Friday, May 25, 2018

Haftarat Naso: Who's Really Invisible?

I want to talk to you about privilege. It takes many forms - white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege - and far be it from me to discriminate, and accidentally exclude any one entitlement from this important conversation. So the funny thing about all these benefits, these advantages, is that they are often invisible. In fact, it's the very notion
that you CANNOT see it that sometimes highlights that you definitely, definitely have it. When you're in the minority, or experience discrimination, you are often highly aware of someone else's status. If you've never noticed or given much thought to how you present in the world, what you look like to other people, chances are you are the beneficiary of privilege. A good friend of mine recently said, "Well, I don't walk around thinking of myself as a white male!" And I responded, "But others see you that way! You have the luxury of just not thinking about it every day, but I bet others around you don't forget." I wonder how many women feel, with rare exceptions, that they are acutely aware of being women on a daily basis? How many LGBTQ individuals are constantly self-conscious about how they embody this label, when I, as a cisgender, straight man, rarely give much thought to my sexuality. I also wonder how surprised you'd be to learn that there's "manspreading" and "mansplaining" in the Bible too? Probably not very...

Our Haftarah this week is especially entertaining, and a good example of men being ignorant of their privilege. It is meant to be the story of Samson, because Samson took a Nazirite vow and thus never cut his hair, and the laws of the Nazirite are first explained in our Torah portion, Naso. Hence the link between the two texts.
However, the story presented to us, from the Book of Judges, chapter 13, isn't really about Samson at all. It's about his parents, Manoah and... Mrs. Manoah? She isn't given a name. Well, as so many good Biblical stories begin, Mrs. Manoah is unable to have children. An angel visits her and says she WILL soon have a child, and he will be a Nazirite. She runs and tells her husband, sharing all the details of what the mysterious angel said, and his response is: "Oh, my Lord! Please let the "Man of God" [the angel] that You sent come to us again, so that he may instruct us on how to act with the child that is to be born." (v. 8) The ridiculous part is, his wife JUST told him what the angel said! Complete with all relevant instructions!! Oh, but he heard it from a woman (i.e. not someone trustworthy...), so he asks to hear it directly from this MAN of God, in order to "really" believe it. Sigh...

Later, the angel DOES return, and repeats the same, stupid instructions. Manoah doesn't even seem to fully believe this is an angel, even though his wife has gotten it THE WHOLE TIME!! Mid-conversation, the angel
magically jumps into the fire on their sacrificial altar and ascends into heaven; a pretty neat angel trick. Manoah panics, and declares: "We shall surely die; for we have seen a Divine Being!!!" (v. 22) His wife then basically responds (and I'm paraphrasing): "Why would God show us all these things and send us this specific message, if the only purpose was to kill us???" A further irony of this story is that the angel is ephemeral, seemingly appearing and disappearing at will. This MAN of God should be the invisible one, but the unnamed, ignored, condescended woman is really the one who seems invisible to her husband... and - to a certain extent - to us as well.

It's no coincidence that the one who thinks they know best, who has all the answers and doesn't bother to listen to anyone else, is a man. That moment of "mansplaining" (appropriately combining "man" and "explaining," and I might add "unnecessarily and patronizingly"...) - when Manoah turns to his wife and says, "Did you know that was an ANGEL we were talking to??" - that scene truly epitomizes privilege in our society, even today. And let me be clear; I do this too! I'm not
claiming to be an exception to this rule (as I write my 454th blog post...). But if we mean to change this in ANY significant way, it has to begin by acknowledging privilege. It isn't my fault, and I didn't ask for it, but I AM the beneficiary of being white, male, and straight, EVEN when you throw "Jewish" into the mix. Right now, all over the world, we see examples of people WITHOUT privilege being abused, ignored, and discriminated against. We can't solve all of it. But we CAN begin by seeing ourselves as others do, rather than just how we imagine ourselves. Once we see it, we can actually turn our privilege into a tool of justice, helping open doors for others and break down barriers. We just can't get there until we acknowledge reality. Often times, I AM Manoah. But even just writing this blog post helps me see that, and helps me try to change my behavior. It might not seem like much, but it's a start.

