Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mikeitz/Shabbat Chanukah: In Search of a Reason (repost)

Every year, when the holiday of Chanukah comes around again, I inevitably hear from people that they feel a need to 'defend' themselves to Christians. 'No, this isn't the Jewish Christmas!' By which we mean 
that it isn't as 'important' to us as Christmas is to them. Though what's really fascinating about this to me - having spent a fair amount of time with my Christian colleagues in the clergy - is that Christmas isn't really as religiously significant to Christians either! Their primary holiday is actually Easter, and many Christians feel that Christmas has become incredibly commercialized and materialistic, which leads to such campaigns as 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' and '[Don't forget] the Reason for the Season.' When you really get down to it, I don't think the two struggles, for Jews or Christians, are really all that different.

An extension of the complaint I hear about explaining Chanukah to non-Jewish neighbors is how 'Americanized' the holiday has become. I know, I know, it used to be SUCH a simple and innocent holiday (in our flawless childhood...), and Hallmark, Toys R' Us, and Zales came along and ruined it for us. But the commercialization has also kept our holiday alive, hasn't it? 
It's kept
 it vibrant in the minds of children, families, and our neighbors, and it's certainly in no risk of disappearing anytime soon. My point is, it's a mixed bag, and all things evolve and change. Some people think it's terrific and others think it's horrible. What's truly ironic, in my opinion, is that this tension is actually at the heart of the message of Chanukah itself; the interplay between religion and society, between sacred and profane. The heroic Maccabees actually incorporated many Greek practices into their reign, while still remaining distinctly Jewish. The medieval sage, Rav Ovadiah Sforno writes about the elevated middle light on our Chanukiah, the Shamash, and how all the other candles should shine towards it. He explains why this is important: "extremists on both ends of the spectrum need to focus on the middle road, which is symbolized by the central light of the menorah." Sforno is reminding us that there needs to be a balance of the religious and the secular.

This sentiment creates a perfect segue into our Torah portion. You see, Chanukah always falls on one of the 
parshiot that deal with the life of our ancestor, Joseph. Rabbi Danny Nevins exclaims, "who could be a better exemplar of the challenges of living in two worlds than the grand vizier of Egypt?" Joseph starts out as a lowly prisoner, but then
quickly rises to become the second-in-command of the empire, and along the way changes his clothes, his language, even his name. Yet underneath it all, he never stops identifying as Joseph. Every Shabbat around the dinner table, we bless our sons to be like Joseph's two children, Ephraim and Menashe, because they maintained their Jewish identity, even while being raised in the palaces of Egypt. In many ways, we are both blessing them, our children, and also ourselves. They remain Jewish because we impart our traditions and our values to them, regardless of the society in which we raise them.

Sure, Chanukah might have a giant billboard along I-95 and countless obnoxious (I mean, wonderful) 
YouTube videos. But we're not the only ones dealing with the tension of wanting to preserve holiness while being overwhelmed by
over-exposure. Nor are we the first ones to deal with this challenge within our own religion! In a sense, we need to embrace the silly with the sanctified, the cheesy with the cherished. It's an inherent part of this holiday, and it's been a part of our heritage since Joseph first tried to figure out how much Egyptian music to let his kids listen to. We're all struggling to find that middle path, to keep shining towards the middle light. It ain't easy, but you know what? I think THAT is precisely the Reason for the Season.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy Shoshanah on Flickr
2.CC image courtesy of skpy on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of upyernoz on Flickr
4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone and a shmaltzy looking Chanukiah in my office window. :-)

Friday, December 23, 2016

Va-Yeishev: An Equal Measure of Providence and Prudence

Sometimes, when you're struggling with a problem, you've got to "Give it up to God." Then again, sometimes you don't. Hearing me use that
phrase may surprise some of you, because it isn't generally a Jewish phrase. More often, you hear Christians speak of "Giving [x] to God," meaning that we leave a decision, a problem, or fate in general in the Hands of God to decide. It is not ours to control. And the reason you don't hear this too often in Judaism is because our tradition really wrestles with this concept. Last week, the Torah spoke about Jacob being renamed Yisrael, which is very appropriate, because it means "one who wrestles with God." Indeed, we are all Yisrael! Right? So let's wrestle.

In the Torah this week, we see strong evidence of that same tension, and we actually see it in the Jewish calendar as well. Our parashah introduces us to Joseph, and on Saturday night we begin to celebrate the holiday of Chanukah. In BOTH stories, we see people struggling with human agency versus Divine Providence.
Let's first examine each separately. The way Joseph's life plays out, it seems to be orchestrated from On High. Dreams come to him at night, in which he rules over his family, and his brothers hate him for those visions. God gives him charisma, a strong work ethic, and the ability to interpret the dreams of others, which first helps him gain status, then gets him thrown in jail, and then again elevates him to prominence in Pharaoh's court. Later, a famine brings the brothers groveling before Joseph, allowing him to exact revenge, though ultimately also reuniting him with his family. Indeed, everything is truly in the Hands of God.

And yet, Joseph is the one who CHOOSES to share his dreams with his brothers. He decides to offer dream interpretations, and when Potiphar's wife makes advances, he remains resolute in resisting her. God is certainly present throughout Joseph's life, but Joseph himself is not a passive bystander. The question is,
where does one end and the other begin? It is not easy to determine, and I think that is intentional. The same can be said for the Chanukah story. We celebrate two miracles on this holiday, and each was firmly orchestrated by God. The Maccabees defeated the mighty Assyrian-Greeks, and the precious Temple oil inexplicably kept the Menorah lit for eight nights. On the battlefield, however, I'm quite sure the Maccabees felt they had SOMETHING to do with their victory! And whoever was measuring out TINY spoonfuls of oil surely felt his/her own vigilance and prudence paid off...

This, I think, is the whole point. When we simplify the answer to "give it up to God," we are missing the importance of our own efforts, care, and dedication. We matter! We cannot be passive, complacent, indifferent spectators; we need to get in the game. On the other hand,
when we marvel at our own talents and declare ourselves to have single-handedly saved the day, we are ignoring God's role in our lives, which is often quite significant and vital. There is great humility in acknowledging Divine Providence, and I believe it gives us more clarity and mindfulness. In essence, we need both. Joseph and Judah Maccabee were each indeed the masters of their own destiny, and they solidified their rightful place in our Jewish history books... and they also heavily relied on God to help them along the way. And in the end, the true miracle is that we are able to partner with God. That reciprocal, interdependent, mutually beneficial partnership is more precious than any other gift this holiday season.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Chanukah!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of Alexander Louis Leloir's "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" courtesy of Raul654 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis' "Joseph's Dream" courtesy of Kobac on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Netojinn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Andrzej O on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 16, 2016

Va-Yishlach: I Alone!

