Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tzav: Shying Away From Our Gory Past

Passover is a lot of fun, isn't it? Earlier this week, Cantor Friedrich and I hosted our fourth annual Interfaith Seder at Christ Church Episcopal in Media, with Rev. Adam Kradel. It's a wonderful event, and we love partnering with them. In fact, I think one of the things
that most of us love about Pesach is that we get to explain all our crazy rituals and customs to our non-Jewish neighbors and friends, and we enjoy seeing their faces when they look at us like we're nuts! 'Yes, we really are eating this dry, tasteless bread for an entire week. And yes, we ARE calling this wilted sprig of parsley dipped in nothing but over-salted tap water the 'appetizer' to our meal.' Pesach is indeed a bit of a crazy week, but it makes us feel unique, and bonded to other Jews all around the world, and that makes it all kind of seem worth it. Like eating gefilte fish suddenly becomes a rite of passage! But there are also some dark parts to the Seder - and thus to Jewish history - as well, aren't there?

We love our Interfaith Seder at the Episcopal Church, but it's hard to talk about our ancestors painting their doorposts with lamb's blood, so that God would 'pass over' their homes and spare their first-born sons, while killing off all the oldest sons of the Egyptians. And we named the entire holiday after that 'glorious' moment?!? And we feel good about removing drops of wine to acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians, but ultimately we only take out a whopping TEN drops, so how compassionate are 
we REALLY being? No matter how many songs we sing about frogs jumping on Pharaoh's nose, or hand puppets we create to illustrate the plagues, it's still hard to get away from how gruesome they were. And it's challenging to talk about how much we struggle with God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart in order to keep the plagues coming and increase the suffering of our enemies. In both of these examples I've mentioned, door posts and plagues, blood features prominently. In fact, when you really think about it, blood is often the sticking point in a lot of our inter-religious encounters. From challenges to circumcision and questions about Kosher slaughter, to the ancient blood libels of anti-Semites in medieval Europe; blood is simply an uncomfortable topic for dinner party conversation.

In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, we are reminded once again about the prohibition against eating ANY blood (Lev. 7:26-27). This is, of course, one of the many ironies about the centuries-old accusation that Jews made their WHITE matzah with the blood of Christian
children... According to the Torah, the blood contains the life force of all creatures, and so we are forbidden to consume the soul of another living thing. Yet the blood DOES get used in other rituals - purifying and dedicating the Temple, for example - so it's not that we can't use it at all, we just can't ingest it. In some ways, this further heightens its mystique, because blood harbors the soul, but it also contains holiness, purity, and some type of Divine spark. Today, we really don't talk much about blood in polite conversation, and we relegate it to the medical world; far away from anything religious.

Now I'm not trying to suggest (as I did, entirely in jest, before Purim) that we should bring back any rituals surrounding blood. I'm just trying to highlight its role in our history, so we don't shy away from it or feel embarrassed to speak
about it. Our ancestors were saved from the plagues of the Egyptians by blood, and they gave thanks to God for their redemption by creating rituals that incorporated blood as a sacred fluid, while always refraining from consuming it. I don't want to bring the rituals back, but I wonder if we lost something when we phased them out? Do we talk about 'the life force' anymore? Do we talk about the Divine spark that is in EVERY living thing, even the animals that are served up on our plates? We don't need to dab blood on our doorposts, but we should remember our ancient history, and how connected our ancestors once felt to God, and God's ability to save them from slavery. Pesach has some wonderful, modern customs that connect the Seder to our lives and communities today. But let's also remember our ancient origins, and not be ashamed to talk about those as well. They may be a bit gorier, but they make for some great and entertaining stories!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Yogendra174 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of dschmieding on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of dschmieding on Flickr

Vayikra: National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat @ Ohev Shalom

Last Shabbat was National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. I tried to write to you about it here on the blog, but I'm not sure many people realized we were also acknowledging it in services. I wanted to share with you my thoughts from Friday night's service last week, in addition to my regular blog post this week.

I also included several prayers written specifically about gun violence, from an online resource called 'God not Guns,' which you can find here. It's a Pdf document, from which I read prayers on the following pages:

Pp. 24-25, 26 ('Prayer 2'), 27 (both 'Prayer 5' and 'Prayer 6')

Here is my sermon from last Friday night:

Friday Night D’var Torah - Parashat Vayikra 5773
Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat

In the Doblitz Library here at Ohev Shalom (just beyond the wall of our chapel), we have a statue of Moses. (We actually have two, but this one is unique.) Those of us who spend some time in the library affectionately refer to him as ‘angry Moses.’ We call him that, because of the unusual choice of the sculptor, who has chosen to depict Moses just about to smash the Ten Commandments to the ground. You can see the anger in his eyes and in his face; he isn’t holding the tablets in the traditional manner, cradled in his arm, but is instead raising them above his head, poised to hurl them to the ground. And I was thinking about ‘angry Moses’ when I was preparing to write this D’var Torah for Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. (which, incidentally, isn’t a name that really rolls off the tongue…)

