Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas and an Incomplete Peace

There are many people doing a victory lap today as the so-called confederate flag comes down in South Carolina after years of hard fighting against that symbol of bigotry and white supremacism and, most recently, the martyrdom of 9 individuals at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston only a few weeks ago, those 9 slain by a man who draped himself in such symbols.
There are many—progressive and conservative—who would argue that taking down the flag doesn’t solve the deep-rooted issues of race and privilege. And if the price for taking the flag down was the death of 9 innocent victims in their own church while at Bible Study, then we might argue that the price was too high.

There is truth in those objections. The removal of a symbol of hate does not excise the hate itself, or the oppression that goes with it. These issues, as writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Edward Baptist remind us, are baked into the very nature of the American experience. And we don’t have to go all the way down to Charleston to see this. Last week I received the final report of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, which makes clear that “thousands of Wilmington children, most of them poor, black or Latino, still do not have access to high-quality public education.” We have been down this road before.

And yet, we must not be dismissive of such moments or the work that leads up to them. They are what they are and, taken by themselves, incomplete. But when seen as part of a larger whole; that is, the movement toward racial justice in this country, this work should give us encouragement, should move us forward. The problem arises not in the moment and the accompanied victory lap, but in our seeing it as the completion of the work, not the continuation of it, and as Pirkei Avot reminds us, while we are not required to complete the work, nor are we permitted to shirk from it.
So we see as we begin our Torah portion. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, great-nephew of Moses, has seen Israel rebel again and again, now culminating with taking up the gods—and women—of the Midianites. A plague is going through the community, killing Israel again, and Pinchas’ quick—albeit violent and zealous action—is all that stops it. For that reason, Pinchas receives God’s Brit Shalom, God’s covenant of peace.

But the rabbis draw an interesting conclusion. They note that the word ‘Shalom” is written defectively. It’s missing a letter in the Hebrew text. Which they understand to mean that Pinchas, in his zealotry, has earned only a partial reward. His peace is incomplete, his covenant  imperfect and inadequate. The choice is given to Pinchas whether he will accept this covenant as-is, decide that it’s ‘good enough’, or will work to make it—and himself—better.

That is the same question before us. I do not doubt our intent, which is always for the good. But if we are willing to accept the status quo as ‘good enough’, or incremental, minor changes to the world around us as ‘good enough’, then our covenant, and our peace, will be as Pinchas’ is: defective.
So ask yourselves: what are you doing to challenge the status quo? What are you doing to resist this ‘good enough’ covenant? I don’t just mean at the ballot box, but in your daily lives? How are you making yourself aware of how incomplete our shalom really is? One thing I would ask you to do is read two books: The New JimCrow and The Half Has Never Been Told. Read those books and ask yourselves those questions—challenge your own self.

It is only a flag. Only a symbol. And if we leave it at that, then we will have done nothing. And if we take it as an invitation to do more, then we may not complete the work of brit shalom, of creating a covenant of peace, but we can at least say we made it a little more whole. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Our Houses, Our Tents

One of my favorite aspects to the morning liturgy is how it begins.

We are supposed to enter the sanctuary reciting the words, "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

Careful readers of text will know these words come from this week's Torah portion, Balak. They are the words of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, who is paid by the king Balak to curse Israel. Despite his intent, He looks out over the Israelite encampment and proclaims these words instead.

As you might imagine, the rabbis have a field day with this text in their commentaries; but for me, the very fact that we recite a non-Jew's words praising our tents, our houses strikes me as powerful.

How often does it happen that someone enters our home and praises our decor or yard or some other aspect, and all we can see is the crooked picture, the dust, the faded and nicked paint? Likewise as Jews, how often do we see our house in disorder, wring our hands over synagogue attendance or this or that program? And I have seen it when a new person comes and says "what a lovely, warm congregation!" our members fumble with words of gratitude (and there may be some psychology behind that).

I'm not talking about resting on laurels, or being naive. But sometimes we need to hear praise from someone outside our own circle; we need to be affirmed by the one we least expect it from. And perhaps, when we hear that praise, we can see not only the nicks and the dings but also the love and devotion; not only who isn't at a given event, but who IS.

There's plenty that needs to be done in our house. And God knows there is much work to be done in our neighborhood. But there's also a lot to love, a lot that is praiseworthy, and the more we do, perhaps the more we'll feel it is deserved.

So think in your own life: what is worth praising? What is beautiful in your house, what is lovely in your dwelling-place?

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Each of them had a name. 