There is a tension that exists in all of us. Two competing desires, that perhaps are in us from birth. As many of you know, I have a four-year
old daughter, and now also a five-month old son, and I see how it manifests in each of them, so very, very clearly. It is the tension between self-reliance and interdependence; "I can do it myself!" and "I need help!" Often, it may seem like a childhood struggle, and one that we solve or resolve as adults. Though in truth, I actually think it is a tension and a battle that persists within us throughout life. This week, we see our ancestor, Jacob, demonstrate his own version of this fight, both emotionally and physically; and I invite all of us to seize this opportunity to introspect and recognize the conflict inside ourselves as well.

Jacob has had to make it on his own for a long time. After he stole his father's blessing and his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him, he had to flee and survive by his own wits, surrounded by hostile relatives and trickery. I suppose you COULD say that
he pulled himself up by his boot (or sandal) straps. And yet, did he do it ALL on his own? Does anyone ever really? God was surely with him throughout his journey, and he DID find allies and supporters along the way. But that's why I call it "tension"! We all want to make it on our own, and sometimes society even puts a zap on our heads to make us think it's "better" if we made it alone. Needing help, sharing the burden, getting someone else to chip in; these might seem like "cop-outs," like settling. So we work incredibly hard (AND tell ourselves stories) so that we can truly say we made it on our own.

When our Torah portion opens, Jacob is preparing to face Esau once again. He's frightened. He prays to God in this moment, and you can almost hear the struggle between self-reliance and interdependence in
his plea to God: "...with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother" (Gen. 32:11-12). We do this, right? Memory changes images, and reinforces personal narratives; Jacob remembers crossing the Jordan entirely alone, with NO help, and now just look at all he's achieved... ALONE! But God was there, and Jacob DID receive assistance along the way. But many of us remember our own efforts, our single-handed accomplishments... and we forget some of the other "minor" players who may-or-may-not have been there as well.

And again, that's human. It's ok. The tension is, indeed, in all of us. It does, however, become a problem when we judge others, and the whole world, for not being able to do what we - in our minds - were able to do. "I made it on my own, so you should too!"
It's problematic, because none of us ACTUALLY achieved success or gained wisdom entirely alone. We all need help, and we all rely on others, even when we don't realize it. Perhaps we benefited from a family name, or an inheritance... or societal/racial privilege; but one way or another, we are all interdependent. That is why religion - all religion - is so emphatic about giving thanks! From the moment a child is born, we try to teach her/him to be thankful and grateful. So remember Jacob, and this very human struggle. It's ok to feel like you did it all on your own. Everyone feels that way sometimes. But remember there are two sides to every coin, and that with gratitude and interdependence comes a lot of much-needed humility.

Oh, and just for the record, I wrote this blog post entirely on my own. No help from anyone!!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Caroline and Max (my kids), December, 2016.
2. CC image courtesy of ChiaraS91 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Shalom on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 9, 2016

Va-Yeitzei: Noticing the Mystery Around Us

Sometimes we miss things - important things - even when they are right under our noses. I think most of us know this to be true, at least on a theoretical level, but then we're still surprised when it happens to us personally. We often like to think
of Judaism as a very sensible, rational religion. Not a lot of hocus-pocus or fairy dust. Sure, the texts of our tradition include plagues, splitting seas, and talking animals, but that was ancient "stuff," and it doesn't really fit into our worldview, at least not any more. Well, it often shocks people to learn that Judaism used to, hundreds of years ago, incorporate a lot of magical elements in the practice of our religion. Demons, spirits, amulets, and secret incantations were commonplace! And a lot of that Jewish mysticism still exists today, sometimes even right under our noses, we just don't always look at it. I think maybe it's time we take a peak...

This weekend, Ohev Shalom is hosting a Scholar-in-Residence weekend, and our guest is Dr. Joel Hecker. Dr. Hecker is a professor of Jewish mysticism, so this weekend Ohev is going to get a little weird
and supernatural. Our lecture topics include terms like "Kabbalistic Kissing," "Magical Powers in the Jewish Tradition," and "Food-Sparks in the Chasidic Imagination." Admittedly, these concepts are a little outside our comfort zone, as a community and for me personally. But Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah are actually essential parts of our people's history. We shouldn't censor any aspect of our heritage, and this is one side that often gets overlooked or casually dismissed. Perhaps we can stop for a moment and delve into it, and let's see what happens. I believe that engaging with this material can help us understand ourselves a bit better, and may give us a new perspective on other parts of our own lives.

This week in the Torah, our ancestor Jacob has a similar experience. Jacob isn't looking for spirituality. He is on the run from his vengeful brother, Esau, and is just trying to survive, alone, in the desert, on his way to live with his untrustworthy uncle, Laban. He is stressed, anxious, and sleep-deprived. Then, all of a sudden,
he has an incredibly powerful encounter with God. He has a vision at night, in which angels are ascending and descending a Heavenly ladder, and God then appears, promising Jacob protection and future prosperity. Jacob wakes up with a start, and proclaims, "Surely Adonai is in this place, and I did not know it!" He continues, "How awesome is this place!! This is none other than the House of God, and that is the Gateway to Heaven!" (Gen. 28:16-17) I think often we assume that God exists in certain places at certain times; either in synagogue, on mountain tops, or in Grand Canyons. Or maybe we don't believe God exists anywhere on earth... if at all. But then, almost magically, we may encounter God, or some Divine spark or spiritual moment, and it catches us off guard. I can relate to Jacob's astonishment. Sometimes the world isn't all about rational explanations and mundane answers; weird, inexplicable things CAN happen.

The question is, can we keep ourselves open to those occurrences? Are we able to still be surprised by the world, and to leave open the
possibility of wonder and amazement? As rational, scientific, sensible adults, we work pretty hard to close off that side of ourselves. "There's no such thing as magic!" we declare confidently. But perhaps we can also find just a little room for awe, in the old-school meaning of the word, where we remain open to the possibility of Divine encounters and stair-climbing angels? I truly believe it can open us up to new ways of thinking and feeling, and maybe offer new insights into our everyday lives. We think we know it all, but sometimes we need to humble ourselves to say "God is here, in this place, and I had no idea!" It can be really freeing.

