Friday, February 19, 2021

Terumah (Purim. So beware...): Newly Discovered Psalm(ish) Translations

I had fully intended to write a “regular” blog post this week, discussing the riveting intricacies of Parashat Terumah, but an incredible discovery was... well... discovered this week, and I had to share that with you instead. As you may know, the Purim story took place in the city of Shushan, the capital city in the ancient Persian Empire of... um... Persia. Modern-day Iran. In fact, the Jews spent centuries upon centuries in that region, so it would really be swell if the Iranians would let us come in and excavate (respectfully, of course), to see what kinds of Jewish history could be unearthed underneath the... er... earth. 

BUT, this week, the Jewish scholarly world was tickled pink to learn that a never-before seen scroll was smuggled out of modern-day Shushan, and it contains the translations of several Biblical psalms by a Persian, Jewish philosopher. This previously-unknown scholar lived 2,500 years ago (!), and his name, apparently, translated to Rabbi Zephaniah Seussai. I am tickled-even-MORE-pink to share with you the English translations of two of his incredible, upbeat, Farsi-riffic psalms:

Psalm 145 (more well-known as the Ashrei):

Fortunate are those who dwell in Your house; 
may they praise You louder than the praise of a mouse. 

Fortunate is the people whose portion is thus; 

Adonai is their God; they have no reason to fuss. 

A psalm of David,

To You, my God, the King, I sing. 

I would swing, flap my wing, 

and let Your Name forever ring. 

Every day I will bless and not guess, then give an address, no less! 

Extol Your Name, not a shame, lots of fame, you got game, each day I say the same. 

Adonai is the greatest, unfathomably great;

God’s also magnificousleriffic - of that there’s no debate!

God’s splendiforously splendid, I think you’ll agree. 

God’s acts are the mightiest, as strong as can be. 

God is boundlessly bountiful, I think that’s a lot. 

Is righteously righteous, and fiery red hot!

So praise and extol God, from Aleph to Tav;

Adonai is the greatest… now show God some love!

Psalm 150:


I will praise God in the Temple,

I will praise God, O so gentle. 

I will praise God in the sky,

Praising low and praising high. 

Praise with horn and harp and flute

And even with something called a lute. 

I’ll play the timbrel (does one play it?)

And the lyre (that’s how you say it?)

A pipe can be played best,

Upside down against your chest. 

While the oboe sounds sublime,

At 5am, so be on time!

I’ll play the shofar in the shower,

Beat a drum for one full hour. 

God is worth it, that’s for sure,

Whether on the Nevel or Kinor. 

If you’re a Levite, try a Minim

Or an Ugav, or a Tof;

But the Machol can be tricky,

And the Tziltzalim are rough. 

These ancient instruments are odd,

But the point here is still good. 

Every breath of life praise God,

Come on, you know you really should!

It is even rumored that a descendant of Rabbi Zephaniah Seussai, centuries upon centuries later, made it to the United States, where he - of course - became a world-famous doctor. :-))

Happy Purim! 🤪

L’Chaim (newsletter) article, February, 2021

When Can We Finally Say “Dayeinu”?!

We’re not quite up to the holiday of “Dayeinu” (Passover) yet, but it still feels like a word - or at least an exclamation - that, for many of us, is all too present right now. In the context of the Pesach Haggadah, this one word is the refrain of a popular song, and the word itself means “Enough.” Or, to be more precise, it really means, “It would have been enough for us…” 

The song, Dayeinu, is supposed to remind us of just how many glorious miracles God performed for us when rescuing us from slavery in Egypt, bringing us through the desert, giving us the Torah, and bringing us into The Promised Land. Any one of these gifts and favors would have been “enough,” yet God did for us more and more and more.

