Friday, August 22, 2014

Parashat Re'eh: See the choice

This past Shabbat I witnessed a miracle, the kind of miracle that only happens at Jewish camp.

This past Shabbat, the 10th graders were leading services at Camp Harlam. The first torah reader stepped up, a tall girl with short shaggy hair and glasses, and a hush went over the congregation. This girl, we learned, has one Jewish parent, one non-Jewish parent. She was raised with nothing. She had never celebrated bat mitzvah. As a teenager, she took an interest in Judaism on her own. She found a synagogue and started attending by herself. She found out about camp Harlam and went for the first time ever this summer. And when her unit was called upon to lead services, she volunteered to read Torah. Some of her friends taught her Hebrew in thirty hours. The others ran to the art shack to make her a tallit—her first, made with spare fabric and yarn of white and blue. The Israeli staff helped her pick out a Hebrew name for herself. And on a clear sunny day, standing in the woods, with a stick as her yad and a giant stone as her shulchan, she recited the blessings and read three verses of torah for the first time in her life, trembling the entire time. There were tears, oh, how there were tears! How could you not cry with this young woman who chose to make Judaism and Torah a part of her life?

Was it the best torah reading ever, or the most beautiful tallit? Could it have been ‘better’ with more time and practice? Honestly, who cares? In that moment that girl, that young woman, affirmed a choice and linked herself to Israel in the most profound way. To quote one of my favorite movies, she took her first step into a larger world. Surrounded by her community—her Jewish community—she made it clear who she was and what it meant to her, and in doing so inspired an entire camp community, with ripple effects that continue to resonate.  For it wasn’t just her choice—in her choosing, she inspired those around her to lift her up, to act in a holy and sacred and supportive way, to be with her lovingly.

We all have choices: every day presents us with a myriad of them, and it’s up to us to decide—consciously or unconsciously—what we’re going to choose, blessing or curse. That’s how our portion begins this week: See, I give you the choice: blessing and curse. Sometimes it’s not clear in the moment which is which; sometimes our worst instincts or our woundedness lead us astray. But as Yehuda Leib of Ger writes: “Goodness exists within the Jewish people by their very nature; sin is only incidental. Each day, they are given the choice anew.” Our intentions, our efforts, our choices give us the opportunity to live as if every moment of every day is a miracle, if we but open ourselves to the possibility.

We look around the world right now, from Missouri to Europe to Israel, and we see people making the darkest of choices, acting as if they are compelled to do evil. They are not, we are not. We are not powerless, but are given the choice: to exert power and violence over others, to instill mistrust and fear, or to lift up blessing, to reaffirm our commitment to one another. You see, the choice is ours. How do you choose? 

Israel, antisemitism, what can we do?

Lately I've received voices of concern from congregants and others: we watch what's going on in the world, especially in Israel and Gaza, with increasing antisemitism in Europe and the US, and we ask ourselves: "what can we do?"

Each of us wishes we had a magic wand to make it all go away. Sadly, we don't, but that doesn't mean we must stand idly by. Indeed, as Jews we have an obligation to seek justice for all and root out hate wherever it hides. 

So after giving it a think, here's some suggestions: 

Support Your Local Jewish Community

"How does that help Jews in Ashkelon or Berlin?" you might ask. The answer is: Many local communities have efforts in place to help communities in Israel hit hardest by the war. Many local Federations (including the Jewish Federation of Delaware) are supporting the effort Israel Under Fire (see previous link). The Reform Movement is working on the project "Stop The Sirens". The Jewish National Fund and Hadassah also have efforts to support communities under fire. Finally, investing in Israel Bonds becomes not an act of charity but investment in Israel's future, especially at a time when that future is not just under attack from rockets, but the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement. Finally, Friends of the Israel Defense Forces is a great way to support Israel boys and girls defending their country, as are programs to write letters to Israeli soldiers. 

Likewise, supporting through local communities also gives those communities the ability to support Israel locally in the media and fight antisemitism on a local level through local programming, such as inviting shlichim (emmisaries from Israel), speakers, youth programs, music and culture, and other ways of getting the word out. 

