Saturday, September 30, 2017

Kol Nidre 5778--Reflections on Teshuvah

Below follows my Erev Yom Kippur Sermon for 5778. 

Tomorrow, thousands of people will gather in a communal act of love and justice. Actually, Two. One, is the holiday we begin tonight, a holiday that calls us to task and asks us to be our better selves. The other is the March for Racial Justice, a march taking place on Washington on a day, tomorrow, that is incredibly significant for African Americans, a day commemorating the massacre of hundreds of African Americans in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919, one of too many days in American history drenched in blood. But by scheduling this march on Yom Kippur, it appeared as if the organizers were purposefully excluding Jews, who have been at the forefront of racial justice in North America, from David Einhorn and the abolitionists before the Civil War, to the Jewish Freedom Riders and rabbis who went to the south to fight for desegregation and voting rights, to today. It looked bad…until a day in late August, when the organizers put out an apology. A heartfelt one, recognizing the shared crisis of racism and antisemitism we are facing in the United States today and their own failure to recognize the date of Yom Kippur being in conflict. They could have stopped there, but they didn’t. They asked for forgiveness in the spirit of the holiday, recognized that self-denial and fasting is not just a spiritual act but one of resistance, and that we use the holiday to reflect on the ills of society and not only our personal failings. And while they couldn’t change the date of the primary march, they were adding other events afterwards and in other cities to create opportunities to include Jews as allies and partners in the work of racial healing and social justice.

In other words, they made Teshuvah.

Tonight, we begin our Day of Atonement, our last chance to reflect on our actions from the past year and decide what kind of people we want to be. The next 24 hours we will be focused, as commanded, on self-denial, mostly fasting, and concluding these 10 Days of Awe, themselves part of several weeks of penitence; a final, last-ditch effort to make Teshuvah, to turn in true repentance and try to live up to our better selves. Even more than that, the scholar Adin Steinsaltz describes Teshuvah as “the ever-present possibility of changing one’s life and the very direction of one’s life”, and “the possibility of altering reality after the fact.”

When we talk about Teshuvah, repentance, and kapparah, atonement, we often talk about the idea of selicha, of apology.  Classically, Teshuvah is made up of three parts: we are supposed to apologize for what we’ve done wrong, make amends or restitution to those we’ve offended, and make changes in our lives so that we don’t make the same mistake or cause the same harm again. But the focus is so often on asking forgiveness. Our liturgy emphasizes that idea of verbally saying “I’m sorry”, and we see all over social media and in person people saying something like, “if I have offended you I apologize and I forgive anyone who has offended me,” a catch-all reciprocal act of forgiveness. But Teshuvah is more than just the words we speak; it must be predicated on our actions as well. To merely ask for forgiveness without doing the hard work of literally turning ourselves around is really an invitation to failure. It’s setting an expectation that we will do better and be better without having prepared ourselves to do either. It’s the spiritual equivalent of running a marathon without having ever done any exercise; without the training, the buildup of muscle and endurance, both physical and mental, the race is already lost. Doesn’t matter if you paid the registration, got your number and had every intention of running and finishing; without the prep work, it’s over before it starts. The same is true for Teshuvah. To apologize is to set an expectation; that things will be different, that I will be better. That I will just somehow miraculously stop doing whatever it is I was doing to make the other person miserable. But without recompense and change in behavior, without doing some real hard work within my soul, then the words are only sounds.

And we each know someone who simply cannot apologize. To ask them to say, “I’m sorry” is a step too far. It doesn’t mean that they’re bad people or incapable of being thoughtful or self-reflective; they just can’t say those words. Or perhaps that description resonates within us, ourselves. Maybe it’s too embarrassing, or it feels like weakness. But for whatever reason the words “I’m sorry”, meant to be a phrase that facilitates catharsis, instead becomes an obstacle to real Teshuvah.   

Is real Teshuvah, real repentance, possible without an apology? That’s tough. For many of us, hearing an apology is a necessary moment of engagement; it’s that point where we evaluate the sincerity of the offending individual. And, frankly, it’s sometimes self-satisfying to be told by someone that they were wrong and we were right. It’s gratifying to have someone come to us in humility. But is it truly necessary?

To understand that I want to share what I think is one of the greatest examples of contrition and Teshuvah in the modern experience, and the words “I’m sorry” were never spoken.

Many people wondered what President George W. Bush was going to do when he left office in 2009. At the time a deeply unpopular president, one who had presided over a Recession, two enormous wars, and one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States, “Dubya” was never one to apologize. In fact, he cast himself as a man of steely resolve, the “Decider” who, despite initially wanting to create a humbler presidency, never could admit a wrong, at least publicly. Surely there were tears shed privately, as we learned later, when confronted by the parents of soldiers sent off to war only to return broken, or not at all. But that was never articulated to the public.
So, it was a surprise to learn that this least-introspective president had taken up painting. Taking lessons and self-teaching, he seemed to be cultivating a quirky hobby in his political retirement, painting self-portraits, including of him coming out of the shower, which no one wanted to see. There were a lot of laughs at his expense as a result. But it turned out all of this was practice, laying a groundwork to focus on a specific project. Last year, it was revealed that former-President Bush had been learning to paint so he could paint the portraits of men and women he had ordered to serve in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of whom were profoundly wounded, either physically or psychologically. He released a book this year of his portraits, called “Portraits of Courage”, which highlight the biographies of the former soldiers he painted, many of whom suffered post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. The proceeds from the book go to an organization that helps wounded warriors with employment, treatment and recovery for their injuries, etc.

