Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Haftarat Vayeitzei: Thank You, Uncomfortable History!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I always enjoy this time of year; especially the sense of community that seems to pervade the entire country, as we all celebrate a
holiday of gratitude and giving thanks together. Thanksgiving has become a very "simple" occasion, focusing mainly on turkey dinner, football, family, fall, and acknowledging the blessings in our lives. And yet, we all know that the origins of this festival are much, much more complex, and frankly troubling. Furthermore, not everyone today feels included in our joy, and when we assume that ALL Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, we leave them feeling invisible and forgotten. But history is hard to accept. It's messy, often vicious, and frequently embarrassing. However, when we pretend it never happened, or refuse to confront it, it actually has very harmful effects on us today. This week, our Torah portion and its Haftarah want us to learn this important lesson well.

The Haftarah for Vayeitzei comes from the Prophet Hosea, who begins by quoting a story directly from our parashah: "Then Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]." (Hosea, 12:13)
Indeed, our Torah portion tells the story of our ancestor, Jacob, who fled his parents' home, worked for his conniving uncle, Laban, got married, and had children. Already in Hosea's time, around 760 BCE, the story of Jacob was ancient history. But the prophet compares the Genesis story to his own time period, suggesting that his fellow Israelites are like Jacob, surrounded by idolaters, but (hopefully...) protected by God. It is a technique used many times in Jewish history; extracting themes and concepts from old stories and making them poignant and relevant to a modern-day audience. We do this even today - at Pesach, Purim, and Chanukah - retelling the stories in order to learn from them, not just because they're entertaining.

I look around at society today, and I see a lot of people reluctant to talk about our dark history. Here in the United States, we are plagued by a history of racism,
xenophobia, and trampling on (or attempting to extinguish) the narratives of another. But the REAL damage comes from our refusal to LOOK at this history. We keep repeating the same errors and perpetuating the pain, because we sometimes think it would be better to just "let it go" or "get over it already." History doesn't work like that. When we try to forget it, it continues to punish us; like a nightmare that won't go away. I have always felt that one of Judaism's strongest attributes is our relationship with history. We never forget, but we also don't obsess over history as being the ONLY thing that matters. We carry our stories with us everywhere, BUT we also use them, actively, to inform our world and our actions TODAY!

Hosea retells the story of Jacob to remind his audience that God is still with them. Right afterwards, however, he uncomfortably chastises his contemporaries for straying into idolatrous practices. And when, hundreds of years later, Hosea's writings were read as ancient history, those readers knew
that Hosea's community was destroyed by the Assyrians. And they tried to learn from the stories of Jacob AND of Hosea. Today, we benefit from several additional generations, and several more layers of narrative. Despite all these cautionary tales, we sometimes still ignore our history. And we do so at our own peril. We have much to be grateful for, and we should celebrate with family, turkey, and football. At the same time, let us also speak of the Native Americans who were here before the pilgrims. Let us pledge to combat racism and cultural erasure, and work diligently to live WITH our history, in all its forms and iterations. Then, perhaps, real healing can begin, and we will have SO much more to be thankful for in years ahead.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Triggafinga on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Davric~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Xic667 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "The Historian," courtesy of BirgitteSB on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 10, 2017

Haftarat Chayei Sarah: Kings, Politicians, Comedians... But Really All Just Predators

This Haftarah is terrific. It fits nicely with our Torah portion, because the parashah tells of Abraham passing on the mantle of leadership to his son, Isaac, and how the succession was fraught with challenges and obstacles.
Our Haftarah, from the First Book of Kings, lays out the story of King David's death, and how Solomon became the eventual successor - though not without challenges and obstacles of his own. The story is riveting; describing how Batshevah, Solomon's mother (and our story's heroine AND underdog), just barely managed to make her son king, sneaking in a victory against a much more powerful rival. It's got intrigue, plot twists, betrayal, high drama, and an exciting finish. And I'm not going to talk about any of it. There's something else in our Haftarah - more minor to the text itself, but painfully poignant for all of us today - that I feel I need to highlight instead.

What do we know about King David? He's good with a sling shot, he plays the harp, he's a poet, he's a mighty warrior, and he's a good looking guy. Oh, and he's a serious womanizer. Even if you don't know A LOT about David, there's a good
chance you've heard that he had lots of wives, that he kept adding MORE wives, and you may have even heard the infamous story of David going so far as to kill a man to steal HIS wife. Hey, that was the era he grew up in, ok? It was just what monarchs DID back then. (Yeah, right...) But our Haftarah portrays a very different King David. By now, he's an old man. The rock-slinger is long gone, the warrior king is history, and even the harp is lying dusty in the corner. And yes, his womanizing is behind him as well. However, the text doesn't just let that last narrative end quietly, with dignity and grace. Instead, the text seems to want to offer bitter irony, and perhaps even karma, coming back to bite the skirt-chaser-in-chief.

Our Haftarah begins by saying that David is old. And what sometimes happens in old age? Circulation isn't what is used to be, and the text tells us he couldn't get warm, no matter how many blankets they put on him.
Then, eyebrow-raisingly, his servants try an "unusual" technique to warm him; they have a young virgin brought to the king to sleep in his bed. However, the narrator is then painfully and embarrassingly explicit; making sure to tell you that A) They did not have sex, and B) David still couldn't get warm. Karma, we might say, has come back to haunt him. His libido was SO powerful when he was young. Yet it also led him astray, very much to his own destruction, as God was furious with David for stealing Batshevah from another man. Now, all of that has been stripped away from him; no wives are there to warm him or hold him, and even this young maiden can't provide comfort. David is utterly alone.

