Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Value of Sharing our Faith Journeys, Texts and Teachings; An Amazing Conference



I was just in the most wonderful setting for incredible learning with a phenomenal group of people. These people came from all over the world and come to their belief in The Holy One in so many different ways. For three days, we learned together, discussed together, sharing our hopes and our dreams and our challenges, we ate together, we laughed together and most important of all, we shared our humanity and our faith journeys with each other. We discussed God, gender, women in religion and so much else. IF you want to get a sense of the breath and breadth of this amazing gathering go here to see the program and note the different presenters and their nationalities as well as faiths:

https://www2.naz.edu/interfaith/programs/academic-conferences/sacred-texts-human-contexts/schedule

In a stroke of genius on the part of the conference organizers or perhaps as a coincidence (you know, those occasions on which I believe God likes to remain anonymous) I was roomed with a wonderful woman who is a devoutly religious Muslim woman, as well as two lovely Christian women. Immediately my new Muslim friend and I found so much common and shared ground in our lives as we interface our religiously observant souls with our various involvements in our daily life and world. We were able to share the many blessings we feel we have as religiously observant women as well as frustrations regarding what people “think they know about us.” She talked about how people assume she is oppressed and how they do not understand the choices she makes out of her very intentional devotion. This conversation between us went on and on for many hours and I hope fervently that it will continue in the future. This is just one of the wonderful contacts I was able to make and feel as if I potentially found a friend for many years to come, I hope. People were there from lands of origin and lives lived located all over the world – India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Israel, United States and so on. We ranged from those who are devoutly observant to the most liberal manifestations of personal journeys of faith. We come from all races and ethnicities.

For three days we learned about and with each other, another example of the types of communities that I just run to be part of, believing with every fiber of my being that God in all of God’s manifestations is truly present in an intentional and joyful manner in such spaces. It is here that we all, as God’s children, come together with our various belief systems, gender and sexuality identities, lands of origin and ethnicities to celebrate what unites us and honor our differences, trying to sincerely deepen our understanding of each other, so that then we can go back to our home communities and share dispelled myths, break harsh and misguided stereotypes and truly work together to build a better world.

As was shared on multiple occasions, in the Koran it is taught as follows: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good deeds. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48) We all shared our revealed teaching about the value of every life and how each life is an entire world and so much else that is part of our individuated religious journeys and yet also foundational to the values, so often shared, that inform those practices. We marveled at the similarities between important terms and concepts in Hebrew and Arabic. We asked questions of clarification and learned that while we each interpret and distill practices differently, we all have a deep respect for what is so much greater than us, hopefully keeping our hubris in check.

Were there moments of discomfort or awkwardness for individuals at various moments? Absolutely. As one of our keynote speakers remarked, if we do not have such moments, then we have not cast the net wide enough. This net cast by the Hickey Center of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York for our conference on “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A Symposium on Women and Gender in Religions” was clearly cast fairly wide – with the most liberal iterations to the most religiously and ritualistically observant strands of all of the Abrahamic faiths and others included as well; so, how could one not negotiate moments of discord? The question is how we do so, not that these moments exist. I found so much honor and so much love in this space that provided a supportive environment for addressing these realities of our lives. We learned about each other’s lives and each other’s faith journeys. I can only hope that these conversations will continue among so many of us that shared this space in the coming months and years. From face veils to Kipot (Yarmulkas) on women as well as men, from various forms of religion/cultural headdress and garb to everyday western clothes, we found beautiful souls in each of these cloaks.

As it happened, this conference was held over the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (yet another coincidence, perhaps?). In a particularly poignant experience, I went with two other Jewish women and we took three of our Muslim friends with us to an Orthodox shul in the area for the reading of Lamentations that marks this day of mourning for having lost our Temples, so much historically and even more spiritually when we consider how we treat each other, which is not in the spirit of the humility and the awe with which we are to hold each other as individuals created by God. I want to thank the shul and their Rabbi for their hospitality even though we could not fully take advantage of it socially due to the muted nature of the day.

