Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Do We Talk About Israel


Last Shabbat, following the elections in Israel, Rabbi Michael Swarttz and I gave the following sermon at our joint annual Congregation B'nai Shalom/Beth Tikvah service. The presentation was followed by discussion and comment from the congregation. We are sharing our text to stimulate further conversation - perhaps around Seder tables at the upcoming festival of Pesach.


Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz:
Rabbi Melissa Weintraub writes, ‘In rabbinic circles, one increasingly hears sentiments like, “I’m not going to get fired for my politics on gun control or health care, but I could get fired for just about anything I say about Israel.” Rabbi Scott Perlo has coined this, the “Death by Israel Sermon.”

And yet, 4 days after the Israeli elections, bringing together our two congregations, how could we not speak about Israel together? And more than anything, when we speak about Israel together, whether in a formal community gathering or on each other’s Facebook walls, we want to bring care, love, and genuine deep listening to how we speak about Israel with each other.

In his book, ‘Relational Judaism’, Rabbi Ron Wolfson discusses our relationship with Israel as one of the vital aspects of relationship building that needs to be deepened in Jewish communal life. He reports on the impact of ten years of programming in one congregation in St. Louis that sent their 15 year olds on a Summer-long program to live with Israeli youth in a Moshav in the 1970s. At the 30th reunion of those who had participated in the program, they surveyed the more than 300 people who had participated over the years.  This revealed that the experience had created a ‘reference relationship’ with Israel that many respondents claimed was one of the most important influences in their lives, evidenced by many of the now-adult participants maintaining regular contact with their Israeli ‘families’.

For those of us who have been to Israel, for those of us who have Israelis in our families, for those of us that have hosted an Israeli in our homes (such as our wonderful Israeli emissary program)… these are personal ways of engaging with Israel and forming a multi-faceted sense of relationship with the land and her people.

For others, we rely on what we can learn from the media. We rely on various Jewish and Israeli organizations, each with their own set of perspectives, principles, and policies to inform us. They frame the stories of Israel, the peace process, and all we try to grasp from the outside for us. But from where do we learn how to interpret this information and how to critically examine the presentation of a particular set of perspectives? How do we contribute to the conversations about Israel, whether within the Jewish community, in broader communal settings, on college campuses, and on the political stage?

How do we talk about Israel? The answer to that question might depend on what our goal is, and with whom we are speaking.

·         For some, the goal is to make the case for a very specific kind of policy or position with regard to Israel.
Photo: Davos Dorf, Davos, Canton of Graubunden
When Netanyahu spoke to Congress 2.5 weeks ago, there was very little of ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’. He had a very specific hand to deal. If you a politician, you stake out your ground. Whatever you may be feeling about the outcome of these elections, there is no doubt that Netanyahu clearly articulated where he stood.

·         For some, speaking about Israel has become a not-so-subtle hiding ground for anti-semitism. 
I was speaking with a Christian minister who recently returned from a trip to Israel that was designed to educate ministers about both sides of the conflict. She remarked that she now saw and understood how so much of the focus on Israel’s ills in the media and the international stage is so clearly a manifestation of anti-semitism.  Recently on a British TV show, Question Time, a politician was taken to task by some members of the audience and other panelists for his virulent anti-Zionism. He denied that he was responsible in any way for increases in anti-semitic attacks in the UK, parsing the difference between his anti-Zionism and anti-semitism in ways that simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. We have to speak up and hold those who misuse Israel in this way accountable.

·         For some, speaking about Israel is about working to ensure that the US has Israel’s back.
This is an important role for all involved in political action in DC. But sometimes this role is conflated with never publicly criticizing or questioning Israel’s decisions. This is a delicate subject. Some believe that we risk weakening that support if we introduce nuance and complexity into this political forum. Others believe that if we truly wish the US political system to support Israel and help it achieve a lasting peace with the Palestinians that we are obligated to speak when we perceive Israel to be doing something that is not in its long-term best interests.

