Saturday, December 28, 2013

Va'era: When Work Fails Us

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Parashat Va’era: When Work Fails Us

When I originally planned my sermon topics, this week’s was supposed to be titled “when words fail us”, a nice opportunity to talk about Moses’ language challenges as recounted in Parashat Va’era. But a misread note turned it into “When Work Fails Us”. Can’t say that I was thrilled by that, but the more I reflected on that idea, the more it seemed to actually make sense.
Think about it this way: Moses is called to his task by God, and reluctantly, he takes it up. He goes with Aaron his brother, talks to Israel, and they’re initially excited. Finally, someone is here to rescue us! But when Moses goes to Pharaoh, well, he’s Pharaoh. We know how the story turns out. And Israel, Moses complains, won’t listen any further; they close their hearts off, so oppressed by their bondage.

Often people read this text as either a failure of hope on the part of Israel, or a failure of effort on the part of Moses. Either they really aren’t listening, or he really is Mr. Mumbles. But I think in reading that way, as if Redemption was inevitable, as if the path to Sinai is perfectly linear, misses some great insight into how our lives really are.

Again and again we’re told in life, if we just work a little harder, if we just put more of ourselves or more effort into what we’re doing, if we just commit ourselves more fully to our chosen tasks, then everything will open up to us. And that’s how we live our lives. Look at the acres of shelving that house books on business, or parenthood, or education, or success. All of them tell the same story. But it’s simply not true. It’s not always a matter of working harder. It’s not enough to simply do the work, or devote ourselves to the effort. Someday someone will do the job better, or differently, or with more or less enthusiasm. It’s not about the work; it’s about the relationship, the connection. Why does Israel not listen? Moses doesn’t have the relationship with the Israelites yet; nor, frankly, does God. Both of them have to prove themselves to Israel, to assure them that yes, we will go out, we will go up. As Rabbi Noah Farkas teaches: connection comes before commitment. In fact, the rabbis ask the question, why doesn’t the Torah begin with the 10 commandments? Why have Genesis and the beginning of Exodus at all? Because, the rabbis say, Israel needed—and WE  needed, an introduction. Who is God to impose mitzvoth on Israel, on us? No, we need the relationship—this is the one who spoke and the world came to be, the one who made a covenant with our forebears, the one who redeemed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Only then, by establishing that fact, could Israel, or we, be able to accept Torah.

More than that, they have to believe it themselves. I’m sure God had no doubt, as if that could be said, but Moses? He had to believe in his task, in Israel’s worthiness, and in himself. At this point, he doesn’t believe any of it. He needs to feel it deep within his neshamah that in fact, Israel, who now doesn’t hear, will reply “na’aseh v’nishmah” –we will do and we will hear, when they get to Sinai. He has to believe that he, the stutterer, will be able to sing mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai at the shores of the sea. That strength only comes from building the relationships; between Israel and Moses, God and Israel, Moses and God, and Moses and his true self, the Prophetic vision of himself that he’s been avoiding.   Connection comes before commitment: Moses and Israel need that connection with who they could be before they can commit to that vision.

Is it any different with us? We can bust our tucheses, we can focus more, meditate, commit, make pledges and promises, we can make new year’s resolutions, and in the end, they don’t matter. Not because we’re liars and shirkers, not because we want to fail. Because we need to have the relationship first, we need the connection: with who we are now, with each other, and with who we want to be. AND, I would argue, with that sense of the sacred that calls us to live as fully, as truly, and meaningfully as we can.

The parasha ends this week with Pharaoh’s heart hardened and Israel still in Egypt. The work has been begun, but it’s not complete. So it is with us. The work is begun, the work is before us, the work of repairing the world, of building community, of education, of creating meaning, of healing those around us, but it’ll remain incomplete until we build the relationships within and without. Then we can say, we will do, because we can hear each other—but that’s for another week. Amen. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Va'era: Show us a Sign

The Eternal said to Moses and Aaron: “when Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘produce your marvel…’”-Ex. 7:8

It seems like some folks always want proof.
Always want a sign
of your love
and devotion
and protection
and existence.

Even now, in this room, in this service
We’re waiting to hear You.
We’re waiting for a marvel, a portent, a wonder

A sign.