Friends, George W. Bush never apologized in the way the organizers for the March for Justice did. He never apologized for the forever wars we are still fighting. He never apologized for sending our children into harm’s way. He never asked this country's forgiveness for his choices, and we’ll never know if he apologized to those men and women who did their duty, be it with enthusiasm or reluctance. But is there any other way to understand this effort? And how could we not open our hearts to this action, this choice, this act of contrition, no less profound than that of the March organizers gearing up for tomorrow. Each in their own way made a choice to alter reality after the fact, to open themselves up to the possibility that they could turn, and in turning, be reborn. That very same choice is before us; tonight, tomorrow, and each and every day. It’s only up to us to resolve that we will embrace those opportunities to alter ourselves and our experiences. May we have the courage to do so. Amen.



Friday, September 22, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5778 (2017): Becoming a Rodef Shalom, a Pursuer of Peace

In the village where I grew up, down the street from the home-made ice cream place and the library, across the street from the playground where I went as a kid and I used to take my son, there is a magical place. It’s a red-painted barn- like building, kind of out of place for New England, with the words 1856 Country Store on the side, but everyone knows it as the Penny Candy Store. It’s the place in the village to get sweatshirts, soap, doodads, knickknacks, a newspaper, and yes, penny candy. It’s the perfect spot to meet your friends or take your kid after story time or some time on the playground, and the best spot to stand in front of to watch the Memorial Day parade every year. On either side of the door are two white, painted benches; one says “Democrats” on it, the other “Republicans”. It’s supposed to be for a laugh, these two benches divided by the entranceway, a cute photo you take. This past summer as I was walking with my family past I looked at those benches, and suddenly it wasn’t so cute any more.

There’s been a lot of discussion since last high holidays on how divided we are, and how ugly and angry those divisions have become. We read about neighbors who can’t stand to look at each other anymore getting into screaming matches and even spitting on each other; racist and anti-Semitic and homophobic attacks in the wake of the election. And it isn’t just Right vs. Left; it seems to me that we’re increasingly in the middle of an all-out scrum of all versus all; left-wing organizations shunning Jews because of Zionism, right-wing groups and individuals threatening those who don’t observe intellectual purity. And all those discussions have been filled with a great deal of blame and accusation; whose fault is it that we’re so divided. Which, of course, fosters more division, more hostility, more anger. I don’t know about you; maybe you’re over it. Maybe you feel like this issue has been talked to death and you just want to be left alone. For me, as a father, as a rabbi, as a man, it’s scary. It’s exhausting. And it’s sad. It’s increasingly clear that we cannot move forward as a country and a community in this fashion. As human beings, we ache for connectivity; we are social animals and we want to be able to be in relationship with one another in peace. Forget about politics for a moment; in my neighborhood, there are two neighbors that are having a constant war with one another about the Lord knows what, but it’s constant and they are always trying to suck everyone else into this fight. Perhaps you have had similar experiences. It’s really uncomfortable, to the point of worrying about folks’ safety. I’m not saying we all have to be best buddies, but a minimum level of civility goes a long way to keeping the peace. We hunger for that civility, need to reclaim it and restore it to a prominent place in our society.

Therefore, as Jews, as human beings, we are compelled to act. Our tradition teaches us the importance of peace: in text after text we are reminded that the pursuit of peace is among the most important tasks before us. Famously we are taught Bakesh shalom v’rodfei hu; Seek peace and pursue it. And the sages of old have understood that text to mean that, while other mitzvot are conditional, circumstantial; perhaps we could do whatever we’re commanded to do, perhaps notthis mitzvah, however, is not conditional. If there is no opportunity to make peace, we make an opportunity to make peace.  And in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to suggest that we now could make that opportunity, to start over, and spend this year in our daily lives rebuilding what has been broken, healing the divisions we see in our midst.

To pursue peace, we must ask the question: what do we mean by that word, peace? The word can too easily conjure up a certain kind of cynicism; “can’t we all just get along” type stuff. Let me be clear by what I mean by this action, and what I don’t mean. In the spirit of Maimonides, I’ll begin with what I don’t mean. I do not mean capitulation on deeply held beliefs. I do not mean moral ambivalence or relativism, that somehow ‘many sides’ can all be equally right. Peace doesn’t merely mean quiet or order. This is not about shutting people up or shutting people down. Indeed, I’d argue that doing so is no peace at all. Many of us feel quite strongly about a whole range of issues, have attended rallies and vigils and protests; peace does not mean going home and shutting up. It does not mean minimizing folks’ lived experiences. None of those things lead to peace. They may lead to quiet, and it might lead to order, but the ache, the anger, the issues that were there before will still seep out, will still curdle our relationships with one another. I’m guessing all of us have apologized at some point or another for something we didn’t feel guilty of, just to get the conversation over and avoid the conflict. And I’m also guessing each of us have tried to share a deeply held belief—perhaps even with close friends—only to be shouted down, perhaps without the other person even understanding our point of view. Maybe we were doing the shouting. How many of us are still carrying the scars from that, still holding onto the anger we felt, the frustration we felt. How many of us are still carrying that around with us? Does that sound like peace to you?   As we read in the prophets, we are forbidden to proclaim “Peace! When there is no peace.”

