Thursday, June 28, 2018

My Favorite Rabbis, Priests, Reverends, Imams, Pastors and Religious Leaders in General

My favorite leaders of our many faith communities know that we are ALL created in the image of God, however we refer to the Almighty Creator of All.

These leaders know that we are responsible to be welcoming and inclusive of all people, regardless of gender identity, sexuality, race, ethnic group, abilities and disabilities they may have, etc.

These leaders remember our roots, our stories of persecution and immigration, often forced, and use the empathy garnered from those memories and their values to fight for what is right for all people.

These leaders of our many faith communities march in rallies, and lead us in doing so.

These leaders sign petitions fighting for basic rights and decency and challenge us to do the same.

Our best faith community leaders inspire us with their heartfelt words and do so continually in spite of any pushback they receive, and they do!

These leaders of our many faith communities show us by their example how to remember who we are as people of faith and fight for what is right and just, even when and sometimes, especially when our political leaders and others have totally lost their compass as to what it means to do so.

These leaders show us how to overcome our challenges by leading the way through sharing their own and the lessons that have come from them to forge their life direction.

These leaders of our faith communities show us how to care by caring, how to listen by listening and how to have empathy by sharing graciously from their own reservoir.

And most important, it does not matter to these leaders if you are more liberal or more strictly religiously observant. As one of my favorite Orthodox rabbis says, people think I am being lenient in taking positions regarding the well-being of people. I am actually being MACHMIR (that means very strict) about the most important aspects of Jewish Law – to truly care about each other and to remember we are all made in the image of The Holy One.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Deserts in Our Lives: Are They Physical or Spiritual?

In the Jewish rhythm of our weekly Torah readings, we recently began the fourth book of the Torah (The Five Books of Moses) called Numbers in English and BaMidbar in Hebrew. BaMidbar means “in the desert” and indeed this book speaks of the experiences of the Children of Israel during their forty years in the desert after having received the Law and witnessed the many amazing experiences, facilitated and directed by God. While one might think that there would be boundless gratitude and corresponding behavior, this is in fact not the case as the narrative is relayed to us. Quite the opposite, there is discord, rebellion and too many instances of serious missteps. This is not new – we have already read about the complaints regarding the Manna, the building of the golden calf and other such problematic events. So what is going on here? Is it the heat of the desert or is it something else – something much more generic to the human being?

I would suggest that there is a spiritual desert that parallels the physical desert and that its impact is much more far reaching and profound. We know the joke as to why it took forty years for the Jewish people to reach their destination – their leaders were men and they refused to ask for directions. Parenthetically as a woman who has NO sense of direction and with a husband who has a great one, but refuses to ask for directions…. I get this. If only they had had GPS or as we like to call her, Ms. Shirley Google (yes a female!). But actually, our sages teach us that they needed this time in the desert to throw off the mindset they had acquired as slaves in Egypt. The word for slave is EVED, but it is important to note that this word conveys the meaning of serving another and we are taught that the B’nai Yisrael while no longer servants to Egyptian masters, are in fact to serve God, The One who brought them out of Egypt to be God’s people. So what does this mean? We know it is not total and complete unfettered freedom, for there are far too many rules and regulations that dictate and define what that freedom means and how it is to be enacted.

What is the purpose of those rules and why would we want to be so disciplined and structured after having left such a situation? For an answer just look at your own teenage years or those of your children and you have your answer. We as human beings do have the potential to choose and to do so freely but as we see way too often those capacities are not always used for the best purposes. Consider (how can we not) the 24/7 newsfeed that is now a given in our lives, whether we like it or not. HERE IS THE TURTH! WE NEED RULES! WE NEED TO CHECK OUR HUBRIS! WE NEED TO BE ACCOUNTABLE! Being so may and hopefully does protect us from our own potential spiritual deserts. Perhaps this is the lesson of Sefer BaMidbar, the book of Desert Stories (or Numbers – yes, lets count those stories!).

