Monday, December 31, 2012

The End of the World (and Year) as we know it (and I feel fine)...

Folks have been asking for my most recent sermon dealing with the so-called Mayan apocalypse. I had been sending them to be put up on the Beth Emeth website, but seeing as how we're in the midst of a migration, I'm going to start updating here as well. You'll find this sermon below.

Before I post it, with only a few hours left in 2013, here's hoping for a sweet (secular) New Year filled with wonder, hope, the promise of new beginnings, blessings, health and joy. Or, to quote Counting Crows, maybe this year will be better than the last.

So I’m glad to see that we all made it through the end of the world. That Mayan calendar, grist for so many apocalyptic and humorous mills, has turned out to be, in fact, nothing to worry about. We’re still here, the aliens didn’t show up, and I still have to pay off my college loans. I wish I could say it was all one big joke, but between survivalists in Russia going bonkers, a school district in Michigan closing, and both NASA and NOAA having to post online guides about how the world was not, in fact, going to be hit by a rogue planet or asteroid, self-destruct, be swallowed by the sun, or slip off its axis, and at least one online dating company using it as fodder for an ad seemingly to encourage their users to have one last meaningless hook-up, well, it seems like quite a few people went a little nuts. 
This is not, of course, the first time we’ve seen such apocalyptic nuttiness. We survived Y2K, the Heaven’s Gate cult committing suicide to ride the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997,  various fundamentalists’ predictions of self-destruction, and more than a few Christian ‘scholars’ talking about the book of Revelations or some other silliness on the History Channel. 
Where does all this come from? Some of it is the anxiety of our age: much like Godzilla gave voice to the fear of an Atomic War in the 1950s and zombie movies reflected in the ecological and political crises of the 1970s, these brushes with Eschatology—the collapse of civilization—all reflect the angst of the moment. Books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or many of the current slate of television shows, or the films Melancholia and  2012, imagine a world  self-immolating, and that speaks as much about our fears of real environmental and societal upheaval as a real belief that some big rock that looks like an Oreo may predict our doom. 
But some of it is also a very non-Jewish notion of how we experience the world. We heard it in the words President Obama used at the memorial service in Newtown CT: God has called his children home . For so many religious people—this world is a place of pain to be schlepped through, then escaped. The goal is to leave this world and achieve the peace and happiness that only comes to us when we shuffle off our mortal coil. If we achieve anything in this world or do anything just or kind, it is in the hopes of earning eternal reward of some variety. Judaism is unique among all the religions in that our goal is not the world to come. Or rather, it’s not our priority. Our priority is this world. Any given day may be our last day on this world; nevertheless we are obligated to live each life responsive to our sacred obligations and to those created in the divine image. Or, to paraphrase Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, we are not trying to escape this world to reach God, we’re trying to bring God to our world, to infuse our world with holiness. This idea is best summed up by the words of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Hillel’s student: “If you are planting a tree and you hear that the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire.” 
I can’t think of two more radically different ways of seeing the world. One as a place filled with pain and those barely capable of doing the right thing without the prospect of eternal reward or punishment over the horizon. The other a place described by God as “tov”, good, and filled with those who might be partners in creation and revelation, if we would just heed God’s voice. 
This week in the parasha, Jacob, having come at last to Egypt to see his lost son Joseph, is introduced by his son to Pharaoh. It is a strange scene: Pharaoh asks “How many are the days of the years of your life?” Samson Raphael Hirsch writes, “It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning. A really true human being does not live years, but days…. Thus Pharaoh, too, says here: "How many are the days of the years of your life?" And in putting the question "How old are you?" in these words, he reveals the deep impression the dignified behavior of Jacob has made on him.” There is no doubt that our world is troubled, but if we saw each day as full of importance and meaning, if we planted more trees, and spent our time accordingly, l’taken olam b’malchut shaddai, repairing the world for God’s sovereignty, perhaps we’d be less worried about zombies, or monsters, or aliens or asteroids or calendars that look like cookies. Kein Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown CT

An hour ago, my son, who's in kindergarten, got off the bus as he always does. He greeted me with his typical salutation--making his fingers into a gun and going 'pew pew'. On our way back to the house he told me about his day and what he learned. We shared a snack, went over the things in his folder and the lunch menu for next week, and now he's watching a cartoon while he waits for us to light Chanukah and Shabbat candles.

All totally mundane activities, no different than any other. Except for the events of today at the Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Others have shared words of wisdom: of prayer, of parenthood,  on politics and gun control. As they say, all are the words of the Living God. I cannot match their words. But I am mindful of this week's portion. As Israel debates sending Benjamin to Egypt (with Simeon already in captivity and Joseph supposedly dead), Judah says, "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way that we may live and not die--you and we and our children. I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever." (Gen. 43:8-9)

Judah, himself having experienced the pain of losing two of his children, understands Jacob's anxiety of losing another son. So when he says "I shall stand guilty before you forever", his words are sincere, and not rash; he knows what is at stake, what kind of pain and loss and terror is experienced.

Friends, we are Judah: we are responsible, the guilt of this, the pain, the responsibility is upon all of us. An accounting is required of all of us. And we must begin to understand that our responsibility ends not at our doorstep, or with our own family, or our own choices, but with the choices of others as well.

Jacob is ready to be bereaved: having lost Joseph, he expects to lose Benjamin. Judah is responsible but hopeful; he knows that survival requires real efforts and real care, an accounting who's reward or punishment is eternal. We must be Judah, for the alternative is too painful for us to bear.

The Rabbi Speaks: Chanukah

Here's the script from last week's "The Rabbi Speaks" on Chanukah.

