Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Is It Me or Is Israel Calmer These Days?

My husband Ken and I just came back from Israel. It was too short of a time – only one week — but really quite wonderful. We spend time in Tel Aviv, Acco, Ginot Shomron and Jerusalem. In all of these cities as well as at the Ben Gurion airport, I noticed a calm that was so wonderful and encouraging. Perhaps, in terms of context, it was as a result of feeling the conflicted, fractured and difficult environment that I presently find in the United States. And yet, people still ask me, “Did you feel safe?” My answer is as close to an unequivocal YES as one can give in our world of today. It was comforting to walk through the old city, through the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Acco and see all of the Christians, Jews, Armenians, Muslims, people of different racial and ethnic groupings and just all doing whatever they were doing. This is much more often my experience of Israel than is the case for many who think about what goes on in this land, I believe. That is because I trust my surroundings and feel a kinship to other garbs indicating faith, not fear because of them or any need to retreat to horrible stereotypes.

I believe in this calm and in the many, many thousands of people that make it happen daily in so many dedicated efforts, programs and initiatives. In Israel, I know that there are indeed concerns about safety and security as there are in the rest of the world; but to be honest many of us who are often there tell stories of walking around all hours of the night, of sending our children off to play, and of so many markers of feeling that one is indeed safe and can have confidence in the other people with whom they come in contact in the vast majority of cases. To be sure, there are instances that do not support this sense, but coming back to the United States and to Philadelphia and seeing the news that now plays 24/7 here, is that sense really so strong in this country at this point in time?

I loved watching Muslim women shopping for clothes in Mamilla Mall, the throngs of people meandering through the streets of the Arab market and then through the Armenian and Christian quarters as well as the Jewish Quarter of the old city, and learning about the shared chapters of history and dynamics of the land as told through the stones of Acco and the narrated accounts of its sights. Learning about the music from so many lands in the new Kikar HaMusica (Music Courtyard) in Jerusalem off of Yoel Solomon again confirmed my sense that we as human beings share so much in terms of wanting to express ourselves and use our creativity. I always see this in the art, dance, music, theatre and so much else that Israel has to offer. I will parenthetically state that there were way too many tattoos in Tel Aviv that brought me up short, but apparently this is part of the scene there; who knew? Simultaneously, I noted there was less smoking, something I think that is a sort of unofficial barometer of the sense of calm or degree of stress at present in Israel. People were chatty, storekeepers sociable, and even the traffic seemed to be somewhat civil. I actually enjoyed being at the Kotel for the first time in what feels like decades.

There are certainly stark realities that confront you as well. Watching the lines of cars while we were waved through checkpoints was difficult, though I must state that we were stopped at one of the checkpoints and our car and its contents were checked. Driving through the countryside in our rented car or on our beautiful train trip from Tel Aviv to Acco, one could see some of the visibly depressed areas and these were difficult to consider. Yes, Israel is not all rosy and beautiful – it is a real country with beautiful aspects and challenging issues. It struggles with its dual identity as a Jewish nation and as a democratic state. Israel is challenged by different people, with their respective narratives, and claims to its soil. And of course, while these larger challenges loom, there are always those individuals who will act inappropriately and pose dangerous threats, thwarting the possibilities of what could be in this already amazing place. The important thing is to not allow these individual antagonists any more power when we consider Israel than one would when considering all that is good about the United States, while acknowledging our challenges alongside individuals and their aberrant behavior.

About a year ago, I ran a program for the Multi-Faith Council in which I am involved, called Israel: So Many Stories of Cooperation. It focused on those hundreds of thousands of people who are playing sports together across national, ethnic and religious lines; circus troupes that bring people together from those same groupings; cities of cooperation; organizations dedicated to environmental sustainability that involve all people and groups; cooperative medical ventures; a wonderful school system for Israeli and Arab students and their families; theatre groups that are sharing the narratives of so many different groups in Israel and so much else. I began the program by suggesting that all of the people in the room who were reeling as a result of what has been going on in this country take a few hours off from our reality and consider a much more peaceful and calm part of the world -- Israel with its Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Palestinian, Bahai, Buddhist, many nationalities, and its population that IS DIVERSITY of the highest degree. Israel cannot escape this diversity and the many claims on its soul to be what so many different people need.

Maybe at this point in time, people in the United States are feeling just a bit of this as we are being brought up short to acknowledge the different populations in this country and the need to interact with each other and heal the many deep rifts that come from not acknowledging each other. Maybe, just maybe, Israel has a thing or two to teach us about this and we, too, can hope to reclaim some calm in our lives.

Friday, November 10, 2017

My Amazing Morning and Why Interfaith Discussions are Grand

As you must know by now if you have been reading my blog, I am a big fan, make that HUGE fan of Interfaith and Multi-Faith interactions and discussions -- not debates, not yelling matches, but deep and honest and caring and respectful sharing. Yesterday morning was such a wonderful experience and reinforced for me what I always know in my heart to be true – that we are all part of one big family and as one participant in the program I was privileged to be part of put it, we need to have our “family reunions.” And I maintain that we can’t have them often enough.

