Friday, August 19, 2016

Parashat Va'etchanan: Seeing you, Hearing God.

This past week, while I was reflecting on my camp experience, someone shared this blog post by my colleague Matt Gewirtz, about his time at Eisner, our URJ camp in the Berkshires. It's a great blog post and describes the experience of being faculty wonderfully, but what really struck me was his opening sentence: 

There is an African tradition that teaches when a person says “Hi” to a neighbor, instead of returning the salutation with the same “Hi,” the neighbor is to respond, “I see you.”

Maybe it's the post-camp glow, but I've been thinking about it ever since I read it. Rabbi Gewirtz calls it 'wise', and that is undoubtably true. It is also powerful.  How often is the greeting we share--and by extension, the people we encounter--mere background noise? Static that, at best, distracts us as we focus on our own busy life and day. And not just for the people we encounter going in-and-out of the gym and the grocery; our colleagues, our acquaintances, the people we see every day: we say hello as we walk past, not really stopping to see how they are, or even who they are. Certainly I'm as guilty of that as anyone else. So, what would it mean, then, when we say 'hi', to hear back "I see you." Or to even say that: to truly acknowledge the other person, to look them in the eye and be present for them, perhaps only for a split-second? on Wednesday as I was walking into an ice-cream place I thanked the young woman who held the door open for me, and she sounded honestly surprised that I even noticed her. How sad that a person is surprised to be seen and appreciated. 

This week we talk not about seeing but another sense. In our Torah portion this week we read the shema, 'watchword of our faith', as Moses calls upon Israel to Hear and know that God is our God and also One. Most of the focus on this verse--liturgically as well as Toraitically--is on the notion of God's Oneness and the idea of monotheism. But Gersonides also focuses on the word "Shema", hear: that it means "believe" and "obey", but also "understand". In fact, the word Shema is used throughout Deuteronomy to refer not just to the sense itself--the ability for our ears to take in the sound--but to our ability to pay attention and comprehend. There are many who would argue that Shema should not just be understood as hear--raw sensation--but LISTEN. 

So let me ask the question: as it is with seeing, is it also true with hearing? Are we listening to the people around us? Are we even listening to ourselves? Are we listening for God? To listen takes attention, it takes focus. It requires us to put ourselves aside so we can truly be attentive. To listen requires us to silence the background noise, be it on the street or in our own heads, so we can truly listen to what's important. 

One of the questions I often get is: how can we bring camp home? And usually people jump on the music, the way services are run, the 'hidden curriculum' of camp. But let me suggest another thought: I just spent 2 weeks at camp, for my 8th summer on faculty. Camp is noisy--joyously so. From the banging on tables in the dining hall to song session to the joyful yelling at the pool or the GaGa pit. Camp is full of people constantly moving. And yet, at camp, people listen to each other better, and truly see one another. At camp when someone says hi, the other person says, in not so many words, "I see you". At camp, people are really listening to each other and lifting each other up. And while I doubt many would say that they're listening for God, I truly believe God gets heard. So I would suggest one of the things we could do to bring camp home is to truly see the people around us, acknowledge them, be present for them, and to truly listen, and listen deeply--to ourselves, the people around us, and for God as well. May this be so. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How To Grow At Camp: Do Something New

I am not a runner. I know many runners, including friends, colleagues and my dad, who find the activity zen-like and meaningful. For them it's a way to explore, to let their mind go blank, to exercise, and (especially for the ones who do races) a way to compete against themselves, to push themselves.

None of this has ever appealed to me. I haven't run since 8th grade, and while I work out most days and take that exercise seriously, the idea of running--to say nothing of doing any kind of race--held no appeal whatsoever. I don't do it, I don't think I'm particularly good at it, and so that was that, case closed.

And yet, this summer, I found myself running the "Chapel On The Hill Chase", a 5k race that takes place on Alumni Day at Camp Harlam, where I serve as faculty.

What on earth was I thinking?

This was not the first 5k at Harlam; there have been two others and the first one I manned a water station for the participants; the second I came home to do a wedding. But every year many of my colleagues participated, and this year one of us, Rabbi Ben David, an avid runner, proposed getting faculty shirts and having us go as a team.

