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.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017 The Many Paths of Kedusha in our Lives

Please note that this D'var Torah (shared thinking) was presented at this past weekend's Eshel Fifth Annual Parents'Retreat. Eshel is a very important community to our family as the Orthodox LGBTQ Organization that works to create and encourage Orthodox Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming to all of our Jewish community members, wherever they are on the continuum of their gender and/or sexuality identity. For more information on this and other writings of this type, please contact me at shulisrose@aol.com

The theme of this Eshel Parents’ Retreat is “Happy, Healthy and Holy.” We all pray, hope and want our children and those we love to be happy, healthy and whole as well as holy (Kadosh).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that every Jew, or every “yid” is Kadosh and does so many Mitzvot every day on their continuing path to higher levels of Kedusha.

In this week’s Parsha we read as follows:

You shall be Kadosh because I the Lord your G-d am Kadosh.

KADOSH/KEDUSHA – this is such an important and central word and concept to us as Jews. Clearly, it is difficult to translate accurately, even more so to encapsulate in its entirety and magnitude. As we read about the system of laws and practices that so defines us as a people and individually as members of this collective, this directive is repeated in various formulations with stark regularity. We attach the highest levels of sanctification, spirituality and the very core of our identity to these regulations as well as their foundational ethical components in connecting with our past in a visceral, as well as intellectual and practical manner. Rashi teaches that most fundamental teachings of the Torah depend on this part of the text; so much so that it was always and often taught in public assemblies.

This week’s double Parsha (Torah reading) is included in Chapters 17 – 27 of VaYikra which are indeed about the practices and intentional actions of our lives that define us as those commanded to be Kedoshim; and are dubbed The Holiness Code by Biblical scholars, including those in the secular world. These chapters are marked by a concern for holy living on the part of the people rather than a concern with sacrificial systems or ritual purity, as are the first sixteen chapters of the book. The standard of living to which the Holiness Code calls the B’nai Yisrael is to be exemplified in all arenas of life--economic, social, personal, familial, and in relation to each other. The refrain that marks these chapters -- "I am the LORD" or "I am the LORD your God." occurs only two times in Leviticus 1-16, but forty-seven times in chapters 17-26, with the majority in our reading today. We are to be KADOSH because the Lord our God is KADOSH. This sense of and identity with Kedusha is to mirror God's and these chapters provide us with a myriad of ways in which we do this.

One cannot escape noticing that this code of Ethical Behavior or those actions that bring Kedusha into our lives is juxtaposed with the narrative of our leaders, Aaron’s very sons, the Kohanim, who did not follow the prescribed manual of actions but rather offered their own strange fire; and Aaron’s need to use both his personal experience and his public office to remind the B’nai Yisrael of how we are to be and what should motivate our actions – our aspirations to be Kedoshim. Within this narrative we read about atonement, what to do to set straight what has gone off center when we are NOT ONE with G-d. It is immediately after learning about this process of re-centering ourselves that we are confronted with so many different ways to remain centered, or the many paths of Kedusha that are accessible to us in our daily lives – that is to ALL of us, regardless of status (we are not all Kohanim, for example, nor are we Nazirim with their situational designation of Kedusha), whether we are men or women, whether we observe the places and times so identified with Kedusha, and regardless of our means.

Moshe Safdie is an Israeli architect who is known world-wide for his work on a variety of ventures, including several places of worship for Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith communities as well as the 2005 design for Yad v’ Shem and the Mamilla Mall in Yerushalayim with its signature blend of historical footprint and contemporary rhythm of life. Safdie explains that no matter where in the world he has worked, “ our designs are specific to place and culture – they are inspired by and woven into the historic, cultural and social fabric of their site.” When asked by Dov Elbaum in an interview on Israeli television what קדושה means to him, he explained that he feels that sanctity is created by the people who infuse the spaces he creates with meaning through their actions and the purposeful involvements of their lives. Safdie explains how in this way our Beit HaMikdash and practices from long ago and the memory we have of these chapters of our collective lives can translate into many other meaningful spaces through the merit of the actions of those who maintain the community and its institutions. Here Kedusha happens where we are and through what we do.

A very different definition of Kedusha is suggested in speaking of the “Sanctity of Place,” as taught by Prof. Israel Knohl:

The biblical word “kadosh” (holy) denotes something distinct and lofty. According to the Bible, kedusha[1] (holiness or sanctity) stems from God, who is sanctified and distinct from the created world. Anything closely connected to God receives its sanctity, kedusha, from the divine kedusha. The sanctity of a place derives from the presence of God there. Thus, when God appears to Moses at the burning bush, that ground automatically becomes sanctified (Exod. 3:5). Once God’s presence leaves that place, it loses its sanctified status.

Do we have conflicting notions here or is there something else to consider? What do we as Jews bring to the space in which we are to amplify the sense of Kedusha?

Most, if not all of us are all so familiar with the pivotal words of VaYikra 19:18 -- כמוך לרעך תואהב -- And you shall show love to YOUR RE’AH as you would for/to yourself -- and its centrality for such notable teachers as Hillel and Rabbi Akiba, as well as what some may perceive as its overuse as the distillation of all that is Torah which some of us may feel minimizes this sense of Kedusha as well as its own intrinsic meaning. Professor Menachem Hershman, a well-known teacher of Talmud and Jewish texts in Israel teaches that this concept is truly, as Hillel teaches “a great precept/rule in the Torah.” Prof. Hershman teaches that it is LOVE, this AHAVAH, that should define and be the prism through which all of our actions come; and by acting out of this love, we will act intentionally and carefully, showing care to others in so many actions and that it is THIS that will bring Kedusha to all of the PLACES in which we find ourselves through the activation of our initiatives.

So let’s look a bit more carefully for context. We read verses 17 and verse 18 as follows, immediately after being told to not stand idly by while our רע is in harm’s way:

17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor (who wrongs you), and not bear sin because of him. 18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

The development of these verses is quite specific. Do not bear hatred towards those closest to you --- hold your relative accountable and do not embarrass him in public; do not hold a grudge or take revenge against those with whom you share a destiny, and then show love to the other – ךרעל -- as you would do for yourself.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches as follows (5767) regarding the very specific and intentional wording of these two verses:

The inner logic of these verses in our sedra is therefore this: “Love your neighbor [?] as yourself. But not all neighbors [or even brothers!]are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent of what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge ...”

What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unlivable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic program. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.