Images in this blog post:
1. CC image of "manspreading" courtesy of Richard Yeh / WNYC on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of ענת צילקר on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of PersianDutchNetwork on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "mansplaining" courtesy of Robert G. Hofmann on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 18, 2018

Haftarat B'Midbar: How Do We Remove The "Lo"?

Oh boy. What a week it has been. Who needs horror movies or action films, when turning on the evening news gets your heart pumping and blood boiling within seconds?? There are so many challenging, upsetting, difficult, uncomfortable, outrageous, problematic things happening around the world and within our country; I feel frozen by a combination of not knowing what to say or where to begin,
and also concern that anything I say, on any side of nearly ANY issue, will upset someone. Recently, I feel I have also been receiving conflicting messages about my rabbinate and my work in the community. On the one hand, this week I received the Media Fellowship House's Marie Whitaker Humanitarian Award, in large part because of our synagogue's work with FUSE, and I believe (I hope) that many congregants feel proud of what we've accomplished and what we're doing. On the other hand, I have started hearing whispers of my doing too much OUTSIDE the community, and not enough within Ohev Shalom and/or for Jewish causes. It's the push-and-pull of this work, which sometimes feels like the burden imposed on the ancient prophets. Take this week's Haftarah, for example.

Our Haftarah comes from the writings of the prophet Hosea, who wrote in the 8th Century BCE. God instructed Hosea to marry a prostitute (!) as a symbol of Israel's betrayal of God, and their abandonment of the covenant, which Hosea described as a marriage contract. Hosea's wife, Gomer,
gave birth to several children, and God instructed to give them some pretty eyebrow-raising names, like "Lo-Ruchamah" (meaning "Not Loved") and "Lo-Ammi" (meaning "Not My People). Imagine the teacher's reaction on the first day of school for THOSE kids!! Lucky for me, God and I don't talk as much, and God hasn't demanded any such dramatic actions. But being a rabbi CAN feel like being a prophet. Hosea is instructed to tell the people that God will rebuke them for their idolatry: "I will end all her rejoicing; her festivals, new moons, and sabbaths - all her festive seasons... I will punish her for the day of the Baalim [idols]" (2:13, 15). The people of Israel thought what they were doing was great... but God was displeased nonetheless.

The texts of our ancient prophets - like Hosea - speak alarmingly of the hubris of Israel, it's going astray and losing all sense of compassion. They would obsess over things like Temple sacrifices, fixated on buildings in the Holy City, as if they were embassies to God. And they would mistreat the less fortunate, giving themselves excuses like, "they aren't as holy as we are," or "they don't have a
'legitimate' claim to this land, so we are absolved of guilt." The prophets warn us again and again: God won't tolerate this forever. Corruption, abuse, violence, blockades - we can't keep moving in this direction, with excuses of "what-aboutism" or "well, they started it!", and think that no comeuppance is waiting on the other end. Do we really need to name our children "Lo-Ruchamah" and "Lo-Ammi" to wake up and see what we're doing? I love Israel, and I feel tremendous pain in admonishing her, just as I can hear pain and sadness in Hosea's prophecies. He describes the relationship between God and Israel as a marriage BECAUSE there is genuine, deep love there... but a spouse can also hurt you deeper than someone you don't know. When someone you love acts deplorably, the pain is excruciating.