Daily in our prayers, Jews repeat the verse “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” I have never thought of this as conflation of our varied beliefs and religions, but rather our ascension to the realm beyond words where our separations and conflicts are set aside for all that unites us – our collective belief, through so many modes of expressions, in The One Who Is Holy and Supreme. Gatherings like this convince me that such ascendance is indeed possible if one wills it to be so.

Friday, July 28, 2017

For The Sake of the Ways of Peace



Tisha B’Av is this coming Monday night through Tuesday. This is the day in the Jewish calendar that the members of the Jewish nation mourn the destruction of both of our Temples so long ago and also reflect upon the words and actions that are destructive to the well being of people and are faulted with bringing about these and other catastrophes that have had such a lasting impact on the Jewish people. We are presently in the midst of the Three Weeks and what is called the Nine Days, which is when we prepare for Tisha B’Av and are to think about ourselves and our relationships with each other and so much else.

In my daily Gemara (Talmud) learning, I am studying Tractate Gitin, the treatise devoted to the discussion of why and how divorce is to remedy difficult situations, in marriage, and, by association, other relationships that can be problematic are discussed as well. I often shake my head as I am learning and wonder how much of this text certain religious leaders and individuals conveniently forget when I witness the abuse of women and others in our contemporary society in the supposed name of Halacha/Jewish Law, which is precisely what Halacha does NOT prescribe. Within the context of this discussion, there are constant and ongoing references to Tikkun Olam, which is, properly understood, those Rabbinic enactments that were instituted to resolve specific societal problem, misuses and abuses of laws and how they were intended to be enacted and so forth. Inherent in this study is an ongoing discussion in which the issues of women’s rights to agency and the need for their protection within the reality of the social context of the time are balanced – sometimes awkwardly, but more than you might think, with aplomb and sensitivity. Also within the associated discussions related to this topic, we are introduced to the concept of mipnei darchei shalom or that so much of Torah and the laws that evolve are because of the need for maintaining the ways of peace (see especially 59a and 59b of Masechet Gitin if you want to learn this for yourself). There is elasticity and consideration that is proposed as necessary regarding a variety of matters ranging from how one insures that business dealings involving deaf persons or children are valid and appropriate and not taking advantage of them, the order of who reads from the Torah (takes aliyot) in shul and how it can be changed, acquisition of lands and so much else. Within these deliberations it is so clear that the LAW OF TORAH is as much about the foundational values on which it is based as much as any interpretation, expansion or other use of it. Torah is to be used specifically to maintain ways of peace.

It is poignant to note that within these discussions, Eicha (Lamentations) is often quoted as the Talmud continues its academic meanderings. This is the very text we will be reading Monday night in our muted state of sitting on the floor with a minimum of light to remind us of the darkness that comes when we forget what is important. Our prophets constantly remind us that it is not the ritualistic acts of piety, which can unfortunately come across as false piety that define a truly religious person, if they are not motivated by and accompanied by the very actions that characterize our caring and concern about others. It is through our acts of chesed –kindness towards others – and truly acknowledging the humanity of each other that we show our mettle as religious beings. Then, and ONLY THEN according to Isaiah and so many others of the prophets, can we come to the Temple, or the synagogues in our days, and engage in prayer and supplication and interact with God. If our actions are not worthy, our words are empty. And it is this about which the prophets have been so clear – God does not want our empty words and sanctimonious presence.

As we sit quietly and read the words of Lamentations this coming Monday night (and I recommend all who are interested in this thought do so in your own Bibles or on line), let us remember that the reasons for various destructions and so much tragedy in our past is not only due to the enemy outside of us but to the insidious enemy that sometimes is none other than us. Let us all work to observe the corrective actions of Tikkun Olam, which are dictated by Jewish Law and work ourselves to enact those Darchei Shalom – ways of peace- that can truly change our world. Maybe then God will find our words worthy and truly show compassion to all who speak them.