So, what is the pursuit of peace, really? What does our tradition mean when it compels us to seek peace and pursue it? First and foremost, it means recognizing our shared humanity. If we take seriously the idea from our Torah that all of us are created in God’s image, then we have a moral obligation to lift that up for ourselves and each other. Sounds easy, but it’s really, hard. To stop for a moment, stop our own anxieties, our own agenda, our own business long enough to look at the person and see that it is, in fact, A PERSON that you're looking at , requires a great deal of compassion and patience. Especially if they’re yelling at you. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who has done a tremendous amount of conflict transformation work, especially between Jews and Palestinians, talks about when she’s in difficult conversations, sometimes painful conversations with others, and before she responds with her own anger, her own need to be right, takes a deep breath and, looking at each person, says silently to herself ‘betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim, betzelem Elohim.” –“Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image, Created in God’s image.”

In those moments, when we want to just take the other person apart, to respond defensively, it takes a willingness to put down our own weapons, to not, in conflict, fight to win. Rabbi Elisa Koppel last year shared the idea of makhlokeht l’shem shamayim, a disagreement for the sake of heaven. Our tradition does not presume that conflict will cease to exist; there will always be conflict. But, how can we make said conflicts constructive, thoughtful, and productive?. How can we avoid demonizing the other side, making broad generalizations of everyone who disagrees with me? It might feel good in the moment, but is the hangover worth it? I’ve been a Rotarian for a few years now, as is my father, and the hallmark for the Rotary organization is something called the Four-Way test. The Four-way test asks us to take the following questions into account before we speak with one another: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill? Is it to everyone’s benefit? It’s meant to be nonsectarian and nonpartisan, but I can’t help but think of it as awfully Jewish. Can you imagine having those four questions in your head before you spoke? I don’t know about you, but I think it would help make a whole lot of conflicts much more meaningful, and who knows, perhaps we might learn something from the other as a result.

That idea of learning, of being open and curious rather than closed and determined, is essential to the work of pursuing peace as well. That doesn’t mean being soft. It doesn’t mean giving up what we believe. It does mean being humble; listening to the other without interruption, even when it is hard. Perhaps especially when it is hard. It means being quick to listen carefully and slow to interject. It means being aware of one’s own feelings in the heated moment and recognizing them as authentic but not letting them drive the conversation. I’ve often shared my teacher Rabbi David Ellenson’s story of how, when he and his wife would get into a disagreement and the conversation got too heated she would say “David, this is where you can either be right or be married.” Our need to win cannot and should not take precedence over our need to maintain a relationship; we must respond graciously and acknowledge our own limits. So, when the person shares their pain, their own lived experience, we would be wise to listen respectfully, and expect the same from the person we’re speaking to, and apologize quickly if what we say in reflection turns out to be hurtful. That’s not being politically correct, it’s not being policed, it’s being a mensch; it’s being kind. And I think we can agree that we could use a little more kindness. Last Sukkot Ivan Thomas, who created #wearelove, came and led our congregation in a process where we could listen deeply and respectfully to each other’s stories. I doubt anyone who was there that night could say that they didn’t learn something new about the world, the person they interacted with, or themselves. And when we open ourselves up, when we respond with curiosity, we create the opportunity to do exactly that kind of learning. In contrast, Rabbi Eilberg recounts in her book From Enemy to Friend how she went to an academic panel where the moderator asked each panelist to ask the other a question, and one admitted she honestly couldn’t think of one question she could ask the others. They were so used to articulating their point of view, defending their point of view, that they hadn’t thought what it would mean to listen to one another.
By now you’ve probably realized that the kind of peace I’m describing is hard to achieve, especially in a world where it’s easy to go on the internet, see something that makes our blood boil and then go bananas. To do this work takes intentionality, self-awareness, humility and courage. Yes, courage: the courage to be vulnerable in the moment, to open yourself up to someone else’s world view. It takes compassion, honoring the holiness in the other, and a generosity of spirit. It’s not easy; we’ve fallen out of the habit. We want to repost memes and scream into the face of the other—and there’s always an “Other”. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. What if we committed to taking these values and, when we encounter someone with whom we disagree, someone with whom we’re in conflict, work to make them a part of the encounter. What if we strive, each one of us, to be a little more curious, a little humbler, a little more willing to listen to each other. A little more willing to hear someone else’s pain, and be aware of our own. A little more willing to transform the conflict rather than avoid it. Look, we’re not going to magically become the Dalai Llama or Reb Nachman of Bratzlav or Pope Francis—and frankly, each one of them have had moments they weren’t proud of. Each one of us, no matter how hard we try, will fall. God knows I have. But that’s not the point; the point is to pursue peace. We may never achieve it, not fully nor perfectly, but we must still seek out those opportunities and embrace them to the best of our abilities. Maybe we only change one conversation; sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference in this world.

