Friday, December 18, 2015

Parashat Vayigash: Joseph and George Bailey

            I don’t know if you guys know this, but there is a non-Jewish holiday coming up next week. Maybe you know some people who celebrate it? Maybe you even get to partake in the celebrations of friends and family? For those who don’t know about this holiday, it is one about which hundreds of movies have been made, so I’m sure you could easily look into those if you’d like. One such classic is a film entitled It’s A Wonderful Life. While reading Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s book on Genesis, something she said about the Joseph story caught my eye and made me think of the main character of It’s A Wonderful Life. The following d’var Torah contains spoilers, but the movie is 70 years old and there should be some statute of limitations for spoiler alerts.
            At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Joseph is reunited with his brothers, only, they don’t know that it is their own brother to whom they are speaking. The Torah says “[Joseph] recognized them and he acted like a stranger toward them” (Genesis 42:7). The peculiar thing is that the Hebrew words the Torah chooses here: “vayikareim” for “he recognized” and “vayitnakair” for “he made himself strange to them,” both come from the same three letter root. In order to scope out what kind of people his brothers really are now, after all these years have passed, Joseph must make himself invisible to them. Only in seeing how they behave while still thinking that he is dead, can he properly gage how they have grown since they sold him into slavery. While his identity is invisible to them, Joseph tests his brothers by demanding they go back to Canaan and bring him their youngest brother, Benjamin. When they do, seeing his brother compels Joseph to leave the room and weep (for a second time). On this second weeping, inspired by seeing Benjamin, the medieval commentator Rashi offers a midrash: “Joseph asked Benjamin, ‘Do you have a full brother [from your mother]?’ He answered, ‘I had one, but I don’t know where he is.’ Joseph asked him, ‘Do you have children?’ and he answered, ‘I have ten children … their names are Bela, Bekher, etc.’ Joseph asked, ‘What do these names mean?’ and Benjamin replied, “They are all for my brother and the troubles that have befallen him: Bela – because he was swallowed up among the nations; Bekher – because he was first born to my mother; Hupim – because he did not see my wedding, nor did I see his; Ard – because he went down among the pagans.” In the midrash, Joseph is moved by hearing the names of his nephews because, as Zornberg says, “His own existence is suddenly fleshed out in absence.”
            In It’s A Wonderful Life, main character George Bailey makes a wish that he were never born. An angel named Clarence grants his wish and takes him all around his hometown of Bedford Falls, seeing what life would be like for the town and the people he loves if he were not present. It’s not exactly analogous to Joseph’s situation; for Joseph did exist and his brothers are explaining to the stranger they do not know to be him the loss of him, while George Bailey interacts with people in an alternate universe where they have never known him. Still, in seeing how the world around him would move on in his absence, he is able to develop a stronger sense of his existence. The film ends with him re-wishing himself back to his original reality, where he exists and the people around him know who he is, and the whole town comes to his home to celebrate him and fill the void that had previously caused him to wish he were never born.
            In this week’s parasha, Joseph’s own George Bailey moment concludes similarly. By making himself strange, by using and interpreter and pretending to be a real Egyptian, by “disappearing” for his brothers, Joseph “has gained access to his lost self. His brothers, equally, have recovered a vital sense of pain at their loss” (Zornberg’s commentary on Parashat Miketz). Finally, he is unable to contain himself anymore. Parashat Vayigash, our reading this week, opens with a long speech by Judah which thoroughly illustrates how much the brothers regret what they did to Joseph. At the conclusion of the speech Joseph bursts into tears a third time. Unlike the first two times, when he left the room himself, this time he commands his attendants to leave him and his brothers alone, which Zornberg takes to mean that these tears are more passionate, so overwhelming he cannot move himself. The rest of the parasha is primarily about Joseph struggling to make himself seen again after being hidden in plain sight, having to convince his brothers and father that both their eyes and ears are working correctly: they are seeing and hearing Joseph. It’s a significant move from the focus on Joseph’s lack of existence to the focus on physical senses to assure his family of his true identity. Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “The Torah is given in the Light of a face. The epiphany of another person is ipso facto my responsibility toward him: seeing the Other is already an obligation toward him,” (Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings). This week’s Torah portion ends with everyone in the Israel clan finally seeing each other clearly and harmony settles among them, at least for now. Jacob and his sons stay in Egypt, close to Joseph, where Joseph remains in his position of power in the Egyptian courts, just as George Bailey’s friends and family gather near him in Bedford Falls, where he remains the proprietor of Savings and Loan.

            Sometimes we must draw back in order to see ourselves and others more clearly, to allow others to see us more clearly in our absence. Understanding others and ourselves is an important goal through life, lest we live impulsively and reactionary as Joseph’s brothers did in the beginning of this narrative. We don’t want to be going around throwing people in pits just because they annoy us. But we also don’t want to stay hidden forever. The principal is to make space for others so that you may see them better, without allowing yourself to disappear completely. Take the time to conceal yourself when necessary to investigate the true motivations of yourself or others, and make sound decisions based on those investigations, but remember to still stay true to yourself. In this way, may we learn to recognize our own worth, appreciate those around us, and make peace with our friends, family, and neighbors. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Parashat Miketz: Assimilation, Chanukah, and Joseph

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! We are reaching the end of our joyous 8 nights of lights, celebrating Chanukah. As we know, Chanukah is at its core a holiday about embracing a freedom of religion, a pride in being Jewish, and a refusal to change just for the sake of fitting in with those in power. As modern, progressive Jews, we have changed ourselves a bit to keep up with the times, but we maintain our Jewishness and can still appreciate our ancestors who fought for our right to do so. The emphasis of the miracle of the oil takes on a new importance for our rabbis who lived in ancient Babylonia, at a time when maybe talking about fighting foreign governments didn’t seem like a good idea, ironically further emphasizing from an historical point of view the importance of true freedom of religion.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Miketz, Joseph makes his way out of his jail cell and into the inner circle of Egyptian leadership. The pharaoh himself arranges for Joseph to marry an Egyptian woman of high status, and she bears him two children. The first is Menashe, meaning "God has made me forget my hardship and my parental home," and the second is Ephraim, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." Joseph is ready to fit in with the Egyptians, but there's a level of obvious discomfort in it. He has come from a home where his own family members wanted to kill him, and fled to a place that has (aside from his stint in prison) mostly been good for and to him. He is able to rise to a position of power, but is unable to feel totally Egyptian. I'm not sure exactly what to make of this, but I think there's something worth acknowledging in the need to assimilate for survival. Did Joseph marry his wife because he loved her or because that was the only to keep himself from getting thrown back into the prison cell? Did the Hellenized Jews throw off Jewish observance because they were bored of it or because it felt unsafe to continue to do so? Did Babylonian Jews shift the focus of Chanukah because it felt unsafe to celebrate the victory of the Maccabees or because fire looks cool? When we give gifts for Chanukah now, is it because that feels like it is really the right thing to do, or because we are trying to compete with Christmas?
Rashi offers a Midrash on the story of the famine in Egypt, that the soil didn't stop producing food, but that the food grew and then immediately rotted. There's this sense of intense and immediate terror in this Midrash, that all of what we have may fall apart in front of our eyes at any moment. Joseph, the one in charge of managing the famine, is not only concerned about the physical rotting of the produce, but that all of what he has built for himself may rot. His children, half-Israelite and half-Egyptian, are central to his feeling rooted in the strange land of Egypt, and their names reflect his fear of this new place as well as his desire to assimilate into it, his remembering of home and his desire to forget it, his concern for life, staying alive, giving life, keeping alive. We're all in various ways assimilated Jews, trying to live safely in the broader communities we are a part of, but still feel in some way a pull to our Jewishness. May we find safety and strength as Jews, living by our values and with our traditions in mind, in whatever way that feels honest. May we welcome the stranger, as we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and may we stay alive and thriving, give life and keep alive those around us to the best of our abilities. Amen, Shabbat Shalom and Chag Urim Sameach.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Parashat Vayeshev - Human Rights Shabbat