This means that one is to ‘love your friend [ רע] as yourself.’ We know that there are in fact many words in Hebrew for indicating relationality .. here are a few relevant to our discussion at hand: גרך -חבר -רע -עמיתך- אח Why is the word רע used in this instance? Why not חבר, for example? Why not גר or אח? חבר or אח indicate someone who is similar to you; chaver shares a root with the word lechaber -chibur (to join/connect) and chabura (a gathering) - a chaver is someone who is thus easy to befriend because he is just like you, maybe even more so than say an אח – a familial relationship (brother). Note for example, the use of the word חבר as such, in Shoftim 20:11:

חֲבֵרִים אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ הָעִיר אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ כָּל וַיֵּאָסֵף And all of Israel came together to the city as one man joined together with each other

Here, all the nation of Israel gathered together in a shared mission against the force of Giv’eah. Here they were JOINED TOGETHER in a sense of shared purpose; this is NOT the sense of our commandment here.

A re’a is someone who may indeed be quite different from you, but perhaps not as much as a גר (often translated as stranger) – maybe in ways that one does not understand nor accept; he or she might have different goals, different viewpoints, different identity points or a different personality. A re’a is not familially or nationally connected to you. The use of re’a is particularly telling; the Torah is commanding us to love davka someone who is different and not as compatible as you might like. Its easy to agree with those who agree with us; not so much with those who do not. And here is a wonderful opportunity to show and be Kedusha personified in facilitating such a relationship.

Rambam, teaches in Hilchot De’ot 6:3 that ‘it is a mitzvah [incumbent] upon each person to love each and every Jew, as well as others according to some of our teachers, like himself. He extends this to teach that we should show the same empathy towards others we would hope they would exhibit towards us. By contrast, Sforno, Ramban, the Chizkuni and many others teach that the mitzvah is not intended to instruct us to have the same love for others as you do for yourself; this is impossible for the most basic of reasons. Would HaShem command that which is impossible? So what exactly does the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha obligate us to do? We are to want good things to happen to other people just like we would want good things to happen to ourselves. Just as Bruria taught her husband Rabbi Meir to not wish for the destruction of wicked people but rather to pray that they would repent and be offered atonement so that wickedness would be destroyed but not individuals. When we carefully look at the passuk itself, we are asked by some of our teachers to note that it does not say love your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta es re’acha kamocha), but rather, show love to your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha), by wanting good things to happen to them. This is the meaning of Hillel the Elder’s teaching to “not do to others what is hateful to you, i.e. what others would do to you.”

If we use this as our guiding principle in bringing Kedusha into our world and showing this concern for others, we see why Perek Yud-Tet (Chapter 19 of VaYikra – Leviticus) is at the center of the Holiness Code and according to some of our traditions, the very text of the Torah itself. Here we see so many actions, reminding us that in undertaking these initiatives including honesty and transparency in all business dealings, interacting with those in our communities with various needs and deficits such as visual or hearing impairments, sharing our crop with others, not injuring others by use of words, not bearing grudges, judging fairly, and so much else, we enact what Rabbi Harold Kushner states when he says that “Human beings and their actions are G-d’s language.” This fulfills the notion oft repeated in the Gemara (e.g. Sukkah, Yoma, Sotah) that when one does a single Mitzvah intentionally it is credited to him as if he or she has observed the entire Torah. There are so many ways to achieve this sense of connectedness, of Kedusha.

According to the Rambam, how are you supposed to go about fulfilling the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha; is it enough to meditate and think about it, i.e. to love in your heart but not through actions? What if this intentional action does not come naturally? The key is that such attitudes, feelings or emotions will hopefully come about as the result of actions one does, as we are carefully taught in the Sefer Hachinuch. It is only when these feelings, attitudes, etc. are clothed and expressed in the form of actions that they are internalized and take root within an individual. It is in this way that one fully acquires the ability to love others as one loves oneself; one does actions that show love to others. And this is what Hillel was saying when he instructed the potential convert ‘what is hateful to you do not do to your friend;’ he did not merely say ‘love others as you love yourself,’ because he was teaching this potential convert how to go about fulfilling this mitzvah - by wrapping emotions in action to make them real. And here is where we achieve Kedusha, or intentional and unique wholeness.

We learn in Sotah 14a, for example, that indeed we bring G-d into the world by following the sanctified actions of intentionality that G-d does, such as clothing those who need clothing, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. Ibn Ezra, among others, points out that the refrain of Ani HaShem and its constant presence in our text is alluding to the concept that we reflect HaShem in this world; and unity amongst Bnei Yisrael allows HaShem’s Shechinah to reside in this world. Similarly, Rashi and others teach that it was only when we put individual differences aside and we were ‘like one man with one heart and one voice ’that HaShem gave us Torah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler teaches that this is the goal for us to work towards yet again – finding our shared sense of mission and humanity that unites us all and here we will find AHAVA and KEDUSHA.

Further, we do not stop with the one in our midst with whom we disagree, but also embrace those who come into our communities from the outside, as we are instructed in verses 33 – 34:

33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Here we see the one Mitzvah that appears more than any other in our Torah; asking us to extend ourselves even further, not just to love the one with whom we share purpose as in Yehoshua; or the one who is tied to our destiny by heritage as in our text; but now we are asked to accept and NOT turn away the stranger precisely because that happened to us and we know what it feels like.

Returning to verse 19:16 -- Do not have a gossiper in your community; do not stand by the blood of your re’ah, we are again reminded that the saving of life is above all, even to the point of setting aside other Mitzvot when needed. This valuing of human life is what should motivate us to feel the love we are told to feel and cloak that love in actions that truly make a difference, bringing Kedusha to our world. Further, we see that our very use of language itself can be a vehicle to save or destroy life. Let us all commit ourselves to using our language, our actions, and the many paths to Kedusha at our disposal purposefully and in so doing follow the central dictate of:

You shall be קדושים because I the Lord your G-d am קדוש

Finally, let us commit ourselves to acknowledging the many ways our children are indeed Kadoshim in so many aspects of their lives and the many Mitzvot(intentional actions) they do on their path to achieving this shared goal!

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A LESSON FROM HIDDEN FIGURES AND A MESSAGE FOR OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN



While everyone is writing tomes about Pesach/Passover and its observance and message, I would like to go in a bit of a different direction, if I may. Gratitude and HaKarat HaTov – thanking others for the hard work they have done! This is something that should be part of all of our lives, in fact part of the air that we breathe; a message I hope we all share as much as possible.

