Friday, December 30, 2011

sermon for Vayigash and Beit Shemesh

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Sermon Parashat Vayigash

“What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today? They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect.”

These words, written by Henry David Thoreau, from Civil Disobedience, have been at the forefront of my mind in the last week, as protests rocked the State of Israel. Not over economic considerations, nor over peace (or the lack thereof), but because an 8-year old girl was spat upon. In Beit Shemesh a week ago, a dati—that is to say, religious—girl, was walking to her school. Her arms were covered, she was wearing a long skirt. She was observing tzniut to any reasonable halakhic observer, and a haredi—so-called Ultra-Orthodox—man spat upon her, and said she was dressed as a prostitute. Her crime? Her collarbone was showing.

 This is, of course, not the first act of violence performed by the Harediim of late. Their war against women has been going on for decades, throwing ink at women reading Torah by the Western Wall, calling women who wandered into the wrong neighborhood shikses and worse. But in the last year things have gotten worse: rabbis calling for Orthodox Jews in the army to leave if a woman’s voice is heard at a secular, military event. There have been often violent attempts to ban women’s images in advertising in Jerusalem. There have been attempts to create segregated seating on public transportation, including just this past week a haredi man calling a woman in her military uniform, returning home on leave, a prostitute and trying to force her from her seat on the bus. Just capture that image in your mind: a woman in uniform, who is defending the Jewish state, a place of refuge for all Jews, is called a shikse and a whore by the very person that woman is protecting.

Thankfully, in the latter case, the individual has been charged with sexual harassment, but I’m sad to say that this is the exception, not the rule. Too frequently women on buses are left to fend for themselves, and too frequently the government says nothing, or little, but does encourage those same haredi political parties to join their coalition. Moreover, those same harediim, after years of having their misogynistic, racist and anti-Zionist idea of Judaism accommodated, chose to riot last night rather than admit that their idea—which resembles Iran more than the Halakha!—should be removed from the national stage.
And so, Secular and non-haredi religious Jews—including Progressive and Masorti Jews—rallied in Beit Shemesh for the madness to stop. Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni called for the madness to stop. Binyamin Netanyahu asked his haredi partners in government to please kindly settle down. But my fear is that we will continue to coddle, continue to accept and accommodate, out of some mirror-world idea of what diversity means. That somehow our values of egalitarianism, of real pluralism, of a Judaism that recognizes the Godliness in all, should take a back seat to someone else’s bigotry, lest they be offended. Or because that’s the way it’s always been in the Jewish world. Or because we as American Jews don’t somehow have a right to speak Truth—real Truth—to those in the Israeli government who are distorting what a Jewish and Democratic state is meant to be.

This week’s parasha begins with Judah defending his brother Benjamin from the Vizier of Egypt—really Joseph in disguise. He doesn’t just bow and ask nicely—he speaks truth to power. He scolds. He chastises the most powerful man in the world because of the lack of justice he sees. Joseph forgives his brothers not just because they try to save Benjamin, but because they have been transformed from people who hesitated doing the right thing and then regret their decision to people who immediately act in pursuit of justice.
We would do well to do the same. Yes, signing online petitions is a good first step, as is sending money to groups like the Israel Religious Action  Center and ARZA. And as I said at the high holidays, we need to go to Israel and stand in solidarity with our Progressive Brothers and Sisters fighting the good fight. But we need to fight here as well. We need to rediscover our voice, to find ways to advocate for the kind of Judaism and the kind of Israel we want, one that really seeks l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, to bring about the repair of the world—an end to bigotry, an end to the use of religion to espouse bigotry, an embracing of all—for the sake of Heaven. Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the URJ has called for increased activism in our congregations and we must heed the call. And we must be unafraid to make mistakes, to insist on our vision of Judaism, a Judaism that belongs to all, as much as they insist on theirs, even if it means suffering under the false accusation of being anti-pluralistic.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and an Orthodox Jew, wrote: The truly righteous do not complain about evil, but rather add justice; they do not complain about heresy, but rather add faith; they do not complain about ignorance, but rather add wisdom.” It’s time to live up to our namesake Judah, to add justice, to add faith, to add wisdom, instead of hesitating and regretting and waiting for someone else to pick up the tab. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Reflections on Biennial

Here's my reflection on biennial, presented sermonically. I tried to incorporate those comments I received from folks in answer to my question; in the coming weeks I hope to post their actual comments as well. Chag Urim Sameach!