Shabbat Shalom and a meaningful Tisha B’Av to all who observe it.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Six Year Old Perspective on Parshat Pinchas – Dedicated to Neli and Neima

Okay, so to be totally transparent (a commodity these days, right?) my daughter’s daughters are almost seven. But nonetheless. So we were walking to Machaneh Ramah Yomi (Ramah Day Camp) this morning and chatting about Parshat Pinchas. I had just read my colleague Rabbi Haim Ovadia’s thoughtful post (as his always are) about how we understand Pinchas’ initiative in correcting the slippery slope of wrong dealings and doings amongst his people by finally putting his foot down, so to speak, and killing Zimri and his cohort who had just gone too far. Sometimes, we have to take such individual action on behalf of the greater good, but such actions must be undertaken properly and sparingly. Remember that we are in the book of BaMidbar/Numbers and reading about how the chapters of life for the B’nai Yisrael in the spiritual desert of their physical desert unfolded. Complaining about Manna, Miriam starting trouble regarding what she said about Moses, the scouts scaring the people regarding the land, it was all just too much! So far in our litany of missteps, a talking donkey is one of the few who makes the most sense. An interesting lesson for us in our lives today!!!!!

Anyway, I digress! So how exactly does one explain the concept of the “greater good” to almost-seven year olds when it involves killing people (with a spear, so we are told) who do wrong things (yes, we know, its not the bad child, its just not-so-good things that the poor little tater tot does!) and then one’s reward for doing so is being insured of the everlasting Priesthood and a covenant of peace? Very carefully, very carefully….. that’s how.

I have tremendous faith in the wisdom of young minds so all I do is set the stage and then they will give me the language and Neli and Neima are not ones to disappoint! I started by explaining that the B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel, had just gone too far and that bad actions begat bad actions. At this point, Pinchas says “Enough!” so to speak and shall we say, disposes of the wrongdoers……so that the people will understand they are really not behaving the way they should and need to get their act together. So then I ask, how do we do that – you know, remove the wrongdoers from the group? I was thinking along the lines of a time-out, a reflection paper, or such, but a better answer was provided from these wonderful children, who are no doubt Harvard bound! They proposed that when a child does not fit into the class or school, they may have to be removed and go somewhere that is better for them as well as protect the rest of the students if they are not behaving properly. I TOOK IT! Yes, that works, that is exactly what we do, because otherwise if we do not take any corrective action, then the who class, school, camp bunk or nation will end up totally off track! Now how do we do that for an entire nation?????

So the greater good trumps the individual, right? Well not so fast! Jewish law has many correctives built into it to protect every individual and balance that with the notion that we do every possible thing to help each person but cannot sacrifice the whole for a single part. It’s a tricky balance to be sure. In this case, the solution was indeed that Pinchas had to act harshly, not just for the wrongdoers but for the entire nation for whom wrongdoing had become the accepted normal way, and this could not be. That’s why we have rules and limits and boundaries; and of course our young scholars understood this.

Now, tonight we get to go further in the Parsha and learn about the other end of the spectrum of Jewish Law where the Torah mandates that land is passed on through families and their male inheritors. That’s great when there are sons but what about Zelophachad who had no sons but daughters? Moses will go directly to God and ask what he should do that is fair and here we learn about laws that can be amended for the right purpose for the people who are acting appropriately and honorably. I am really looking forward to that discussion with the almost-seven year olds about our first Jewish female property owners.

Shabbat Shalom and a great weekend to all.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Parshat Shelach Lecha 2017/5777



A well-chosen and experienced prestigious group of people is sent on a mission! The tasks are clearly set out for the members of this group and they are respected leaders of long standing, known to their tribes, to each other and to Moshe. They are “men of understanding,” wise ones, if you will. The task is not too much, the distance not exceedingly great, and the itinerary is clearly laid out. The instructions come from none other than G-d, distilled through Moshe Rabbeinu. There is no way to fail, right? NOT! Sounds like the beginning of a set- up or a great detective story of what went wrong and why and let’s find all, or at least some of, the clues in the most obscure of places. So, we will learn a bit from a well-known Israeli author who writes detective stories and mysteries, Dror Mishani.

