Friday, January 18, 2013

This is a fragile while beautiful place: We dare not spoil it. January 11th, 2013

This is a fragile while beautiful place: We dare not spoil it.

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

January 11th, 2013



Tomorrow's haftarah, special for when Rosh Hodesh and Shabbat coincide begins with the words from the prophet Isaiah: "Thus said the Lord: the heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool." Allowing for many theological issues, the singular point I elicit for this sermon is that God has a special relationship with this planet. Our theology imputes that all existence stems from God's creative power, but this place is special. Throughout the Bible there are many verses that sustain this belief. The very opening of the Torah, with the narrative of the Creation, excludes every other star and galaxy to focus just on Earth, the pinnacle of Creation. The sacred charge to the first human being was to "l'av-dah v'sham-rah," "tend it and guard it." While there is little argument over the second word, there are many meanings embedded in the first. It can be translated "work it." But it should not be translated "exploit it." The prophet says: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." This place, this spinning orb in the universe, is owned by the Divine. It is only lent to mankind. This is the focus of the second great narrative, namely, the Flood of Noah. Its main thrust is that mankind capitulated its right to live on the earth because of the evil they were performing. Humanity does not have an inherent right to live here. It is not an entitlement. It is a gift, a privilege, which can be yielded or removed.


I was struck by a science article this week that indicated that there are an immense number of planets approximately the size of planet earth out there in space. When we look up at the night sky and see all the points of light, around them are revolving many planets, and many of them are just our size. And yet, to date, with all our ability to explore them, and for the billions of years since God said "Let there be…" no place in all existence has life like ours, the beauty of the flowers and the bees, the brilliance of human beings and majesty of the animal kingdom. There is no place like this. Anywhere. There is no species like human beings. Anywhere. We are beyond rare. We are beyond precious. There are no words in language to express this.


This planet is not limitless. When we stand by the sea shore and look out to the ocean, it might seem endless, we know better. When we stand in the forest we can't imagine counting the trees, or on our knees we can't imagine counting the blades of grass. But their numbers are finite. It does not go on forever. We can chop them down and the earth will be barren. We can spread chemicals on the lawn and kill all the grass as well as the weeds, and make it impossible to reseed. The earth can be ruined. It can be ruined forever. Forever is a very long word.


It is something I fear. I fear a law of "consequences-unknown-for-some-time-that-ultimately- destroys-us." How frequently does it happen that a product is released to the market place and is readily consumed or used and yet its detrimental impact upon only comes to light much later, with little ability to rectify its destructive power on humans or the environment. The devastating effects of the chemicals poured on Viet Nam and the chemicals consumed by pregnant women can never be reversed. Judaism teaches us to respect science because it reveals to us the majesty and magnitude of God's creation. We stand in awe of the Divine the more we study science. Science proves God! For this place, we humans cannot be duplicated! The earth cannot be cloned! Robots can't be humans. And yet we are so fragile. And not everything broken can be repaired. When, as a child, I played ball in Brooklyn, my mother warned me about running into the street after it. She called out: "I can always buy another ball. I can't buy another boy." We can't buy another planet. We can't buy back damaged human beings. The consequences of our actions are forever.


In the Book of Deuteronomy (20:19-20) it refers to making war on a city. "…thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for thou mayest eat of them, but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field 'man' that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knowest that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down…" This narrow focus on fruit trees must be expanded to embrace a wider vision of preserving and enhancing the entire earth. Why do we attack it? Why do we ruin it? Is it making war on us? If we cannot breathe its air, we cannot live. If we cannot eat its food, we cannot live. If we cannot drink its water, we cannot live. The Torah is God's word to us, no matter the details of its journey from God to us. God is commanding us to respect the earth for it sustains us. It nourishes us. It gives us life.


The Rabbis understood the delicate balance of our world. I don't know how they came to this conclusion, for their scientific knowledge was certainly limited. Yet, they knew what science has now proved. It is contained in a brief midrash.


 Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Raba (Vilna edition) 7:28:

"When G-d created the first man He took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him 'See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'"


My children thought that as their father I could fix everything they broke. I appreciated their faith in me, yet I cautioned them, saying: "I can't fix everything." There are things in this world, in our lives, that once broken, can't be fixed, no matter how much money we have. I enlarge my mother's cry out to me. Not only can I not buy another boy, I cannot buy another ball, kaddur ha'aretz, the ball of the earth.