In modern Hebrew, the word “Dai” (pronounced like “die”) is a common word in everyday conversation, and means “quit it!” Or “enough already!” And, to be honest, I think that’s more the feeling we’re all experiencing these days: Pandemic still raging? Dayeinu! We’ve had enough! Insurrection at the Capitol and a turbulent, complicated transfer of power? Dayeinu! Environmental crises continue, but now we all feel even LESS well-equipped to deal with it? DAYEINU!! 

Nevertheless, here we are. And one of the things that repetitive Passover song also reminds us of, is the importance of being mindful and present to our experiences. Even when we’re not feeling grateful, and when things seem rough, we should STILL be “in the moment.” Because we can learn a lot. As challenging as the Exodus story was for our ancestors - filled with agony, pain, and loss - it did ultimately become a foundational story for us as a people. And repeating that story (along with its songs) has preserved us as a people for millennia. 

There is a lot we can learn from all we are going through right now. It isn’t fun, and it’s pushing us in many challenging ways. We want to say “Dayeinu!!” - “I’ve had it up to HERE!!” But as a people, we have learned over the ages that these can also be life-changing moments of clarity, intentionality, meaning, and purpose. We’re all likely maintaining social distancing for a fair while longer… let’s use this time to be mindful and focused, so that we can emerge on the other side with grounding experiences that inspire us as well as future generations. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Mishpatim: It's All About Me... isn't it?

Ordinarily, when I write a D'var Torah or a blog post, I try to focus in on *one thing* that I want to speak about. Less is more. Have an interesting and/or funny beginning, make one good point, stick the landing, and get out of there! Maybe that sounds a bit trite, but let's face it, it works. When someone instead feels the need to make six individual arguments, and include a plethora of citations, it gets a bit... lengthy... and boring. This week, however, I had the unique opportunity to work with nine third graders in our religious school, who are going to be giving the D'var Torah at services on Saturday. Each child is going to mention a different mitzvah from our parashah, so I felt I was given the chance to examine nine separate commandments, rather than just focus on one. Yet interestingly, a single common thread still emerged, and a singular value floated to the surface of this mixture of Biblical laws.

This Torah portion is quite commandment-heavy to begin with. After having focused mainly on narrative and stories for all of Genesis and half of Exodus, this reading begins a lengthier section of Biblical text that center instead on rules and guidelines for creating a society in Ancient Israel. Slavery is now in the rearview mirror for our ancestors; now they have to start figuring out how to form a sustainable community. On Saturday, our Gimmel (3rd grade) class will touch upon laws related to treatment of foreigners and disenfranchised individuals in society; gossiping, lying, stealing; a person's obligations vis-a-vis the larger community (e.g. responsibility for animals, one's home and property, and what constitutes ownership); idolatry, blasphemy, and even the rules for holiday observance and sacrificial offerings. It sounds like a BIG undertaking, but I promise you, they're up to the task!

After we had decided on all the mitzvot the kids would be covering, we spoke for a bit in class about what connects them all together. Is there any underlying value that winds its way through all these rules and ordinances? The answer - which perhaps doesn't altogether surprise you - is "yes." If I had to phrase it in one sentence, I would say, "it isn't all about you." Whether the Torah is proscribing idolatry, describing holiday observance, decreeing rules to govern a society, or admonishing wealthier, more influential community members against taking advantage of those who are weaker - the message is actually the same. You must consider the needs of others, and what works best for you personally is simply NOT the only consideration. What perhaps *also* isn't all that surprising, is that as simple and straightforward as this message may be, it seems very difficult to learn and live by. And you and I both know I'm not just talking about people in Ancient Israel...

There is an interesting and complex balance at work here. On the one hand, we are mammals; hard-wired to stay alive, avoid potentially lethal situations, activate our fight-or-flight instinct at a moment's notice, and constantly prioritize survival. At the same time, we also pride ourselves on being civilized and peace-loving. We teach and preach compassion, kindness, sharing, manners, and teamwork. Not too infrequently, these basic values conflict. In those moments, our conscience and our sense of right-and-wrong is supposed to, ideally, determine if this is a life-threatening situation. And if it isn't, we should put aside those survival instincts and share our resources and means with those around us. Sometimes - and this is ESPECIALLY hard for some to fathom - we are actually meant to be altruistic EVEN when it may be a dangerous, potentially lethal circumstance.