We’re waiting with breath baited and held--
And so we miss the signs, we miss the marvels:

The hand of a friend or stranger
Held out in support,

The kindest word expressed at just the right moment
When the spirit is crushed
The heart broken.

That brief exchange that means all the difference.

We keep asking for a sign, for a marvel
for your name

But the signs are all around us,
We are the signs
If we but open our hearts to each other
And you.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Parashat Shmot: Us vs. Them

Several weeks ago I posted an article on our facebook page about how Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of our URJ, which just met in our Biennial conference last week, went to the Linus sluchim, the annual gathering of CHABAD rabbis and community leaders, and how he met with rabbi krinsky, his peer at Lubuvitch. I posted the article, which was entirely neutral, with the comment: An interesting development. Feel free to share your thoughts!

At the time, there was a mix of reactions, from 'why bother?' to "well, it's nice they invited him" and everything in between. I was reminded of this article this week for two reasons. First, at the clergy meeting at biennial a number of my colleagues brought up this visit to the "Rebbes army" and there was more than a little anxiety in their voices. These Chabadniks were trying to take our people, undermine our initiatives, and negate our authenticity as Jews, performing scorched earth policies designed to maximize them and minimize anyone else. At least, that was the fear voiced in the questions.

The other was at least one Chabad response to Rick Jacobs' Biennial Keynote, which was, let us say, less than kind. Never mind the many, many Orthodox triumphalist responses to the Pew report denigrating Reform.

It seems to me that there are two fears at work on both sides. The fear that the other is more numerous, more powerful, and as a result may be out to get us. The other fear is that they may be right in their criticism.

This week we read (ex 1:19). We seem to spend an awful lot of time looking at each other in the Jewish world as threats, saying about one another 'rav lahem', they are too big. We can't compete. We are negated in their presence or at least we will be if we dont fight back.

And if you think this only happens between movements, come and see how even in synagogue life, different groups can see each other as competing for resources, money, space, time slots, the attention of the leadership and clergy, etc.

But here's the thing: It's not true. The portion doesn't begin with these words of threat: it begins by naming the sons of Israel, reminding us of the previous portion, where Joseph had found plenty for Egypt, and Jacob blesses each and every son. It's a reminder that there is enough blessing for EVERYONE. There is enough room for EVERYONE. No one movement or experience can define Judaism in Toto, and we may agree to disagree as only Jews can about how we engage in that Judaism meaningfully, but we are not enemies, any more than the tribe of Dan and the Tribe of Issschar are enemies. Sure, CHABAD things we dont care about mitzvot. As Rabbi Jacobs said, we just care differently, and since when is our pride of Reform predicated on their perception of us? And sure, we begrudge CHABAD on occasion. But let us recognize that they serve a need and we could learn a lot from how they create nonanxious, loving entree points to Jewish life. There is enough blessing for all of us. When the text says that Pharaoh does not know Joseph, what it means is he doesn't understand that Israel is not a threat, but a help and Egypt's prosperity is tied to Israel's. 

Honestly, I'm tired of having this conversation. What does it matter what others think of us? And what does it matter how others practice their Judaism? To quote Rabbi Jacobs in his biennial Keynote: "Our Judaism is for everyone. Our Judaism is inclusive, egalitarian, intellectually rigorous, joyful, passionate, spiritual, pluralistic, constantly evolving and relevant. Soul elevating spiritual practice, life-altering Torah study, courageous practice of tikkun olam, loving care for our community, especially the most vulnerable--that's what we are... " Like Rabbi Jacobs, I believe our Judaism is for everyone, and don't need to measure it against some traditionalist measuring stick, but I also recognize that we are stronger and better as a people for our diversity. 
In a couple of weeks Israel will go out of Egypt, and as Amichai Lau taught this week, it takes all Israel to go into freedom and accept Torah. All the Tribes, each of the tribes need eahc other. The same is true for our tribe. I am a proud Reform Jew, proud of our past and even more excited for our future. I am a child of this movement anf, without being Pollyanna, believe it's future is bright. But it won't be of we continue to see Jewish experience as us vs them. That doesn't mean compromising our values-on Israel, egalitarianism, social justice and a strong critical approach to text and tradition, in all meanings of that word. But just as the tide lifts all ships, we need each other, and need to see that there is enough blessing. For if we don't, then our redemption, our liberation, may be a lot farther off then just a few parshiot.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ask Me Why I'm Shaving My Head

Why does a person shave his head?