Tonight we continue our celebration of Chanukah, the festival of lights. But that is not what the word ‘Chanukah means’. Chanukah means ‘dedication’, and it hearkens back to the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem, defiled by Assyrian Greeks and their allies, restored after too much bloodshed to its former grandeur. One would think this holiday would then fail to speak to us; I don’t know about you but as much as I love barbecue I don’t long for a return to Temple Sacrifice, and the assimilationist tendencies of the Maccabees’ enemies don’t feel so far off to us—the idea of learning all that world has to offer us as opposed to Mattathias’ parochialism. Even the rabbis are happy to give it short shrift: there is no tractate Chanukah in the Talmud, after all; it appears but briefly in Tractate Shabbat, around the question of lighting lights.

And yet, throughout the centuries, this holiday has resonated. Yes, lighting lights in the darkest time of the year is common among all religious traditions, and yes, its proximity to Christmas has given the holiday extra ‘oomph’, let’s not delude ourselves. But for me, there is another element, a spiritual element that goes back to that idea of dedication. While I don’t dedicate myself to a Temple rite that long ago expired, this holiday gives me a chance to think about what I want to rededicate myself to—what I should focus on in my own personal life and my professional life, as a husband, father, friend and rabbi .
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to have that reflection on dedication last week, but on steroids. Last week, 15 of us went by car and train down to the Gaylord Convention center, just across the Potomac from Alexandria, to join as many as 6000 other Reform Jews at the Union For Reform Judaism Biennial. This is the time when congregational leaders, clergy, and laypeople gather for singing, learning best practices, schmoozing, networking, and the study of Torah. Oh, and shopping. Some of us had been to previous gatherings, especially the sisterhood folks. I’ve been to eight myself. Others had never been to one, or if they had, it’d been years ago.

This convention was notable for a number of reasons. It was it the largest gathering of the Union ever, with registration fully closed a few weeks before. It was the first time the Biennial was addressed in person by Israel’s deputy prime minister and former Prime Minister, Ehud Barak. It was the first time AIPAC was welcomed, along with the head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and politically conservative leaders like Representative Eric Cantor and William Kristol. It was the largest gathering of Jewish rockers ever, from Julie Silver and Dan Nichols to Rick Recht, Mattan Klein, Michelle Citrin and Josh Nelson. It was the first convention addressed by a sitting president, Barack Obama, who began by kvetching about the length of the skirts his daughter wears to bar mitzvahs and giving a drash on the Torah portion, and gave a shout-out to NFTY, causing 300 teenagers to go absolutely bonkers. It was a time of transition, as Debbie Friedman was remembered, and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, The leader of the Reform movement for 16 years, handed the presidency over to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, formerly senior rabbi of Westchester Reform in Scarsdale New York, a very different but equally passionate and devoted rabbi and community activists.

Most of all, it was the most intense, most engaging and dynamic biennial I have ever been to, and our delegates came home exhausted and rejuvenated at the same time. I asked them to share with me what was, for each of them, the most important thing, or idea, or moment that they took away from their experience.

For some it was the idea that we are part of a larger community, with a voice that should be heard and heard loudly. As the only Progressive synagogue from Malvern PA to Havre De Grace Maryland, and certainly the only voice of Reform in the First State, it can feel a little lonely, and it’s easy to feel like we do what we do in a vacuum. To experience Shabbat with 4700 Jews of all ages, to sing with 4700 other voices, to enjoy Shabbat dinner and song session with 4700 others (and the chicken was just fine thank you) is a powerful moment. And to see our values—of choice, openness, egalitarianism, of a Shabbat that isn’t Orthodox, of a Religious Judaism that is OURS, and not THEIRS (whoever they may be) and only ours sometimes—hailed and trumpeted and celebrated by thousands of others, representing 900 congregations and over a million individuals, filled our hearts with affirmation that Reform has a voice that must be heard.