We have been trying for some time through the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council for which I am honored to serve as co-President (in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania outside of Philadelphia) to have a get- together at the Masjidullah (Mosque of Allah) that is in our area and to reinforce earlier interactions with our Muslim brothers and sisters in faith as well as hopefully expand and increase our ongoing relationship with them. The first thing I must mention as about 30 of us sat down together in fellowship and to share our stories was the incredible hospitality that was extended to the members of the Multi-Faith Council as the members of the Masjidullah proceeded to feed our bodies, our souls and our minds with the beauty of the faith that is so central to their being and the community in which that faith is actualized. The history of this particular community is incredibly rich and meaningful as they shared amazing stories from the past 60 years or so of their journey as Muslims and as African Americans moving through the many chapters of the history of this country, experiencing so many emotions and changes in their situation. I really hope that someone or a group of them sit down and put this information in a book because their narrative is so incredibly full, and the legacy formulated by these experiences must be preserved.

Around the table we represented a variety of ethnicities, religious groupings, national identities and so much else, but as was repeatedly stated, we are all part of the family that began with Adam and Eve. Throughout the time we were together there was a great deal of honest intentional listening and deepening of understanding. We learned and celebrated our many similarities while honoring and respecting our differences. I was particularly touched that the Imam and those who planned the day not only provided us with a beautiful lunch, but also insured it was kosher so that all could partake.

As one member of the Masjidullah began the morning by explaining why Philadelphia is the #12 Muslim community in the United States, he shared that it was connected to numerology – the many different ways in which the number 12 came up in names, counts, etc. Dr. Ruth Sandberg, my amazing co-President and the only other Jewish person in the gathering, and I looked at each other and began to laugh – who knew we were coming to a Muslim space to learn about gematria!?!

We shared our connections to God, our perceptions about the prophets, the various similarities in our prayer practices as well as points of differentiation. And most important the Christians and Jews in the room learned about the special nature of this Muslim community of #12 Philadelphia origins. What a legacy that included the likes of Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others! We were given a wonderful insight into what becoming Muslim meant to those who had converted at some point in their lives and their very intentional practice of their faith. This is something I always want to bottle and spread around to those who do not think that deeply about who they are as people of faith for a variety of reasons, often perhaps, because they never had to consider that. This resonates for me when I work with and interact with potential converts on their journey to an Orthodox Jewish conversion.

Intentionality, trust and understanding – that was what was exuded by all in this wonderful circle of sharing and learning! I so look forward to when we all meet again, and I know we will because we will all be intentional about making that happen! I know that God in all the different iterations of how we relate to The Divine One is smiling and saying, “Yes, this is what I want for my children – ALL of my children! Get to know each other and how wonderful you all are!”

Monday, October 30, 2017

Parshat Lech Lecha 5778

Please note that this D'var Torah was shared at our Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat minyan; it is still relevant for several weeks to come in terms of the text we continue to read and for our lives in thinking about what we fight for, the faith that motivates us, and why.

We live in an age of too many words, too many versions of stories we may not know much about and too many pulls on our intellect, emotions and sanity in trying to figure out what exactly is going on. What is the real story and not fabricated versions of what has happened? Further, is there even such a thing as a completely TRUE distillation of events or is every narrative filtered through various lenses as we try to decipher its meanings and the elements of its various threads? And what are the lessons of those stories that explain why we keep telling them over and over again? This is precisely the work of Biblical commentary when we look at these stories of our Torah that form the foundation of the story that we have inherited, continue to tell and will pass on as our legacy to those to come. And we have some difficult components of this week’s telling of Lech Lecha to be sure.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman Girondi or Nachmanides does not having any qualms about calling the Patriarchs and Matriarchs to task for deeds that are less than honorable. In commenting about this week’s Parsha’s narrative, particularly those events chronicled in 12:11 ff regarding how Avram acts when he realizes that the Egyptians may kill him because of his beautiful Sarah, Nachmanides teaches as follows:

Know that Avram our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings, for God surely has the power to help and to save. … It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.

Later in Chapter 16, when Sarai comes complaining to Avram about Hagar and Avram tells her to do with her maidservant as she sees fit, Nachmanides is none too pleased with her either, as he explains

Our mother Sarai transgressed by causing this affliction in sending Hagar away as did Avram by allowing her to do so. So God heard Hagar’s cries and gave her a son who would be a wild man to afflict the seed of Avram and Sarai with all kinds of trouble.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that we must understand the context of this thinking as Nachmanides unpacks the text for us. Where does it come from? In Ramban’s own age (1194 – 1270), Jews were subject to attack by radical Islamist, the Almodhads, who ended what we know as the tolerant rule of the Umayyads and the Golden Age of Spain. Ramban and his contemporaries were clearly suffering and no doubt were put in the situation of having to make forced choices amongst alternatives that were not favorable or perhaps, even honorable. It may well have been this reality of his historical context that provided the overlay for how he saw, perhaps, justified Jewish suffering as a result of these missteps of those who birthed nations to come.

Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437–1508) was a Portuguese Jewish statesman, philosopher, and commentator who looks at these events a bit differently. He suggests that Avram would have been willing to save Sarai with sacrificing his life; but he realized that Sarai would have been abducted anyway if he was no longer alive. Therefore, he may have realized that allowing himself to be killed for her sake as her husband would have been futile and thus claimed she was his sister. Abarbanel compares this to Aaron and the Egel HaMasecha – if he had not allowed the people to do what they wanted, they would have killed him and then done what they pleased, so what would be the point? Again, Abarbanel lived at a time when the Jewish people were often under attack and thus subjected to forced choices. Maybe for him the lesson is how does one decide in such impossible situtions in which there are choiceless or forced choices?

A bit later in the narrative (18: 12ff) when Sarah and Avraham are told they shall have a son of their own, Sarah laughs, and again many commentators have a really hard time justifying this action. Abarbanel asks where is Avraham’s and Sarah’s faith in God. Here he compares them to Noach whom God tells to build an ark and to save his family and he does not ask any questions but rather does all that God tells him to do in exactly the way God tells him to do it. While Rashi and others claim that this very difference is the source of why we consider Avraham and Sarah better role models of so much as they are worried about others, serving guests, negotiating for the people of Sodom and Amora while Noach just worries about his family; Abarbanel shows us that something else is going on here. Where is the faith in God that Avraham and Sarah are to have? Why are they not able to call upon it when it matters the most in their personal lives?

Nechama Leibowitz has us ask WHY did God choose Avram? Clearly God is invested in all people and ultimately we all have one father, going back to the story of Creation. But what exactly is going on here? Why is Avraham instructed to leave all that he knows and go to the place that God will show him? Nechama states that no reason is given. We know why Noach was chosen – he showed himself to be worthy and followed God in every way. But Avraham – we do not know why he was chosen or that he should have been the one who was chosen, given the various choices and actions we see that made up the totality of his life. He protects and advocates on behalf of the people of Sodom and Amora but lies to save his life, potentially putting Sarah in danger. He welcomes guests to his home and rolls out the red carpet for them while showing readiness to sacrifice his son, replicating practices that no doubt he saw during his formative years. What lesson is there in his becoming Avraham Aveinu and in Sarah being Sarah Emeinu for us today? To be sure, we have all talked many times in different venues about how the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs are imperfect. We embrace the Jewish narrative of the Torah in which we see their doubts, their flaws, and their shortcomings. That being said, I want to suggest something else.

Perhaps it is their lack of faith or the expanse of that faith in God so repeatedly chronicled in this and in coming Parshiot that we are to take note of and watch. These chapters of our past may have their most probative value in showing us how God and our ancestors negotiate what faith looks like. It is not automatic, it is not unquestioning, it is not blind. Rather, it is hard work and requires working through a relationship even when there are difficulties that threaten to sever that relationship. Further, maybe these experiences provide a context for God to show us the breath and breadth of God’s capacity in instructing us that there is a reason for us to place our faith in God. Ultimately, Sarah is not raped or taken by the Pharaoh, Hagar and Yishmael are saved and Yitzchak is born. That being said, there are consequences – we will be slaves in Egypt, Yitzchak’s generations to come will be in conflict and Yitzchak will not laugh at every juncture in his life. My point is not to create artificial and untenable equations here, but rather to indicate the complication that is inherent in the trajectory of our lives and in the many chapters we live through, as well as the extent to which faith gets us through them.

We speak of the Ten Tests of Avraham. I like to point out that the Hebrew word for testing and experiencing is the same word, n-s-h, which is to say every experience we have is potentially a test. We constantly are called to “put our faith to the test” in our lives, finding ourselves in impossible situations with choiceless choices to be made. Perhaps this is one of, if not the most salient lesson that Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu bequeath to us. Further, these tests of faith most powerfully present when they involve the fate or have ramifications for the ones we love the most. We are willing to argue for a just cause for others, we are willing to acquiesce to the requests of others when it is not a matter of life or death for us as does Avraham when he and Lot come to a land that must be divided between them and their groups. It is when it is OUR LIFE or OUR PERSONAL DESTINY that our faith is most put to the test. It is here that Avraham and Sarah may not get the highest scores.

Pastor Rick Warren, an Evangelical Christian minister explains as follows:

The Bible also tells us that with every promise there is a condition. One of the conditions for this promise is that you have to trust God. The more you trust God, the more God is able to meet needs in your life.

So, how can you learn to trust God more so God can meet all of your needs? How can you learn to have greater faith?

You don’t get faith by sitting in a Bible study group or just talking about it. Faith is like a muscle; it develops by being used. The more you use your faith, the more it gets stretched. And the more it gets stretched, the more God is able to bless your life.

We call the circumstances that God creates to stretch our faith "trials."