This past year, my husband Ken decided that we should see as many good movies as possible before the Oscars. I think that in the span of about six weeks, I saw more movies during their first run than I have in a decade or two, probably more, maybe ever. Usually I see maybe one or two or rarely three in the course of the year. This year, we managed to hit EIGHT, and I just love the stories they tell, the messages they carry and the chapters of our history they remind us not to forget, as well as the remarkable people whose lives we learn about.

At the top of this list has to be Hidden Figures for me. In fact, after seeing the movie, I read the book by the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, which I highly recommend for reading as well as the documentation and history it cites. As I learned more and more about Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson and other important players at that time discussed in the book but not explored in the movie such as Christine Darden and Gloria Champine, I was struck by the strides that have been made in our world by women and people of color in the work place and in life generally. Living in the Philadelphia area my entire adult life, I often note the my reactions to these stories of the racial divide and so much else in our country’s recent past – and duly noting it still leaves its scars in many places - (including Fences, Loving and other such narratives) are often much more visceral and personal than many of my friends who grew up in the North (or that area decidedly north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which apparently was a question in Baltimore, the home of my formative years).

As I noted time and years indicated in the 50s, 60s and 70s in these various narratives, I was remembering very specific chapters of my own life in which I was acutely aware that equality of opportunity and rights was not a given for women, for people of color, for people of various religions and so forth depending on where one lived and worked. I remember my mom and other women of her generation telling me that the expectation for them was to become wives and mothers with no high career ambitions, just as Dorothy Vaughn was limited in opportunities presented to her in the 30s and 40s. This was actually a point of contention between my mom and me for many years until she “got” my life and the fact that I could be a mom, a wife and a professional. I remember well the flight of John Glenn and am acutely aware that none of us knew the roles of women, much less women of color in the space endeavors in our country. The chapters of anti-Semitism, exclusion of blacks and so many others were familiar to me as I was aware that America was really a Christian Country that allowed many of us to live, hopefully freely, though not really so in too many cases. As I read about these women’s lives through the 60s and 70s I remember friends who were about six or seven years older than me and our ongoing conversations about glass ceilings we were each aware of needing to shatter. One of the women of this remarkable story, Christine Darden, had fought to take a computer programming course at George Washington University in 1973. That was my school and this was going on within the same academic environment that my friends and I were taking for granted in too many ways. Dorothy Vaughn’s dreams came to a halt in 1971 when she was “retired” due to restructuring and not able to avail herself of opportunities for which she was qualified. That was the year I graduated high school, already planning not just completing a Bachelor degree but focused on going for my Masters and Doctorate as well.

My daughters who often remind us all of the importance of gratitude are also acutely and sometimes painfully aware of the privilege they have as well, given their socio-economic background and the many factors that mark them as potentially successful people in our society. This was something they always could aspire to; while the women of Hidden Figures had to fight their way to attain the same in their own lives.

This year seems at the same time to be an appropriate one to celebrate the strides having been made through hidden stories that have now been told, all of these movies based on and some documenting true occurrences; while at the same time it would be foolhardy to not notice some of the pushback we are all witnessing regarding some of these hard won rights for freedom and the privilege of making important contributions to our society. The symbolism of Pesach/Passover is all about understanding the limits we came from (Mitzrayim, meaning narrow straits as well as the name for Egypt) and the power of freedom as well as the responsibility it places in our hands to continue to strive for so much better.

As those of us who are Jewish prepare to celebrate Pesach/Passover, also called Zeman Cheiruteinu or The Time of our Freedom, let us all take a moment and show our deepest gratitude to those who came before us and on whose shoulders and through whose battles we are able to stand where we are today. And may we all understand that just as we say we should all act as though we were with the Jewish people at the time of Yetziat Mitrayim – leaving the shackles of being at the mercy of those who would control us – it is our responsibility to continue to show gratitude for those who came before us as well as allow our own shoulders to provide support for our children and grandchildren and the many generations that are yet to come. In doing so, we should remember our responsibility to continue to fight for rights and standing that we should never take for granted and tell stories about hidden figures and triumphs.

Happy Festival of Freedom to all!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

It’s Generational…. It Has To Be



We all have our stories to share, wounds from our past history and dynamics that absolutely had an impact on, if not totally defined our lives and ultimately the lives on whom we ourselves make an impact. Sometimes, we may think, “Is it just me?” when we consider the various disconnects and challenges in the various chapters of the lives we live. My answer is so often, “Actually, its generational!” It feels like while our stories are individual, there are so many checkpoints, if you will, that we have all gone through as have the generations that preceded us.

This strong feeling is reinforced constantly when I am in deep conversation with my colleagues, friends, family members, people I love and respect, and so on. And, yes, it happened again, just this past week! I was talking with a treasured colleague with whom I am involved in important Interfaith Dialogue work and as she was sharing her story and the narrative of her relationship with family members and the historical context in which those relationships have unfolded, I felt like I was listening to my own story in so many ways. Regardless of different regions of origin in our complex world, different religious backgrounds and different individuals, it was such a familiar story, that I felt often I could have recited it in unison right along with her. The fractured family ties, unhappy parents and grandparents who communicated the weight of their sadness to us, their children, and so much else that are part of our inherited family history have defined the people we have become. We have either carried on the various pains and their impact with the added weight of our own reactions in the connections we have forged in our lives; or we have tried to break the patterns, doing honor to the stories and the challenges that belong to our parents, our aunts and uncles and grandparents and others who are so pivotal to the people we have become, yet creating a new model of familial and generational continuity, if the larger context in which we live allows that to be an option. I would like to think that I have done the latter; at least I know I have certainly tried to do so.

Families that were uprooted or subject to vast changes in their lives due to oppressive governmental policies, hatred and prejudice and so much else left indelible scars on parents, grandparents and extended family members, whether they were from Eastern Europe, Asian or African lands or any other place where such dynamics ripped families apart, directly caused premature deaths of loved ones in such young years and otherwise left gaping holes in lives lived. Secrets of forbidden actions in impossible situations, separated parents in times when divorce was seen as such a shame, and being raised by those condemned to loveless marriages due to forced matches plagued Jews, Muslims and so many others within our various family trees across lines of religion, national origin and cultural context. This dynamic is not from hundreds of forgotten years ago, this is about OUR parents and our grandparents and we still carry the scars. They were not able to heal theirs due to the lack of psychological sophistication; the notion that any show of mental, emotional or psychological weakness was to be shunned; and their mere fight for survival in terms of basic economic existence and just trying to navigate day to day realities whether in Nazi Germany, the pogrom riddled life of Eastern Europe, the difficult life of Pakistan and India, the rife in so many Asian countries, or African conflicts. While Steven Spielberg has recaptured so much of these histories for those from families who suffered during the Holocaust, we do not have such comprehensive records for those of us from whose families went through the pogroms, or came from so many different lands of oppression on various continents. What we are left with are the scars and the secrets and the challenge of figuring it all out, often by piecing random little parts of a very complicated decades-old-puzzle together.

