Friday, July 31, 2015

Va'etchanan: Calling Witnesses And An Unusual Unveiling

A few weeks ago I received a request by a non-member to do an unveiling at a nearby cemetery. That wasn’t so unusual.
What was unusual is that the deceased passed and was buried in 1973.
In October of 1973 Phillip Harris, 10th child of Jewish immigrants, a veteran of world war I, a childless bachelor his whole life, died in Wilmington. The Obituary indicated that MCrery’s handled the arrangements, and he was buried in Riverview cemetery, perhaps a few blocks down Market Street from Beth Emeth. There is no indication that any rabbi was present, and as it turns out, no one put up a headstone for him.
By chance, his great-nephew was doing genealogical research and discovered that Harris laid in an unmarked grave in a crumbling non-Jewish cemetery for forty years. As he had Harris’ service record, he contacted the Army, who agreed to put a stone up remembering him. And this past week, a very small circle gathered to honor a person no one remembered, and to dedicate a stone long after.
The rabbinate is many things, but it isn’t boring.
I bring this story up for a few reasons. First, it reminds us that there is no expiration date on mitzvot. Would it have been better to have put the stone up 40 years ago? Of course, but here we were, saying kaddish over his grave, leaving stones on his marker, and I have to believe that still made a difference. That this moment was a sacred moment. How often do we kick ourselves for not reaching out to that person sooner, or taking up that cause when it was still fresh in our minds? Nevertheless, there is no time like the present, and even if we tarry (though hopefully not 40 years!), we can still do profound good in the world.
Secondly, I feel like this is a reminder that our actions have power far, far beyond the immediacy of the moment. We may say something or do something in a moment, but the effects are felt days and—in this case, years—later. Our actions and our words are more than a passing shadow. They have a real effect on the people in our lives. They matter, deeply and profoundly. The failure to raise a stone led to a man today raising that memorial, led to the creation of a community of prayer, led to this rabbi standing in a cemetery I’d never seen. A simple act with profound resonance.
Toward the end of the portion this week, we are told by Moses that we should “do what is right and good in the sight of Adonai.” We might read that as meaning to Obey; an important value in a portion where we read the shema.  Or we might read it as Nachmanides does, to go beyond the letter of the law—an important value in a portion that includes the 10 Commandments! But I think there’s another layer here as well: it is a reminder that our actions are not merely our own; that they are observed by those around us, they are observed by ourselves, and they are observed by God. Certainly our actions—like ourselves—are not perfect. But we need not dwell on missed opportunities, nor judge ourselves by them alone. The possibility for our actions leading us to God—even if it means putting up a grave stone forty years later—is waiting for us, all the time. So, what are we waiting for? 

Va-etchanan: The Funnel of Time (Ruth Brin)

I know I use a lot of Ruth Brin as creative liturgy, but given the stabbing at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, the so-called "Pricetag" attack that killed a Palestinian baby in the West Bank, and the seemingly endless march of death by violence we see in this country, I feel her words on this week's portion are appropriate and meaningful, and will be sharing them tonight.

The Funnel of Time, Ruth Brin
(Deuteronomy 3-7)

I prayed to my ancient Lord:
return me to Sinai,
make me a sister to Joshua,
a son to Moses, a child of Israel once again,
to listen, to understand, to perform.

Pour us back through the funnel of time
to Sinai--
my children, my parents, my grandparents--
remove from the earth the scars of the cities
we inhabit;

Remove from our memories the many times
we have turned away from You;
Return us all, as children, to begin again,
to hear this time, to understand this time;
this time to obey.

Yes, You are the One who pardons and forgives,
but forgiveness contains no gift of innocence,
and You will not return me to the beginning;

You will not roll time back for my people,
nor erase history from the consciousness
of the peoples of the earth.

Turn Your face toward us, Lord of the universe,
renew Your revelation, as You gave it at Sinai,

Soften our hearts that we may return to You,
hear us in our repentance,

Let Your Torah be the compass that turns us toward righteousness, toward compassion, and toward

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas and an Incomplete Peace

There are many people doing a victory lap today as the so-called confederate flag comes down in South Carolina after years of hard fighting against that symbol of bigotry and white supremacism and, most recently, the martyrdom of 9 individuals at the Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston only a few weeks ago, those 9 slain by a man who draped himself in such symbols.
There are many—progressive and conservative—who would argue that taking down the flag doesn’t solve the deep-rooted issues of race and privilege. And if the price for taking the flag down was the death of 9 innocent victims in their own church while at Bible Study, then we might argue that the price was too high.