I doubt I really need to point out parallels to you, or highlight ways in which this is relevant to us today in 2017. Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Roy Moore, and most recently Louis CK - to name just a few of the powerful, famous, influential men who took advantage of women for decades.
Some even (allegedly) preyed on boys and young men, as in the case of Kevin Spacey. It seems as if every day new celebrities, politicians, and others are being publicly shamed - rightfully so - for the harm they caused others. Our Bible has tried to teach us a lesson about people like these, but sadly there are many who just don't listen. God lambasted King David for his indiscretions, and then our narrator added another twist of the dagger, by humiliating him at the end of his life. These sexual predators do not deserve our sympathy or our forgiveness. Their behavior is as inexcusable today as David's was 3,000 years ago. Hopefully, their collective falls from grace will help usher in a new era of equality, respecting other people's bodies and rights, and not abusing power. I know that this disgusting behavior has been going on for - literally! - millenia. But let us also remember that the exposure of these heinous acts has a long history as well, and now it is OUR turn to demand better behavior and to bring these reprehensible crimes to light. It's time for all these King Davids to get down off their thrones; their reign has ended.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jordi Roqué on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of PetarM on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image "Marooned" (made me think of solitude...) courtesy of Jappalang on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Ebrahim on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 27, 2017

"The Chosen" - by Michael 'Storm' Miller

On Yom Kippur, 5778 (2017), I invited Mr. Michael "Storm" Miller to speak from the bimah during our morning service. Mr. Miller is a business owner in Chester, PA. He is a war veteran, a father, an African-American, an entrepreneur, and a poet. This is a spoken-word poem that he delivered to our congregation. It is his own composition, recited from memory, and only ever written down when I asked to share it here. Please feel free to share with me your thoughts and reactions. Thank you.


The Chosen
by
Michael "Storm" Miller
Sometimes I wonder what this world would be without words
Nouns, syllables and consonants formed from moving lips but,
never heard
And the loudness of whispers that feel like pinched nerves
Shooting pain deep into my soul
And these rhymes that I spit is the only way to console the cold
Of darkness because I'm feeling so alone but,
In the silence of my solitude I start to realize
How can I be in life any more than what I aspire to be,
Knowing Damn well when you look at me you are going to see
What you want to see but, I can't let that bother me
You see, I've been blessed with the knowledge
That the real test of honor is not in how I die.....
But, in how I live
And as long as I captivate your ears, knowledge is mine to give
Yet, the thought of that scares me
You see, I don't want to fail you
I do not want to be the nickel on life’s railroad track
Eventually trying to derail you
That's not my forte, I'm not put together like that
You see.... If I get lost, who will become this shepherd’s keeper?
And I'm going to ask you this question without an answer
Because I know it's going to make my question that much deeper
And all the while I try to walk a straight path through this chaos
Knowing that many brothers before me took a shortcut
And some way...... Somehow...... They all got lost.
You know what?
I don't want to be your idol
I just want to be one man with an idea, who against all odds
Always keeps it real
And if that means that you elect to follow me
Because of the way I make love to my poetry
Then let that be
And if that means that an army raises up off these reverberations
Then we will be marking time across every country
And if that means one day, together, we can raise mountains
out of the Dead Sea..... Then follow me
Never forget that will give you only what you give it
Never forget, do not walk amongst your brothers and sisters
with your nose in the air unless, you’re smelling "IT"
Never Forget, true love will save your soul from heartache
And always remember the LORD gives man life
So it will never be yours to take
So every night I beg of you
Please fall to your knees and give thanks to the Most High
Pray for the strength to see the truth
Instead of being blinded by this world’s lies
And maybe, maybe if I'm humble enough in time
These words that I speak will be frozen
And you all can laugh at me now but, before the rain fell
No one believed Noah was the chosen 

Haftarat Lech Lecha: Seeds of Partnership

Two themes that repeat over and over again, both in the Torah AND in the subsequent books of the Hebrew Bible, are Responsibility and Relationship.
Time and again, God - often through various prophets - conveys the message that we have to take ownership of our role in this world; with the earth itself, with our fellow human beings, and with all animals and plants. And Adonai continuously reminds us that we are God's partners in this work. Some of it gets done From On High... but we've got to pull our weight as well. This week, at Ohev Shalom, we're talking about Food Waste and how we can make less of an impact on our planet and our resources. Hidden inside our Torah portion and its accompanying Haftarah, I see clues and hints that support this important issue. That shouldn't surprise you, because Food Waste Awareness is also about Responsibility and Relationship, and I JUST told you that those themes play on repeat throughout our Tanach!! Sooo, let's begin our hunt for clues...

Last week, I told you that our Haftarot sometimes have obvious links to their parashah, and sometimes they have tenuous ones. Lech Lecha, like Noach (last week), is on the more obvious end of the spectrum:
The Torah reading introduces us to our patriarch, Abraham, and the Haftarah, from the prophet Isaiah, declares that the Children of Israel are "the Seed of My friend, Abraham" (41:8). For our food-related purposes, notice the word "seed," which both in Hebrew and English serves a double function. It means "progeny" or "descendants," but also literal kernels that we plant in the ground. I know it's kind of subtle, but I see this dual meaning as a reminder that we are OF the earth, not separate from it. We are beings created by God, and formed out of the substance of our planet, just like everything else around us. We cannot survive without consuming other STUFF from the earth - whether it's vegetable, grain, or animal - and that too should be a reminder to us of the urgent need to be in symbiotic relationship with the world around us. We are seeds in all senses of the word.