Today, we are worried, so worried that many fights that those of us in our 50s and 60s and older remember all too well and finally were able to reach the point where we could celebrate the acceptance and shared sense of being part of the human family may be threatening to reappear. In fact, unfortunately in too many cases they are. Muslims are once again being marginalized or demonized; anti-Semitism is on the rise and Jewish communities are feeling the pinch; Christian extremists and other religious right-wing adherents are feeling emboldened; countries are devolving into positions of acrimonious feelings towards those who are “in” or “out” and we are seeing the realization of our fears that yes, this hatred and lack of human empathy could happen again, and indeed it is doing just that. We are reminded of the statement that those who forget history and its conflicts are bound to repeat them.

Within this reality, many are asking so what can and should we do? It is in thinking of how to proceed that I would like to suggest a few truisms for all to remember and consider. Most important, we must talk with each other and reclaim the lessons of past chapters of our shared history. In doing so, it is important that we:

1. Don’t assume that you know someone else’s story. We do not know the pain that other people have gone through. Ask questions and be ready to listen and try to truly listen intentionally. Ask the person you are speaking with what lessons do you think come from their life and what is the legacy that they want to leave us. Remember that our lives do not just happen in a vacuum but that historical context and the reality of larger picture of our lives often dictates so much that happens in our personal journeys. Also consider that many may not want to share their stories, as much as we want them to. Just let our loved ones know we are ready to listen when they are ready to talk, and hope that such a day will come.

2. Pay attention to the generation from which people come. If someone is of the age that they lived through the Depression, World War II and its aftermath, KNOW THAT THEY WERE AFFECTED BY THESE EVENTS. For those who went through the unrest of the 60s and the 70s, we know what it is to protest, what it is to want something better, what it is to fight for social justice. Whether people were involved in the fight for civil rights, for equality for women, for understanding of various religious groupings, for inclusion of those with learning and personal differences, for acceptance and validation of LGBTQ persons – there is a lot of experience and storytelling to share with all who are willing to listen. Again, ask questions and listen carefully to the answers. Know that too often, “we have been here before” even if it did not and probably did not look exactly what we are experiencing now, precisely because of different historical backdrops.

3. Jewish teachings tell us to “give the benefit of the doubt” and to “not judge someone until you have reached their place.” It is important to validate each other’s reality and to acknowledge that we cannot know what it is like to be in an entire spectrum of circumstances in which we have not had experience, just as someone else cannot know our pain. Show understanding and compassion and chances are you may find out more about our troubled past that defined our family members and those around us.

We learn in the book of Kohelet/Ecclesiastes that there is nothing new under the sun, what happened before will happen again and what seems new is just something from before. In our family, we speak often of what is going on in today’s world and the actions that are taken. I see that there are protests and rallies where those of us who marched for so much about thirty to forty five years ago are joining with a new generation who is outraged. It is so important that we join together so that the healing so many of us worked for as the result of our parents’ and grandparents’ painful lives not be lost and that we all continue to repeat and learn from the chapters of our personal and collective history. I sincerely hope that generational challenges and the small victories that we have achieved are not lost in the shuffle of forgetting our past.

Monday, March 13, 2017

An Introductory Word or Two (from Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward)

What follows is the introduction to my recently published book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward to give you an idea of the tone and subject matter of the book. This book can be purchased at Amazon.com either in paperback form or as a Kindle e-book. For more information, please contact me directly at shulisrose@aol.com or search for my name on Amazon.com

Today in our world and in our country, as we confront so many different challenges and threats to our collective and individual well-being, we constantly look for support for our soul and our well-being. While religion and what one believes should and can offer such support, the degree to which it does so is often a hot controversial topic. Not of course, that this is a new phenomenon. Religion has always been so much at the core of our beings as humans, whether we individually admit this to be the case or not. In fact, in cultural and ethnographic studies, religion is one of the core markers of any people being studied. (1)

One cannot study European History, Ancient History or any other people’s story and narrative without speaking of religion. For Ancient Man, as well as for many tribal and land based cultures and people today, religion is still at the core of their individual as well as collective beings. Simply, for many, if not most people throughout history, religion has been an exclamation mark – the Of Course! of their lives. This is especially true for those who are closer to the land, as the land they work and depend upon, and the Higher Being to whom they pray for sustenance from the land are clearly connected in a visceral way that is core to daily life. Religion provides responses to questions that elude us in the more tangible aspects of our lives, and as such, provides a support that is specific and unique to its context alone.

As an expression of this sentiment, look at these words of George Copway (Kahgegagahbowh) as recorded by Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999):

I was born in Nature’s wide domain! The trees were all that sheltered my infant limbs, the blue heavens all that covered me. I am one of Nature’s children …

And whenever I see her, emotions of pleasure roll in my breast, and swell and burst like waves on the shores of the ocean, in prayer and praise to Him (God) who has placed me in her hand. It is thought great to be born in palaces, surrounded with wealth – but to be born in Nature’s wide domain is greater still!
(2)

For those of us in the modern industrialized and technologically advanced world, however, God and God’s presence in our lives has apparently become more and more of a question mark. Namely, we ask, “Is there a Higher Being, and do I care?” Do I need a Higher Being? Do I believe? What do I believe? Why should I believe? Because we question instead of exclaim our beliefs, does this mean that religion is no longer at the core of our being?

In the throes of addressing the results of a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, we are dealing with an American population in which 16.1% claim that they do not affiliate with any religion. Further, this number is reported to be double that of those who say they were unaffiliated as children, reflecting a movement away from what would clearly be labeled normative expressions of religion in more individual lives as we continue on our present trajectory (3).

Through my career, I have had many opportunities to address these issues as an instructor, lecturer, and head of schools and educational systems; and as an avid observer, as well as a self-identified person of faith. One of the seasons which I have found often raises the issue of identity with religion to the point of hyper-awareness in the United States is that of the winter weeks leading up to Christmas. There is no surprise here, given the commercialism and obvious “front and center” of the season, in addition to the obvious profound meaning of the time.