In my blog this week, I wrote a bit about gun violence, and what the Torah has to say on the subject, though perhaps more accurately on the subject of guilt and innocence, of our collective responsibility for the safety and well-being of others. In that post, I quoted a colleague of mine in California, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, who, in his February 14th Huffington Post article, wrote very passionately on this issue. And in fact, Rabbi Alexander was the one who led me to our library statue, because he connected our issue this evening to Moses coming down from the mountain. He talked about what Moses saw when he descended; how he was bringing the people a gift from God, and arrived just in time to see them transgressing possibly the MOST sacred commandment, and turning their fledgling community into a society of debauchery, idolatry, and violence. And in that moment, Moses crashed the tablets to the ground.

The rabbis reading this story ask themselves, ‘how do we understand Moses’ actions?’ He is never punished by God for his rash behavior, in fact, many rabbis argue that he is rewarded, even praised, by God, and so we are left trying to make sense of this extremely passionate episode. And this question isn’t merely limited to just Moses; I think you’ll see that it also carries ramifications for us and our society today as well.

Rabbi Alexander queries:  “Is this public display of frustration an acceptable leadership paradigm to celebrate? Isn't this kind of emotional response exactly what we strive to keep out of the public sphere?” And he then quotes one of our ancient rabbinic teachers, Reish Lakish, as stating that “God recognized [that] some events [are] so jarring and disruptive that the only authentic response is outrage, astonishment and direct action -- even if something important is lost along the way. Yes, even the Ten Commandments, wholly Divine, became secondary to human behavior in this moment.”

Now I look at this story, and I feel two, conflicting responses. On the one hand, I agree with Rabbi Alexander. As Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw the cohort before him, and how perverted and fundamentally flawed were the standards and expectations these people had set for themselves, he understood, in that moment, that something was already broken. He shattered the tablets as if to say, ‘you are living a broken system, and we cannot build on this foundation with God’s teaching.’ When we, today, accept the senseless deaths of children every day, gun-related violence all around us on a constant basis, and common-sense changes that are OVERWHELMINGLY accepted by the majority of Americans, yet they STILL cannot get implemented – that is a broken system. And so we have to ask, what needs to be shattered for change to happen? When will enough Columbines, Auroras, and Sandy Hooks happen for us to realize that we have to stop hiding behind our own holy tablets; the laws that we claim are unchangeable, that we insist are written in stone?

In that sense, I agree with Aaron Alexander. I agree that we sometimes let the status quo deaden our senses to the problems around us – we become numb to the violence in movies, video games, the news, and permeating our daily lives. We have to, at the very least, be WILLING to shatter any and all of our sacred truths, if there’s a chance that they’ve grown stale, that they’ve remained unquestioned and unscrutinized for too long. When we get too complacent, bad things happen.

This week’s Torah portion, and my blog post online, try to remind us that we STILL have a responsibility, even if we commit sins unwittingly, or think that we can stand on the sidelines and avoid getting involved. We cannot. We are all responsible. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So we cannot afford to turn a blind eye, or look the other way, or hide behind the ‘stone tablets’ of how we’ve always done things or ‘that’s just the way Americans think.’ We are all affected by the violence that is perpetrated every day, and so we have an obligation to act RIGHT NOW!

That is how I feel. However, that is not ALL I feel. I mentioned earlier that I have two, conflicting responses to Moses’ smashing of the tablets, and my other response comes specifically BECAUSE of how much we are dependent on one another, how we are all indirectly affected by the actions of others. Can we always respond as Moses does? Can we tear down the fabric of society, pouring out our outrage and fury, without concern about the consequences? What about dialogue and communication? Finding middle ground, and reaching consensus? Yes, some issues are more important, and in the moment it may feel as if anything and everything is warranted, but how does Moses then go back to talking to individual Israelites after his furious display? How does he resolve minor interpersonal disputes and hear someone’s mundane complaint after they’ve witnessed ‘angry Moses’?

If we are looking to make sustainable, long-term change – and I believe we are – we need to bring everyone with us. We need to work long and hard, and focus on the eventual goals, not just the immediate ones, if a culture shift is ever going to occur. And we cannot alienate others, demonize those across the aisle, or label someone the ‘scapegoat,’ and still think we’re going to reach consensus. Right now, we have a problem. Are there deep political divides on this issue? Yes, there are. Should we therefore avoid talking about it? No, we cannot. We simply cannot afford to. But let’s not therefore IGNORE that it is a divisive issue, filled with tensions and personal stories. We have to give room to all the fears and concerns, family stories and cultural norms, frustrations and grievances. All of it needs to be brought to the table, otherwise we aren’t cleaning out the closets and creating a fresh start.

