Friday, November 25, 2016

Parashat Chayei Sarah: Happy Thanksgiving

            Shabbat Shalom! I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving, enjoyed your turkeys and your family time and maybe some football. Thanksgiving gives us much to enjoy, and is a beautiful moment to stop and think about all we have to be grateful for. However, I think most adults know by now that the origin story of Thanksgiving is a myth, or at least an anomaly of peace in what was otherwise a violent relationship between white newcomers to this land and its natives. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with before, especially in my adolescent vegetarian days. “How can we all sit around a big dead bird and celebrate the genocide of the Native Americans?” 16 year old Lizz would ask. The family dinner part got easier when I started eating poultry again, and eventually my involvement in other forms of activism allowed me to feel like I talk about genocide enough, I can set aside this day for family and gratitude without thinking too hard on its origins.
            This year, a Facebook friend weighed in on the annual leftist agonizing over Thanksgiving by offering a vision that really touched me. He said he likes to think of the myth of the Pilgrims and Natives getting along and sharing their bounties as a goal of what this country could be. Maybe it happened once and maybe it never happened at all, and maybe we haven’t learned the lesson yet, but we could learn it. We could learn to get along, to welcome in strangers looking for a better life, to meet those offering help with gratitude and not greed. We could have a country of equal partners looking out for each other and sharing our thanks. And as American Jews, we can learn how from our ancestors and our Torah.
            At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham addresses the Hittites, the specific tribe of Canaanites that he lives among, saying, “I am a ger-toshav, a resident alien, living among you. Sell me a burial plot among you so that I may remove my dead for burial.” They respond to him with great mercy and respect, telling him he may have whatever plot of land he considers best for his burial. He chooses the Cave of Machpelah and its owner immediately offers to give it to him. Abraham refuses to take it for free, and weighs out the proper amount of silver for the land owner. All the people in this business transaction are polite and considerate of each other’s feelings, needs, and concerns. Imagine if all business transactions and all acts of mercy for someone in need were this honest and open-hearted.
            This week, water protectors at Standing Rock are under siege. Water cannons are being unleashed on them in below freezing weather. Tear gas, rubber bullets, and concussion grenades rain down on real live Native Americans while we celebrate a holiday supposedly about the peace between them and the newer settlers of this land, and all in the name of business. America has not yet learned the lesson of the Thanksgiving myth, we have not yet learned to emulate our father Abraham or his Hittite neighbors willing to give away good land for his sacred purpose. But perhaps, in the coming weeks, as the season of giving descends on American capitalism, as the Festival of Lights approaches for us, we can find the ways we can open up our hearts a little more, shed a little light in the dark world, and be a little kinder, a little more giving, and more welcoming to the strangers, the poor, the orphan, the aggrieved. And may we find ourselves soon in peaceful harmony with all our brothers and sisters of this earth. Amen, and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Parashat Vayera: Religious School-led Shabbat service

Shabbat Shalom! In this week's Torah portion of Parashat Vayera, both of Abraham's children face near death. His first son, Ishmael, and his mother, Hagar, face dehydration in the desert after Sarah has cast them out of her home. But an angel of God appears to Hagar and assures her that all hope is not lost. Ishmael will also grow up to be a great man and a father of a nation, just as we know was promised of Isaac. "Look up," he tells her, and behold she sees a well of water. Was it there the whole time, a hidden oasis she had overlooked in her weariness and despair? Or had God made it appear with the angel? The great medieval grammarian and Biblical Commentator Rabbi David Kimhi, also known as RaDaK offers both of these possibilities as equally likely options. A few hundred years later, the Italian Rabbi Sforno concludes for us, “God granted her the instinct to look for water in the place where she would find it. She had been blind previously so that her eyes had to be “opened.”
Following this episode with Ishmael, is of course the infamous Binding of Isaac. God tells Abraham to take his precious son, his favored one, to a place that God will show him (familiar words for Abraham). This time however, the place that God will make known to Abraham is not a holy promised land, but rather a mountain on which to sacrifice Isaac. Once there, an angel of the Lord appears just in time to save Isaac. Is this the same angel who appeared to Hagar just as she was giving up hope for survival of her son? Is this the guardian angel of children in distress? The Talmudic gladiator-turned-sage Reish Lakish claimed that names and personalities of angels came back with the exiled Jews from Babylonia, and that there’s no reason to assume identities of these “messengers of the Lord” that the Torah speaks of.
In any case, whoever the angels were in each of those scenarios, it is clear they were sent by God to interfere before these children of Abraham could end up dead. And it is clear why to those who study Torah. Although the circumstances for their near-death experiences seem to be set up by Divine intervention in Abraham’s life and we might question why they were all in such predicaments in the first place, we do know that the promises to Abraham cannot be carried out without them. Abraham’s future is destined through his children, just like the children of this community are our future.
So, as we honor the learning of our Religious School tonight, and we honor a student becoming a Bar Mitzvah, a new adult in our community, we also recommit ourselves as adults, teachers, parents, and leaders of this community, to do everything we can to look out for the children, our own and others. We promise to protect them from harm, to teach them ways of Torah, and to celebrate all their successes, together.
May we see our youth grow wise, our community grow strong, and our future be as bright as those same stars that Abraham’s descendants are promised to emulate. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Parashat Lech L'cha