That being said, my experience has been that something else is going on. As one measure of the impact of this observance on the non-Christian members of American society, one need only observe the proliferation of options for Jewish families and community members as alternatives for this day of obvious importance to so many. Further, I have often found on an annual basis, the issue of what winter decorations and religious symbols appear in our public spaces becomes an item on the agenda of school boards and agencies as an interesting point of angst. When I held various leadership posts in different regions throughout my career, communities and individuals would often contact me about their discomfort regarding the visual evidence of the Christmas season. In my work with these communities, I tried to convey the difference between “teaching religion” and “teaching that religion as an institution with its many forms has a value” to us as individuals, groups and a national entity.

At its foundation, religion as a system of thought and faith as well as its potential in conveyance of meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions provides us with a unique and singular synergy as it touches the very core of our beings with the comfort it provides through a belief in something bigger than us and beyond the daily regimen of our busy lives, so filled with technology, industrious undertakings, and efficient use of time. Many would agree that it still remains the Of Course! in our hectic lives, whether or not we recognize it as such.

In more recent years in the United States of America, we have witnessed attempts to remove the words “under God” from our Pledge of Allegiance, legal proceedings have been pursued to remove sculptured representations of The Ten Commandments in several American cities, and stirrings are occasionally heard regarding the same feelings of discomfort having the words “In God we trust” on our currency and the various references to God in our songs of national pride. Clearly, the operational meaning of separation of church and state is being tested, retested, and perhaps even redefined in a manner far different from what we were taught was intended by the founders of these United States of America. This is somewhat ironic as we remember that the notion of our national forefathers was to permit all Americans to worship as they like and prefer, but to be free to worship nonetheless, not to the exclusion of those who wish to exercise their prerogative to not do so.

This was a radical departure from most places and spaces in our collective history of the world (as well as what is still present in many regions around our globe today), in which one’s national identity, cultural life and religion were a package deal, very often defined by the ruler of the land in which one lived. The American separation of church and state was precisely intended to teach all to value the notion of religious belief in a manner most appropriate and meaningful to them – that is, to encourage religious practices and beliefs, ALL religious practices and beliefs, without the “state” determining which “church” such practices and beliefs would have to conform to for any individual.

Conversely, way over on the opposite side of the continuum of belief and meaningful living from those who would turn their back on religion and its various instructions and frames to enable and support our lives, Fundamentalism has truly become a formidable challenge for so many of us in our contemporary world. As increasing numbers of members of our society become more liberal and less rooted in their treasured past on the left side of our cultural continuum, on its right side we have compelling instances of whole groups, communities, even nations who have literally closed their eyes and minds to any shade of these more liberal, some would say less principled, approaches to life. For some, it’s even simpler than that; with adherents claiming that if you do not believe exactly as I do and do as I do, you are rendered as persona non-gratis! As a result, these forces have become stubbornly rigid in what they believe to be the most stringent definition of their respective religious communities. In short, our world is increasingly being painted in black and white distinct color blocks; while many have worked so hard for generations to achieve a moderate approach of understanding that so much of life ultimately and truly happens in the variegated gray zone.

So, how do we reconcile this dynamic? How do we balance our allegiance and valuing of the past and its rootedness as well as the lessons learned from its sources with a more measured and positive outlook for our future? How do we take chances and strive for more meaning and substance in our lives in a synchronistic manner that encompasses and protects the valuing of all shades of belief systems? This is the question, which is explored here; and the search at hand, and a challenging and sometimes exhausting search it is!

I do want to note that the voice of this book is definitely based in Jewish thinking and texts. That being said, all are welcome to engage in the thinking and dialogue that I hope will evolve as a result of reading these essays. It is more about the fact that we may believe than the specifics of what that system of belief is. In that spirit, please use the Jewish texts here as emblematic of a system of belief from which the intrinsic thoughts and questions are extrapolated and feel free to do the same within other systems of belief and thought, also represented here at points.

There will be many questions in this book and it is intended that we read this thoughtfully and slowly, pausing to consider and answer these questions. Imagine reading this manuscript in a meditative mode, letting into your soul the questions, journeys and experiences of those that have gone before us as we consider the questions of our own journeys and experiences. You might even want to keep a journal nearby in which you can write your own thoughts and truly become a participant in the intended discussion that is this collection of essays and thoughts in any way that is meaningful. This book is much more about the questions asked than the various approaches provided; in fact each chapter will end with Questions for Continued Thought and Discussion. Welcome on what I hope will be a shared and meaningful journey, where we accept challenges that are thrown our way and use them to strengthen our own approaches in attempting to live a meaningful and important life.

Questions unite, answers divide. Martin Buber (and attributed to so many others as well)

Footnotes

(1) Cultural anthropologists have long studied the elements that define a society and religion is clearly a central factor. For a brief survey of this work, the reader is referred to Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Editor. USA: Hartford Institute, for Religion Research, hirr@hartsem.edu.

(2) Ken Nerburn in his important collection of teachings in The Wisdom of the Native Americans (California: New World Library, 1999) relates in writing stories and lore of the Native Americans. There was a great controversy regarding committing to writing these generationally transmitted stories through telling, such an important element of the continuation of the Native American culture and community. Pages 3 – 4 are quoted here.

(3) Pew Research, Religion and Public Life Project, January 8, 2014.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When Leaders Go Astray



I recently learned a fascinating piece of Gemara (Talmud) found in Masechet Nedarim, 81a, which I just completed learning this past week (at least for this time around as we are always cycling back through learned material). This section of Talmud is about our vows and promises, the words we use and the limit of the power of those words as well as the largess of their potential. In this particular text we are taught that Torah Scholars (the academic and practical and perhaps spiritual leaders of the Jewish community hopefully) do not generally produce Torah Scholars as children, but rather our Torah Scholars who are supposed to be important role models in our community often come up through the ranks, so to speak, from the impoverished members of that community. Why is this the case? In typical Gemara style, the Rabbis do not hesitate to provide reasons. One reason suggested for this statement is so that one group of people does not think that the Torah is exclusively theirs and not belonging to others. Another Rabbi states that the gift of Torah should never be taken for granted and is ultimately meant to be earned and honored for its own worth by each person who embraces it. Yet another perspective is that those who think they are entitled to such an inheritance may take it for granted, will become corrupt and not act appropriately for the community. Sound familiar? It appears that we have an interesting slippery slope of what can happen when our leaders and scholars and teachers do not work hard every day to maintain their position but rather come to a point where they feel entitled and above the masses, so to speak. With so many of our religious and political leaders succumbing to their perceived privilege of power in being “above or outside of the law” regarding accountability for their actions, this is definitely a dynamic with which we are all too familiar in our world today. Another nod to the wisdom of the teachers from long ago!