In our tradition and history, the shaved head has meant different things. In parashat ki tetzei, it is an act of mourning by a captive bride bewailing her family, as well as a way to minimize her beauty to her captor, controlling his baser instincts. In parashat Metzorah, the shaving of the body indicates the repurification someone with tzara’at, a spiritual skin disease, indicating he or she may reenter the camp. In The Book of Numbers, a nazirite, after fulfilling his vow (indicated by letting his hair grow long) would shave the hair from his body. In Judges, Samson, a quasi-nazerite, has his head shaved and loses his strength, while the prophet Elisha in the book of Kings appears to wear his hair in a tonsure. The Holiness Code in parashat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) exhorts Israelite men not to cut the corners of their hair with a razor. In the 20th century, the shaved head has been associated with the concentration camp prisoner, the neo-nazi, the soldier, the punk, and those with receding hairlines.

And then there are those who “shave for the brave”; who, out of sympathy with cancer patients losing their hair, choose to have their own heads shaved, and in the process raise money for cancer research. Often this is done around children’s cancers. Less than five percent of all cancer research funds go to children’s cancer research. It shows the youngest victims of disease, the ones most likely to feel alone and ashamed over their baldness, that they are supported and sustained.
Many of you know my connection to “Superman” Sam Sommer, the child I talked about this past Rosh Hashanah, who received a Gift Of Life bone marrow donation in order to cure his leukemia. At the time, it looked like his cancer was going into remission, but sadly, it came back, and Sam passed away, embraced by his parents Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer early Saturday morning, December 14th, Shabbat Vayechi. I have known Phyllis and Michael since 1998. We were in Israel together. I was a regular visitor in Phyllis’ and Michael’s apartments. I saw their love first blossom. We were in Cincinnati together. I was at their wedding. I was there when their first son, David, was born. We played poker together, went to the movies together. I did chaplaincy with Phyllis and was ordained with her. They are some of my dearest friends, and on Monday, December 16th, I stood in the snow in Chicago, along with friends and colleagues from around  the globe,  to help them bury their second child. Their grief is not mine, but I grieve for my friends nonetheless. I ache to take their pain away, to bring their son back. But Sam is gone.

Rabbinic colleagues and friends of the Sommers organized a Shave for the Brave through St. Baldrick’s, an organization that raises money for cancer research. Their original goal was 36 rabbis would raise $180,000 and shave at the CCAR conference in March. As I write this in December, there are 72 rabbis (four times chai, life) , including me.

Yes, I’m shaving my head (I’m keeping the beard). Yes, there are other worthy causes like B+ and Gift of Life (to which I say, eilu v’eilu, let us give to it all!). Yes, it feels, to some, extreme. No, it will not bring Sam back. Nothing will. But if in shaving I can support my friends, if I can help raise money toward research that will save lives, then it is worth it. After all, they are part of my community, my minyan, and that is what being a part of the minyan is about.

We are taught that those who die on the Sabbath are considered especially righteous. Sam died on Shabbat va’yechi, which means “He lived”. Sam lived for eight years. May we, through our actions, live up to that life. If you have it in your heart to donate to my participation, please go to My personal goal is $3600. Thank you. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Letter to Oberlin College Over the ASA Boycott

Below you'll find the letter I sent to Marvin Krislov, President of Oberlin College, my alma mater. I encourage you to send similar letters to your academic institutions to encourage their withdrawal from the American Studies Association over their Academic Boycott of Israel

Dr. Krislov:
 I am writing you to ask that Oberlin leave the American Studies Association over its boycott of Israel, just voted on this past week.
 I am a graduate of Oberlin College (class of 1998). I came to Oberlin because of its devotion to Social Justice, and have long been proud of its progressive history.
 This boycott, ostensibly to protest the treatment of Palestinians, in fact rejects the legitimacy of the State of Israel.  Diverse publications such as The New Republic (, Tablet Magazine (, Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast ( and HaAretz (via Alan Dershowitz, have railed against the boycott as an act of anti-Semitism at worst, a rejection of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and at best an assault on academic freedom. . As argued by Brandeis University in their withdrawal: “We remain committed to the discipline of American Studies but we can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture–freedom of association and expression.” In addition to Brandeis, Penn State University (Harrisburg) has also withdrawn from the ASA. I’m sure more universities will do the same.
 Even the Palestinian Leadership, including Mahmoud Abbas, reject the idea of a boycott against Israel proper in their pursuit of a Palestinian State.
 As an Alumnus, a Jew, a rabbi, an American devoted to academic freedom, and a progressive devoted to the Peace Process and a Two-State solution, I urge Oberlin College and its faculty withdraw (temporarily) from the ASA until such time when the boycott is lifted. It flies in the face of all Oberlin represents.
 Thank you for your time. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Word of God: A Prayer