First of all, Mishani has us consider who would be the best people to send on such a mission – to check out a new place, to see what is there and to report back on the various elements as instructed. He posits that perhaps the old and tired though well-respected leaders were NOT the best choice! What if youths had been sent, who were absolutely up for something new and exciting – dangerous even, an adventure that would be a game-changer for their lives? Would we have had different results?

Let’s consider the instructions for a moment. In 13: 17 – 20, we read as follows:

17 And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them: 'Get you up here into the South, and go up into the mountains; 18 and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwell there, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; 19 and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; 20 and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land.'

Notice the final words of these instructions: וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם, וּלְקַחְתֶּם מִפְּרִי הָאָרֶץ Now, they were not in the grocery store, so we have to understand what is being said to them when Moshe instructs: : וְהִתְחַזַּקְתֶּם,… They will have to gather the strength to find, pick, carry and maintain these HEAVY HUGE fruits of the land. Who can do this better – younger or older people? Remember that these were the days where EVERYTHING was a matter of “working out” and there was no need for gyms. Let us consider how reactions to the task at hand would potentially resonate differently – those who will take on anything and anyone; or those who are making the decisions and have the “gift” of experience to help those who do not have the context for the largess of this experience? Not such a clear-cut answer, right?

To think about this a bit more deeply, is there something that might be lost as we consider who we have leading us and prefer experience and wisdom to younger and more creative individuals who may not follow so literally when they are told what to do? Think of those of us who work with groups of colleagues and younger professionals try to “break in” to our groups and meet with resistance.

Some of us sitting here heard Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov speak at the annual event Chabad holds to honor the Rebbe last Monday. Rabbi Shem Tov stressed something that really resonated with me. He explained how Moshe knew to turn and to move when G-d appeared. Moshe understood that something powerful and beyond his capability was happening at that moment and he needed to recalibrate, if you will, to reconsider known and successful behavior patterns, perhaps. In other words, when do we stop feeling that sense of awe that tells us something larger than ourselves is going on here?

When we do, I think, we stop leading effectively. Leading is NOT about knowing everything; it is about knowing what we know and being honest about what we don’t and humbly turning towards the source of knowledge and others to help support us. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites seven principles of leadership, which I will name and cite their application to our narrative:

1. Leadership begins with taking responsibility. That means consider how your actions will have an impact on others. Your reactions will be followed and taken as a cue for the actions of the masses. 2. No one can lead alone. Even groups of leaders need the support of others to have an effect. It has been said that it is not the first person that begins a trend, but those who follow that person and spread it. 3. Leadership is about the future. It is perhaps here that the scouts, leaders and people failed the most; comparing what would be to what was; not what is to what can be. 4. Leaders learn. Leading is admitting that one does not know everything but needs to continue to grow in their own life. This means not speaking so authoritatively and not being convinced that you have all the answers. 5. Leadership means believing in the people you lead. An interesting question to consider is did the scouts, and in turn, the other leaders in the community have faith in the masses. Was the challenge too much for them or did they not have faith in the ability of those they led to meet up to it? 6. Leadership involves a sense of timing and pace. Perhaps it is here that we learn one of the biggest lessons in our drama – being free is NOT the same as learning to live as a free person; and the former does not guarantee the latter. It takes time to learn how to be different, how to take on new privileges and the responsibilities which come with them – with freedom. 7. Leadership is stressful and emotionally demanding. We are called on to be a Mamlechet Kohanim – a nation of leaders – and that is not just privilege or right, it IS responsibility in a large way!