Siblings forget how to behave and that G-d (and perhaps parents, hopefully) acknowledge that equal treatment of each loved child does not mean SAME treatment, but rather accommodating for the different needs and characteristics in an analogous way. Is G-d trying to teach us this when he calls Miriam, Aaron and Moses together at the Tent of Meeting (think of it as the Kitchen Talk – you know, the three of you get down here now! ) to explain that G-d’s relationship with each of them is different and they need to understand this.

Leaders have great responsibility with their words, clearly a MUCH NEEDED lesson for today. So when the scouts return and deliver their fearful reports about the land of Israel and incite the same fear and doubt amongst the masses, we are taught that leaders do matter and must take the additional responsibility of weighing and considering the impact of what they are to say. Here was their spiritual desert story. Korach and his rebellion is yet another example of this both from his point of view and perhaps in terms of the bigger picture regarding how he perceived leadership being handled. And then of course there is Moses striking the stone out of complete and total frustration. This is understandable to be sure, but what do the people learn from our leaders and what do our children learn from us when we are traversing the obstacles of our own spiritual deserts? What responsibility do we have to act in a way that will inspire the correct behaviors and responses and not incite the wrong ones? This, I believe, is the lesson of the forty years in the physical and spiritual deserts of BaMidbar, for all of us to consider carefully. May we all wade through those deserts in our lives with grace of soul, spirit of heart and adherence to THE ONE TO WHOM WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.

Friday, May 18, 2018

I Love Learning so I Keep Teaching - A Message for Shavuot, Pentacostal and Ramadan

Shavuot is the holiday on which Jews celebrate the receiving of the Torah. It comes at the same time in the calendar generally as the Pentacostal in the Christian world and this year it also parallels the timing of Ramadan for our Muslim friends in faith. That is to say that all of our monotheistic children of Araham or Avraham Aveinu are in an intentional space in the rhythm of our lives.

As it turns out, I am doing a great deal of additional teaching at this point, including running an assortment of programs for people of all ages. In the past few weeks, I have sat on a panel regarding Interfaith Relations at a Muslim Youth Center Building, taught a Lenten session at a Lutheran Church nearby, shared some thoughts regarding intentionality and where we find the quiet of prayer with a group of co-religionists in our Multi-Faith Council, presented a learning session on Gender and Models of Leadership that Defy a Dichotomous Sense of Gender Expectations to members of the Orthodox Jewish community, facilitated a morning of learning at the Medical Mission Sisters about inclusion and justice in Jewish sources, and so on. Tomorrow night I will be teaching in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot (where we stay up all night and learn as we prepare to celebrate the receiving of our Torah about how we learn to argue and dialogue from our Jewish sources, where clearly there are disagreements, but they are to come with respect and honor of those with whom we are engaged – a most important and relevant lesson for our world today. And of course, there are my ongoing weekly classes with amazing young scholars who are aged six through ten or so, adults and my ever wonderful Senior Life Long Learners.

True, there have been lots of extra preparations and work to provide these experiences, and I am now beginning a new run of five such engagements over the next two months. But the amazing part is this is NOT work. I get to learn and learn some more….. and I love it. I get so energized by the way different projects intersect with, enhance and validate each other. And due to my many different experiences, I get to bring all of it into the group with which I am learning at any given time. I see the many facets of Torah, of faith, of our various communities of faith and of the many ways we approach God. This bolsters and encourages me when I get so frustrated with what continues to come over the 24/7 news feed. It restores my spirit and strengthens my faith.

My seven and eight year olds want to know why we don’t learn lessons and repeat the same mistakes. So do my Senior Life Long Learners. My colleagues, friends and students in interfaith settings are always amazed at how much we share and how similar we are, while I remind them to honor and acknowledge our differences as well. I love bringing the Gemara which I just love in terms of the process of text learning to my adult co-learners/students. And so it goes.

Shavuot is a celebration of Torah and learning and the many lessons that we can all learn from each other if we are listening and open to the dialogue and discourse that will continue to expand our own horizons. It’s easy to sit with a group of people with whom one agrees; the challenge is to be open to learn something new from those with whom we differ.