            This week’s parasha is called Vayeshev, named for the first line: “And Jacob settled.” It tells of how Jacob tried to settle his clan after much time spent feeling transitory. Even the years in one place, in Laban’s camp, felt as a place of impermanence, and Jacob seeks to settle in peace in a land for his family to have for themselves. This immediately gives way to the Joseph story, and much of the parasha is focused on the strife between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s near-death and actual enslavement and ends with Joseph the Dreamer wasting away in prison. The medieval commentator Rashi expounds on this, “‘And Jacob was settled’: Jacob sought to settle in peace – there leapt upon him the agitation of Joseph. The righteous seek to settle in peace – God says, “Is it not enough for the righteous, what is prepared for them in the world to come, that they seek to settle in peace in this world?” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg further explains Rashi’s comment by saying, “One might even say that it is characteristic of righteous people to yearn for such a ‘settling,’ a clarification of the turbulences and anguish of life. But God rebuffs this yearning, in a tone of strange sarcasm: ‘Is it not enough?’ In God’s rhetoric, the righteous are made to seem… almost greedy, their desire for peace in this world wrongheaded, in view of the treasure awaiting them in another world.” Zornberg takes it in a theological direction, implying those who are self-assured of their place in the world to come shouldn’t bother trying for peace in this world because if they do, God will cause disaster to fall upon them. As soon as Jacob got too comfortable, God caused Joseph to be torn from him as a means of keeping Jacob on his toes, according to this reading.
            However, I connect with Rashi’s comment through a slightly different lens. The righteous may not settle in peace in this world because of all the peace that awaits them in the world to come, and this is because to be righteous, to earn a place in the world to come means to keep fighting for a better world for all here and now. Self-care, inner peace, and time to recharge are hugely important for the righteous, but lest they ever think their struggle is over while there is still injustice and people fighting for survival elsewhere, there will always come upon them a painful reminder that their duty is not ended. A righteous person may feel the anguish and turbulences of peace and yearn for a time when that may settle, but to be truly righteous is to know better than to seek that peace for yourself before the time is right.
            In ancient rabbinic literature, it is common to use oppositional terms to describe human behaviors and regulations of those behaviors. One such pair of contradictions is that of “Yishuv hada’at” – a settled mind – and “Tiruf hada’at” – a torn mind. Obviously, human experiences exist on a spectrum full of gray nuance, but the idea is that if we were to simplify our lives and thoughts down to a binary of extremes, we would find that we either have our minds at peace, able to think clearer and coherently, or our minds are scrambled, confused, maybe not even fully conscious. In this Torah portion we find these terms bookending the same chapter (Genesis 37). In the beginning of the parasha, starting with Genesis 37:1, we have the yishuv, the settling, of Jacob. After all his travels, this is clearly meant to be a physical, permanent settling, but the Midrash also has us understanding this as an emotional settling for Jacob. He has had some exhausting experiences up to now, and he’s ready to settle his brain. The end of the chapter, 37:33, about halfway through the portion, has Jacob lamenting that Joseph has been “tarof toraf,” surely and completely torn apart. Again, to Jacob, this is a physical tearing, of the coat and, in his mind, of Joseph, but it is also an emotional tearing. This news causes his mind to tear, tiruf hada’at. Eventually, this will lead to his physical unsettling, when Jacob and his clan will move to Egypt. When Jacob seeks the one, he inevitably finds the other; when he tries to “settle in peace,” he unleashes the “vengeful furies” of the Joseph story – “not because his is a moral offense,” Zornberg assures us, “but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.” We are not meant to have complete peace in this world while some still have none at all. Those who allow themselves to stay unsettled, their minds troubled, in order to help others, are the truly righteous.
            This Shabbat, as we are joined with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and many other congregations in support of Human Rights Shabbat, let us seek to find comfort and peace in unsettled realities. Let us learn how to live with the anguish that comes from knowing better than to think peace has yet come to this earth, so that we might continue to work toward peace and human rights for all. May we earn the label of righteous and true peace in the world to come. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Parashat Vayetzei - Mussar

            Every fall, my school has a retreat in which we spend three days together in study and in community. It is off campus and away from our homes, where we truly live together, sharing three meals and prayer services together daily, in addition to study sessions and a cabaret. It is a great time. This year, our retreat was on the theme of Mussar. Mussar may be translated to mean ethics, but it’s more than just being nice to each other or living a moral life. It’s about learning where your own strengths and weaknesses are, and learning to fix them so that you can be a better person, serve others more fully, and live a more thoroughly moral and honest life in every way. In preparation for this, the week before retreat, our retreat organizers shared a video: “The Making of a Mensch.” One of the things mentioned as possible avenues to mussar is learning when to be more patient and when to be impatient. I have spent a lot of time in the past learning to be more patient in social justice. I used to be angry all the time at the state of the world, and wanted to know how to fix it, all of it, right now. I learned to be patient, to see success in small victories, to appreciate the ways in which the world is better now than ten years ago or sixty years ago or 600 years ago. As a whole, humanity lives longer, healthier lives. We have amazing advances in technology, including medical technology, we are more connected to one another than ever before, and xenophobia is definitely less normal than it once was.
            Unfortunately, it is still fairly common. People still discriminate against others based on their differences, and plenty still carry out hateful and violent acts based on these differences. And many, many more react in indifference. When those we perceive to be like us are discriminated against or experience violence, we show solidarity and empathy. When the same things happen to those we perceive as different from us, we ignore it, or worse, if those perpetrated those acts of violence are a part of our in-group, we defend it. When we find ourselves in 2015 still living in a world where people are hurt just for being who they are and too many turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices, it is time to get a little impatient. In 2015, we don’t have time anymore to put up with systemic oppression or indifference to war. We’ve come too far in our understanding of these problems to allow them to continue.
            In this and next week’s Torah portions, we see Jacob dawdling. Avivah Zornberg writes in her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, brings a Midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” He spends over fourteen years in Laban’s camp, acquiring capital and personal fulfillment. The time, says Torah of the first seven years and Midrash of the second, flies by for him as though it were only a few days, because of his love for Rachel. But meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps turning and for them, time is moving at a real pace, and Jacob is not doing anything to create goodness. Abraham welcomed strangers and argued with God for justice. Isaac was willing to allow himself to be sacrificed for God. And what has Jacob done, other than sleep and get married and tend sheep? He’s not a nice brother, he deceives his father, he is unloving to one wife and insensitive to the one he does love. He doesn’t acknowledge God until God comes to him in a dream, and he doesn’t interact with strangers. Where is his mussar?