Stretching our Faith by Trials – this is what happens to Avraham ten times in our narrative. And as Pastor Rick says, the more Avraham uses his faith, it gets stretched and honed and expands. Maybe this is the most salient lesson of Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu – yes, there is their imperfection, but here we are talking about something else. How far can you stretch and use your faith so that it expands to the point that God is always part of the equation as you make decisions? The degree to which we can do that will directly impact the place of faith in our lives and the ongoing relationship we craft through its presence with God and all those around us, and for this lesson taught we thank Avraham Aveinu and Sarah Emeinu.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Context is Everything – Now What Are We Supposed To Do? -- A Lesson about Processing our Laws and Practices

As I continue my learning of Masechet Kiddushin in the Gemara (Talmud) I am continually struck by not so much the laws and practices and discussion of them in the text, but more so by the context in which they are developed and the resultant adaptation. I continue to be more and more certain that we HAVE to look at the spirit of the law and the times in which it was developed and extrapolate lessons for our days, our time and our context in terms of this adaptive process. We need to remember not get tripped up on what one thinks to be the exact following of this practice or that tradition without a full understanding of how it came to be the practice it was and the nuances that are involved in that process as well as the resulting practice. Let me explain. I am in the middle of Perek Sheni (Chapter Two) of Mas. Kiddushin for those familiar with the text and am specifically engrossed by a discussion regarding marriages that are valid and those that are not. From a contemporary point of view, this discussion may seem odd at best and sit-com ridiculous at best. Here is an example (promise not to laugh too hard or shake your head too vigorously)!

On 51b (for those of you who want to check this out) we learn as follows:

“One who has two groups of daughters from two wives and says ‘I gave my oldest daughter to a certain man for marriage but I do not know if it was the oldest daughter of the older group of daughters or it was the eldest daughter of the younger ones… or the oldest daughter of this wife or the oldest daughter of that wife…’ they are all prohibited to marry other men except for the youngest daughter of the group of youngest ones.”

Okay, where do we begin? First of all let me assure you this is NOT part of a comedy sketch, but a realistic question. So before we even address the issue, remember that at this time as for so much of history marriage was in fact a business arrangement, not a love match. Involved were factors including maintaining of family fortunes, status, and connection to other families with whom there was already a generational connection as well as insuring the birth of children who would do all of the same things. Ask around in your own families and if you go far back enough, say as little as two generations for some of us, you will find that this discussion from no later than 600 CE would still be relevant, even operative say, 70 years ago. In some parts of the world today, it still is.

So before you pull out your NOW (National Organization of Women) posters and go to your nearest “How Horrible Men Are Rally,” consider that everyone, INCLUDING MEN, had scripted roles in communities to insure the viability and continuation of those groups of people and all that they had built up. Also to be factored in is that health care was not what it is in our world (though it still is not what we would want and need in too much of our world today, if we are honest with ourselves) and giving birth was always considered a “sakana” or a danger; that is a rather compelling reason that it was men who are commanded by Jewish Law to have children; women just agreed to help them do so (how nice of us!). And then of course there is this – people were not professionals and quality of life was just so different it is impossible for us to imagine the cultural, historical and social context of the backdrop against which these practices were implemented.

That being said, contracts, word of mouth, designation of status of people, stating use for things, and so much else were very much part of everyday life and it is the most basic of principles regarding these elements that informed the development of so many practices in so many categories. Within this context, laws and practices of marriage and divorce were based on what we might call today in modern legal terms “contract law.” Feelings, desires of one person in terms of charting out their destiny and fulfilling one’s dreams – so greatly encouraged today in many parts of our reality – just did not happen at this time generally.

As we continue in the same text, we learn a few lines later as follows:

“If a man marries one of two sisters and got mixed up and does not know which one he set out to marry, he must give a bill of divorce to both of them.”

Really? How can one be so UNINTENTIONAL about whom one marries? Yes, that may feel foreign to us today (though again not necessarily in all parts of the world as we know it) but marriage was one of the things one did as one journeyed through life, without the intentionality we would hope is attached to it today. Remember that people did not date for a few years or meet in college, but rather were matched for a variety of reasons as explained above.

Back to what I like and find so remarkable about this discussion. Within this extremely foreign context with its seemingly questionable practices, which were part of society at the time, great pains are taken to insure that injustices are not committed within the parameters of these practices, as they existed. Men are not to engage in these arrangements without thought, women are not to be considered unworthy and not respected, women are not to be left in unquestionable situations as to whether or not they are married, there are great pains to insure that children are not born without proper and known lineage and so on. Marriages and divorces are to be undertaken with intention and to be done in a respectable way.

Again, for many of us today, there may be no way to make any of this respectable in our eyes. But, this is where our context is so important. If, in a world that was “not as evolved” as we think we are, these concerns are carefully, repeatedly and painstakingly constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed to insure proper practice, this is quite instructive. That alone would be a good practice for today.

If we were to ask ourselves these same questions: Are our practices accommodating the impact of the actual things we do to others? Are all parties to a contract or any arranged interaction respected and addressed in a way that is “for their sake” (a concept that is continually repeated as discussed in this blog previously regarding what is for the sake of the woman)? Are we acting intentionally and considering all of the different aspects of what we are doing in a way that is fair and just?

If we could just do that much, and, since we do think and believe our basic practices are so much more evolved, imagine what a world we could build together…. in the spirit of the very intentional development of the law of the Talmud.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Our Post- Holiday (Chag) Season of Taking Account of Ourselves, Women and the Rights of All

Note: I was in the middle of writing this when my daughter, Rachie, shared her brilliant Rosh HaShana Drash and felt it was so timely and well expressed, I bumped this to the next entry. Of course, it’s all related, so to continue Rachie’s thinking….