The poet Yehuda Amichai wrote the following:
In the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow in the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled like a yard.
But doubts and loves dig up the world like a
Mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place where the
Ruined house once stood.

Do we want to be right or in relationship? Do we want to continue to trample the ground and each other in service to our rage and pain, or do we want to plant new flowers of love and understanding? In this new year, I am going to commit myself to pursuing peace. I am going to commit myself to seek understanding, to respect and reflect, and to do what I can to shape the conflicts I encounter into conflicts for the sake of Heaven. And I deeply believe that, if each of us commits as well, we can begin to change the world around us, to move toward a culture of peace. As you leave today you will find the Rodef Shalom Agreement, a brit, a covenant you make with yourself. I encourage you to take one, and begin to do the work of exploring what it would mean for each of us to be that person in our lives. May it be so. Amen.


 Rodef Shalom Agreement

I hereby agree, to do my utmost
in being mindful of myself
as a rodef shalom (pursuer of peace),
seeking to understand, respect and assist
in constructively balancing conflicting
needs and perspectives,
between individuals and communities,
in the spirit of mahloket l’shem shamayim
(conflicts for the sake of Heaven).


Erev Rosh Hashanah 5778/2017: How Do We Talk (About Israel) With Each Other?

It was a hot day this past July, and it looked like the Old City of Jerusalem was going to explode. A few days before, three Israeli Arabs had killed two Israeli Druze police officers near the Temple Mount. Security forces had closed off the area and then reopened it with metal detectors. Israeli Arab leaders and the leadership of the Waqf, the religious authority that supervises Muslim holy sites in Israel, staged a protest, and began calling for a day of rage. Three Israelis were killed when someone broke into their home, and three Palestinians were killed in rioting. For those of us watching this past summer, it appeared that once again Israel would be embroiled in violence.
In response to the increased tensions, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an American Israeli journalist who has been living in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, stood outside and, with a few friends, handed out popsicles to passersby. She started with popsicles she had paid for out of pocket, and by the end of the day merchants were donating them entire boxes.

She wrote the following of the experience:
On Thursday, a group of us stood in front of the Austrian hospice at the intersection of Al Wad and Via Dolorosa and handed out (parve) popsicles to anyone who would accept.
Men carrying prayer rugs on their way to the Mosque.
Guys going to the Western Wall.
Families walking north and south and back again.
A baffled looking priest and two nuns.
A guy in Border Police with braces on his teeth.
A pilgrim from Russia wearing a giant cross and strappy sandals.
A bunch of tourists from Ohio.
Lots and lots and lots of kids.
Anyone who would accept a popsicle got one.
Why?
Because it's *** hot out.
And we may come from different cultures and religions, we may speak different languages and see the world through different eyes, but we are all a sum part of chemical and biological processes, and we all get hot.
And when we get hot we get irritated and the tensions that are already there can ignite.
Also, the Old City is my home and I believe in treating my neighbors with respect during good times, and bad.

As it happened, the next day, Israel removed the security apparatuses and tensions were calmed.
I suspect many of us, as touched as we are by Sarah’s gesture (on her birthday, no less) find it lovely but Pollyanna-ish. How do popsicles solve the crisis between Palestinian and Jew in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan RIver? How does this account for the Waqf’s incitement, fanning the flames of violence? How does it deal with the Palestinian Authority continuing to pay the families of terrorists, including the three who killed the Druze police officers? How do popsicles deal with olive groves destroyed by settlers who build on hilltops that don’t belong to them? What do popsicles do to protect our kids at college when someone paints a swastika on their dorm room door? How does this really resolve anything? We see the picture of Sarah handing out popsicles, and it’s lovely, and kind, yet by the time we’re done thinking about the matzav, the situation, we get ourselves so worked up that it feels futile and hopeless and irrelevant.