Perhaps the leaders of the tribes of the B’nai Yisrael could not do this – accept the challenges of leadership, continue to learn new strategies in new settings, and hold onto a vision of the future. Perhaps the people who placed their faith in them would have seen doing so as a sign of weakness or uncertainty. As Ramban teaches us, the leaders of the tribes did exactly what they were asked to, no less and no more. In other words, they did not think “outside of the box.” Had they done so, the large stature of the people in Eretz Yisrael could have been seen as a positive thing, something to aspire to, instead of relegating themselves to looking as insignificant “grasshoppers” in their own eyes, and they supposed, in the eyes of others. For well-experienced leaders who had gone through the slavery of Mitzrayim and so many challenges that colored and determined their reactions to everything, this is understandable. Perhaps this would not have seemed so daunting to younger and less experienced scouts, who may not have succumbed to fear so readily and been more open to Sacks’ prescribed program of leadership.

Mishani goes on to explain that while sending younger scouts may have altered the report and thus avoid the negative reactions of the masses, there is a larger issue here. Simply, the B’nai Yisrael were not up to the task. Wishing for freedom and to live with personal agency was not enough. Had the larger group not experienced the same fear and hesitation as seen in their leadership, they could have given them pushback just as Caleb and Yehoshua did. But they did not! And this may be an important but often overlooked point. In other words, while many of our commentators fault the leaders who were sent with inciting the people; it is possible, that they only reflected and mirrored the fears that made all hesitate. This may be why the forty years in the desert were needed, explains Mishani. The B’nai Yisrael had to come to Eretz Yisrael with different mindsets and different skill sets and would need time to develop them, under new leadership. Think of this dynamic along the lines of those of us who are children of immigrants, whose first generation in a new land was so wrapped up with survival needs that it would be left to the following generation to strive for a qualitatively better life including more education and new professions.

As Mishani points out, and Nechama Leibowtiz agrees, the scouts did what they were supposed to do. They gave a positive report. While the text in our Parsha attributes negative intentions to them -- הָאָרֶץ דבת, note what they say:

'We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.

They then recount the various people who live there, all of this being within the framework of the objective reporting with which they were tasked. Nonetheless, it creates hysteria. Notice who leads this reaction, as we read in the beginning of Chapter 14:

1 And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night.

While we read העדה כל ותשא , Rashi explains that EDAH is actually the SANHEDRIN, or the 70 elders, again the time honored and experienced leadership.

In too many ways, this may be considered an anti-leadership story in terms of those who have proven themselves and taken on the reins of shepherding the group. In Parshat Shoftim later in Sefer Devarim, we are taught that different times will call for different types of leadership. It may just be that this is one of the texts that proves this point.

John Quincy Adams taught that “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” This may very well have been the problem – the Meraglim, the leaders of their tribes, just followed the instructions. They did not dream so how could they teach others to dream? They could not learn or do more, so how would they become more? And this is what the B’nai Yisrael had to do, to become more so that they could be more. It is, perhaps, in this that the “community elders” failed the people.

This was clearly a test, and it appears that it may have been a test for all. Mishani compares it to a couple who meet and are going to get married. They begin with hopes and aspirations, then speak about all of the potential downfalls and when challenges confront them, if they are equipped to handle them, the couple will survive. If not, the prognosis is not good. Mishani thus suggests that time was needed for all parties – for the people, for new leadership to evolve and for G-d to figure out the new relationship G-d would have with this people as well. In so doing all parties had to step back and admit they had to learn about each other, growing within themselves first and then possibly grow together with each other and their new home.

