Friday, August 18, 2017

R'eih: Helping to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe Just A Little Bit

We should be able to expect progress. When we look back at the lengthy span of human history - and realize that our species has evolved from primates to ancient discoverers of fire, nomadic shepherds to primitive civilizations, feudal societies to modern cities - I think it's fair to hope, and even expect, that things would improve.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, quoting Theodore Parker, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Let's face it: We've had a really rough week. The violence in Charlottesville was still reverberating in our minds when yet another terrorist used a van to attack innocent people in Barcelona. Right now, that arc is feeling longer than ever, and it doesn't feel like it's bending towards justice as much as we desperately need it to. And yet, our Torah portion tells us we have a choice.

Parashat R'eih begins with Moses declaring to the Israelites: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai, your God, that I command you today, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:26-28)
God isn't going to FORCE us to make good decisions. If any of you out there are parents, you know what I'm talking about. You can teach your children, you can encourage them to make good choices, and you can even punish them when they make bad ones. But at the end of the day, you cannot MAKE them behave a certain way, and neither can God. But God isn't even interested in TRYING to compel us! I believe God truly wants us to figure this out for ourselves, and learn from the consequences and repercussions of both the good AND the bad decisions we make. Right now, we are all watching how terrorists - domestic and international - feel brazenly emboldened to spread fear and hate. In the absence of clear condemnation and the firm drawing of lines in the sand, violence persists. But we SHOULD be able to expect something else.

Just a few verses later in our Torah portion, Moses reminds the Israelites of an important change that is coming: "[When you enter the land] you shall not act at all as we now act here, every individual as s/he pleases, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance that Adonai, your God, is giving you." (12:8-9)
Standards changed. Once they entered the land, they had to abide by new rules. And later in our history, Temple sacrifice ended and synagogues took over. The world changed too! Slavery ended, suffrage happened, and civil rights were enacted. As the arc of human history keeps bending, the stakes get higher and we must emphatically insist: You can't keep acting in these old ways. We all have a choice, sure. And we believe wholeheartedly in the freedom of speech. Some people will continue to choose curses, and pick hatred and violence over love and peace. But the rest of us need to keep insisting on society evolving; the arc must continue to bend.

So now that same choice is placed before all of us. Right now, at this moment, we are each staring at a crossroads; with blessing on one side and curse on the other. Standing still is not an option. The Israelites couldn't remain in the desert, and we don't get to wait on the sidelines any longer.
Not when there are tiki torches and rental vans being wielded as weapons to try and force us into silence and terror. I can't tell you what that choice looks like for you. But one thing I'll say is that we should all refuse to accept the new normal, where excuses are made for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members. This is NOT normal, and we must REFUSE to go back to a time when it was. It may feel like progress is slowing down right now, at this moment in our history. But never forget that our history is long, and it WILL keep bending in the right direction. And as it continues to do so, we all need to make sure we're on the right side of history... and maybe help the arc bend just a little bit.

On a related note, I offered an invocation at an Interfaith service last week, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. Click here, if you'd like to read my invocation. Thanks!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Antoine Bourdelle's "Herakles the Archer," courtesy of PierreSelim oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of T at English Wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons

Invocation at Interfaith Service after the Violence in Charlottesville, VA

This invocation was inspired by several beautiful prayers written by my colleague, Rabbi Menachem Creditor. You can find more of his incredible prayers, meditations, and readings at

Eloheinu, Veilohei Avoteinu - Our God, and God of our ancestors,

We thank You for the opportunity to come together this day, from different backgrounds, different religions, different communities; and to stand here together as one.

We pray to You, O God, for the understanding and intelligence to learn well the lesson that the unity, closeness, and resolve that we all feel today must be lived each and every day of our lives. Help us recognize that all people are members of one human family. Strengthen our resolve to know – always – that xenophobia, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, oppression of the LGBTQ community, and all forms of hatred and the weaponizing of fear will NOT divide us. Our goal for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world is for all humans to lead good lives while dwelling together in peace.

Today, we feel lost. We look for leadership… and hear silence. Our heads spin and we cannot wake up from dystopian nightmares. Our souls are burning with anguish. Until When, O Lord?! Until when, Dear God?!? Until when, leaders of our nation??? How long must we live in fear? How long must we endure violence and hate?