For most of us, Rabbis included, we speak about Israel because we care about Israel. We speak about Israel because we want to better understand Israel. We speak about Israel because we want to learn more about the people and the land. And we want, we desperately want to find a path forward for peace. And we struggle with how complicated that is.

I have always made it my mission, when visiting in Israel, to find opportunities to speak with Arab Israelis and Palestinians. I spent a year in Israel, arriving there shortly after the 2nd intifada began. The old city was quiet, and the shopkeepers had plenty of time to chat. I spent extended visits over mint tea with some of them, listening to their stories of what was happening in the West Bank, and the conversations taking place in East Jerusalem. I even traveled into the West Bank and two refugee camps, led by one of those who I had befriended over time, to see things for myself. It opened my eyes to another perspective that, when we only do ‘Jewish Israel’ we can never find. And, whatever you may think of that perspective, my understanding of what the conflict is about and what both sides want was enormously deepened by having taken the time to sit down and have those conversations.

Back in the US, it also gave me access to the Arab Muslim population that was involved in interfaith work with my congregation and others in my last community in Bridgeport. They invited me to speak about the Jewish and Israeli perspective on the peace process, because they knew that I had listened to their perspective, and we had a mutual respect and, eventually, love for each other, even though we disagreed when new events in the conflict arose. The bridge building we were able to do locally was built on friendship and trust first.

One cannot help but emerge from these kinds of discursive and relationship-based conversations with a very different kind of personal connection to Israel and the people of Israel.  One gains entry into the diversity of perspective and experience of Israel’s citizens. There can be no two-dimensional analysis or understanding of what is happening or what will happen – it is complex and multi-dimensional, and ever-changing.  And perhaps most of all, when one is tempted to make statements about Israel, the perspectives gained from relationship-based conversations with different people brings about a little more humility – an awareness of what we know and what we don’t.

Rabbi Michael Swarttz
In her remarks Rabbi Gurevitz used the descriptors “nuanced,” “complex,” “multi-dimensional,” and “ever-changing.”  These very appropriately describe virtually everything about the Israeli situation—its people, its politics, its culture, its security.  These aspects of the situation often get lost in the highly charged arena of Jewish communal discussion and debate about the Jewish State.  In their place there is an attitude of “If I am right, then you must be wrong” that characterizes the discussion.  It is a shame that Israel, which at one time united us, and which should continue to do so, is that which so often divides us.  It polarizes us. Why?  So much at stake, we care so deeply.

My reflections this evening come from two contemporary thinkers.  Yossi Klein Halevi is a journalist and author who was American-born and who made Aliyah as a young man.  Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the President of CLAL, a national Jewish organization committed to building bridges across communities to encourage pluralism and openness and to promoting inclusive Jewish communities in which all voices are heard.  Rabbi Gurevitz is a CLAL Associate, by the way.

Tonight we find ourselves mid-way between the holidays of Purim and Pesach.  A few years ago Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece that has stayed with me in which he describes the Jewish community as divided between Purim Jews and Pesach Jews.  Each of these groups identifies with a different biblical commandment of Zachor, telling us to remember. 

The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be brutal.” The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: “Don’t be naive.” You may recall that the Shabbat before Purim is Shabbat Zachor, and we read the Torah passage commanding us to remember what Amalek did to our ancestors.

The first Zachor is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.

Klein Halevi suggests that one reason the Palestinian issue is so wrenching for Jews is that it is the point on which the two commands of our history converge: the stranger in our midst is represented by a national movement that wants to usurp us.

And so a starting point of a healthy North American Jewish conversation on Israel would be acknowledging the agony of our dilemma.

Imagine an Orthodox rabbi, a supporter of the settlers in Hebron (a Purim Jew), delivering this sermon to his congregation: “My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its survival, we have failed to acknowledge the consequences to Israel’s soul of occupying another people against its will.”

Now imagine a liberal rabbi, a supporter of J Street (a Pesach Jew), telling his or her congregation: “My friends, our community has sinned against Israel. For all our devotion to the Jewish state and our concern for its democratic values, we have failed to acknowledge the urgency of existential threat once again facing our people.”

