Friday, May 29, 2015

...And Give Thee Peace

This past weekend we took Elishai to the Franklin Institute to see the Art of the Brick exhibit (Finally), and since we had some time, we went to the Genghis Khan exhibit as well. They did this cool thing where we were each given a card with the name of an historical person on it to carry to kiosks at each exhibit, to learn what happened to that person and how they were connected to the rise of the Mongolian Empire. One of the characters struck me; a soldier, he becomes a guard for the eight white tents after Khan’s death; a kind of portable mausoleum that his sons continued to guard dozens of generations later. I thought it was so interesting to juxtapose this very peaceful image—these white tents on the fields—with the people who guarded them, descendants of the soldiers who rode out to conquer hundreds of years before.
It raises the question of what it means when we talk of peace. What does peace really mean? Does it mean an absence of violence? Does it mean quiet? Does it mean order? The Hebrew word is, of course, Shalom, and it comes up very specifically in this week’s parasha, as the so-called Priestly Benediction is introduced. We are told that the Cohanim will bless the people with a three-fold benediction, which we know very well, and the last line is, יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם ("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm." Literally: May Adonai lift up God’s face to you and place upon you peace. And this blessing is given that God may be linked to Israel, given in the context that Israel is preparing for war.

It’s an interesting blessing given in an interesting context. So what kind of peace are we talking about?

I think this is important because we talk about peace—personal peace, inner peace, as well as national peace—often without context. When we talk about peace in our cities, the idea of peace cannot merely be a return to homes and a restoration of order. Peace is absent due to a lack of justice. When we talk about achieving some kind of personal peace, does that mean acceptance of our lot and our lives, or does that mean somehow removing disruptive experiences or destructive tendencies from our lives? Or is it really code to mean being left alone? And do I even need to speak of the issues of international strife, especially surrounding Israel? That the various notions of peace—not treaties and agreements, but peace—are very much out of alignment.

Shalom itself comes from the word shalem, which means to be whole, or complete. In the context given, I would argue that the priests, by making the blessing over Israel, and linking Israel to God, are making Israel whole and complete, and the covenant with God whole and complete. Peace, then, is not about mere quiet or the absence of violence; it’s about wholeness and completeness.  

In many ways, that is a much bigger ask; feeling whole, restoring our communities to wholeness, our world to wholeness. For our cities, that’s as much about economic opportunity and healthy schools as it is about a night without violence. For our world and for Israel, it’s not just about no rocket fire or tunnels, but that we as a people and Israel as a nation are accepted and treated equally in the community of nations. And for us as individuals? What would it mean to be whole? Not to excise our hurt but heal it; not to accept injustice but learn from our experience?

The Sefat Emet wrote that the meaning of this verse is that wholeness is the focal point of all truths; that a single mitzvah done in joy contains all goodness. We could look at our hectic lives, and the violence in our streets, and the rockets above Israel and say: none of it is enough, and despair. Or we could be like guardians of white tents, creating and protecting the wholeness—even the smallest wholeness—in the world around us and in our lives. May in our doing so, God’s face is found in all our encounters, and we come to real Shalom. 

Your Choices Matter: Tower Hill Baccalaureate Sermon

Friends: below you will find the sermon i delivered at Tower Hill's Baccalaureate service last night.

It is a joy and a tad surprising to be able to stand here with you this day. Not because there aren’t Jews among your student body—of course there are! And not because I get to speak to you from this pulpit which, while beautiful, isn’t exactly what I’m used to! It’s because my high school experience was so very different from your own.

You see, I went to a large public high school, the only game in town, and if you graduated at all, it was as likely you’d end up at the state penitentiary as the state university. This is not to say I didn’t have friends or supportive teachers, and I certainly learned a great deal; but I couldn’t wait to get out of there! My goal was to achieve escape velocity and never, ever look back.

And you—you have been a part of this group, many of you for your entire childhood and young adult lives. You have teachers who have nurtured and supported you, who have helped create, as Megan spoke about in her remarks, a real community, one that accepts and lifts up your differences as much as it provides tools for the future, all in an environment of joy. Has this place been perfect? Of course not, and I’m sure many of you are reflecting tonight not just on moments of support but also some rough moments. As with any family, it is among the people we care about the most, the people we feel safest around, that we also feel the most hurt. And this is a family.