Among many different groups and societies, this notion of "it's not all about you" is called The Golden Rule. It's phrasing may change slightly, but it's always the same principle. And yes, we know it contradicts an animal-instinct deep inside us. That's kind of the point. It isn't natural or obvious to lower your drive towards self-preservation, and instead emphasize your care and concern for someone else. But that is what makes us human, or at least has the potential to. I am grateful to these third graders for helping me see this, amidst all these disparate laws. And they got a pretty great D'var Torah out of it too!

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. The Good News Network
2. Pixabay
3. Gan Khoon Lay on
4. Pixabay


Friday, February 5, 2021

Yitro: What Moses Brought Down from the Skyscraper

The Israelites made it out of Egypt, they crossed the Sea of Reeds, and now it is time to start morphing from a ragtag band of slaves into a nation. Needless to say, this is no small task. But one major tool that will help them along is a foundational document; a text that solidifies who they are, what they’re about, where they come from, where they’re going, and what they stand for. Enter... The Ten Commandments. These are, of course, a big deal; given here in this week’s Torah portion, and then reiterated towards the end of the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy. One thing I emphatically want to stress for you, dear reader, is not actually the specifics of WHAT these stone tablets say, but a hidden feature that is essential for making these edicts applicable in our lives today.

I want to focus on one of the commandments in particular, to illustrate my point, but just to quickly run through them all (even though different religious traditions actually enumerate them differently... but that’ll be the topic of a future post), we’ve got: Acknowledge that God took us out of Egypt; Do not worship idols; Do not swear falsely using God’s name; Remember Shabbat; Honor your parents; Don’t murder; Don’t commit adultery; Don’t steal; Don’t testify falsely; Don’t be jealous of someone else’s “stuff.” At first glance, they seem straightforward and crystal-clear. But let me ask you; what is the practical action that is required in order to “Acknowledge” that God redeemed us from slavery? Or how, precisely, should you “Remember” Shabbat? What is the Torah actually mandating with these statements? The hidden feature I mentioned earlier is, in fact, the vagueness of the commandments. And yes, I know that sounds strange.

So the mitzvah I want to focus on for another minute is “Honor your father and your mother.” Similar to my points in the last paragraph, what does “Honor” really mean? It's really quite vague on its own, but then the ancient rabbis complicate things further, by asking a challenging question: “What if your parent asks you to steal or testify falsely??” If we're supposed to (perhaps) “obey our parents,” what happens if that parent instructs me to break one of the other Top Ten!?! In the rabbinic mind, that is precisely why the Torah does *not* command us to obey them, but instead leaves us with the opaque term, To Honor. It is not, say our Teachers, honorable to commit a crime, just because your parent told you to. The precept against illegal activity wins out. When we pull back and look at our relationship with Torah, over the course of millennia, we actually see that the space left for interpreting, questioning, and challenging the text is absolutely FUNDAMENTAL. Furthermore, values will change over the course of time. A rigid, uncompromising law will not age well, while one that has grown, shifted, and been reinterpreted and unpacked generation after generation will much more easily evolve along with us, its intended adherents.