As Klein Halevi asserts, when North American Jews internalize or at least acknowledge each other’s anxieties, and the legitimacy of the other’s Zachor, the shrillness of much of the North American Jewish debate over Israel will give way to a more nuanced conversation.

I thought of Klein Halevi’s analysis in light of my day yesterday.  In the afternoon I attended via my computer a webinar sponsored by the rabbinic organization T’ruah. T’ruah is the North American wing of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization focused on the civil rights of minorities in Israel, including, but not limited to, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  Both groups consist of what most of us would refer to as “left of center” rabbis.

In the evening my wife and I attended a lecture at our local Chabad in Newton by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby spoke about U.S.-Israel relations in the aftermath of the Israeli election.  Needless to say, this was a different crowd than I had been with during the webinar, with different views and different assumptions.

Yesterday afternoon I was with Pesach Jews.  In the evening I was with Purim Jews.  My problem is I have commonalities with both groups.  Points of agreement and disagreement with each. Even though I consider myself slightly left of center, I do understand and share many of the concerns of the Purim Jews.

I now turn to Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the President of CLAL. In his book You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right (this is what this is all about), Hirschfield describes an experience he had in 2006 when he created a television series called Building Bridges: Abrahamic Perspectives on the World Today.  He created the series for Bridges TV, the American Muslim network based in Buffalo, New York.  The show is a weekly roundtable with different imams, priests, ministers, and Hirschfield trying to use the wisdom of their faiths to find spiritual solutions to contemporary problems and demonstrate that disagreement doesn’t always have to be about demonizing the people with whom they disagree.

Hirschfield was asked by the people at Bridges TV to invite an Iranian Imam in Detroit, Mohammed Ali Elahi, to appear on his show.  Elahi had taken numerous positions publicly with which Hirschfield vehemently disagreed, but he met him and spent a good deal of time talking with him.  Neither changed the other’s opinion, but they came to like and respect each other nonetheless.  Hirschfield writes that the fact that they had deep disagreements was “precisely why I was open to having him on the show. It is most important to talk with those people with whom we most disagree.”
He not only agreed to have Elahi on his show, but Elahi invited Hirschfield to come to his mosque, speak from the pulpit, and then view the premiere of the show at the mosque with his congregation.  This generated outrage from both Jewish organizations and general political groups. He was told “You can’t talk to him,” that he would be punished and that his career would be in jeopardy.  People would see to it that he “would be finished in Jewish life.” He was called a traitor.  His love of Israel was questioned, along with his commitment to the Jewish community. He writes, “I was shocked. I began to realize that my ‘sin’ lay in the claim that disagreement was no excuse for not talking. I had touched that raw nerve that says you do have to be wrong for me to be right.”

There are lessons to be learned from Rabbi Hirschfield’s story about how we, internally in the Jewish community, speak to and listen to those with whom we disagree about what Israel does, who it elects, and how it goes about its business. Some of us are Purim Jews; others Pesach Jews. Some, like myself, are a combination of the two. I believe we are a stronger and healthier Jewish community when we can have respectful relationships and civil dialogue with those who differ with us. “Azeh hu chacham? Who is wise?” He who learns from every person, including, and perhaps especially, those with different viewpoints. Given how much is at stake, and how invested most of us are in the Israeli enterprise, it is often easier said than done. But it is a goal well-worth striving for.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

It's All About Those Plagues - the 2015 Passover Parody from Congregation B'nai Shalom

Here's what it takes...
One creative congregant with a penchant for great re-writes of big hit songs (thanks Elyse Heise!), another congregant with professional chops for filming, directing and willing to donate hours of his time to editing (amazing Chuck Green!), some generous friends of the aforementioned with superb vocal skills (Rachel Baril and Ashley Harmon), directing (Daniel Jacobs) and audio recording skills (Ean White at Incendiary Arts LLC) and a lot of willing congregants (aged 6 to 90) to act out, act up and have a lot of fun in the process...
Those are the ingredients that get you this year's CBS Passover Parody - All About Those Plagues.