Isaiah also emphasizes relationships, both with fellow humans and with God. In 41:6-7, he states: "Each person helps another, saying to a neighbor, 'Take courage!' The woodworker encourages the blacksmith; the one who flattens with the hammer [encourages] the one who pounds the anvil." Just a few verses later, Isaiah adds:
"Fear not, for I am with you... I strengthen you and I help you" (10). And those two verses are brought together when God then states: "I will help you... thresh mountains to dust" (14-15). In other words, our ability to work the earth, to till the soil, to feed and nurture our families and communities - THAT is a sign of God's favor and partnership. But in return, we must be good partners and not waste, wantonly destroy, or callously ignore dangerous warnings. Think of it this way, if we only fed our bodies junk food, never slept enough, and didn't exercise, we all know we would see signs of deterioration, illness, and pain in ourselves. How can we ignore those same signals from our planet, in the form of rising temperatures, convulsions of the ground, and other natural disasters?

Abraham is, in many ways, God's first human partner. God tried with Eve & Adam and then with Noah and his family, but ultimately Abraham is the first reciprocal PARTNER, and the one who enters into a covenant with God.
We all are, indeed, the "seeds" of Abraham, and the latest inheritors of that relationship. How are we taking responsibility for the tremendous task that has been left in our hands? And not just on a global scale, but truly on a local, everyday, simple, what-do-you-do-in-your-own-kitchen type of way? You too are a descendant of Sarah and Abraham, and you too are being called to partner with God. I hope you'll join the interesting presentations and conversations taking place at Ohev this weekend. You can also check out online resources that are both Jewish AND environmentally-focused, like Hazon and Greenfaith. I encourage you to think about what Relationship and Responsibility mean to you, and how you embody them in your own life. Oh, and I have a hunch you'll see those two themes returning - interwoven or standing alone - in many more blog posts to come.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Josealgon on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Jacopo on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Crochet.david on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Iknowtrash on Wikimedia Commons


Friday, October 20, 2017

Haftarat Noach: Noah and Isaiah Both Want You to Say It

I want to try something new. I’ve been writing this blog for eight years now, which means I’ve essentially written about each Torah portion in eight different ways. How about we mix things up a bit? Here’s what I’m thinking: 
Each parashah has an accompanying reading that does NOT come from the Torah. Many centuries ago, our rabbinic leaders assigned a parallel text to each Torah portion, called a Haftarah (which does not, by the way, mean “Half-Torah”...). The Haftarot come from the Books of the Prophets, the Books of Samuel, Kings, or some other Biblical text AFTER the Five Books of Moses. The connection between each Torah portion and its Haftarah is sometimes clear and obvious (like this week’s), and other times quite obscure and forced. Furthermore, the whole reason why we have Haftarah readings in the first place is filled with historical significance, tension, and craftiness; THAT is worth talking about in-and-of-itself!! What I’m saying is, let’s take a break for an entire year, and instead of offering a “Take on Torah,” let’s spend 5778 examining our “Take on Haftarah”! Are you in? 

I imagine you may be curious about my comments regarding the origin of the Haftarah as a concept. Well, it’s a good story, but we don’t need to reveal everything in this very first Haftarah-post, do we? We’ve got time. :-) Instead, let’s talk about 
our Torah portion, Noach. As I mentioned above, this is an easier week to see the connections between Torah and Haftarah. The rabbis offer us a reading from Isaiah to pair nicely with our story of Noah and the Flood, because Isaiah refers DIRECTLY to Noah himself in chapter 54. Speaking on God’s behalf, Isaiah writes: “For this to Me is like the waters of Noah. As I swore that the waters of Noah would never again flood the earth, so too I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you.” (54:9) See what I mean? Can’t get any more straightforward than that!

The Chumash we use at Ohev Shalom, the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim 
actually offers us even deeper connections still. Besides the obvious mention of our parashah’s main character, the two texts have linguistic parallels as well. Both talk about a “brit,” a covenant with God, and both use a unique phrase when talking about God’s promises. In each reading, we see God promising “Lo Od,” “never again.” In one instance, God promises never to let a flood destroy the earth again, and in the other, God promises not to forsake us, the people again. Interestingly, if you put those two phrases together, yet another message emerges.

A “brit,” a covenant, goes two ways. God has rights and responsibilities, and WE have rights and responsibilities too. The “brit” applies to both parties… but so does “Lo Od.” God promises to uphold God’s end – which we can certainly debate whether we feel God has done or not – but let’s not also neglect to look back at 
ourselves and ask whether we’ve declared “Lo Od”… and meant it. When we were the oppressed outsider and then achieved social status, did we declare “Lo Od!” “Never again!” and then make sure others didn’t have to endure our agonies? When we pulled ourselves out of poverty – achieving higher education, better paying jobs, and bigger houses than our parents and grandparents – did we recall how painful it was to grow up in poverty and declare “Lo Od!”, and then help the poor and unfortunate around us? Our Haftarah reminds us that it’s not just God’s obligation, but ours too. We SHOULD declare it… and when we do, we need to mean it and live by it as well.


Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber
2. CC image courtesy of Andreaksr on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Gerd Altmann on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Jonathan McIntosh on Wikimedia Commons



Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yom Kippur Main Sermon, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is my main sermon from Yom Kippur morning. Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

Update 10-27-17: The spoken word poetry performed by Mr. Michael "Storm" Miller is NOW included in my sermon (below). It was a bit too long to include directly IN the sermon, but there's a link to the poem, which I've posted separately here on the blog. You can scroll down for that link, or you can click here. Thank you!



Yom Kippur 5778 - Main Sermon
Shanah Tovah! Today I conclude my sermon series for the High Holidays of 5778, for the year 2017. I hope you have found a message or two in them that you can take to heart, a question to debate with a fellow congregant, and a nugget to enrich your year ahead. I also hope I’ve pushed you a little. When I first came to Ohev Shalom, this was hard for me to imagine doing, but I’m not really a rookie anymore. This fall, I’m starting my ninth year as your rabbi, and God willing we’ll be stuck with one another for quite a few years to come. So it’s time to push and prod a little, to embody what I think I’ve conveyed to you is a philosophy of mine, borrowed from the model of our Biblical prophets, though a term more recently coined by a turn-of-the-century journalist, Finley Peter Dunne: “[My job is] to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” I try to speak words of comfort when we, individually or communally, feel afflicted, hurt, scared, or powerless. But when I think we’re too comfortable, too apathetic or insular, I want to try and afflict a little, to challenge us all to do more, to be a bit better. Well, today I hope I’ve saved the best for last. I think I have, but we’ll see.
My theme, as you know, for this year is “Harmony.” I mentioned that in each of my previous three sermons, but I didn’t explain WHY it was harmony. I hope you’ve given it some thought for yourselves, and I invite you to share your conclusions or musings with me and with one another after services. For my part, I still want to hold off on revealing my reasons for choosing this theme for just a little bit longer. It builds suspense, or so I like to tell myself… For now, I want to say that this final installment in the series is about sadness. There is surely so much I could talk about that elicits sadness in every one of us. It is an emotion that we all, unfortunately, will feel at some point in our lives, and some of us - probably many of us - struggle to be present to that emotion. We try to dull it or joke it away. We cry briefly, but even then often alone or hidden. It’s a sign of weakness, right? I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah that people who have cried in my office have often apologized for it. I try, but it’s hard, to console not just the crying itself, but that tragic judgment of the self, of a perceived weakness. It is not. If, however, we disappear into our tears, drown in our own sorrow and never emerge, THAT is not healthy. That can be terribly destructive, and I’ve seen that too. But absent that, tears can be empowering or cathartic. More importantly, we need to work on not labeling or criticizing our own experience. On this Yom Kippur, we need to forgive ourselves and be kinder towards our emotions. Perhaps especially, our inevitable sadness.
In a little bit, we will also continue with the Yizkor service, in which we remember our loved ones who have died. For many people, that is a moment when tears ARE ok, as long as we wipe them away quickly, before children come back in the room. What would happen if they saw us cry? If they asked us a question or two about pain and grief, and it was hard for us to answer? Because we didn’t know what to say, or their questions induced more tears? Can we sit with that experience, can we stay with those raw, vulnerable emotions? This past Sunday, we held our memorial plaque dedication service here in the Sanctuary, and many people who were dedicating plaques shared beautifully about loved ones who were patriarchs or matriarchs in their families, heroes, pillars of the community, and just best friends. There were lots of tears, and I know that was hard for some people, and would be hard for many more. But it was also so beautiful; SUCH a tribute to the memories of these individuals. Each story was like a glimpse into an entire world. It was sad, of course, but also awe-inspiring and SO filled with love and gratitude. All of these emotions we’ve discussed over the holidays - joy, anger, yearning, and now sadness - they CAN create anxiety in us, and make us want to run as far away as we can. But what I want to say to you here today - central to my message in this, my final sermon of this series - is that you need to do the opposite. When you want to run away, you need to lean in. When you want to mitigate an emotion, you should feel it fully. Our instincts aren’t so great in these instances, and we need to retrain our initial reactions.
Now I need to push you a little more: These emotions, anger, sadness, discomfort, vulnerability, they also come up in our engagement with the world, not just inside ourselves or with personal, family matters. Most of you know that I co-founded a group in our area called FUSE (the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement). And some of you are perhaps sick of hearing about FUSE. I understand that. In my performance evaluations of the past couple of years, a few frank comments crept in, somewhat timidly and guiltily, that said I spend too much time in Chester, and not enough time taking care of my own congregants. That’s uncomfortable to hear. It makes me sad and, in truth, a little angry. So let me do the opposite of my gut reaction - which is to run away, to sweep this under the proverbial carpet and move on. Instead, let me lean in. Let’s talk about this. I understand the frustration. “What about US?!?” What about this congregation, that has hired me? My first obligation is to THIS community, isn’t it? Of course, the answer is “yes.” Well, first of all, I might respond that our FUSE work just earned us the top award in the nation from our movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Out of more than 180 applications, and only thirteen winners, we won for BOTH our Children of Israel mosaics, here in the Sanctuary, AND their Highest Award for Innovation and Impact - interestingly enough in the category called “Prophetic Voice” - was given to Ohev Shalom for our work with FUSE.
But I want to push beyond just the acclaim. I want to declare to you all that the work we do with FUSE is FOR you. It is for all of us. It is not charity, it is not even selflessness, it is not do-gooder stuff. We need this. We need to expand our fences, open our minds and our perspectives up to see things in new ways, because we are living inside an echo chamber and we don’t even know it! Only a handful of Ohev congregants have been coming to FUSE events, because I think some of you may feel scared of these conversations. Either you’re physically intimidated by the places we go in Chester, or you’re concerned about what will be said and how we - the white, suburban, affluent, privileged - may be viewed and accused. Is the work challenging? Yes, most definitely. Is it also nourishing our souls and making those of us who participate see the world in new ways and reconsider our stereotypes and expectations - 100%, resoundingly “YES.”
But you’re getting tired of hearing this. I’m starting to drone on. I’m at risk of becoming like the Biblical prophets, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, who kept shouting and shouting, and people just tuned them out. Sometimes you need to hear a new shofar, a different ram’s horn. So I’ve invited one to join us here this morning. A few weeks ago, FUSE hosted an event called “A Chester Experience.” Several business owners, including Mr. Mike Miller, spoke to our combined group from the urban and suburban communities about life in Chester. We sat at Mike’s established, called “Open Mike’s Internet Cafe,” and in addition to telling us their stories, a couple of people, Mike in particular, shared with us some incredible spoken word poetry. Mike is actually a military veteran, having served in the Army and the Marine Corps, for a total of 15 years, two tours of duty, in Afghanistan and Kuwait. He has four kids, lived nearly his whole life in Chester, and is a member of Warrior Writers, a group that works with veterans to express themselves through art. Mike was featured on WHYY, has been on local radio and TV, and has performed at the Kimmel Center, and in New York City. I don’t want to say too much more about Mike or what he’s going to share with you. I know this is an unusual thing to do, especially on Yom Kippur. But that’s kind of the point. I hope you’ll hear this shofar call. Mr. Miller, please.