And yet, my original assertion still remains true: To become a people, our ancestors needed a foundational set of laws. Those tablets formed the solid base upon which to grow a religion. But much like engineering has discovered about skyscrapers, bridges, and many other structures, the ability to sway and bend is *critical* for survival. Earthquakes will shake buildings into oblivion, unless they can move WITH the natural forces, but in a controlled way. Believe it or not, the Torah works this way too. An ability to sway and shift is actually built into the process of law-making and meaning-making. But it can be tricky. A little too rigid, and religion may beat people up and demand blind adherence! A little too “bendy,” and the laws may be seen as saying whatever the heck we want them to! It is, indeed, a balancing act. When we read about Moses ascending Mount Sinai, we may think he’s bringing back cold, hard, immutable edicts; literally carved in stone! But the internal structure is actually much more ingenious and intricate than that. Hidden in the words, the sentences, and even the very material itself, is something much more fluid and adaptable. And THAT fluidity is actually the key to why we’re still here to this very day. 

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Geograph
2. qimono on pixabay
3. pixy
4. Claudio Núñez on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 29, 2021

B'Shallach (repost): Never Say Never - Especially with a Prophet(ess) in the Room...

This week, I'm actually reposting something I wrote in my FIRST year at Ohev Shalom, from 2010. I was amazed to discover how pertinent this post felt/feels, considering how much the world has changed in over a decade... Let me know what you think! (I was a little wordier back then, so I apologize for my lack of brevity.) Thanks.

If you ever gave it much thought, you might assume that the biggest I-told-you-so's in all of history were the Biblical prophets. I mean, these people knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would take place, and what the outcome would be. Rarely were their warnings heeded, and so their predictions frequently came true. And how tempting then to stand on top of a rock, throw your hands in the air, and belt out with all your might, "I TOLD YOU SO!!" Yet remarkably (and thankfully), they rarely took that approach. 

More often they saw it as a failure in themselves, and repented along with the rest of the people. And if they did point out that they knew the future all along, they probably employed a little more subtlety than what I depicted above. And it's very possible that they learned the more humble approach from the Torah itself. This week, we see a very graceful (almost hidden) "I told you so" uttered by the Biblical narrative, and I think it teaches us something very valuable.

This week, the Israelites have escaped slavery! However, they may technically be out of Egypt, but they are not out of the proverbial woods yet. They are instead running for their lives; marching day and night to escape the pursuing Egyptian army. It is only when they successfully cross the Sea of Reeds (commonly, and erroneously, referred to as the Red Sea) that they taste true freedom. And at this point, the Bible states, "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels" (Exodus, 15:20). Since when is Miriam a prophetess? And why is she referred to as Aaron's sister, and not Moses' sister?? What's going on here?

Well, one possibility is that this enigmatic verse is meant to remind us of something that was only revealed in a midrash (rabbinic story), and not in the text itself. When Pharaoh, long before, first decreed to kill all male Israelite children, the parents of Miriam and Aaron decided to get divorced (or so the story goes...). "Why bring more children into this terrible world?" they asked. And Miriam, their daughter chastised them both. "You're worse than Pharaoh!" she proclaimed. "At least he only intends to kill the males, you want to end our people's story altogether!!" And then she added, "And who knows? Maybe the next child to be born will be our savior..." And wouldn't you know it? They got back together and had one more child: Moses. This is "only" a story, but it suddenly comes to life when we read that right at this moment, standing on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites are FINALLY free. Miriam has finally become a prophetess, since she predicted that Moses would redeem them. And when she made that prediction, she was only Aaron's sister, because Moses had not yet been born. Subtly, gently, and with a hint of a smile, the Torah is saying: "See? I told you so!"

Right now, as we look at wars, destruction, and horrific earthquakes, we are tempted to think like Moses' parents. "How can we bring children into this world?" But we human beings are here for a reason. We are here to work towards repairing God's earth. To create a better, more harmonious place for all the people, animals, and plants that share this world. It is an enormous task, and not one that can be done quickly. But who ever said it would be easy? All I know is, God gave us each the tremendous gifts of life and of ethical thinking. We must repay God by doing the most we can with it, and trying each and every day to make the world a better place. Who knows? Maybe one of us will merit to be the next Moses, charged with the task of leading an entire people to freedom. Moses was 80 years old when he first confronted Pharaoh, so you truly never know! And maybe, just maybe, one day I can turn to you with a hint of a smile and say, "See? I told you so!"