We hope you have as much fun watching it as we had making it.  Please share widely!
(for those receiving this by email, please click this link if the video does not appear below)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Doing something By Heart - Reflections on Parsha Terumah

I was sent a lovely Shabbat greeting earlier today by Jewish poet Stacey Zisook Robinson that she had read somewhere else. It was the words of a 5th grade child who had said: ‘God made me by heart.’  It was a beautiful sentiment and one that could take us to very deep places if we sat and contemplated it a while.  But I was struck at the timing of the message, coinciding with this particular Shabbat – Shabbat Terumah – which begins with the words, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.’

What does it mean to do something by heart?  In colloquial terms, it often means to know something by memory. But even in the everyday contexts to which we might apply the phrase, that definition doesn’t really do it justice. I know that even when there were times in my youth when I tried to commit a piece of music or a poem to memory, if I truly had something down ‘by heart’ it was much deeper than that. Relying on my memory I’d often get mixed up, or second-guess myself and make mistakes. But truly knowing something ‘by heart’ meant that I had deeply integrated it within myself – it had become a part of me, and sharing it was a way of now expressing a part of me.
There are countless idiomatic expressions in the English language that rely on the heart.  Just a few examples: (found at Idiom Connection)
at heart
- basically, essentially, what one really is rather than what one appears to be
The man seems to be angry all the time but actually he is a very gentle person at heart.
close to (someone's) heart
- an idea or something that is important to you and that you care about
The plan to improve the downtown area is very close to the mayor's heart.
find it in one's heart to (do something)
- to have the courage or compassion to do something
from the bottom of one`s heart
- with great feeling, sincerely
The girl thanked the man from the bottom of her heart for saving her dog`s life.
have a heart-to-heart talk with (someone)
to have a sincere and intimate talk with someone
open one`s heart to (someone)
- to talk about one`s feelings honestly, to confide in someone
with all one`s heart (and soul)
-       with all one's energy and feeling

To do something by heart is to do something that deeply expresses some essential aspect of our self. I love the idea that ‘God made us by heart’ – it expresses so beautifully something of what it might mean to be made in God’s likeness. And when the Children of Israel were asked that those whose hearts moved them should contribute to the Mishkan – the Tabernacle that represents the Presence of God in their midst, this notion then becomes reciprocal. In fact, I think it goes deeper than that. When the Children of Israel do something with all their heart – something that innately expresses an essential piece of who each one of them is (and they do that by bringing not only things but also the talents and skills that they possess to the job of building the Mishkan), they actually manifest God’s Presence in their midst.

This is a powerful lesson. The notion that, by being fully present and sharing something of our deepest sense through our gifts and our giving, we are actually manifesting the God Who Dwells Among Us.  And we, mere human beings, have the power to do this because our essential selves are, in turn, a manifestation of an aspect of God’s essence. All we need to do is search within, and then let it out.


So each and every one us of can ask ourselves the question, ‘What can I do ‘by heart’ to build the mishkan in my home, my congregation, my community, my world?’  The Children of Israel were given the gift of an opportunity – to help create a great symbol that would travel with them throughout the wilderness journeys to remind them how to manifest God in their midst. What reminders do we need? How can this place  - this holy space – provide us with the reminders that we need to live more of life ‘by heart?’  We say that the study of Torah leads us to a life of mitzvot – the spiritual practice of being together, hearing Torah together, praying for and with each other… this is our modern Mishkan, and it is one place to start.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Four stages of Redemption – Why the Freedom story for African Americans is incomplete

This posting is a version of the sermon I gave last Friday, for MLK Weekend

It is appropriate that tonight is a Torah Shabbat where we find ourselves in the early chapters of Sh’mot – the 2nd book of the Torah – Exodus.  We find our ancestors have become slaves in Egypt, and we begin the narrative that will lead to our redemption. And this is Martin Luther King Jr Weekend.  Martin Luther King Jr – an inspiring leader and orator who drew heavily on the freedom narrative in the Torah to point the way forward for this country.