And The ETERNAL said: “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the ETERNAL? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Exodus 4:11-12)

Moses, called by God to action, begs God to find another.
He gives all the usual excuses:
He lacks credibility, the right words to say.
He doesn't know how to act.
He doesn't know God.

Moses' words are ours. 
We give all the usual excuses.
The moment comes when we turn
And see the bush burning, endlessly burning
with injustice, with poverty, with pain,
and we hide our face.

To whom are we blind, and deaf?
Whose cry for help do we ignore, embarrassed and afraid?  

What word goes unsaid,
sticking dry in our throats,
unconvincing, uncomfortable, unloving?

We think the word needs to be ours. 
We think the word needs to be correct. 
We think the word needs to be original, 
perfect, exactly right, 
and we break our hearts and our teeth
and we fail. 

O God, fill my mouth with Your words. 
Be with me as I speak.
Teach me.

Make every word a prayer, a blessing,
Imperfect and broken.

Make every word Yours. 

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hearing. Remembering. Knowing.

"And God heard their groaning, and God remembered... God looked at the Israelites, and God knew." -Exodus 2:24-25

He was supposed to grow old.

He was supposed to bicker with his siblings, struggle through puberty, wrestle with his bar mitzvah portion, and struggle, as we all do, to make meaning of our lives.

He was supposed to go to the movies with his friends, and stay out too late and get in trouble, and crash his dad's car and worry about the trouble he'd be in when all his parents would care about was that he was safe.

He was supposed to be invincible, convinced of his own youth and vibrance, and embrace the world as his own.

He should have found a partner in life, a calling that gave him joy. There should have been children and grandchildren.

He should have closed his parents' eyes, supported and been supported by his brothers and sisters as they said kaddish, many years from now.

He was surrounded with love. He was laid to rest in the snow, his family encircled by friends, family, teachers and students, colleagues and dear ones, each crying out with a voice loud enough for God to hear. He was remembered with tears and laughter. He was remembered as a special, wise, loving little boy.

I don't know how to comfort his parents, whom I love. I don't know how to help them grieve any more than my brief, inadequate trip to Chicago, a glance, an embrace, standing together in the snow.

But this I know. It shouldn't have happened that way. We shouldn't have been there.

He was supposed to grow old.

Friday, December 6, 2013

It Always Seems Impossible Until It Is Done

Those words were spoken by Nelson Mandela, who departed this earth yesterday. There are many who are trying to christen him a saint, try to remove him from his context of political and humanitarian struggle, and as Delaware native David Weigel points out in his regular blog on Slate, that would be a mistake.

I remember when Mandela was freed. More than that, I remember when Apartheid, like the issue of Soviet Jews and peace in Ireland, was a cause celebre, something the so-called apolitical/entertainment class as well as social justice activists alike rallied to oppose (and too many supported under the guise of fighting Communism). Seriously, I remember mediocre sitcoms like 227 and forgotten hip-hop artists like The Jungle Brothers, to say nothing of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, addressing Apartheid alongside student activists at universities nationwide. Could you imagine Big Bang Theory or Pitbull raising issues of consequence like that? 

I make the comparison because I imagine that, for many younger than me, Apartheid is as distant a memory as the issue of Refusniks, The Troubles, or even the fall of the Soviet Bloc. That was another epoch, a time of great darkness giving way to profound hope.

How could someone who has grown up in the last twenty years understand that time period, when the Berlin Wall fell, when peace seemed possible, when Communist China looked on the edge, and when Mandela emerged from his prison, and as the poet wrote, returned to his battle, handsome as a lion in the noonday sun?