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton

Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Cynthia Hurd

Tywanza Sanders

Myra Thompson

Ethel Lee Lance

Daniel L. Simmons

Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor

Susie Jackson 

These are the names of those murdered in prayer at "Mother" Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. 

They were parents and children, spouses and friends. 

They were teachers and students. People of faith. Leaders of their community. 

They believed in peace. They believed in justice. 

Each of them lived lives of holiness. 

Not perfection, holiness. 

The press will spend many hours and much ink talking about the person who killed them. They will share his name. They already have, along with his Apartheid flags and hateful gaze. 

His name does not deserve to be repeated. And if justice is served, then he should spend the rest of his life in a small box, contemplating the names of the people he murdered, the people he prayed with for an hour, the people who tried to talk him into peace, rather than violence. 

Let us remember their names, their stories. And let us contemplate how they could have been killed in cold blood for the color of their skin, how their church could become a place of violence. For if we forget their names, then it will happen again, and we will have failed their memory. 

Remember their names. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

B'ha'alotcha and Beau Biden: "Arise Adonai!" or "Please, God?"

One of the surest signs of the quality of our state is the outpouring of grief from Beau Biden’s passing. Not just in the abstract, but personal, as if we’d lost a family member. Again and again as I’ve spoken to people since Saturday I’ve heard a little speculation about the race for governor, and a little speculation about whether Joe Biden put off announcing a run for the white house because of his son’s illness, but more than anything else a LOT of grieving, and empathy. I’ve heard a number of people talk about his wife Hallie and his kids and what it must be like to lose a young father, and I’ve heard a number of people talk about the tragedy of Joe having to bury a second child in his lifetime, and the horror of that.

I had the chance to meet Beau on a couple of occasions, including when Marsha Lee’s road was named in her memory, and he spoke with a simple, honest, authentic love. Every report that speaks of how gentle and unassuming Beau was in life is, from my experience, true; living in the public eye did him no disservice, but gave him a special connection to those around him. I’ve seen a lot of pictures going around social media of Beau holding kids at the JCC PreSchool—not posed pictures, but just having someone’s kid in his lap, like he was just another young dad, no different.

It says something about him, and it says something about our community, I think in contrast with a lot of rhetoric we’ve been hearing as of late from all corners. We hear—I’m hearing—a lot of talk about enemies, a lot of heated talk, from political types who use such talk cynically, but also from regular folks whose own perspective increasingly blinds them to the humanity of others; a smug self-righteousness that continually infects our discourse.  We saw it in some of the commentary around Catilin—formerly Bruce—Jenner. We see it in the increase in anti-Semitic speech on college campuses, as students are reporting a 50% increase this past year. And in so many other, little ways, as friends or coworkers spout venom before they even think about it. Even, from outside our state, truly nasty commentary from some that Joe and Beau got what they deserved for being democrats, or—in the case of one person—because he rooted for the Red Wings.
We hear this voice repeatedly in our Torah portion. First, as Israel would go on the march, Moses would say, “Arise Adonai and scatter your enemies!” This is not, to say the least, the language of interfaith dialogue! It’s the language of a people ready for war, a people unwilling to see the other as anything less or more than that—Other. We hear it again when Israel complains loudly that they would have been better staying slaves in Egypt that eat manna—a text that Tatum is going to preach on tomorrow, so I don’t want to steal hear thunder. And finally, in the rechilut, the gossip that Miriam and Aaron perform against Moses by complaining loudly to all who would hear about their sister-in-law, Moses’ wife, being a Cushite.
This is the language of demonization, the language of dehumanization, the language of winning at any cost. Is it any wonder we removed the words “Arise Adonai” from the beginning of the Torah service? Is that what we learn from our tradition—to fail to see the humanity, God’s grace, in the other?

Contrast with Moses’ words, as Miriam suffers her punishment from God for her words. As she suffers from a skin ailment, he prays “please, God. Please Heal her”. Commentaries tend to focus on the ‘please’ and the efficacy of Moses’ prayer, but what they don’t pick up on is the sheer chutzpah present, despite the pleasant language. Yes, he says please—twice. His language is polite—gone is the man of rough speech. But in his prayer he challenges God’s own punishment! In his appeal, he is telling God that God’s judgment is wrong. That Miriam doesn’t deserve punishment. Moses, in a way, chooses sympathy with other people over loyalty to God.