We in the Jewish community find ourselves in a very pensive and reflective time. At this juncture, we think endlessly about ourselves, our communities, the laws and practices that bind and define us as well as their actual intent that should inform how we practice them. Within the context of this consideration, I continue to learn Masechet Kiddushin from our vast lore of law and explanations of how they are to be observed known as our Talmud in the Jewish community. I continue to be amazed at the subtext that is anything but hidden in the discussion of the Rabbis – the Tannaim, the Amoraim, and for those of us who acknowledge them, the Sebaraiim. As they painstakingly meander through conflicting interests and try continually to be true to all elements of the scripted and commanded law, this is done with questions as much as answers, respect for differences as much as focusing on one’s own thinking and with concern for all members of the community, even when they may be, and they are at times, in disadvantaged positions. Clearly, as this is the last Tractate of the Order of Women in the Talmud, the various ways that women can maintain their own agency or get it back or not give it up will surely cause many to scratch their heads in wonder regarding why these are really even issues, often feeling antiquated and out of touch with our present reality. The present reality of those of us who live the life of privilege offered by some elements of our contemporary society, that is. However, when considering the time, the culture, the historical epoch of this text and just what life was like up to about 600 CE, I am continually struck that if we in today’s world – if our leaders – would work as painstakingly to insure fairness and proper application of the law as intended, we might not be in the mess we are.

There was a particular statement found on Kiddushin 40a within the context of a discussion about how good things are supposed to happen to good people and bad things are not, but are supposed to be reserved for bad people. You know, the age-old problem of theodicy – when bad things do indeed happen to good people. How do we square that? Basically we do not, it is the way of the world on many levels, and part of the reality of too many intersecting journeys of too many individuals as well as the reactions of our environment to so much, often things over which we may and should have control over. Within this discussion, there is mention of the “good righteous person.” Of course, immediately the question is raised, “Is there such a thing as a bad (or not good) righteous person?” So as it turns out, we are taught as follows: “Yes there is a ‘tzaddik tov’ -- a good righteous person and there is a ‘tzaddik she’eino tov’ - that is a righteous person that is not good. The one who is a righteous person in their dealings with God and with fellow human beings is a good righteous person; the person who is righteous in their dealings with God and not with their fellow human beings and other aspects of our world is a righteous person who is not good.” That is, piety that is only God directed and not shared and distributed as good acts with and for others is NOT the preferred path in Jewish law.

A foundational teaching of Jewish Law is that it is actually through our treatment of each other and in our negotiating with those different than we are that we are to find our true character – be it good or not so good. I am often validated by my Muslim and Christian friends that my suspicion that this is true for them as well, given my text study of their sources (which is clearly not anywhere as extensive as my learning of Jewish sources) is accurate. God wants the same from all of us – to learn from and with each other and in so doing to discern the many ways that God, whatever one calls The Divine One, is present in our lives in every moment, every place and every one with whom we interact.

Are there inequities and more needed balance in the actual position of women in this society from our past of which our Talmud speaks? Of course there are – as there are for children, for those with various differences (that is disabilities in many cases), those of different social status and strata, and so on. It would be dishonest to say otherwise. However, what is fascinating to me is the recognition of these inequities in Jewish law and not only a willingness but a requirement to address them – not always to the satisfaction of all, but again, if we could only reach such a level of concern for others in our world today as a collective, we would be so much better off. Women who live in poverty and who are abused, children who are malnourished, those with physical, emotional or mental challenges who are ignored and others with such stations in life should not be cast aside and there is NOTHING in Jewish Law that allows, justifies, or in any way excuses such inhumane or ungodly treatment.

Rachie was definitely on to something so important when she decided that others in her community could check the Eruv (that boundary string that allows enhanced celebration and observance of Shabbat) while she would use that time to help a Sanctuary family, who needed human interaction as well as resources and basic necessities. My daughter Talie who is working with underserved populations patiently and with respect and honor for all those who need her physician hands, mind and soul for healing is living these words of Torah and Jewish Law. The many people who daily have to make decisions whether to continue their comfortable patterns of prayer and service to God but do not touch those who need to be touch or interact with those who just want to be noticed need to step back and truly look at the words we say and learn and understand the action they are meant to lead us to.

When one looks at the many words of this past season of liturgy in the Jewish faith, there is so much talk about what we need to do better to get closer to God and to live the life that God wants for us to live. For those of us who do not feel that The Holy One, whatever we call God, is not as imminent in our lives, let us take up the charge that we can find proof or at least important indication and validation of God’s existence in the care and concern of other human beings. Let us be those human beings.

Just as we learn in the Talmud that women are to be able to have agency in their decisions, though not all of the voices in the Talmud agree, the arguments that this should be so are compelling and honor the station of women in life. Just as we are taught that we are not to disadvantage another by our actions, let us consider what that means in the practicality of everyday life. Just as respect for individuals and society are valued and strongly considered in the distillation of practices that evolve from Torah standards, let us remember that at its best, that is precisely what our society asks of us.