So, are you ready to bring a little mysticism into your life?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of Robert Anning Bell's "un vol de fées," courtesy of Pimbrils on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Ambrosio Alciati's "The Kiss," courtesy of Pimbrils on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of James Tissot's "Jacob's Dream," courtesy of Shakko on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Shalom on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 2, 2016

Tol'dot: Nasty Women in the Torah

This is probably going to shock you, and I'm sure it's the first time you've heard ANYONE say it, but I actually think sometimes women are overlooked. I know, I know, a surprising revelation, isn't it? We would
like to think that we've advanced as a society. Sure, it was a Biblical malady, but surely we've solved this problem by now, no? Sadly, I think we all know the answer to that question. But you know, the first step towards addressing (and maybe even solving) a problem is acknowledging that it IS a problem to begin with. As I look back at my own writings on this blog over the years, I have not done a good enough job highlighting women in the Torah. So this week, let's start by acknowledging an incredibly central character in our Torah reading who, most of the time - you guessed it - gets entirely overlooked.

As we turn our attention to the well-known story of Isaac and his two sons, our focus is often centered on the father, his blessing, and a fierce battle between Esau and Jacob. Year after year, I've written about this story, but primarily examined the tragic struggle between twins, or a father's inability to love two children equally, or the moral justifications for deceit and trickery. And yet,
if we look behind the scenes, and really open our eyes to ALL that is going on, someone else is really directing this entire drama. It's Isaac's wife, Jacob and Esau's mother, Laban's sister, but really a woman and a person in her own right - Rebecca. If we go back to last week's reading, she was a primary player then to, yet still frequently overlooked. When we make the extra effort, however, we notice that in last week's parashah AND in this week's, Rebecca holds her own against any other character.

Last week, she outsmarted her cunning brother, Laban. This week, she orchestrates and successfully executes an ingenious plan to secure her husband's blessing for her own favored son, Jacob. At the same time, there is a lot more to her than just her wiliness. Often, when commentators DO see Rebecca, they blame her for the fighting in the
family, or they chastise her for being shrewd. But back in chapter 24, we saw how generous Rebecca was, when she offered water to Abraham's servant, or how hospitable she was for inviting him to her home. Also, how physically strong she was, for watering all his thirsty camels (while the servant himself stood and watched...). She was brave for leaving her home; loyal to her husband AND her son; incredibly protective of her child, when he risked being cursed instead of blessed; and then again shielded Jacob from the wrath of his brother. Let us also not forget that she casually speaks with God, which few other individuals anywhere in the Bible do, and is prophetically told what will become of her twin sons. A more multi-dimensional character you would be hard-pressed to find!

If we take a step back for a moment, it is interesting to acknowledge that the Torah, supposedly (though not irrefutably...) written entirely by men, is willing to portray a woman with such power. And she's not the only one. What is going on here? Is it possible that some of our Biblical stories were written by women? (Yes.)
Or, perhaps even more shockingly, could it be that some men were able to handle stories about strong women? Which brings us back to today. We can do better. Even the Torah knows that to be true! And with all the misogyny that is now bubbling to the surface in our society, it is all the more imperative that feminists - female AND male - stand up and refuse to put up with it. When any one group is oppressed, it demeans us all. We cannot continue to overlook the "Rebeccas" in our lives, and we certainly shouldn't reduce them to some one-dimensional caricature. We cannot solve discrimination in a moment, or individually on our own. But one step at a time - changing one perception of one (ancient) woman at a time - and working together, we can all start lifting ourselves up from the hateful language that festers around us. It is time to stand up.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of WolfD59 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Philip Medhurst on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Juggler2005 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Thyra on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Chayei Sarah: Fusing together Home and Heritage

This week, I want to talk to you about home, belonging, and heritage. Many of us are preparing to gather around the Thanksgiving table,
and I'm mindful of the fact that some are continuing generations-long family traditions, others are starting new rituals, and yet others are just throwing something in the microwave. Wherever you are, this holiday may still evoke nostalgic (or difficult) memories, and, good or bad, it often highlights feelings of "belonging." But it's not just a Turkey Day question; our Torah portion and our community seem to be focusing on these essential topics - and emotions - right now as well.

Our Jewish story begins with wandering. You can go all the way back to everyone's common ancestors, Adam and Eve, and see that THEY were nomads, thrown out of the Garden of Eden. A few chapters later,
Abraham and Sarah move from one place to another, searching for a place to call "home." In this week's reading, Abraham FINALLY sets down some roots, in the form of a burial plot for his wife (which will later also be used for himself, his children, and grandchildren). This plot, the Cave of Machpelah, doesn't just serve as a stake in the ground for Abraham, but thousands of years later, Jews still today point to it as justifying their return to the Land of Israel. We may have lived elsewhere for millenia, but that cave, that spot, PROVES that Israel is our home! And this, perhaps, is where home and heritage get conflated. Machpelah does indeed demonstrate our heritage and our history in Israel, but only with the formation of the Jewish State have Jews really rebuilt a home there as well. We are born into a heritage; but a home takes effort and hard work. And so does "belonging."

This past Sunday, Ohev Shalom hosted an event called the "4Ever Grateful concert." Houses of worship and community groups from around our area came together to celebrate our similarities and respect our differences. It was amazing
to see church choirs sharing the stage with rap artists, praise dances alongside a cappella groups. So often, we live siloed lives. We see, listen to, interact with, and live among people who look and act entirely like us. We do not create a sense of shared belonging, and our community and our country suffer as a result. When, in reality, we do actually share a home. And I recently learned something that I feel brings together these concepts of home, heritage, and belonging, right here in Southern Delaware County, in a fascinating new way.

Our synagogue, Ohev Shalom, began in the city of Chester, PA. Today, Chester is a struggling city, with high crime rates and tremendous obstacles to overcome. And yet, it is also a city with great pride, incredible spirit and tenacity, and a rich history and heritage that goes back centuries. The newspaper headlines may tell only of doom
and gloom in Chester, but there are many signs of hope, revitalization, and optimism. One such place is the MJ Freed Performing Arts Theater. It is an old furniture store, turned into an incredible hub of culture, music, and creativity. AND that furniture store was once owned by an Ohev Shalom congregant, M.J. Freed! In fact, his name adorns our Reception Room, and the Freed family is still active at Ohev. Like the Cave of Machpelah, it serves as a reminder that we were there! We are part of Chester, and Chester is part of us. And while today it feels more like a story of heritage, we DO still share a larger community, and we could do so much to improve one another's lives. Today in the State of Israel, people are working hard to build a home and a sense of belonging. We may not be looking to move our synagogue back to Chester, but our stories are, and should be, intertwined!

