Friday, September 26, 2014

Shana Tova! (Second round)

            The story of the Akidah centers on Abraham. It is his faith that is being tested, his burden to journey out to sacrifice his unknowing son, his reward when God stops him just in time, satisfied to know that he was willing. Little is said about Isaac in this story. Isaac’s faith is not tested, he is not let in on what’s happening. He seems to catch on a bit as they make their way up the mountain, as he says, “Father… here is the firestone and here is the wood but where is the sacrifice?” His father dodges the question, and Isaac may not know exactly what is in store, but he knows something is up. When they get to the spot God has indicated to Abraham, Abraham is seemingly able to bind Isaac without resistance. We know nothing of Isaac’s struggle against his father, his thoughts or feelings as he sees his father’s arm raised above him, knife in hand. When they turn around and go home, Isaac remains strangely silent. In fact he is so silent, and the Torah says, “Abraham returned,” that some midrash even wonders if Isaac was indeed killed on Mount Moriah … but then somehow resurrected in time for the next Torah portion, wherein he gets married.
            While Isaac is featured relatively little in a story about his own near-death experience, his mother is not mentioned at all. As we often find in our history, and especially Torah, the voices of women have been completely silenced. Abraham disappears with her son, they undoubtedly return changed men, and the Torah tells us nothing of what she may have known, thought, or said about Abraham’s “test”. The next Torah portion begins with Sarah’s abrupt death. An old midrash from Rabbi Eliezer suggests that our shofar sounds are modeled after the cries Sarah made when she heard where Abraham had taken Isaac. He says, “HaSatan went and said to Sarah, ‘Sarah, haven’t you heard what happened in the world?’ She said, ‘No.’ He said to her, ‘Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him and brought him as an offering on the altar.’ Sarah started to cry. She cried three long sobs, correlated to the t’kiot, three yellallot, slightly shorter cries, like the shevarim, and three short sobs, corresponding to the t’ruot, and her soul departed and she died.”
            The sound of the shofar is a call to action for us as Jews, and as should be the sounds of pain, such as Sarah’s sobs or news of oppression. The story of the Akidah shows how fragile life can be, how even people you trust could be willing to hurt you. Of course, I am not saying you shouldn’t trust people or that everyone is out to get you or that God is commanding anybody to sacrifice anyone else. But, I am saying that life is precious and fragile for each and every one us, those that are here right now and those that are not, and as Jews, we are called by the shofar to act in ways that make life a little safer for those around us.
            This means different things to different people. Yesterday I talked about welcoming the ger and mentioned farmworker rights. That happened to be a topic that came to mind because I wrote the d’var Torah right after attending the People’s Climate March and food justice/sustainability was on my mind. I’m also currently participating in a year-long fellowship with the American Jewish World Service, and helping them with the We Believe campaign which fights for the rights of women and children, like those silenced in today’s Torah. For others, making the world better or safer may mean advocating for a campus policy change for greater inclusivity. It might mean choosing media and supporting business that promote your own values and politics. It might just mean generally being nice to everyone you meet.

            Whatever it means to you, do more of it this new year. Listen to the shofar this season, and hold that sound in your heads and hearts for the rest of the year, reminding you of the various possible directions each choice you make may lead. Choose paths that contribute to your own personal growth as young adults, and choose paths that contribute to a better world, safer lives for those around you. May you never turn a deaf ear to cries of pain, may others hear your cries as well, and may we all work together toward a world of unity and peace. Amen and Shana Tova. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Rosh HaShana 5775 Day 1 - Inspired by T'ruah