It is for that reason that I attended this past Monday the session of the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission, convened to vote on the report of the Uranium Working Group. What will ultimately be decided is a matter of life and death. Certainly it will create jobs. Certainly jobs will improve the economy, at least in the short term. Certainly those out of work are literally dying for jobs. Yet the thrust of the report, in the writing of regulations for "what if…", in its essence recognizes the inherent dangers in the mining of uranium. It assumes that rules will be followed. It assumes that money can be spent to fix its ills. Yet it ignores the frailty of man and of the earth. No place does it say: "What if we can't fix it? What then?" That is the ultimate reality that must be confronted. It will be too late to wake up and bemoan "What have we done?" It will be too late to wake up and pray to God to fix the evil we have perpetrated. God will not have brought the flood. We will have brought it upon ourselves.


I was dismayed that they voted so overwhelmingly to forward to the report to legislature. It is a terrible error. I most vociferously oppose it.


One person closed her remarks by citing the words of President Roosevelt: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." There are times when we are blinded by unwarranted fear. We can't always know the result of our decisions. We often face forks in the road. We have to take one and we if don't like it, if it doesn't work out, we can't back and try the other. Life is not a child's game. It isn't a toy. Yet there are times when fear is warranted. There is enough knowledge to inform us, warn us, caution us, not to pursue a path. At least not yet. At least not now.

Perhaps God works through human agency. Certainly the prophets saw the foreign empires as God's agents against Israel when they sinned. So, following their pattern, I see scientists as God's agents, using the knowledge they have discovered about God's creation, as His voice warning us how terribly we have impacted this planet in less than two hundred years. We have blown it up, carved it up, heated it up, dirtied it up, dangerously, tragically.


Now is the time to reverse this course. The planet is too hot. The air is too dirty. The ground is too polluted. And there is no Ark to board.

Now is the time to refrain from actions that have no recourse for correction, like mining uranium.

Now is the time to alternate fuels that will allow us our lifestyle yet respect and replenish the planet.

Now is the time to conserve the resources of the earth that are limited, so that humanity can live forever.


For all those make policy, let them remember the wisdom of Rabbis: "Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'"


Shabbat Shalom

Can Lance Armstrong Do Teshuvah?

Can Lance Armstrong Do Teshuvah? Should We Accept It?

January 18th, 2013

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


While in my youth I used to bicycle extensively and still have the second bike that my parents bought for me, cycling as a sport never attracted me. It was enough to keep up with the four "big" sports, baseball, football, basketball and (ice) hockey. With the explosion of the numbers of leagues and teams, and alternative sports, I just couldn't keep up with it. But I instantly recognized the name Lance Armstrong. Who couldn't? Who wouldn't? He won so many races, beat cancer, and created a foundation, that his name was frequently and prominently in the public domain. Who could miss it?


His name was also prominent in the issue of drugs. Often he was accused of using one illegal and illicit means or another to win all those races, that otherwise seemed humanely impossible. Vehemently he denied every accusation, and as I have learned by following this sordid tale, embarrassed, humiliated and intimidated everyone and anyone who accused him of violating the laws, codes and ethics involved. Who could not know Lance Armstrong?


The past ten days have been most interesting in sports, not because of who won and lost games, especially in the run-up to the Super Bowl or the return of National League Hockey, a plague on their house for the greed, but because of the vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame. No one got in! Mazal Tov! The names on the ballot included those so prominently mentioned in the record books for home runs and pitching: Roger Clemons, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. I don't know how or why they were not convicted. Yet at every turn, they were linked to drug use to enhance their inhumane performances. Yes, we all loved the velocity of the pitch, the incapability of the batter to even come near the ball, and for the others, the arc of the ball as it splashed into McCovey's Cove or the avenue beyond Wrigley Field or into the St. Louis night sky. We were enraptured. Maybe we should say "Shame on us," for our admiration and fascination gave the media to keep the spotlight so bright and elevated the stimulation to keep hitting and keep pitching which need more and more drugs. We, in a sense, were willing co-conspirators. We collectively have sinned by enabling the sinners. We need to account for our behavior and atone.


These players have not made public confessions and I don't expect them to do so. And I urge the Baseball Writers Association to reject them time after time that they appear on the ballot. They should be permanently barred from the highest accolade that the sport can give. At least some forum will stand up for the righteousness, for their sinning changed the complexity of every game, and the destiny of the other players. It is no longer a "game, a sport." There is no honor.


But what do we do with Lance Armstrong? I have listened much too much to parts of his interview and their minute dissection by pundits high and low. Every news commentator has taken a whack at him. Me, too. I ask the quintessential Jewish question?