            Eventually, after things start to fall apart a bit with his family in the next parasha, he does get going and fulfills his promise to God, allows God to continue the promise to Jacob and all the descendants of Abraham. For so many of us, it takes personal tragedy or at least a tragedy that hits close to home to wake up and realize how much time we’ve been wasting, to get going and fulfill the promises we made to ourselves or to our friends and families and communities, or to God. Let us not wait anymore. Let us feel some impatience. May we feel spurred awake today to take action toward improving the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Parashat Toldot: Jacob's Performance of Masculinity and Life for Trans Jews

                This past Monday evening, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Joy Ladin speak at an event host by the National Council of Jewish Women. Ladin is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She received her tenure teaching at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University as a man, and then began her transition and gender reassignment. Her talk on Monday was very frank, explaining that she knew it was a decision that negatively affected her family, but that she had reached a point of depression and dysphoria where she really felt her only other option was suicide. She simply could not go on living as a man. Now fully transitioned and living as herself, she is teaching again at Stern, has published several books of poetry, a memoir about her transition, was featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippet, and serves on the Board of Keshet, the national organization devoted to full inclusion of LGBT+ Jews in the Jewish community.
            On the train ride to the Upper West Side, where the NCJW is housed, I had already begun my weekly reading of Avivah Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis for this week’s parasha, and had noted her focus on verses eleven and twelve of chapter twenty-seven: Jacob says, “If my father touches me I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” Zornberg notes it is not the deception itself that is troubling to Jacob, but the fear of being found out, and of being judge negatively for it. The Hebrew word used here, metateia, is also used in contexts of mockery, a dissembler, and for those who make mockery of Jewish worship by worshipping idols. In this context, it means that Jacob fears that Isaac will think he’s mocking him, when that is not actually his intent. In playing the role of his brother, Zornberg says, “Jacob risks having his own authentic reality misunderstood.” A Midrash on Proverbs asserts that to neglect that which is most essential to one’s authentic being is a criminal act of mocking God. From here, Zornberg quotes Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true… Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
            And so, as of early Monday evening this week, my brain was already churning all the ways in which each of us lie to ourselves and lie to others; obscure who we really are so that we might be accepted, and try our best not to be found out as the tricksters we all sometimes are. Then, during Ladin’s talk, she was explaining how she was raised by pretty secular Jewish parents and did not have a strong religious identity and for various reasons she did not have a formal Jewish education. But she did like to go to synagogue and read the Bible during prayer services she did not understand. In reading the Bible without guidance, she says she was able to always find the things that connected with her and validated her relationship with God, who, like her, was a being without a real body (for that was how her dysphoria processed her image of the body she had – that she simply didn’t corporeally exist yet), and who other humans did not understand. But when she would get to this part of the Bible, this week’s parasha, she would simply skip it. Again, the perks of reading it on her own and without guidance or formal education meant she only had to read the parts she liked. And she did not like this part. She said, “Reading about Jacob’s need to perform his masculinity in a forced way was a little too close for comfort.”
            I realized that while all of us have parts of ourselves we must hide or masquerade, that we must lie to ourselves or others about, ways in which we don costumes of what we think other people want us to be so that we may get what we need out of them, we still live in a world that particularly requires this from trans and non-binary people. Also on Monday, an essay by Leah Falk was published on the Jewniverse, a blog dedicated to forgotten bits of Jewish knowledge. Falk acknowledges traditional Judaism’s enforcement of the gender binary: men pray three times a day and wear tefillin; women go to mikveh once a month and light the family’s Shabbat candles. However, she says, even the Talmud, the ancient source for Halakha, recognizes six gender identities. Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first trans rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College, explains the Talmud references those who are male, female, androgynous or having both male and female sexual characteristics, those who are tumtum or having indeterminate sexual characteristics, ay’lonit or identified as female at birth but developing male characteristics at puberty, and saris or identified as male at birth but developing female characteristics at puberty and/or becoming a eunuch later in life. Of course the Talmud doesn’t fully discuss the differences between gender identity, presentation, and chromosomes or genitalia, but they seem to get pretty close to understanding how diverse human representation of gender can be. It’s a little disturbing to think that in some ways, society has actually gotten further away from this understanding and tried harder to force people into discrete boxes of gender binarism.
            We must all work harder to make this world a place in which none of our fellow Jews need to fear “seeming like a dissembler.” We should strive to both be more honest with ourselves about our own self-presentations and perceptions, and also more open to differing presentations of others. Zornberg brings into her discussion of Jacob’s trickery and performance of masculinity the scholar Lionel Trilling, who writes in his study Sincerity and Authenticity, that we have often receive the message through culture that
“sincerity is undeserving of our respect,” that people should detach themselves and hide themselves in order to achiever power in society. But, Zornberg expounds on Trilling by saying, “to detach oneself from imposed conditions, from the roles assigned by birth and social rank, is to lose oneself, but thereby to gain access to a new authenticity of self.” When Jacob puts on the sheepskins and pretends to be Esau, he is able to develop a more complex, nuanced, and sincere sense of himself. I think we can probably all relate to this on some level, and yet, many people in society still seem to have a hard time being empathetic to this exact struggle in the trans community. To shake off the perceived gender assigned at birth may well mean losing everything, but it also may allow someone to truly become their self. If being inauthentic is an affront to God, as the Proverbs Midrash said, how can being one’s authentic self be ungodly? How can religious institutions bar someone for this?