Sunday's concert reminded many of us that we are part of a rich, fascinating, diverse, and strong SHARED community. If we work
hard at it, we can create powerful connections right here between home, heritage, and belonging, and forge a better future for all our children... together. All the tools are here at our disposal, and for that, we truly should be 4Ever grateful.

Photos in this blogpost are all from the 4Ever Grateful concert on 11/20/16, taken by Crystal Burrell:
1. Crowd getting seated.
2. One of the groups that sang at the concert; the Youth Choir of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church.
3. Another group, performing a Praise Dance; Committed Vessels United Dance Ministries.
4. MCs for the concert, Rabbi Gerber and Tehran Freeman, invited their two (adorable) children to join them on stage, and together they sang "Twinkle, Twinkle." (It was unrehearsed...)
5. All our incredible performers.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Va-Yeira: Changing Your Mind About Religion

Last night, I participated in an interfaith panel at Widener University. Alongside me on the stage were representatives of Islam, various branches of Christianity, Buddhism, Baha'i, Unitarian Universalism,
and even a woman who practiced Witchcraft! It was a big panel... But one thing that really struck me about the experience, about the whole evening, was how serious and somber the students were. Even as panelists tried to joke and be a little self-deprecating or just vulnerable and real, our audience just nodded slightly and stared at us. It was unsettling. I thought to myself, this truly is how many people view religion. No laughing matter. No compassion, no kindness, no flexibility. Just grave and severe. I even tried to address the climate in the room directly, and encouraged people to smile and engage. How did they respond? They nodded slightly... and stared.

Right now, the whole world feels a little unsettled. People are nervous and stressed. Our Torah reading this week offers us a model that might help us move forward. It's not a comfortable or easy one, but helpful nonetheless. God and Abraham are friends. They talk a lot. They have a bond. Our text offers us insight into
God's internal monologue (imagine that!), where God decides to tell Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are soon to be destroyed. Abraham doesn't like this at all. Looking at the situation objectively, we might say that this poses a threat to their friendship, to their relationship. They fundamentally disagree. Abraham takes a deep breath, and decides to risk the friendship in the interest of standing up for his own beliefs. He challenges God, stating: "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?" (Gen. 18:23) Incredibly, God listens. God's mind is even changed, and the annihilation of Gomorrah and Sodom is postponed. In this day and age, who among us has actually changed someone's mind in an argument?? Or allowed our opinion to be shifted??? Let's be honest; that NEVER happens!

Zari Sussman, a rabbinical student at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in California, wrote a commentary on our Torah portion, and noted, "In an argument, the Godly thing to do is listen, learn, and possibly change one's own opinion." How can we move past the gridlock and
divisiveness in society today? We have to listen. I didn't say it was easy, and I certainly didn't say it was comfortable. But we must. In her article, Sussman also stated, "When I avoid debates, situations, and people who make me uncomfortable, I cheat myself out of a gift life is sending my way. Every person contains a unique spark of God, a teaching that I need to learn." It is easy to see the Divine sparks in someone who agrees with us; who is compassionate, funny, wise, or clever. But what if that person (or Higher Being) starts to talk about destruction, people getting what they deserve, and the wickedness of "those" people? Abraham didn't walk away, tune out, or "unfriend." Should we?

Religion has certainly been the cause of a lot of pain and suffering in the world. I can't deny that. But stories like these also remind us that there's a lot of compassion and unity in the texts of our tradition, and that the Torah does TRY to model good communication, mutual understanding, and moral behavior.
Nevertheless, people often view religion as authoritarian, cold, and rigid. When I talk about Guilt-Free Judaism and the importance of seeing humor in the Bible, I often get looks of confusion and disbelief. At this very moment in our lives, I think the Bible can actually help us make sense of some of the chaos around us. Our ancestors understood what we, today, are going through! They too felt our insecurity, our uncertainty about the future, and our unwillingness to see the perspective of The Other. These things are not new, so let's learn from some of their successes AND their failures. And above all, please remember that there's more to religion than just somber nodding and staring, I promise.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Image of bumper sticker created by Piotr Młodożeniec
2. CC image courtesy of Ephraim Moses Lilien on Wikimedia Commons
3. Screen shot of "unfriend" option on Facebook
4. CC image courtesy of ThomasRibeiro25 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 11, 2016

Lech Lecha: Change is Coming...

Imagine what would happen if one day everything changed. Overnight, your whole world was different; and without much emotional or physical preparation, you were given no choice but to begin a very long journey into an unknown and scary
future. Our Torah portion this week tells the tale of Abraham, and how God's unexpected command to "Lech Lecha" - "Go Forth" and leave his home left Abraham wandering off to an uncertain destiny. Whether Republican or Democrat (or neither), the results of this week's election have left us feeling a lot like Abraham; with lives full of tremendous change and upheaval. And, like Abraham, regardless of whether we're excited or fearful of what lies ahead, our only option is to start walking into it. The real question now is, what can and should we make of this experience? What can we learn, and how can we grow? Our country, and indeed our world, is very fractured; how can we try and heal together, and can Abraham give us some advice along the way?

Make no mistake, this was a terrifying moment for Abraham. In the ancient world, people just didn't DO things like this. They didn't leave home, family, tribe, and security to wander off into the desert with few
resources and no final destination. God said, "Start walking!" and eventually a goal would reveal itself. How can any of us follow Abraham's example? How do we close our eyes, give over control of self, family, and community, take that leap of faith, and trust that good things await on the other side? Sometimes it is hard - almost impossible - to feel that kind of trust. Eventually, however, Abraham arrived, and he became successful and prosperous. Even his nephew, Lot, did well. And then we read a fascinating incident in the story, which also speaks so powerfully to us at this very moment in our lives.

Abraham had flocks and herdsmen; Lot had flocks and herdsmen. And in a great nod to the classic Western movie, Abraham declared, "This town isn't big enough for the both of us!" He approached Lot and said, "Let there be no strife between
you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: If you go left, I'll go right; if you go right, I'll go left." (Gen. 13:8-9) Does this quote not speak to precisely where we are at right now? Some of us lean left, others lean right, and it sure does feel like this place cannot sustain all of us together. And yet, we are brethren! The text actually even goes further than that. The Hebrew for "brethren" in our text is "Anashim Achim." It's a strange formulation, which we might literally translate as "we are human beings; we are brothers." We MUST see the humanity in The Other, AND we also need to keep reminding ourselves and one another that we are sisters and brothers.