Last week, while on my regular stop into the Comic Book Shop on Marsh Rd., I found myself looking at the kids’ racks. Elishai, my son, who’s in kindergarten, has been on a big kick practicing his reading, and loving comics and superheroes, was hoping I’d bring him home something. So along with my usual pulls, I grabbed a Green Lantern book to share with my kid. 
Later that night, after dinner and homework, we settled into reading his new comic, and we discovered that it was in fact, a Chanukah book. Here was Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, helping aliens named Mattathias, Judah and Maccabee of the Hammer tribe defeat other aliens of some distant planet, all while the Green Power Ring holds out for eight days with only a single day’s charge. Latkes are consumed, lights are lit, and the universe is saved. 
 My son, obviously, loved it. Here was a Chanukah-specific holiday comic book where the festival of lights appeared not as an effort in tokenism in an otherwise Christmas-themed story, nor merely as a paean to diversity to satisfy some focus group, but with its own integrity. And the fact that this was being sold in a comics shop, rather than some cheap freebie created for distribution in a Jewish school or synagogue or JCC, made it all the more amazing to me. Of course, Jewish themes have appeared in comics for decades—anyone who’s taken my class at the JCC or read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay knows that Jewish writers and artists essentially began the medium. But rarely were those themes so overt, the exception being ‘serious’ graphic novels like Maus and ‘A Contract With God’. Yet here was kid’s comic, a ‘normal’ comic with a proudly Jewish theme, well written and well-drawn, meant for a popular audience. 
I’m old enough to remember when Chanukah first started appearing in the public sphere, and it was usually cringeworthy. In the school ‘winter concert’—and I remember when they were Christmas concerts—the band would throw in ‘Rock of Ages’ or “I Have a Little Dreidle” or if we were really lucky, ‘Ocho Candelikas’ around ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’. If there was a special Christmas episode of a TV show, the one designated Jewish character would get a throwaway line about Chanukah. Slowly, though, you started seeing Menorahs in McDonald’s commercials and in places of business and government, Chanukah candles for sale at Target, and the like. Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song might be nearly 15 years old and pretty trivial, but it set off a rash of popular musicians writing Chanukah songs.  Sometimes this made for strange combinations; at some point someone has sent you the picture of Hams on display at Walmart advertised as “delicious for Chanukah”. This year one Tablet writer wrote about seeing an explicitly Jewish Star of David Christmas tree topper advertised “for interfaith families” in the Skymall Catalogue.
All this fills me with wonder, but also gives me pause. It is amazing to me that my son now grows up in a world where, yes, he is aware that he’s in the minority, but the idea of a Jewish comic book is normal for him. More to the point, for most of his classmates, Judaism is rarely as strange or exotic as it was for my non-Jewish friends when I was a child. But especially at the holiday season, when perhaps we as Jews are even more aware of our minority status, the idea that Chanukah is becoming increasingly homogenized, worries me. 
Chanukah as we experience it now is a sweet little holiday: we eat some fried stuff, light some lights, exchange some gifts and call it a day, but has gone through tremendous upheaval. To use Arthur Waskow’s language, The Book of Maccabees makes it clear that, in addition to being a rededication of the Temple, it was originally a ‘rerun’ of Sukkot for the Maccabean rebels who, in their war with the Assyrian Greeks were unable to celebrate the festival. Since that first Chanukah it has evolved at various stages to be a celebration of Jewish imperial might and Jewish independence, a story of martyrdom and eternal reward for those who maintained faith unto death, a commemoration of God’s power and how one can maintain faith and light even in times of darkness and hiding, a political statement for early Zionists longing for Jewish sovereignty, and now a Winter Solstice holiday celebrated along Christianity’s great holiday. Until recently, it never held the power in Judaism of, say, a Rosh Hashanah or a Passover, nor was it ever meant to.  A post-biblical commemoration filled with small presents and games and fried food, it has achieved much greater standing than ever.
And for many Jews and non-Jews alike, this is problematic, or even, dare I say it, a ‘shande’. For conservatives who see a ‘war on Christmas’, and even liberals like Garrison Keillor of A Prarie Home Companion, Chanukah has become a target, a way to vent their spleen over the loss of religiosity surrounding Christmas. After all, it’s not just Jews going to the movies and out for Chinese these days. And for Jews, there is the fear that these two very different holidays—Christmas and Chanukah— will minimize our differences in ways that make meaningful interfaith dialogue even more difficult, as non-Jews get confused over the meaning of Chanukah and more Jewish-star tree toppers and Chanukah bushes confound a landscape.  Who hasn’t been asked whether Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas and had to use every facial muscle to prevent the eyeroll of doom? 
It’s clear, however, that there’s no turning back. We’re long passed the point of tokenism or euphemism, of occasional characters or a Festivus for the Rest of us. We are beyond the age of giant menorahs in Times Square and White House Chanukah parties and Peter Yarrow songs, and Blues Clues Chanukah Books and the occasional page 18 article showing a Jewish family playing Dreidle. There are Pandora and Spotify Chanukah channels, sexy Chanukah songs (seriously, Michele Citron, look it up), latke recipes in every cooking magazine, and every imaginable appearance in popular culture, to say nothing of the fact that you can buy a chanukiah—a really nice one—at most department stores, even in Delaware. Chanukah is clearly here to stay, not just as a Jewish holiday but as an American experience. 
So how do we make it meaningful? By remembering that, if Chanukah is to avoid being a Christmas-equivalent, we still give the holiday its due. Let Chanukah have integrity all its own, emphasizing the values as distinct from the values of other holidays at this time of year. The word Chanukah means dedication; we call this holiday ‘Chanukah’ because we remember the Maccabees rededicating the ancient temple, defiled by those bent on assimilation at all costs. Remembering this, we can rededicate ourselves to our highest values; to allow the light of the holiday and its hopefulness to banish the darkness of cynicism. 
The Green Lantern has an oath. The one we’re familiar with goes In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight Let those who worship evil's might, Beware my power, Green Lantern's light. But the original read  ..and I shall shed my light over dark evil. For the dark things cannot stand the light, Just as Green Lantern’s oath declares that light shall banish the darkness of evil, may we come to see Chanukah in a new light, not as a “Jewish Christmas”, but as a truly American holiday.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

So I'm writing this from my parents' house in Centerville, on Cape Cod. E is watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. Last minute details are being taken care of. My wife's on the phone with her best friend in California. It's a quiet day, after quite a month, exhausting really. I've been trying to do the math: between Superstorm Sandy and the relief efforts that followed, the election, Operation Pillar of Defense and the ceasefire that went into effect only yesterday. Closer to home, Marisa had a show, E has been better adjusting to school, we've had a ton of special services, social action projects large and small, including our wonderful annual IFSAC program, and I've been on the phone with two congregants, one who's parent has passed, another who's husband is in hospice as we speak.

It's hard to think of this day without sinking into pablum; and after this  post, is there really anything else to say in gratitude? And yet, our tradition reminds us of the importance of offering thanks. We speak words of thanks at every time we recite the Amidah (Modim Anachnu Lach--We Thank You). We are reminded in the Torah to offer thanks repeatedly, from the food we eat, to life and health, to our presence in the Land. We are reminded to pray for--and be grateful for--peace.

So with that in mind, and without belaboring the point, we give thanks for all we have and all who are in our lives. Most importantly, in the words of Elder William Brewster from that first Thanksgiving in 1621:

 "We thank God for our homes and our food and our safety...We thank God for the opportunity to create a new world for Freedom and Justice." 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Digging wells: contention, harassment and wide places

Most folks are just now 'discovering' the conflict going on between Israel and Hamas that has been taking place for the last week. Sadly, people are now only aware that in the last because it's real finally chose to respond to days and days of rocket and mortar fire by killing Hamas' 'military commander'. Nevermind the anti tank rocket that was shot last week but kicked off the conflict, wounding four soldiers. Never mind the fact that Israel has now been subject to multiple barrage attacks now amounting to roughly 1 rocket every 6 minutes. never mind the 3 Israeli civilians that have been killed in last 24 hours. The only thing that makes headlines is Israel's jet fighters in the sky.

Those of us who have been long supporting Israel are used to this kind of double standard. And to a certain extent, that double standard comes from good intentions. We as Jews expect our Jewish state to live up to our highest values, to be a light to the nations. This is why I have also been brought up Israel's settlement extremists, its treatment of migrants, of women, and the seeming inability to resolve the issue of integration of the Orthodox population into civil society while maintaining and strengthening secular institutions and religious pluralism. Even today, Rosh Chodesh Kislev, as rockets were being shot at civilian targets in Sderot, Jerusalem police detained members of Women of The Wall-including a member of the Municipal Council-who were trying to pray at the Kotel. Nevertheless, it is possible for two things to be true-Israelis have work to do, but it cannot, SHOULD NOT have to do that work while being threatened by death. And a democracy-with all the faults and scars that come from living in a heterodox society-should not be punished by the media for defending itself from a terrorist 'failed state'.

This week in our Torah Portion, Isaac tries to dig wells for his herd, but each time is driven away by his enemies. So he names them 'Esek' and 'Sitnah'; contention and harassment. Only the third well, when he is left in peace, does he name 'Rehovot', wide places, as if to say 'No really, there is room enough'.

There is room enough-for Palestinians and Israelis, for all flavors of Judaism, for diversity and pluralism, but we can only dig wells when the enemies of peace and humanity cease stopping up the wells with rocket fire.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elections and Reconciliation.

On the Shabbat before the election, the Rabbi of one of the most prominent congregations in New York City ascended the bimah, apologized for preaching on a political topic, and launched into a sermon on the sacred importance of voting, the wrongness of the Republican candidate, and the threat the election posed to the unity of the Republic.

The sermon was not delivered this past weekend, but by Morris Raphall, the rabbi of B'nai Jeshurun  in 1860. In this article from the American Jewish Archives, Raphall again and again pleads for the preservation of the Union, going so far as to sympathize with southern Democrats and object to the abolition of Slavery, and later (in an 1863 Fast Day sermon) railed against 

“demagogues, fanatics and a party Press” of both North and South, had mired the United States “in the third year of a destructive but needless sectional war which has armed brother against brother and consigned hundreds of thousands to an untimely grave.” While Raphall found “consolation” that the “cause of the union is the worthiest in the field,” he never mentioned slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation or searched for any larger meaning to the conflict. The nation must find its way back to the days of peace and prosperity that preceded the "demagogues, radicals and a Party Press war, albeit without acceding to unacceptable Southern demands for dividing the Union. His words conveyed the disillusionment prevalent in both the general and Jewish communities of New York City—a city that had never supported Lincoln or the Republican Party and its causes. The lavish Purim balls held that year along with other social events, including festive Saturday afternoon strolls down “Judenstrasse” (Broadway from Canal to Union Square), were evidence of the community’s determination to “turn from the horrible realities of war to the gay and festive, the charitable and intellectual.”
Sound familiar? An electorate eager to get back to their lives, to peace and prosperity, a sense that radicals on both sides had taken over the political process and, through money, media and grandstanding, had driven a wedge between people in this country, and a sense that, while on the one hand history is being made before our eyes, the meaning, the sense of what is happening is lost to us. 

Thank God this election, with it's long lines, with it's endless commercials, it's merciless attacks, it's voter registration laws and fears of conspiracy on both sides, did not lead to the kind of emergency Raphall and his cohort experienced. Despite some commentators speaking of two Americas, we do not have to live through the kind of 'two Americas' we suffered 150+ years ago. But we are facing a crisis, one of love and trust, of the ability to see the other as ourselves. 