God, You have given us the tools of progress, and we wield them to hurt.
Our plowshares have jagged edges, and Your children are dying.

We ask You, O Lord, for the courage to face what numbs us, the strength to stand up for the oppressed even – and perhaps especially – when they don’t look, pray, love, or speak like us. And grant us the resolve to not let our vulnerability make us feel powerless.

We are not.

For we, Adonai, we are your images, and we are being erased.
In our world today, we are erasing ourselves, and in so doing we are erasing You, O God.

Dear Lord, this hurts so much. Teach us; guide us; make us save each other. Help us know that we are not alone, that we are here for one another, and we can unite against what plagues our lives.

May this world, our world, know no more hatred and violence. May people some day, please God, live in peace. If we will it – if we act on it and dedicate ourselves to it, it is no dream.

And let us now, together as one, all say: Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eikev: On the Heels of a Really Big Word

I don't always spend an entire blog post on a single word. Or, for that matter, on THE central word that gives a particular Torah portion its name. But this week, let's do just that. Our Torah portion is called "Eikev."
It's sort of a funny word, and is used in several different contexts. For example, in Genesis we are told that it's the root of Jacob's name, "Ya'akov." Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, are born in Chapter 25, where the text tells us that Jacob came out holding on to Esau's heel, his "Eikev." However, two chapters later, Esau offers a different interpretation of his brother's name, right after Jacob steals Esau's blessing from their father. "Va-ya-k'veini zeh fa'amayim," "he [Jacob] has supplanted me these two times" (27:36) - Esau spins a pun with the root "a-k-v" to link Jacob's name to the word for "usurp" or even "deceive." Interestingly, our Torah portion employs Eikev with NEITHER of those sentiments in mind. Instead, you might say that in our parashah, it is the biggest word in the Hebrew dictionary.

Ok, there is a slight linguistic connection to the word "heel," I'll give you that. "Eikev" is used in our reading like the English expression, "on the heels of," but it doesn't really have anything to do with that body part. In our Chumash, the word
is translated as "if." And I say it's the biggest word in Hebrew, because people sometimes quip that "if" is the biggest word in English. As in, "If I only had a million dollars..." or "If I could be president for a day..." It's such a big, pivotal, transformative word, because the entire world would look different IF... In Parashat Eikev, Moses begins by stating: "And IF you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors" (Deut. 7:12). And nearly the entire rest of this chapter rattles off a list of rewards and assurances that Israel will receive from God. God will favor us, bless us, multiply us, and give us grain, wine, oil, and plentiful herds. God will ward off sickness, send plagues against our enemies, dislodge them from before us, and deliver their kings into our hands. And guess what? All of this is true IF, IF, IF, IF, IF we hold up our end of the deal!!

Now listen, I'm not going to suggest that God's got a fabulous track record here. Sure, we humans need to take responsibility for a lot of the bad things that have happened in the world, but at least a few earthquakes, tsunamis, children's diseases, accidents, and other tragic and terrifying calamities cannot be blamed on
human flaws or sins. Some things can ONLY be prevented or averted by God. Even if God didn't directly cause them, it is still hard for us to understand why and how God could decide not to intervene. And yet, despite that, we are also to blame. All of the anger and frustration and fury that we direct at God cannot remove the word "Eikev" from this text. IF we don't live up to our end of the deal, and IF we don't try to be the best people we can be, and IF we don't do our darndest to make the world a better place; we don't really get to demand that God give us our rewards. We just don't.

"Eikev" is a challenge, a promise, and a warning. IF we don't take care of our planet, our nation, (our nuclear responsibility...), our communities, and the less-fortunate in society, we may some day be supplanted from our place as the primary
stewards of this earth. That sounds terrifying and ominous. But let us also not forget that there are SO MANY rewards out there waiting for us, IF we take our role and our charge seriously and work EVEN harder to be more compassionate, loving, inclusive, and committed. "If" is indeed an enormous word. It is the fulcrum upon which so much hinges, and in truth I think we all spend much of our lives pivoting to one side or the other. Sometimes we are scared, judgmental, suspicious, and possessive. Other times we feel charitable, understanding, hopeful, and generous. It is important to remember how much power we really DO have, and how much impact we can have on the world around us. But only IF we choose to care and choose to act. And when we do, our actions will bless our future and reward us (all) bountifully.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Vveia784 oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Daniel Case on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, courtesy of Apollomesos~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Wyatt915 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 4, 2017

