Friday, December 29, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yechi: Be a Man! (Guest Blogger, Rabbi Kelilah Miller)

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy New Year! I want to thank Rabbi Gerber for once again lending me this platform (while he is on vacation), especially in a year in which he is exploring the Haftarah each week! It is a wonderful reason to do a deeper reading into the Books of the Prophets:

This week’s Haftarah mirrors the Torah portion rather closely in theme.
In the Torah portion, Jacob shares his final wishes and blessings with his sons; in the Haftarah, King David gives his final charge to his son Solomon, who will rule after him. Both are deathbed scenes involving the final requests of the dying, but there the similarities seem to stop. 

Jacob seems interested in bringing his shattered family back together by urging forgiveness. He asks that Joseph forgive his brothers for what they did to him, and Joseph appears ready to let the past go (Gen 50:16-17).  Conversely, David urges revenge. He gives Solomon a list of who is to be rewarded and who is to be assassinated.  Perhaps most disturbingly, some of the grudges appear to be personal (I Kings 2:8), rather than strictly rooted in political necessity. David appears in this text as a savvy but merciless ruler, right up to his death.

It seems that I am not the only person who has been bothered by King David’s approach.  According to the commentary of Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane, a section was added to this Haftarah that tries to mediate David’s ruthless message.
Right before David’s political directives, there is a section in which David gives Solomon religious advice. He urges Solomon to follow God’s Laws and to walk in God’s ways. He adds that, if Solomon will follow these rules of conduct, his line will be secure on the throne forever (I Kings 2:3-4). Fishbane suggests that a later editor of the text added this section in order to make a clear point: lasting leadership is based on principle and faith, rather than military might and political maneuvering.  We, like David, live in the “real world” of violence and politics, but that reality is not everything. There are things more lasting and more crucial to remember than a list of friends and enemies. There are qualities more valuable than the power to enforce one’s will upon others.

It is striking to me that, before all of this religious and military advice, David prefaces his words by telling Solomon: “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man” (I Kings 2:2). We live in a time in which many of us are trying to
reassess what it means to “be a man”. As the parents of a boy, my husband and I are particularly interested in this question, as we prepare our child to take his place in his family and community.  I am grateful to the later editor of this week’s Haftarah for providing us with a reminder that this is an old conversation - not just a new one. Our larger society (both then and now) sometimes tells boys that power over others is all-important, but we can do our best to teach our children to make choices based on the teachings of a Torah of mercy and kindness - as Jacob tried to do in the end.

Photos in this blog post:
1) CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
2) CC image courtesy of Thomas Quine on Wikimedia Commons 

3) CC image of Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," courtesy of Lviatour on Wikimedia Commons 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Haftarat Shabbat Chanukah: Balancing Light and light

Happy Chanukah, everyone! I hope that you are all finding - in the midst of this darkest season of the year - that the glowing candles of the Menorah, along with the shimmering Christmas decorations from houses all around, are bringing some light and some warmth into your lives. The Menorah
(or Chanukiah) always strikes me as one of our most powerful Jewish symbols. It carries great historical meaning; both for our people throughout the millenia, but also for many of us who have personal, warm, glowing family memories of lighting the Menorah in years (or decades) past. It is SO ubiquitous, in fact, and so tied up with Chanukah and/or the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem, that we rarely (if ever) stop and question what the Menorah actually means! What does it represent, with its many branches and little cups of oil? If you don't know the answer, don't feel bad. One of the first people ever to be presented with this image, 2,500 years ago, didn't get it either.

Though we read a regular Torah portion this Shabbat, Mikeitz, and continue the story of Joseph in Egypt, we add a short, final reading (maftir) from a different part of the Torah. This addition relates specifically to the holiday, to Chanukah, and then we continue with a Haftarah just for Chanukah as well. This may seem curious to
you, because the entire Torah - and indeed our Haftarah - are MUCH older than the holiday we're celebrating! Like hundreds and hundreds of years older!! But the rabbis found episodes in the Torah AND in the later prophetic writings that talked about OTHER dedications or rededications of holy spaces, and connected those ceremonies to the more modern Festival of Lights. Pretty crafty, those rabbis... So our Haftarah for Chanukah comes from the prophet Zechariah, who preached to the people around 530 BCE, when the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed all the various groups enslaved by the Babylonians to return to their homes. Fifty years after their Temple had been destroyed, the Jews found themselves back in Jerusalem, planning a big reconstruction project! Enter Zechariah.