And it was poignant to see Eric (he’s a classmate of my dad’s, I can call him that) talk about his own children’s spiritual journeys, and about the very real deficits we are facing in our movement, not only financial, as in so many congregations that are suffering from lack of treasure, but the spiritual deficit too many of us feel, unconnected to each other, working ourselves to the bone, over programming our children such that the only relief we feel, as Eric said, is when we finally stagger to sleep, exhausted.

For me, and I know I speak for cantor as well, I came away with a profound feeling that, while what we do here at Beth Emeth is good, it is not yet great. That we are too used to the idea that ‘good enough’ is good enough. That immediate need so often trump opportunities to really focus on our vision of what we could be as a caring congregation, devoted to Tikkun Olam and meaningful Jewish experience. I know I feel that myself more often than I’d like to admit: with so much to do already, so many practical demands on my time that are right here, it’s hard to see past them to what is truly visionary, what encourages us to be the kind of congregation I know we can be. For that, I want to give three examples of things I’m going to be working on with our leadership that I think, I know will lead this congregation to be the place it should be:
The first is our school. This is not to fault our wonderful religious school director—I know Myrna’s devotion to this place and rely upon her wisdom daily, and anyone who knows me knows how much I appreciate what she does in this place. Nor is it to fault our devoted teachers, far from it! It is clear that we have the best religious school in the state, if not the region. But we do not do enough to provide our kids—and their families—with Jewish experiences. Oh, we’re excellent at teaching them ABOUT Judaism, but giving them opportunities to connect with deep, resonant Jewish moments in their lives, well, we could do more, and we could do better. Just as you can’t learn to play tennis or drive a car just from reading a book, our children will not learn to live meaningful Jewish lives if we only talk ABOUT the experience. They need to experience it for themselves. If that sounds a little like a pitch for Jewish camp or an Israel trip, you’re right. That’s what makes camp and Israel so successful, and we need to bring more of that here, including more opportunities for our families to experience Shabbat and the holidays, and experience each other: how many of our kids don’t know each other because they go to different schools? We can do more and we can do better.

Another is our Saturday morning experience. Too often we fail to make minyan when there is no bar or bat mitzvah. Too often attendance at Torah study is dependent on who’s teaching. Too often we as a congregation surrender the morning service over to the family of the bar mitzvah, with the best of intentions, and while I think we do the bar mitzvah experience better than almost any other congregation I have seen, with real love and devotion, we can do better. Shabbat morning must no longer be the neglected stepchild to Friday night, nor dependent on ‘shtick’ like one-off programs. We can do more, and we can do better.
Finally, our Friday night Shabbat experience. (uh-oh, here it comes!) Where are the children? At home and in bed, with some exceptions.  Where is our patience with young families? Where is our willingness to engage, not just with each other, but with the tradition itself? We have taught a generation that they’re only allowed here for family services or some special program “fir de kinderlach”, that worship must either be formal or ‘entertaining’, and unchanging—not only of structure and time and space, but worship that leaves us unchanged. I know I have worn people out with talking about Friday night, with trying different things and trying to meet different needs halfway. I have often despaired, and have heard the accusations that I’m trying to ‘Shir Ami’-ify our congregation, or make it something that it’s not, and before last week I was willing to give up. I was reminded at biennial that to do so, to give up, would be to shirk my duty to this congregation, to you, to myself, to give up on making this congregation’s Shabbat the best it can be, to be truly great. We can do more, and we can do better!
More than anything else, we as a congregation need to dream big, we need to think big. I know you have dreams for this congregation. I do too. What are your dreams? Please, share them with me, with the leadership, and don’t think ‘this will never happen here’, or, ‘they won’t listen to me’. I will and we will. If we dream small that is all we are going to be, and I’m not talking about numbers in attendance. Biennial reminded me of the importance of having that vision, of living up to that vision, of sharing that vision with others. I want to hear your dreams, and I want to find ways to make them come alive. We can do more, we can do better.
You’ll notice I didn’t say anything about the solutions. That’s on purpose. Oh, I have ideas, and soon enough we’ll talk about them: with our teachers and parents, with our Ritual committee, in forums large and small. I know that many of you have better ideas that will achieve the same things: more engaging Shabbat experiences for all generations, more connection in our religious school, the uplifting of Shabbat morning, and a host of dreams only you can articulate. The practical stuff will come—it will be complicated at times, there will be the gnashing of teeth and shaking of head, and a not a few people will tell me I’m crazy, and some of them to my face. But tonight, in Chanukah, we talk about rededication. I rededicate myself to this Reform Community, this House of Truth, this congregation that I promise you, will shine even brighter, even brighter than it does now. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Marsha Lee's funeral