Our Haftarah offers a message of hope; the unloved, rejected children are renamed "My People" and "Lovingly Accepted" (2:3). In both instances, the change requires only the removal of one word, two little letters: "Lo" (No or Not). Sometimes, a "no" can be helpful and important, like in several of the Ten Commandments, which we read this weekend for the holiday of Shavuot. "Don't steal" and "Don't murder," the Torah reminds us; those are the kinds of violations that God takes VERY seriously.
But "no" can also leave us callous and unkind, like when our fences, walls, and borders declare "NO!" to anyone trying to enter. And when we say "NO!" to introspection, self-examination, and admitting fault. God doesn't demand that we care for those less fortunate, discriminated against, and forgotten, because it's easy! Or because it's profitable or will give us more power. We care for those around us - on the other side of a highway or across a border wall - because we ourselves CANNOT be "Ruchamah" or "Ammi" without compassion. If we keep saying "LO!!!" then how could we have the audacity to think we don't deserve that label? When we chant that word repeatedly, with our words and our actions, then we are sealing our own fate, and we have no right to ask God to change our name. We need to remove the label of negativity, exclusion, xenophobia, and racism, and we need to do it ourselves. No more whataboutism, fear-mongering, or excuses. The road to a better future, to becoming "Lovingly Accepted," begins with an open arm and a "yes." And it needs to begin NOW.

Images in this blog post:
1. Image from the Media Fellowship House Annual Meeting, May 16, 2018, courtesy of David Pollack
2. CC image courtesy of U.S. Army Garrison Red Cloud on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Eviatar Bach on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Wikipedia

Jewish Exponent Article: Anne Frank is Universal; So Don't Knock Universal Casting

I wanted to share with you (if you haven't already seen it on Facebook...) an article of mine that was just published in the Jewish Exponent (May 16, 2018). I already wrote here, on the blog, about my experience seeing Anne Frank at The People's Light Theater in Malvern, but the more I thought about the performance, the more I felt I needed to write something more publicly, as a rabbi, in defense of the show. Your comments/thoughts/reactions/feedback are all welcome. Thank you!

You can also find the article online here.

A friend of mine invited me to attend the People’s Light staging of The Diary of Anne Frank in Malvern. Having seen The Diary performed many times over the years, I wasn’t sure — to paraphrase the Passover haggadah — why this production would be different from all other productions. Nevertheless, I went, and I am glad that I did.

My friend informed me that the cast would be multi-racial, but I didn’t fully internalize that fact until the lights went up. I must admit, when the van Daan family came out on stage, with two African-American parents and one Caucasian son, all wearing the infamous yellow Jewish star on their coats, I was taken aback. It was different; like walking out into a sunny day after being indoors for a long time, my eyes had to adjust.

Yet I also maintain that, within a couple of minutes, it was entirely a non-issue. This was a fabulous performance by terrific actors, depicting an important and powerful — albeit painful — story. Brittany Anikka Liu, who played Anne, was exceptionally talented, and I was overall impressed with the whole production.

I was also surprised to learn how controversial this staging had become, and how some people took offense at using a multiracial cast to portray these Dutch, mid-century Jews. In particular, Wendy Rosenfield’s March article, “The All Lives Matter-ing of Anne Frank,” on broadstreetreview.com expressed concern, to say the least, about staging Anne Frank this way.

Rosenfield wrote in her opening paragraph: “I know this much: Anne’s story isn’t multicultural; it’s Jewish.”

While I understand where she’s coming from, and I appreciate her references to the original production of Anne Frank in 1955, where “universal appeal” did mean “the antonym of Jewish,” I must disagree with her critique.

First of all, the People’s Light production is incredibly Jewish and still universal. As a rabbi, I can tell you that I greatly appreciated even tiny attentions to detail, like having the two families light the shamash candle for Chanukah with a match, then extinguish the match and use the shamash to light the candle for the first night of the holiday (rather than just lighting both candles with the match), a distinction that would certainly be lost on many, if not most, attendees). This performance was respectful, knowledgeable and reverent, while also making many attempts to include all audience members and draw them in to Anne’s story.

I disagree completely with the critics here because I feel strongly that we want this story to have universal appeal; we need it to. For decades, if not centuries, we have declared that our persecution should be everyone’s concern. The plight of Jews under Soviet oppression was not just a Jewish issue; we wanted our neighbors and friends (and politicians) to care as well.

Anti-Semitism is simply another form of racism. We must band together with other targets of racist attacks because we are always stronger together. If we want them to care, we need to care as well.

When the Gestapo burst onto that stage in Malvern and everyone was marched out with their hands in the air, race didn’t matter. I found that particular moment incredibly powerful and a stark reminder that hate and violence harm us all. I can’t understand why critics like Rosenfield would want to keep people away from this story, why we wouldn’t want them to own it, to feel its pain and to cry along with us.