And while we remember and celebrate his legacy, and can clearly look back and see the progress that has been made since he led the fight for civil rights for African Americans, recent events continue to remind us that their freedom story is incomplete.  Just this week, major highways around Boston were shut down during the morning commute by those protesting to keep reminding us that Black Lives Matter and there is a systemic set of problems that have not been satisfactorily addressed in our country where our African American brother and sisters are concerned. The picture is more complicated and nuanced than in MLK’s time. ‘How can it be’, we ask, ‘that we can live in an era where a person of color is President of the USA, and yet such inculcated and systemic racism continues to be present in our society?’

Let’s take a look at this week’s parsha, and the midrashim that our Rabbis spun from this text to reflect on what freedom and redemption truly look like, as these insights can inform our understanding of why there is more work to be done in our society today.

Let’s begin with a core text that becomes the basis for the 4 cups of wine at a Passover Seder:

Exodus 6:6-7:
6 “Say, therefore, to the Children of Israel, ‘I am the Eternal, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.
7 ‘Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

The Midrash on these two verses gives us the historical background:
“There are four expressions of redemption: I will bring you out—I will deliver you—I will redeem you and I will take you. These correspond to the four decrees which Pharaoh issued regarding them. The Sages accordingly ordained four cups to be drunk on the eve of Passover to correspond with these four expressions, in order to fulfill the verse: I will lift up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord (Psalm 116:13).”

The Jerusalem Talmud expands on this:
“Why do we have four cups of wine? R. Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Benayah, this refers to four stages in the redemption. . . “I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” Even if God had left us in Egypt to be slaves, God would have ceased the burdensome yoke. For this alone we would have been grateful to Him and therefore we drink the first cup. “I will deliver you from their slavery.” We drink the cup of salvation for God delivered us completely from serving them. “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm . . . .” Because God confused them and crushed them on our behalf so that they could no longer afflict us, we drink the third cup. “I will take you . . . .” The greatest aspect of the redemption is that God brought us near and granted us also spiritual redemption. For this we raise the fourth cup.

What these Rabbis are teaching us is that true freedom does not happen in a single act. True freedom is never simply the removal of one kind of enslavement or limitation. We can look back at the Torah narrative and see that our ultimate state of freedom was represented by first escaping from slavery in Egypt. But then we began a period of wandering. We received Revelation and we are presented with a whole system of laws, practices and ethical principles that provide the scaffolding for a society that can better ensure the redemptive possibilities for all, albeit through the limited lens of society at that time (where slaves were still permitted, and women were not equal to men).
Finally, we are able to enter the Promised Land. This is the place where we have the ability for true self-realization, where no other group determine what is possible for us.

We can highlight a similar set of steps when we pull back the lens of history and look at the longer perspective. Jews took a giant leap in the redemptive journey when the era of Enlightenment in Europe brought us the status of full citizens. However, as our history cruelly demonstrated to us, this alone could not secure our sense of freedom while a society continued to view us as ‘other’. Theodore Herzl understood this, and the world via the United Nations was finally willing to accept this after the Holocaust. And so the State of Israel came into being. Whether we choose to make it our home or not, its existence – even the troubled existence that it continues to have with its neighbors – provides a place of ultimate self-realization for us as a people.

And what of the African-American experience in the US? We see that significant stages of redemption have come into being. Freed from slavery. But then subject to Jim Crow laws. Civil rights granted, but other socio-economic and cultural factors continuing to make a less systematic but still present kind of segregation a reality in the lives of many.  Why is this still so?

There is one step in that ancient midrash that I skipped over – the step where God confuses and crushes Pharaoh and his army so that they can no longer oppress us. Hitler was defeated. The Jewish people won the war of Independence that had to be fought right after the modern State of Israel was declared. Is this step inevitable? Is the only way to truly arrive at redemption to overthrow those who were once the oppressors? No-one wants to see any kind of literal war in this country again. Having just returned from a vacation in Charleston and Savannah, I have a new awareness of the devastation wrought by America’s civil war. I hear fear expressed in voices that wonder whether peaceful protest might inflame some to literally fight back against our police forces; fears that might not be entirely unfounded given what has already transpired in recent weeks, even if only by the hand of one or two unstable and violent individuals. But I reject the inevitability or even the necessity as loudly as MLK Jr himself rejected violence as a means to accomplishing his ends.