            Thankfully, as Reform Jews, we can rejoice in knowing we are part of a religious institution that supports this authenticity. The URJ just passed its resolution for further inclusivity for trans Jews, and here at Temple Beth Emeth, I believe we are willing and able to meet all the URJ's expectations on this front. May we all continue to spread acceptance and sincerity of self throughout our communities, and pray for a time in which all people may be treated with equality and respect. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Abraham's Peace: Parashat Chayei Sarah

            Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, we start to transition from the story of Abraham and Sarah to the story of Isaac and Rebecca. The portion, named Chayei Sarah, or, “the life of Sarah,” starts off with Sarah’s death, followed by Abraham’s pursuit of a wife for Isaac. Once Isaac is married off, our Torah is almost ready to shift the focus completely to him and Rebecca, but first we have some loose ends to tie off with Abraham.
Widowed Abraham gets married again and has more children, this time to someone our text names as Ketura but our tradition tells us is Hagar, the mother of his first child. When the hour arrives for Abraham to prepare for his own death, the Torah tells us that he gives all that he has to Isaac, which presumably refers to land and the inherited role of the family’s patriarch, because the next line says that Abraham also gave gifts to all his sons but he sends them to the east away from Isaac. Just as he had sent Ishmael away to preserve the family peace and ensure Isaac inherited all the land promised him, Abraham does the same to his younger children, this time without having to be told. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-maker.
After Abraham dies, “God blessed his son Isaac.” The classic midrashic text, Bereshit Rabbah, offers a parable on this:
Not blessings but gifts Abraham gave Isaac. This is like a king who owned an orchard and gave it to a tenant-farmer to tend. Two trees grew there, entangled with one another: one grew vital potions, and one grew fatal poisons. The farmer said: “If I water the vital tree, the fatal one will be nourished too. But if I don’t water the fatal one, how will the vital one live?” He concluded: “I am merely a tenant-farmer, in temporary charge of the orchard. Let me finish my duty and then let the owner decide what to do.” So said Abraham: “If I bless Isaac now, the sons of Ishmael and Ketura will be included. And if I don’t bless them, how can I bless Isaac?” He concluded: “I am merely flesh and blood – here today and gone tomorrow. I have already done what I had to do. From this point on, let God do what He wishes in His world.” When he died, God revealed himself to Isaac and blessed him. (Bereshit Rabbah 61:5)
I think this could be read as saying that the other children of Abraham are like the poisonous tree: inseparable yet unwanted; dangerous yet entangled with us. You could read God’s decision to bless Isaac Godself after the death of Abraham as saying that Isaac was somehow wholly better than his brothers, more deserving of goodness, and use that as justification for the Jewish “chosen-ness.” Themes of nationalism and supremacy do exist in our texts, and this could be read as one of them. But it could also be read as the ultimate move in Abraham’s life of peace-keeping. He knew, as God had told him, it would be through Isaac that the true heirs of Abraham’s blessing would come into the world. But he still couldn’t bring himself to play favorites with his children. In next week’s portion, we will hear the words of Esau, distraught that Jacob has received his blessing, as he cries out, “Bless me too, Father. Have you only one blessing?” It appears that indeed, there is only one blessing to go around for each generation of this family, and Abraham is not willing to make Ishmael or his younger sons feel the way Esau will feel at Isaac’s silence. So, he blesses none. He withholds the blessing that was granted for him to give, and he gives away only his earthly possessions, dividing them, albeit unevenly, among all his children. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-keeper.
In world with a sad lack of peace, let us all strive to be a little more like Abraham. May we see the world in all its complexities and nuances, may we seek to treat those around us fairly and equally, and may we ever be more concerned with peace and justice, within our families, our communities, and the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Parashat Vayeira: Absurd Laughter in times of Darkness

Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Parashat HaShavua, we read about the birth and near-death of Isaac, whose name means "will laugh". When you consider Isaac's terse character and likely PTSD, the name seems odd. His name comes from the laughter of his mother, Sarah, who laughs inwardly in disbelief when she hears the prophesy that she will have a baby in her old age, but it’s worth asking the question: will Isaac also have laughter in his life? In her book, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Avivah Zornberg quotes Baruch Spinoza, a great medieval thinker often considered the first secular Jew, who said “To laugh, to suffer, to rejoice, to hate, and to weep are to affirm the reality of the self.” Zornberg says that actually, Sarah’s laughter is not exactly the kind of laughter that Spinoza is talking about. Spinoza is setting up laughter as definitively joyful, distinct and separate from the suffering or weeping that are also a part of the human condition, whereas Zornberg is pointing out that Sarah’s laughter doesn’t seem all that happy, and when Isaac is born, she thinks that others will laugh at her for having a baby so late in life. Zornberg doesn't say it directly, but I think there is something in this explanation of Sarah's laughter that also leads us to the possibility of laughter for Isaac. Sometimes, when things feel bad, there’s nothing left to do but laugh at it in its absurdity, laugh inwardly and cynically. As the medieval rabbi RambaN (not to be confused with Rambam) says, when one laughs outwardly, it is of joy, but when one laughs inwardly, as Sarah did and maybe Isaac too, it is a laughter of denial and "cannot be said to be joyful." Zornberg also says that laughter is the closest thing two non-twins can share to private, wordless language. It is often non-sensical, and when shared with others, communicates deeply without real words: "silence is the essence".
The walk up to Mount Moriah is silent and without laughter, and although Isaac is saved by the messenger of God, things are never again quite right for this family after the experience at Mount Moriah. Laughter keeps us sane. It keeps us together. Even in cynicism and anger, there is room for laughter. May you all find something to laugh at and someone to laugh with this Shabbat and everyday. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Parashat Noah and Collective Punishment