Mandela is an icon, and taken out of context, we forget his real impact. We live in an era of profound cynicism, where Orange Revolutions and Arab Springs have seemingly turned to dust, when the words of Jeremiah seem to ring most true: "They offer healing offhand for the wounds of my people, saying 'peace! Peace!' But there is no peace." (6:14). We live in an era where everything seems impossible. So to it must have been for Mandela as a prisoner in Robbin Prison. It always seems impossible until it is done--may his words and memory give us the courage and the strength to continue until the work truly is done.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

I'll Take The Challenge.

So I'm not preaching a traditional sermon tomorrow, it being New Member Shabbat, but in the course of preparing to bless those who commit to synagogue life, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to commit to Jewish communal life. Of course, there's a lot of stuff out there to encourage thinking on that subject. The Pew Report, which has caused much gnashing of teeth. The study I do with a few non-Jewish clergy, who have been helping me understand the question of where we locate authority, and the sacred. The book The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which I highly recommend, which talks about people as social beings, and most recently Donna Schwartz's excellent blog (and not only excellent because she cites my sermon!). Each one of these pieces deserves more than a sentence or two devoted to them, and I believe each helps us answer the question of why we seek out and join spiritual communities, but I want to reflect on one piece: the idea of challenge.

We don't like to be challenged. Oh, sure, every self-help book and leadership guide talks about growth and development, but the reality is, we like to feel good. We're designed, environmentally and evolutionarily, to respond to positive, not negative, reinforcement. We want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from difficulty and hardship. Indeed, it can be one of our nobler impulses. But it is ONLY through challenge that growth can occur. One of my favorite Chasidic stories is one told of the Kotzker Rebbe that, when he was a student, he answered a question correctly, his teacher rewarded him with a kiss on the head, whereupon he left his study. When asked why, he said, "I need a teacher who will rend the flesh from my bones, not kiss me on the head." It's a dramatic image, and it's true. I learned more from the teachers who challenged me, pushed me, cornered me and stripped me of my armor and dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of my safe zone, than the teachers who coddled and protected me. We rise to the occasion, but only when given the opportunity.

In synagogue life, we've been told that belonging should be easy, that being Jewish should be easy--even converting to Judaism should be easy! I have been told that we shouldn't ask too much of laypeople, either in terms of time, expertise, or finances; because we don't want to scare them off, because we don't want them to do it 'wrong', because we are afraid they won't follow through or truly engage. I believe it should be challenging. I believe that through the challenge comes engagement, ownership, and transformation; that is, when we know the stakes are high, when we're being counted on, when the task requires real spiritual and intellectual effort on our part, the experience is much more meaningful, and much more beneficial to the community and ourselves. As I remind the b'nai mitzvah , becoming part of the minyan (the quorum of prayer) means that you may not only participate, but lead. Not only study Torah, but lead the study of Torah. That in performing mitzvot--commands--we are living up to the expectations of our Divine Commander. Or, if you prefer, by fulfilling our mitzvot--Sacred Obligations--we are reminding ourselves of our commitments and meeting them.

We've been told that joining a spiritual community is about meeting our needs; I believe more and more each day that this is true, partially. But it's also about connecting ourselves to something greater, and through that connection seeing ourselves differently, perhaps even as God intends us to be.

I close with one of my favorite prayers from Mishkan T'fillah, adapted from Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher (z'l). May our challenges lead us ever higher, and into deeper and richer connections to one another. And may this Shabbat be a call to action.

Disturb Us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency;
Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance,
The quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat,
The bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans.

Shock us, Adonai, deny to us the false Shabbat which gives us
The delusions of satisfaction amid a world of war and hatred;

Wake us, O God, and shake us
From the sweet and sad poignancies rendered by
Half-forgotten`` melodies and rubric prayers of yesteryears;

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary
Is not the border of the living
And the walls of Your temples are not shelters
From the winds of truth, justice and reality.

Disturb us, O God, and vex us;
Let not your Shabbat be a day of torpor and slumber;
Let it be a time to be stirred and spurred to action.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Genius Bars or Maker Spaces?