Some folks have asked for my comments from this afternoon's funeral (Rabbi Grumbacher gave the eulogy). You will find them below:

None of us should be here, in this place today. Least of all Marsha.
Today should be a day like any other: Marsha should have walked her dog this morning, gone to work, maybe made some phone calls for the Kutz home, perhaps met Marcie or Ethel for lunch, hung out with Scotti, talked to the kids, lit the Hanukah candles tonight.
None of us should be here today. None of us should be feeling that sense of loss, of mourning, of anger burning within us, of deep sadness, of horror, of pity, that grief that reaches out from our depths for Marsha being taken from us.
Yet here we are. And we know what is in our hearts.
In our tradition we speak of an evil so great, so malicious, so horrible that we pray daily that it be blotted out from beneath God’s sight, and those who perpetrate that evil also be blotted out. Marsha’s life is gone. Taken from us by just such an evil, by a person so filled with rage and sickness that his actions even shocked the police. Marsha is gone, taken too soon, leaving us bereft, but also leaving us a legacy of kindness, of compassion, of devotion to her people, to the elderly, to animals, her family, to the world. She leaves us a great love shared by all of us here: those who knew her best, her community, and even the strangers in our midst who felt compelled to share their own grief and sorrow, and support for Scotti and his family.
We are in Chanukah, the festival of lights. Marsha’s light shines on. And may our lights shine with the love and holiness we each carry to illumine the darkness that overwhelms Marsha’s family. May they find comfort, love and support through God’s agents—each one of us. And as we remember Marsha this day, and as their family mourns and grieves, may we help lead them through their darkness back to the light, back to Marsha’s light, that we may bask in her love and her commitment to each of us and each other.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Marsha Lee

Dear Friends,

As many of you are now aware, Marsha Lee, our longtime congregant, former member of the board of directors, and devoted friend, was kidnapped near her home, and was found dead later yesterday afternoon. Our hearts and prayers go out to her husband Scotti and their family and circle of friends. Few of us know what they are going through, but as a congregational family, I know we will do whatever we can to support them in this terrible hour. To protect the family’s privacy, please contact Jan Goodman with your loving offers of support and encouragement. The funeral will be held at Congregation Beth on Thursday, December 22 at 1:00.  Burial will be at Beth Emeth Memorial Park.  A meal of condolence will be held at Congregation Beth Emeth.  Shiva will be observed on Thursday, December 22 and Saturday, December 24 at 7:00 PM at 4403 Whittier Rd., Wilmington, DE 19802-1231.

Marsha’s kidnapping took place near our congregational home. We want you to know that we are doing everything in our power to ensure the safety of our congregants while on the premises, and have been assured by officials that there isn’t a greater threat to our community. That being said, please be vigilant in the parking lot as always, and if you feel the need for an escort to your car, ask. We will have Hebrew School on Wednesday, and we will continue with those securities measures that are already in place.

As we prepare to light the Chanukah lights, let us do what we can to drive away the darkness that has fallen on their home. May God bring consolation to Scotti and his family, as we—God’s agents—bring comfort to their grief.

Y’hi Or, let there be light,

Rabbi Yair Robinson and President Jan Rosenfeld Goodman

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chief rabbi: Israel isn't haredi land - Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews

Chief rabbi: Israel isn't haredi land - Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews:

'via Blog this'

So now that Biennial is over...

So, now that biennial is over, it's time to process. That's what I'm going to do Friday, but before I do, a question for all of you (who went):what was the most important part of biennial for you, and/or what from biennial was most important for you to bring back to your congregation? Post your response here or over at FB...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Barak: Israel won't accept Palestinian state that perpetuates Mideast conflict - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Barak: Israel won't accept Palestinian state that perpetuates Mideast conflict - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News: "

"I will not allow politicized, targeted legislation to undermine the value of the supremacy of the law. The only Jewish democratic state in the world must remain exactly that: a Jewish and democratic state!" Barak said."