These were painful moments for Abraham; leaving his home and then separating from Lot. And these are painful, chaotic, uncertain times for us as well. The thing is, we do not have the option of Lot and Abraham.
We cannot draw a dividing line, a border or a wall, and split off to the right and the left. We are in this thing together, and we need to figure out how to move forward TOGETHER. One thing that Abraham's story certainly teaches us is that progress and discovery come from dramatic change. Would any of us be here if Abraham had stayed in Haran, maintaining the status quo? Chaos and upheaval also bring opportunity, bravery, and daring. I certainly pray that we can draw strength from the lessons of Genesis, and begin to heal the deep wounds of our country. The time has come to "go forth"; let us see what awaits on the other side.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Fordmadoxfraud on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Superscramble on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Howcheng on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Roger McLachlan on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 4, 2016

Noah: Heaven Doesn't Get a Vote

There is a wonderful rabbinic tale that I really love, and which I think is particularly appropriate today, both because of this week's Torah
portion AND because of our upcoming (impending?) election. In this story, a group of rabbis are arguing over a legal matter. One of them, Rabbi Eliezer, disagrees with all the others, and he is certain he is right. He calls on various supernatural signs to testify on his behalf against his colleagues, and a tree uproots, a river runs backwards, the walls of their study hall start to crack, and even a voice from heaven proclaims the law IS, indeed, on Eliezer's side. But the other rabbis refuse to be persuaded. Not even the heavenly declaration convinces them, as they yell defiantly back at the sky: "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee!" And Eliezer is defeated.

The rabbis' retort does not come from this week's Torah portion, if you thought that was going to be my connection. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee" actually comes from Deuteronomy, 30:12, and it means "It is not in heaven." In our fable, the rabbis
use it to signify that the Torah was, at one point, God's possession, and God DID write all the rules and edicts expressly in the text... BUT, then God gave us the Torah. And now it's ours. It is our responsibility to apply it to our lives, and we have to be the ones to interpret new laws based on the Torah text. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee" - "Your part is done, God! Thank you for the Torah; now let us handle this." A lot of Chutzpah, right? Pretty amazing that the rabbis could or would yell such a thing at God. And yet, if we continue to expect God to resolve our disputes, and we don't put our faith in human institutions and the need for us, for all humans, to take responsibility for our actions, our laws, and our planet; we are in trouble.

This week, we are once again reading about Noah and the Flood. It is, perhaps, the quintessential story of God stepping in and saving the day. Humans messed the place up - this is why we can't have nice things - and God pressed the "reset" button. At the end of the story, God says
something that is BOTH a great comfort and assurance, but also an ominous warning: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). On the one hand, God is promising never to wipe us all out again, and surely that is a VERY good thing. But on the other hand, God is also reminding us, "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee," it is no longer God's problem to fix things when we mess them up. WE need to take responsibility! We need to interpret the laws, apply the Torah in our lives, and create a just society that will stand the test of time. We can't keep ruining things... because God won't bail us out again.

In just a few more days, we will be seeing a perfect example of this. "Lo Ba-Shamayim Hee," God doesn't decide this election; heck, God doesn't even get a single vote! (Even though some fundamentalists DO seem to believe God resides in the United States of America alone, and WOULD therefore be able to vote...) People get
frustrated, disillusioned, and jaded, and they look around at the corruption, smear tactics, and voter suppression that we see all around us, and it might look like we're back in the evil world that Noah lived in pre-flood. But that's on us! It's OUR world, and yeah, it's got a whole myriad of flaws and problems. But no one else is bailing us out. Each and every one of us must cast a vote; there are no good excuses. We are NOT living in Noah's world, and hopefully reading about his problems can help put ours in perspective. Change is not impossible, and improvement CAN happen. If we grab hold of our fate, say "thanks, God, we'll take it from here," and work collectively to build a better future; change will happen. It starts with a single vote.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Apdency on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Adiel lo on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Russavia on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Asdefgaheckel on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bereisheet: Are We Asking Good Questions?

I am always amazed that in this day and age, in 2016, some people STILL insist on pitting science and religion against one another. A professor of mine, Neil Gillman, offered - what I consider - the best rebuke of this ludicrous debate.
The two are simply NOT in conflict, said Rabbi Gillman, because they are trying to answer different questions. Science wonders "How" the world was created. It then follows this up with questions like "When did it all happen?" and "What is everything made of?" Religion, on the other hand, asks entirely different queries, like "Why are we here?" and "What does it mean to live a good life?" And, quite frankly, one discipline isn't at all interested in the questions posed by the other. They are not at war with one another. This week, as we restart the reading of the Torah, back at the story of Creation, one single word shows us that we are dealing with a religious document and very much NOT a scientific one.

I suppose you COULD argue, as some do, that both science and religion examine the creation of everything... but almost immediately, they part ways. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, just four verses in, the Torah states: "God saw that the light was good." Good? How
unscientific to look at one's work and declare it "Good," or even "Bad," for that matter! It's unscientific, and it's irrelevant. But not to the Torah. From the very Beginning, we are invited to consider the qualitative, substantive, and moral aspects of our world. Are things good? Are we doing everything we can to MAKE them good, to enable them to help and not harm other people, animals, things, and even the planet itself? Perhaps not surprisingly, the Torah employs this (highly subjective and unprofessional) value judgment SEVEN times in its first chapter. The number seven mirrors, of course, the days of the week, and is considered in Judaism to be a number of wholeness and holiness. How very symbolic.

Our narrator applies the label "Good" to light on Day One; then nothing on Day Two (interesting in and of itself...); the separation of the Earth from the Sea AND later the creation of vegetation and fruit on Day Three ("good" is used twice); the sun, moon, and stars on Day Four;
sea creatures, creeping things (really?), and birds on Day Five; wild beasts and cattle on Day Six; and then, finally, as Day Six comes to a close, God looks back at all of God's creations and declares them "Tov Me'od," "VERY good" (1:31). Again, science would have no opinion on the question of whether things are "good" or not. But it is an essential, and central, concern for our Torah, for two important reasons.