Other people have written more profoundly on this topic than me, including Wendi Geffen and this article from Kveller, which both speak of the need to sympathize, to put yourself in the other's shoes, to be able to continue the relationship with those we disagree with, in spite of our differences and because those relationships are so critical. Which doesn't mean surrendering your values--it means living them in the most human way possible. 

At the Penny Candy Store in Centerville, across the street from the playground I went to growing up (and where I take my son now when we're on the Cape) there are two white benches on either side of the door--on the left bench is written "Democrats" and the right bench is labeled "Republicans", both in a fun old-timey script. There was a time when, despite sitting at different benches, we could sit together--to debate and argue, to hash things out, to prove our points--but out of love and respect, not hostility. This election (and those that have built up to it) have done a great deal to hurt that idea, and replace it with one where it's not just about your values and issues, it's also about whether your 'team' won or lost, without any consolation. To be sure this has happened in American politics before; the Civil War is only the most dramatic example, but there was a time when voting meant running a gauntlet of armed thugs from the other party. But it is also true that we have found ways as Americans to put that animosity away and find ways to share our values with one another meaningfully and build our country up. That task falls to us again, and it must, by necessity, fall to ALL of us. We have become a more partisan country and our elections reflect that; let us now use that same energy to rebuild relationships and put aside hurts, blame, accusations and conspiracy theories to work together. As John Kennedy said, "Let us not despair but act. Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past - let us accept our own responsibility for the future."

I've quoted this line quite a bit since the election, but the sentiment is true. It is the very last lines of my favorite of Shakespeare's Histories, "Richard III". May these words come true soon enough: ‎"Now civil wounds are stopp'd, peace lives again: That she may long live here, God say amen!" 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Questioning Clal Yisrael

I just finished reading This post by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu from CLAL, itself a response to this op-ed in the Harvard Crimson. The latter describes a student's attempt to find community at the Harvard Hillel and discovers himself the lone Reform Jew in a sea of Modern and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and that sense of alienation and minimization that comes with such an experience. Sirbu, in turn, writes to emphasize that such alienation shouldn't lead us to oppose the other, criticizing how "Orthodox bashing has become vogue for many secular Jews" (The author of the Crimson op-ed bounces between 'secular' and 'Reform' as a self-descriptor, so I assume that's why she uses the term). She goes on to criticize this fear of the other and encourages a stance of curiosity

 I am not an Orthodox Jew. I too disagree with many political positions, and practices the Orthodox community engages in. But I am a pluralist. I believe there is space for many different kinds of Judaism. I can observe Judaism the way I choose to and you can too. Somehow this message is not being taught to our children. Each community is so concerned about educating our children about “our” kind of Judaism be it Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or other, and are so concerned with keeping the kids in their particular fold that the concept of “Clal Israel” of the entirety of Israel formed of different tribes and different ways of doing things has fallen by the wayside.  
I find myself struggling with this sentiment in light of what's happened with Women of the Wall, and recent encounters online (never a good start) where Anat Hoffman were called Extremists, and where it was suggested that my unmitigated support for them was extremist as well.

I love the idea of 'Clal Yisrael', that we are all one cohesive group, and there are times where that imagery is helpful. But too frequently, it is that very idea of "the entirety of Israel" that is used to quell dissent or the pluralism Sirbu holds dear. Instead of encouraging curiosity into the others' values, it promotes a kind of maximal-minimalism: rarely are progressive Jewish values taken into consideration, but Orthodox values are seen as 'acceptable to everyone' so they are encouraged. Instead of allowing a full-throated and meaningful conversation about Israel and the best policies to encourage a strong, diverse Jewish State, 'Clal Yisrael' is invoked to cast anyone who disagrees with the status quo out of the mainstream and out of the discussion. Rather than used to encourage liberal voices to speak up alongside traditional voices, it's used as a cudgel to keep order. Sirbu herself, albeit unintentionally (I assume) falls into this pattern herself: while she sympathizes with the alienation the college freshman describes in his article, she calls him to task for Orthodox bashing, rather than explore what might be at the root of the dilemma  why don't liberal Jewish students feel welcome in so many Hillels? Why is his experience minimized, the burden of open-mindedness placed on him, and not the Orthodox students at Hillel?

Worse, frequently 'Clal Yisrael' is used to create a moral relativisim: somehow a woman singing the Sh'ma in public makes you an extremist and provocateur no different than the Orthodox man who throws acid or ink at that woman. 'Clal Yisrael' was invoked when the Reform Movement began ordaining women (never mind giving them a full voice on the bimah), when we reached out to Interfaith families, when we recognized individuals as Jews regardless of parentage, when we advocated for a full voice for LGBTQ Jews in our community. Each time we were told that we were breaking with 'Clal Yisrael'. Each time peace mongers (to steal a phrase from Ed Friedman) insisted that we were being divisive and were causing the Jewish people harm. Advocates for peace with the Palestinians are routinely told the same thing today. "Clal Yisrael" has even been invoked by "post-denominationalists" (who I find are rarely truly post-denominational) as a way of saying that movements are dinosaurs, are part of the problem, and should shut up already. Guess what? Judaism is not only surviving, but thriving, with greater creativity than ever before, in part because of the advocacy of our movements, not in spite of that advocacy.

In a fantastic article, Rabbi Eric Yoffie talks about why most interfaith dialogue doesn't work.

Most of the time -- and it is painful for me to admit this -- it is terribly boring. Most of the time there is a tendency to manufacture consensus, whether it exists or not. Most of the time we go to great lengths to avoid conflict. Most of the time we cover the same ground that we covered last month or the month before. And far too often we finish our session without really knowing the people across the table and what makes them tick religiously.

Yoffie then spells out what works in good interfaith dialogue:

First, meaningful dialogue happens when the conversation turns to our religious differences. Platitudes are set aside when, as representatives of our faith traditions, we cease to be embarrassed by the particular; when we put aside the search for the lowest common denominator that most often characterizes -- and trivializes -- our discussions; and when we recognize that absent a clear affirmation of who we are, how we are different and what we truly believe, all our conversations are likely to come to nothing. 
Second, interreligious exchanges become compelling when my colleagues and partners give expression to their religious passions. I am drawn in when they share with me their deepest beliefs and strangest customs, no matter how radically other they are from my own. And the sharing of religious passions should lead to passionate debate, in which we struggle with the really hard questions: What happens when conflicting beliefs lead to conflicting interests? What do we do about those areas where differences cannot be bridged and must be dealt with?
Third, interreligious dialogue truly touches us when we can discuss what we all know to be true but what we rarely say: that, in some ways at least, we all believe in the exceptionalism of our own traditions. We all tend toward the conviction that there are some elements of our religious beliefs and practice that stand above and apart from what other religions offer, and it is liberating when we are able to acknowledge this and then explain why we think that way, without apology but open to the honest reactions of those around us.

What Yoffie argues for interfaith dialogue is just as true for intrafaith dialogue. I'm all for promoting "Shalom Bayit", peace in the home, but real peace comes from justice, and supporting your own beliefs, not appeasement and an attitude of "can't we all just get along". I'm all for curiosity and learning and openness, but too often that openness is shut down in order to avoid conflict. By all means, let's find common ground, but let's not make "kumbaya" moments for their own sake. Sometimes we disagree, sometimes we think--we know--the other is wrong. Good, let's fight it out in the marketplace of ideas, and let's allow that conversation to get heated. Let's get in each others' faces. Let's push. Let's challenge. Let's talk about who we are and what we do unapologetically, with nothing to prove to the other. But when we invoke 'Clal Yisrael", let's do so with caution, lest we find ourselves giving up on our convictions to make sure no one's offended.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Hannah, Henrietta and Anat: Women of the Wall and Real Zionism

This past Simchat Torah I left a scroll in the ark, as I've done the last couple of years. I started doing it when members of Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel in Hebrew) were arrested, and the police tried to take away their Torah scroll while they prayed at the Kotel, or the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. The idea that women could not carry a scroll, could not have equal standing at a Jewish Holy site that should be open to all, was anathema to me. This year, when I made my announcement, it felt somehow trope-like, as liturgies and traditions often do, and I wondered if it was time to put that tradition away.

This week proved me wrong.

As many of you know, Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, was meeting with about 200 members of Hadassah at the Western Wall, when she began leading them in the Shema. For that act, singing "The Watchword of our Faith", was arrested , shackled, dragged across the floor of the police precinct, strip searched, and released only on condition that she not return to the Wall for 30 days. Two other Leaders of Women of the Wall were arrested leading services for Rosh Hodesh Cheshvan (the beginning of the New Month of Cheshvan).