In the Jewish community, there is often a feeling of “what now?” after this intense season. In fact, our next month which begins this coming Shabbat, Cheshvan -- is actually called Mar Cheshvan (poor little Chesvan without holidays and special observances). However, I think Cheshvan can absolutely be amazing if we take all that we have learned, all that we have prayed for and all that we have expressed as our hopes to God for a better world and work with our hands, our resources, our energy and our abilities to make it so.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Rosh Hashanah Drash 5778 by Rachie Lewis, Senior Synagogue Organizer, JCRC of Greater Boston

Yes, I have been working on my on blog for this season. But I yield this platform to my amazing daughter, Rachel Sharona Lewis, who shared this Rosh HaShana Drash with me. I have nothing else to say except that Rachie and my other children, Talie, Yoella and Brian as well as Jeremy, Liz and Mimi, continue to awe me daily. My Bracha for all is that may your children grow and truly be blessings to this world as I know that Rachie is. Shana Tova to all.... And now here is Rachie....

Shana tova!

I am endlessly fascinated by eruv. I have been a checker of the North Charles Community Eruv for the past several years. This recurring task has given me time to think deeply about how this Rabbinic legal loophole - this physical/metaphorical boundary that allows us to bypass the Shabbat prohibition on carrying - is completely interesting and innovative, and slightly delusional. And, it’s completely consequential.

I grew up in a community surrounded by an eruv, where everyone in our Shabbat world lived within 3 square miles. Shabbat was vibrant, predictable and meaningful, and the community, our family's circle of responsibility, was clear and strong. In our community here in Cambridge/Somerville, we reap many of those same benefits. On the other hand, when I have lived in cities with no eruv, I have felt its absence - where responsibility to a set group and collective ritual feel dispersed and inconsistent.

Eruv and all of its related practices was established by our ancient Rabbis as an assertion that, in exile, we can still construct holy space - we can create boundaries in which we bring down God’s presence and a sense of obligation to one another. This aligned with the broader Rabbinic project: even in exile, we get to say, holiness lives here!

Out of the ashes of the Temple, where holiness and ritual were concentrated, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the progenitor of Rabbinic Judaism, instituted a variety of decrees that reflect this same ethos. A primary example is the shift from a regime of sacrifices as the direct channel between the people and God to prayer. Rather than relying on the elite class of priests to administer this communication, now connecting with God was democratized, and rather than be confined to the Temple in Jerusalem, could be done anywhere.

In the Talmud, in Mesechet Rosh Hashanah, we see examples of holiday rituals that were once confined to the Temple that become the responsibility of a broader set of Jews after its destruction. While the Temple was standing, when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, the shofar would only be sounded in Jerusalem, in the Temple. In the burgeoning diaspora, Yochanan Ben Zakkai decreed that any town or city with a Jewish court (a proxy for sufficient communal infrastructure) was obligated to have the shofar blown there as well. He decreed that we all are responsible for bringing the voice of the shofar into our communities, that God’s voice gets to be here, where we are, and not just in Jerusalem.

In moments of challenge and disruption, we have a Rabbinic tradition that tells us to think anew about how to survive, that tells us to adapt and create holy space where there is none yet.

Today’s haftarah offers a different vision in response to the Temple’s destruction. Jeremiah, Chapter 31, describes a longing for what was lost, and the hope that redemption will come, and that that experience of holiness will be restored. God will gather the Jews from the corners of the earth, from exile, and we will once again return to the Temple; od teet’i cramim - we will plant vineyards in our land once again; v’shavu banim l’gvulam, and God reassures our matriarch, Rachel, weeping on our behalf, that her children will return to their borders, to their home.

This vision of redemption reflects the broader prophetic project - motivating the Jewish people to do better in service of restoring the order of the Temple, the order in which holiness was concentrated and we had some control. This sentiment is woven through our liturgy, both today’s and everyday.

As we gather together on Rosh Hashanah, doing the work of teshuva, of repairing what we need to repair as individuals and as a community, against the backdrop of deep disruption in our unstable world, I wonder, what vision of the world is our teshuva in service of?

This year we have seen Nazis emboldened in ways I never could have imagined as a 21st century Jew. And the threats and violence against our black, Muslim and immigrant family, friends and neighbors are escalating at an alarming rate. So much is broken. And so, how do the changes we make address this reality? What are we improving our actions for?

As we hold these two different threads of our tradition - Rabbinic adaptability to what is in an unredeemed world, and Prophetic longing for how things were - I have to believe that the work we are doing today and in this season, on our own and together, is in service of an expansive vision that says we adapt, and that we have the power to bring a sense of holiness and responsibility to and for one another wherever we are, and wherever it is needed.

On the edges of our haftarah, in Jeremiah, Chapter 29, there is a stunning passage. Through Jeremiah, God says to all who have even exiled to Babylon, while you are here…

“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit...multiply here (have children and they should have children) and don't decrease. And, seek peace in the City I have exiled you to and pray to God on its behalf, Ki b’shloma, yehiye lachem shalom, because in its peace, you will have peace.”