First, it helps us see and feel that God cares about us and our world. God is invested in our success, and desperately wants this enterprise to succeed! Perhaps more importantly, however, we are meant to read the text as saying that all these things have THE POTENTIAL to be good. Especially in verse 31, we understand that anything and everything CAN BE "very good," but it won't happen all by itself. Are we helping
our world be "very good"? Are we, as human beings, living up to our potential to be "very good" for one another and for our planet? Sadly, the answer to a lot of these questions is "no." But our response cannot, and should not, be to therefore shut off, tune out, and become callous to the problems of the day. We don't have the luxury of looking at our planet through a microscope, or objectively analyzing the studies about species becoming extinct, temperatures rising, or pipelines destroying habitats. We live here too! And though science and religion diverge on origin stories, ultimately they do - and we should - converge back at realizing our planet needs help. We all need to be asking how we can do more, and reverse some troubling and alarming trends. We should stop pitting ourselves against one another, and instead get back to thinking about how to do good and BE good. Above all, we need to work on these issues together, or we might see the Creation story start working itself back in reverse. And that wouldn't be "very good" at all...

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Ydun on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Wakalani on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dolovis on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 21, 2016

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: An Exercise in Futility

Being misunderstood is very frustrating. Especially when it happens over and over again. You try and explain yourself, but it seems that no one gets what you're trying to say. Multiple people - multiple times -
keep getting the wrong impression, the wrong messages, and the wrong takeaways. It is truly maddening!! And yet, there is also an opportunity for self-reflection. If LOTS of people are indeed missing the point, and "simple" explanations aren't helping... maybe there's something wrong with the message? Maybe it isn't them; maybe it's me? This weekend, as we continue to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, we will also be chanting from the ancient Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet. And people KEEP misunderstanding what Kohelet is all about!! Why don't they get it??? Well, maybe it isn't the readers who are to blame...

Ecclesiastes is often described as a depressing book. It is cynical, jaded, and pessimistic. Perhaps that perception comes from sentiments like the one expressed in verse two of the entire book: "Utter futility! - said Kohelet - Utter futility!
All is futile!!" The author then goes on to elaborate on all the many pursuits he has engaged in throughout life, and again concludes: "All is futile!" So, not a very chipper fellow. But scholars and rabbis generally reject that categorization of Kohelet. I frequently read commentaries that state (something like): "... people often view Kohelet as pessimistic and downbeat. Nothing is further from the truth!" I struggle with this dichotomy. On the one hand, I too appreciate Kohelet (and I'll tell you why in a second); but on the other hand, if SO many people are misunderstanding the book, perhaps the problem lies with the text, not its readers?

On its surface, Ecclesiastes DOES come across as a downer. Let's just acknowledge that reality. What he is TRYING to convey, however, is more complex. He decries extremes - whether riches or poverty, self-aggrandizement or excessive humility, too much sadness or too much revelry. Kohelet likes the middle road. Moderation, self-discipline,
balance. What especially resonates with me is that the narrative isn't linear. It doesn't begin with tough questions and end with satisfying answers. It begins with an exclamation, and only LATER goes into his "research" about the meaning of life. And his conclusions, his main points, come at the end of chapters 2, 3, 5, and late in chapter 8 (among others). Each time, he then returns to his frustrations ("futility!!") and further searches for meaning and purpose. What I love about that is that it reflects REAL life. Our own "Aha!" moments of insight don't come in straight trajectories, or at predictable stages in life. Sometimes random, seemingly mundane situations produce the most important lessons of our entire lives. The same is true for Ecclesiastes.

I think Kohelet gets misunderstood because he gets written off. We look instead for upbeat messages and quick soundbites that don't require a lot of in-depth analysis. We like our information in 140 characters or (preferably) less. And while I think that's truly a shame, I also don't entirely fault the readers.
On Yom Kippur we talk about God meeting us halfway, eagerly "running" to accept our repentance and apologies. Shouldn't Ecclesiastes be doing the same? Appealing to US, rather than waiting for the reader to commit 100% before revealing important truths? In the spirit of moderation, perhaps it needs to be both. We need to focus our attention for longer than 30 seconds, but we do also have the right to expect Judaism and our age-old texts to make SOME effort to speak to us too. Instead of continuing to misunderstand one another, let's be open to truths and maxims both ancient and current. If we take just that little extra time, we may learn some wonderful things that help us navigate our world in healthier, more harmonious ways. And there's nothing futile about that at all.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ysangkok on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Nikodem Nijaki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 14, 2016

Ha'azinu: No More Talk; Just Listen

I'm not one to criticize Moses. Especially right after Yom Kippur, that does not seem wise. And he's a pretty good guy, right? Not perfect, sure, but who is? And yet, I really feel strongly that the Torah wants us to learn something from observing Moses.
Sometimes, we are meant to see his humility, his kindness, his passion for justice and the liberation of his people... and sometimes I think we are encouraged to disagree with him. Right now, as our national (and perhaps global) conversation is laser-focused on what makes a good leader, I feel we MUST look to the Torah for guidance. How do we want our leaders to act? What characteristics and qualities are most important to us? Watching Moses do his thing can be a very eye-opening experience...

This Saturday, we are reading the final weekly Torah portion of the annual cycle, Ha'azinu. On Simchat Torah (this year, starting
Monday evening, 10/24), we will read the final parashah, v'Zot ha-B'rachah, and then immediately start all over again at the beginning of Genesis. As the Torah draws to a close this week, Moses delivers one, final, LONG (43-verse) soliloquy, expressing his concerns that the Israelites will forsake God once they enter the land, and imploring them to remain faithful to Adonai. I have a hard time hearing this speech, and not because of the scathing language that Moses uses. The first word of our parashah, and the first word of his speech, "Ha'azinu," is where my gripe begins.

Moses has basically been battling the Children of Israel for 40 years. So has God, for that matter. The people complain. They rebel. They undermine the authority of BOTH Moses AND God. Why? In short: They don't want to be there.
It is true, they asked God to save them from oppression... but they never actually asked to leave Egypt. And they certainly never signed up for 613 commandments, a lengthy Torah, and exclusive worship of just ONE God. When I read the early part of the Book of Exodus, I see tremendous dissonance between leadership and its followers, between management and the workers on the assembly line. They aren't communicating well at all. Expectations from Above aren't clarified and outlined ahead of time; while needs, concerns, and rights are not expressed from below. They are talking AT one another... and certainly no one is listening.