Thank you so much to Michael Miller for your incredible spoken word poetry, and just for being here. As you are still processing Mike's words, I want to mention that his cafe in Chester is across the street from a new and popular performance venue, called MJ Freed. It’s a symbol of things happening in Chester, though not without its own controversies. I mention that location, because its name comes from an old furniture store that used to be there. The new owners kept the old name. Well many of you today are sitting in our Freed Reception Room, right behind our Sanctuary. The MJ Freed Reception Room. We are from Chester; we are OF Chester.
Many people don’t know that Martin Luther King Jr. spent time in Chester, studying at Crozer Theological Seminary, now the site of Crozer-Chester Hospital’s old building. One of Dr. King’s professors at Crozer was Ira Sud, Rabbi Ira Sud, the predecessor to Rabbi Louis Kaplan here at Ohev Shalom. And over the course of his studies, Dr. King received a scholarship that helped him along the way. It was the Pearl Plafker Award, created by the Plafker family - also Ohev congregants. And our FUSE work today only exists because of another fund, the Netzach Fund, established by an anonymous donor, and for which I am eternally grateful. So many connections; our story is intertwined with Chester’s. And engaging with Chester residents like Cory Long, who co-founded FUSE with me, or Mike Miller, isn’t about white guilt or being white saviors. I do this for us. It is our story, and we can’t make our lives better without being in relationship with others; without striving for balance with our community, without harmony.
So let us finally talk about harmony. Certainly one obvious answer why I chose this theme is the notion of being in balance or harmony with our emotions. Anger, sadness, yearning, joy; when we try to mute one emotion, others get ignored as well, and we are worse for it. Striving for harmony, for emodiversity, makes for greater groundedness and ability to deal with challenges and obstacles in life. But more than this, we have an opportunity to examine all aspects of our world and think about our relationship to them. How do we find harmony with our community, especially if we disagree on issues that feel really hard and divisive? How do we achieve harmony with Israel, when we love it so much, but feel our love is unrequited AND struggle with the decisions and actions of her government? How do we acknowledge the lack of harmony we experience with our planet, and how much we are all being damaged by Climate Change and our ignoring the warning signs that are all around us?
And finally, how do we engage with our local community? Harmony, in my opinion, is realizing that we are interdependent. That reaching out to help them IS a way of helping ourselves. Creating a better society raises all our ships TOGETHER. An Ohev member gave me a book a while ago, Paolo Freire’s [Fray-ree] “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Now, in his book, Freire makes blanket categorizations of people as “oppressor” and “oppressed.” That isn’t always fair, but it’s a good challenge for us all to think about our own roles and how we can change them. Again, hard to hear, but we can lean in and learn something still. One of the things that Freire emphasizes in his book is the idea that oppressors cannot affect change FOR the oppressed. It has to happen TOGETHER. FUSED together as one, we can make this world better. Freire writes: “For the truly humanist educator and the authentic revolutionary (that’s us!), the object of action is the reality to be transformed by them together WITH other people - not other men and women themselves.” I hope you can appreciate that my work in Chester - OUR work in Chester - is about connecting with our roots, forming real, deep, authentic bonds with our neighbors, and about finding harmony for ourselves as well. To be transformed by our shared work.
We have talked about a lot of difficult things. We have heard from prophetic voices that were stark, evocative, and challenging. We sometimes imagine that the voice of prophecy was an ancient (and possibly fictitious) thing, when really we have prophetic voices all around us today. I told Mike Miller that hearing him perform at his cafe in Chester was like hearing a clarion call of a prophetic voice for me. The prophetic message is critical and prodding, but also compassionate and inclusive. And even when it’s harsh, it is filled with hope. In his book, Freire offers a hopeful message that I want to share with you to end my sermon. It is the perfect response to our concerns about immigration, the environment, Israel, anti-Semitism, inequality, and racism. He prophetically states: “The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is NOT a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice. Hope, however, does not consist in crossing one’s arms and waiting. As long as I fight, I am moved by hope, and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.”
In this new year, may we all be filled with hope and harmony, and may we be inspired to fight for ourselves, our communities, and our world. In this new year, may we each be grounded, mindful of our emotions and our experiences, and filled with compassion for our inner beings and our fellow human beings. May we feel gratitude for each day, each person who blesses our lives, and the ability to hear and heed prophetic voices all around us. May our year ahead be filled with Shalom, with true and lasting peace, and may it be for us all a Shanah Tovah u’Metukah - a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year. Amen.