'via Blog this'

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Love fest

David Saperstein just said nice things about Eric Cantor, andthe Rep. Cantor said nice things about the Religious Action Center. Cats and Dogs, living together!

EDIT : after calling Reform Judaism part of the moral fabric of America and commending the URJ's commitment to Tikkun Plan, he changed tack to Israel and the middle east. Safer topic to be sure, but it sounded too much like AIPAC boilerplate. Having said that, he did start to make some interesting parallels with Israel support and Tikkun Olam, and hinted at what a conservative Tikkun Olam might look like, but never fully went there. Disappointing...

Trafalgar Square

The wonderful and entirely overwhelming thing about Biennial is that, if you stand in one place long enough, you will run into everyone you've ever connected with. Everyone you went to summer camp. Every synagogue president you ever interviewed with. Former congregants. Colleagues. Classmates. Family. EVERYONE. You want a 'Standing at Sinai' moment? Stand in the lobby outside the exhibit hall at 4pm on the first day.

So as you can tell, I made it in (finally), made it to my consultation with my phenomenal president, got to have dinner with some colleagues, caught up with family and friends, saw the evening Plenary (best line from Theodore Bickel, honored tonight with the first Debbie Friedman Award: that she reminded us that Judaism is OURS, not THEIRS and sometimes ours), and went to a bunch of dessert receptions. I had the particularly joyful-but-awkward experience of catching up with my congregants and then having my former congregants love bomb me (which was delightful, but a little like having your ex-girlfriend meet your wife). I got to hang out with people I almost never see otherwise. And now it's quarter to 1, I am well and truly exhausted, but can't quite bring myself to go to sleep.

What's really amazing is the sense of "Biennial time" as well. I have to remind myself that I'm in Washington (well, just outside), and not in San Francisco or Phoenix (in terms of time change). It's a little (I imagine) like being in a casino: the temperature is always 72, the ambient light is constant, the rooms all look the same. It could be 5pm or 11pm, the energy level is the same and you have to pace yourself carefully.

It's clear that the URJ worked REALLY hard on this conference, and the sheer number of people, even for a biennial, is overwhelming. A the same time, as wonderful as the facilities are, it has the feel of a Potemkin Village (or at least a theme park): the hotel and conference center are like a fake town, surrounded on the outside by an equally artificial city. Like they cut part of Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Old Town Alexandria out and dropped it off here.

OK, starting to get random. Going to bed. Looking forward to dinner with congregants, lunch with my former senior, checking out the exhibit hall, going to some sessions (!) and catching up with more people, watching the waves of wonderful folks wash ashore.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Well, we're off to a fantastic start

So, I should be writing this on my phone from the shuttle to the URJ Biennial at the Gaylord Convention center. Instead, I'm still on the train. Which is just, almost, not quite pulling into Union Station. Sigh. So I'll be catching a cab in about 15-20 minutes and hopefully still making my 4:30 appointment with my synagogue president, as well as our URJ consultants. I've seen congregants posting pics and such from their experiences so far, which is fantastic. Looking forward to joining in the fun!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blogging from Biennial

I'll be blogging my Biennial experience throughout the conference, as will many of my friends and colleagues, and members of my congregation at the Beth Emeth Facebook page. You can also follow along 'virtually' (seems like such a dated word these days) over at the URJ Biennial site.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Welcoming our Machine Overlords?

Back in 2003, as a 'newly minted' rabbi, I was chatting with a board member about prayerbooks. We were both lamenting the slow progress on Mishkan T'fillah and how they'd backed off an electronic version to be distributed to congregations along with the books themselves. I opined that in the future we wouldn't need books at all; our PDAs (I think I may even have said palmpilots) would download the day's liturgy as we walked in the door (or we would scan an IR scanner) and have the liturgy we needed right there.

I know I wasn't the first to think of such a thing (if I bothered I could probably find something in a Lawrence Hoffman book that looks pretty similar, as that's what he does), but it in that moment not quite a decade ago, it seemed like madness. MADNESS! This was before the iphone, ipad, Droid, everything-I-need-plus-angry-birds-in-my-pocket, but we could see it was coming.