Stay Informed

Find some good news sources and stick with them. I tend to follow
Haaretz (center-left; Israel's paper of record)
Times of Israel (center-right with many diverse voices)
Jerusalem Post (center-right aimed at English Speakers)
ynet news (the website for Yedioth Achronoth, Israel's daily morning paper)
Tablet Magazine: American/International Jewish News Source

Try to find a diversity of sources--include Slate and The Economist for some different perspectives and voices. 

All of the aforementioned also have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds (as does the IDF and Americans For Peace Now): add them to your own. Likewise, follow Social Media voices that tend to be informative and helpful. I follow Jason Miller, Menachem Creditor, Israel News Now, and a few others (heck, follow me--I try to repost and retweet stuff that is informative and helpful where possible). 

If you want to try to live the experience to gain greater sensitivity, download the Red Alert App (also available for Droid). Designed for Israelis to warn of an incoming Missile Attack--put it on your phone and see how often it goes off. Ask yourself: could you get to the shelter in time? 

Speak Out

Your voice matters. Write letters to the editor. Call your senators and congressional representatives. Write the White House. Write to state government, including Attorneys General offices, local representatives and the governor's office (especially on issues of antisemitism). Post on social media. Speak to your friends. And that goes for everyone: I'm sick at heart over Gaza and its people EVEN AS I fear for Israelis in the south, or Jews in Denmark or Philadelphia. If you have a nuanced view, share it (most Israelis do too). But share your support. Engage in dialogue. And report antisemitism where you see it (The ADL has a way to do so on their main page. Any hate crime, really). Speak out, stand up to it. Remember, silence equals consent, and if we don't encourage our friends and family (and drum up the gumption ourselves) to speak out, rather than ignore or laugh off, then we will see hateful speech turn to hateful action (Great article on this by Deborah Lipstadt). 

Go To Israel

Okay, this might be out of many people's price range, but seriously, if you have the means, go. Rethink that vacation in the Bahamas and plan to go to Israel. This is especially important after so many airlines cancelled their flights this year. Make the plan, and go. It doesn't just support their economy--it shows the world that we are not afraid. 

These are just some ways to get involved and help. Do you have suggestions for others? Feel free to share!

*(There, are, of course, other issues in the world too. If you're concerned that this focuses too much on Israel and not enough on issues like Ferguson, ISIS, Ukraine, Climate Change, Boko Haram, etc. I hear you. Many, many of the suggestions above apply equally well to those issues, especially regarding advocacy. And the Israeli press is often more responsive to the situation in the Ukraine and Syria than the US press. So feel free to adapt these techniques for those issues too!). 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Passing of Robin Williams

“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”

― Alan MooreWatchmen

Even while I'm at camp I'm not completely immune to the news. Robin Williams' death is both shocking and, sadly, not entirely unexpected. We have known for years that the actor and comedian, brilliant as he was at his craft, struggled with depression, self-medication and addiction. 

Wilmington's Jewish community has suffered a rash of suicides this year, all of them young people, each one more tragic and gut-wrenching than the next. When a celebrity dies in such a manner there is hope that more attention will be paid; the cynic in me doubts it. 

The truth is: depression is neither weakness nor failing. It is an illness that must be taken seriously. It doesn't define the sufferer; yet we approach depression with fear of contagion and a sense of taboo. There is nothing Jewish about this; the psalms speak of walking in valleys of deepest darkness (psalm 23). Elijah, after his confrontation on Mt. Carmel, appears to have a depressive episode, and pleads before God at Horeb to take his life, as relief from his despair. Likewise Jonah and Saul. Each person's experience is unique; therefore, each person is going to need different kinds of support, and different techniques to deal with the symptoms: medication, therapy, meditation, reading, writing, being surrounded by loved ones, acting. But all of those techniques tread the symptoms; too often we act as if they can be a panacea. It is not enough to wish they knew they were loved; as Molly Pohlig points out beautifully in this post on Slate, "At my lowest, love cannot save me. Hope, prayers, daily affirmations—none of these can save me. Therapy and medicine are what matter, and those don’t always work either."