May we all take this lesson to heart and remember that none of us is a finished product; thinking so and just doing what we are told to do by rote will not bring us to new heights and desired success. We must always continue to “scout out” new horizons and learn from all around us, including those who may not share our years of experience, turning to learn from all that is around us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Light, Our Words and the Importance of Interfaith Dialogue



I am writing these words as I sit (during a bit of a break) at a day-long retreat that our Multi-Faith Council (yes, that’s you, CAMC and all of you wonderful people – my brothers and sisters in faith) has annually. I was honored by being asked to give the closing blessing for this wonderful gathering of about 25 – including Christians and Jews and Muslims of various denominations and identities. As I always think in terms of texts, I note that this week’s Torah portion for the Jewish Community is Parshat Be’Haalotecha. This portion begins with the words that are conveyed regarding the commandment to “light the lamps that give light in the Menorah.” At this point, the Parsha goes on to speak about the Menorah and other matters of import. Then, we begin to see troubles afoot, related to the use of language, loss of gratitude, complaints of the people of Israel, and general fears run rampant on so many levels. Towards the end of the reading, we read about hurtful words that Miriam utters regarding Moshe and his treatment of his wife, as well as the resulting harm it caused within their family constellation, in public, and ultimately, for Miriam herself. I find it so poignant that we begin this reading with the power of light and its wide reach and end with how wide reaches in our lives can be destroyed or compromised by our words.

Today’s retreat is all about words – the words that we use to connect to people of faith with whom we both share so much and simultaneously hold onto and honor the differences that are fundamental to our various faith communities. When we really want to accurately communicate with others, we watch our words carefully, being as concerned (if not more so) with what those with whom we are communicating are hearing as we are focused on what we are saying. This was perhaps the misstep of Miriam; speaking from emotion, without regard to how her words would be heard or further taken on by her brother, Aaron. While there are many explanations of what happened in this narrative, this is a possibility that I think is most worthy of consideration.

This morning, before arriving at the retreat, I checked my email and found a writing from a Rabbi for whom I have great respect and is becoming a treasured colleague. He wrote about how verbal attacks continue to bring our community down in so many profound ways. Specifically, he was referencing another Orthodox Rabbi who is quite respected and was talking about LGBTQ inclusion; and the vicious attack that was subsequently launched against him by other Orthodox Rabbis. This wise Rabbi, in explaining what happened in his writing, cited the threefold process that is often used to misuse and abuse our religious teachings; namely, take words and texts out of contexts; then play on people’s emotions and fear; and finally, align with people in positions of power who will accept your version of events and texts. As we all know too well, this is done way too often and by people in ALL of our faith communities. THIS WAS THE FOCUS of our day long retreat- how to turn this tide and to listen and share, truly looking to hear and have empathy for the other and to include that person in our own vision of our world.

We talked about taking risks, the importance of truly learning about, with and from each other and the value of shared space that we create by such meaningful and caring practices. One participant often uses the concept of “being held” by the group, meaning we attend to each other and are attentive to all that is being said and shared. Interestingly enough, within the narrative of the Miriam and Moshe incident, G-d reminds all that Moshe was “very meek, above all people on the face of the earth.” We know that Moshe did NOT always know the answer, going to his father-in-law, Jethro for advice; approaching none other than G-d in trying to figure out what to do regarding the property of Zelophachad and his daughters’ right to inherit it. G-d says that G-d speaks “face to face” (so to speak) with Moshe, precisely connected to how respectful and intentional Moshe was (which may not be the perception we have in every instance, but just stay with the point here).

Earlier this week, my husband and I, along with many friends, were at an event commemorating the Lubavitcher Rebbe and I heard a lovely idea from Rabbi Avraham Shem Tov that Moshe moved when G-d was present; and we too much recognize that whatever we know and whoever we are, there are always instances in which we must STOP, SEE and LISTEN; acknowledging that we DO NOT always know everything and should not take teachings out of context. It is humility that allows us to open ourselves up to our own inner thoughts, each other, our community, all humans, and ultimately, G-d, THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS.

In our Multi-Faith Council, we share so many fundamental and core beliefs across the differences of practice, definitions of community and how we relate to THE CREATOR OF ALL THAT IS. I am grateful beyond words for this group and I want to share the last words of my closing prayer from a little while ago (as I now sit after the end of the retreat).