It should be pointed out that this discussion in our text takes place within the larger context of consideration of the limits of the power of various members of the community, including and especially those to whom members of the collective may come to for guidance and help and directives on all matters of life, specifically here regarding consequences of words and promises (or vows) they have uttered. Further, we are reminded that the entirety of the law was in fact given to all members of the collective and all of those people have equal access to it. Thus, we understand that our Torah scholars (think rock stars for this community) can and do come from those who are least resourced and privileged, and perhaps just because of that station in life, know a thing or two about how to behave, how to answer people’s queries and how to, in a word I think we all know by now, be a “mensch.”

Omar Saif Ghobash in his Letters to a Young Muslim also has what to say about leaders and leadership, limits and how leaders in one’s world (their rock stars, if you will) can be misinformed and lead others astray if they do not observe necessary limits. He shows his son, other young Muslims, and all of us in these letters the potential problem with various leadership types. He speaks out specifically about the “Muslim warrior” as seen in today’s world – taking matters into his or her own hands supposedly in the name of Allah. How do they know that they are doing anything near the will of Allah, he enjoins his son to ask himself. He challenges his son and others with these words, “Perhaps the modern Muslim warrior is one who embraces life in its complexity and fights for social and economic justice with his or her mind, rather than for a stretch of desert territory with his or her body.” He goes on to say that “very fixed ideas of what it means to be a good Muslim” as taught by leaders, imams, and so many others need to be challenged and that his son has to take great care in choosing his role models.

In the United States today and throughout the world, too many people are taking on the reins of leadership and telling us through their words and actions, too often violent and destructive, what THEY think should be. Consider the Jewish and Israeli community years ago, when a young man by the name of Yigal Amir followed the teachings of his Rabbis and teachers who used and manipulated the Jewish concept of “threatening life” to speak of Yitzchak Rabin (may his memory be for a blessing) and then felt he had permission as “a good Jew” to kill him and then did so. For a few moments in time, Jewish voices around the world looked at language used and impressions made by what we and our leaders say; and then after too little time, it was basically back to business as usual. Of course we know that this notion of following the teachings one learned and engaging in violent behaviors is repeated too often and is profoundly frustrating.

There is an important lesson here regarding the danger of leaders becoming too comfortable, too revered, too honored and being treated as if and then acting as though they are above the law to which all are subjected. Jewish Law is structured in such a way that DOES NOT allow this to seep into our psyche as an accepted teaching. This is why the King of the Jewish nation as it would evolve was instructed to always have the Torah by him, why so many people continue learning the text of our heritage every day and we are oft taught that it is our actions and initiatives in our daily secular and general lives that are the true test of our character, not the family from which we come and not the amount of knowledge we have. It is for this reason, perhaps, that those who are worthy as Torah scholars do not reach that status by inheritance, privilege or predestined circumstances, but rather, by how they pull themselves up, address the challenges of their lives, and thereby know how to act as human as possible and be the role models we are to follow. I think there is an important lesson for all of us here.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Parshat Mishpatim 2017/5777

In the Midrash, Rabbi Joshua’s nephew Hananiah taught: Just as in the sea there are ripples and wavelets between each major wave, so between each of the Ten Commandments there are Torah’s minutiae, both written and unwritten. Rambam teaches that when we consider each and every potential extension (all Toldot) and every imaginable iteration of each and every Mitzvah, it is impossible to imagine such a voluminous and complete understanding of what is the spirit and the meaning of each and every law.

In addressing this impossible task, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches as follows:

Standing at the foot of the Holy Mountain the entire People of Israel have now witnessed and received the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Utterances”…) Moses then ascends the mountain and disappears into the mysterious cloud that obscures its summit. Here this week’s portion begins: V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifnayhem – And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1) What follows is a detailed law code covering damages, civil law, criminal law, capital offenses – the fine print of the covenant, and the foundation of a living code of law that sustains Jewish discourse and codes of behavior to this day.

These are the ripples and wavelets that bring our Aseret HaDibrot and all Given Law to life. These details are the clothing that allows us to interface with the skeletal ideals that we are given that should dictate how we live individually and collectively; and in turn will inform further development and definition of our laws as we continue in our existence. This is the beginning of Civil Law as we know it, where everyone in society has rights and everyone who has more privilege than others have responsibility towards those who are less resourced in any way.

It is interesting to note that in discussion of law, we are told that there are משפטים and חוקים – the second of these are those laws that we do not necessarily understand but do because they were dictated, whereas the first, from which our Parsha takes its name are those laws that (elmaleh she’hem lo ichtivu) even if they were not written, we would know to do them as thinking rational human beings. Would we? All we have to do is look around our world today and note that there is still abuse, slavery, degradation of human beings and so much else that is proscribed against in this Parsha – yes, those laws that we would do even if they were not written – if, that is, we have a conscience and a sense of good and bad or not so good. These ideas of shared and reasonable use of power, freedom and initiative are at the root of all of Jewish law as reflected in our Torah and in the commentaries that will further explain both the letter and the spirit of its letter.

Einat Kramer, the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel and the coordinator of the Israeli Shmita Initiative understands this well. Her organization is a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year (mentioned in our Parsha in 23:10 ff, immediately after being told וגר לא תלחץ as a time of holding back not just in terms of our relationship to the land but also in our relationship to each other – using this SHABBAT, if you will, for personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel in which the notions of shared destiny and cooperative spirit dictate decisions made.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the seemingly fantastical story, though it is absolutely true, of Csanad Szegedi, the leader of Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which cited as one of its foundational beliefs that Jews were indeed trying to control the world and as recently as April 2014, was asking for a list of all Jews that are in any way connected to the Hungarian government for purposes that cannot be for their benefit. However, at this point, the party was no longer under Szegedi’s leadership because in 2012, he found out that he was indeed a Jew. While being ostracized and villianized by those he led for so long in solidarity while maligning others, Szegedi today is a practicing Shomer Mitzvot Jew who has undergone complete conversion even though he was Jewish according to his rooted identity. His name is David.

Today he works to defend human rights for all people. He has stated as follows, “I am aware of my responsibility and I know I will have to make it right in the future.” Here is an example of someone who now observes these משפטים but apparently came to them not from a basic and natural inbred knowledge as suggested in our Gemara, but rather through learning and more akin to the notion of “וגר לא תלחץ “ (found in Chapter 23.9 in our Parsha is one of the 36 times this is cited as a requirement of Torah based practice) – NOT to oppress the other for we had that experience and know what it feels like. One would like to think that our basic human instincts are to be good, but unfortunately way too much glitter and personal validation and other extraneous stuff gets in the way of that instinct, if indeed it is so.