Nevertheless, we have a real challenge that we, as a society, must be willing to confront. I look at the realities for many members of our African American communities and I recognize that those realities have been created by a complex set of systemic issues and remnants of a history of oppression that continues to leave its mark. Attempts that were made to rebalance society by providing additional points of entry into schools, colleges, the workplace, and the voting booth have actually been undone in recent years by many local and state legislative bodies. The Supreme Court itself has contributed to the undoing of some of these systems, however blunt and clumsy they might have been, that helped to level the playing field just a bit. This is not right. We must not, through our actions or through our silence, be contributors to the hand of Pharaoh that continues to shape the lives of African Americans in our country.

How can we do our part? There are many civil rights organizations who are leading the way at this time that we can work with and support. But there is no better place for us to start than our Reform movement’s very own Religious Action Center. Get on their mailing list. Respond to their calls for advocacy and action. They work with broad coalitions of organizations to help get legislation passed in Washington that can provide the system-wide structures through which change for the better can come. For example, right now you can sign up to support their call for the ‘End Racial Profiling Act’. The End Racial Profiling Act would legally prohibit racial profiling, ensure specialized instruction in federal law enforcement training, condition state and local governments’ receipt of federal funds on the successful adoption of anti-racial profiling policies, award Justice Department grants to state and local governments that best implement practices that defeat racial profiling, and position the U.S. Attorney General as watchdog to assess such practices.

At the end of February we will be taking our 10th grade Confirmation Class on our annual trip to learn with the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C. They will learn how their own powers of advocacy and action can be informed by Jewish values, and how to assess whether legislation being voted on by our politicians brings us closer to a vision of the kind of society we want to live in, or further from it. They end their trip with a visit to the offices of our Congressional and State legislators, to lobby on those issues that they most care about, on behalf of the membership of the approximately 900 Reform congregations in North America.

Don’t just leave this work to our teens. The journey to freedom is not complete until we can say of others, as we can say of ourselves that we have been brought out, delivered, redeemed and taken to a place where we have the potential for full self-realization within the society in which we live.  In 1958 as he stood before the American Jewish Congress, MLK said these words:
My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born out of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid us of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility. 


Friends… we have work to do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Noah can teach us about our response to Ebola

This is the drash that I shared at Congregation B'nai Shalom this past Shabbat, parsha Noah.

While the story of Noah and the ark is often told as a charming children’s story, it is, of course, nothing of the sort. The idea that all life on our planet would be wiped out is quite horrifying. And, while Noah has our gratitude for ensuring the survival of the species and enabling life to begin again, later generations of commentators on our biblical story point out his flaws. He might have been ‘righteous in his generation’ but, they tell us, he would not have been considered so in future generations. Why not? Because, unlike Abraham, who argued with God for the survival of the evil cities of Sodom and Gemorrah if only 10 righteous people could be found living there, Noah dutifully saved his family and the animals he was instructed to collect, but did nothing to try and save the rest of humanity.

We know definitively that the story of Noah that we find in the Torah is a flood story but is not the flood story. It shares many similarities with other ancient myths about floods, including ones that predate the likely approximate timeframe of ours. So we’re not reading history here. Yet what our version introduces that is a variant on an older telling is a moral element.  The biblical telling emphasizes the destructive consequences of human immoral behavior. The rabbinic commentaries emphasize the morally deficient position of Noah who raises the drawbridge on the ark and closes his eyes to the rest of the world.

This past week I haven’t been able to stomach listening to US news channels for more than about 2 minutes at a time. Based on the wall-to-wall coverage, it would appear that the rest of the world has entirely disappeared. It might as well be underwater right now. We appear not to be able to see it at all. Instead, with highly charged, urgent voices,  news commentators seem to leading a nationwide panic attack that obsessively reviews every remote possibility that someone with the Ebola virus has appeared in our ark. Politicians are arguing that the drawbridge should be fully up, all entrance-ways sealed, so that we keep this pernicious disease out.