            At the end of Parashat Bereshit, there is a listing of genealogies, beginning with Adam and his often forgotten third son, Seth, and ending with Noah and his sons. There is then a break from the genealogies to talk about how corrupt people on Earth had become and establish God’s plan to destroy the whole thing. It ends with “And Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” The next verse of Torah, the beginning of Parashat Noah, states, “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.” Rashi famously posed the question: was Noah an average man, only righteous by comparison of the evils around him? Or was Noah truly righteous, and all the more so perfect in his generation because he was able to stand against the evils around him? Zeroing in on the verse that precedes it, Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) suggests that not only was Noah an average man, who happened to just not be as evil as those around him, but his selection for the building of the ark was somewhat random. The Talmud suggests that Noah was not so different from the rest of his generation, but he happened to find favor in the eyes of God and arbitrarily avoid personal calamity. There may well have been others like Noah in his generation, people who were neither all good or all bad, but because Noah was the one who found favor in the eyes of God, and God only needed one family to take care of the animals and rebuild life after the flood, the others were all simply out of luck. Evil or just kind of mean, everyone was washed away together because God couldn’t be bothered to talk to judge them on an individual basis.
            It appears to be a recurring problem for God, although at least God is willing to work on it. Commentaries on a few other verses scattered throughout the Torah illustrate how looming and symbolic the Flood really was. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, when Abraham demands that God not destroy the whole city, both Rashi and the a midrash from the Tanhuma Yashan suggest that Abraham knew of the Flood, and warned God not to wipe everyone away again. Rashi’s Abraham says, “This is a profanation of God – people will be held back by this from returning to You,” meaning that Abraham in Rashi’s commentary is concerned that if God is too wrathful and destroys whole communities regardless of individual guilt, all people who hear of this will not want to worship such a God. They will not care to be good or follow God’s laws, because they will fear being killed in collective punishment anyway. The Tanhuma’s Abraham says, “Let not people say, ‘That is His usual work! He does not change from His usual work!’” So God does change from God’s usual work. God allows Abraham to go in search of righteous people, and allows Abraham to keep lowering the number of righteous people he must find in order for God to spare the cities. In the end, of course, it turns out there is no one worth saving and God destroys the cities anyway, but at least God was willing to try to judge the people as individuals. In the case of the Flood, neither God nor Noah even think to search for anyone else worth saving.
            The Midrash Tanhuma says because of this, when the People of Israel stood at Mount Sinai, part of the Torah was a promise from God that people would be judged as individuals. Punishment and reward for sin or good deeds might carry from generation to generation within the same family, but no longer would whole generations be subject to collective punishment for the crimes of some. Rashi reconciles this hopeful reading of Torah with the reality that bad things still happen to good people by saying it applies in the World to Come. Good people may still be terribly affect by natural disaster but at least their souls will be properly rewarded by God, and the souls of the wicked will be punished.

            That’s fine for God, and that may be a hopeful response for natural disasters, but in the meantime, people still perpetuate collective punishment and have the power to stop. Obviously, no human has the power to wipe out whole generations, though some have tried and come terrifyingly close, but they do have the power to continue to believe and act on harmful stereotypes. They continue to hold onto prejudices and allow acts of violence to be done to people who look or sounds or pray like other people they don’t like. They oppress whole populations to try to control the potential criminals that may exist within those populations. But we know better. We know that whole populations cannot be held responsible or accountable to each other, other than in the broad sense that all humans are responsible to protect one another. We know that some bad people should not reflect badly on everyone who looks or sounds or prays like those bad people. We know that there is good and bad in everyone, and there are some people who are more good and some people who are more bad in each group of individuals. So we should start acting like. Let’s pray for a world in which people really are treated as innocent until proven guilty, where individuals are judged on their own merit and whole groups are not condemned or oppressed based on stereotypes. Let’s pray that there never again be anything like the Flood, that nothing, whether created by man or God, ever again come close to wiping out a whole generation. And may that world come upon us quickly. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bereshit to School Shootings: The Roots and Results of Toxic Masculinity

            Last week, on October 1st, the national news broke over the latest in our nation’s epidemic of gun violence. Ten people died as a result of the shooter on the Umpqua Community College campus, and over the course of the last week there has been a lot of buzz about the source of this violence and what we can do to address it. The United States is the only developed nation in the world with this kind of gun violence. According to Mother Jones magazine, there have been 72 mass shootings as since 1982. The definition of “mass shooting” here is that the killer worked alone (or in the case of Columbine, was the work of two otherwise “loners”), the violence was carried out in a public place, and the shooter took the lives of at least four people. So, for example, the shooting on the Northern Arizona University campus this morning would not be considered in these statistics, because “only” one person died. The next developed country with the second highest rate of gun violence, Switzerland (surprisingly), has about a third of the number of gun-related deaths per year that the U.S. has. While the U.S. makes up about 4% of the world’s population, it makes up about 42% percent of the world’s gun-owning civilian population. See a pattern yet?
            It isn’t just about how many guns we own, or how the select few number of gun owners misuse them, the root of the violence is about the culture that promotes it. Plenty of gun-owners are safe users, but those who do seek to kill do so far too easily, and after the fact their actions are too often excused as “mental illness,” despite the fact that mentally ill people are statistically far more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrators, and despite the fact that this diversion tactic away from the conversation on gun control also hasn’t led to helpful reform in providing access to mental health services for those who need it, either. The mental illness most of these killers are, or were, suffering from is toxic masculinity – the ideology that in order to “be a man” you must be aggressive, out of touch with your feelings, and feel comfortable wielding weapons and uncomfortable in a position of perceived powerlessness. Even those who were suffering from a diagnosed mental illness may not have sought the help they needed because of the desire to appear strong and masculine.
Of the 72 perpetrators of mass shootings, only one was a woman, and 63% were young white men. A 2013 study at the University of Washington looked at the disproportionate number of young, white, heterosexual men who committed mass shootings in the United States and found a correlation between “feelings of entitlement” and “homicidal revenge” against those perceived as being the source of the shortcomings on the man’s life. Misogyny and racism often play a part in these mass shootings. Just yesterday, I read of a teenager in Idaho who threatened to kill all the cheerleaders at his school because they wouldn’t send him nudes. We don’t know if he actually had access to guns or exactly how the authorities responded to his threats, but we know his friend was concerned enough of their veracity to report him, and the story became another in a national narrative of violent male entitlement.
Of the many responses that I’ve seen to the Umpqua Community College shootings, my favorite is one that has gone viral, though no one seems to know the original author:
 "How about we treat every young man who wants to buy a gun like every woman who wants to get an abortion — mandatory 48-hr waiting period, parental permission, a note from his doctor proving he understands what he's about to do, a video he has to watch about the effects of gun violence... Let's close down all but one gun shop in every state and make him travel hundreds of miles, take time off work, and stay overnight in a strange town to get a gun. Make him walk through a gauntlet of people holding photos of loved ones who were shot to death, people who call him a murderer and beg him not to buy a gun. It makes more sense to do this with young men and guns than with women and health care, right? I mean, no woman getting an abortion has killed a room full of people in seconds, right?"
 Of course, reproductive rights and gun rights don’t really work as a side by side comparison in a meaningful legalistic way that might dictate how we approach reform on these issues, but the comparison here draws attention to the greater issue of what society expects of women and what society expects of men, and how we respond to the respective disappointments when either lets us down. From the earliest ages, too often little girls who behave aggressively or talk too much are stifled, told to sit down and be quiet, told “Act like a lady,” while little boys are encouraged to be louder and tougher and when they go too far, parents and teachers will say, “Boys will be boys.” In middle school, too often girls are sent to the principal’s office because their blouses don’t cover up their bra straps, but if a boy snaps that bra strap, well, “Boys will be boys.” And when those little girls and boys and middle schoolers are all grown up, how are they supposed to know that it is ok for women to speak up and speak out for their own safety and health care or that men shouldn’t behave aggressively and violently, when their whole lives they have heard, “Act like a lady,” but “Boys will be boys”?
Often we think of the extremists on these issues in terms of the Christian right, but as Jews who want to properly grapple with the issues on our own terms, we have a responsibility to acknowledge where some of this toxic masculinity and double standards between the sexes lies in our own tradition as well. This week’s parasha is Bereshit. I tend to think of the images of “The Fall” and Eve as the “mother of all sin” as very Christian concepts, and assumed it was due to some pervasive Christian ideology that we continue to frame our Genesis story this way, even occasionally as Jews. But after reading the analysis of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book, The Murmuring Deep, I feel like I have finally seen clearly how much is in the text itself, and how so much of the double standards we continue to live with today really emanate directly out from Genesis two, the Adam and Eve story. In a key passage that has forever changed the way I read our texts, Zornberg says, “Eve stands, then, at the hub of the narrative of seduction; she is both object and subject of this treacherous activity. She has gone down in cultural memory as both feeble and slyly powerful; incapable of resisting seduction, she is nevertheless irresistibly seductive. The weak link between the serpent and Adam, she has borne the brunt of responsibility for events read, quite simply, as a Fall.” Zornberg also later points out that the serpent’s awareness of Eve’s weakness and strength in the arts of seduction was what so easily allowed him to manipulate her and Adam to transgress, validating the lasting view of Eve, “and through her, of all women,” as “sinister and serpentine.”
This is where I become certain that it is not the fault of pervasive medieval Christianity informing an uncomfortable understanding of this text. This is the basis of patriarchy and a culture in which victim blaming, objectification, excusing of male violence, and a denial of women’s voices are still pervasive even to this day and in the progressive Western world. This is the crux of our double standards and the promotion of toxic masculinity teaching men to stifle their feelings. From the beginning of time we have read and believed that a woman is simultaneously too weak to resist a male’s instruction or her own base instincts and is too seductive to expect a man to resist. It is her own fault she allows herself to be manipulated, but it’s also her fault that Adam allows himself to be manipulated by her. Women seeking abortions are told to take responsibility for their actions, but men who shoot people are given a pass for responsibility, and the men who defund women’s healthcare centers while maintaining loose gun laws that allow this reality say, “Stuff happens.” Act like a lady, but boys will be boys.

