Jesus died. And then he came back, not that we might worship him, but that we follow him.

Fredrich Nietzsche said, “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” Jesus showed us that even that which does kill us can make us stronger.

The cry of Easter is this: “The tomb is empty! Death isn’t the end! Be not afraid!” And fearless people are what scare the military–industrial–religious–media–financial–consumer complex the most. Their power depends on and feeds off our fear. Easter is the day to end that fear and break their power. Easter, like its elder sister Passover, isn’t about escaping from the injustices of this world, but about transforming this world with justice. And only fearless people can do this.

If you woke up scared this morning—fine. But if you leave this mountain just as scared, you’ve not heard the message of Easter.

If you want to know what difference Easter might make in your life, turn its message into a question and ask yourself this: “How would I live if I weren’t afraid?”

Make that question your gospel, your torah, your koan, your mantra. “How would I live if I weren’t afraid?” Turn that over and over in your heart and your mind until you are at last free.

This may not happen today. It doesn’t matter: the tomb is always empty. Death is always defeated.

Fearlessness is yours whenever you are ready to stop being afraid, whenever you are ready to stop worshipping Jesus and start following him.

Have a blessed and fearless Easter.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Growing Up

I’m sitting on a plane this morning on my way to Aspen, CO. The fellow next to me starts a conversation. He’s a life coach, probably ten years my senior, and somehow the fact that I’m turning 62 in a month comes up.
“And what will you do now that you’re grown up,” my neighbor asks.
“Well, I’m a rabbi, a college teacher, and a writer. I guess I’ll continue to do that.”
“Nope, you have to pick one. That’s what it means to grow up. Pick one.”
“Is this part of your coaching practice?” I ask.
He ignores my attempt to dodge the challenge. “Pick one. Here, I’ll help you. Could you live even one week without being a rabbi?”
“Sure,” I said, “I haven’t functioned as a congregational rabbi for over a decade.”
“What about college professor? If you couldn’t teach anymore, would you fall into the pits of despair?”
“No. Fact is, my tenure at the university has ended and they aren’t bringing me back. I’ll miss teaching, but I won’t get depressed over it.”
“What about writing? Can you go a week without writing?”
“A week? I can’t go even one day!”
“Well what?”
“Well, you used to be a rabbi and you used to be a college teacher, and those things are over. Now you’re just a writer.”
“But I write about Judaism and still study Hebrew texts.”
“I’m not talking about what you write, only that when push comes to shove you can give up being a rabbi and a teacher but not give up being a writer. Can you even imagine retiring from writing?”
“No. Writing is how I work through life and find meaning in living. Writing is my spiritual practice.”
“So now you know what to do with your adult life: write.”
“But I do that already.”
“Write more. Write better. Write because you’re a writer and not a rabbi or college professor. Write not to make a living but to maintain your life.”
“Sorry,” he said, raising a hand to say Stop. “Anything more will cost you. Consider this the free advice of a stranger on a plane. Take it or leave it, though I doubt you can leave it.”
Then he turned to face the window, cupped a pair Bose headphones over his ears, and no longer knew or cared that I was there. I hate flying, but every once in a while it proves interesting.

I really want to see you, Lord

According to National Geographic Magazine, 25,000 elephants were murdered last year for their tusks. The ivory is often used to make religious statues and trinkets. One Filipino collector of ivory crucifixes is quoted in the magazine saying, “I don’t see the elephant. I see the Lord.”

That’s is what’s wrong with religion: worshipping the creator allows us to abuse the creation. True religions teach you to see the Lord in the elephant, as the elephant, and not collude in the murder of the elephant to honor your Lord. Jesus died for your sins, not to excuse them.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Two More Questions for Passover

Two Passover questions came across the i–transom this morning: Why did the Egyptians turn on the Jews? and Why did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Here are my answers to them.

Why Enslave the Hebrews?
We Jews like to imagine that our presence in Egypt during the time of Joseph was benign and even beneficial. After all, didn’t Joseph save the people from starvation during the seven years of famine? Yes, he did, but at what cost?
Over the seven years of plenty Jacob didn’t merely instruct the Egyptians to save grain for the coming famine, he forced the Egyptians to store their surplus grain in Pharaoh’s silos. Then, during the years of famine, he sold this grain—grain that was rightly their grain in the first place—back to them. And when they ran out of money to pay for the food, he confiscated their ancestral lands and gave them to Pharaoh: “So Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh. And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. (Genesis 47: 20–21)
This last line is rarely noted, but it is essential: Joseph forced the people to leave their ancestral lands and move to other cities to work land that once belonged to other now displaced Egyptians. His goal was to break any claim the people may have to their ancestral land. He destroyed communities, and forced people to leave the only place they had ever called home.
Only two groups escaped the policies of Joseph: the priests of Egypt (Genesis 47:22) and Joseph’s own family. While Joseph as stripping the people of Egypt of lands that had been theirs for millennia, Joseph’s family bought more and more land in Goshen, the richest most fertile part of Egypt, that had gone untouched by the famine, and prospered (Genesis 47:27).
Again: can anyone be surprised that the Egyptians blamed the Hebrews for their lot: famine was not new to them, but having their lands confiscated and their families uprooted and forced to settled in other parts of Egypt was a horror they had not known before the coming of Joseph. So when they could, they backed a challenger to the throne who overthrew the Pharaoh who benefited from Joseph’s plan, and who himself had had no dealings with Joseph (Exodus 1:8).
It was now time for revenge, and Pharaoh did to the Hebrews what Joseph had done to the Egyptians: stripped them of their lands and forced them to work for Pharaoh. We may not like what happened to our ancestors, but let’s not pretend they were innocent victims.

Why Did God Harden Pharaoh’s Heart?
 Torah makes no secret as to why God did what he did: God says to Moses, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. When Pharaoh does not heed you, I will lay My hand upon Egypt and deliver My ranks, My people the Israelites, from the land of Egypt with extraordinary chastisements. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out My hand over Egypt and bring out the Israelites from their midst.” (Exodus 7: 3-5, JPS)
God hardens Pharaoh’s heart in order to inflict more suffering on the Egyptian people! This is God’s version of “shock and awe,” and the whole point of this terror is to leave no doubt in the minds of the Egyptians that YHVH is the real God and Pharaoh and the other Gods and Goddesses the Egypt are false Gods. This is Torah’s version of “My Dad can beat up your Dad.”
• • •
Now if I believed that Torah was the word of God, and that the God of Torah was in fact the God of the universe, I would not be celebrating Passover tonight. But my Judaism is cultural rather than theological. I don’t celebrate Pesach recounts an historical event, nor do I look to it for insight into the nature of God. For me, the story of Passover is just that, a story, and a pretty good one at that. The doings of Joseph and the ego of God only add to the story, making it all the more rich and complex. If this were history or theology, I would have a problem, but it isn’t, so I don’t. It is literature, and as such it is worth reading and discussing.
I am put off by the jingoism of my youth when we saw the Hebrews as “us” and the Egyptians as “them,” and proud to be the people of a book so honest that it dares to show us our own shadow side.
So here is what we should be talking about tonight: Where are we enslaved and where are we enslaving others? Are our Gods concerned with power or with justice, and how can we topple the former and promote the latter? And how can we live this new year so that next year there is peace in the City of Peace and wholeness in the City of Wholeness (Jerusalem means both)?
Hag sameach Pesach.