Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Prayer for Peace

My opening prayer from tonight's Rally For Israel at the JCC

Zelda Wrote:
 Even the ordinary soldierWhose blood fell upon the ancient pathKnewThat the splendor of Mountains,the silvery treetops,And the glittering domeAre the outer goldOf the song of Solomon and of David’s tear. Dear God, The One we always turn toWe gather as one community in this spaceAnxious, angry, sad, confused, concerned.
 Our children are dying.
Their children are dying.
A generation is being stolenBy rockets in the nightBy those obsessed with blood and martyrdom—ours, theirs, it never mattered to them—So we come to You.
 We remember the words of the songwriter“All will be good, yes all will be good,
though sometimes I break down.” (Yihye Tov, David Broza) God, sometimes we break down.
Our hearts ache for our People in IsraelWho have already buried too many beneath the cypresses;For the innocents of Gaza being used as human shields;For Jews around the world and here at homeNow feeling the touch of ancient hatreds clothed in new garments.
 “Because of this our hearts are sick.” (Lam 5:17) God, take note of our prayerWe speak with one voice the words of our prophets“’The Eternal is my portion’ I say with full heart, therefore will I hope in You”. (Lam. 3:24)Shield and shelter us. Heal us. Let all of us stand in safetyBeneath the silvery treetopsTo sing and no longer shed tears for each other.
Renew our days, O God,
That we may say with all our breathAll will be good. Yes, All will be good.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Parashat Mattot: Promises To Keep

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Mattot: Promises To Keep

On a beautiful day at Niagara Falls, the crowd gathered saw a tightrope walker setting up, preparing to perform his feats of derring-do over the perilous depths. To their astonishment and delight, the acrobat walked the thin line with seeming ease, walking back and forth across it, even taking a wheelbarrow across with no seeming difficulty. When he was back safely across, the crowd roared their approval with applause and cheering. The tightrope walker bowed, raised his hand to hush the crowd, and said “do you think I could do it again?” With some laughter, everyone cheered and applauded again. At this, the acrobat gestured and said, “wonderful. Whoever does believe I could go across again may indicate as such by getting in the wheelbarrow.”
I wonder how many of us are any different? How many of us would have enough faith in the acrobat to get in the wheelbarrow? Or are we happy to cheer from afar, spectators gazing from a safe distance?
We see the same attitude in this week’s portion, Mattot. In it, two of the tribes, Gad and Reuven, ask if they can stay and occupy territory on the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Gilead. That is, on the ‘wrong’ side of the river, the place across from where Israel is supposed to inherit. That they mention this as Israel prepares to invade and retake their land causes Moses to explode.  "הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה" "Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?" Instead, they offer to go in as the shocktroopers, forging ahead of the rest of Israel as they strive to take the promised land. It would be as if one of the spectators didn’t just get in the Wheelbarrow, but traded places with the acrobat!
Today our brethren go to war again, and we are sitting here; the war in Israel, the war of anti-Semitism that is now again revealing itself in Europe, and Boston and California. Our brethren go to war, and we are here; not by choice, I imagine, but by virtue of our physical location and circumstances. We are anxious for our brethren, heartsick over the decisions being made by Israel’s political leadership, worried about the lives of soldiers and civilians alike. How can we not have a lump in our throat when we read facebook posts like my friend’s the other day: when asking about whether her daughter liked her birthday party, she replied, “yes, but not the air raid siren part.”
So how can we get in the wheelbarrow? There are the usual forms of support, of course. We can offer financial support for those suffering, through Federation and ARZA; and physical, by going to the rally on Wednesday. But that’s not enough. That still makes us spectators. We need to get out there. We need to correct misinformation when we hear it or see it on social media. We need to share every article about what’s going on from a real perspective—not what CNN or NPR will share, but Israeli media itself. We need to counter those naïve but well-intentioned voices that would see this as a David-and-Goliath struggle, asking why can’t Israel just make peace while rockets rain on its head. Even more than that, we need to actively engaged those who speak for BDS and show how their protestations of antizionism and not anti-Semitism is bearing bitter and violent fruit worldwide, and isn’t as innocent as they might have us think.
AND, we need to show our own skepticism. Faith is not blind, and getting in the wheelbarrow still comes with fears and anxieties. Our support of Israel must also come with our concerns that the political leadership in Netanyahu’s cabinet is perhaps more trigger-happy than they ought to be, concerns shared by leading Israeli military and intelligence officials. Recently Bibi talked about how there can’t be a two-state solution in an Israeli press conference. If a Palestinian Authority spokesperson said such a thing, we would go bananas. That Bibi says it in the midst of a war against Gaza—a time when we’re told to put politics aside…? I may be getting in the wheelbarrow, folks, but I reserve the right to check the tightness of the bolts and kick the tire, as should the rest of us.
"הַאַחֵיכֶם, יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה, וְאַתֶּם, תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה" "Shall your brethren go to the war, and shall you sit here?" God made a promise that this land is ours, and we have made a promise: all Israel is responsible for one another. We need to hold up our end of responsibility: to support with enthusiasm and support with skepticism. And we need to pray with all our hearts, our hands, our actions, that we may fulfill the words of the psalmist: "May Peace be within Your walls, and tranquility within your palaces". Amen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Beautiful Tents: A reflection for July 4th.