Normally that wouldn't convince me. However, I felt compelled. Why? Because I believe in camp. And what I believe is that camp is all about stretching yourself, doing something new and different and maybe even a little bit scary, because at camp you can push that boundary safely while surrounded by a supportive community. And if this is true, then I had to live it as well.

So I registered. I got the shirt. I lined up with several colleagues, alumni, campers and staff, all of whom were way more experienced runners than I was; they had run for years for exercise, had competed since high school, and had run this course, which involved looping camp and going up the hill that leads to the Chapel three times. I was, frankly, terrified. But I felt strongly that if I believe in the ethos of camp and teach it to our students and my own son, that camp is a place to go beyond your limitations, then I would have to lead by example. Besides which, I'd already paid for the shirt.

As we began the race, a colleague lined up next to me and paced the race with me almost till the end, keeping me from falling behind or burning out too soon. The kids coming up from breakfast watched and cheered us on, including my son and the kids in his bunk. We even talked to various other runners along the way, half-jokingly talking about different Jewish values and doing a mini-teach. It was a slog going up that hill, and I definitely felt it in the hours afterwards. But I didn't die, I didn't get hurt, I don't think I made a fool of myself (much), and most importantly, I felt as if I was able to deepen my connection to the community around me and challenge some preconceived notions I had about my own abilities. I'm not saying I'm taking up running tomorrow, but there was a real sense of accomplishment, and a real sense of support.

Camp is all about going beyond your limitations, in the same way that Judaism is all about asking questions. The harder the questions, the more challenging the exploration, the more meaningful the connection and experience. And for that, I'm grateful.

(and for those who care about these things: my time was 35:51, running an average of 11:33/mile. Hey, I didn't drop dead).

Monday, August 1, 2016

Camp, Jewish Identity and Authenticity

I just started my rotation at URJ Camp Harlam as faculty yesterday, and I'm already knee deep in programming, working with the kids and staff, and connecting with fellow Jewish professionals from around the region.

While I'm assigned to K'far Noar (entering 9th grade) today I had a chance to teach the Chavurah (entering 10th grade) kids. This was a follow up elective based on a previous program on authenticity and expressing one's Jewish identity; a great subject for that age group and a perfect location--Jewish camp--where we can really explore the topic fully and completely.

For me, the choice on what to teach was obvious; I showed my group two videos that have been around for a while but are worth seeing again. First was Adam Lustig's "What It Means To Be A Jew" (and many thanks to Rabbi Elisa Koppel for showing me this video last year).

The second was Vanessa Hidary's "Jewish Mamita" (which if you've ever seen the movie "The Tribe" is featured toward the end).

 Perfect films to reflect on the nature of Authentic expressions of Jewish Identity and what that means. 

After watching the videos and getting some general reaction the conversation turned toward our own experiences: when do we put our Judaism forward, when do we hold it back. When do we push, when do we restrain ourselves. I then asked the kids to write 6-word memoirs  (well, really 10-word memoirs) beginning with the words "I'm that Jew who..." The kids got really into it, and used it as an opportunity to describe their expression of Judaism. I was in awe of the words they chose to describe their Jewish identities: words like pride, educator, advocate. They talked about teaching non-Jewish relatives and friends about the traditions, about youth group and 'Jew Camp' and how deep this identity goes. They wanted the links to the videos for when they get home (no tech allowed at camp). Many didn't just write one, but two or three or four.

Is it the deepest exploration of identity? No; we didn't study texts for example. But they had the space--in a Jewish environment, surrounded by their own Jewish community--to talk about their Jewishness as an unmitigated, unqualified source of pride. And I'm good with that.

Friday, July 22, 2016

All about Invocations: Rabbi Lookstein, Balak and The RNC

It’s hard to believe, but the issue at the beginning of the week involving speakers at the Republican National Convention—at least for Jews—was the invocation. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein had been invited to deliver the invocation for the RNC and, at the last moment, demurred, saying that it had become political, and that wasn’t his interest (by the way, it’s worth tracking down the text of his invocation, which is available online). Rabbi Lookstein is best known these days as the rabbi who did the conversion for Ivanka Trump, but he’s also very well known in the Modern Orthodox world as the rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun and, even more importantly, the former head of the Ramaz day school. It was, in fact, alumni of Ramaz as well as others in the modern orthodox world who petitioned and rallied to ask Rabbi Lookstein to reconsider, resulting in outcries from some that this was censorship or that somehow his constituency was trying to mute him or make this political. Rabbi David Wolpe even suggestedin Time that it was a shame that he had had his arm twisted and was prevented from making a blessing, noting that a blessing should non-partisan.