Others have written more eloquently on the subject already, including at Jewschool and my colleague Wendi Geffen's piece at Huffpo. Hadassah has come out with a brief resolution supporting Hoffman and WoW as well, as have the Women's Rabbinic Network, Women for Reform Judaism, the URJ, USCJ, and a whole alphabet of Jewish organizations.

It simply boggles my mind that we're still having this conversation, that a woman can be arrested for reciting the Shema in public, that words of prayer can be called incitement. It conjures up images of Hannah, Samuel's mother, in the High Holiday haftarah, whispering her prayer, and being railed against by Eli the Priest for her drunken behavior. Only instead of stern words from a cohein, this version has Hannah dragged across the floor of the sanctuary, shackled and banned from the sacred precinct.

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me: with young girls becoming targets of terrorists for wanting to learn to read, perhaps we should expect this behavior, where women in our own country make 72% less than their XY counterparts (the link takes you to a great interactive map showing exactly how disparate the wage gap is state by state). But Israel was supposed to be a place of Egalitarianism, has espoused itself as a place of equality, where women teach men how to serve in the army and serve as Prime Minister. Instead those principles are threatened so we can validate and placate an extremist minority.

I say 'we' because, as Zionists and supporters of Israel, we bear a responsibility. When we spend more time talking about Iran at AIPAC and external existential threats rather than the internal issues that threaten the Common Weal; when groups like Hadassah honor Prime Minister Netanyahu with the Henrietta Szold award when it is his government that perpetuates the "Status Quo", one that Szold herself would have rallied against, when we refuse to speak on the corrosive nature of these issues because we fear our reasoned and thoughtful discourse will be turned into antisemitic demagoguery by those on the right and left with an anti-Israel agenda, then we, bluntly, are the ones who are responsible. And unless we do more to raise awareness and speak out against this anti-egalitarian, backwards and shameful policy, we will continue to be to blame.

Fifteen Years ago, when Bibi was voted out of office, there was a placard that many protesters held up: "We don't want to become Iran". Sadly, that placard is still relevant, that slogan still ringing in my head. Real Zionism is one where we don't sacrifice our values to help support an Israel we cannot recognize. Real Zionism is where we fight for an Israel that believes in all Jews and Jewish expression. Real Zionism doesn't permit a woman to be locked up and strip searched for wearing her tallit and singing the shema. Real Zionism endorses the sentiments in this prayer by Rahel Sharon Jaskow

May it be Your will, our God and God of our mothers and fathers, to bless this prayer group and all who pray within it: them, their families and all that is theirs, together with all the women and girls of your people Israel. Strengthen us and direct our hearts to serve You in truth, reverence and love. May our prayer be desirable and acceptable to You like the prayers of our holy mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Rahel and Leah. May our song ascend to Your Glorious Throne in holiness and purity, like the songs of Miriam the Prophet, Devorah the Judge, and Hannah in Shilo, and may it be pleasing to you as a sweet savor and fine incense.
And for our sisters, all the women and girls of your people Israel: let us merit to see their joy and hear their voices raised before You in song and praise. May no woman or girl be silenced ever again among Your people Israel or in all the world. God of justice, let us merit to see justice and salvation soon, for the sanctification of Your name and the repair of Your world, as it is written: Zion will hear and be glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, over Your judgments, O God. And it is written: For Zion’s sake I will not be still and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be silent, until her righteousness shines forth like a great light and her salvation like a flaming torch.

For Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem. Amen, selah.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Starting Fresh, letting go of grudges

Below is a modified version of this Shabbat's sermon, which will be given as this week's "The Rabbi Speaks" at WDEL. I've been thinking about this subject matter a great deal since the high holidays but even more as recent events unfolded in the life of my friends.

This weekend, I'm doing a wedding for longtime friends; specifically, the groom and I have been friends for 20 years. His group of friends (who have been my longest-time buddies since high school) go back nearly to the womb. At some point 10 years ago, one from the group, who had been there from the beginning, got into a fight with the others, which turned into a nearly 10 year grudge. He didn't talk to us, and we didn't talk to him (though there were occasional overtures . After a while the resentment gave way to just a sense that this was meaningless, the anger subverted by a sense of purposelessness. Which is why I was really glad to get this picture from the bachelor's party--The groom to the left, the 'missing man' in the middle, everyone reunited (the fourth member of the merry band, Stephen Day, is the one taking the shot).

So here's to the beginning Torah again, renewal, and letting go of grudges in the new year.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

And Here's the Morning of Yom Kippur

Just what it says in the title:

A Parable:
A father and his son, travelling together in a wagon, came to the edge of a forest.
Some bushes, thick with berries caught the child’s eye.
“Father,” he asked, “may we stop awhile so that I can pick some berries?”The father was anxious to complete his journey, but he did not have it in his heart to refuse the boy’s request. The wagon came to a halt, and the son alighted to pick the berries. 
After a while, the father wanted to continue on his way. But his son had become so engrossed in berry-picking that he could not bring himself to leave the forest.
“Son!” cried the father, “we cannot stay here all day! We must continue on our journey!" 
Even his father’s pleas were not enough to lure the boy away.
What could the father do? Surely he loved his son no less for acting so childishly. He would not think of leaving him behind—but he really did have to get going on his journey. 
Finally, he called out, “you may pick your berries for a while longer, but be sure that you are still able to find me, for I shall start moving slowly along the road. As you work, call out “father! Father!’ every few minutes, and I shall answer you. As long as you can hear my voice, know that I am still nearby. But as soon as you can no longer hear my answer, know that you are lost, and run with all your strength to find me!”This story, from Art Green’s “Your Word is Fire”, could be about many things: our relationship with God, prayer, how we set our priorities. But it seems to me that it is a story about the choices we make. So frequently we are the child—easily distracted by our daily adventure, focused so much on the fruit before us that God’s voice—the still small voice—becomes ever stiller, ever smaller. To paraphrase our machzor, we, who are caught up in the daily round, focused entirely on our own wants while missing out on our needs. We are heedless to the voice of reason, of meaning, of care and concern for our wellbeing. So enraptured we are in the fruit we are eating—the immediate gratification—that we fail to appreciate eternal values. We are indifferent to all but our own desires, the voice in our own heads. As Rabbi David Wolpe writes, “Children delight in putting a seashell to their ears. Listening, they hear magically the rush and roar of the waves. What they do not know, of course, is that they are listening to the rushing blood inside their own heads.” Insensitive to the words that call us to higher purpose, we focus too much of ourselves in what is gossamer or effervescent. Indeed, we expect those focused on the greater good, those who, like the father of the story, see the urgency, the need around us, and hold them back, slow them down, make them answer our own desires. 
Look at our relationship with clothes and food. “Instant Fashion”—cheaply made clothes sold at rock bottom prices to fit the moment’s taste—would seem to be a Godsend; new clothing that anyone could wear. In reality, they are many times made in horrific sweatshop conditions, their dyes and materials are not only flimsy but highly destructive to local environments, and they are not sturdy enough to reuse, pass on or donate. They are, essentially, ‘disposable’ clothes, clothing that, like the note to Jim Phelps at the beginning of every episode of “Mission Impossible”, self-destructs.
Likewise we should think about our food choices. A few weeks ago, for our confirmation orientation, the cantor asked a question about Kashrut, where the participants—parents and teens together—were asked to articulate their values. One parent said what many others were thinking: “I just like to eat!” And it’s true. Like Julia Childs, we love to eat. We savor creative flavoring and comfort foods alike. There are more programs on food, restaurants, eating and eating habits, cooking, food production and every other aspect of nourishment that we can imagine or possibly watch in a lifetime. And a discussion of food choices in a religious context is often poo-pooed. Many of us remember Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s sermon at the Toronto URJ Biennial four years ago, where his discussion of sacred eating flew about as well as bricks don’t, to quote Douglas Adams. And many of us are quick to dismiss Kashrut as judgmental, as Orthodox, as meaningless semi-science that has no place at a modern table.
But do we think about the food we put into our bodies? The cellophane we throw away almost thoughtlessly? Do we think about the trucks that brought the fruit out of season to our supermarket? The coffee and chocolate picked by slave labor, often child slave labor? The treatment of those workers picking strawberries and berries in our country—back-breaking work that often exploits migrant workers? Do we regard the treatment of the chicken or cow that adorns our plates? As we clear our plates, do we think about the 40% of food in this country that ends up being thrown away, and the thousands if not millions who go without? 
And there are the choices we make when we interact with one another. I was reminded this week by a true story of the theologian Martin Buber. Once, he met with a student who had a question. Buber thought he was pleasant enough, that he answered the question thoughtfully, that it was a perfectly amicable meeting, but in retrospect wondered if he hadn’t been distracted and showed himself to be distracted. Later he found out that the student he had met with committed suicide. Buber was left to wonder whether, if he had been more attentive, more present in the conversation, he could have done something to prevent this student’s death, and he promised himself he would never be inattentive when speaking with someone again. While we think the consequences of our interactions are less immediate or dire, how often are we inattentive to one another, or to the stranger. How often are we dismissive, focused more on our phones than the person before us. Perhaps our negligence does not lead to suicide, but to be sure it leads to the coarsening of our relationships with others, the commodification of those interactions, and a kind of death of the soul, as the person ceases to be a person but a means to an end.
 This is not to advocate, to be sure, for a kind of hair-shirt relationship with the world; that we need to live lives of unmitigated smugness and self-righteousness, or beat ourselves over everything we do. Kosher traditions and those who revere them often focus too much on how the animal died rather than how it lived or how those who tended it were treated, and the practice has developed an ‘inside baseball’ culture that does more to alienate Jews than give them a sense of sanctity. Often we are focused on our personal budget, and our relationship with others is informed as much by someone else’s behavior as it is our own inner voice. And yet, and yet, what if there were another way to look at our daily choices? 
Today we read parashat Nitzavim, or ‘standing’, and it asks us quite pointedly: “what do you stand for? What are your values and choices?” In this portion, Israel stands on the shores of the Jordan River. They have a choice to make: to enter the land God has promised, the land that has been for them and their ancestors merely a dream. But it’s not just the choice to enter the land; they must also enter a relationship with God, not one of servant and master as they had known in Egypt, nor one of abstractions, as we often imagine God today. Rather, a relationship of mutual trust, a relationship of love, a covenantal relationship based on Sacred Obligations to each other, and between Israel and Adonai. And Moses lays the choices out pretty clearly: “I have set before you today life and good, and also death and evil…choose life that you might live.”
It’s pretty clear why we read this text on Yom Kippur: today is a day about choices. The choices we made in the past year, and the choices we are going to make as we stand on the shore of a new one. Kol Nidre reminds us that we are not always free in the choices we make—often we feel backed into a corner by the realities of our life situation, our relationship with others, previous experiences, our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses. And often no matter how much we want to turn, to change our behaviors or habits—to change our choices—we are paralyzed by the seemingly overwhelming nature of what lies before us. Like the child in the story, we have ceased to hear our father’s voice, and we look among the paths of the bushes eager to run but not sure where to go. 
But the text of Torah reminds us that we shouldn’t overthink it as well. "For this commandment that I command you today," Moses insists, "is not beyond your understanding, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, nor in the seas beyond your reach for the Word is very near to you. Carry it out with your mouth and with your heart.”
No, we cannot always choose the situation we find ourselves in, but we can choose how to respond to that situation, how to regulate ourselves, how to live in such a way that our morals and values challenge us meaningfully, where we can focus not only on our own needs but the needs of others. We won’t be perfect in our choices; we will make mistakes, but that is the adventure of life. Edwin Friedman, in his book “a Failure of Nerve”, illustrates quite well what can happen, and what we fear, when he discusses the Age of Exploration: 
“Throughout this period of exploration, trips are beset by the unforeseen. Frobisher’s ship is frozen in Hudson Bay. Columbus is told by natives in what is now Panama that there is another large body of water on the other side of the Isthmus, but he must meet another ship and has to leave it to Balboa to discover the Pacific. Verrazano ventures out of the range of the long bows on his ship and is captured and killed by cannibals in the West Indies…Drake, after navigating the Magellan Straits, is driven south, off course, and discovers the tip of South America, but his fate does not always come up “heads.” When he passes the Golden Gate, the fog keeps him from discovering San Francisco Bay. The most serendipitous event of all, of course, is the discovery of America itself. After all, Columbus was really trying to reach Japan, and he died thinking he had.” 
But, they took the risks. Those same explorers were willing to make choices that challenged them, were willing to be wrong, because the risks were greater than the rewards. Surely we could sit here, eating our berries, safe and content, and change not at all. We could wait passively for our parent return in order to hoist us back up on the wagon, kicking and screaming. Or we could make the choice ourselves, we could take the risk, choose a path, accept that we may stumble, but in choosing hear the voice again. 
You know, the violinist Yitzchak Pearlman was on the Colbert Report just last week, and it reminded me of a story from one of his performances from a number of years ago, recounted by Rabbi Wayne Dosick. As many of you know, Perlman was stricken with polio as a child, which left him able to walk only with braces on both legs and crutches. When he plays at a concert, the journey from the wings to the center of the stage is long and slow. 
Perlman was scheduled to play a difficult, challenging violin concerto. In the middle of the performance one of the strings snapped…the orchestra immediately stopped playing and the audience held its collective breath. The assumption was he would have to put on his braces, pick up his crutches, and leave the stage…after a brief pause, Perlman set his violin under his chin and signaled to the conductor to begin.
One person in the audience reported what happened: “I know it is impossible to play a violin concerto with only three strings. I know that and so do you, but that night, Isaac Perlman refused to know it. You could see him modulating, changing, and recomposing in his head. At one point it sounded as if he were re-tuning the strings to get a new sound that had never been heard before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence that filled the room. Then people rose and cheered. Perlman smiled, wiped his brow, and raised the bow of his violin to quiet them. He spoke, not boastfully, but quietly in a pensive tone. “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” 
He could have given up, could have stopped the performance to fetch new strings. Perlman could have done a lot of things. He took a risk on himself, the orchestra and his audience. He did not choose to break a string, he did not choose to have polio; these were thrust upon him. In that moment, he chose again to rise to the challenge, to find out how much music he could still make with what he have left.
So now we stand on the cusp of a new year, and we have to decide how much music we can make with what we have left. We have an opportunity to make new choices—choices about what we eat, about how we dress, about how we treat each other, about how we make the choices we make, how we live in our world. Do we choose to focus on our own wants and desires, or on our needs and the needs of others? The choice is clear, and it is not so difficult—we know what is right and good; it is not in the heavens or across the sea, but in our very heart and mouth. May we, on this day, cease eating the berries of selfishness, heed the voice of holiness that calls to us every faintly. May we, in this New Year, make the kinds of choices that lift us and our world ever higher, choosing to be our very best selves. May we run with all our might to catch up on the road to redemption.   

Erev Yom Kippur

I hope you had a meaningful Yom Kippur and your own annui hanefesh--be it fasting or some other form of self-denial--allowed you the clarity of mind and spirit to perform your own repentance.

Below you'll find my Erev Yom Kippur Sermon. I hope you find it meaningful.