Kol Nidrei Sermon, 5778

As I've done in previous years, I am posting my High Holiday sermons here on the blog. Included below is the sermon for Kol Nidrei, the evening service at the start of Yom Kippur.
Comments and thoughts are welcome. Thank you!

Kol Nidrei 5778 - Main Sermon
Fifty years ago, in 1967, something miraculous was about to occur. Twenty years earlier, in 1948, we had somehow managed to establish a Jewish State in Israel, in the Promised Land, though one crucially important landmark had not made it onto the Israeli side of the border; the Western Wall. After Israel was born, the Jewish People spent two more decades praying with the Temple Mount and its peripheral wall only in their minds; it was not yet a place where our feet could stand or our hands could touch. But when Jordan joined the countries attacking Israel in 1967, and IDF forces quickly started pushing Jordanian troops back - in what we later came to call the Six Day War - our soldiers knew the Western Wall, the Kotel, was within reach.
One such fighter, an Israeli paratrooper, was named Avraham Sela. I read about Sela in an article by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Klein Ha-Levi writes about Avraham Sela - that he was born in Iraq, came to Israel as a young boy, and that it was the dream of his life to one day stand at the Western Wall, something which was forbidden by the Jordanian government when Sela was young. He joined the military and fought in the battle for Jerusalem, but was sadly wounded in the hills outside the city. When Israeli forces finally conquered and reunited the entire Old City, Sela was stuck in a hospital bed. When he found out his company was there for the actual moment of liberation, he felt tremendous joy and pride, but also sadness and disappointment that he could not be there with them. Those iconic photos of soldiers leaning against the wall and weeping were his friends… but not him.
It took him months to rehab from his injuries, but Avraham Sela worked hard to recover, and when he was finally ready to be moved to an IDF rehabilitation center, he asked his driver if they could stop in the Old City first, so he could finally, finally stand by the wall itself and touch its stones. And so they did. As he got out of the car, he was still in tremendous pain from the lingering machine gun injury. He had to shuffle forward because it was so difficult to walk, but he wasn’t going to miss this moment because of some bullet. He was about to touch the wall itself, he made it right up to the stones, when he heard a harsh voice behind him yelling: “Bachur!! Young man!! Put on a kippah!” An Orthodox Jew was screaming at him. Klein Ha-Levi writes: “Avraham froze. In his excitement to reach the Wall he’d forgotten to cover his head. The abrupt tone of religious authority stunned him. Profoundly offended him. He who had so anticipated this moment, who had been ready to give his life for Jerusalem, to be treated with such contempt – He turned his back to the Wall and didn’t return.”
If you were here for Rosh Hashanah, or if you read my first two sermons online, you know that the theme of my Divrei Torah, my talks, this year is “Harmony.” I don’t want to speak directly about the word “harmony” until tomorrow, but please do keep thinking about why it is our theme, and what that word, in the context of what you’re hearing at our holiday services, might mean to you. Each sermon has focused on a different emotion that I think we need to emphasize more and acknowledge in ourselves. Last week, we spoke about joy and then anger. Tonight, I want to talk to you about longing, about yearning.
I actually want to share with you two separate stories about yearning that in some ways have nothing to do with one another… and in other ways are entirely intertwined.
As you probably guessed, my first narrative is about Israel. I again want to thank Jordyn Kaplan, Noah Katcher, and Maddie Speirs for sharing with us a little bit about their experiences in Israel this past summer. As these three wonderful teens demonstrated, Israel is a very important part of the life of our community. We teach about it in our religious school, we celebrate Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, we emphasize Hebrew language in our school and throughout our congregation, and as many of you know, I led two congregational tours to Israel in 2011 (with Noah and Jordyn) and again in 2015, and we are VERY excited to already have 25 people signed up for our next trip, scheduled - God willing - for October of 2018. If you’re interested in joining our group, we’d LOVE to have you. You can speak to me, Alan Schapire, or Karen and Louis Stesis for more info. I have also shared before from this pulpit that I myself lived in Israel twice, once as a child and again with Rebecca when I was in rabbinical school. I’ve participated in, and led, groups traveling to Israel from Sweden, England, and the US, and so far, I have been to Israel more than 20 times. It is precisely because I love Israel that I struggle deeply with her.
The very name, “Yisrael” means “one who wrestles with God,” and I definitely wrestle tremendously in my engagement with Eretz and Medinat Yisrael, with the Land and - most certainly - with the State of Israel. I am a Zionist; a Proud Zionist. And it is truly bewildering to me that somewhere along the way, the word “Zionist” became a slur,
especially among some liberal groups. I have heard them rattle off Nazism, Fascism, and Zionism, like they’re comparable, or cut from the same cloth. This past summer, several times - once at a Gay Pride Parade and once at a rally in Chicago called the Dyke March - Jewish participants, and mind you they were ENTIRELY on board with the stated goals of all the other marchers, were asked to leave, because they waved rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. Their link to Israel was too strong. When confronted by the organizers, these Jewish marchers didn’t disavow the Israeli government, the Israeli state, the occupation, and the settlements vociferously enough, and so they were told to leave. Turned away, almost reminiscent of Avraham Sela at the wall.