In Beau’s passing we have a kind of mirror refracting back to us how we choose to see others. Do we choose to see their humanity, or do we choose our own ‘rightness’? Do we choose to embrace or combat? In Proverbs we read, a person shall have his fill of good by the fruit of his mouth. (prov. 12:14). Will we command God to stand up and strike down our enemies, or plead with God for those who are in need? What will be the fruit of our mouths? Arise, Adonai, and scatter from us the enemies of inappropriate speech, leaving only words of hope and love. Amen. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

...And Give Thee Peace

This past weekend we took Elishai to the Franklin Institute to see the Art of the Brick exhibit (Finally), and since we had some time, we went to the Genghis Khan exhibit as well. They did this cool thing where we were each given a card with the name of an historical person on it to carry to kiosks at each exhibit, to learn what happened to that person and how they were connected to the rise of the Mongolian Empire. One of the characters struck me; a soldier, he becomes a guard for the eight white tents after Khan’s death; a kind of portable mausoleum that his sons continued to guard dozens of generations later. I thought it was so interesting to juxtapose this very peaceful image—these white tents on the fields—with the people who guarded them, descendants of the soldiers who rode out to conquer hundreds of years before.
It raises the question of what it means when we talk of peace. What does peace really mean? Does it mean an absence of violence? Does it mean quiet? Does it mean order? The Hebrew word is, of course, Shalom, and it comes up very specifically in this week’s parasha, as the so-called Priestly Benediction is introduced. We are told that the Cohanim will bless the people with a three-fold benediction, which we know very well, and the last line is, יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם ("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm." Literally: May Adonai lift up God’s face to you and place upon you peace. And this blessing is given that God may be linked to Israel, given in the context that Israel is preparing for war.

It’s an interesting blessing given in an interesting context. So what kind of peace are we talking about?

I think this is important because we talk about peace—personal peace, inner peace, as well as national peace—often without context. When we talk about peace in our cities, the idea of peace cannot merely be a return to homes and a restoration of order. Peace is absent due to a lack of justice. When we talk about achieving some kind of personal peace, does that mean acceptance of our lot and our lives, or does that mean somehow removing disruptive experiences or destructive tendencies from our lives? Or is it really code to mean being left alone? And do I even need to speak of the issues of international strife, especially surrounding Israel? That the various notions of peace—not treaties and agreements, but peace—are very much out of alignment.

Shalom itself comes from the word shalem, which means to be whole, or complete. In the context given, I would argue that the priests, by making the blessing over Israel, and linking Israel to God, are making Israel whole and complete, and the covenant with God whole and complete. Peace, then, is not about mere quiet or the absence of violence; it’s about wholeness and completeness.  

In many ways, that is a much bigger ask; feeling whole, restoring our communities to wholeness, our world to wholeness. For our cities, that’s as much about economic opportunity and healthy schools as it is about a night without violence. For our world and for Israel, it’s not just about no rocket fire or tunnels, but that we as a people and Israel as a nation are accepted and treated equally in the community of nations. And for us as individuals? What would it mean to be whole? Not to excise our hurt but heal it; not to accept injustice but learn from our experience?

The Sefat Emet wrote that the meaning of this verse is that wholeness is the focal point of all truths; that a single mitzvah done in joy contains all goodness. We could look at our hectic lives, and the violence in our streets, and the rockets above Israel and say: none of it is enough, and despair. Or we could be like guardians of white tents, creating and protecting the wholeness—even the smallest wholeness—in the world around us and in our lives. May in our doing so, God’s face is found in all our encounters, and we come to real Shalom. 

Your Choices Matter: Tower Hill Baccalaureate Sermon

Friends: below you will find the sermon i delivered at Tower Hill's Baccalaureate service last night.

It is a joy and a tad surprising to be able to stand here with you this day. Not because there aren’t Jews among your student body—of course there are! And not because I get to speak to you from this pulpit which, while beautiful, isn’t exactly what I’m used to! It’s because my high school experience was so very different from your own.

You see, I went to a large public high school, the only game in town, and if you graduated at all, it was as likely you’d end up at the state penitentiary as the state university. This is not to say I didn’t have friends or supportive teachers, and I certainly learned a great deal; but I couldn’t wait to get out of there! My goal was to achieve escape velocity and never, ever look back.

And you—you have been a part of this group, many of you for your entire childhood and young adult lives. You have teachers who have nurtured and supported you, who have helped create, as Megan spoke about in her remarks, a real community, one that accepts and lifts up your differences as much as it provides tools for the future, all in an environment of joy. Has this place been perfect? Of course not, and I’m sure many of you are reflecting tonight not just on moments of support but also some rough moments. As with any family, it is among the people we care about the most, the people we feel safest around, that we also feel the most hurt. And this is a family.