There’s a famous story of a rabbi watching a tightrope walker performing his acrobatic act between two very tall buildings. The rabbi watched him from his place on the street for a long time, over an hour, until some passersby asked the rabbi why he was staring at this acrobat, rather than doing something ‘important’. 
The rabbi looked at them and said, “I’m absolutely amazed by this man. How does he do it?” So the rabbi waited for the acrobat to come down from his high wire, approached him and said, “I’ve been watching you for hours. It’s amazing that anyone would devote themselves to something like this. What’s your secret: how do you not fall?” The tightrope walker thought for a moment and said: “there is no trick to this. I can only look in front of me and go forward. If I think about what’s behind me, I’ll slip and fall. If I think about the rope, or my balance, or falling, I’ll fall. If I think about the money I’m earning, I’ll lose my concentration, and fall. I can only look ahead and move one step at a time toward my goal. It is in that way that I survive.” 
This is my fourth Rosh Hashanah here at Congregation Beth Emeth. It’s also my 10th High Holidays since my ordination as a rabbi at the Plum St. Temple in Cincinnati. (I know, I’m surprised too.) And as this anniversary approached I began to think more and more about what I’d learned, about what it meant for me to be here. And as I thought about my time here, I thought more and more about the story of the tightrope walker. For the rabbinate—really, all of life—is a kind of tightrope, a kind of acrobatic act, and while the stakes are a lot lower—for most of us, failure in an activity doesn’t mean literally breaking our necks!—there is still that sense of trying to maintain my balance, at least for me. 
So, permit me to spend a little time working through the words of the rabbi as a way of sharing my learning, how I understand us, what I’ve learned in this place, four high holidays on. 
First: you can’t think about what’s behind. You and I know how hard this is to do. We live all our lives looking over our shoulders, living in retrospect. One of my first rabbinic conferences I stopped by the table where my parents and their friends, my dad’s classmates were dining. It quickly occurred to me that they were swapping jokes and stories that were seemingly unchanged from my dad’s ordination. In that moment, they were a bunch of rabbinic students hanging out in the Bumming Room (yes, that was the name of the room, and it was actually named after a guy named Bumming, I’m not making this up). A few years later I was at a different conference, and I discovered that my classmates and I were swapping stories and jokes that dated back to my ordination. 
We think backwards. Just think of your home, the mementos from places you’ve traveled, photos from family vacations. Marisa and I are ‘stuff’ people: we are surrounded by things and have attachment to things that remind us of this or that gathering or moment in our lives. On top of that, I have an excellent memory, which means that when we ask Elishai to make a pile of toys he wants to donate, he dutifully picks up stuff he doesn’t play with anymore, unremorsefully, while I muse on who gave him that toy car, the first time he played with that puzzle. 
While it’s wonderful to reminisce, and sometimes quite important to remember (we are commanded to do so repeatedly in Torah), it’s also true that memory or history can hold us back, keep us from walking across the tightrope. We fetishize our past, and if you don’t believe me, look at any Norman Rockwell piece, or ask my father about the contents of his father’s furniture store that we inherited, including the fire extinguisher, a giant, dusty red thing, which sat in our garage ready to be used for 30 years. I can assure you that no matter how much my father loved my grandfather, that fire extinguisher was not going to do a whole lot of good when the need arose. To paraphrase our prayerbook: the past can only tell us who we were, it cannot tell us who we are meant to be. And as Jews—Reform Jews especially—it is our task to move forward, to progress, to not be satisfied with what was. Therefore, the pictures of the confirmation classes on our walls are meaningful not only because they allow past generations of students to muse over their youth and ill-thought-out hairstyles, but because they inspire future generations as well. The chair from the old Washington Street Temple Bimah found new life, first as the Twinning Chair and now as our Kisei Eliahu, our Elijah’s chair for brises and baby namings; but in between those uses it sat unloved and unattended in a storage area. It is good to lovingly remember the old sanctuary, but to cast the new one as lacking while failing to remember how the heater noisily interrupted every bar mitzvah (when it worked at all) is an act of idol worship. The past is a helpful guide, but only when it inspires us to move forward, not when it holds us back. 
Second: you can’t think about the rope, the balance, or the possibility of falling.  The devil, we are told, is in the details, and too be sure we spend a lot of time going over the details of every little thing in our lives and in this congregation. And details are a necessary and important part of our lives. It’s hard to get through our days on banal generalities, though apparently it is possible to run for office on them. One year, here at the high holidays, I got confused as to which Torah was rolled to the right section. It was brought out, placed on this lectern, the Torah readers brought up…and suddenly we realized we were staring at a lovely bit of Torah that would have been perfect for some other holiday. Thankfully Cantor Stanton swapped scrolls while I stalled, explaining the portion ad nauseum, and probably most people didn’t notice, but it was a reminder of the importance of details. 
That said, we can get ourselves lost in the details as well. Years ago I did a wedding for a young couple who looked and felt radiant: they were so excited to begin this life stage together, so excited to be celebrating with family and friends—until the bride noticed she had spilled the tiniest drop of something on the bodice of her her ivory dress. It was nearly invisible to the naked eye—you had to look at it with an electron microscope to notice it—but like George’s sweater with the red dot from Seinfeld, she couldn’t take her eyes off of it. And of course, this was right before the processional, literally moments from when we were supposed to walk beneath the chuppah. “Rabbi” she wailed, “My dress is ruined! What do I do?” At which I looked at her, smiled, put her hand in the hand of her groom and said, “sweetie, you go out there and get married.”  That one, unnoticeable detail was about to ruin her ability to have any sense of perspective, and as a result ruin her wedding day. Instead, she moved forward, and two kids and many sleepless nights later, she and her groom are still happily together, her stained dress sitting in a closet, a good punchline at family get togethers.
Details are important, details are necessary, but they must not be used as a drag on our hopes or aspirations. So often we hear the question, “how are we going to do X?” be it a project, a program, a course, a service. “How are we going to publicize, and deal with this detail, and this safety concern, and this piece and that piece?” To borrow the title of a book, the answer to how is yes. If attention to detail—talk of the rope, the height, the balance—stymies, encourages passive behavior, or blame, or compels us to undermine someone’s efforts for whatever reason, then we need to rethink our efforts and our commitments to each other. But if we can say, “we will find a solution to these issues and we will move forward together”, then we restore balance for ourselves and each other. 
Third and finally: one step at a time. It sounds both a lot slower and a lot easier than you might think. This year we bid farewell to Neil Armstrong, a person who took what was, seemingly, an easy step—he merely walked backwards off a ladder. Never mind that the ladder led to the lander “Eagle” and it took 3 days traveling through space to be able to take that step! But Armstrong himself never liked being called the first man to step on the moon; he much preferred to be the first person the land on the moon, to steer the spacecraft safely upon lunar soil, always the test pilot. 
And of course, before he could steer the craft that led to the step, there was the trip itself, the launch, the hours and days and months and years testing and re-testing equipment, experimenting, training pilots and astronauts, calculating courses and trajectories and planning, planning, planning. It was never one small step, or a giant leap; it was always hundreds of thousands of pieces culminating in that triumphant moment.   There were plenty of reasons not to go ahead. NASA couldn’t be certain of what would happen, whether the equipment would work, whether there was enough fuel. Despite the rose-colored hue of history, there was NOT general consensus in the US that we should spend that kind of money on this adventure. At any point, a politician could have pulled funding, an astronaut could have pulled out of the program due to an appreciation of his own mortality, or, as John Glenn called it, that pile of ‘low bids’ could have just exploded. And yet, the leadership, the scientists, the pilots, the engineers all had the vision to move forward, to take those thousands of tasks upon themselves so Armstrong could take his giant leap. 
Life is an adventure, and putting one foot in front of the other takes effort and a willingness to take risks. Just as every step the tightrope walker takes could be his last, so too every action we take is a choice with consequences; once we choose one path, the other disappears from our view. Just as Armstrong’s Giant Leap was really the culmination of all kinds of other activity, so too are our lives and our actions, our choices; one built upon the other. 
So, what are the implications in terms of congregational life? First, it means that, while we respect our history, we are not beholden to it. With deep appreciation for what those who came before us did, we must chart our own course in order to create meaningful community. Otherwise, we’re a museum, a fossil. Second, it means that we must be willing to take risks, to be willing to experiment, to make mistakes, to be forgiving of those mistakes, and work together to work out the details. Nothing emerges fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head; it requires real effort, and working together to create the kind of community we want. Finally, we must have the vision in order to move forward, even if moving forward is hard, even if moving forward isn’t always popular. 
How do we do this? We do it together. As you may have noticed, you received a sticker, or have seen car magnets or other paraphernalia with the Beth Emeth Crown and the word “B’yachad”, which means Together. Congregational life is different from the high-wire act in one respect; we don’t take it alone. We do it in community, but community is more than just paying a fee (though there are some who may feel that is enough already!). it means making a commitment to your fellow congregants to meaningfully engage, regardless of age, gender or experience. It doesn’t matter if you’ve always been Jewish or have come to Judaism but recently, or have not yet chosen Judaism. It doesn’t matter if you are my son’s age or my father’s age or my grandmother’s age. It doesn’t matter if your life is busy now, or was busy with the life of the synagogue before. It doesn’t matter if you’ve belonged to this congregation for a month or a hundred years. What matters is that we are here, all of us. Our leadership has a vision, one that I share: of intergenerational programming, bringing us all together in learning, in social justice, in tzedakah, in community, in worship and sharing our lives together. That means experimenting with different kinds of programming and asking people to step forward out of their comfort zones. It means remembering our history and our tradition but moving forward to answer the needs of today for our congregants of all ages and backgrounds. It means moving forward aware of the details but not stymied by them. It means having a spirit of adventure about our Judaism, about this congregation and our place within it. No tricks, no gimmicks; just keeping our balance moving one foot in front of the other. Because, as my teacher Michael Walzer reminds all of us in Mishkan T’fillah: wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;, that there is a better place… a promised land; “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” And There is no way to get from here to there Except by joining together and marching. B’yachad, all of us marching together. May this be God’s will, may this be our action, Amen!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Erev Rosh Hashanah

And here's my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon.