Although we may be fighting thousands upon thousands of years of this mentality, I think we are up to the challenge. It is past time to change our double standards and our view of autonomy for men and women. The parasha also contains a verse in which Adam proclaims Eve the “mother of all life,” and Zornberg points out that what we categorize as a “Fall” is really an outward motion: the expulsion from Eden into a new world. The new reality Eve has borne to us is harder, for sure, but also richer and fuller. It is only through obtaining the knowledge of good and evil did we really become fully human, in relationship with God. Instead of giving Eve all of the blame or credit, we should recognize that there are at least three “people” (though not human, the serpent is undoubtedly a person) with full agency participating in this text (possibly four; God’s role in causing this narrative to play out is a little more vague). It is in our grappling with good and evil and rights and privileges and law-making that we become fully human. I think it is absolutely time for us to promote a new, and just as legitimate, reading of this story, one in which we can establish that each and every person is accountable for his or her own actions, and each and every person should have access to that which they need to feel protected and cared for in this world without harming others. Maybe if we start at the source, we really can reframe our cultural shortcomings to become a truly equal and safe society for everyone. May we find holiness in our wrestling with difficult realities, may we find peace outside the Garden of Eden, and may our legislators find an agreement that will allow all Americans to feel secure. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, October 2, 2015

V'zot Habracha

In this week’s Parasha, the Torah comes to an end. Over the last year we’ve read about creation and death, wars and leadership overthrows, plagues and floods, miracles and walking from slavery to freedom. Reflecting on the closing of the Torah, David Levithan says in G-dcast’s V’zot Ha’Bracha video, “It’s hard to end something with a bang when it’s been banging all along.” So instead of trying to end with much excitement, it ends quietly, with a blessing and the peaceful death of a very old, successful leader. The beginning of the Torah, which we will read again next week as we restart the cycle over, is about birth and creation, blessings for goodness and God’s delight at all the works of God’s hand. The end of the Torah is about closure and death, but a natural peaceful death wherein Moses is buried by God alone.
The name of the parasha, “V’zot Habracha,” means “And this is the blessing”. Moses blesses all the People of Israel, speaks to each of the twelve tribes, and properly says his goodbyes. He might not feel one hundred percent ready to go, because goodbyes are often hard, but it appears he knows this is right and natural and important. He has served his purpose, led the people through the wilderness, and he was the last prophet to speak to God face to face. He is, and will always remain, very important to the Israelites and to Jews throughout history, but at this point in the story, it is time to let Joshua step up. The torch was already passed, Joshua was nominated to lead a few portions ago, and after some transition time, it seems Joshua, Moses, the people, and God, are all ready for the change to go into full affect. Moses has lived one hundred and twenty long years, and accomplished a goal he never even knew he wanted.
Not many people live to be 120 like Moses. In fact, only one person is documented to have definitely lived that long, a French woman named Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122. She once met Vincent Van Gogh and was thoroughly unimpressed. At the time that, a wonderful site for easy-to-understand lessons on the weekly Torah portions, created its video for V’zot Habracha, the then oldest living woman had just passed. Her name was Gertrude Baines, and she was 115 when she died in 2009. She was the daughter of former Black slaves from the American south, and she lived to see women and Black Americans win the right to vote, and was herself able to vote for the first Black American president. When asked what she thought was the source for her good health and long life, she said simply, “God.” Currently, the oldest living person is Susannah Mushatt Jones. She was the child of sharecroppers, and worked hard in the fields in her adolescence. She was determined to work to get herself out of that difficult life, and was able to graduate high school. She had been accepted into the Tuskegee Institute for a higher education for herself, but couldn’t afford it, so she instead moved to NYC, where she worked as a nanny for wealthy families. Eventually she was able to use her some of her salary and savings to establish the Calhoun Club, a college scholarship for Black students. You don’t have to be a prophet to have a special relationship with God, or to accomplish much and witness even more with your life.
Not everyone lives to be 115 or 120, but we can all choose to make the most out of our lives at any age. May we all live each day in celebration of creation and freedom, appreciate each day’s excitements and moments of quietude, and embrace life’s adventures at every turn and do our best to help others do the same. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Parashat Ha'azinu