Back then to our Torah portion. The first word, Ha'azinu, literally means "listen"! Is anyone? The ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, famously observed: "We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." Moses pontificates and threatens, but sure enough, the Israelites enter the land and begin to sin again! He demands that others listen, but he should lead by example.
On Thursday evening, I participated in an interfaith, community conversation on racism, organized by FUSE. It was amazing! 75 people came from across the county, and they sat together and "just" talked. Our conversations may not change the world, but we are doing something that is (sadly) so rare in our country these days; we are listening to one another. It sounds so simple, but Moses struggled with it, and many world leaders today are STILL mystified by it. It is SO crucial. I wonder how the Exodus story might have been different, if two-way communication - and listening! - had been more central. And I especially wonder how our lives today could, and might, look different if we spent more time listening to one another. It is hard to do, and it is hard to be self-aware enough to know when we're NOT doing it well. And yet... Ha'azinu; let us all take to heart the message of this one word, and let us truly hear it.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image of egalitarian, inclusive Simchat Torah flag courtesy of Masorti Olami (flags available for purchase)
3. CC image courtesy of Geo Swan on Wikimedia Commons
4. FUSE logo courtesy of FUSE Delco (and brilliantly designed by Amy Pollack)

Yom Kippur 5777: Morning Sermon

Here is my fourth, and final, High Holiday sermon on the topic of "Kavod," honor and respect. Please continue to share feedback, whether here on the blog or with me directly (via e-mail, phone, or in person); it is all greatly appreciated. I wish you all a Shanah Tovah - Happy and Healthy New Year!