What is needed is to create the space to speak openly, lovingly, about those who suffer depression, to see the person suffering and not merely the illness, and to offer them the strength that when they do walk through the valley of deepest darkness, they are able to come through.

If you are suffering, reach out to a teacher, a friend, a clergy person. And if you feel you have no one to reach out to, The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Parashat Devarim: Words Words Words

How lonely sits the city That was full of people! She has become like a widow Who was once great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces Has become a forced laborer! 2She weeps bitterly in the night And her tears are on her cheeks; She has none to comfort her Among all her lovers. All her friends have dealt treacherously with her; They have become her enemies.…
 These words open the book of Lamentations, the scroll recited on the 9th of Av, the day of disaster for the Jewish people. The day Jerusalem fell twice, the Jews of England were expelled in the middle ages, the Jews of Spain expelled in 1492, and the day Germany declared war on Russia, ushering in World War One. The words recited, in the plaintive Lamentations chant, give voice to the heartache of a people utterly ruined, a people full of mourning, full of anxiety for the future, a people who have experienced such tragedy it is amazing they can find words to describe it.
It is ironic that we anticipate this book, this holy day, with parashat devarim, the portion of words. In it Israel stands on the shore of the Jordan, their future bright and shining before them. The disasters of the desert, the endless tragedy of slavery is behind them, and before them the land promised to their ancestors, and with that land God’s blessing and protection. Just as this generation hadn’t tasted the bitter fruit of slavery, so too they cannot imagine the defeats to befall their descendants.
Moses can, however, and he has words for Israel. Many, many words. Moses begins his last charge to the people, for Israel won’t have the benefit of hearing Moses any longer. And boy, does he let ‘em have it! Again and again Moses rebukes Israel, reminding them of mistake after mistake, rebuking them with love. Rabbi Simcha Bunem argues that Moses spoke to each person individually, according to their age, personality and level of understanding. It’s not that Moses wants to criticize them;  the rabbis imagine Moses as reluctant to admonish his people. But he has to; the mistakes they’ve made in the past—idolatry, disloyalty to God, faithlessness—die hard. They have to hear it, so they can enter the land with Joshua and know success instead of the failures of the past.
We’re not big on hearing about failure. We don’t want to hear to bad news. Again and again lately I talk to people who try to specifically NOT focus on the news in Israel and around the world. And how often I have heard people try to ‘protect’ one another from hurt feelings. At Michal Cherrin’s funeral this past week, I talked to one parent who didn’t want to tell her daughter, a former student, of her passing. Of course the daughter got the news via texts from friends; the truth will out eventually, and the question is whether or not we are willing to hear those words, really truly hear them, and act accordingly. This is true in our own lives—we become so adept at hiding our true selves even from ourselves that we avoid the real work of living up to our God-given potential, and it seems like only at the high holidays do we get a real glimpse at ourselves and work to fix the broken shards within.
And it is equally true in our current climate. It would be easy to focus on the news of Israel and ignore the dying in Gaza, but we cannot. It would be easy to dismiss the critics of Israel as naïve (though often they are) or anti-Semitic (and frequently they are as well), but many are well-meaning, and knowledgeable, and our friends. Likewise we may read support of Israel that cheers us until it turns ugly, bigoted, impugning all Arabs, all Presbyterians, all liberals, all students, all of anyone. And while we’re focused on Israel, we can replace the name of our home with any issue of controversy: gun control, abortion, immigration, the death penalty, racism.
Jerusalem fell the first time because of idolatry, and the second time because of senseless hatred. If Israel and the Jewish people is to survive, if we are to survive, we need to put aside the idolatry of our own rightness, our casual hatred of the other, and listen deeply. Doesn’t mean we have to agree, but it does mean we have to take their words seriously. We must hear before we can rebuke or respond, and then respond as Moses did, in the way they can hear. Maybe we can’t change their minds (and we probably can’t, and it’s probably a waste of time), but maybe we can learn something even in our disagreement.
Eichah, Lamentations, begins with powerful words of defeat, it ends with powerful words of hope, words we recite in our liturgy today: chadeish yameinu mikedem: renew our days, as of old. Renew us, and our words O God, that we may hear and answer each other wholeheartedly. Amen. 

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.