When I was a kid I had a book from AIPAC called “Myths and Facts”, a guide to talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, that was meant to help someone who would get caught up in a conversation about Israel and quickly get overwhelmed. That’s because the conversation is overwhelming. Because when we speak of Israel, we are often very quick to speak of technicalities: dates and maps and green lines and technical marvels, who did what when, who is to blame and who is responsible, who really actually truly cares about others? And what’s worse, the diversity of Zionist organizations on the left and the right has created increasing fracture within the Jewish community, including here in Delaware. Myths And Facts was meant for Jews to speak with non-Jews, but it seems that we have reached the point where we may feel that we need it internally, not just externally. It was one thing to combat well-meaning non-Jewish peaceniks who would carry the claim that Zionism was racism. Now we have the ZOA, AIPAC, J-Street, ARZA, IfNotNow, Open Hillel and many other organizations whose relationship with Zionism is complex and nuanced, which would be great, if we were living in a time of complex and nuanced discussion and debate. But increasingly, we have been living in a world of alternative facts, fake news, insistence that if the person across from me disagrees with me even in the slightest bit, they are not just wrong, they are my enemy and the enemy of all I hold dear. To be a J-Street supporter in the eyes of many is to betray the Jewish state to an Iranian Nuclear Weapon, while to be an AIPAC supporter is to capitulate to an Israeli Prime Minister unwilling and unable to make peace. Is ARZA fighting to create space for Reform Jews to practice an egalitarian Judaism at the Western Wall, or a distraction undermining the fabric of Israeli society and Judaism as we know it? Does the ZOA advocate for a strong Jewish State or is it a racist organization advocating bigotry against Arabs? These are actual discussions that are taking place, if you can call them ‘discussions’. More like weaponized sentences, screaming matches, skirmishes that have casualties. As one example, a student of mine, now in college, shared this experience with me: She was getting ready to go on a birthright trip, one geared toward LGBT individuals, that would coincide with Israel Pridefest. She wrote: “Before the trip I had gotten anti-Israel hate on campus (anti-Trump protests saying if you didn't vote to divest then you don't believe in human rights, friends saying Zionism has no place in feminism) and my best friend told me she cancelled her trip with me because she couldn't "morally go to Israel" but nobody was like actually attacking me for going cuz I kept it on the down low since I knew so many of my friends legitimately hated Israel and would make laugh about terrorism on twitter. Only after I went did I have people be blatantly anti-Semitic to me on twitter because of my trip and people passive aggressively post articles about pink washing the day I got back” . Can you imagine having friendships ruined, trips ruined, relationships blown apart? That is what is happening, and this is being repeated over and over again. My friends, we are tearing each other apart.

Friends, if we keep talking about Israel through technicalities, as if it were a zero-sum game, without nuance or complexity or an acknowledgement of each other’s lived experiences, then we are not going to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. We are not going to stop dumb college kids from saying dumb and terrible things and doing dumb and terrible things. We aren’t going to be able to support the kind of Israel we want to see—strong and diverse and safe. We are creating a no-man’s land within the Jewish community; no one wants to talk about Israel. I’ve seen it for years: a survey came out two years ago of rabbis across all three major movements that indicated the majority refrained from discussing Israel because they feared for their jobs; one prominent rabbi in the Northeast who does a great deal of social justice work told a group of us ten years ago to approach the topic of Israel gingerly, and treat it as a third rail in synagogue politics. And we see it in Delaware. How many people are still giving to ARZA, or are willing to go to an AIPAC or J-Street policy conference, or at least tell others? How many look over both shoulders while at Temple before talking about Israel so as not to get into a fight? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been without an Israel Advocacy Chair for more than two years, a Board position! Because no one wants to touch it.
So let’s go back to those popsicles, shall we? Did some blonde woman from LA who now lives in Jerusalem handing out popsicles resolve the borders, water rights, Palestinian Right of Return and the boundaries of Jerusalem? Nope. Did it resolve the issue on the Temple Mount? Nope. Did it bring back the lives of those killed—the policemen, the family, the young people at the protest? Sadly, no. But it was a human gesture, a recognition that the people shared a city, shared a love for that city, and a love for each other as well. It was neighborly, it was kind. And it allowed the people to be people, to recognize the humanity in one another, even for one brief, cool, sweet, drippy moment.
We need more of those moments. We need more opportunities that are safe, where we can sit with our fellow congregants and speak from our lived experiences, talk about what Israel means to each one of us personally. We need to start not at 30,000 feet, at borders and drip irrigation and the like. That doesn’t mean that isn’t interesting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t cool, but that’s not our starting point. Our starting point needs to be each other. Why do we care about Israel? What does that look like to me, or to you? Where does it come from? How does it relate to the rest of our lives? How can we listen and affirm that connection, deepen it, relate to it, let it resonate for ourselves? How does Israel challenge us, upset us? How do we create space to listen to one another, not scream the so-called correct answers at one another?

This year, I want to try an experiment; an experiment in listening. Over the course of this year, there will be sessions, held over several months, beginning in October and culminating in May. The purpose of them is to create the space to talk about Israel, to listen to each other in a safe space, and to build relationships. No other agenda, no convincing one another of being right or wrong, no yelling, no screaming, no Myths and no Facts. Only listening deeply and seeing the humanity in one another, and acknowledging each other’s experiences. I can’t promise there will be popsicles, but my prayer is that we’re able to come together and speak honestly and compassionately, to hear one another even when it’s difficult. Because it’ll be no good if we only speak platitudes and avoid the subject; that’s what we’ve got now and it’s not doing anything either. We need to be able to be honest, but to be able to hear one another clearly as well, not just prepare our next fusillade. Rabbi Amy Eilberg, in her book From Enemy To Friend, talks about “skilled disagreement”, and this will help guide our conversations. Ideas like: we can be critical of ideas but not people, we can separate our personal worth from criticism of our ideas, we listen to everyone, even when we don’t agree, we try to understand one another and stand in a posture of curiosity, asking questions. I’ll be going into greater detail about those ideas tomorrow, but that is the intention. I cordially invite you—all of you, each of you—to come and participate, to share, to be present, to create those moments of empathy with one another. Perhaps it will lead to something concrete for the synagogue—a new Israel committee, a new program—or perhaps it will just mean that the participants got to know each other better and learned how to speak thoughtfully. Perhaps we will choose to extend the conversation: to the rest of Delaware’s Jewish community, to the non-Jewish community, or perhaps not. What’s most important is that we do it. Because if we do not start here, each one of us, in this congregation, then I fear our relationship with Israel will become increasingly tenuous, and our relationship with one another ever more brittle. And should that happen, then we cannot advocate for Israel, at least not effectively. And are we really ready to give up on the Hope and the dream of a Jewish people, Free in our land?