In this passage, we see the seeds of the Rabbinic instinct to survive through adapting. Live here. Thrive here. Plant your gardens here. Pray and work for the sake of this world for your fate is tied up with all of the people around you. This is the vision that I believe our teshuva is in service of. In an unredeemed world, we plant our gardens here, rather than long to do so around the edges of the Temple.

The proximity of this passage to the haftarah makes the point that these visions are not mutually exclusive. However, the visions and values we prioritize will drive the choices we make about how we expend spiritual and material resources and about who we feel obligated to.

This past summer, knowing that the eruv would be okay without me, I stopped checking it. Rather, I committed the same Thursday morning timeslot to volunteering as part of Cambridge Minyan’s Sanctuary work. In the Spring, we joined an interfaith coalition of ten communities who are supporting an undocumented mom and her family as they resist their deportation by seeking refuge in a nearby church. As a security measure, there must be citizens in the building at all times, and so myself, and many other people in this room have taken on this responsibility.

It is not lost on me that I shifted from doing the upkeep of one constructed holy space, the North Charles Community Eruv, to another, the four walls of University Lutheran church in which a diverse community is supporting and walking with a family in their resistance. Both acts require the same toolbox - creating our own boundaries in which we bring holiness and a clear sense of obligation for one another into it. The difference lies in who we decide is within our circles, our eruvim, of responsibility.

In Psalm 27, the additive prayer for the month of Elul and this high holiday season, we say, pray and sing this line often, “one thing I ask of you God: that I dwell in God’s house all the day of my life, that I behold God’s pleasantness and frequent/visit(?) God’s temple.”

The psalmist seems to have intended this verse as a parallelism. That dwelling in God’s house and frequenting/visiting (the translation is not totally clear) the Temple are different versions of the same experience. But, as these ideas have been swirling around in my head, I have begun to think that perhaps they are two different experience and two different places. Dwelling in God’s house is described as an eternal experience, while we can exist in the Temple only in physical or metaphorical fleeting moments. And so, if we cannot always have access to the Temple, and to that concentrated holiness, perhaps beit hashem is referencing something else - perhaps it is a reference to all the holy spaces we create, our eruvim, our Sanctuaries, and all the ways we bring holiness, like the sound of the shofar, in. While we may have moments of longing for redemption, that place, this dynamic and expansive beit hashem, is where we are able to dwell, always.

This Rosh Hashanah, as the foundation of our unredeemed world trembles beneath us, when we deeply need holiness and to bring the sound of the shofar beyond our original borders, I offer both the blessing and challenge that or teshuva be in service of expanding our eruvim of responsibility, planting our gardens here, in this broken world - Ki bshloma yihiye lachem shalom, because it it’s peace, and in the peace of all those in our midst, we shall have peace too.

Shana Tova!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Parshat Ki Tavo 5777 and Lessons from the end of Deuteronomy

We will look for a moment at Parshat Ki Tetze (the portion of reading of Torah two weeks ago for Jewish communities of faith and as we come to the end of Deuteronomy in our Torah Reading cycle) and remind ourselves of the most salient lesson it presents. What was the overarching idea of the Parsha and what is the connection to the last reading about Amalek?

We begin by remembering that it is important to note that between 72 and 74 of our 613 Mitzvot are found in last week’s Parsha (depending on how one counts). These mitzvot cover a wide range of proper behaviors we as Jews are commanded to observe, including how we share our resources, how we act humanely within the inhumane framework of war, how we care for the vulnerable and so much else, many of the Mitzvot bein Adam LeChavero – those behaviors that we are commanded to uphold in creating and maintaining a proper society.

Further it is significant that these Mitzvot are for when we are not just within the comforting surroundings of our home but away from our protected base and even when we go out to fight a war. These Mitzvot are about treating all human beings who have been created by God with respect and honor regardless of our situation and regardless of any station in life, even in the most challenging of situations. IT IS THIS LINE that Amalek crossed in their treatment of the stragglers and those who were too weak to fight back. IT IS THIS that we are to remember and we are to BLOT OUT those that engage in such behaviors, including looking long and hard at ourselves.

Immediately after this reading, we begin this (past) week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo. Now, we are talking about how we act in our own land, within our comfort zone, if you will. Further, we are reminded how we are to learn the lessons of how to treat people and how to NOT treat people.

So we begin by speaking of the first fruits, such valued property as the first products we proudly produce as our work product, and about limits and boundaries regarding these prized possessions and how we mark them for God, ceremoniously giving up our possession of them and our claim to any benefit from them, fully acknowledging all of the work put into producing them as well as God’s hand in allowing us and facilitating the process by where we were able to produce them. Further, we are to observe these standards and the behaviors they inform as we present these gifts – literally, the fruits of our labor – to God with joy, as we learn in 26.8 - 11:

ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל--וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. 9 And God hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. י וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, יְהוָה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. 10 And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me.' And thou shalt set it down before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God. יא וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. 11 And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks at length about this joy and how it is mentioned often in Devarim; that while in our earlier Torah readings for the bulk of the year’s cycle, the focus on our dictated practices was about learning the instructions about how we observe these required elements, here we should enjoy them. Think of one who is just learning how to play an instrument and is more focused on scales and the “rules” of how one plays that instrument and then later, once this is internalized one can begin to truly enjoy the products of their acquired skill sets.