For years I’ve been hearing people wishing that Judaism in general—and synagogues in particular—were more like the Apple store. It’s a lovely metaphor; apple products are beautiful and easy to use. When you go to the store everything is laid out so you can explore. The staff are courteous and trained to focus specifically on your needs. And if your device is acting up, you can take it to the ‘genius bar’ to be repaired. Wouldn’t it be nice if our religious experience resembled that? Customized, specific, courteous, with someone who can guide you when you’re stuck.
I’ve never liked this metaphor. For one, it’s a consumerist model—you’re not in the Apple store to build community, despite appearances. You’re there to buy a widget. And, Apple isn’t especially interested in you getting into your device—it’s ‘locked’ both programmatically (which phone network it works on) and literally (you can’t open one or take it apart).
Lately, I’ve preferred the idea of synagogue as maker/fixer space. What is a maker or a fixer? You may have run into the word reading Farhad Manjoo in the Wall Street Journal or Wired magazine. The word describes itself—it’s the person who makes or fixes things (years ago we would have called that person the ‘hobbyist’). The woman with the lathe or soldiering iron, or the man with the knitting needles or sewing machine. Whether they’re making art, jewelry, or furniture, or repairing furniture or cars, makers and fixers experience the world in a different way.
Our culture has become consumerist to the point where we buy things we might be able to make, and we throw away instead of trying to fix the toaster, chair or computer. Not only that but they form communities around the work they do—asking questions, sharing tools and sometimes even sharing space (hence ‘maker space’).
Synagogues need to be maker and fixer spaces. Rather than experience Judaism as consumers—waiting for someone to create the perfect version for us to acquire—we need to roll our sleeves up and get dirty. Rather than disposing with prayers or rituals when they fail us or seem out of date, we should work to ‘fix’ them or create new ones. We should feel empowered to make our experiences work for us, and create community sharing tips, tools and space with one another.
Now, that metaphor may not work for everyone. Some of us might be worried that, should we take it apart, once the parts are spread around, we may not be able to put it back correctly (as someone who took  his toys apart as a kid, I can relate). Without a doubt, it can be challenging, requiring study and engagement. But, speaking as one who’s repaired his own computers (and his kids’ toys) it can also be deeply satisfying and empowering. Yes, if we take the Torah apart we may find it doesn’t go back together exactly the same way, but we may also find that we can relate to it better, and find that we have ownership over our experience.
Perhaps the answer is that we need both—genius bars for those who need help accessing their worship experience, and maker spaces for when people are ready to roll their sleeves up. But I’d rather see community created around people making their own experiences than waiting for someone to make it for them.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Parashat Toledot: What's It Worth To You? A Modern Midrash

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”... Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”
And Esau thought to himself: “my birthright? Why my birthright? What is my birthright? What’s so special about it?” 

And Adonai spoke to Esau and said, “I am the Eternal, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

And Esau replied: “well, that sounds wonderful! Why would I want to give that up?” 

And God said, “I the Eternal call you to righteousness, and take you by the hand, and keep you. I will make you a covenant people, a light to the nations.” 

And Esau said, “Righteousness? You mean strength, right? By the sword I shall live.”

God said further: “This is the covenant I make: I will place my Torah in your midst, and write it upon your heart. Hate evil and love what is good, let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Esau replied: “well, isn’t evil kind of a relative concept? And what is Justice, after all? Sounds like a whole bunch of rules to me. “

God then said, “you shall not oppress your neighbors nor rob them. You shall not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. Rather, you shall beat your swords into ploughshares, seek peace and pursue it.” 

Esau touched the hilt of his sword, his brow wrinkling. 

And God said, “You shall be my witness, and my servant whom I have chosen. Know me, therefore, and put your trust in me.” 

Esau’s brow furrowed. “I will serve no one, man or God.” He said. “Peace is weakness, and justice an illusion. The only blessing comes from power. The only evil is lack of strength, lack of wealth. I have seen my father pursue peace; he has had nothing but strife and conflict, he appears weak to the others around him. They cast him out for not following their ways. If my brother wants this burden of light to the nations, of witness to God, to be forever obligated, so be it. It’s not worth it to me.” 

And Esau spoke to Jacob, saying, “of what use is my birthright to me?” Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.
We are Israel, O God. “Witnesses of your love; messengers of Your Truth.” We know what it means to be Israel: to fulfill Your sacred obligations, to teach those around us, to be a blessing, to carry and share your Torah. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. 