In his prophetic proclamations, Zechariah tells the people that God will return to Zion. He talks about the purification and investiture of the High Priests, and then shares a vision of a magnificent lampstand, a Menorah.
In chapter four, an angel approaches Zechariah and asks him what he sees. Zechariah responds: "I see a lampstand all of gold... the lamps on it are seven in numbers, and the lamps above it have seven pipes" (v. 2). The angel then asks him, "Do you not know what those things mean?" And Zechariah responds, "No, my lord." (6) I kind of find it comforting that even a Biblical prophet was puzzled by this. Indeed, even when we were first introduced to the Menorah, back in Exodus 25:31-40, the people were given instructions on HOW to build it, but not WHY! Zechariah's angelic buddy finally offers an explanation. The seven arms of the Menorah represent "the eyes of Adonai, ranging over the whole earth" (10), and commentators also connect the branches to the seven days of Creation; God's first gift to our planet.

I like those images, but I want to add another thought to it. Every year, we - humans - have to light the Menorah. It's not like the Eternal Light in our sanctuaries, burning perpetually. When Chanukah returns, year after year, we have to actively light the candles and bring God's Presence into our lives. This is further strengthened
by the miracles of our holiday, which also embody Divine-human partnership. Whether you focus on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, or the rededication of the Temple and the conservation of oil; when we work hand-in-(anthropomorphized) "hand" with God, amazing things happen! Even now, when something great occurs on Chanukah, people are inclined to say, "It's a Chanukah miracle!" I know it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's actually a serious lesson in there too. The message of Chanukah is the balancing act between self-reliance and faith in God. We need some of each. If we have zero faith, our actions often feel devoid of meaning. But if we leave everything up to God, and practice blind faith, we may ignore our own moral compass and allow zealotry to corrupt everything.

Chanukah reminds us to walk that middle line. As we light the candles, let us remember to maintain that vital balance. Bring God's light into our lives and our homes... and let our own light shine just as bright and vibrant as well. Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maor X on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of fruity monkey on Flickr

Friday, December 8, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yeishev: Be a Candle

It is really hard to focus on just one topic this week. With everything going on in politics, in Israel, and so many other issues - not to mention that I just attended a very thought-provoking conference of Conservative Jews in Atlanta - it's tough to
zero in on ONE thing I want to say. Oh, and Chanukah is starting this week too... Soooo, what should we discuss? Well, two points in the Haftarah this week jumped out at me, so I guess that's as good a place to start as any. This week, it is the prophet Amos who is yelling at us. And no, it's not in your head; many of the Haftarot do indeed consist of one prophet or another chastising Israel for their misdeeds. Keeping to BOTH the Halachic (legal) requirements of the laws AND the ethical expectations was not, shall we say, a strong suit of our ancient ancestors...

In the first verse of our Haftarah, Amos lambastes the people because "they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals" (2:6). This, by the way, is also one of the links between our Torah portion and its Haftarah. Just as Joseph's brothers sold him
into slavery, and suffered for such a heinous crime, so too the Israelites will pay for not protecting the weak and innocent. Today, we certainly find ourselves debating who is REALLY looking out for the poor and those in the working class. It is popular to describe oneself as defending the defenseless against some specter of oppression, but Amos is particularly angry at those who would exploit the impoverished for their own financial gain. This is truly a desecration of Biblical law; both the literal meaning of our mitzvot as well as the moral spirit of the Torah.

In the next chapter, Amos explains why God is especially incensed, and why the Israelites are being held to such a high standard: "You alone have I singled out, of all the families on earth; that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities"
(3:2). When you are called to a special relationship, to a position of leadership and esteem, it DOES come with responsibilities as well. Your conduct is scrutinized, and the pressure IS higher. Whether you want it to be or not. To me, our chosenness as Jews does not mean we are "better" than anyone else. But we hold ourselves to a code, and we try to live our lives with integrity, compassion, and meaning. When fellow Jews are celebrated in the news, we feel immense pride and closeness... and when they are called out for misbehavior, criminal activity, and moral bankruptcy, we all cringe and groan collectively.

Amos' prophecies foretold the eventual destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Later prophets would chastise the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah for its own offenses, but eventually they too were punished with ruination in 586 BCE. These two stories - as well as
the story of Chanukah, which also focuses on a desecrated Temple and its rededication - remind us of the importance of Israel and Jerusalem. But they also remind us how fragile and impermanent even the strongest of places and ideas can be. As we prepare for the upcoming Festival of Lights, let us remember to be a "light" ourselves, a candle of wisdom, enlightenment, progress, and justice, but also of humility, kindness, compassion, and love. Amos reminds us that success is fleeting and false, if obtained on the backs of the vulnerable and innocent. Sometimes winning isn't really winning, if the cost is too high. Let the candles of Chanukah remind us to focus on what really matters, and to seek to bring more good into a world that sorely needs it.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Carlos Delgado on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Christian75 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dov Harrington on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 1, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yishlach: Forging a New Relationship with Esau