Yom Kippur Morning 5777, D’var Torah
Shanah Tovah!
Did you see what the rabbis did just there? It was subtle, sure, but it’s so significant that we really cannot let it go unacknowledged. You see, our ancestors were VERY sneaky. They wanted to get their message across, but they didn’t always want to just knock you over the head with it, they wanted to be savvier than that, a little more cunning. Here’s what I’m talking about. Our Torah reading this morning came from the Book of Leviticus. It outlined the rituals of Yom Kippur in the Ancient Temple, so of course it was used as the subject of our Yom Kippur morning Torah reading. Lev. 16:31: “It shall be a Sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial.” That, by the way, is the verse you can thank for why you are starving right about now; thanks a lot for the fasting, Leviticus! The text goes on to elaborate on the very detailed and intricate rituals of the High Priest, and concludes with this thundering line: “It shall be to you a law for ALL TIME; to make penitence for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” (34) It is unequivocal, folks. These are the statutes of Yom Kippur for ALL TIME! We MUST follow them to the letter of the law.
And then, the very next thing the rabbis have us read, after we learned all those Yom Kippur rules, comes from the Prophet Isaiah, chapters 57 & 58. Isaiah scolds us: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like reeds bending in the wind, and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable? No! This is the fast I desire; to unlock the shackles of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off EVERY yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh and blood.”
Let me be really, really clear about this: Isaiah’s message is the exact OPPOSITE of the one we read RIGHT BEFORE in Leviticus. As we sit here, hungry from fasting, feeling sacred and holy for all our praying, the rabbis hold up a mirror to our faces and say, “Do you really think that is what God wants? IF there are people out there hungry, sick, oppressed, crying; do you think there are enough Avinu Malkeinu’s or Kol Nidrei’s or chest-beating Ashamnu’s to make that ok? No. Not a chance.”
This is probably a good moment for me to share with you my agenda here today. Although I can also be a little sneaky… In 1902, an American writer, Finley Peter Dunne coined a term describing the role of newspapers in our country, but I have heard many people use it to describe perfectly the work of the ancient prophets: “They comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” When things were bad, the prophets foretold salvation and redemption… but when people grew apathetic, lazy, and complacent, the prophets railed against them to do better,
to BE better. Many rabbis throughout the last two millennia saw themselves as the keepers of the prophetic legacy, and I think that is what you see going on in our Machzor. On the holiest day of the year, with the most people present, when we might be feeling safe and secure… and comfortable, the rabbis hold up a mirror to OUR faces, and remind us we are not doing enough. The world, and indeed our very own community around us, needs us to do more. Like our ancient prophets, and our medieval rabbis, I too want to employ that same mirror. So… are you feeling afflicted yet?
This is my fourth and final sermon on the topic of Kavod, meaning honor and respect. We’ve spoken about honoring the self, honoring our congregation, and honoring our different relationships with Israel. I would like to conclude the series by talking about “Kevod Ha-briyot,” honoring all people, which we might also describe as “Honoring The Other.” We’ve also thus far spoken about three of our patriarch, Jacob’s four wives. All these panels you see on the walls around us were descendants of Jacob, also known as Israel, but they each had a mother as well. Leah and Rachel we know quite well, but Zilpah, mother of Asher and Gad, is less known, as is Bilhah, mother of Dan and Naphtali, and the final matriarch about whom I’d like to speak.
Bilhah, in my mind, represents The Other. We know nothing about her.
Her story does not feel like ours, because none of us are descended from the tribes of Naphtali or Dan. They were two of the Ten Lost Tribes, part of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE (so over 2,700 YEARS ago), and whose stories separated from ours at that moment. They are not us. We know next to nothing about their descendants, so we don’t have to care about what happened to them. Right? Well, there is an interesting little asterisk at the end of that narrative. The Jewish community of Ethiopia, known as the Beta Yisrael, traces its origins back to – indeed – the Tribe of Dan. They cite testimony from a man who appeared in Egypt in the 9th Century CE, named Eldad ha-Dani, who said he came from Ethiopia, and that the people of his kingdom were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan. Today, many Ethiopian Jews live in Israel – over 120,000, in fact – where they keep the traditions of the Beta Yisrael, and their story has once again fused back to ours. A lost tribe has come home.
But these stories are never simple. The Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel today faces a lot of racism and discrimination. In May of 2015, Israeli Ethiopians demonstrated in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a video was released of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent being beaten up by Israeli police officers. Sound familiar at all? Black lives have a difficult time mattering there as well. Their story IS ours. That is Isaiah’s message. “Unlock the shackles of wickedness… do NOT ignore your own flesh and blood!”
There is an organization called Jews of all Hues, which reminds us that we are not all white, and that there IS a problem of racism within the Jewish community and in Israel. Furthermore, OUR community isn’t just the Jewish community, but Delaware County and our neighbors RIGHT HERE as well. I know you’ve heard me talk about our community project FUSE before, and I need to speak about it again, and I will do so in the future as well. It is part of my prophetic mission. I know that sounds like a crazy thing to say! But EVERY time I talk about FUSE, every time I do any work with FUSE, I feel energized, uplifted, and excited. I can’t help it. It feels like the work I NEED to be doing; it feels like my prophetic call. What can I say?
FUSE stands for the Fellowship of Urban Suburban Engagement, and it is our way of saying THIS is our community. We are one. We need to speak with one another, form relationships with people in Chester, Media, Swarthmore, Marcus Hook, Wallingford, and across our county, and we NEED to learn and take to heart that our fates are intertwined. Our country cannot heal until we all work to heal one another. I am so honored and grateful that my partner in this work, Mr. Cory Long, is here with us today. Cory runs a mentoring program in Chester called Team MAC, Team “Making a Change.” Cory was born and raised in Chester; he is OF Chester, as he likes to say. He is a role model and a leader in the community… and Cory is my friend.
We debated back and forth about having him actually come up and share his story with you, because I don’t want to speak FOR him, but we decided – together – against it. For today… Nevertheless, it means SO much to me that you are here today, Cory. I want to say publicly how privileged I feel to work with you, how much Rebecca and I have enjoyed spending time with you and Ronette, and how much you have taught me in a short time. Thank you.
Cory and I, and many other community leaders, are working together for the honor, the Kavod, of our shared home. Bonnie Breit, Shari Baron, Joel Fein, and others within Ohev are joining this work as well, and if you don’t know much about FUSE yet, and want to, please let me know. We are holding a very important community conversation on Racism TOMORROW night, in fact, at Wallingford Presbyterian Church, and on November 20th, Ohev is hosting a big FUSE interfaith Thanksgiving concert, called 4Ever Grateful, which I hope you can all attend. Our congregation is filled with Leah’s and Rachel’s, people whose lives we know, and whose stories feel like our own. But we also need to make room for the Zilpah’s and the Bilhah’s, who may seem strange and foreign, but who are a part of US nonetheless. Can their honor become as dear to us as our own?
Unintentionally, I seem to have been carrying yet another theme with me throughout the High Holidays this year. I really hadn’t meant to, but I’ve been quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in nearly every sermon.
Half a century ago, many people saw him as embodying that same prophetic voice, and he actually had a good friend whom HE saw as being a modern-day prophet as well. In March of 1968, Heschel was introducing his friend, as he got up to speak in front of a group of rabbis. Heschel said: “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were indeed good friends. They famously marched together in Selma, and just a few weeks after Heschel introduced King to those rabbis, he heart-breakingly found himself reading a psalm at Dr. King’s funeral. Three days after that funeral service, had he not been assassinated, Dr. King would have been celebrating Passover at the home of Heschel and his family.
Both Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel embodied the prophetic voice of old. They certainly afflicted the comfortable; they knew how to challenge the status quo and FORCE people to think about the need for change… But they also comforted the afflicted. One of the things I especially find SO powerful about each of them is how they REFUSED to lose hope. Ever. The point of my challenging you all today is not to cause guilt or shame. That doesn’t work on anyone. You know that I know that. But we also can’t be apathetic. We can’t become desensitized, and we can’t stop fighting for change. I KNOW how it sounds when I tell you this feels like my prophetic call.
I hear myself say it and I’m surprised… and a little embarrassed. Who am I to claim such a thing?? In Hebrew or Yiddish, we might say it takes an awful lot of Chutzpah to compare myself to the prophets, or to people like Heschel and King. In English, we might say it is filled with audacity and hubris.
But chutzpah, audacity, is actually a powerful part of Yom Kippur as well. We dress in white, because we imagine the angels too wear, or are by their very nature, white. We fast, in part because angels don’t need food. And there are lines in our liturgy, our prayers, that every other day of the year we say only silently, because only angels spoke them out loud. But on Yom Kippur, we shout them aloud, so that perhaps God will believe we are free of sin and pure like the heavenly angels. What chutzpah?!?! Could we EVER successfully FOOL God??? What tremendous and ridiculous audacity!! Yet, here we are. And here I am, Hineini, telling you we need to hear this prophetic call, and we need to do better in the year ahead.
While we’re on the subject of chutzpah, of audacity, it also makes me think of President Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” in which he too echoes the same sentiments we’ve just heard from Isaiah, Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel. Obama writes, “To think clearly about race, then, requires us to see the world on a split screen... to maintain in our sights the kind of America that we want, while looking squarely at America as it is,
to acknowledge the sins of the past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair.” This is my question for all of us here today, and for the year ahead: Can we, together, maintain that split-screen? Can we talk about systemic racism, gun violence, white privilege, white fragility, and the problems that plague our society, yet all the while refusing to become bitter, jaded, or so cynical that nothing changes or we stop caring? Can we come to the table and speak honestly, holding up mirrors to one another, and challenging each other to be our best selves, to form new relationships and bonds across our various divides, to heal our country and our world together?
This entire past year, along with focusing on the work that Cory and I have been doing with FUSE, I’ve also been struggling with something that Martin Luther King said. Or rather, I’ve been stuck in a split-screen. One part of the screen focuses on Dr. King’s famous line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” He reminded us to be patient, because the universe IS good, maybe it’s just Good Enough, and slowly but surely we’re getting there. Things ARE getting better. But the other part of my split-screen is a retort, a provocative response from the writer, Ta-nehisi Coates, who recently stated in his book “Between the World and Me”: “The arc of history bends towards chaos.” Things aren’t getting better, or when they do, they snap back in the other direction as well. Xenophobia, racism, bigotry, fear and all its mongers;
Coates is very concerned that the universe moves in the OPPOSITE direction to what Dr. King suggested. I can’t stop thinking about these two quotes, these two world-views, or perhaps universal-views. But we are not passive in this story. We are movers; we bend, and we need to decide which way we will curve; like reeds in the wind, or like angels, shouting out glory before God.
As I conclude this sermon, and with it my theme for these High Holidays, I again want to emphasize my message: I am NOT peddling guilt or shame, but I AM trying to push you, and maybe afflict you JUST a little. You know, Ohev Shalom is about to celebrate its centennial. One hundred years ago, our story began in Chester, much like Cory’s, and much like many of you, sitting here today. Like Cory, we are “OF Chester.” Our history is fused together; our future should be too. The panels on these walls should remind us that we as Jews are not just descended from Leah’s son, Judah, or Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, but Zilpah’s children as well, and Bilhah’s too; our shared story takes many forms… and many different hues.
We need to remember this at all times, and place before ourselves the prophetic call of “Kevod Ha-Briyot,” honoring ALL people. We need to share our bread, our clothing, and even our homes with one another, and never allow ourselves to believe that nothing will change. We can make change happen, if we do it fused together.
But we have to keep our eyes on the split-screen, aware of the problems that afflict us and comforted knowing we WILL get to a better place. There IS a lot of chaos swirling around us, and making things seem bleak and hopeless. But we need to hold on to our chutzpah, our audacity. We cannot allow ourselves to be crushed by the chaos. It may push us, it may even bend us. And we SHOULD bend. But when we do, let us bend towards honor and glory; let us bend towards Kavod.
Shanah Tovah!