And while it may be uncomfortable to ask this question, I wonder if these same critics are aware that Anne Frank has been performed across the globe, countless times, and often by casts that were entirely made up of non-Jews. If those productions didn’t bother us, why would this one? And how can we understand this critique as anything but based on the difference in skin color?

At this specific moment in our nation’s history, the messages of the Holocaust, the scourge of anti-Semitism and the tragic fate of the Frank and van Daan families is more relevant than ever. As Jews, we sometimes straddle the line between (white) majority and (religious) minority. We also have the luxury of seeing ourselves represented in TV, movies, literature, arts and sciences, and many other places, far beyond our meager numbers in this country.

It is hard for us to argue, as Jews, that we can appreciate how it feels to not see yourself represented in pop culture. We don’t know what that feels like. We need productions like this one to declare — loud and clear — that our stories are universal, and that violence against one group is violence perpetrated against all of us.

I was disappointed in the headline on Rosenfield’s piece, comparing a multiracial cast of The Diary of Anne Frank with the corrupting intent of the All Lives Matter movement in opposition to Black Lives Matter. This production was powerful, intentional and respectful. It took a story that is relevant and poignant in any era, and made it even more crucial to our moment in time, and to the fight against oppression of all people in all places.


Sharing our history and our lessons with others makes me proud to be Jewish. Seeing a multiracial, multicultural audience engaging with the story of Anne Frank — in part because of this unique cast — was almost as powerful as the performance on stage. Sitting together in the dark, we were all united. And that is as it should be.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Haftarat Behar-Bechukotai: Swear and Pray... But Also DO!

If you've ever been in a courtroom (or even seen one recreated on TV...), you may be familiar with a particular image. It is a powerful moment - occurring every time a witness is called up - yet it often passes by without much fanfare.
Before anyone can give testimony, they have to put their right hand on the Bible/Tanach/Koran, and "swear" to speak truthfully on the stand. I'm sure you're all aware of this ritual, but I want to note it for a particular reason. Essentially, what we are saying to the person is, "I can't FORCE you to be honest... but please do so anyway. Why? Because Someone (up above) knows what's in your heart." Sure, we have perjury laws, and some amount of social pressure to be a trustworthy, reputable person. But in the end, we cannot compel another human being, so that the words coming out of their mouth MUST be the truth, like some Jim Carrey movie. Even a polygraph test isn't fool-proof. So we do the Bible-thing. We remind people that even if we humans don't know the objective truth, a Higher Power does know... and is ALWAYS watching! Which, of course, means that no one lies on the stand, right? RIGHT???

Sadly, we know that isn't the case, and our ancestors had to face the same reality as well. They too did everything they could to cajole honesty, but it didn't always work. This week - in both the Torah reading AND the Haftarah - we read about
some of their methods. Their techniques, and ours as well, remind us that free will is a VERY powerful force. God pleads, we yell, the prophets rebuke; but in the end, people still get to decide for themselves. Amazingly, this seems to perplex the prophets of old... and even God! They know they will be punished, and yet they sin nonetheless. WHY??? God makes it abundantly clear, relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, that: "Most devious is the heart; it is perverse - who can fathom it? I, Adonai, probe the heart, search the mind, to repay individuals according to their ways, with the proper fruit of their deeds." (Jeremiah, 17:9) So what happens if that isn't your theology? If you don't believe God has that power, or perhaps don't even believe in a God at all???