Va'etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu): Our Obligations to the Land... Even in Chester

I want to be honest with you, and share what I like to think of as a "trick of the trade." Sometimes, when you're writing a sermon (or a blog post...), the text
influences your message, and other times, your message influences the text. In other words, it does happen that I FIRST know what I want to say, and lo and behold, I find an example in the Torah text that helps me convey that message. I think this concept is true in life as well; occasionally we have a narrative set in our minds, and then we see the world reflecting that already-held-belief. I don't feel that this is necessarily a "worse" way to write, I just think it's good to acknowledge when this method is in play. And this week, it is - indeed - in play. You see, Ohev won a big award.

As a Conservative synagogue, we belong to an organization called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Every two years, at their biennial convention, the USCJ gives out Solomon Schechter Awards to
congregations for programs, events, or efforts that they feel are deserving. This year, we won for the Children of Israel mosaics (about which I've spoken many times), AND for our community work with FUSE, the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement. Out of 190 applications, we won two of the thirteen awards given out! This is obviously very, very exciting for us, and so these two projects are really on my mind at the moment. So it should come as no surprise that I look at the Torah portion and see messages about the importance of our synagogue work reflecting back at me from inside our Biblical texts.

Parashat Va'etchanan is a MAJOR parashah; it includes both the Ten Commandments AND the Shema, all in one Torah portion!! And swirling around each of these crucial teachings are the themes of land and peoplehood. Several
times, Moses reminds the Israelites about keeping the laws specifically in order "that you may live to enter and take possession of the land that Adonai, the God of your ancestors, is giving you" (Deut. 4:1). Adherence equals thriving community and total security. Furthermore, we live observant and ethical lives in order to inspire the people around us, so that they might say: "Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people" (4:6). So much of our Torah is about building community and being in relationship with the peoples around us, which, to me at least, speaks deeply to our work with FUSE. At its core, FUSE is about creating a better society for EVERYONE. When we confront racial disparities and engage with one another in uncomfortable but vital conversations about systemic problems, white privilege, and otherness, we ALL benefit.

Having our FUSE work recognized by the USCJ is really exciting. It makes me feel like we're on the right track, and that others see how beneficial and essential this endeavor is. If you'd like to learn more, or if you'd like to participate in an event, I want to highlight a unique and exciting one coming up
NEXT week. On August 10th, we're going to meet in Chester for a tour of their central neighborhood, called Overtown. You can read more here. If you've ever heard or read anything about Chester, THIS is a great chance to challenge those assumptions and expectations, and see the place for yourself. Chester is an important city to Ohev Shalom. Our congregation was born there, as were many of our older congregants. It is part of our home, and our Torah portion reminds us that we are responsible for it. If we want to "long endure" and "prosper," we need to acknowledge our responsibilities and be in relationship with our heritage and our fellow community members. We need to "fuse" all of these priorities together into one. I hope you'll be able to join me on August 10th, and that you'll see the texts of our tradition speaking to these kinds of concerns just as I do. If we want to "enjoy long life" (6:2), as the Torah promises, this is the type of work we need to engage in. And now is the time to begin.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ffahm oWikimedia Commons
2. Children of Israel mosaics at Ohev Shalom (in case you forgot what they looked like...)
3. From a FUSE event in 2016
4. Our FUSE logo, created by Amy Pollack (Twist n' Shout)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Devarim: What My Stories Say About Me

Everybody has his or her own truth. The notion of an objective reality is a little bit of a myth. Certainly our current political climate makes that unmistakably clear; even the idea of "facts" seems to be entirely in dispute!!
We look at the world around us, we process our experiences, we form ideas of what's going on - and the conclusions we come to may be VASTLY different from the person next to us, experiencing the very same things. In fact, we see an incredible example of this in the Torah, as we now begin the fifth and final book. It may be surprising to see how stories can get so fundamentally reinterpreted, or how seemingly objective facts are changed. But maybe the reason the Torah puts it out on display is for all of us to learn something crucially important: Lean in.