            In this week’s Torah Portion, Moses, the aged leader of the Israelite people, is told his death is near. He sings a song, a farewell to the world, full of love and gratitude for God and all of God’s creations, and chastisement and warning to the People Israel, who is continually ungrateful for God’s miracles. Moses is allowed to have a glimpse into the Holy Land that the people will enter soon, though he is not allowed to enter it himself.
            Moses does not get to enter the land of Israel because God says, “you betrayed Me in the midst of the children of Israel at the waters of Merivat Kadesh, in the desert of Zin; because you did not sanctify Me in the midst of the children of Israel.” This is in reference to chapter 20 of Numbers, when God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would flow out to give to the thirsty Israelites. Instead, Moses struck the rock twice and water flowed out. It may seem like a small matter, but God was very angry that Moses did not do exactly as God commanded, and says on the spot that for this transgression, Moses will not be allowed to be the one to bring the people into the Promised Land. Now in our parasha of the week, after some time has passed and God has had time to cool the Divine Temper, Moses’s fate remains the same, and his punishment still stands. He may not enter the land, but instead die upon a mountain overlooking the border, and Joshua will be the one to conquer Israel and settle the people.
            We have just concluded our Ten Days of Awe, a time for repentance, prayer, and righteousness: asking for and granting forgiveness, understanding that humans are inherently flawed, praying for the strength to better ourselves, and increased awareness for tzedakah. To come from that perspective, this Torah portion is a bit scary. How many times have we said that the Hebrew word “het” – most often translated as “sin” – really means “missing the mark”? How often do we declare that we are never too far gone to still atone? How much do we remind ourselves that God wants us to learn from our mistakes and try harder? How frequently do we say that the gates of prayer are never closed to us? And yet, for a seemingly small mistake, Moses is punished to not enter the land of Israel.
            But to see it from God’s perspective, how disappointing it must have been to see Moses make that mistake. God and Moses had a very special relationship, such that none after would have. It is even unique in comparison to the relationship God had with the other Patriarchs. Moses alone got to speak with God face to face, was God’s partner in leading the Israelite people through the wilderness, and sometimes they even squabble over who is responsible for the iniquities of the people, throwing back and forth assertions of “Your People,” the way a tired parent might inform his or her spouse, “Your child misbehaved at school today.” Midrashim depicts them further as true partners, lengthening conversations we see in Torah to show how deep and extraordinary the relationship between God and Moses really is. Imagine how God felt when this one person who seemed to really appreciate all of God’s wonders, who really seemed to understand God’s mysteries, didn’t follow God’s instructions. Of all the times the People of Israel are really ungrateful or unbelieving or afraid in spite of all the things they’ve seen God do for them, Moses is always able to mediate and keep the peace. Then it was him to make this mistake, and there was no one to mediate on his behalf for God. So God rules that he will not see the land of Israel. Further, to be fair, Moses was 120-years-old, and it was probably an appropriate time for him to be laid to rest anyway. When Joshua conquers the land of Israel, there’s a lot of fighting involved, and maybe Moses was just too old to handle that. The Midrash of Devarim Rabbah insists that God never really planned for Moses to enter the land of Israel. His destiny was always to prophesy in the land of Egypt and in the wilderness, and that is all.

            The ending of Moses’s story is sometimes confusing. He worked so hard to get the people through the Wilderness, and now he is told in this week’s portion that he can look at the Holy Land, but not enter it, because of some small mistake. But sometimes even little mistakes have big consequences, and sometimes without meaning to we can hurt people’s feelings by not trying harder to understand them and do what they need us to do, and I think that’s exactly what happened between Moses and God. As we draw near to the end of our Torah cycle, and start a fresh year with a clean slate, having done all that self-reflecting on Rosh Hashanah and that repenting on Yom Kippur, let us take special care to acknowledge the wrongs we do by accident. It is too easy to claim ignorance or get defensive over something that was an honest mistake. Let this year be one of responsibility and accountability. That way we can better learn from our mistakes and move forward more informed, with better understanding, and stronger relationships. May we all find the strength to admit our shortcomings and our ignorances, and the wisdom and humility to acknowledge there’s always more to learn. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yom Kippur Morning 2015 (A Drash for the Traditional Torah reading)

            This morning’s Torah portion consists of the instructions for the service of atonement that would performed by the High Priest in the tabernacle on Yom Kippur. The Rosh Hashanah portions are narratives from Genesis, stories of the morality and values from our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. The shift to the ritual descriptions of Yom Kippur, especially for rituals we no longer follow, brings into sharp focus the relationship between ritual and ethics. Both are equally important, but neither means anything Jewish unless they are used together. Our Haftarah similarly draws this into focus, as the voice of Isaiah is used to describe God’s disappointment in empty rituals.
            All year we are hopefully doing our best to be good people. We try to do right, and when we mess up we apologize. We try to learn from our mistakes and move forward with our lives. We try to find time in our busy personal schedules to give back to our communities, to volunteer our time or donate our money to tzedakah. We try to be reflective and sincere with our words. But we cannot do these things all the time, and the High Holy Day season is a particularly convenient time to focus on these things. The New Year is when we take the time for serious self-reflection, to wipe our slates clean and return to our best intentions, to recalibrate our lives and values, to apologize to those we’ve done wrong, including ourselves, to give to charities, to set resolutions to do better in the year to come.
            Not everyone feels the need to come to services, but for those here, clearly you find some value in it. For those friends who cannot or choose not to be here, ritual probably is more significant than they maybe know for themselves as well. Lawrence Hoffman writes in The Art of Public Prayer, “Ritual is how we play out prearranged scripts of behavior to shape specific durations of time,” and that can play out in many different ways. It might be coming to services and praying. It might mean fasting. It might just mean joining with your whole community for a meal, even if you weren’t fasting. It might mean recreating your own Tashlich ritual, or writing New Year’s resolutions, at Rosh Hashanah or on January 1st. Though our personal rituals may differ, we all need them. They help us mark time, and infuse particularity and meaning into certain days or specific events of our lives.
            On Yom Kippur, we cleanse our souls. We purify our hearts. This is ritual and ethical. They are inextricably linked on this day. Teshuvah and Tzedakah are necessary not only for Jewish values, but for all people who value honesty and kindness towards others. To do these things better, we need to take the time to cleanse our souls and purify our hearts. We need to clear the air for all the wrong we’ve done in the past year so that we can move forward. We need to feel at peace with ourselves so that we can find the energy to try harder in the year to come. When children are told that they are bad or stupid, they start acting like it. Likewise with adults. If we believe we have become too corrupt, we will stop even trying to act benevolently. If we believe we can cleanse our souls, be absolved of past evils, and move on, we will continue through the year in gratitude for forgiveness and with efforts to spread goodness.
            On Yom Kippur in days of old, the atonement came for all the people when the High Priest sacrificed animals on their behalf. He had to make expiations for his own sins first, and for those of his household and family, then once he was cleansed he could make the sacrifices on behalf of all the people. Today, we don’t have a High Priest or animal sacrifices. I can’t make expiation for you. You have to do the work yourselves, to apologize to those you’ve wronged, to ask for forgiveness from your friends and family, from the Divine, and from yourself. You fast so that you might feel the affliction of those you have hurt or whose oppression you may have contributed to, even if you didn’t realize it. You fast so that you know to take this day seriously. You pray, whether here in services or in moments of quietude with between your own soul and your vision of the Higher Power, so that you can better communicate with that which makes you a better person. We need these rituals to give meaning to our efforts to repair the world, and we need to be earnest about repairing the world to give meaning to our rituals. They are inseparable.
            I’ve spoken quite a bit this holiday season about wanting to carry the spirit of Teshuvah, Tzedakah, and Tefillah with us through the whole next year. Take a moment now to feel the hunger of your fast, to understand the meaning of the sacrifices we still make on this day. Now that you are fully in touch with that feeling of hunger and sacrifice, and its connection to Tikkun Olam and sincerity, I hope you carry that with you through the year. Every time you are hungry, take a moment to appreciate how near to food you really are, and take the next opportunity to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate to Mazon: The Jewish Response to Hunger, or at least volunteer to help make challah for the next Shabbat. Giving back to the community starts at home, and your friends get hungry, too. Every time you feel the Yom Kippur-esque feelings of contrition, be sure to voice them, ask for forgiveness on the spot. Don’t wait for Yom Kippur to come around again, but start right away to fix what you have broken. Every time you feel worried about what may be wrong in the world, do something to make it better. You won’t be able to end all the world’s problems, but you can always do something to improve it. Think of The Starfish Story, and just starting throwing them back in one at a time.