There is truth in those objections. The removal of a symbol of hate does not excise the hate itself, or the oppression that goes with it. These issues, as writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Edward Baptist remind us, are baked into the very nature of the American experience. And we don’t have to go all the way down to Charleston to see this. Last week I received the final report of the Wilmington Education Advisory Committee, which makes clear that “thousands of Wilmington children, most of them poor, black or Latino, still do not have access to high-quality public education.” We have been down this road before.

And yet, we must not be dismissive of such moments or the work that leads up to them. They are what they are and, taken by themselves, incomplete. But when seen as part of a larger whole; that is, the movement toward racial justice in this country, this work should give us encouragement, should move us forward. The problem arises not in the moment and the accompanied victory lap, but in our seeing it as the completion of the work, not the continuation of it, and as Pirkei Avot reminds us, while we are not required to complete the work, nor are we permitted to shirk from it.
So we see as we begin our Torah portion. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, great-nephew of Moses, has seen Israel rebel again and again, now culminating with taking up the gods—and women—of the Midianites. A plague is going through the community, killing Israel again, and Pinchas’ quick—albeit violent and zealous action—is all that stops it. For that reason, Pinchas receives God’s Brit Shalom, God’s covenant of peace.

But the rabbis draw an interesting conclusion. They note that the word ‘Shalom” is written defectively. It’s missing a letter in the Hebrew text. Which they understand to mean that Pinchas, in his zealotry, has earned only a partial reward. His peace is incomplete, his covenant  imperfect and inadequate. The choice is given to Pinchas whether he will accept this covenant as-is, decide that it’s ‘good enough’, or will work to make it—and himself—better.

That is the same question before us. I do not doubt our intent, which is always for the good. But if we are willing to accept the status quo as ‘good enough’, or incremental, minor changes to the world around us as ‘good enough’, then our covenant, and our peace, will be as Pinchas’ is: defective.
So ask yourselves: what are you doing to challenge the status quo? What are you doing to resist this ‘good enough’ covenant? I don’t just mean at the ballot box, but in your daily lives? How are you making yourself aware of how incomplete our shalom really is? One thing I would ask you to do is read two books: The New JimCrow and The Half Has Never Been Told. Read those books and ask yourselves those questions—challenge your own self.

It is only a flag. Only a symbol. And if we leave it at that, then we will have done nothing. And if we take it as an invitation to do more, then we may not complete the work of brit shalom, of creating a covenant of peace, but we can at least say we made it a little more whole. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Our Houses, Our Tents

One of my favorite aspects to the morning liturgy is how it begins.

We are supposed to enter the sanctuary reciting the words, "How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

Careful readers of text will know these words come from this week's Torah portion, Balak. They are the words of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, who is paid by the king Balak to curse Israel. Despite his intent, He looks out over the Israelite encampment and proclaims these words instead.

As you might imagine, the rabbis have a field day with this text in their commentaries; but for me, the very fact that we recite a non-Jew's words praising our tents, our houses strikes me as powerful.

How often does it happen that someone enters our home and praises our decor or yard or some other aspect, and all we can see is the crooked picture, the dust, the faded and nicked paint? Likewise as Jews, how often do we see our house in disorder, wring our hands over synagogue attendance or this or that program? And I have seen it when a new person comes and says "what a lovely, warm congregation!" our members fumble with words of gratitude (and there may be some psychology behind that).

I'm not talking about resting on laurels, or being naive. But sometimes we need to hear praise from someone outside our own circle; we need to be affirmed by the one we least expect it from. And perhaps, when we hear that praise, we can see not only the nicks and the dings but also the love and devotion; not only who isn't at a given event, but who IS.

There's plenty that needs to be done in our house. And God knows there is much work to be done in our neighborhood. But there's also a lot to love, a lot that is praiseworthy, and the more we do, perhaps the more we'll feel it is deserved.

So think in your own life: what is worth praising? What is beautiful in your house, what is lovely in your dwelling-place?