In the wake of the US president retweeting anti-Muslim videos, I want to dedicate this blog post to interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue. Is there a problem of fundamentalist in the world? Absolutely. And is much
of it done in the name of Islam and Allah? Sadly, yes, though Muslims around the world have decried the violence, and have emphasized time and again that Islam is a religion of peace, love, and compassion. Would we, as Jews, want the ultra-Orthodox in Israel to speak for all of us? Or allow their brand of Judaism (if you can even call it that...) to be considered THE official representation of what we stand for? How fitting, then, that our Torah portion this week speaks of our complicated and multi-faceted relationship with other peoples, and the Haftarah echoes that tension in a powerful and eternally-reverberating way.

The real tragedy - in my opinion - of those tweeted videos is that they stereotype and generalize. "Islam is..." And yet, NONE of us are just one thing. We are all complex and layered. Earlier in Genesis, we learned that Jacob and Esau are
brothers, children of the same two parents. But rivalry poisoned their relationship, and Esau vowed to kill Jacob for stealing their father's blessing. This week, we read about their dramatic reunion, which takes place decades later. And to our (and Jacob's) great surprise, Esau offers only love and reconciliation. They are a family once again. It is a beautiful scene... and yet we know that the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, become our bitter enemies. Then, in a later generation, we are allies again. Our Haftarah, the entire prophecy of Ovadiah, takes us (most likely) to yet another, later era, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE, where the Edomites are once again an enemy of Israel. And so on it goes...

Ovadiah rails against the deceit of Esau when Israel lay in ruins: "How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster, gaze in glee with the others on its misfortune on its day of disaster, and lay hands on its wealth?!?" (1:13) He goes on to prophesy that "As you did, so shall it be done
to you; your conduct shall be requited." (15) You'll get what's coming to you!! And what I find so sad here is the endlessness of it all. We did to them and they did to us; Jacob tricked Esau, and Edom attacked Israel. We're still doing it today! We engage in so much senseless "whataboutism," where we say, "sure, we did x, but what about what THEY did???" It's an endless cycle, and truly nobody wins. Our ancient rabbinic ancestors loved Ovadiah's prophecies, because they used "Edom" as a euphemism for the evil Roman Empire, and heaped insult upon curse on Edom when they couldn't castigate their ACTUAL oppressors, the Romans. All these cultural memories, the millennia of fighting, are today wrapped up in our associations with Muslims, Arabs, and The Other.

We CAN break the cycle. But we first have to realize how ancient and deep the distrust is, see it in ourselves, and then actively choose - again and again - to reject that narrative. To spurn the objectionable videos that perpetuate stereotypes, and those who traffic in them. Just last week, I had the tremendous privilege of being honored by a local religious group that is a tremendous partner of ours.
The Islamic Center of Chester, also called Masjid Mustaqeem, asked me to be one of their honorees at their Appreciation Banquet. A dozen Ohevites joined me at this wonderful ceremony. And we were blessed to see some of the best that the Islamic faith - and its adherents - have to offer. It is a beautiful religion, with SO many similarities to our own. They are our brother; Esau to our Jacob, Ishmael to our Isaac, in the purest sense of that bond. We are family. Another honoree at the banquet offered a beautiful poem that touched each and every one of us. And I am posting it here, because it utterly encompasses my own view of the world, and of our shared God. We know our history; we know what the Edomites did, what Ovadiah witnessed, and the rabbis endured. But that is not my reality. I wholeheartedly spurn that narrative. I will form my own relationships and my own opinions; my hand is entirely and lovingly held open to my brother, Esau.

Muslim poem by an unknown author:
“I asked Allah for strength and Allah gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked Allah for wisdom and Allah gave me problems to solve.
I asked Allah for courage and Allah gave me obstacles to overcome.
I asked Allah for love and Allah gave me troubled people to help.
I asked Allah for favors and Allah gave me opportunities.
Maybe I received nothing I wanted, but I received everything I needed – Alhamdulillah.”

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of CFCF on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Twitter post that (sarcastically) embodies "Whataboutism"
4. Image of honorees at Masjid Mustaqeem's Appreciation Banquet, courtesy of Amy Pollack

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Haftarat Vayeitzei: Thank You, Uncomfortable History!

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

"The Chosen" - by Michael 'Storm' Miller

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

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

Haftarat Lech Lecha: Seeds of Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Yom Kippur Main Sermon, 5778

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

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

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

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