So what does it mean to leave this place of safety? What does it mean to step into a new place, whether that place is geographically far away or only twenty minutes up the road? For one thing, it means learning other people’s stories. Most of you have been together for years; now you are going to meet people whose stories are very different from your own. They don’t know your narrative and you don’t know theirs. And they may or may not be especially interested in hearing your story, or sharing theirs. You will encounter people who seem to have lived gilded, perfect lives compared to your experience, and people whose economic, personal and familial experience is too terrible to contemplate, and people in between. The old assumptions and dynamics you so easily fit into now will be gone, for better and for worse.

You will have to take your experience with you and learn to internalize it. You know what it means to be supportive and supported; what it means to be nourished and to nourish others. You have done everything asked of you; now you will have to take all of that and learn to carry it with you, inside. I had the chance to visit your school a few weeks ago; it’s a beautiful space. But if it were merely a beautiful space then it would have no value. No, you have to take the best of Tower Hill with you and learn to share it with those around you. You will have to learn to be leaders; which doesn’t mean being in charge—it means owning your experience.

I know many of you have been to a friend or relative’s bar or bat mitzvah, sometimes even at my synagogue. And you’ve probably marveled that a 13 year old kid could get up and read from the Torah or lead the service. They don’t do that because it’s a special, one-time thing, their one chance to do what the rabbi does. They do that because that’s what Jews do; to be a Jew is to be counted not just to do what is asked, but to step forward and take ownership because it needs to be done. So it is with each of you; yes, carry Tower Hill within yourself, but don’t just hoard it for your own use, share it with those around you. And bringing forward your experience isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a complex thing. If your teachers and classmates have done their jobs, then it should be right there, as close as they are right now. As the text of Torah we read from says, it’s not across the sea or in the sky, nor is it for someone else to do. It’s in your mouths; it’s in your hearts. It’s in your actions. It’s in your choices. They matter, and when your voice, your actions and your choices align with what you’ve learned here, well, I can’t promise that taking your experience and sharing it with others will make the world perfect or your college experience perfect. But it will make it better. And sometimes better is enough. Your experience matters.

Your story matters. Your choices matter. May they bring you strength, and hope, and especially, Joy. Amen.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Emor: Parents and Children and Blessings

This week, during the Sisterhood garage sale, a copy of Gates of Prayer came through as a donation. It looked brand new; the binding had never been cracked and it looked like it had barely been examined. One of the volunteers brought it to me, figuring (rightly) that it didn’t belong in the book sale. I opened it up and just inside, in shaky handwriting, I found this inscription:
“Dear J—
‘Pray as if everything depended on God
But act as if everything depended on you!’
I have given you the tallit and book to pray
The rest is up to you!!
My grandfather asked me to carry on our tradition,
I am asking you to do the same.
Please do not disappoint me.
May God continue to bless you with His most precious gift of shalom (inner peace)
I loved you when I held you in my arms during your brith
I loved you during your school years &
I will always love in the future.
With eternal love from
Your proud poppy.”
The note from the volunteer said this inscription was a heart breaker, and it is. In so many ways.
Please don’t disappoint me.
As a parent, I know the tug, the primal desire for my child to value what I value. As a teacher I know what it is to want the child—the student—to hold dear what I hold dear.
As a grandparent I can only imagine that pull is a hundredfold.
And we hear something of that parental voice in God’s voice this week, as he says” I am YHVH. You shall not profane my Holy name that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I YHVH who sanctify you.”
I sanctify you says the parent. I brought you into this world, cherished you, nurtured you. I gave you the means to have hopes and dreams and joys of your own. I sanctified you. Do not disappoint me.
But the text can be read a different way: “Ani Adonai Mikadsheichem—I am the one who makes you a sacrifice”.
In sanctifying you, I also sacrifice—something of myself to be sure. But also I run the risk of sacrificing you—your integrity, your strength, your independence.
When I say ‘do not disappoint me’ how can I then pray for you to have shalom—inner peace?
Our children disappoint us. And we disappoint right back. It is the nature of being human.
And God disappoints sometimes too.
But in that disappointment—in that sacrifice of perfection—we find holiness. We find real sanctity.
The honesty of real relationship. The truth of real connection, of real love.
It is there that we find peace.

Pray as if everything depends on God but act as if everything depends on you—indeed. Act. Fail. Rise up. Defy expectations. And may your actions be a real prayer, a prayer for all of us—children and those who care for children. Amen