Tell me if this has happened to you. You’re talking to someone, perhaps you have guests over, perhaps you’re at an event or an outing, and someone compliments you. They talk about how lovely your house is, or mention how nice your outfit looks, or compliment the behavior of your kids. And you blink at them and think “my house? It’s a disaster. This outfit? I’m wearing it because I haven’t done laundry in a while, it’s nothing. My kids?! Don’t even get me started.”
It comes to us out of the blue that we receive praise where we least expected it, where someone sees something positive that we can’t. And while it could be Pollyanna, ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ thinking, sometimes it takes another person’s viewpoint to really appreciate what we have.
This week the prophet Bilaam, paid to curse Israel, instead looks down at the encampment not far from the Jordan and says instead ‘mah tovu ohalech ya’akov mishkenotecha yisrael’: how beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. Imagine the Israelite response to that: ‘these things? We’ve been schlepping them for 40 years! We’re not in our promised land, we’re battered and exhausted and want to go home, and you think this is beautiful?’ And yet, the early liturgists chose these words to open every prayer service we recite in the morning. The first thing we say collectively are these words, first spoken by a non-Jew who could see something our people couldn’t.

There’s tremendous power in that, you know. On this 4th of July when many of us are feeling pretty low about the United States and its current expression of American values (or lack thereof), when we as Jews are still reeling by the deaths, the riots, the violence in Israel, it becomes that much harder to see what is beautiful, to see what is good and right, to be able to rejoice in who we are and what we stand for. It’s clear that there’s tremendous work to be done, much of it in our own community, by those gathered here tonight. “The day is short, the labor vast.” But that can’t mean, shouldn’t mean that we should see ourselves and our country only through the lens of pessimism and despair. We must say every day Bilaam’s words: How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel. We must say it. Because it is true, even with all our faults and foibles. Because we need it to be true, and the more we say it, the more it becomes reality. Because we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and accept their view with joy. May it be so this July 4th and every day. Amen. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reflections on the death of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad


Folks have asked for my remarks from last night's powerful memorial service at the Siegel JCC (and thanks to the more than 130 who attended). Below you'll find my reflections. 

In addition, you can find the poem Rabbi Brian Eng recited here

Reflections on the death of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali
"For the thing which I greatly feared has come upon me, and that which I was afraid of has come unto me." (Job 3:25) 
This past Friday, as we recited the blessings welcoming Shabbat into our home, I got to do something that the parents of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali weren’t able to do: recite a blessing over my son, a blessing that every parent recites over their children at Shabbat, a blessing, proscribed in Torah, that ends “May God give you Peace.” At my synagogue we left three seats as you see here, reserved for when the boys would return home to their parents’ Shabbat table. 
Eyal, Gilad and Naftali’s parents will never get to recite a blessing over their sons’ heads. They will never sit at their parents’ tables again. As Naftali's mother said in her son's eulogy, they will have to learn to sing without them. Nor will Muhammad Qaraqara’s parents, he now laid to rest mere days before we learned of our three boys’ loss. And this morning brought news of more death, another teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, possibly out of rage and hate. Five teenagers, four Israelis, three Jews, innocents lost forever. 
Two of them were students of Adin Steinsaltz, the sage of our time, and upon hearing of their passing he cried out the words of the psalmist: “Awake! Why are you sleeping O Eternal! Rouse yourself! Do not abandon us forever.” And then told his companion, Rabbi Pinchas Allouche, “All we can do…is shout and protest…People will light memorial candles, recite prayers, and attend vigils,” he said. “Our boys were killed al Kiddush Hashem, because they were Jews…Therefore, to best honor their memories – indeed, to confront evil –we must act always as proud Jews, in our deeds and through our lives.” 
And that is why we are here. To recommit ourselves to honor their names, three more children to weep over, their seats empty at their parents’ Shabbat table. We light memorial candles, we recite prayers, we attend this vigil. But more than that: we must confront evil in all its forms. We must stand up for the innocent in our midst. We must make those moments of blessing real and true and immediate. We must prevent those words ‘May God grant you Peace” from turning into ash in the mouth. In short, we must be Jews, proudly, unequivocally, joyfully. 
Nothing will bring back Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach , and Gil-ad Shaar. Nothing will bring back Muhammad Qaraqara. Nothing will bring back our boys. But we can pray, and act, and hope, and fulfill the prayer of songwriter Avi Koren: 
Our eyes are already dry from the tearsAnd our mouth is left mute of sound.Tell me, what else can we ask for?We have already asked for everything.We have already covered one grave and anotherWe’ve buried our hearts among the cypressesGive us rain in its due timeAnd scatter flowers in the springAnd let him come back to his homeWe don’t need more than that. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Tourists: A Reflection On Our Trip To Israel

This was my sermon from this past Friday night, reflecting on our Israel trip...