I wish all a meaningful Shavuot, an enriching Pentacostal and a fulfilling Ramadan. For those of you of other faiths, the message holds as well and I hope it will resonate at the appropriate season.

Friday, April 27, 2018


One of the things I do is cheerlead for religion. As an observant and dedicated practitioner of Judaism, I truly believe that the foundational principles and the dictates of Jewish practice have the potential to truly bring out the best in each of us. I find the same to be the case for my friends and colleagues of Christian, Moslem and other communities of faith. That being said we have a problem, and succinctly stated, here it is. There are those who are members of all of our faith traditions who believe that by observing what they consider to be the “letter of the law,” they are exempt from its spirit or any other system of law which may be relevant to their lives – including civil law, laws of humanity and so forth. In so doing, they may not even be following the letter of the law, but that is an entirely longer and more complicated conversation. Too many stories. We all know the unfortunate barrage of narrative of sexual abuse, tax evasion, misappropriation of funds intended for a stated purpose in our religious communities and so forth. There is the self-proclaimed fervently religious individual who sets himself up as a paradigm of all that is right and correct in life who proceeds to build a huge house in a township and proudly states with a laugh, “I have broken every ordinance they have. We got around them.” Then there are the honorees in religiously observant communities who absolutely use public funds inappropriately or do not properly report income and skirt their taxes. There are the communities that push sexual misconduct under the rug and coerce people to let the community deal with the problem so as not to “harm” the community. Business dealings in our non-profit religious organizations that occur between a religious leader, who is an employee, and the board that governs the community of faith. All of these are seriously problematic, both from a legal point of view as well as from the religious perspective as well. In Jewish teachings, we learn that “dina d’malchuta dina” -- the law of the land is the law! That is to say that NO OBSERVANT JEW is exempt from being a totally honest and law-abiding citizen. This standard is also held by my colleagues mentioned above in their respective communities. No wonder too many people turn away from what they observe as the blatant hypocrisy of religious communities. While I totally understand their angst, and cannot say they are wrong, I do believe that we all need to step back and remember that there is never any guarantee that this Priest or that Rabbi or another Pastor or youth leader, just because they are working within the context of the religious sphere necessarily lives according to the proper codes of conduct. Yes, there is way too much “hiding under the cloak,” so to speak. So how do we address this problem, especially in our present climate where more and more passes seem to be given to those in authority or those who “seem to be” so religious? We learn in our Jewish teachings to choose your own mentor (Rabbi or leader) and to acquire for yourself a friend to share your journey. Here is the answer. We need to ask ourselves who are our role models and be careful NOT to yield to what may “seem to be Kosher,” if you will, but rather insure that you are associated with those who are, as we learn in Jewish texts, “tam v’yasher” – or truly and completely honest and acting with integrity. If we can do this for ourselves and empower those around us NOT to assume but to ask questions and choose carefully, very carefully, then perhaps we will be able to truly help our various faith communities put all that they are and the wonderful lessons they teach out there for all to see.

Thursday, April 12, 2018


I write this on the eve of Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish calendar, which comes precisely four days after the end of Pesach/Passover, when we celebrate FREEDOM and its many gifts as well as challenges. We all go to ceremonies, light candles, listen to survivors tell their story and say NEVER AGAIN – never again should such a horrid event occur. Then a mere week later, we observe and celebrate Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day and Yom HaAtzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day. Wrapped up in these two observances which come on two consecutive days is the particular admixture of our losses, namely those who have died in defending Israel, along with the celebration of Israel being a recognized, powerful and in many ways remarkable entity in our world today. But this did not just happen and it is critically important that we are always mindful of the many different elements in our lives and how they interact with each other, often in complicated and extremely protracted ways, reflecting a most delicate balance and ever-present vulnerablity.