The last book of the Torah is called Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew. It primarily consists of one person's recapitulation of the Exodus story. This is Moses' chance
to give his version of what happened, when, and why. One of the things I find so fascinating about this, is that we have the original version of these events IN THE SAME BOOK! We can just flip back a few pages or chapters to verify what he says, so it would seem pointless to try and change facts. Nevertheless, Moses remembers things a little differently than what we see in Exodus or Numbers. In Deuteronomy, 1:9, Moses suggests that he alone decided he couldn't decide EVERY dispute among the Israelites, even though Exodus 18:17 informed us that Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, was the one who urged him to delegate responsibilities. Later on, he gives himself credit for ideas that God came up with, and also distances himself from embarrassing incidents that earlier texts DEFINITELY indicated were Moses' fault! It's really quite astounding...

So what do we make of it all? For one thing, even Moses has his own "truth." Life isn't experienced in objectivity. We spend so much of our time looking for what's "real" and "definite," because it's hard to accept that everything is subjective, nuanced, biased. Especially when it comes
to moral and/or social issues that we feel - with every fiber of our being - should be agreed upon by ALL PEOPLE, it's challenging to admit that not everyone agrees. So maybe universal acceptance shouldn't be our goal. If that's impossible to achieve, why wear ourselves out fighting to get there? We cannot make everyone see things our way. We can, however, make ourselves known. We can try to help others see us more fully. Moses isn't intending to say "this is how it happened." He's saying "this is how I experienced it." This is HIS reality, and it helps us understand HIM better, not the play-by-play of the events he's describing. And sometimes that's actually a more important insight.

Society teaches us to disregard bias, because it isn't real. Or not real enough. But in actuality, EVERYTHING is biased, we just need to account for it. Moses' story
isn't "fake," it just isn't the only version. And when we know that, we can use the two (or more) different narratives to paint a richer picture, and we can understand the author of each a little better. Their bias is part of the story as well. And so is ours. What you believe about the world, and about healthcare, immigration, the military, foreign affairs, the environment, Israel, religion, and every other issue, it says a lot about YOU, even more than about the issues themselves. So as we keep reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we should see it as an opportunity to understand Moses better. And we should learn from this part of the Torah to see the world that way too. Listen to the news and what the people around you are saying, and see it as a way to understand THEM better. And the way you interpret all this information, the conclusions you draw from it, it says a lot about you yourself as well. If you're willing to listen and learn.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maria Qumayoo oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Darheim on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of K.C. Tang on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 21, 2017

Matot-Masei: I'll Annul My Own Vows, Thanks.

Oversimplification is a bad idea. And yes, I realize that even that statement was made categorically, so it kind of violates my own maxim. But in MANY situations,
when we try to simplify an issue and define it in terms of good vs. bad, right vs. left, correct vs. incorrect, we get in trouble. "All people in x demographic group feel this way..." "Anyone who says y is wrong." Life just doesn't work that way. There's complexity, grey areas, nuance. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. This week, in the Torah, women are the targets of this overgeneralization. As a rule, women simply don't know how to make good decisions for themselves. You see? Look how much trouble we are in already!

The first chapter of our Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins by telling us that if a man makes a vow to God, he is obligated to fulfill it.
This could be in regards to a business transaction, an interpersonal relationship, a military duty; once he makes that vow, he's on the hook to see it through. If a woman, however, makes a similar vow, her father or husband can annul it on her behalf. Why? Because women (supposedly) make bad, rash, emotional - dare we say hysterical??? - uninformed decisions and "need" a man to decide whether the oath was valid or not. I hope I don't have to spell this out, but this argument is INCREDIBLY offensive. It's offensive to women, first of all, but really to everyone! To me, it's an example of the Torah narrative at its most antiquated, patriarchal, and misogynistic. In short, I don't like it. And the only way that it resonates with me, personally, is to see it as a challenge.

We can do better. We HAVE TO do better. No group - women, minorities, the LGBT community - should be defined with broad strokes and categorical statements. We all need to dig deeper, understand the nuance of individual people, families,
communities, and see the complexity that is so fundamental to all our lives. This isn't an ancient problem; it's going on around us RIGHT NOW! We judge and label "the Other" as suspicious, lazy, fake, corrupt, unreliable. And we then become desensitized to their story and the challenges they face. The Torah is goading us to disagree, and to push back: "No! I will not label ALL women, or ALL gays, or ALL foreigners in any one way!!" We need to cast off that yoke and refuse to accept that narrative. And that has to be a conscious, deliberate decision. Oversimplification and generalization creeps back into our minds, if and when we let it. "Those people always..." and "They never..." In a way, the Torah is actually reminding us that we can't let up, we have to remain vigilant and proactive.