This isn't just a modern, contemporary fear; even our ancient forebears worried about this blasphemous concept! Like speech, you can't MAKE someone believe. Certainly today, we see examples of people blatantly disregarding laws, morals, and even social norms. Celebrities, producers, politicians, Attorneys General; one after another they are revealed to be hypocrites,
thieves, abusers, and yes, liars (even under oath). I am especially dumbfounded by the sanctimonious duplicity of public figures who can support a cause or issue outwardly, while violating that very same subject behind closed doors. I could give an example or two, but it's hard to highlight the worst one(s). There are simply too many top (or bottom) candidates. I also want to emphasize the importance of these deceptions being exposed publicly. Because clearly it is not enough to keep reiterating the laws, and the hand-on-holy-book rule isn't galvanizing enough hearts. But there is still us. We, as a community and a society, can drag into the light these horrific behaviors, and demand justice for all these transgressions. Personally, I DO still believe that God will judge each person in the end as well... but right now we've got to mold our society to fit our values. The responsibility is ours here on earth!

A colleague and friend of mine, Zakiya Islam, recently articulated an interesting point about theology to my monthly Lunch n' Learn group. The question was raised, why does God "need" all this praise, worship, and loyalty? Her response was (and I'm paraphrasing), it isn't really God who needs all of this. But when we dedicate
ourselves to something, when we focus our energies and our prayers, when we live by a certain code and abide by it; all these things make US better people. I thought about this a lot, and I wholeheartedly agree. Look at another quote from Jeremiah, also from our Haftarah: "All who forsake You shall be put to shame. Those in the land who turn from You shall be doomed, for they have forsaken Adonai" (17:13). It is certainly possible that Jeremiah means God will punish and shame these violators. But their offenses affect us - all of us - and not just God. We all need to take responsibility for our shared society, and hold those who behave immorally and with evil intent accountable. I hope that some day, in some place beyond, God will also bring a reckoning to those who deserve it. But in this moment, we must do our part. The prayers we direct heaven-ward should compel our own hearts and spur us to action; they aren't just for God. In that way, our prayers can be SO powerful; they can urge us to be more vigilant, just, and protective of those who need our help. They really can; hand on the Bible, I swear to God!


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of a movie poster for the film "Liar, Liar," starring Jim Carrey
2. CC image courtesy of Shawn Rossi on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of James N. Mattis on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of O'Dea on Wikimedia Commons (uh oh...)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Haftarat Emor: The Prophecies of an Ancient Conservative Jew

Earlier this week, I was invited to Strath Haven High School, just down the road from Ohev Shalom, to sit on a panel and represent Conservative Judaism. The students were learning about world religions, and in the section on Judaism,
the teacher wanted to bring in people to speak about Orthodoxy, Reconstructing/Reform Judaism, and our denomination, Conservative Judaism. (A brief side note: this was my FIRST visit to the High School, despite having lived in the community for NINE years!!) It was a very interesting experience, and several kids asked intriguing questions. I also enjoyed hearing the perspectives of my co-panelists, and matching what they said with my own understanding of their denominations. Now, you may be asking yourself, what did I say about the Conservative Movement? Was I able to sum it up in just THREE words? (Answer: yes) And you may also be wondering what any of this has to do with this week's Torah portion or Haftarah. Well, let's just see if the prophet Ezekiel can shed some light on that for us, shall we?

I believe I've mentioned this before in the year, but I'm really enjoying our series on Haftarot; a departure from our usual focus on the weekly Torah portions. One intriguing theme that we've unearthed, that we rarely talk about, is the sneaky rabbinic tactic of presenting us with a Haftarah that
critiques, challenges, or even undermines its partner-portion. What a devious thing to do! As a Conservative Jew, I might argue that the rabbis are offering us a model that we can - and perhaps even SHOULD - follow. The text is not meant to be taken at face value (at least not face value alone...), but is instead open to pushback, debate, and even evolution. Our ancestors did it, and now it's our turn. If we shy away from that duty, Judaism will stagnate, atrophy, and wither away. The discussions and debates are what keep it alive! The prophet Ezekiel knew this very well, and by inviting us to read his words, specifically juxtaposed with Parashat Emor, the rabbis are agreeing with Ezekiel, and asking US to do the same.