Earlier today, when I was learning with my favorite second graders at Perelman Jewish Day School, I asked the students to think about the aftermath of leaving Egypt and all that we discussed in learning about Pesach/Passover. In doing so, I made two columns on the board, one named YISRAEL and the other named MITZRAYIM. I then asked them to think of words to describe each. We began as one might expect, with the clearly identified good guys (Yisrael/Israel) and the bad guys (Mitzrayim/Egypt). For Yisrael, the kids used the descriptive terms of NICE, KIND, HARD WORKING, TRUSTING IN GOD, CARING ABOUT EACH OTHER and so on. For MITZRAYIM, such words were elicited as BAD, MEAN, POWERFUL, SELFISH, RUDE, and such. Then at one point, one child shouted out US for YISRAEL. At that point, I had achieved what I wanted. Within this time frame, one kid asked “Weren’t there any Egyptians that were nice?” Then we were really off to the races for what I wanted to convey to these very wise seven and eight year olds. We spoke about how this is NOT always an issue that can simply be reduced to GOOD guys and BAD guys but in actuality, we all have the potential to be either and elements of both are included in the complexity of who we are as human beings. We can turn too easily to the default position of I AM GOOD and THE OTHER IS BAD, whatever that may mean. That being said, this reduces humanity to what it is not – singular and easily caricatured. …

Okay, so now it is mid-Thursday and I have attended Yom HaShoah programs and taught a class about what it means to be a perpetrator or a bystander and go on with your life while terrible things happen. In preparing my class, I used a particularly chilling source which included excerpts from Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Worse than War, which shows in a carefully and skillfully constructed argument how the behaviors of a perpetrator can seep into the most cautious of us and how we, the GOOD people, can become part of what is VERY BAD and wrong. He shows how the Nazi perpetrators among many others in various atrocities were good family men, went to church, loved their families and participated in the very human actions that they told themselves were not part of the lives of those they wished to annihilate. It was precisely through this process of dehumanization that people “joined the party,” so to speak, and were complicit in the horrors that have occurred, both in the events today commemorates, and in too many cases since then.

While it is clear that those of us who see ourselves as honest, caring and good people want to (and need to) distance ourselves from what is evil, it is important to recognize its presence and to understand and feel our own vulnerability to its pull. I feel that this is the case in the country in which I live at this time. While rhetoric has reached an increasingly high pitch, and the most bizarre statements are made by the person, who supposedly represents this country and its ideals to the world – too many have reduced what is a clear and present danger to comic and dismissive antics. TOO MUCH IS AT STAKE.

In a few days when Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut are observed with solemnity and then celebrated with joy in Israel, the joining of the messages – the visceral participation in a nation wide moment of silence where cars literally stop on the highway and everyone gets out and stands at attention, similar to what happened today, will lead to the parties and the streamers and the joy of celebrating seventy years of the Third Commonwealth of the State of Israel. BUT, and this is a most important qualifier – NO ONE will not be mindful of the losses that led to that victory – both when the world realized that Jews were not safe in Europe too late and in the loss of life that birthed this country, with its good points and not-there-yet points.

I would ask that Americans take a card from Israel’s national playbook. We CAN NO LONGER afford to glibly allow that adage of old reoccur, namely that evil happens when good people do nothing. We must all act! We must all remember! We must ALL understand that if one is vulnerable and threatened we are all vulnerable and threatened! If some are not free, we are all not yet free! Only when we understand this, can we say NEVER Again (recently co-opted by just such a movement of threatened populous in the United States) and truly mean it!

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Pesach, Freedom and Using our Freedom Responsibly

In the past few weeks I have vacationed in Hawaii, read Noa Baum’s book, A Land Twice Promised, finished another book, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and of course continue with my daily learning of Gemara with its many lessons about how we negotiate conflicting interests in situations where there are disputes about property and personal rights, as well as having participated in various learning circles with my students of so many different ages, all with their wisdom to share. There always seems to be this theme of intentional listening no matter where I go and what I am doing or reading these days –-- I mean really hearing and absorbing the perspective of the person sitting and chatting with you, while holding on to your own thoughts and narrative and beliefs – accepting their perspective as legitimate for them and yours as appropriate for you, if the interaction is indeed honest and constructive.