Friday, January 22, 2021

Bo: That Really Wasn’t What I Meant...

Before I get to this week's post, I wanted to acknowledge that this is my 601st blog post! I am so, so grateful to all of you for reading these, and for continuing to offer feedback, comments, and reflections. It is hard to believe it's been 12 years... but I guess I can't argue with the archive... I still enjoy writing these, and you still seem to read them, so I guess we forge ahead into the NEXT 600! :-) Anyway, thank you.

Communication-breakdowns can be quite dangerous: You said x, the other person heard y, so now they respond with z, and you’re feeling hurt because z didn’t seem called for; you only said x... it’s not as if you said anything mean, like y! A minor misunderstanding... but when people feel unseen, misrepresented, ignored, or dismissed, it doesn’t take long for things to turn toxic. I’m going to write about this phenomenon here, but I want to lead with my proposed remedy to the problem: Stop the conversation. Don’t let it move on. Interrupt, clarify what you meant, and hear how it sounded to the other person. It’s hard to do, but it’s actually just like a(ny other) muscle; practice makes permanent. Do it more, it’ll get easier. Do NOT let misunderstandings fester. You can’t prevent them from happening, but you *can* mitigate further damage.

My example from our Torah portion isn’t actually about a misunderstanding in the text itself. It’s taken quite out of context, but it still leads to a dangerous level of toxicity... just many hundreds of years later. In the Torah, God is merely describing (through Moses) the laws of Passover and the Paschal offering. Centuries later, the rabbis compiled a clever, little guidebook for this holiday - you may have heard of it - called The Haggadah. A hallmark of the Pesach Seder, always featured in the Haggadah, is a section called “The Four Sons/Children,” and perhaps the most famous of these kids is the screw-up, the bad-guy, the antagonist... The Wicked Child. Well, this terrible, awful, no-goodnik had the absolute audacity to make WHAT offensive statement??? Oh yeah, they quoted a verse of Torah verbatim. Huh? Yup, you read that correctly.

It comes from our parashah. Having laid out an intricate and very precise ritual for future generations to conduct every year on Passover, the Torah goes on to say, in Exodus, 12:26-27: “And when your children ask you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’, you shall say: 'It is the Pesach sacrifice to Adonai, when God *passed over* the houses of the Israelites when God smote the Egyptians.” What was so awful about this exchange? The Torah gives a perfectly pedagogical answer to this hypothetical child’s VERY reasonable question. Sooo, why do the authors of the Haggadah choose to imagine this upstart jerk as emphatically stressing “TO YOU,” and then they decide to interpret that to mean, the child wants no part of this heritage??? This supposed rebel just quoted Torah perfectly... why must you chastise someone for a genuine, heartfelt question? 

So let me take a step back here for a second. Remember my proposed remedy? Stop the conversation *right away*, and clarify. Or ask an elucidating question, BEFORE emotions swell and pride gets hurt. What if someone said to that so-called-ingrate: “Tell me more. Help me understand your question.” Can you just imagine how different the conversation would be, and how tragic it would be to label that poor kid (who needs to work on his inflections...) “Wicked” or “Rebellious”? I hope you see that my point in sharing this with you isn't actually about the Haggadah at all, or even the ancient sacrificial offering. This happens in our interactions DAILY, and the same principles of change could - and, frankly, should - apply. Don’t let misunderstandings fester and erode; jump in! ASAP! The sooner you can nip it in the bud, the better... but even realizing it a day, month, year, or even decade later IS ACTUALLY BETTER THAN NEVER! SO DON'T WAIT!! Sorry, didn’t mean to yell. I just wanted you to really hear me. I didn’t mean for it to come across so aggressive or... wicked? Thanks for understanding.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Nick Youngson on Picpedia
2. Ri_Ya on Pixabay
3. (and yes, the Wicked Child in this one is terrifyingly depicted with mirror sunglasses and wielding an ax...!)

