Friday, August 25, 2017

Shoftim: Owning Your Own Season of Repentance

Well, we're back here again. The Jewish month of Elul began this week, which means we're officially in the Season of Repentance, which will lead us straight into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a few, short weeks.
Much as I find this season intimidating (and I do...), I also like that we begin the preparations for these MAJOR services a few weeks early, and start thinking about the holiday themes before the big day is actually upon us. One of the central things that Elul invites us to do is to stop, look around, and think about where we're going and how we feel about it. Are you pleased with the trajectory of your own life, and/or are there changes that can - and should - be made? Looking further around, how is your community doing? And your country? And if you've got some concerns, what does that mean to you, and what happens next? All of that is wrapped up in Elul, so I thought it might be a good time to spend a few minutes talking about these issues.

Our Torah portion, Shoftim, has a couple of interesting opinions on the subject, and one in particular comes from a slightly new reading of a verse that I thought I'd already understood fully. I had not. But first, let me begin at the start of the Torah portion.
The very first verse tells us: "Shoftim v'Shotrim Titein Lecha b'chol Sha'areicha." "You shall appoint magistrates and officials FOR YOURSELVES in all your gates" (Deut. 16:18). I put "for yourselves" in all caps for a reason. It is true that the community needs leaders, and every community and country has a process for how those leaders come to power. But the verse could easily have just said "appoint them." But the word "lecha," "for yourself," which is actually stated in the singular, means that each person has to decide who s/he considers to be a leader. You may win an election, but you can't mandate that people will see you as a leader. Honor, respect, and trust are earned. You cannot threaten, cajole, or bully people into believing in you and wanting to follow your leadership style.

Which brings me to my re-reading of another verse. Soon after the parashah opens, we read a famous call to social justice: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof," "Justice, Justice, you shall
pursue!" (16:20) I recently read a commentary on this line, which changed its meaning slightly. Instead of seeing the doubling of the word "justice (or righteousness)" as merely being a strengthening of its importance, we might see the second word as an adverb instead. This renders the quote as: "Justice you shall pursue righteously." In other words, the ends do not justify the means. You can't pursue justice in an unjust manner. You have to use righteous, compassionate, kind, and thoughtful tools in your pursuit of justice. You can't raise pitchforks, shields, and torches, and threaten violence, and believe that these can be wielded as tools of "tzedek." It doesn't work that way. The means need to mirror the end; the methods need to be just as moral and empathetic as your intended goal.

All of this circles back to the month of Elul. Each of us needs to choose "for ourselves" the kind of leaders, methods, and community structures that we want to see in the world. We need to hold ourselves AND our magistrates & officials to a higher standard,
and we need to expect more of all of them. It also can't be all talk. We can't shout "Justice, Justice!!" and not employ just and ethical tactics in bringing those values into being. So take this time to start to ask yourself (and others) some tough questions. You still have a whole month before Rosh Hashanah (thank God!). But it comes faster than you'd think... With the start of a new year looming around the corner, how will you seek to make change and embody the values that you uphold? No one else can make these changes FOR you. You have to select them "Lecha," "for yourself." And consider holding up verse 20 as a mantra for Elul, in BOTH its meanings: We should double our efforts to seek peace and justice, AND we must do so in a righteous and compassionate way. Let the Season of Repentance begin!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gilabrand on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Alaney2k on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris Orel on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Martin Kozak on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Invocation at Interfaith Service after the Violence in Charlottesville, VA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are not.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eikev: On the Heels of a Really Big Word

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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