I will begin where I am right now – sitting in the airport in Honolulu waiting for our plane to Phoenix, where hopefully we will eventually get to Philadelphia at some point in the next few days, depending on the weather over which we have no control. So of course, everywhere you go in this wonderful and beautiful place, you hear the word Aloha. What exactly does Aloha mean? It’s a combination of all the manifestations of the word Shalom – meaning greetings, peace and wholeness; with the added components of love, happiness, and compassion. Everyone wishes it to each other and you really feel like they mean it. There is a calm here, a sense of peace and contentment. Another important word I learned is Ohana, meaning home, family, and relationality. Such an important and heartfelt word with a wonderful mixture of pride and humility – you feel its presence everywhere in Hawaii. I remember this observation from the last time that we were in Hawaii fifteen years ago, and I was not imagining or romanticizing about it – that sense is still here and it seems as sincere and real as can be. Even the very means of communication – the Hawaiian language, with its total of twelve letters --- yes, that is right, twelve letters and here they are: A, E, I, O, U, H, L, M, N, W, K and P – reflect this. The language has a very soft sound and lyrical lilt to it, with only TWO hard consonants – the K and the P. Everything else is soft and gently melodic. I think there is something to be learned here --- less can definitely be more. Relaxed people speaking a gentle language with a calm demeanor – there is so much to learn from this.

That is how it appears to be. But that is clearly not the whole story. Last time I was here, we learned about some of the conflicts and fractured nature of the Hawaiian identity – the fiftieth state of the United States as of 1959 but before that a Monarchy whose very identity was taken away on so many levels. With pride from its past as a royal government with its rooted Polynesian culture, it has become a wonderful part of the country of which it is part. The day I spent at the Iolani Palace reinforced this perspective as did our time at Pearl Harbor. Its men and women have long and proudly served in the military and its American citizens of Japanese ancestry were some of the most decorated soldiers and military units this country ever saw. The nature and the magnificence of the surroundings, the myths that are still woven intricately into the Hawaiian identity, the art, music and everything about this place has its own distinct identity to be sure. Yet, there are feelings of how American are Hawaiians? Are they seen as American even if their ancestral roots go back to Japan or elsewhere? Are they looked at as Americans or indigenous others? Are they accorded the dignity to which they are clearly entitled? Identity is always such a tricky matter and this tension is indeed present, seeping through the magnificent scenery and its proud people in little and subtle ways when one pays attention, which I always try to do.

Simultaneously, as I have just finished reading these two books, again, I am caught in the quagmire of the world of complicated and multi-faceted identities, fractured history and interaction of people who need to negotiate a shared existence and not relegate each other to THEM, the enemy, the one who will not be my friend and whom I will not consider as an equal, one entitled to the same rights of existence as those in my life. Koreans and Japanese and Chinese in Pachinko; and Israelis and Palestinians in Noa’s narrative of the development of her storytelling performance – in both of these narratives and in my touring and learning about so much of the history of Hawaii, the notion that there is not just ONE TRUTH that is MY REALITY is so prevalent. The importance of being able to see our reality from the vantage point of another’s truth while not compromising our own is critical if we are going to move forward in our world today. Listening to Hawaiian music and just living in the world of Aloha for a few days brings a sense of serenity and calm we could all use more of in our lives. By acknowledging that we all have our stories and our pain and our historical narratives and that these are the ingredients of our truth allows us to interact with each other in a caring and compassionate way instead of living with increased angst with no indication of resolution. Further, when we hear the story of the other, we recognize our own reality and how much we ultimately share. Watching and hearing Hawaiians speak of their mythology and gods and goddesses that are part of the very landscape of the volcanoes, beautiful waterfalls, lava spills, beautiful flora and all that is here and I identify as God’s wondrous artwork – I acknowledge that while we have different explanations of these wondrous phenomena, we all agree that there is an other-worldliness and sense of awe-inspiring amazement that is shared. The breath we share in our collective gasp at this beauty transcends the notion that there are different explanations behind individual elements of that reaction to wonder.