Thursday, January 21, 2021

MLK Speech 2021

On Monday, January 20th, I spoke at the Interfaith Prayer Service organized by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Included below are links to a video of the event (my part comes around the 30-minute mark), an article in with a few quotes, and then my remarks as well, if anyone would like to read them.

Speech at Archdiocese of Philadelphia Interfaith MLK Service

St. Dorothy’s, Drexel Hill

Monday, January 18, 2021

Thank you very much, Mr. Andrews, and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for inviting me here today. I am honored to be a part of this Interfaith Prayer Service, especially at this tumultuous and historic juncture in our country.

Dear Friends,

Four years ago, I was invited to speak at Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, also on Martin Luther King Day. Dr. King himself was a seminary student when he preached from that very same pulpit in Chester, and I will admit, it was daunting and immensely humbling to be standing and speaking there. The previous year, I spoke at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, at their MLK event. The hospital stands on the site of Crozer Theological Seminary, where Dr. King studied, so again, I was awed and felt so blessed to be honoring his memory and his legacy in these places where he walked, where he studied, and where he was formed into the word leader, and indeed the prophet that he was. 

As you know, I am a rabbi, the religious leader of my Jewish community of Ohev Shalom, currently located in Wallingford. I say "currently" because the congregation wasn't founded in Wallingford, it has its origins in Chester. Records have been found that show Jews living permanently in Chester as far back as 1859, and Ohev Shalom was incorporated IN Chester in 1920 (in fact, we just celebrated our centennial last year… but our events were all cut short and postponed because of the pandemic), and the congregation only moved out of Chester in 1965. Though Ohev Shalom relocated decades ago, we are still "OF Chester," and we are proud of our heritage. 

I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, JTS, in New York City. One of the great leaders of JTS, in the mid-1950s, was a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who originally came from Germany, then lived in Poland, and eventually escaped the Nazi Regime of the Second World War, and came to New York to become one of the primary theologians and teachers at JTS. In those days, he was quite well-known around the country, even outside the Jewish community.

And one of the proudest things that all JTS students know about Rabbi Heschel, that students still speak of to this day, was his close personal friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The two men met in 1963, and according to Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter: “What brought them together was a piety that transcended differences, forged by their love of the Bible, especially the prophets.”  

In 1965, at the start of the Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama, King and Heschel marched arm-in-arm for social justice. I wish there were more pictures of rabbis from the Jewish community and leaders from the African-American community linked together like that, but unfortunately we don’t see enough of those these days.

But Rabbi Heschel DID march with Dr. King, and it left a tremendous impression on him. There is a very well-known quote from Rabbi Heschel about the march – one that Jews aspire to emulate every time they engage in activism, civil rights, violence prevention, anti-poverty advocacy, or any other act of healing our world. Rabbi Heschel said: “When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying.” 

We sometimes erroneously believe that only our mouths can pray, or perhaps just our minds, hearts, or even souls. But Rabbi Heschel powerfully reminded us that activism, the work of our hands and feet, can also be praying, devoted service to the Almighty God of the Universe. 

I have to say, I really love how each man, each of these incredible leaders, emphasized the Biblical prophets. It is something I speak a lot about in my congregation, at Ohev Shalom. We sometimes, in the popular imagination, depict prophets as predictors of the future. We read the Biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and we see visions of what will be, almost as if they were soothsayers or oracles, writing about things to come in the near future or sometimes millennia off in the distance. 

But I tell you now, we’ve got it all wrong. The role of the prophet was NEVER really to emphasize the future. They would foretell gloom OR hope, depending on the audience and the need, to try and spur the people to change RIGHT NOW. The point isn’t the vision; it’s what the vision is cautioning you about your actions TODAY, in this very moment.