So what does it mean to leave this place of safety? What does it mean to step into a new place, whether that place is geographically far away or only twenty minutes up the road? For one thing, it means learning other people’s stories. Most of you have been together for years; now you are going to meet people whose stories are very different from your own. They don’t know your narrative and you don’t know theirs. And they may or may not be especially interested in hearing your story, or sharing theirs. You will encounter people who seem to have lived gilded, perfect lives compared to your experience, and people whose economic, personal and familial experience is too terrible to contemplate, and people in between. The old assumptions and dynamics you so easily fit into now will be gone, for better and for worse.

You will have to take your experience with you and learn to internalize it. You know what it means to be supportive and supported; what it means to be nourished and to nourish others. You have done everything asked of you; now you will have to take all of that and learn to carry it with you, inside. I had the chance to visit your school a few weeks ago; it’s a beautiful space. But if it were merely a beautiful space then it would have no value. No, you have to take the best of Tower Hill with you and learn to share it with those around you. You will have to learn to be leaders; which doesn’t mean being in charge—it means owning your experience.

I know many of you have been to a friend or relative’s bar or bat mitzvah, sometimes even at my synagogue. And you’ve probably marveled that a 13 year old kid could get up and read from the Torah or lead the service. They don’t do that because it’s a special, one-time thing, their one chance to do what the rabbi does. They do that because that’s what Jews do; to be a Jew is to be counted not just to do what is asked, but to step forward and take ownership because it needs to be done. So it is with each of you; yes, carry Tower Hill within yourself, but don’t just hoard it for your own use, share it with those around you. And bringing forward your experience isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a complex thing. If your teachers and classmates have done their jobs, then it should be right there, as close as they are right now. As the text of Torah we read from says, it’s not across the sea or in the sky, nor is it for someone else to do. It’s in your mouths; it’s in your hearts. It’s in your actions. It’s in your choices. They matter, and when your voice, your actions and your choices align with what you’ve learned here, well, I can’t promise that taking your experience and sharing it with others will make the world perfect or your college experience perfect. But it will make it better. And sometimes better is enough. Your experience matters.

Your story matters. Your choices matter. May they bring you strength, and hope, and especially, Joy. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Emor: Parents and Children and Blessings

This week, during the Sisterhood garage sale, a copy of Gates of Prayer came through as a donation. It looked brand new; the binding had never been cracked and it looked like it had barely been examined. One of the volunteers brought it to me, figuring (rightly) that it didn’t belong in the book sale. I opened it up and just inside, in shaky handwriting, I found this inscription:
“Dear J—
‘Pray as if everything depended on God
But act as if everything depended on you!’
I have given you the tallit and book to pray
The rest is up to you!!
My grandfather asked me to carry on our tradition,
I am asking you to do the same.
Please do not disappoint me.
May God continue to bless you with His most precious gift of shalom (inner peace)
I loved you when I held you in my arms during your brith
I loved you during your school years &
I will always love in the future.
With eternal love from
Your proud poppy.”
The note from the volunteer said this inscription was a heart breaker, and it is. In so many ways.
Please don’t disappoint me.
As a parent, I know the tug, the primal desire for my child to value what I value. As a teacher I know what it is to want the child—the student—to hold dear what I hold dear.
As a grandparent I can only imagine that pull is a hundredfold.
And we hear something of that parental voice in God’s voice this week, as he says” I am YHVH. You shall not profane my Holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I YHVH who sanctify you.”
I sanctify you says the parent. I brought you into this world, cherished you, nurtured you. I gave you the means to have hopes and dreams and joys of your own. I sanctified you. Do not disappoint me.
But the text can be read a different way: “Ani Adonai Mikadsheichem—I am the one who makes you a sacrifice”.
In sanctifying you, I also sacrifice—something of myself to be sure. But also I run the risk of sacrificing you—your integrity, your strength, your independence.
When I say ‘do not disappoint me’ how can I then pray for you to have shalom—inner peace?
Our children disappoint us. And we disappoint right back. It is the nature of being human.
And God disappoints sometimes too.
But in that disappointment—in that sacrifice of perfection—we find holiness. We find real sanctity.
The honesty of real relationship. The truth of real connection, of real love.
It is there that we find peace.

Pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you—indeed. Act. Fail. Rise up. Defy expectations. And may your actions be a real prayer, a prayer for all of us—children and those who care for children. Amen