And as we approach the holiday of Pesach, we must indeed focus on cleaning out those closets. And specifically, we need to work on those issues we would perhaps prefer to leave behind, to fester and ferment. ‘Chametz,’ comes from the same root as vinegar ‘Chometz,’ and it has to do with fermentation. We need to rid ourselves of the Chametz that festers in our lives, and give ourselves a fresh start. We need to work together with all members of our society, leaving behind issues that divide and enrage us, and focusing on the real changes that need to happen to reduce the amount of innocent deaths and instances of gun violence. To make sure that the James Holmeses and Adam Lanzas of our county can’t get a hold of weapons and make tragic decisions that ruin lives. Because there are solutions out there that can lead to these changes, and most of us support them. We just allow ourselves to get distracted, to focus instead on the Chametz, when we really need to pay more attention to the Charoset, the mortar that we remind ourselves of on Passover that brought bricks together and built civilizations.

At our Second Seder on Passover, in another week and a half, we’ll talk more about that strange and entertaining song we sing, Dayeinu. What do we mean when we sing about Dayeinu? The verses of the song suggest that if God had brought us out of slavery but abandoned us in the desert, Dayeinu – it would have been enough. If God had brought us to Sinai, but somehow FORGOT to also give us Moses’ infamous Ten Commandments, that too would have been Dayeinu, enough. Or if we’d been given the Land of Israel but no Shabbat, no problem, Dayeinu, we’d have been fine. But we would NOT have been fine. The song is really facetiously trying to get us all to shout out loud, “NO! It would NOT have been enough!” We need God’s help, because we’d have been nowhere without it.

And just as Moses’ dramatic, demonstrative act, commemorated in our friend, the statue next door, leaves us with two possible responses, so too Dayeinu yields two responses. And in both instances, we need BOTH paths. Dayeinu reminds us that it was not enough then, and it’s not enough now. We cannot be complacent, and settle for a flawed society, stuck in a proverbial desert, aimless and chaotic. We MUST keep striving. We must work together to complete God’s work, to acknowledge how much God has done for us, but recognize that it is now our task to keep going, keep building, keep striving, and keep changing to get this thing right. We’re not there yet, but we have the tools and the know-how to get there.

But Dayeinu, the word, and the new group which was formed here at Ohev Shalom, is also a reminder that we need to say ‘Enough.’ We have endured enough hatred, enough violence, and enough smoke-and-mirrors; now it’s time for change. Yes, this is a complicated issue. And yes, some people feel demonized, and we have to be respectful of different backgrounds and approaches to the overarching issue of owning guns. But there are also people, and specifically children, dying every day. And that’s a problem that truly, truly affects us all, and needs to be remedied. So we must find ways to bring everyone together, to get us all – in this community, in this country, and around the world – to say ‘enough!’ Let us begin to make changes.

Why would someone make an angry statue? Why depict Moses in that embarrassing moment for us all, in that heated, passionate, really, violent pose? Maybe because we need the reminder. We need to know the importance of anger. It can be empowering, and it can be strengthening. But we also need to use it wisely, and not fight consuming, destructive fire in kind. We can be better, and we can do better. We must act. We need to educate, we need to organize, and we need to make sure that change begins to happen. Then we will create a more just and peaceful society. THEN we will have earned the right to truly receive God’s commandments, and we will finally be able to start with clean cabinets and clean souls.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Violence Our Souls Can No Longer Endure

Intention is important when it comes to behavior, but it isn't quite as important as you might think. In this week's Torah reading, we learn some uncomfortable lessons about our responsibilities in society, specifically regarding committing sins unintentionally and being an 'innocent' bystander. 
In each of these instances, we still incur some guilt and bear some responsibility for what happens. I would like to talk to you about this for a bit, and I invite you (if you're in the area) to also join us on Friday night, where we'll continue this conversation as part of National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. However, I'm also mindful of keeping you, all of you, IN this conversation, so I want to make it clear that I'm not pointing a finger, or labeling any one (or any group) as the 'bad guy.' This is about communal responsibility, and acknowledging - as the Torah implores us to - that each person shares in the fate of everyone else, and we all must take that obligation seriously.

In chapter four of Leviticus, the Torah lays out the laws regarding 'intentional' sins vs. 'unintentional' ones. The text refers to 'nefesh achat ki techeta bishgaga' - literally, '[if] one soul commits a sin unknowingly,' and goes on to list the sacrifices that person must
bring. Why is the term 'soul' used here? And later on, in chapter five, we are also taught about this same 'soul,' and the guilt offerings he must bring if he were able to give testimony in case but chose not to do so, and later regretted it. In other words, if he could have spoken up against an injustice, but decided - perhaps out of fear, apathy, or just inconvenience - to remain silent; that person is still guilty. And again, the Torah speaks of 'souls.' Why? Perhaps because underneath the surface, we are all the same. When skin color, religion, sexual orientation, class, or culture are lifted away, and we instead focus on the soul, we realize that we are the same, and we have no excuse for allowing injustice to be perpetrated against another.