And believe you me, it was TOUGH being a prophet. They would tell it like it is. They held up a mirror to society and demanded that people see themselves for who they were and how they were behaving. And when people in Ancient Israel would tell the prophet to stop, to keep those stupid predictions to themselves, the voice would only get louder. Sometimes prophets wished they could stop; wished they didn't have this impossible job. Jeremiah tells us, in chapter 20: “Then I said, I will not make mention of God, nor speak any more in God’s Name. But the Divine word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.” Prophets had - and maybe even today have - no choice. Once he or she sees the true nature of things, and sees the pain and suffering in the world, it has GOT to come out. 

A prophet stands in the breach, caught between God and humanity. Sometimes the prophet speaks to us on God’s behalf, and sometimes to God on our behalf. It is a TOUGH job. In March of 1968, just a few, short weeks before he was killed, Dr. King spoke to a gathering of rabbis, honoring Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel himself introduced his friend, Dr. King, and in those opening remarks he said the following: “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.” 

I think each of them saw the other as taking up the call of the prophets of Israel. They saw in one another a kindred soul, someone else who saw the way things were, and who could not refrain from speaking out against violence, oppression, hate, or injustice. They each felt that fire in their bones; perhaps it was comforting to see someone else who carried that same burden.

Dr. King was supposed to attend a Passover Seder in Rabbi Heschel’s home mere weeks after that ceremony. Instead, Rabbi Heschel found himself with the tragic and heart-breaking task of reading a psalm at Dr. King’s funeral.

As you are likely aware, Passover celebrates the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, in the Jewish community right now, we are reading that story in our annual cycle of Biblical readings. Starting in the fall, Jews around the world read one small section of our Torah, the Five Books of Moses that are the first five books of our shared Bible, each week, so that we end up back in the fall at the end of Deuteronomy, ready to restart our cycle again at the beginning of Genesis.

Next Saturday, on our Sabbath, we will read the story of the final three plagues, rained down on the Egyptians by God, and then the glorious story of the Israelites finally escaping slavery. 

Exodus, chapter 12, verse 37, informs us that “the Israelites journeyed from Rameses.” THAT, seemingly minor statement, is actually the precise moment where they finally leave. (Pause) And that is NOT the verse I want to highlight for you here today. The NEXT verse adds, “Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them.” In Hebrew, the text uses the term “Erev Rav.” “A mixed multitude.”

I don’t know if you were already familiar with this statement. Perhaps you were. But if you weren't, it might have surprised you to hear that the Israelites, in fact, did not leave alone. MANY other people left with them. Other disenfranchised people – possibly slaves captured in one Egyptian conquest or another – seized the opportunity and escaped bondage WITH the Israelites. But I recently had another thought. Maybe some of the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude, were also Egyptians. They watched their leaders allow plague after plague to decimate them, stubbornly refusing to relent. Never caring enough about their people’s suffering to let go of their own foolish pride and self-interest. Pharaoh could never apologize, never admit defeat, never just put a darn mask on already for the good of his people! Oh, sorry, my mistake. That’s a different Pharaoh...

Anyway, so maybe the Erev Rav were non-Israelite slaves… but maybe they were just Egyptian citizens who felt abandoned and betrayed by their leadership. Whoever they were, this Mixed Multitude threw their lot in with ours, and we took responsibility for their ultimate destiny. Our fates were intertwined, and this motley crew of freedom-seekers had to learn to coexist, and even rely on one another for their very survival.

We cannot do this alone. None of us can. The story of the Exodus teaches us that we can only escape slavery and oppression together. As Dr. King so prophetically reminds us: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” OUR lives, all of us, NEED one another. All people desperately praying for herd immunity and an end to this modern-day plague; every voice that declares Black Lives Matter and who rejects the plague of systemic racism; every person living on earth, terrified of global warming and our looming environmental crisis; our survival and success is dependent on one another. It is inescapable. 