Let us hold onto our sense of gratitude, continue to share words of meaning and engagement in our dialogue with each other, always acknowledging what we share and honoring our differences and RAISE LIGHT TO ALL through the use of caring actions. Let us open our arms fully to let in the breath of G-d, The Holy One, and commit ourselves collectively to do Tikkun Olam, repairing our damaged world and its shattered vessels, while we try to be the best and most humble people of faith we can be. Amen and I wish all Shabbat Shalom, a meaningful Sabbath to our Christian members, and a peaceful and fulfilling Ramadan to our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When Society Falls Apart….



I sit and write these words as we begin our preparations for Shavuot (think Pentacostal, my non-Jewish friends, colleagues and readers). This is called Zeman Matan Torateinu or The Time of the Receiving of our Torah and is the celebration of what we have been waiting for since Pesah or Passover, commemorating our leaving of Egypt and our hopes and dreams for something so much better … a better way of life, a better society and better quality of the human condition, that finds its expression in the words, laws and instructive stories of Torah.

As always, our lives are so filled with so many mixed emotions and experiences for those of us who pay attention; and as you know so well by now, I am one of those who always do just that. Our family was blessed with a new soul that entered this world this past Thursday – our daughter Yoella and her husband’s fourth daughter, named this past Shabbat as Kassia Hannah (in Hebrew חנה קציעה ), in memory of both of my parents, Kenneth Gordon (Kalman HaLevi) and Hannah (Chanah), may their memories be a blessing for all and may this little girl carry and be guided by the grace of Hannah and the gentle strength of Kalman. Simultaneously, one friend of ours recently passed from this world and another is gravely ill. I often wonder how people go through their lives and to what degree they can hold onto their hopes and intentions as they navigate what life throws at all of us. So many emotions on a personal level!

Then there is the matter of our world and our country and these extremely frustrating, perplexing and troubling times in which we live. So I look at this new little girl and think about the legacy that she comes into our world with and the high hopes her parents and our entire family have for her and her amazing three sisters, Adel Raya, Neima Hadar and Neli Shimona – and all those whose legacies these little girls carry in their names from relatives and loved ones in their parents’ lives. And I wonder, how is it that we go from such high hopes and optimism to such opposite emotions and realities in our daily world? What is it that happens?

Today I completed learning of Masechet Sotah, the book of the Talmud that is titled for the wife that is suspected of going astray and committing adultery and the “test of the suspected adulteress” that is particularly painful to read about, much less imagine anyone going through this horror. While the Tractate begins with discussion of this woman who has done something so terribly wrong, it becomes quite clear, as it often does in learning Gemara, that she is not alone and this is NOT all about her. Rather, it is also about the man with whom she commits this act, the lawlessness in society in which they lived, and the conditions that led to the lawlessness that characterized that society in which these actions occur and may even be tolerated to varying degrees. The latter part of this Tractate clearly articulates that so many practices that represented the best of who the Jewish people were meant to be went by the wayside as time went on. Once the Temple was destroyed, the people lost their “clubhouse” and strayed a bit. Then learning ceased, great teachers died, and the chaos intensified to the point that practices that depended on the righteousness of that society had to be suspended and no longer practiced.

We are taught that the trial of the suspected adulteress was one of these suspended practices, never to be initiated again for there were not enough honest and blameless people in the community to point to the Sotah, who was to be an aberration. The point of the trial was not just for the wrongdoers, but to act as a clear warning and object lessons for the rest of society reminding them to act according to the laws that were set in place for a reason – to allow all to be the best they could be. If numbers of pious and righteous people were no longer the majority or critical mass, than who is blameless enough to point to such a person and wrongdoers are no longer the aberration but rather the norm! Certainly, we worry about that in our lives today when the question is too often no longer “what did X do wrong?” but rather, “can they get away with it?” As one lawyer stated to me several years ago when I was clearly wronged, “Just because its legal doesn’t mean its moral and just because its moral, does not mean there is legal recourse.” That was the point of Torah – it was truly intended to be both!