Ok, I'll stop beating around the bush. Here's what I mean: Our Torah portion outlines the responsibilities of the High Priest in the Temple, and is very clear about a hierarchy of leadership among the priests. God tells Moses to relay to Aaron that he and his descendants run the show; plain and simple. Later in the Torah,
in Numbers 18:6-7, this is reemphasized with even STRONGER language still: "I [God] hereby take your fellow Levites from among the Israelites; they are assigned to you in dedication to Adonai, to do the work of the Tent of Meeting; while you and your sons shall be careful to perform your priestly duties in everything pertaining to the altar and to what is behind the curtain. I make your priesthood a service of dedication; any outsider who encroaches shall be PUT TO DEATH!" Hard to misread that, right? And yet, just a few hundred years later, Ezekiel CHANGES God's command. In 44:15, he writes, "Now, the Levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people Israel went astray from Me, they shall approach Me to minister to Me." Zadok lived at the time of King David, and may or may not have been a descendant of Aaron's. Even if he was, Ezekiel is severely limiting the group of central priests to JUST Zadok's line; all other descendants of Aaron's are out.

There are other discrepancies in Ezekiel's description of Temple worship, not just this political coup. So much so, in fact, that some later rabbinic authorities tried to ban Ezekiel's book from the Bible! Ultimately, however, it was kept. And I'm so glad it survived the scrutiny. Because it reflects the central creed of Conservative Judaism (in just three words): "Tradition and Change."
Our world looks different today; there's no sacrificial rite anymore. But even in Ezekiel's day - when there WAS a Temple - he advocated retaining the rituals and obligations pertaining to the altar, BUT he also saw the serious failings of some of the country's appointed leaders. He felt that change was imperative, and that only one particular group should be allowed to rule. When necessary, we have an obligation to reinterpret our texts, and to update them to the ethical, social, and inclusive values of our time. Change isn't immediate or wholesale, but we must constantly remain sensitive to, and respectful of, both the Halachah, rituals, and traditions of the past, AND the needs of our communities today. Tradition and Change; delicately held in balance at all times. Ezekiel got it, the rabbis got it, and now I pass it along to you. Get it?


Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of... um... three fingers. :-)
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of the cover of Mordecai Waxman's book, "Tradition and Change," available on Amazon 

L'Chaim (Monthly Newsletter Article) - May 2018: Remembering to Remember EVERY year!


Later this month, we will be acknowledging Memorial Day. We do this every year, and most of you probably knew that, but I wanted to highlight it for a particular reason. Well, actually for a couple of reasons. First, I hope you'll make the time to attend. This ceremony used to be much better attended, but as fewer and fewer of us serve in the military or have relatives who have served, it seems to feel less relevant in our lives. Nevertheless, it is important to remember those who fought in previous conflicts and who are currently on active duty. And, perhaps a little bit unrelated, I also think it's a crucial part of synagogue life to interact with our cemetery. It is an important part of Ohev's history, and I wish more people felt a sense of connection to it as a sacred and beautiful space.

Now I want to shift my focus a little bit. Rather than just thinking about Memorial Day, I invite you to take a moment and think about remembrances in general. You may be familiar with the Jewish concept of a yahrzeit, or you may not. The term actually comes from Yiddish, and means essentially "annual time," but really it connotes an annual remembrance of loved ones. Some people have the tradition of lighting a candle during the yahrzeit for, say, a parent or spouse, but many people don't really think to ritualize this moment. I would like to make an appeal for you to make time for yahrzeits in your life.

Like Memorial Day, it is a way of sanctifying something important, and keeping our history with us, whether good or bad. In the Jewish tradition, many people come to services on (or around) a yahrzeit, where they can take an aliyah to the Torah in memory of the deceased. There is also a beautiful prayer that is recited at this occasion, called “Eil Malei Rachamim,” which Rabbi Miller or I would be honored to chant for or with you. Technically, it is understood to be a prayer on behalf of the soul of our loved one, but regardless of your theology, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to connect with a joyful memory. And again, when we ritualize something, we infuse it with meaning and purpose.