Of course, it's not madness. This week, the CCAR released Mishkan T'fillah as an ipad app (with more to come for iphone, droid, etc.). Orthodox siddurim have been available on smartphones as apps (along with seforim like the Shulchan Aruch, Maimonides' writings, etc.). More and more congregations (as well as camp, large gatherings, etc.) are emulating the megachurch approach to project the service on a wall, sometimes interactively. More and more synagogues are livestreaming their services. We have seen the future, and it's 'itefilah'.

Part of me thinks this is fantastic. In fact, part of me thinks this doesn't go far enough. It's not enough to have the siddur in my phone for convenience. There should be a social media element to it as well; a way of sharing one's own personal meditations, Twitter-style, while in the moment (this past year's NFTY convention had exactly that; a live Twitter-feed projected along with the liturgy at T'fillah). Certainly to have something like that with seforim to allow for fully engaged social commentary and study, broadening the realm of a study community beyond the self or the four walls or even the need to find a local chevruta and learn, comment, reply to and study with a whole host of folks through Social Media (JPS is starting to experiment with that with their "Tagged Tanakh" ). Why not 'check in' to parts of the liturgy or Torah reading (or a daf yomi, perhaps) Foursquare-style, to signal to friends that you're this far along in your study, in order to encourage others? What about integrated media? You can't make it to services? Don't just 'watch' on the livestream: participate with your itefilah following along, 'synced' with the service you're livestreaming? We have seen the future, and has social media integration.

It sounds exciting--and terrifying. I know of one colleague who loves technology (blogs and tweets, so she's ahead of me) who's bemoaning the distractions that will come from bringing your tablet to services as your siddur. Services getting boring? Don't like the tune? stick your headphones on and tune into a different service! Or just check twitter, the scores, play some tetris etc. And what is there to say about the financial and social stratification: if you don't have a smartphone or tablet, and have to use a prayerbook, does that convey something negative to your fellow worshiper? Does the competition of the parking lot (who's got the better car) now migrate to the sanctuary? Finally, what happens to the sense of praying as a community? We've all seen cartoons lamenting/laughing at youths 'having a conversation'; that is, looking down at their phones and saying nothing to each other. Does this technology bring people together, or push them apart? We have seen the future, and it's...well, kinda lonely.

In Ernest Cline's book Ready Player One, the main character, and indeed all the characters, have escaped a dystopian future world without hope by immersing themselves in a video game world full of pop-culture nostalgia. But at the end, in true 80s movie fashion, the protagonist learns that this escape has led only to a solitary and solipsistic existence, that the world is worth engaging and saving. I marvel at these developments and know that meaningful, engaging Jewish prayer is evolving in directions I couldn't possibly imagine even two years ago, never mind 10. And so long as it's meaningful, engaging, communitarian and prayerful, I welcome our new machine overlords. And if its not, what are these things except new idols demanding are attention?

If you have thoughts on technology (good or bad) I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why Kiruv Sometimes Fails | Beyond BT - The Baal Teshuva / Baal Teshuvah site for Baalei Teshuva / Baalei Teshuvah and Other Growth Oriented Jews

I was recently asked by a congregant about their friends' kids who became ba'al tshuvah, or 'frummy' in the more vulgar argot. They had been raised Orthodox (if not necessarily Orthoprax) and as they grew and got married, became more and more drawn to Orthodox practice and ritual. For my congregants, the sense was not that they became more 'religious' but more 'doctrinaire' or 'ritualistic'. Perhaps; I'm increasingly loath to judge in that fashion (especially after seeing the joy of Reform Jewish teens adapt or adopt traditional rituals for themselves with tremendous enthusiasm). What's great about this article is it articulates some of what happens for "BTs" and their process and how exhausting and draining it can be, especially when they don't have good mentors (that is, folks who can guide them beyond the ritual into the Kavannah itself). While I can argue pretty authoritatively that this approach is not for me (specifically due to the lack of egalitarianism) I can appreciate the passion, and how that passion can make the process of religious exploration even more challenging...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sermon for Vayetzei, or what happens when we miss the God encounter?