What can we learn from this tempest in a teapot? What implications are there for us out of this refusal to speak at the RNC, even in blessing?

Yehuda Kurtzner from the Hartman Institute wrote this week online about this convention and this election as being a Hora’at Sha’ah. The Hebrew phrase refers to a moment of, as former Israeli supreme court justice Menachem Elon calls it, temporary emergency legislation. It is crisis management dealing with something new, something which no precedent could have anticipated. We know Hora’at Sha’ah best from the idea of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. We know that saving lives trumps all other halacha—one is permitted to violate mitzvoth with abandon so long as it is with the intent of saving lives. Likewise, there are other circumstances where one must put aside precedent, put aside what might work in normal circumstances, and act with great urgency.  
This week in our Torah portion Balak, king of the Moabites, summons the prophet Baalam in order to curse Israel. He sees the threat that Israel brings as it marches through the wilderness toward the promised land, and summons the prophet to use a well-worn tactic; the cursing of the people so that they may fall in battle against Moab and be unsuccessful. But Baalam and, later, God, remind Balak that these circumstances are not normal. This isn’t just a people, this is God’s people, and so normal precedents are out the window. Despite being invited (and paid) to curse Israel, Baalam instead does the exact opposite, and blesses and praises Israel. The old rules don’t apply as they would against some other Canaanite tribe; this is Israel, and Baalam can only say over them, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov—How good are your tents, O Jacob.”

So what do we learn? That, it seems, we are in a moment that could be described as Hora’at Sha’ah, where the normal rules, the boundaries that keep us intact, seem to be out the window. Normally, yes, an invitation to give an invocation at the RNC should be seen as a moment of bipartisan blessing, or a moment to be mildly subversive and speak some modicum of truth in the moment. But this is not like other times. We are in a different moment in our history, one where the usual rules and ideas no longer apply. We are in a moment of hora’at sha’ah, a moment of crisis, and we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We must act and speak with the urgency that this moment demands, and as God reminds Baalam, we must act in holiness. May this be so. Amen.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Rebellion of Hope

Earlier this week we celebrated an act of rebellion as audacious and shocking as it was 240 years ago, as a group of men declared a group of colonies in North America to be an independent nation devoted to liberty. It is easy to see hubris in their actions; a group of wealthy land (And sometimes people) owners using populist anger against taxes, issues and ideas we still struggle with. What comes across from that time period is how much hope this profoundly young, often diverse group of dreamers had in what they were creating. 

Ironic, then, that we celebrate the American Revolution the same week we as Jews read about another, that of Korach and his band. His rebellion is often thought of as an act of ego run amok or heresy or tribal feud, but I have another thought: his was a rebellion of despair. 

Israel is in the desert, now banished from the Holy Land due to their sin of the incident of the spies. This generation shall not enter the land, a whole generation dying in the wilderness. The very next thing we read is "Korach Took", and so begins the rebellion.  

It is that strange wording that tells me this was a revolt of hopelessness. Midrash Rabbah reads: it does not say now Korach contended, or assembled, or spoke or commanded, but Korach took. What did he take? He took nothing! It was his heart that carried him away.

His heart wasn't hardened, wasn't made indifferent; rather, Korach panics. He sees only doom, only an endless night of torment. In fact, the midrash goes on to say that the reason Moses has the contest of leadership in the morning is to give Korach and his band a chance to catch their breath and repent; to admit that they went overboard and step back from their grief. But he cannot. The sin of Korach is not the rebellion; it is that he lets his feelings of powerlessness lead him and others to misery. 

Does this sound familiar? There are many voices right now telling us that there is no hope, that there is only despair in darkness. Voices the demonize  and search for easy solutions. Voices of bigotry hard and soft; the slander against religion or race, and fear mongering, those who will tell you you're either with us or against us. 

There is much to despair in the past week--in the past two days-- including and especially the loss of a voice of Hope against despair, the voice of Elie Wiesel. He taught us that despair is not the answer but a call to action, that hope is a gift we give to each other, that Injustice requires action, and that the greatest of sins is indifference. Wiesel reminded us again and again--through his teaching and testimony -- that, in his words, We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.