Each of us needs to make a concerted effort to learn more, to embrace the nuance and "messiness" of life. Who is "The Other" really? What are the deeper elements in their story and how can I learn something new that I didn't know before?
The Torah provokes us by saying that women - in general - don't get to make decisions about their own actions. You don't agree? That makes you mad? Well, what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to be outraged and say the Torah is wrong. How are YOU going to change that narrative and help others see things differently? There is probably some area where you too make generalizing statements, even just to yourself, about some group of people. Maybe not women or Jews or gays, but SOME group. It is very humbling, and challenging, to confront those beliefs. But that is the work! That is what we have to do. Getting angry and feeling outraged is just Step One. What comes after that is the real question. And it's a hard one to answer...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Joowwww oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of United States Armed Forces on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of LSE Library on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Balak: Uh Oh, Your Core is Showing!

Being a human being is a complex endeavor. It's no simple matter. Each of us is the sum of so many parts; family history, individual experiences, traumas,
triumphs, loves, losses, genetic material, to name just a few. And as varied, intricate, and multi-faceted as we are, there is also a theme that runs through our lives. At our core, each of us stands for something - or some series of things - and even as we evolve and grow, that locus remains. I invite each person reading this to really think about what your own core might look like, and how it makes itself known in various ways throughout your life. Sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle and hidden. This week's Torah portion, mainly about enemies of Israel trying to plot our destruction, teaches us something interesting about human nature and how core traits make themselves known... no matter how hard we try.

The name of our parashah is Balak, from the name of a Moabite king who tries to curse the Israelites. But he isn't actually the main character; he tries to hire a prophet to do his dirty work, and that is the guy we are primarily examining.
Bilaam, son of Beor, seems to have been a BIG deal in the ancient world. We don't know much about him, but the fact that the Torah doesn't list his accomplishments is itself a clue that his reputation preceded him. In our text, even God seems concerned that Bilaam might curse the Israelites, which is a shocking concept as well! Bilaam appears to us very powerful, and in his own eyes, he certainly is mighty, important, and ferocious. But he is also petty and greedy. At his core, he is small and ignorant, and no matter how many bells and whistles try to hide that fact, or how many dignitaries pay him tribute, his pettiness comes through nevertheless. We especially see this in the way he treats those "beneath" him: For instance, a donkey.

In Numbers, 22:21, we read a fascinating (and humorous) tale of Bilaam setting off to curse the Israelites for King Balak. God doesn't want him to go, and places an angel with a drawn sword along the road, to block Bilaam's access.
Only Bilaam can't see the angel (some powerful seer he is...); only his donkey can see it. The donkey three times attempts to veer out of the way, but Bilaam repeatedly tries to force the donkey back... and with each yank of the harness he also beats his poor, defenseless animal. Incredibly, God gives the donkey the power of speech, and when she asks Bilaam why he is beating her, he yells at her and says he wishes he had a sword so he could kill her! (v. 29) Putting aside all the fantastical elements in this little vignette, Bilaam is a bully. Compassionless, aggressive, pompous, and in his own estimation, always right. He tries to present himself in different ways in our story - to Moabite dignitaries, to Balak, even to God - but he cannot hide who he truly is on the inside. His core speaks for itself, and it isn't pretty.

We humans are indeed complex. But one thing that is particularly true is that we don't get to tell people who we are; we show them with our actions. Sure, we can redeem ourselves and make amends, we can change direction, grow, and
mature. But even then, we need to DEMONSTRATE our desire to change with our behavior, not with groveling apologies and grandiose promises. It is also true that we CAN choose to say one thing and do another. It's not physically impossible; people do it constantly. Each time, however, we undermine our own integrity, and we chip away at our credibility. There's only so long hypocrisy can persist. Again, think about your own core. Do you like it? Do you want that to be how you are known? Who we are is NOT about words or promises - Bilaam talked a VERY good game... and then he threatened to beat an animal to death. In the end, it's about action, behavior, and results. And I firmly believe it is also about compassion, kindness, and empathy - living those traits, not just talking about them. You can present yourself as the mightiest person on the planet... but if you're also kicking a (proverbial) donkey behind the scenes, then you really aren't so powerful at all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jopparn oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Pharos on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Winslow Homer on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gerrit on Wikimedia Commons