There is a story—no, really more an anecdote—of Nachman of Bratzlav, the great Rebbe who has influenced so many through his stories. He was walking with Rabbi Nathan, his greatest disciple, through town and they passed a fenced yard that was guarded by dogs. These were vicious, half-starved, half mad beasts that rushed up to the edge of the property to lunge, bark and howl at the two Jews walking passed. The disciple did what any of us would have done; he jumped at their barking, picked up his pace and cast those dogs a glance, hoping the fence was well secured. But Nachman didn’t jump, he didn’t react like we would. Instead he stayed at the fence, and just said in a patient, calm and sympathetic voice “I know, I know”. Later, Nachman explained that those dogs weren’t just dogs, they were souls trapped in the bodies of dogs, souls caught in the gilgul, the cycle of ascent and descent, and as they were not human, never mind Jewish, could not perform the necessary teshuvah to ascend again. Whereas the disciple heard only angry, ferocious beasts ready to devour him, Nachman heard instead the cries of pain of those who could not recover their own spiritual selves. And it would be his job, Nachman’s job, to help release them of their pain, to find a way to descend in order to help those dog-trapped souls ascend.
What are we to make of this story? Most of us don’t know how to talk to dogs, or at least identify when dogs have an existential crisis. But more to the point, most of us, I fear, miss the spiritual element of a moment, of an encounter, as easily as Nathan missed the souls trapped in those vicious dogs. To be sure, we hear cries of pain; in those suffering from AIDS, from poverty, from humiliation and hunger and abuse. God-willing, we may even heed those cries and try to bring some kind of relief. But whether it’s in our own lives or in the lives of others, do we see the element of holiness, the spirit, the Godliness of the moment.
This week Jacob—in exile from his home, under the threat of violence from his brother, without a friend in the world—dreams of the ladder with the angels descending and ascending, in a gilgul a cycle of their own, and upon waking proclaims achein yeish adonai b’makiom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati: God was in this place and surely I didn’t know it. it’s a favorite verse of mine, as well as numerous commentators: Larry Kushner wrote a whole book on it, Julie Silver wrote a song on it. And they all focus on the moment of discovery: that point when we, like Jacob, acknowledge the God-encounter in our lives. But what about the perceived absence of God? What about that moment when we don’t hear the cries of spiritual pain, but only dogs barking?
Some of it lies, of course, in our image, or images, of God, and how they often prove stumbling blocks. The author Roger Kamentz reminds us that our images are always dissatisfying. “We…collect portraits of God throughout our lives, beginning in childhood. And often we become dissatisfied with our old portraits and seek new ones. Child or adult, atheist, agnostic, or just plain confused, we can never feel satisfied with our portraits of God.” Yes, even the atheist carries an image of the God he doesn’t believe in. Some of it lies in our collective spiritual pain. How can we hear one person’s pain over our collective trauma? Kamnetz again: “Logic says, How can you ask me to believe in a good and mighty king, after the fires of the Holocaust? How can you talk about an invisible king, who is supposedly good and mighty and humble? The Holocaust stops every movement toward faith in its tracks…”
But some of it is our own inability—no, our refusal—to recognize the holiness in the other. We become so involved in our own self, in our own cycle of ascent and descent, our own needs, that we become inured to other people’s pain. Dennis Ross (the rabbi, not the diplomat) writes of an experience while doing hospital visits. On his way out he passed a bank of payphones and overheard a man speaking, presumably with his spouse, and saying to her, “but dear, if you can’t do this for me, then what good are you?” All of us have experienced this in one way or another. I have been the recipient of such treatment, and I’m sad to say I’ve engaged in this behavior as well, and like Jacob, only realized too late how I missed the potential sacredness of the encounter.
For Rebbe Nachman, there was no such thing as a meaningless encounter or experience. Indeed, every moment was full of meaning, of potential holiness, of opportunities for spiritual ascent. I truly believe that there is truth, profound truth in this. And more than that, when we absent God from the encounter, we only increase the pain and suffering: for the other, and for ourselves.
Achein yeish Adonai b’makom Hazeh ve’anochi lo yadati: Surely God is in this place and every place, and too frequently I—we—fail to acknowledge this truth. May we strive to do better, to hear the soul of all who cry in pain and need, and while we may never be satisfied with our own portraits of God, may we strive to truly see God in the face of those we encounter. Amen.