            Is this really teshuvah (repentance)?

            Can he do teshuvah at all?

            Do we have to accept what he said?


To respond to my questions in this brief format, I turn to Hilchot Teshuvah, Laws of Repentance, of Maimonides.



Chapter 1, section 1

…How does one confess? He says: "O Lord, I have sinned, I have done evil, I have rebelled against Thee and have done this….I regret now and am ashamed of my acts; I will never do this again."…Furthermore, one who has injured a person or damaged his property, even though he pays what he owes him, is not pardoned unless he confesses and resolves never to commit such an offense again.


Chapter 2, section 1

Perfect repentance is where an opportunity presents itself to the offender for repeating the offense and he refrains from committing it because of his repentance and not out o fear or physical inability. If, however, one repents only in his old age, when he is no longer able to do what he used to do, his repentance, though not the best, will nevertheless do him some good.


Chapter 2, section 3

Anyone who makes a verbal confession without resolving in his heart to abandon his sin is like one who takes a ritual bath while grasping a defiling reptile. The bath is useless unless he first casts the reptile away…


Chapter 2, section 9

…sins committed against a fellow man, as when a person either injured or cursed or robbed his neighbor, he is never pardoned unless he compensates his neighbor and makes an apology. Even though he has made the compensation, the wrongdoer must appease the injured person and ask his pardon. Even if he only annoyed him with words he must apologize and beg his forgiveness…


Chapter 4, section 1

Twenty-four things hinder repentance. Four of these are grievous offenses. If one commits any of them, God gives him no opportunity to repent because of the gravity of the offense. Offenders of this type are: (1) he who leads the people to sin; this includes one who prevents them from doing a good deed; (2) he who diverts another from the good to the evil, such as a seducer or enticer; …(4) he who says: "I will sin and then repent." This includes one who says: "I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone."


From this very small sampling of the Hilchot Teshuvah which is the tersest and most succinct version of Jewish law, it is clear that Lance Armstrong's mea culpa does not meet any minimum threshold to be accounted as teshuvah and for him to be forgiven. How many people has he injured, on his team, other competitors, to whom he has given nothing? Whose careers he has damaged, reputations marred forever?

Was there sincere repentance? I did not see even one tear in his eye, on his cheek as he answered Oprah's questions, one after the other? His countenance looked as hard hearted as when he was on a bike.


And lastly, this charade must be repudiated because our children and grandchildren must know that this was absolutely, unquestionable wrong. Not every wrong can be fixed. Not every sin can be undone. The core Jewish value is truth. Emet is the nickname for God Himself. Lance Armstrong can't possibly fathom that word. He was untrue to his wife, his children, his teammates, his fans, his donors, his opponents, and to all those who wanted to emulate him in cycling. All the donations by others for cancer research don't effect atonement for his sins. There are those of us who stand up in front of others, whether it is the pulpit, the podium, in politics, in the classroom, in the sports arena, to whom others turn and look up to. We bear the highest burden to represent the right, the true, honesty and fairness. We hold the trust of others, from young and old, in our hands.


To me, Lance Armstrong has not done teshuvah. He has betrayed everyone's trust. He has harmed and manipulated, distorted and destroyed. He has evinced no regret; demonstrated no sincerity; exhibited no remorse. Every punishment that he receives, he deserves. Cycling, for its honor and integrity should ban him forever. We need to affirm this for our own lives, our own integrity and our own honor. We need to hold the light of truth and honor to ourselves and to our children.


Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What Do You Tell Your Children