The rabbis of old ask, “Who is the hero of heroes? The one who makes an enemy into a friend.” May we, through our listening and our kindness learn to keep our friends “friends”, and see those around us not as enemies but as potential friends, then may our words be as sweet to one another as a popsicle on a summer’s day. Amen

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Blogging Elul: Rosh Chodesh, Shoftim and choosing to Act

In the summer of 1958, Groucho Marx took his daughter Melinda, friend Robert Duan and Robert’s daughter Judy for a six week trip to Europe, including a visit to Germany. While in Germany, they attempted to visit the cemetery where Groucho’s grandmother was buried, only to find the entire Jewish section had been eradicated by the Nazis. A few days later, Groucho hired a car to take them to East Berlin, where he asked to see the remains of Hitler’s bunker and last resting place. They found it much the way it was right after the war; a heap of wreckage and rubble. Marx got out of the car, stood atop it, and proceeded to do a frenetic Charleston routine; an ultimate act of defiance. No one laughed. They left Germany the next day.

It’s worth reflecting on that image, of Groucho Marx literally dancing on the grave of Hitler, without even a hint of humor in the moment, as we continue to process the events of the last few weeks. Rabbi Koppel, in conversation with me, reflected that it seemed as if the march in Charlottesville sent the entire Jewish community into shock, and that we were—are—still wrestling with what we should be doing. I mentioned this to a non-Jewish colleague, who said that he shared with his congregation the following question, based on the prophets: are we responding to the Tiki-torch Nazis out of righteousness or out of rage?

We might ask the question whether or not it matters; why shouldn’t we respond out of our own rage and pain? Wouldn’t we be justified to react in that fashion? To meet the forces of evil—and lets be clear, we are discussing evil—in the same manner they approach us?

This week we read in our Torah those words that we as Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, have clung to for generations; tzedek tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice you shall pursue. The Hasidic leader Rabbi Simcha Bunim understands the repetition of the word tzedek—Justice—to mean that we must pursue justice in a just way. We cannot, must not say the ends justify the means, for to do so means that we are no longer truly pursuing a just, compassionate and sacred world. Instead we are pursuing our own agenda, one filled with bad intentions. Or, through our actions, no matter our intent, instead of spreading justice, we create the fertile ground for more injustice in the world. We have seen this again and again as people who once pursued righteousness now seek to feed their own egos, or well-intentioned programs and efforts turn out to backfire on the very people they were supposed to help. So it is with us as well in this moment. I know it’s scary right now, and exhausting, and sad, and infuriating. The old punk in me would like nothing better than to curb-stomp some skinhead thugs. But that isn’t justice; it’s not even close. Surely the times demand that we act and act we must. But we won’t become them. We will not allow their hate, their penchant to violence, their disdain for justice to make us act out of fear and rage. We will not let them dictate the rules of the game. No; we will act with a defiant love in our hearts, a love for God and this world and our neighbors and our tradition as radical and provocative as dancing on Hitler’s grave. We will not shrink from our mission as Jews, but step forward, reminding others of God’s hidden light in the world, that will only be revealed when we lift up the poor, support the oppressed, and care for the stranger in our midst, for we know what it means to be the stranger. We will act with courage, but not hate, strength but not rage, justice but not zealousness. The moment is calling to us, and we must answer the call, to do justice justly in the world and cause the shadow of hate to crawl back under the rock.


In 1941 Woody Guthrie put the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. His music was his weapon against tyranny and hate. Groucho’s weapon against injustice was a crazy Charleston. Our weapon is Torah, guiding the work of our hands and the words we speak. We move forward, mindful of the words of the psalmist we say from now until Rosh Hashanah, Hope in God! Be strong and of good courage. Hope in God! Amen. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Charlottesville, Eikev and Being In The Camp Bubble

I've been at Camp Harlam as faculty for the last week now. It's been amazing, as always, working with my unit and their staff, being with colleagues and comparing notes, focused on this cloistered microcosm of Jewish life here in the Poconos.

The emphasis is on the word cloistered. Even while taking the unit to New York City earlier this week it's easy to feel disconnected from the outside world. That is, as they say, a feature, not a bug; the point is to get the kids (and staff) to focus entirely on the Jewish world they're creating here in Kunkletown, rather than be distracted by what might be happening off-camp. Campers aren't allowed phones or connected devices, and staff are asked to keep theirs discreet and use them only for work or in their off hours. So it's easy to loss connection with the daily round, including what's happening in Virginia right now.