In this morning’s Torah Reading, Hagar asks us: Can we make a place for her, or her descendants? Is there room in our communities and in our land for those who come from the outside? In Dirshuni, a collection of modern midrash written by Israeli women, Elah Tzruyah interprets two well-loved statements from the Torah as questions: “You have known the soul of the ger, the stranger” – Exodus 23:9 and “Love the ger” – Deuteronomy 10:19. She says, Do not read ha-ger, the strangers, but ha-gar – have you known the soul of Hagar? Have you loved Hagar? (p.40: Israel, 2009).
            Abraham may not have loved Hagar, but he was concerned with her well-being. He loved his son by her, and wanted to leave a space for them in his house, but was forced to drive them out at the commands of his wife and God. Tomorrow we will read the Akidah, the binding of Isaac, which contains the verse, Take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” Rashi drashes that the reason God has to offer all these qualifiers for Isaac is because God takes for granted that the son destined to be the link to the Chosen People is Abraham’s favorite, and Abraham is having none of it. “Take your son.” I have two sons. “Your favored one.” One is favored by his mother, and the other is favored by his mother. “Whom you love.” I love both of them. “Isaac.” Oh, ok, why didn’t you just say so. What comes next leaves us plenty to talk about for tomorrow, but right now, this explanation of this verse can speak volumes. This may be about family feuds, but it is also about accepting those that are different, defending those with no real rights, and welcoming those who come from the outside.
            As someone who is only briefly visiting your community, I must say I feel very welcomed and accepted! But I do already have rights, and a pretty clear sense of them, and I’m not that much of an outsider. As a fellow Jew, we are part of the same wider community. I am not really a ger and I’m certainly no Hagar. So who are the strangers in our midst that we are not treating properly? They might be people here at the school who are simply outside your friend group, people who are just too weird to take the time to get to know and befriend. Or they might be migrant workers who provide your produce. You may never meet them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t defend their rights, welcome them as residents of our country, and accept them as resident aliens. Organizations like Farmworker Justice (one word) are fighting for farm workers’ rights, and have lots of suggestions on how you can help!

            There are lots of ways we encounter injustice to the ger, and lots of ways we ignore it. This new year, let’s not ignore it. As we cleanse ourselves of last year’s sins, don’t allow the sins of elective ignorance and perpetuating xenophobia continue into 5775. We can do better, be better, and make this world better for everyone. Our ancestor knew the soul of Hagar, and wanted to do better by her, but found himself unable to do so. We can make it up for him by embracing our own Hagars and ha-gers. May we bring ourselves in to a new year of camaraderie, solidarity, unity, by treating better those deemed as outsiders. Let us say: Amen and Shana Tova. 

Rosh HaShana 5775 at Virginia Tech Hillel

Thank you all so much for welcoming me here to your kehillah, and for coming tonight to services. There are lots of ways to mark the new year, and being in a sanctuary is only one of them. As we dip our toes into the new year, I invite you now to think, really think about what will be different in 5775.  You’ve all just started a new school year. How is being a freshman in college different from being a senior in high school? How is being a senior in college different from being a junior? Does it feel significant that the Jewish new year coincides with the academic? How does this moment feel different from January 1st?
Tomorrow we will read the story of Isaac’s birth, and on Friday we will read of his near-death, but in some traditions, the Akidah is read on the first day and the story of creation is read on the second day. The creation story starts with the darkness, just like our holidays. After God creates light merely by saying, “Let there be light,” the Torah says, and there was evening, and there was morning, a first day. It is based upon this that the Jewish holidays start with evening, and consider the “day” sunset to sunset. In many ways, it feels so fitting for our new year to be in autumn for this same reason. The days are starting to get dark and cold, it feels like the year’s twilight hours. Soon it will be winter, utter darkness, and then spring, dawn, and summer, full day. There was evening and there was morning, a first year. Of course, this is coincidence that only works if you live in the right climate and hemisphere. The Torah tells us what day to celebrate Rosh HaShana, and it has nothing to do with the season, really.
Regardless of the accident of this timeliness, it does give us a chance to think. What is the darkness that is coming in winter? What can we create out of it? The Sefer Yetzira, an ancient and densely confusing book of Jewish mysticism teaches that all of creation exists in the Aleph-Bet if you just know how to put the letters together right. God of course knows, and that is why “Let there be light” is enough to begin the creation of the whole world. Humans do not really know, but they can learn. The myths of golems and such come from this mystic tradition; they teach us that while magic and divination is not allowed, Jews can possess their own magic to create great things, but only if they really apply themselves. It is not an easy task, and may feel like months of darkness before light and positive results of all that hard work. Not just anyone can call a golem into being. It comes only after deep study and meditation and understanding of what it means to create.

This is important for the People of the Book. Jews may be carpenters, or bankers, or computer scientists by trade, but in essence, we are people who study. Especially here in this room, as students, we are really all people who study! We love words, we rely on them to teach us, we rely on them to pray and commune with God; our aleph bet is dear and holy, we don’t discard it to keep up with the changing times of language. We honor letters and words and language. The idea that the key to the universe is locked in these letters is important for us. It lets us know that by studying and reading and writing, we are looking, seeing, understanding, and probing, as the Sefer Yetzira says we should. Once we are able to read a certain level of understanding and wisdom, we, too, can learn to engrave and carve, to create with our words, as God does. After all, we are created in the Divine image. We need only apply ourselves. This season, as we pass into 5775 and a new academic year, I challenge you all to learn something completely new, and to strive for creativity in your field. And may you find creation in your own hands.