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Lech L’cha, in which our ancestors Avram and Sarai are called to be God to begin their journey, to where they do not know. The Ramban, a slightly lesser known contemporary to Rambam who was also a wise rabbi, Torah commentator, and physician, interpreted the verse, “To the land that I will show you,” as meaning that Avram and Sarai “wandered aimlessly from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom, til [they] reached Canaan, when God told [Avram] “To your seed I shall give this land… Before that, he did not yet know that that land was the subject of the command.”
            To illustrate this aimlessness to the second graders at Gesher this week, we went wandering around the grounds on Wednesday afternoon. I asked the line leader of the week to pick a place, and we walked out to the soccer fields. Then I asked another student to pick a place, and we walk to a muddy pond where the students sometimes do experiments for their natural science classes. I asked another student to pick a place, and he led us on a particularly roundabout journey to the labyrinth in the wooded area behind the school that another rabbi at the school had built with the middle schoolers. I asked him if it was so roundabout because he hadn’t decided on a destination before he asked to be the next leader, but he said the labyrinth was his goal the whole time but he forgot the way. Luckily one of his classmates is the daughter of the rabbi who built it so she was able to redirect him when he needed help. At one point in the woods, we lost the path, and although they’re not so thick and we weren’t so deep, we did get a bit turned around and couldn’t find a way out that wouldn’t mean stomping over pricker bushes. The sky got dark and the wind picked up, and for a moment some of the students were frightened. We found a path without prickers, although it still wasn’t the way we had come into the woods, and hurried back inside before the rain started.
            I asked the 2nd graders who else they could think of that might feel lost and scared, aimless and unsure of where to find shelter, the way that Abraham did and they way that they did ever so briefly on our wander-about. Immediately, several hands shot into the air, and they named homeless people, poor people who are at risk to have their homes taken away, and refugees. They told me some stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents who had escaped from the Holocaust, though they didn’t know many details. Although modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg remind us that Avram is explicitly not a refugee, the connection the students made was clear to me. Unlike Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden, Cain sent away from his family, the people of Babel dispersed, the later Israelites exiled to Babylon, Avram is not threatened or forced out of his home in Ur. He is called upon to begin a sacred journey to a holy Promised Land. But like Avram, many refugees must travel without a sure destination, wandering from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom until they reach a place that is revealed to them as a holy Promised Land, a place where they can be safe to worship who they like and be who they are, a place to call home.
            As Jews who know what it is to feel the fear of persecution, to grow up being told to always have a current passport and have some cash hidden, “just in case,” we have a responsibility to help those looking for a safe place, especially those of us who are more secure than others due to class, race, citizen status, gender, sexuality, or whatever other axis of oppression and privilege we claim. It may not be safe to invite strangers into our homes, but there may be a time when someone you know is in need of a warm bed, a hot shower, and some milk money, or some legal help defending their civil liberties. To turn them away would be to dishonor our ancestors, who after being weary travelers themselves, take in weary travelers in the plains of Mamre. And when a situation is such that we cannot directly intercede, there are organizations that can. Donate to a homeless shelter so that they can continue to provide safety for these modern-day sojourners. Volunteer at a soup kitchen so that those pressed between feeding their children and paying their rent don’t have to make the painful decision this month. Learn and spread information about HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, so that those escaping war, famine, and genocide know that there is a safe destination for them and they need not wander aimlessly.
            May we all find our destinations, a place we are called to, a safe space, and when we get there, may we welcome in others with open arms. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.