I was in Charlottesville for the first time only two months ago. I was down to do a wedding, and Marisa and I used the opportunity for a little R&R as well. While there, we toured the Old Grounds of the University of Virginia, and later (when my son arrived from my in-laws) Monticello.

I was struck by two things while in Charlottesville. The first was the kindness and diversity of everyone I met: the woman who cut my hair the day before the wedding, the local friends of the couple, the folks we met in passing, the guy behind the counter at the used book store who clearly could spin a yarn,  the folks at the coffeeshop we had breakfast in. Sure, you might say, it's the South, of course they were nice. But it was more than that: they were kind.  There was a real sense of community in this town. A sense that all of us are in this together.

The other was how the city--and UVA--are still wrestling with race and the legacy of slavery. As someone who went to Oberlin, a school rooted first in the Underground Railroad and Emancipation and later the Civil Rights movement, it was hard for me to tour the campus and process how much slavery permeated the origins of the school. But to the school's credit, it was neither hidden away nor whitewashed; there were clear exhibits and displays discussing their "original sin" and its legacy.

So to see what's happening in Charlottesville today is heartbreaking. The hate. The bigotry. The violence and terrorism. The lack of shame on the part of those who fly the symbols of racism and rage and intimidation. And to be here, surrounded by children of every color of the rainbow and every orientation celebrating their Judaism knowing that only a half-a-day's ride, people are being threatened, beaten, or run over, makes me feel pulled in two different directions, groping for answers in the dark.

This week, in our Torah portion, we read: "Remember the long way that The Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness...[in order to] test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep [God's] commandments or not."(Deut. 8:2). Clearly we as a country are still in the wilderness, still tested by hardship; is this truly what is in our hearts as a country? Is this who we want to be? A place of fire and rage and hate and bigotry? Or can we find our way back on the path? At this morning's Shabbat service, the unit head and assistant unit head of Galil reminded us that our values are not goals to achieve, they are not things we are meant to master. Rather, we are presented opportunities to strive toward them, and while sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail as well. But failure can lead to learning, can lead us higher, to strive harder for those moments where we might be our best selves. Today, as we continue in the wilderness of history, is a moment of failure. Today is a moment where we failed God's test. Not for Charlottesville or Virginia, but for all of us. Even those of us cloistered away at summer camp. But it will only remain a failure if we fail to learn from it, if we fail to act on that learning. Today is a day of hate. May tomorrow be a day of love, a day of peace--because we made it as such.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Parashat Mattot: Seeing The Other