Today, WE are the Erev Rav, the mixed multitude. There are A LOT of things that enslave and oppress us, but like the ancient Israelites AND their fellow sojourners, desperately clamoring for a better future, we need to band together to defeat these plagues. And if we cannot defeat them right away, we must at the very least face them together.

And YET, we actually have to strike a difficult balance. It is true, We need to be like the prophets, with our eyes wide open and our hearts ready to tackle the truth of our situation. But what I also think is SO powerful about the teachings of Dr. King is his refusal to despair. So often today, I read articles and talk to people who say the situation is hopeless. Racism is too ingrained in us. Hate is too powerful, corruption too widespread, and the people too disheartened. Coronavirus cases mushrooming daily, insurrections at the Capitol, and just fear seemingly everywhere. But Dr. King would NEVER accept hopelessness. Dr. King faced unimaginable obstacles, hate, and oppression… yet he maintained his hope. We need that same attitude - to look honestly and starkly at our situation, AND never allow ourselves to lose hope.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama was once asked about a famous quote by Dr. King, and a more contemporary rebuttal, offered by the profound writer, Ta-nehisi Coates. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” And in his book, Between the World and Me, Coates retorted, “the arc of history bends towards chaos.”

And when she was asked about this, Jarrett said Coates wasn’t necessarily wrong, but that she refused to see the world that way. She refused to accept that the lesson of history is everything turns towards chaos. Like Dr. King, Jarrett said she insisted on staying positive. Not because she was ignoring the problems in our world, but because she maintained faith that we are moving in the right direction, and things ARE getting better. Today, it is easy for us to lose hope… but I yet urge us not to. 

Once again, we must engage in a balancing act. Honest, yet hopeful. President Obama, in fact, expressed this same sentiment in his book, "The Audacity of Hope," where he wrote: "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.”

Today, on Martin Luther King Day in 2021, I must turn to all of you, and ask if this is something you can do. I think perhaps it is harder to do than we could ever have imagined. Nevertheless, can you maintain this split-screen with me? Can we talk about systemic racism, gun violence, the war on immigrants, the opioid epidemic, and all the massive problems that plague our society, YET all while refusing to become SO bitter, jaded, or cynical that nothing changes? 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? 

I am not saying this to you because it is easy. It is challenging for me as a white, Jewish, male, straight, cisgender (let's face it) privileged person to speak about oppression and invoke the name of Martin Luther King, as if I've lived ANY of the hardship he endured. Or to represent a congregation, Ohev Shalom, that is "of Chester," but moved away half a century ago, and hasn't always maintained relationships in the community the way it could have, or should have, done all along. This isn't easy. In fact, maybe we do this BECAUSE it’s hard. The only way to begin this Exodus together, is to speak honestly, openly, and vulnerably. 

I share all of this with you today, because of my ancient ancestors, the Israelites, who marched out of Egypt arm-in-arm with a mixed multitude of people who rejected the status quo. I stand here proudly, because of my rabbinic role model, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched arm-in-arm with Dr. King. I speak aloud my own vulnerabilities and short-comings, because the ONLY way to start is with introspection and uncomfortable truths. And even though I know you can’t grasp it - because of Covid and such - I stand here with my arm (proverbially) extended, to ask others to link arms with me in this Erev Rav. 

My history reminds me that we cannot do this alone. We all need one another. We all share an "inescapable network of mutuality." Every year, on this day, we should recommit to Dr. King’s prophetic work of battling oppression and speaking out against injustice, AND, through our split-screen view, we should also defiantly refuse to lose hope that someday peace, love, compassion, acceptance, and inclusion will win.  Let us recommit again and again, as long as it takes, through plagues, pandemics, violence, crises, and pain, to build a better world. Let us use the visions and exhortations of the prophets - ancient and modern - together with the work of our hands, hearts, minds, and even our feet, to forge a new and better future that indeed will bend towards justice. 

Thank you. 

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