Korach was paralyzed by fear and anguish. He could not see a way through despair to work for others. He stands as a warning , especially in this time when we might ourselves give into the voices of darkness around us. There are many who memorialized Wiesel this week; we do best honor to his memory when we choose action and hope. May we be deserving of hisel memory. Amen. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Sermon from 5/6/16: Words Words Words

I want to begin by asking a question: if tomorrow, you were bereft of the power of speech, save only one phrase, or even only one word--what would that phrase or word be?

I’m not talking about being struck dumb or having a stroke. You would have a choice--if the world was reoriented such that you could only say one thing, if you were to undergo a modified, enforceable vow of silence, what would you choose to say?

It’s a hard question to ask, and even harder to answer. Would it be a word of wisdom? Some aphorism to inspire those around you? Would it be a purely utilitarian phrase, a practical sentence? Would it be a favorite line from literature, or film, or a primal yalp? Would you declare your own name, as Groot does in Guardians of The Galaxy, or a nonsense word, as Hodor declares in Game of Thrones? Or, bereft of choices, would you choose to sit in silence?

So now let me ask a follow up question: whatever word or phrase you chose--how often do you say it now? How often do you say that specific phrase? If these are the most important words, the ones you cannot live without, the ones you MUST KEEP, how often do you say them?

Like any commodity, when we have a great deal of something, we tend to forget that thing’s real value, it’s real worth. We take for granted our ability to speak, to write, to share our thoughts through language. Of course there are other ways to express ourselves: body language, movement, art, music, mathematics. But for the most part, we say words. We say a lot of words. The best words, to quote a presidential candidate who likes to use his words in their most weaponized form. We use our words carelessly, thoughtlessly, not thinking about the impact they might have on others. Or, sometimes even worse, we overthink our words, trying to craft our speech so carefully so the other person can read between the lines. But perhaps, in our talking, we don’t really pay enough attention to what we’re saying, or how we’re speaking. Or how we’re listening.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Hasidic master, was very focused on one idea, that of hitbodedut, of clinging to God. For him, the best way to achieve this was talking to God, and he would encourage his followers to practice this every day.

He said: even when one cannot speak at all, or says only a single thing--it is also very good!!

He also said: even if a person can only say one thing, he should be resolute and say that thing over and over again, endlessly. And even if he spends many, many days saying nothing but this thing--that too is good! He should be strong and courageous, and continue to say that thing countless times until God takes pity on him and opens his mouth, enabling him to elaborate on his words.

The Rebbe also said: The spoken word is very powerful. Why, with a whisper it is possible to prevent a gun from firing. Understand this. (from Likutei Morhoran II #96)

So: how are we doing with our words? Are we treating our words as powerfully as they are? Do we understand their importance? Are we whispering to stop the weaponry around us? Are we repeating what must be said to elevate the world? Are we speaking strongly and courageously? Might we speak more appropriately if we knew we only had a handful of words to say, or perhaps only one?

For me the answer is yes. It is unquestionably yes. And because of that we need to remind ourselves of the power of our words. We have a presidential candidate who uses words as he uses people--as if they’re disposable. We have a child killed in our community whose family--already reeling from the tragedy of her death--is dealing with people speaking around and about them--even setting up fake charity accounts using their names. And we all know too many people and too many circumstances where words spoken have done far, far more harm than good. There’s a reason the 1980s band Depeche Mode wrote that words can only do harm.

But they can do so much more than that when we let them. The word of appreciation, the word of apology, the word of gratitude or praise or affection can change a person’s whole experience, even reorient their world. And, if we believe Reb Nachman, perhaps those words can even bring us closer to God. May it be so: May we learn to open our mouths that we may only speak the words most important to us, the words that bring us to holiness.

And in case you were wondering: if I were reduced to only a handful of words, I would choose nothing more dramatic or inspiring except the words I try to speak to those around me in different ways as much as possible. I would choose I love you. May this be our blessing. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Blog Exodus Day 14: Praise

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh

Link replaced with text due to brokenness.

Thanks for following my poetic exploration of the Exodus! A happy holiday to all who celebrate.