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Erev Rosh Hashanah: a Blessing of Gratitude
 In spite of myself, this summer, I found myself staying up far too late to watch the Summer Olympics. In spite of their lack of sensitivity to the 40th anniversary of the Munich games and the terror that accompanied it, in spite of the fact that we were watching something that took place 6 hours earlier and was viewable (or at least readable) thanks to the power of the internet and therefore knowing the results, despite my personal allergy to hype (you can’t take the punk out of the kid, after all), I found myself watching Women’s Gymnastics of all things. And, like much of the world, I watched five young women dominate in the team competition, winning gold for the first time since 1996. If you remember a few months ago, they were dominant, such that one sports writer exclaimed that they could have sat in the middle of the mat for the floor routine and read a good book and still win. And they were led by a Jewish girl from Needham MA, a member of the reform Temple in that community, Aly Reisman, who did her floor routine to Hava Nagilah. She was the team captain, which meant, as one journalist wrote, it was her task to ‘see clearly through the fog of media frenzy and expectations from coaches, USA Gymnastics, fans, friends and family.’ It was her duty to ‘maintain resolute under extreme circumstances’. 
And yet, and yet, at the end of her floor routine, the last one for the event and for the team, you could see finally, as she stuck her landing, the expression of emotion. It wasn’t just an expression of joy or completion or exhaustion—or of watching her parents completely lose it in the stands, as Jewish parents are wont to do—it was an expression of gratitude, of thankfulness. And then, as many of us know, she repeated her performance on the floor mat later to win another gold. As wonderful as that second showing was, I want to focus on that moment at the end of the team competition. Whatever the score, you could tell she knew she and her team and gone through an amazing experience for anyone, never mind a nice Jewish girl from outside Boston. 
This evening we invoked a new year, a year full of potential, and we have prayed for new blessings, for that potential to be realized for our people, our country, for Israel, for ourselves. We have begun the hard, sacred work of Cheshbon Nefesh, of taking stock of our souls, our personal selves, looking to see how we can improve in 5773, how we can do more or do better. And most years, this would be a time for me to preach about a new initiative, a spiritual realization, a new bit of Torah. I’m not going to do that tonight. Oh, it will come: there will be new programs to promote, new ideas and ways to engage—this is me, we’re talking about, after all. But tonight, as we let go of the previous year, I think it’s important to express our own gratitude, our own thankfulness for this moment. Before the book of our lives are opened, before we go through the ledger of our souls, let’s take a moment to give thanks for what we have and how we’ve come to this moment. 
So these are my blessings, with inspiration from Rabbi Harry Danzinger, my teacher. These are my expressions of gratitude for the past year: 
Today I was raised from my bed by my son, excited for a new day, for all that he has. I woke next to a woman who supports and encourages me, and who I in turn strive to earn her partnership. This afternoon parents who are healthy and vibrant came to my home and join us here now. Certainly I grumbled about the hour as I got the leash to walk the dog, and I’ve rushed about all day to prepare for tonight. But I am blessed with a loving family, deep and friendships that have lasted a lifetime, colleagues who have served as my teachers and support, and a meaningful connection to many within and outside of these walls.. For my family circle, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God!
In this past year we’ve all complained that the room we were in was the wrong temperature. Indeed, many of us have complained in the last hour that the room we are in is either too hot or too cold, but we have a roof over our heads, protected from the elements; we know security and shelter beyond what millions around the world could ever dream of. For the roof over my head, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God!
Certainly we have complained about one meal or another this year, our experiments with kale chips or this or that restaurant were, in retrospect, not the best ideas. But we did not go hungry. Indeed, many of us can look to our pantries and an embarrassment of riches. We have the luxury of choosing whether to go to the fancier supermarket, or get our vegetables from the local farm, or to eat out, to be vegetarians or vegans or kosher or eco-kosher or eat anything that satisfied our appetites. For every meal, baruch atah Adonai, thank you god! 
Some of us experienced illness or injury—sometimes a sniffle or bruise, others were put into the hospital. There were accidents, including two car accidents in my life this past year, daily dangers that cause our hearts to race. Some of us were bereaved this year, losing a loved one or a friend. We may have experienced failure great or small. But we are here, we found the strength to go on, to get support. For strength beyond imagining, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God! 
And there were days free of illness, injury and death. There were days of success, of growth, days when everything went right, when we lived up to our ideals and hopes, when there was no tragedy no sadness, no drama. For every day free of trouble, Baruch Atah Adonai, thank you God! 
There were days when we enjoyed friends and family, when I got to watch my son play on the playground, completely fearless. There were moments of shared laughter and tenderness, of insight and thoughtfulness; celebrations, simchas, accomplishments and heights gained. And there were moments of simple, honest, and meaningful companionship. For each of those moments shared, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We are surrounded by a congregation that is increasingly active, in a beautiful building, with members of all ages finding meaning in Torah, in study, in community, in bringing a meal to a friend or a stranger, in leadership, and in prayer. We are nourished as a sacred congregation by staff and volunteers for whom this is family in the purest, most real sense of the word, and give of themselves fully for its benefit. For this congregation full of love and spiritual growth, her leaders and supporters, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We live in a community that continually punches above its weight. From the activism of our citizenry to a Jewish community that strives for real connection and fulfillment of the idea kol yisrael aravim ze ba zeh, All Israel is responsible for each other. We have a JCC filled with love and engagement, a JFS serving our whole community, Jew and Gentile alike. We have a nursing home filled with loving caregivers, congregations that work together to help create meaning, multiple opportunities for study and connection, A Federation that strives to bring everyone together, support for Israel through active leadership in Federation Israel Bonds, AIPAC and J-Street, a plurality of voices striving in different ways for the same goal: to serve the needs of all in Delaware. For this Jewish community, greater in strength than it realizes, Baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
On any given day, I engage in multiple conversations about Judaism, movies, and music, the 80s, the news and other ephemera. I listen to musicians I’ve never heard of, share articles with friends and colleagues that challenge me, communicate with friends new and old, and hear old Jews telling jokes, all from my laptop computer. I have seen new media emerge to give the voiceless a voice, to bring awareness to struggles and challenges, and to give people a means to face those challenges within a community we couldn’t have imagined. These technologies are allowing people to become creators rather than just consumers; writing, creating art and music, working with craft and sharing their wares—and themselves—through these new media. And, for those who are stuck on the road or are homebound due to health reasons, this service is being shared through that same development in media, an impossible idea only a generation ago. For all that technology allows me to do, for all the connections it allows me to maintain, and for the ways technology has broadened my horizons, baruch atah Adonai, thank you God! 
We live in a world where Jews have had a sovereign state for 64 years, a country that, in spite of terror and war, and sometimes in spite of itself, has made the desert bloom, has become a leader in technology and medicine, and now entering the world of renewable energy. A country that old and young Jews alike, from around the world increasingly feel a strong connection to, a homeland for Jews not only to flee oppression but to visit in droves to learn about and deepen their connection with their people and their faith. We live in a world where Hebrew is a spoken language, where a diaspora community of Jews and Gentiles from around the world support her, a world in which the Economist was able to write that, despite the charnel house of Europe of the 1940s, Israel as a nation and a people has not just survived, it has thrived. For our Jewish homeland, for our Jewish people, Baruch atah Adonai, Thank you God!
Some of us have suffered this year. Some of us have known successes great and small. And all of us have reached this moment thanks to miracles great and small: a supportive friend, the right words spoken at the right time, a chance to be in the world, a moment of clarity and understanding, a helpful stranger. For each one of those miracles, baruch atah Adonai thank you God! 
We have begun a new year, we have said goodbye to the old. We pray for new blessings in this new year, to leave behind old hurts. But we carry with us the thanks for the blessings we have received, and face the new day with gratitude. Blessed are You, Adonai, for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this most amazing day, every day. Amen. 

Shana Tovah: Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon 5773

Friends: I've received requests for copies of my sermons this past holiday. Here's yesterday's sermon, slightly edited to protect some identities (speaking in a room in Wilmington is one thing, putting it out into the ether is another). Enjoy!

Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5773: Homelessness and Family Promise 
I want to share a story of my first encounter with homelessness. It involved a friend of mine named T-, and it’s not what you expect. 
T- and I were classmates in high school. He was built like a rubber-band, with all the energy that went with that. If you were to define T-, you would call him a nudnik. He was always playing pranks, pulling hijinks, getting us in good-natured trouble, but you couldn’t be mad at him. He would smile that broad smile and that was it. He was a good singer, loved to draw, wanted to be an artist professionally, but lacked that so-called artist’s temperament. He was always fun to be around. Sure, he had trouble with his parents—have you met a 16 year old kid who didn’t? Certainly it didn’t seem any worse than any of us had. 
That changed when he ended up on my doorstep, without shoes. He and his parents got into a screaming fight over something entirely forgettable—even then I thought “you got into a fight over THAT?” Instead of grounding him, or letting it blow over, or something else to indicate the complete lack of severity, the complete adolescent nature of the fight, his parents kicked him out of the house as he was. No wallet, no shoes. He managed to bum a ride from a friend to my house. He had dinner with us, and then we made phone calls around until we found a buddy who could take him in for a couple of days, let him crash on the couch. I don’t remember if I drove him over or if the friend came and picked him up. 
After he left, I remember being furious. Not at him, not really. And while I was mad at his parents, they weren’t what was eating at me. Something made me angry, and it took me a long time to process why. T- was homeless. No, he wasn’t living on the street, ragged and mad-looking. He wasn’t some pathetic urchin as out of a Victor Hugo or Dickens’ novel. But there he was, without the security of knowing where he was going to lay his head, dependent on friends until his parents cooled off and let him back home (which they did finally after some time), knowing that the presumption of warmth, support and love that comes with a home are as gossamer and transient as a fight between a teenage boy and his parents. 
T- wasn’t who I would think of when I considered homelessness. When I thought of the homeless as a teenager I mostly thought of Sir, the old guy who hung around the pizza place my friends went to in Hyannis. We never—I never—knew his name. He was the stereotype of a homeless individual: dirty, bearded, with a crazy look in his eye. He reminded me of the song Mr. Wendell by Arrested Development that was popular at the time. We called him ‘Sir’ because he was always very respectful when he spoke to anyone: yes sir, no sir. If we bought him a coffee or a slice he would call us ‘scholars and gentlemen’, and we’d have conversations with him, where he would share the kind of street-wisdom a punkish middle-class kid would appreciate. Clearly some trauma had happened in his life and so he ended up on Main Street when he wasn’t at the Red Cross shelter. And isn’t that all homeless people? Mad, addicted, harmless (unless they’re dangerous), easily ignored, the subject of pity or scorn?
T- made me realize that homelessness is a fate that can afflict those who do everything ‘right’, who are feeling tremendous shame and anxiety at their status. The homeless person is anyone who has lost the security of having a roof over their heads, a place to call their own. It could be any one of us. That day, it was T-. 
I won’t belabor the point that we as Jews have an obligation to care for the homeless. I think most of us understand this is self-evident within Judaism, and everyone from the Torah itself to the rabbis of the Talmud to Maimonides to the rabbis of today speak of the mitzvah, the sacred obligation, to relieve those in need of the stress of their situation, to help them recover and get back on their feet. Again and again Torah exhorts us to protect the widow, the orphan and the strangers in our midst, to provide opportunities for them to support themselves, and who are these individuals—who is the stranger in our midst—if not the homeless? Maimonides’ highest level of tzedakah is, in fact, where the giver allows someone to become self-sufficient, to get back on their own feet. Most remarkable is that those who are homeless or otherwise benefit from tzedakah themselves have to give to charity. Why? For two reasons: one, because they themselves need to have a sense of dignity, and because no matter how bad off they may be, there is someone in a worse situation, as impossible as that might seem.  And in fact I have found those who are homeless—including some members of this congregation—to be among the most giving, the most compassionate, the most understanding of the trauma and displacement of homelessness. 
I’m not merely speaking of the displacement of not having a home. I’m also talking about the displacement of being invisible. How often I see the homeless individual on the corner of 202 and Silverside looking for help, and how often do people turn aside. How often do we encounter the homeless in our cities and we withdraw as much as we can from that individual, all but turning ourselves inside out to avoid them. Not only is that unkind, it is against the teachings of our faith. Again, Maimonides exhorts us that if a poor man request money from you and you have nothing to give him, you should speak to him consolingly. And the Shulchan Aruch goes even further, stating that you should not only speak lovingly to the individual but avoid scolding them as well; and the Midrash teaches that even if we have given already, give again a hundred times!
Of course, we know this. We have worked hard as a congregation to treat the symptoms of homelessness: gathering food for the Delaware Food Pantry, donating materials, school supplies, helping shelters like Sojourners only a few miles from here and places like the Emmanuel Dining Room. Our kids have packed meals, our b’nai mitzvah and their families have worked the breakfast mission, and our brotherhood has built homes with Habitat for Humanity. But treating the symptoms, as good and important as it is, doesn’t help end homelessness, merely ameliorate the conditions. It doesn’t add security and safety for our homeless families; to borrow a sports metaphor, it earns us another down, but doesn’t move the ball forward. 
And the fact of the matter is, homelessness is a problem that can be solved in this state. There are 6000 people throughout the year in Delaware, nearly 2700 of them children, a 23% increase in the last two years. We can reduce that number significantly, we can even get it down to zero, but we cannot do it alone. It will take all of us working together; not only we as a Jewish congregation, but all the houses of worship within the 9th ward. 
That is why I’m thrilled to announce an initiative, a partnership that we, Congregation Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian, Penninsular McCabe, Shiloh Baptist and other houses of worship will be engaging, one with a group called Family Promise. 
For those who don’t know the organization, it is a faith-based group, started by a synagogue in Philadelphia,  that seeks to get homeless families on their feet. So often families have trouble going to shelters together—they’re unable to bring teenage boys or the fathers with them due to perceived security risks, or there aren’t the right kind of materials or support systems in place, or simply aren’t enough beds. Family Promise of Northern New Castle County helps homeless families with children move toward lasting independence by providing a safe place to eat and sleep, intensive care management, life training support and encouragement. And they do this through a network of congregations that hose these families in their churches and synagogues. They are not a shelter, placing the homeless outside our view, hidden from reality. Rather, they give them the opportunity to feel a part of a community and know the love and support of families who are like themselves, except those volunteers still have homes. 
How does it work? Starting in January, Penninsular McCabe church just up the road will be hosting families, numbering perhaps a dozen people, for three weeks scattered throughout the year—once in January, in May and again in September. We, along with Beth Shalom, Hanover Presbyterian and other churches, will provide support for McCabe, volunteers who will do things like help prepare Breakfast and Dinner, drive Family Promise’s van to drop off and pick up the residents to Family Promises’ location, where the kids get picked up for school, the parents get to their jobs or do job hunting, learn new skills, where they can take showers and do their laundry, and search for permanent housing. There are opportunities to spend time with the families and keep them company, buy groceries for meal making, washing the bed linens between stays, and even staying overnight in the church to make sure everyone is okay. These families are vetted by Family Promise in advance; they are people just like us, except one thing—they’ve lost their homes. In some cases, they’re just as surprised as we would be. They need love and support and care, and to feel normal. While sleeping in a church or synagogue for a week isn’t exactly one’s idea of normal, we will do what we can to turn classrooms into bedrooms, to keep families together, to help them get back on their feet. 70% of Family Promise families end up on their feet and in permanent housing within a year, indeed within 83 days; which of course provides more opportunities to help move furniture and get those families into houses and apartments. 
It sounds daunting, but it really isn’t. We’re talking about one morning or afternoon driving a van, a couple of nights making dinner for a dozen people, or doing some extra grocery shopping, hanging out in a church for a few nights to keep some folks and their kids company. It’s something any of us could do, and I’m hoping it’s something all of us will take a turn doing.  All volunteers are trained, there is no proselytization allowed (in fact Family Promise has turned churches down because bringing the ‘good news’ was more important to them than helping these folks). This is an opportunity to move that ball forward, to partner with our brothers and sisters, Jews and Non-Jews in Wilmington to reduce that number, to heal some terrible wounds in our community, wounds that can heal, and that must heal. 
To learn more about Family Promise, you can go to; their executive director, Carolyn Gordon, who some of us might know through the IFSAC meal packing that we do with Christ Church every Fall and Spring, will be with us on Sunday, September 23rd at 9am to speak with us further, and there are postcards (flyers) on the table as you leave. Each one has information on how you can sign up to help with one or more tasks. If you’re looking for a way to give of yourself to this community of Wilmington, a way to work in partnership with our brothers and sisters of all faiths, if you’re looking for a mitzvah project, if you just want to give back, this is another way to do it and a way that I hope you will take seriously. 
Arik Einshtein wrote: “you and I can change the world. Others have said it before, but it doesn’t matter, for you and I will change the world.” T- is now a successful artist. He designs characters for video games. He teaches. He has a beautiful wife and daughter. Not every story of homelessness ends that way, but we can help make sure there are more T- in this world. You and I may change the world. Please join me and my family, with the other people of faith of the Ninth Ward, and we can change the world for the better. Amen.