*God's quotes are based on an arrangement of Scriptural verses from Gates of Prayer, including Isaiah 43:6; Jeremiah 31:33; Isaiah 45:20-21, Amos 5:15, 24; Lev. 19:13, 16; Isa. 60:18, 54:13, 40:10, as well as the Torah portion itself.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Rabbi Speaks: Reflections on the Islamic Society Service

Monday is my day off. My plan had been to do some odds and ends, help my son with homework, and watch the Red Sox beat the Cardinals and take the series back to Fenway Park. Instead, after dinner, I put on a jacket and tie and, along with members of my congregation, drove out to Newark Delaware to the Islamic Society of Delaware’s Center. 

I went because a couple of days earlier, some kids decided to wreck the place, vandalizing the building, putting up an ersatz cross with pieces of fence, and causing a lot of damage. 

The Islamic Center is a place of study, of worship, and of gathering. They have a school, a multi-purpose room used for meals and worship, and host a variety of programs. They also do a lot of interfaith work, participating with other houses of worship in the Newark area in a host of social justice and worship initiatives, and in the past have collaborated with Congregation Beth Emeth, Christ Church, Mt. Lebanon Church and others for pre-Thanksgiving Meal packing for those in need. It’s a very well kept building, but nothing elaborate. The kind of place you create when you’re just creating a community, and when you don’t exactly want to draw attention to yourselves. 

It was only stuff that got broken and damaged. Expensive, but only things; no people were physically hurt. But, having lived through seeing my own childhood synagogue vandalized a few times, it’s not the physical pain that matters most. 

What matters is the loss of dignity, that sense that this place that you’ve created, a place where you go to practice your faith and gather with others like you, is no longer safe. What matters is the fear, the reminder that, no matter how well-meaning others are, how much people say you’re a part of the larger community, you are a minority, with all the exoticness and concern that goes with that. What matters is the sadness, the conversations with kids who don’t understand why their beloved school is damaged, or why the police are there. The feeling that a lifetime’s worth of work building relationships with the greater community may have all been for naught. 

I’m proud to say that, despite all of those feelings—each perfectly appropriate—there was an antidote.
The Society got the word out to its interfaith partners very quickly. Soon, churches and synagogues were denouncing the violence, and publicizing the website where you could go to donate for repairs for the Center. Governmental officials and law enforcement came together. But much more than that, the community began to rally—first online, and then in person. 

So Sunday afternoon the word went out that there was going to be a service of unity and support for the Islamic Society on Monday night. I got the word out to the Jewish community as quickly as I could. As it happened, there was a program going on at the University of Delware Hillel (more on that in a bit), but I knew my place was to be at the Islamic Society service. They needed people to be there—and they needed Jews to be there. Why? Because we know what it’s like to be a religious minority—to have people question the authenticity of your place in society, to know that you see the world differently. Because while it hasn’t happened in Delaware (thank God), we know what it’s like to find damage done to our house of worship. Because usually, when people talk about the Children of Abraham—the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael—the emphasis is when we’re in conflict with one another, forgetting always the moments when we’re in harmony with one another. Really, where else should I have been, could I have been, except with my brothers and sisters to show them our support? 

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the hospitality. No surprise, really. Like the story of Abraham in Genesis, the commandment in Judaism of hachnasat orchim, the Islamic culture emphasized hospitality, welcoming the stranger. Here, it manifested in the repeated insistence to find a place, and all refusals to any help. 

We were blessed to have Senator Chris Coons speak—he made a bee-line from Washington to Newark to be with this community. A representative from Senator Tom Carper’s office (who happens to be Jewish himself), from the County Commissioner’s office, and Lt. Governor Matt Denn all came to speak. The Imams lead us in prayer and recitation of the Koran, their sacred scripture, and emphasized the importance of peace to their tradition—‘not to make us happy’ as the imam said, but because it’s true. 

Then they opened the floor to speak. Ministers from various denominations or religions stood up to speak and offer support. I stood up to speak. I talked of how when Abraham died, Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father together. All of us spoke of how we come together in a crisis, but as real friends, we ought to come together in times of joy as well. No matter; we were together, we were there, all of us—christian, muslim and Jew—filling their space with our presence and our voices. 

Very soon we’ll gather with our families for Thanksgiving—and some of us, Chanukah. We will gather to offer thanks for the safety and security of our homes, for our health, for our place in society, and football. I would ask you, as you prepare for your holiday, to think about how we can support others, and especially the Islamic Society, reminding them—and us—that they really are a part of our community.