Nehama Leibowitz teaches that Abravenel takes a different approach, explaining that the purpose of bringing the first fruits was to humble our selfish passions. Since the first-fruits were to be the most treasured possessions as Hosea and Isaiah teach, God commanded us to subdue our natural instincts and not eat them but rather dedicate these precious possessions to God. In doing so, we learn important lessons about ownership, sharing and accountability to the larger community as well as how to limit our own power.

Further , Maimonedes includes the Ger in this communal experience and reminds all that there is an eternal human background ruling to all of this ceremony, full of consideration for the feelings of the stranger and any person in the assemblage that might otherwise be ignored or excluded. In other words, immediately after we have learned about the actual wrongdoing of Amalek in not showing concern for others, we are instructed to include all and make the “other” part of us in our most celebrated moments, thus investing ourselves in the welfare and dignity of all others.

This is the exact antithesis to what happened with Amalek and further, it is formulated so that we do not ultimately repeat the misdeeds of Amalek and in a sense become Amalek – the ones who do not care about others, do not accommodate the needs of those who require our help and support, and those that are so vulnerable we may not see them if we are so wrapped up in our own hubris or our own joy.

Rabbi Professor Mark Saperstein teaches that this Parsha:

contains one of the most powerful and frightening chapters of the Torah. Fourteen verses (Deuteronomy 28:1–14) outline all the good things that will happen to the people if they obey God and faithfully observe all of the divine commandments. That’s “the good news.” Then come 54 verses (28:15–69) warning of the antithesis: the curses that will befall the people if they do not faithfully observe all the commandments – [the Tochecha]. This is the most terrifying litany portraying various kinds of Jewish suffering in our classical literature. Because of its content, for years no one wanted to have the aliyah in which this passage was read, and it was sometimes given to the town fool. In traditional practice, it is chanted at breakneck speed in a soft voice, loud enough to hear but only if one strains a little.

The punishments explicitly threatened in this chapter include terrible diseases, conquest by merciless foreign enemies, famine to the point where parents will eat the flesh of their own children, and exile and dispersion throughout the world, leading to idolatry and enslavement.

It is indeed difficult to hear and absorb the terrors of these verses and the ramifications of what they implicitly indicate about the nature of the human being, even the one who is Torah observant. And yet that is the point – the moment we forget our frailty and vulnerability as human beings, we lose a sense of our need to care for other vulnerable souls. Just as Amalek saw itself as above the need to care for others, what we see in Amalek is frightening when we consider our enemies. It is downright horrifying when we consider the reality that we find these behaviors and this lack of care in ourselves; needing to be reminded to resist the temptation of yielding to it.

What is going on here? We learn in the Talmud that it is not good to constantly be so strict about our rules and regulations because it will send people away and we will lose our sense of Jewish peoplehood and destiny. So what is the purpose of such, but to remind us continually that we should be the exemplars of kindness, caring and compassion as is God, The One to whom we are accountable. Acknowledging that it is not always easy to act in such a way, maybe acknowledging and addressing reality is in its own way a kindness. Though it may not always feel that is the case (YOU MUST BE KIND AND CARING REGARDLESS OF WHETHER YOU WANT TO OR NOT!), perhaps this is no different than say the discipline of a parent that fiercely loves their child and wants them to behave in the best way possible regardless of what others around them are doing.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests as follows:

there is a profound sense that there is something natural at work ... Not by chance are the children of Israel and the land of Israel exemplars of the relationship between humanity and G-d. The people of Israel will always be small (“It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord has set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples”). The land of Israel will always be vulnerable, occupying as it does a strategic location between three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, and two traditional bases of empire, the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates valleys. Only by almost superhuman achievements of national unity and moral purpose will Israel survive as a nation in its land. So it was in biblical times. So it is today.

It is easy to be caring and giving and kind when things are going well. But what about when they are not, which is so often the case? Do we get a pass? Do we get to be Amalek? Do we come to understand how Amalek comes to be the one who is so wrapped up in themselves that they no longer care about those who are vulnerable? The answer is no – that no matter what are the circumstances, we are to try to be the best we can be and to strive to truly walk in the way of God as we are taught in Sotah 14a and elsewhere – by doing the very things that God shows us how to do no matter what our circumstances are and regardless of any “payback” we may or may not get as a result. This is precisely why EVERYONE, no matter how poor and indigent, in the traditional Jewish communities gave from and shared what resources they had. This is the reason that historically, the Jewish people are looked to as an example of those who care for and take responsibility for our own.

Clearly, we reading this, generally live a comfortable life today. Nonetheless, we are aware of and pained by the troubles of the world, both those suffered by Jewish populations and those that impact on human populations of any iteration. This is what Amalek did not know how to do and the Tochecha (the very difficult and sobering list of things not to do in this portion of the Torah) reminds us that we must always remember the Jewish promise that binds us as well as the human frailty that is our nature and behave towards others honorably, whether at home as we are in Ki Tavo or on the road as we were in Ki Tetze. We must always be on guard to be the best we can be and show that towards all others!

Shabbat Shalom.