The ad took up a full page in the newspaper. A prayer, a Jewish prayer, for soldiers going off to war, presented by the religious leader of the local community, beginning with the Shema in transliterated Hebrew, and ending with the words of the Psalms: “For thy salvation do I hope, O Lord!” The prayer, fitting a time of war, beseeches God to defeat the enemy, to inspire the young soldier and watch over them, and to watch over the welfare of the country and its leadership. The local Jewish community, having seen this prayer, watching their own children and their neighbors’ children go off to war, must have found it inspiring, and the Christian community, I suspect, found it encouraging as well.
The prayer I’m referring to is the Prayer for Confederate soldiers, written by Rev. M. J. Michelbacher, “minister” of the Hebrew Congregation, “House of Love” in Richmond Virginia, now headed by my colleague Scott Nagel. The enemy invoked in the prayer is, of course, the North, the Union…you know, the good guys. And here is a Jewish prayer celebrating what we know and understand, and what many of our Movement’s founders understood, to be the bad guys, the Confederacy.
It would be really easy for us to dismiss this as a particular stain of our history, but a minor one, that little shadow on the tablecloth where the wine got spilled at Seder once. We could blow it off, or explain it away, or justify it in a hundred different ways: a product of its time and place, the local Jews were afraid to speak out against injustice, etc. and so forth. Or we could just ignore it, and celebrate Jewish abolitionists and later civil rights leaders and pretend it’s not there. But there it is, beautifully and thoughtfully written by the local Jewish leader, publicized and memorialized at a time of great conflict, as Michelman writes, “this once happy country inflamed”.
That part should sound familiar to us. Perhaps you’ve moved on from the gnashing of teeth and bitter divide of 2016, and if you have, I commend you. I’m still a mess, and let me be clear; I’m a mess as much over the division between people—the anger, the howling rage and alienation—as I am over any particular policy or political stance. We are very quick to see one another as enemies instead of neighbors. We are being “Othered” from one another; along divisions old and new. And we are increasingly insulating ourselves from people who are different and with whom we agree, happily dismissing their lived experience. When the threat from the Majority leader in the senate is they may have to collaborate and compromise with the other side of the aisle, I think it’s safe to say that our ability to relate to each other is pretty trashed.
What happens when we see each other as enemies? Our Torah portion gives us an example of that. Moses is preparing Israel to finally, finally enter the promised land, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a modest proposal. You see, the lands just outside what would be Israel happen to be great land for cattle, which was Reuben and Gad’s thing. They ask, rather than enter the land, if they could settle just outside, where it makes more sense for their livelihood. “It would be a favor for us” they say.
Well, they may have thought that was a reasonable request, but Moses instead hears treachery and cowardice. Moses accuses them of being rebels, just like the previous generations, letting their brothers in the other tribes go to fight while they betray their loyalty to God. They don’t want land for their cattle; they just want to blow up the whole enterprise and ruin Israel, just like the previous rebels did. That Reuben—the tribe behind the last rebellion—was asking for this favor didn’t help. It takes both tribes declaring that they would go into the land and fight in front of the rest of the tribes as shock troops, as the vanguard, to calm Moses down from his wrath and help him see that they in fact were not trying to betray Israel, but do what was right for their families.
Moses doesn’t see fellow Israelites looking for their own interests asking permission and blessing for their choices; he sees—through the lens of previous experience—enemies trying to destroy God’s people. In fact we see a role-reversal of Moses here; instead of being the gentle and understanding one who patiently explains God’s commandments to a rebellious people, the commentator Abravanel imagines the leaders of the tribe stepping forward and explaining again, quietly, so Moses understands the request, desperately trying not to embarrass him.
How often are we Moses, quick to anger, to assume we know the other’s motivations, and those motivations have to be harmful, or naïve, or foolish? How much easier is it for us to speak to like-minded people about how we see them, those who would harm us, rather than step forward to speak patiently, quietly with those who would disagree with us? We talk about loving the neighbor and the stranger, but do we practice what we preach?
In her book “From Enemy to Friend”, Rabbi Amy Eilberg talks about different spiritual practices, even simple ones, to help us get beyond seeing the other as “Other”. Deepening our curiosity rather than our defensiveness by asking questions, checking in to our reaction to conflict and being self-aware of how we viscerally respond to others, trying to speak as our seeming opponent and explain from her point of view, even something as simple as asking ourselves “Are you sure?” when our inclination is to dig in. Any of those would give us the tools Moses lacked in the parasha, to truly see and embrace the other, minimize stereotyping and blame, while still upholding our own values and beliefs, in order to come to understanding. I think it is possible, but only if we put in the effort, the spiritual work of slowing down our own gut reaction to conflict.
The Prayer for a Confederate Soldier begins and ends with the Shema, our prayer from Deuteronomy, reminding us that God is One. But Oneness is not Sameness, and the rabbis remind us that God’s greatness is that we are all, as different and diverse as we are, created in God’s image, and that makes us sacred. So I pray not for victory against enemies, but to help us see those differences as holy; not for victory, but for love, not for victory, but for understanding. Not for victory, but Wholeness, for Shalom. May it be so. Amen.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Parashat Metzorah, or When to Ask for More Spoons

Once Rabbi Elimelekh had his friend Rabbi Mendel as a guest for dinner. As it happened, that night, Rabbi Elimelekh’s servant forgot to set out a spoon at Rabbi Mendel’s place. Everyone was eating except Rabbi Mendel, who sat looking at his soup. The Tzaddik observed this and asked: Why aren’t you eating? Well, said Rabbi Mendel, I don’t have a spoon.
Look, said Rabbi Elimelekh, one must know enough to ask for a spoon, and a plate too, if need be!
There are two ways to look at this story. One is that Rabbi Elimelekh should have made sure that Rabbi Mendel had a spoon. Quite rude and unwelcoming. But the other is Rabbi Elimelekh’s point; that Rabbi Mendel, seeing his situation, should have asked self-advocated, and asked for help. We can’t wait for someone to notice whether we’re in distress; we have to ask.
And here’s the thing; we’re not good at asking for help. We’re great at offering help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited someone in the hospital after surgery and asked if they wanted the caring committee to reach out, only to be told with a dismissive wave of the hand that they used to be on the caring committee. We’re happy to be the one who supports; we’re less thrilled to be on the receiving end. Maybe it feels infantilizing, or as Americans, it feels weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that our tradition teaches us that the point of being in community is as much to have a shoulder to lean on as it is to offer that shoulders to others. And that no one is keeping score. We see that in our torah portion, which talks about a person with Tzaraat; sometimes called leprosy but really some kind of spiritual skin disease. We are told right at the beginning that as soon as a priest hears about the person having tzaraat, he’s to go to that person outside the camp to address his needs. This tells us that someone had to tell the priest, and that the priest has to go to that person as soon as he hears of their suffering. I know that sounds self-evident, but too often I find that we’d rather suffer in silence or hope someone notices that we don’t have a spoon than admit frailty and get the help and support they need. And when we close ourselves off like that, in a way, we push our friends away, we tell them that we don’t trust them to be there for us. And we tell ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love and support.

Rabbi Mendel deserves a spoon. The metzorah—the person with tzaraat—deserves to be seen by the priest, to have his illness attended to so he can reenter the camp. And we are deserving of love and support. But sometimes, folks, we have to ask. Let’s be brave enough, trusting enough, to do so. Amen.