So much of our lives is spent living in the moment, just focusing on the next task or deadline. That's just kind of how it goes, and I get it. I do it too. But a powerful reason that we, as Jews, have survived for millennia is our ability to bring our history along on our journey wherever and whenever we go. Memorial Day is a good reminder of the debt we owe to those who have fought for our nation, and it can teach us gratitude, humility, and communal responsibility. A yahrzeit can serve a similar purpose. It will help you connect to your personal history, to your family ancestry, and, if you come to morning minyan, to your community as well.
History is not meant to be a dusty old concept, stuck on a shelf or relegated to the recesses of our minds. Bring it with you, and KEEP it with you, and I think you’ll find that it can enrich the here and now, and our tomorrows as well.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, April 27, 2018

Haftarat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: You Got Something to Say??

My daughter, Caroline, is five-and-a-half. She talks a lot. Basically, all the time. As I'm sure many/most/all of you can imagine. But once in a while, when she's frustrated or annoyed at something, she'll just grunt or groan at us for something - usually food. She goes non-verbal. Sometimes, based on
history and just knowing my kid, I might know what it is she wants, but often I have no idea. And even if I DO know, I'm likely to say, "Use your words, please." You may be chuckling right now - either out of personal experience or just a general sense of how kids are - but the reality is that non-verbal behavior is NOT limited to children. Breakdowns in communication, or just flat-out NO communication, are common among adults as well. And sadly, their repercussions can often be MUCH more dire. A fundamental building block of any society is relationship; and often the way we know if a relationship is firm or unstable is through communication. Do you know what I'm saying?

Translating this relationship/communication conversation to a Jewish framework, I really like a description that I once heard, which stated that the prayers we recite from the Siddur are OUR way of speaking to God; while the chanting of the Torah
portion every week is God's way of speaking back to us. In essence, it's a dialogue. The problem, however, is that we are often not listening. Our Torah portion includes an important command, namely "Kedoshim Tihyu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem" - "You [the people] shall be holy, for I, Adonai, your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). And then the Torah goes on to list a long series of commandments and behaviors that will help keep the relationship strong. They will bind us to God, and allow us to hold on to God's favor. But then, the Haftarah which our ancestors chose to link to this Torah portion cries out a different message altogether.

It comes from the prophet Amos, who railed against the people for their sinful behavior. He proclaims: "All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, [those] who boast: 'Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us'" (9:10). Yikes! Clearly a serious breakdown in understanding. God is incredibly angry, and our ancestors continue to pretend they're invincible.
Perhaps most hurtfully, Amos exclaims, "To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians." In essence, he's saying "You think you're so special? I've got a relationship with ALL my children, you dope! Clean up your act!!!" I'm paraphrasing, of course... But the reason I am highlighting this for all of us, is that the rabbis are using a subtle technique to convey a message to US; not just to an ancient audience. Relationships - whether Divine or between humans - take CONSTANT work. We started out super-holy and super-connected. A rock-solid relationship with Adonai. And yet, it's actually more fragile than it appears. Every year, make sure to read Amos along with Leviticus, because you HAVE TO remember that all relationships and important connections between individuals require work, maintenance, and consistent communication.

This issue has especially been on my mind this week. I led a discussion with our Sisterhood about Interfaith relationships, Same-sex marriage, and Transgender inclusion. We mainly focused on the overarching principle of who is "in" and who is "out," and how can we widen our circle, open our arms, and most importantly,
CONVEY that we live our principles; we don't just talk about them. Two days later, I led a very different discussion with Men's Club, about the pervasive loneliness of men in society. In particular, our lack of communication, our inability to be vulnerable and to reach out to others for help, and our insistence on declaring over and over "I'm fine" (when we're not), is truly harming us males. I also attended a relationship-building retreat with members from Ohev and another nearby shul, Beth Israel. In short, I feel this is an extremely important topic. I'm going to stop talking now. But that means YOU have to pick up the baton. What's going on with you? When do you keep emotions shoved down deep inside, when they desperately cry out for release?? Don't wait. Remember Amos' prophecies, don't rest on your laurels and just HOPE it'll all be fine. Act now. I'm listening...


Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of my children, Caroline and Max, playing outside our house, April 2018
2. Image from the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Fein, November 2010
3. CC image courtesy of QUOI Media on Flickr