Tourists by Yehuda Amichai
Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms. 
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower,
I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists
was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch
from the Roman period. Just right of his head."
 "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
"You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."
 I had planned to speak about Israel tonight. To reflect on our trip that just ended, a spiritual journey by three congregations, three rabbis and thirty-three people just experienced, from the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem to dinner in Tel Aviv only two nights ago. But that was before Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, were kidnapped from their families while tremping home, before Muhammad Qaraqara was killed on the first day of summer vacation helping his father in the Golan, before the Presbyterian Church decided to uphold the values of antizionism and anti-Semitism, all the while insisting it’s for our own good with the kind of smug self-righteousness that only comes when one is truly, authentically naïve. 
On Shabbat last week in Jerusalem, at Har-El and Hebrew Union College, we prayed for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali with other Israelis.  We travelled up to the Golan Heights the day after Muhammad was killed, We received news of The Presbyterian Church’s decision while traveling in the holy land, But more than that, we met and spoke with people: at moshavim and Kibbutzim, at services, in the street, at Lifeline For The Old, in cities and hilltops, singing Shir HaShalom at Rabin Square, at schools in Ibellin and Haifa. More than Masada, or the Wall, more than archeological ruins or jeep tours, we met people, heard their voices, felt what they felt, were with them and each other in a deep and rich way. 
There is a Hasidic story – of the rabbi who asks his good friend, “Do you love me?” and the friend responds by saying: “Of course I love you.” To which the rabbi responds: “Do you know what gives me pain?” To which the friend replies: “How can I know what gives you pain?” To which the rabbi replies: “If you don’t know what gives me pain, how can you say that you love me?”If we didn’t know before, we know what gives the Israeli—Arab and Jew—pain. We know and we love deeper than we did before. Would that that brought about redemption, but for now, it will have to be enough.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Shavuot Flower Offering

I'm off to Israel tomorrow with our Wilmington Community trip, but before I depart I figure I'd share Sonia Sloan's article on our Shavuot Flower Offering Service Alternative:

We want to share with our Beth Emeth family news about the exciting and wonderful new program we held on Shavout on Wednesday June 4th. Shavout, in addition to commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai, is the festival of first fruits, the 'Chag Ha-Bikkurim, which we have traditionally celebrated with a flower offering. This year, we decided to do a different kind of flower offering. So we chose to celebrate this holiday by planting flowers at Harlan Elementary School, just a few blocks from our synagogue. Thirty-one of our congregants and about twenty-five fourth graders filled the planters around the school with a myriad of beautiful flowers, donated by Old Country Gardens and our congregants.The children and teachers joined in prayers and songs in Hebrew as Rabbi Robinson and Cantor Stanton led a short service, explaining the meaning of Shavout and why we were sharing our holiday with them. We had a very attentive and engaged group who were having a good time and it was a delight to see the children interacting with our Beth Emeth folks in such a beautiful and meaningful way. The children read poems and writings about flowers and gardens that we had prepared for them. We ended the day with cookies and ice cold water and every child got to take home a plant. It was a wonderful, meaningful experience for all of us and the weather was spectacular!
We followed this with another planting and service at a small Community Garden in Hedgevile in the inner city.
This exciting project came out of a suggestion from Cantor Stanton and Sonia Sloan at a meeting of the Ritual and Choir Committee in discussing a different way  to celebrate this lovely holiday,
Our goal was to build bridges between our Beth Emeth community and the city community and we most certainly achieved that goal. We now plan to make this a yearly celebration of Shavout, with the children and staff at Harlan.
We want to thank Rabbi Robinson, Cantor Mark Stanton, Esther Timmeney and Sonia Sloan for planning and arranging the service and enlisting the volunteers. Thanks too to Wilmington City Councilwomen Sherry Dorsey and Maria Cabrera, and Stacey Henry of Harlan School for their help and support.

Friday, May 2, 2014

At the scene of Violence

This morning I received a text message from my colleague Pastor Andy Jacob. He messaged me and other clergy of the old 9th ward to tell me that a person has been shot and killed at the corner of 24th and market. He asked if we could be there to create a presence of peace and blessing.

So I went. I went to be with Pastor Andy, to be with the police, my fellow clergy, to be with whoever needed me to be there.

The shooting had happened the night before so by the time we arrived it was just us, the police and someone from the attorney general's office. You couldn't tell that someone had lost their life in front of the Chinese restaurant there on the corner. People were going about their day: waiting for the bus, taking their morning stroll, walking their dogs just as I had been doing only an hour before.

It us not the way a shooting interrupts and tears apart our reality that I'd most disruptive, but the ongoing trauma of acceptance. It is the way violence insinuates itself. We become inured it to it. We forget that the taking of life is a profane act, not something normal no matter what the neighborhood or the victim. So if I and my colleagues from the 9th ward can go and shine a light, reminding us all that we should be uncomfortable with violence, that we should not accept violence, that we should remember that it destroys not only one life at the entire world, then truly we can be a presence of peace.

May we learn to make our presence a blessing.