So now, two days later, I am sitting in yet another airport, this one in Detroit, REALLY hoping that this last one and a half hour flight will finally get us home, almost two days after we were to be home in Philadelphia. After making peace with the impact of yet another Nor’easter, we ended up spending a bonus two days in Phoenix until we could finally get a plane – the one we are now waiting for at 3:05 am Friday morning. We used our time in Phoenix to continue our education about yet another group of Americans that are too often seen as “other,” namely the Native Americans. We spent a day at The Heard Museum, which I highly recommend as a “must do” if you find yourself in Phoenix, either by plan or … not. Seeing the painful stories of confused identity, the attempts at acculturation by sending the Native American children to boarding schools to “make them good and proper American citizens” while attempting to purge them of their rich and powerful history and heritage, the sad stories of artists who held so much pain in them, and of course the military exhibit – again standing as witness to those decorated soldiers who did so much for our country in which we all live and yet did not merit the same consideration as citizens that those of us of privilege do not have cause to question.

What is so terribly wrong with this picture? Pesach or Passover is quickly approaching for those of us in the Jewish community. This is the most celebrated and observed holiday or experience of the entire Jewish calendar. Its seminal story of freedom and the change of destiny from a group of slaves to a nation of free people is critical to our world on so many levels. Yet, while we may intellectually appreciate the transition and think that we have achieved what needs to bring the best of humanity out in all of us, we have to remember the other part of this freedom – the responsibility that comes with being able to determine one’s own destiny.

Our family loves Sedarim (the special Passover meals the first two nights of the holiday), I mean we really LOVE them. We often take on themes that will help us craft an experience that is particularly meaningful and gives each Seder its own special script, if you will. One of our Sedarim this year will be focused on Oppression and Oppressed People in our World, and how the text of our Haggadah (the script that frames this meal and experience) enjoins us to remember the one who is not as advantaged and privileged as us and our responsibility to care for and advocate for them – that is using our privilege for good.

This is clearly in my mind as I begin to think carefully about these experiences, which happen in one week. As I consider and plan for these festive and meaningful gatherings, I will be remembering the Hawaiians who treasure their past and bring a unique sense of serenity and history and Aloha to our reality. I will be thinking of Israelis and Palestinians who need to (and are in rapidly increasing numbers) come to a better understanding of each other beyond the politics in which too many of us get mired. I will be thinking of Koreans with their proud heritage and treasured past who live in Japan and who deal with the very real threat of losing their ancestral identity. I will be considering the Native Americans, their beautiful art and their rich history and stories which have lessons for all of us.

Let us all remember that freedom is something that free people must value enough to grant to all around them. If we do not feel that the “other” (whoever that may be) is worthy of freedom, than are we ourselves so worthy; and are we truly free? This is the foundational lesson of Passover and so much else in the rhythm of Jewish life – you shall NOT oppress any other, for you were oppressed in the land of Egypt. Let us all celebrate our respective seasons of freedom while remembering that all human beings are to be included in our hopes for such validation and actualization of self. With sincere wishes of Shalom and Aloha for all!

Friday, February 16, 2018

Lessons from Baba Kamma: How Far Does Honesty and Integrity Go?

I have a dear friend who was a Prison Chaplain on the West Coast for many years. During his tenure he, a Rabbi ordained in the Conservative Movement would have among his prisoner populations self-proclaimed observant Jews, who were indeed such according to their appearance and an ongoing barrage of complaints and challenges regarding whether or not their needs as Halachically observant Jews were being met. Fair enough, well sort of… I remember one time, my friend shared with me a conversation he had during one of these challenging interactions (based on the fact that he as a Conservative ordained Rabbi could not possibly state positions indicating that needs were being met for matters such as the need to drink wine for Shabbat or Hagim, scheduling chores so that Shaharit – the morning prayers- could be said at precisely the right time, the correct Matbeah – order and cadence of prayers – was used and so on. In short, they just kept yanking his chain. One day he asked one of these pious observant Jews what they were in prison for – a fair question, to be sure. “Embezzlement,” the gentleman replied, “and that’s okay because its not forbidden in the Torah.” Enough said! First of all, do we really have to even go there – that embezzlement or any type of “creative financial management” of that sort is not robbery?