But Zionism, the ideology itself, is NOT the problem! Zionism IS yearning. It is a response to the reality of the Jewish experience for centuries - MILLENIA - that we are not safe anywhere. It has been proven time and time again, and the desire for self-determination and for Jewish unity is really at the core of the Zionist dream. In that article I mentioned earlier, by Yossi Klein Ha-Levi, he speaks directly to this question about Zionism. He writes, “Zionism was never only about creating a Jewish state; it was about defining Jewish identity. Zionism’s definition is peoplehood. The noun is “Jew;” all other identities – religious and secular, Orthodox and Reform, left and right – are adjectives.” And yet, this is why I wrestle. The word itself, and the meaning of this term that I love, have been co-opted - either by liberal groups who loathe it, or fundamentalist groups who use it to justify hate and violence. One of the leaders of the Conservative Movement of Judaism - our movement - Rabbi Gordon Tucker, wrote about this split in Zionism. “There is,” says Tucker, “in fact, a Zionism of fear. And it is not at all illegitimate… because it is about Israel’s role as a provider of safety for Jewish people in a world in which it is still not always safe to be a Jew. Zionism of fear is really a minimalist Zionism that does not say much about the positive things that a Jewish state could do for the furtherance and the flowering of Jewish culture. It is about safety.”
I understand this Zionism, and sometimes I feel it myself. But I also chafe against it. I worry when some Jews or Israelis use the victim status to justify terrible things. We use the Zionism of fear to avoid looking at the actions of the Israeli government, to deter ourselves and others from criticizing wrongs that we KNOW are taking place; either by Orthodox against secular and non-Orthodox, or by Jews against Palestinians. But Tucker goes on to say there is also a Zionism of love. THAT is really what we yearn for. That is what we try to teach about in Hebrew School, and that is why we send our children to Israel. To love the land, the heritage, the people, the food, even - we still hope - the state and its leaders. But I wrestle, and will continue to wrestle, because I cannot do that disingenuously. It has to be a relationship of respect, honesty, integrity, AND love. I need to say to you this evening, I’m struggling. I feel like the sense of mutual respect and equality isn’t there, and right now I mainly feel just the yearning.
I am in pain. I am in a serious struggle with this country that I love, because - in truth - it does not love me back. Right now, in Israel, my Judaism is not considered legitimate. My authority as a rabbi is entirely non-existent, that is almost a given these days, but furthermore, my rights, your rights, and the rights of non-Orthodox Jews visiting and even living in the State of Israel are under constant attack. A former professor of mine from JTS,
who made aliyah to Israel nearly a decade ago, Alex Sinclair, regularly writes for Israeli newspapers. Recently, he authored a think-piece in which he stated: “Liberal Jews are like... abused spouses. For decades, orthodox Jews have ignored our concerns, discriminated against our converts, insulted our rabbis, and used our money against us; yet we still smile weakly at them and cling to the hope that they’ll make nice. No. This is not about the unity of the Jewish people any more; it’s about the vision of the Jewish people. No longer can we allow that vision to be sacrificed on the altar of unity.” This is painful to say: “Israel does not love me back.” It is heartbreaking to admit. Especially when we - when I - fear that stating this aloud will label me a self-hating Jew.
That is why I felt I needed to rattle of my bonafides; the list of times I’ve been to Israel as well as the trips I have led and intend to lead back there. I need you to know that I love. But I am also afraid. And still, I yearn. I need to express how hurt I feel, and I need you to know how complex, nuanced, multi-faceted, and emotionally charged my relationship is to Israel. Gordon Tucker, whom I quoted earlier, employs a very agonizing, but evocative, image in his article. He states: “You have all loved. And so you know that love always desires to be requited, not for what we can do for the one we love, but for what and who we are. I love Israel. And I want it to love me back, not for what I can do for it. Israel has always been pretty good at that kind of love. But for what and who I am… We should not have to feel that our love is heroic, offered in the face of unrequited feelings.”
Right now, in the midst of a fight over access to that same Western Wall that Avraham Sela was willing to die for, and with constant battles over conversions, funding, and government support - ours is an unrequited love.
I know that’s hard to hear, and believe me, it is VERY hard to say… but it needs to be said. I don’t have answers - just as I didn’t have solutions to the tough questions I raised on Rosh Hashanah - but if I am going to be grounded in my own feelings, if I am going to be authentic and genuine, I need to also give voice to my pain. And with that comes a selectivity about groups I support in Israel, because we can’t be those abused spouses any longer.
I also want to push a little deeper into this important emotional realization that I’m trying to articulate to you. When I understand how I’m feeling, how alienated this situation makes me feel, it SHOULD also motivate me to introspect. To look at myself in relation to others around me, and think about how I, as a representative of an establishment, am welcoming to, or alienating of, individuals in my own community. That is an important leap that is tough to take, but so, so crucial. When I feel a negative emotion, my inclination NEEDS to be to make sure I’m not inflicting that on someone else. Sometimes we do the opposite; when we are hurt, we hurt others. When we are teased, we tease someone weaker, so that we can feel strong again. But the prophetic call demands we do the opposite. When we hurt, we need to name that experience, and fight like hell to defend others from feeling that same way. With that in mind, here is my second example of yearning:
Talking about Israel stresses me out. But there is actually another issue that is even harder for me. I will admit to you right now, that there is no topic around which I feel greater pressure to change than interfaith marriage. I fear that we, as a Jewish community, continue to send mixed messages to interfaith families in our community. We welcome them in, we welcome many of YOU in this room into our family,
but then put up barriers and obstacles to participation. And so I worry: Are we creating a sense of unrequited love in a subsection of Ohev congregants? That is my concern. But on the other hand, this is a HUGE issue, and if - hypothetically - we were to consider breaking from our movement, and if I were to perform an interfaith marriage, we might alienate and disenfranchise people on another end of the spectrum.
I struggle with this issue more than anything else. Here at Ohev, I think we’re doing everything we can, within the boundaries of Conservative Judaism, to welcome and integrate interfaith families. All are invited up on the bimah, we hold aufrufs, pre-wedding celebrations, for interfaith couples getting married, and we acknowledge all lifecycle moments for all congregant families. I thought we were doing well. And we are! But last year, I felt that pressure increasing yet again. In the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, JTA, Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok published an article that declared how essential it is that rabbis officiate at interfaith weddings. Oy. Welcoming families isn’t enough; continuing to reject them at that most important moment in their lives, under the chuppah, is hurting us tremendously. In their article, Fertok and Saxe write: “The data are unequivocal, that intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.” Yisrael, my wrestling continues.
Part of the problem is, to be totally honest with you, my own stigma is virtually gone. This is a halachic and organizational hurdle. Which is no small thing, but let’s acknowledge the difference. We no longer say Kaddish and ostracize someone who marries out of the faith. We do not shun.
Just this past June, a colleague of mine from Mt. Kisco, NY, Rabbi Aaron Brusso, wrote an article in the Jewish Forward, addressed to the interfaith couples directly. He states: “[I know that] You are not rejecting something, you are choosing someone. I want you to know that I respect that and don’t expect you to be anything other than who you are, for me or anyone else.” Towards the end of his article, Rabbi Brusso also expresses this sentiment: “...let me say very clearly: you have done nothing wrong by falling in love. No one should make you feel shame and if they do, shame on them.” Even though Rabbi Brusso ultimately explains that he still cannot officiate at interfaith weddings, he demonstrates tremendous warmth and acceptance.
I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments, though in truth, I may actually be struggling even a bit more than Aaron Brusso. The data are pretty stark, and the people are very, VERY real to me; the requests I receive come from families I love, and people I respect. They yearn for inclusion. Two years ago, when we debated making non-Jewish spouses members, and ultimately DID make that monumental change, a congregant sent me an incredible letter. She is not Jewish, AND has raised wonderful children in this congregation. She talked about interfaith spouses being like journalists in a military conflict, embedded with an army unit. It’s a great metaphor. They are not soldiers in the war, but they ARE there every step of the way. They risk their lives too, and they form deep, meaningful, life-long relationships with the soldiers on the front lines. I could picture just such an embed, running alongside Avraham Sela in the battle for Jerusalem. Our fight for equality and acceptance in Israel is also the fight of interfaith families as well. A gender-dividing line at the Kotel divides them just the same, and they too would get yelled at for not putting on a kippah.
That same congregant also wrote in her letter to me, “Interfaith marriages aren’t good or bad, they simply are.” I agree completely. This is our community. This is who we are. And in the Jewish world, we have our different denominations. We are not one, uniform monolith, and honestly, we never have been. There have always been different groups of Jews, throughout our history. This is who we are. We are diverse… and we all yearn. We yearn for acceptance, peace, and equality. We yearn for a Zionist homeland; a Zionism of love and, perhaps, some fear, because that is our reality as well, and for a loving relationship with our Jewish homeland. We long for a love that is reciprocated; for who we are, not just what we can do.
And when we see ourselves yearning and longing, we must also remember our prophetic call to witness others’ yearning as well. Even when we don’t have answers, and we wrestle with challenging issues, we still need to see and acknowledge others who feel excluded and are searching for belonging and community. Sometimes we feel like Avraham Sela, fighting passionately for this place that we love, willing to give everything for its safety and security. And other times we are that Orthodox Jew at the wall, saying: “Yeah, that’s nice… but you’ve still gotta put on a kippah.” One important way to reconcile those two experiences is to just see them when they are happening. To notice when we are the gate-keepers, and when we are the ones longing to be granted entry.

The story of Avraham Sela touched me deeply, even though I personally don’t actually like going to the Kotel anymore. Maybe that’s actually why I love his story. I feel rejected there too. Unloved. But still yearning to be accepted. May we all - Jew and non-Jew, in Israel or the Diaspora, religious and secular - strive to embody the call of Yisrael, of wrestling with God, with ourselves, our communities, and our emotions. And with our beloved Zionist homeland. Strangely and paradoxically enough, in our wrestling may we also find peace, Shalom. Amen.