As Sacks narrates this rather remarkable story, he teaches us that

What makes us human is the fact that we are rational, reflective, capable of thinking things through. We feel empathy and sympathy, and this begins early… Yet much of human history has been a story of violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, aggression and war.

The core elements of Parshat Mispatim insure that hopefully we work towards the former of feeling empathy and concern for the other and not the latter where power overtakes and precludes all use of reason and identity with those in a different station in life than the one in power. In the Code of Hummarabi, for example, so much of the law is to protect the King and his rule. Here the ideal expressed by Einat Kramer above is what holds sway in the details – the waves and ripples of this Parsha of Civil Law. In fact this reinforces the fact that religion properly practiced for the observing Jew is NOT singularly about rite and ritual, but rather that is merely representative of and part of the daily life well and appropriately lived. As I often teach, most of the Gemara, Mishneh Torah and the volumes of other “How To” appendices to our Book of Law is about our dealings in business, our treatment of family, our use of land, our taking care of each other and NOT about the RITUAL of Jewish Life. Baba Kamma 30a is just one of many texts in which we are taught that the chasid, the pious Jew is one who is knowledgeable about and agile in the practice of civil and tort law. Is this natural or too demanding as we consider every possible motivation and evolution of the laws and practices we are given through Rabbinic generations of insuring that we live justly and practice intentionally?

We learn in Baba Kamma 79:2 as follows regarding that Rabbinic extension of law as Rambam referred to in indicating that this is an almost limitless task:

אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה - A decree cannot be made if the majority of the public cannot follow it.

Unfortunately, it feels like more and more of our public are not following the basic standards of behavior that our Parsha would have us assume as human beings. So do we forget these basic human instinctive proper behaviors?

Part of the darker reality of life is clearly found in this Parsha, as we talk about the existence of servitude, selling of daughters, murder, injury to others, death caused by animals and other challenges to life as seen in the culture of the Torah, and still evident in our lives today. So what do we do with this code of behavior? The Jewish ideal is NEVER idyllic, that is to say, this is not about the eradication of these practices and incidents, which will occur wherever human history plays itself out, but the question is what you will do about these realities of life. Einat Kramer, our social and environmentalism ethicist, presents a really interesting and provocative thought regarding the Yovel, the year after every seven cycles of Shemitah years. As in the Shemitah year, we are COMMANDED to allow the land to rest as we do every seventh period of counted time, the Yovel is something that has not occurred in our history since the B’nai Yisrael lived tribally in a fixed location. It is not something that we do but rather is the idyllic – the time when all land goes back to original owners, all individuals have complete and total personal agency and all live in peace.

It is, says Kramer, our idea of Utopia – to be striven for in our daily actions, acknowledging both those elements of our lives that tempt us to not be the best we can be while trying to withstand their lure and striving for what are hopefully those actions that should indeed be the frame for our lives and be those behaviors that we would observe as Sacks’ thinking and rational human beings, not needed to be told to be, well human and caring. These are our משפטים – let them continue to guide us and remind us both of our experiences that have taught us well and our instincts that will hopefully serve us as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward – The Publication of My Book

During the second week of February this year, my book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward was published. The work of writing the essays in this book and in fashioning its total effect was done over the course of about a decade, reflecting parts of lessons, observations of events in my life personally and in our public domain and so much else. It was in every sense of the word a process and it still is a process with each chapter ending with questions for discussion that I hope will be taken up in this forum or in another one at a future point. It is my hope that we will all join together in understanding that the questions we ask are often more important than answers we take on, and in fact, approaches may be better suited to the complexity of our queries. We acknowledge that to one such inquiry there may and no doubt will be a plethora of approaches, all worthy of consideration and thought. The discussion in which I hope you will join me concerns religion, our foundational beliefs, the history and the chapters of that history attributed to others that form the basis of our reality today and our concerns and hopes for our present situation and the future. At the center of this discussion is religion – those beliefs and truths that each person, each people, each collective hold onto as part of their humanity.

I do not have illusions about this book becoming a best seller or achieving the type of popularity that would place it on the front of Barnes and Noble’s book displays. I will humbly say it would be nice because I think the message is critical. As critical as that indicated by Omar Saif Ghobash in his book Letters to a Young Muslim or in Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil and other treatises that look at what has gone so terribly wrong with the very institution that is supposed to inspire us to be our best and want the best for all of humanity. The focus is both as true to the value and legitimacy of holding onto a system of beliefs while recognizing and appreciating the good in other such systems as the Dalai Lama or Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and so many others would ask of us to do. I do think it would be an important read for those who are concerned with interfaith relations, with how we hold onto what is wonderful about our religious traditions while being honest about potential challenges and shortcomings, and for all of us who are so concerned about what is going on in our world today around the increased perceived danger of holding an ideology. I think it would be most valuable in classes as a text for advanced high school students, college and graduate school courses on the Value of Religion in our Society Today.

It is the conversations begun here that I hope will spark other conversations that we all engage in as we purposefully and intelligently realize that religion can be gentle and kind and not, as the extremists and radicalists amongst all of us would have it, vicious and vindictive. It is about the religion that I love as an observant Jewish woman; it is about the ideology I share with so many monotheists and about the ethical core that is the possession of the collective called humanity who believe that what is in your heart is as valuable as what is in mine. I ask you to join me on this journey and to use this space to share your perspectives and thoughts as you read through the pages of these thoughts and ideas that I bring together from the arts, from the different Monotheistic Faiths, from Native Americans, from the Eastern world and from my own spiritual home, the faith that we trace all the back to Abraham in Canaan.

For ordering information please go to https://www.amazon.com and search for Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book on Kindle.

Please use this space to begin discussions that will be continued… And for more thoughts and writings from my blog, please go to http://callingalljew-jus.blogspot.com/ May we all continue to work for a peaceful world of understanding and sharing of humanity, accountable to The Creator of All (or to whatever Source you deem appropriate for you). And now, please do discuss in our virtual room without walls …

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Jewish Community Response to the Refugee Crisis of Human Beings in our World Today



A while back, one of my daughters and I were speaking and she was explaining to me that shuls/synagogues have offered to sponsor and take care of refugee families in her city, which is a Sanctuary City, but found out that a family that was supposed to come, will not be allowed to do so. What should the synagogue do?