            And when we get to the High Holy Day season of 5777, may we find our rituals meaningful, our hearts and actions purer, and our world a little more peaceful. Amen.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Yom Kippur Evening 2015

For these ten days, the gates have been open and the world has been fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days, transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we can imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless field upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea. Some of these impulses rise up with particular intensity. We may even experience them as afflictions, but they can be the keys to our transformation. Their intensity points to the disequilibrium and dysfunction in us that is in need of transformation.

For these ten days, the field of the mind is like a painting by Kandinsky. Energy and form float in that field and we have the sense that we can shape our lives by choosing where to invest our focus and intention, by choosing which forms to follow and which to let go. This is not a linear process, not something that takes a clear or even discernible path. Rather is happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it may not even seem to be happening at all. But the gates are in fact open, and if our intention is aligned with this spiritual reality, then transformation also opens as a real possibility.
(Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared)

May this dreamlike reminder of the purpose of the High Holy days rejuvenate us as we begin our long fast and the homestretch of our ten days of teshuvah, tzedakah, and tefillah. May we remember to continue to repent and return to the path of goodness throughout the year. May we find moments every day to give tzedakah or perform a mitzvah. May we find prayer in our hearts as we express gratitude for another year of life.
The recurring theme of Yom Kippur liturgy, and particularly of Kol Nidrei is repentance for the sin of wrongful speech, the sin we are all most likely to commit. This evening as we ask for God’s forgiveness for our wrongful speech, I would like to ask that we also think about rightful speech, and how we can all do more of it. The Quakers have a saying, which has been widely adopted in social justice circles – “Speak Truth to Power.” What is your truth that you wish you were more vocal about? What are the powers you wish understood your truth better?  

May the Ultimate Power of the Universe hear our truths now. Amen.   

Friday, September 18, 2015

The accompanying texts for Shabbat Shuvah at Virginia Tech

 Shabbat Shuvah Discussion Questions
1.      Before looking at the handouts, take a moment to discuss your current ideas about civil rights, social justice, and Jewish values. How, if at all, do they all fit together?

2.      Look at the source sheet with Scripture, Talmud, Halakha, and modern Jewish works. Which verse, poem, song, or picture do you like best or you think best encapsulates Jewish values?

3.      What narrative does this chronology of Jewish life tell? Do you think it is accurate, in accordance with your experience of Judaism and/or social action? If not, where does it divert? What would be a more accurate reflection?

4.      Take a look at the Racial Justice Definitions hand out. Is there anything on there that is new to you? What makes sense and what is confusing? Do you agree with these definitions? Why or why not?

5.      Read the poem by Yehuda Webster and Zahara Zahav. Does it resonate with you? Why or why not? What assumptions can you make about the authors based on their names and poetry alone? Do you think they’d fit in at the Virginia Tech Hillel?

6.      This conversation has been centered on racial justice and the civil rights movements of Black Americans. Does the Jewish community have a similar responsibility to protect other oppressed people? How could you use a similar approach as was discussed tonight to defend the civil rights of the LGBTQ+ community?


Leviticus 19:16, 18
You shall not go around as a talebearer among your people. Do stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a false grudge against members of your community. You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 11a
At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, “I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.”

Rambam (Maimonides), Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 6:7
Whoever is in a position to prevent wrongdoing and does not do so is responsible for the sins of all the wrongdoers whom they might have stopped.

Scottsboro (An Excerpt) by Betsalel Friedman (1931)
Liar! You tell our children of freedom,
while day and night you lock them in chains and cells,
choke children on trees beside their fathers.
Lincoln freed grandmothers and grandfathers, you tell.

Children come out of the movies. Sometimes joy is in their eyes,
fooled by lies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
You’ve poisoned the milk that little babies drink,
poured into little hearts hate for Negro millions.

The joy in Black homes is like starved flesh:
Even when a child is born, one spends joy sparingly.
Who knows where a white ruler draws his blood?
Will he choke the neighbor’s son on a tree?

Pale is the tale of ancient Egypt
and the Hebrew children drowned in the river.
It’s 1931 with a frame-up in Scottsboro . . .
nothing like it in the history of slavery.

Strange Fruit By Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol (1937)
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

“The Hope of How”
By Yehudah Webster and Zahara Zahav, JFREJ leaders
 “My insides are churning”
A most sacred home in flames deemed worthless, disposable
A pastor and worshipers slain, heads bowed, in the sanctuary
A mother sits in the street where her son’s soul was poured out
A world turns its back again, again, again – there is none to comfort her
A people shown their Black bodies, tears, families do not matter
How have we fallen to such disgrace?
How long will we slink away from justice?
How do we allow?
How do we hope?
How do we dance when so heavy with grief?
How do we turn to face each other?
A woman climbs where no one dared, tears down a flag of hatred
A mother refuses to back down, power yields to her demands
A wave of clergy rise up to meet resounding call for a different world
A movement plants seeds everywhere, sprouts flowers over burial ground
A black man’s cry, “I can’t breathe” amplified in the streets for all to hear
With this hope we pray that we do not reach the point of total destruction
We pray that we desist from senseless hatred and brutality
That sacred places remain holy, unstained from the blood of racism
That we do not repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, taking instead honest account of our obligations
We pray that community, allyship and love forge new bridges of understanding and trust
That we continue to hope and believe in each other
Demanding as one that black lives truly do matter
All these things we pray in solidarity together
And let us say,