And I say this because I think we tend to label one another. 'Are you on my side of this issue (or aisle)? And are you therefore worth listening to or not?' And we also allow ourselves to be distracted by political debates, and forget that this is a human issue. 
It may ALSO be an issue with many political dimensions, lots of facts and figures, and terrifying statistics; but at its core - its soul - violent acts (not control, legislation, or amendments) are being committed every day, and we're not stopping them. Last month, in the Huffington Post, Rabbi Aaron Alexander wrote a terrific piece entitled, 'Gun Violence in Our Country: A Crisis for Every Single American.' He writes about Moses smashes the Ten Commandments (which we'll talk about on Friday night), and he writes about sitting with clergy members who have to perform tons of funerals for gun violence victims every MONTH. And he also offers a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." 

Rabbi Alexander (and Dr. King) remind us of our collective responsibility. They remind us that only when we feel REAL empathy, and are deeply hurt by the pain, suffering, and death of another, do we seek to make change. Gun violence is an issue with limitless complexity and deep-seated divisiveness in our society. But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the noise and clutter, or the fear of being labeled. Standing idly by STILL makes us culpable, and there is no such thing as an 'innocent bystander' when we allow this violence to persist. 

It is time to say, as Rabbi Alexander does and members of our community have done: 'Enough!' - 'Dayeinu!' No longer will our souls tolerate the status quo. Change must come. 

Photos in this blog post:
2. CC image courtesy of infomatique on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of kirstyhall on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Gideon Tsang on Flickr

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Vayakhel-Pekudei: How to Teach Real Leadership

What does real leadership look like? It is, in a sense, a question that is being asked around the world right now. In the Vatican, a conclave of
cardinals is about to come up with one answer. In Venezuela, a grieving (or not so grieving) population will have to come up with another. And as we inch our way closer to the holiday of Passover, our Jewish tradition invites us to consider this question for ourselves. It's easy to think we're talking about Moses here, or even God, when really Pesach challenges us to look inside for a deeper answer. And last week, in Israel, we were treated to a new, refreshing, and possibly watershed example of what true leadership may indeed look like.

There isn't just one way to lead, or even just one term for a good leader. Our Torah portion this week talks about prophets and priests, and our Haftarah - a parallel text, this week from the Prophet Ezekiel - adds words like 'king' and 'prince.' 
Rabbi Ronnie Cohen has written a very interesting D'var Torah about the word 'prince' and how it signifies a very different type of leadership than king or prophet. Rabbi Cohen offers one particularly fascinating observation, stating that real leadership must be earned for oneself; it cannot be passed down from parent to child, or handed out to a chosen successor. We are defined by our own actions. Time and again in the Bible we see examples of failed leadership, of rulers who are insecure, cruel, paranoid, power-hungry, and/or petty. And we've certainly seen our fair share of the same in modern times...

In some ways, that makes us better at recognizing real leadership when we see it, because we're tired of all the people who got it wrong. Yet at the same time, some of us love to make the same mistakes over and over again... Last week, however, a new voice entered the arena of religious politics in Israel, and it may be the start of a new 
era, or at least so we hope. Ruth Calderon, a newly elected Member of Knesset, dedicated her debut speech to teaching Talmud, something rarely done in Knesset, and CERTAINLY never done by a woman! In her speech, she said things like: "The Torah is not the property of any stream... We gave it away, when we thought there was a more important task, to build the army and the state and farming and industry. Now we must take back what is ours." Hundreds of thousands have watched her speech on YouTube, and she has already been heavily praised AND criticized from all sides of Israeli life. But finally we are talking about the Orthodox dominance in Israel! And nothing can really happen until that conversation begins. 

One thing leadership is not, is status quo. The Bible teaches us, and the world around us constantly offers reminders, that we need to evolve and improve. Life is a journey, and real leaders want to join us on our travels; sometimes teaching and sometimes learning, but always moving forward. Calderon
has shown us the power of a single speech, with a volume of Talmud in hand. No one can GIVE you leadership, no matter how much you are knighted, anointed, appointed, elected, or white-smoked. True leaders earn it, and re-earn it again and again. We look on in fascination to see how things will yet develop in Israel, and hopefully they will indeed begin to move. But we also must look inside ourselves, find leadership traits in all that we do, and transform the world with our own actions. Sometimes leadership may seem like a spectator-sport, but really it's time we all get in the game.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Scott5114 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Rachel-Esther on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of The U.S. Army on Flickr