What Do We Tell Our Children?
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
December 28th, 2012
In the aftermath of this year's events that have shaken us to the core, as the secular year is soon to close, I want to ask a simple question: When, they too, reflect on this past year, the violence, the bloodshed, the proposal to arm their teachers in every school and university, the daily body count in Richmond and the counties – no place is immune: What Do We Tell Our Children? Though our children are all adults, I remember them as children when tragedies and catastrophes occurred, and so I compose this as an abbah (father) and a sabbah (grandfather). Of course every answer is conditioned by the age of the questioner and exactly what they are asking, but these responses are meant for all ages and all questions.
The first thing I say is that sometimes I am scared, too. Terrible events scare us, frighten us, shock us, even if we are adults. We cannot pretend. We cannot hide our emotions. We must validate what is true in them and is also true in us. What were we taught to do before corssing, when we came to the street corner, a place of possible danger? Stop. Look. And Listen. In these moments, two weeks removed from the calamity of Connecticut, we stop to really think about events, life, ourselves, our lives. We look at our world, and while there are bad things in it, there are also many things of beauty. Never lose the beauty. The mourner eats a hard boiled egg because while it wobbles down in sorrow, it wobbles up to also indicate future joy. Don't lose the joy in life. And listen to your heart. You are alive. You are filled with infinite possibilities. Listen to those who love you. Listen to the birds, the leaves and the snowflakes.
The second thing I say is that they are loved unconditionally. They need to know that we their parents and grandparents cherish them, respect them, dream about them, nourish and sustain them, now and forever. No matter what they do, we love them.  In a scary and fearful world, we must make them a world of peace, at least inside our homes. The Rabbis taught us to have shalom and shalvah in our abodes, peace and tranquility. Our children must know that we are there with them, even when we are not. They must have our presence in their hearts and in their minds. Always. Everywhere.
The third thing I say is that the most important things is life is to be loving and good. If I believe in a peaceful world, a righteous world, I must model the values to those whom I can shape and mold. I enunciate in word and deed, my vision of life. I don't articulate career tracks. I don't set financial goals, though both will be important. It is the neshama that is critical, the soul of the child and adult. I tell them that we have two sides, the inside and the outside. And they must agree. Not only do we dress the outside with beauty, but more importantly, we dress the inside with beauty. And when the clothing on the outside get dirty, the inside always stays clean and pure. It is up to us to make it that way.
The fourth thing I say is that I agree. The world can be a cruel and bad place. But they can help me make it better. I don't deny reality. I just don't accept it. This isn't the way things have to be. We are not powerless. Even in the lives of little children, there is always something they can do to make things better. Little children can do little things. And we can do bigger ones. Can we say "hello" to strangers that we pass while walking down the street? Can we help our elders with physical tasks? Can we link our voices in demonstrating to create a power that can change things? Our Rabbis understood that the world is far from perfect. When referring in the liturgy to God's actions, the verbs are all couched in the present tense. Creation, salvation, redemption are never in the past. They are always in the present and in the future. They and we can imitate God – that can be reduced in language for children's comprehension – and make our world a better place.
The fifth thing I say is that God always loves us and wants us to do what is good. I don't tell them that God can save them from everything. I don't tell them that God can stop all evil in the world. God doesn't work that way. The world doesn't work that way. I know what God wants from us, what we can do. I want them to have the faith that in the worst of times and in the worst of places, God loves us, encourages us, inspires us, strengthens us, and is there with us, even in the corner of a classroom. I want them to have the faith, born of millennia, that has sustained the Jewish people in every crisis:  God loves us, forever and ever, and that if not now, then later, there will be a world, shekulo shalom, that is entirely peace.
The last thing is something I do and not say, deeds not words, I give not-on-condition-to-receive, but if I do it good enough I know that they will give it in the same way: I give hugs and kisses. Lots of hugs and lots of kisses. Even when they didn't do anything special I give kisses and hugs because they are special. I remember from my childhood in Brooklyn to this very day, how my grandmother on her way to the bus would look back at me in the window of the apartment and throw me a kiss. I believed that I felt that kiss, right here on my cheek. I want my children, scattered to the four winds, and my grandchildren in California to feel my moustache, feel my beard as they feel my kiss, even if it is just over the telephone or on Skype. Now. Forever.
In the most trying times of their lives, and in ours, the only thing that I can give them is the knowledge and memory of my love, and the conscious sense of my presence, to protect them and guide them, when I can't be there. I can bestow upon them the feelings and attitudes that help me, are true to me. And while there are many things that I have not experienced and don't want to, and have no idea of what I will experience in the rest of my life, so far, these have sustained me and enabled me to reach this day.
And then I give them a song from my favorite group, Peter, Paul and Mary, one of their older pieces, written by Peter Yarrow. If they won't remember my words, if my kisses and hugs fall off to the distance, then let the song remain.
Tell me why you're crying, my son
I know you're frightened, like everyone
Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?
Will it help if I stay very near?
I am here.
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.
Day is done, Day is done
Day is done, Day is done
Do you ask why I'm sighing, my son?
You shall inherit what mankind has done.
In a world filled with sorrow and woe
If you ask me why this is so, I really don't know.
Tell me why you're smiling my son
Is there a secret you can tell everyone?
Do you know more than men that are wise?
Can you see what we all must disguise
Through your loving eyes?