It is indeed troubling that freedoms and aspects of life that we took for granted are not at risk. It does feel like we have jumped back several decades, unfortunately and sadly; so let me suggest an approach from the 70s and 80s. Any of us who remember the days of fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews, remember so many actions that we all took.

There were public rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry; long and concentrated letter writing campaigns to our Congressman, Senators and other officials; shuls/synagogues would “adopt” a Soviet Jewish family and make their pictures public, speak of them constantly and try to maintain whatever contact was possible; there were bracelets we all wore with names of Soviet Jews on them; ceremonial mention of families at our Sedarim and our family Semachot. Mostly, we KNEW THOSE NAMES and they were part of our lives until they could live their own lives freely and within the parameters of basic human rights without fear for their safety and well-being.

I would suggest that Jewish communities, schools, shuls and synagogues, JCRCs, Jewish Federations and so many other agencies should consider these actions. We are taught that each and every one of us should see ourselves as if WE LEFT EGYPT so that we remember the experience of not having agency in our lives and G-d taking care of us. There is a Jewish teaching that G-d gives us resources and blessings so that we can use them responsibly to help others.

For those of you who may say “But that was for Jews…” let me remind you that first of all, NOT all of those Soviet Jews were in fact Jews given so many mixed marriages and other factors; and secondly We are commanded to NOT OPPRESS and take care of the OTHER person as Jews no less than thirty six times in the Torah; and thirdly, and most important we are to help all of G-d’s created members of humanity. And here is our opportunity to act responsibly and do so.

So I recommend taking out those files from 40+ years ago and so and consider you plan of action. If your files are missing, contact me. I still have mine! Let us all work together in meaningful and foundationally faith driven ways to show our concern for our fellow human beings, for if one is threatened, well, you know the rest….

Please note that I do not normally put up more than one post every two weeks or so, but this is of timed importance.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Beyond Google: Why We Are In the Place We Are or Are You My Shul?



I have often said that our lives and what happens to us is as much about timing and place as anything. Those who watch and go by the stars or astrological signs say something so similar. I have been doing wonderful things in the past several years professionally and am really enjoying the path my life is taking at this point as I continue my passion of teaching (i.e. learning with) people of all ages in so many different settings. That having been said, I have often felt that if I was not located in this place – Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in the Greater Philadelphia area, my life would have been so much more gratifying professionally. Why did G-d ordain that this was where I was to play out the involvements and elements that are my life? In terms of both my profession and personal life as a Halachically (referring to the laws and dictates) observant and well-educated Jewish woman and as one who truly believes in Klal Yisrael – that is all Jews are part of this community regardless of where they identify ideologically, and beyond that as one who believes in the rights and our responsibilities toward all human beings as all are created by G-d and in the image of G-d – BeTzelem Elokim, Philadelphia has not been an easy place for me to be, to say the least. That being said, I have been fortunate, humbled, and honored to be involved in the facilitation of learning experiences and programs for tens of thousands of fellow Jews and human beings of all ages and in all settings through the years (decades, actually). For me this has been enough…. On many levels more than enough and it fills me with an ongoing sense of awe and gratitude.

That being said, when people ask me “What shul (synagogue) do you belong to and what community provides sustenance for your personal Jewish soul and experience?” -- which is a normative and expected question for someone like me, I really do not know what to say. What shul do I belong to anyway? While the answer should be simple enough, I always feel like the ongoing message of the three little bears and Goldilocks – except I have a hard time finding the fit that is “just right” on any level. I teach in one place, I feel embraced in another place and I belong everywhere in general but nowhere in particular. My shul of choice is located in another community and I do go there as much as possible (Go Mekor!) but I live in the community I live in and have resisted moving away from because there are so many other things I LOVE about where I live – as a community of intentional diversity, long standing relationships and friendships, beautiful and peaceful environs, and so much else. I am so committed to and enmeshed in this location. These connections are to me critically important components of the community I want to live in so I gave up on finding THE SHUL that works for me and just deal…

Nonetheless, I have recently figured out the answer to this quandary and know now why I am supposed to be here at this place on the Google Earth map, confined to walking distance in finding MY community for Shabbat, indeed a special time for me as a Halachically observant Jew. We have such a special group at our home one Shabbat a month on Friday night to doven and enjoy each other’s company over Shabbat dinner, bringing together a wide swath of Jews with different levels of observance and affiliations – and WE ARE community! I, as an observant Jewish woman can and do exercise my right to doven (pray) as an individual not bound by or to the parameters of a specific prayer quorum. So I take my Koren Siddur (thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) and spend Shabbat in an array of different communities, being part of a group and simultaneously praying on my own to G-d, no different than Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov (for those who understand that reference), praying alone in his corner. And then lo and behold, I found a true treasure about four months ago. It turns out that there is this lovely little Conservative Movement identified shul (Yay MBIEE) that IS JUST LIKE THE SHUL I grew up in as a Jewish Law/Halacha Abiding Jew in my youth in Baltimore. There is a full Torah reading, prayers for the State of Israel and for the country in which we abide, full dovenning, and so much else. I sit down in this space with my Siddur and I feel embraced by the memories of my childhood, in which I learned and was schooled in what it means to be a knowledgeable and committed observing Jew, while also being concerned about and involved in the world around me, putting the foundational Jewish values I hold so dear into important and needed action. I now feel like there is a place where I belong in addition to being able to travel in and out of the different shul communities that exist within the Shabbat boundaries that contain my movement. I am happy!

The Lubavitch Jewish community has this concept called and lived as Shlichut. Mormons call it their Missions. What is this? It is when individuals are sent or placed in specific communities to live as an exemplar of the foundational values and teachings of this way of life to which they ascribe. The Rabbi of this wonderful little shul, Rabbi Charles Sherman (who it turns out I met very long ago when I was a USYer and part of one of the last LTF cadres of that group) referred to me as a Community Jew. Yup, that’s me, a Community Jew in a Community of Jews…. And this is my place and now I feel like I have landed. I am indeed comfortable anywhere and everywhere but it is nice to know that there is a “base” that you can feel is yours. For me that has always been my family, which is also the case for Lubavitch and Mormon communities, by the way. That being said, its important that we all have various spaces to feed our soul in the many different ways we need.

So here is my challenge to all of us. I do believe that we all have our mission or Shlichut in this world. Hold onto that and maybe, just maybe, you too will figure out why you are where you are on the Google map and what it is you are supposed to do there to make a difference as well as how to find the surprise place that will feed your soul.