There is a critically important message here. We MUST hold onto our legacies as well as respect our past and the proper rule of society so that our children will continue to do so. This is, I believe the role of Torah (or whatever your code of law and practices is in your faith community, reader) in our lives – to remind us of what was, what should be and how we MUST continue to live so we can regain a sense of how we should properly go about this business called life.

So here it is Erev Shavuot and we are prepared to sit up all night and learn as we commemorate the excitement of receiving the code of laws that were intended to keep us honest and forthright and living in a way in which our dreams and hopes can be realized, while our wonderful legacies are protected. This is my hope for these four little girls and all of our children and future generations. May we all continue to be guided by the Torah we celebrate this week (or our appropriate Holy Writ) and bring its light into our world, regardless of what others around us are doing. In so doing, I hope that Kassia, Adel, Neima and Neli and all of our beautiful children will fulfill the hopes and desires we have for them as they grow and take on their place in our world and in our respective histories. In this way, they will fulfill the wonderful legacies they come into our world with as support.

Chag Shavuot Sameach and with hopes for all of us!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A LESSON ABOUT THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURE OF LEADERSHIP: ACCOUNTABILITY



I am presently learning Masechet Sotah in my daily Talmud learning. The Sotah in Jewish Law was the suspected adulteress and the trial to which one was submitted in such circumstances was quite grueling and upsetting. However, the Talmud in its typical and organic manner goes far beyond the surface details or the particular situation and in fact, this text and its discussion is about the downfall of society due to the lack of accountability for all of its members, from the most vulnerable to the most powerful. Most of this Tractate (lengthy text) is really about what happens when we stop watching each other and keeping each other in check regardless of position in society, whether elected or appointed. Throughout various discussion, there is a great deal of ‘handing off” with a succession of honored individuals in the procession when there is something important happening. For those of us in synagogue with any regularity who have witnessed how the Torah is handed to several different people when it is taken from the Ark in which it is kept, this too is outlined and explained in great detail in this particular text. The point often made in the Gemara is that NO ONE INDIVIDUAL is above the others, but rather all are accountable to the rules and regulations set forth by none other than G-d, and given to the Jewish nation in Torah (as well as other texts for other peoples who go by their own respective Holy Writ).

Within this discussion of all of the horrible things that will happen when society becomes lawless and lost is a treatment of leadership regarding going to war. There are specific proclamations, an order of actions to follow, a chain of command, and so on. The High Priest as well as the King have specific power but more important, there is clearly accountability for them as well. No one is immune to the system of checks and balances. This Tractate, which is so concerned with the downfall of society, shows how when power has gone to one’s head, so to speak, they fell, and they and all with them fell hard. It is only when the given instructions are followed, the proper blessings are said and the ones in power understand the LIMITS of their agency that the system works. Otherwise, disaster!

Okay, so is not all that difficult to see where I am going with this. I have been so upset with what is happening in our country these past months and am horrified by the circus that people are addicted to watching. I do worry about the ramifications of unbridled power and unchecked narcissism and do not find any of this entertaining in any way! I can honestly say that I have maintained this position since the very beginning when a certain individual claimed he was running for President of the United States because in his words, “I can.” NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME! It never was and as time goes on, I am watching so many people come to this realization.

As I have shared before in this blog, in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are taught that the King should write and have a copy of the Torah by his side at all times. Why is this? Here is your accountability! To remember, that as framed in Jewish law and teachings, the purpose of the leader is to implement the laws and follow them as an example; not to sidestep them, minimize their importance and act as if one is above or outside of the confines of the dictates of that system of limits and rules. This is the lesson of Tractate Sotah, which explores the notion that people will act wrongly and bring society down when their leaders do not act as appropriate role models for what it means to act within the lines of the established law and to honor it at all times as well as acknowledge its Lawgiver. Perhaps that is why every President until present ALWAYS from the beginning of their candidacy would end every speech with “G-d bless America.” This is understanding that there is a force or source or power to which even the Head of State is accountable. Otherwise, as taught in Tractate Sotah, we can be in a lot of trouble.