I have a wonderful jeweler/artisan named Lucy in my life, who makes a lot of custom jewelry for me. She is a lovely lady and it is always fun to have her make stones and pieces I have from past chapters of living come to life in a new and meaningful way. Once I brought her a very sizable stone of Eilat to take out of its silver base and put into a good gold one so I could give a nice gift of my mom’s jewelry to a cousin with whom I am very close and love dearly. The piece came out beautifully and I had told Lucy to keep the silver for something else she will do. I noticed when I picked up the piece, the silver framing was there. I reminded her that she could add it to her stockpile of supplies. Then she insisted on paying me for it. I refused and finally told her it was a very small gift – a token of my appreciation for all that she does.

This morning, I finished Masechet Baba Kamma, a Tractate of Talmud learning and want to share something from this learning as a mini-Siyyum. I am looking forward to a more official celebration of this Masechet and my learning of it in one of the shuls I go to in the near future. So you are now thinking, okay, Sunnie has lost it…. what in the world is she writing about? So I will share how this all connects, though my fellow Talmud learners are probably already there.

You see, so much of Jewish Law is about how we go in our daily lives, our actions, our interactions with others, the actual things we do, the intent with which we do them, and the outcomes of those actions, including the impact on others. The very word for Jewish Law is HALACHA, that is HOW WE GO or GOING.. that is going about the daily actions in which we are involved in a proper way.

So now, back to my two stories. First my friend the Rabbi who was a prison chaplain and his predicament! Embezzlement IS stealing… GENEIVAH. As Baba Kamma nears its end, very clear distinctions are made between stealing and robbing, with someone’s knowledge or without someone’s knowledge and the requirement to not only return the stolen goods but also to make right the wrong that was committed. These discussions are lengthy and take up so much of the Tractate which is 236 very long pages of discussion and qualifications and definitions and imagining various iterations of wrongdoing. Further, within these teachings, we learn about the incredible harm that such a lack of respect for the property of others does and that it can hedge on being similar to murder. Just think, for example, of all of the victims we know who lost their life savings to Bernie Madoff and his dishonest practices, while so many in the religious sectors of the Jewish community had sung his praises for being such a dedicated Jew for so long. Baba Kamma teaches that even if there is a hint that something could look like misappropriation of the funds or belongings of another, it is not to be done. While Jews often talk of a “fence around the Torah” when it comes to Shabbat, Kashrut and other ritual aspects of our lives (and remember, I guard all of these Mitzvot carefully), I wonder how many worry about this. Clearly not one who thinks that embezzlement is somehow okay. And yes, there is what to be concerned about whether we are dealing with those in our faith community as well as those outside of it. When we cheat or steal or take anything that is not ours, we DISHONOR GOD. Further, the text teaches that the one who steals LOSES HIS SOUL and in the end will not come to any good. Further, his own children and future generations may suffer.

And now back to my second story. Lucy is Asian and observes a different code of ethics and behaviors in terms of their source, but not so much in terms of their impact. Her persistent desire to return to me what was mine feels now like it comes right off of the last pages of this Tractate, which clearly stipulates how much an artisan who is contracted to make something for someone is entitled to keep as theirs and how much goes back to the owner of the material. Lucy was observing the “letter of this law” in her process and by gifting her in the end, I released her from her obligation to return what was mine. This is clearly spelled out in this text.

Baba Kamma is one of three tractates, along with Baba Metziah and Baba Batra about property law, about damages, about punishments and clearly proscribed limits to be placed on them – another lesson for contemporary society to consider – that are commensurate with the wrong done, and the notion that one must not only return stolen or ill-gotten goods but must also make the wrongdoing to the person who was affected right by their admission of their wrongdoing. There is so much else here but then this might go on and on… for 236 long pages and we would not want to do that, so I will end here and wish all a Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Lent to my Christian friends, Happy Korean New Year to those watching the Olympics, and the wish that we all keep to the spirit of the laws to which we are accountable as much as the letter of the law. Be well, all!