Where is the compassion for the awful suffering in parts of Africa? Where is the nationwide call for $10 per text, and all the other ways that international health organizations usually mobilize us to raise millions quickly so that we can provide equipment, expertise, and ensure that vaccinations work and are quickly produced to be made available abroad?

And, while the scale is serious and action does need to be taken in African countries that are most severely affected, when it comes to the US, where is our sense of proportion?  John Stewart got it right with his coverage earlier this month:

After a series of clips of politicians and commentators announcing that we should do ‘whatever it takes’ to seal up our borders and keep Ebola out, Stewart remarks: ‘Wow, what a difference in Africa-US travel policy 150 years makes!’ He then goes on to make the more serious point, through another series of clips that Heart Disease is the leading cause of death among Americans, killing 600,000 a year. And yet, when the government comes out with proposals to bring healthier eating to American citizens, control what is served to children in schools, and other forms of preventative care, many of the same voices tell us that the government shouldn’t be telling us what to eat or what we can do.  He points out that estimates are that between 7,000 and 17,000 lives a year could be saved if we expanded Medicaid so that more people had access to healthcare in our States. And 88 people die from gun violence every day. So clearly ‘the government should do whatever it takes to save American lives’, Stewart points out, seems to have more to do with things that might enter our country from other places, and we seem to be somewhat more laissez-faire when it comes to the large number of things that we could be doing each and every day to save American lives from causes that affect an exponentially larger number of citizens.
What can you or I do to make a difference? If we have the means, perhaps a donation to Medicin sans frontiers, who are putting medics into Ebola-affected communities in Africa to try and stem the spread of the disease and tend to the sick. Or via American Jewish World Service, who are directing funds to their partner organizations in Liberia who are trying to better educate people about how to limit the spread of the disease.


The Story of Noah is several thousand years old. 2000 years ago our early rabbis were pointing out that Noah could have done more to try and save others rather than only saving himself. Now it is 2014. Jewish tradition put morality at the heart of the Flood myth. There are many ways we can apply those moral values to life-threatening situations in today’s world. Creating panic over the airwaves is not one of them. So tune out the TV pundits and the politicians, and tune into some of the ways we can turn outward and give a helping hand to another human being who is drowning and need of our support.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

#BlogElul 23: You turn my mourning into dancing

Today's blog is dedicated to the memory of Mordecai Levow
my father-in-law

Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not about human frailty or the futility of human endeavors. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is about the power of others to affect us, about our power to affect others, about the power of the dead and the living to continue to affect each other. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is ... not simply about remembering the dead, by about attempting to effect change in our relationships with the dead and thus to effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.
(Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in the CCAR Draft machzor, forthcoming 2015, Mishkan haNefesh, Yizkor service)

I've missed a number of days of Elul to blog because my father-in-law died last Wednesday. After his funeral in Florida on Friday morning, my wife and her sister returned to sit shiva at our home in Massachusetts. What happened over those days was a reflection of how love, healing, and change are truly what the rituals of remembrance are about, and enable us to do.  For those who joined us for multiple nights of shiva, the change that occurred over those days as memories and reflections were shared was quite evident, and powerful for many.

Without sharing the specifics here, the journey we took was one that first confronted the past, and acknowledged the challenge of engaging with memory in the face of difficult relationships. Yet, with the honesty of needing to acknowledge the challenges, the blessings that emerged from those life experiences were also evident.  On the following night, more family members gathered and a broader range of perspectives and memories were shared. There were many moments of laughter. There was a release - the laughter not only lifted the weight of some of the challenging memories, but also opened up the banks of memories that were positive and powerful. And so, by the third night, new stories had been laid bare and had risen to the surface. There were words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  By the fourth night, in a beautiful, spontaneous sharing and connecting of memories and reflections connected to the words of specific prayers as we davenned (prayed) the ma'ariv (evening) service, there was a sense of completeness. We were speaking of a life lived, and memories that we carry with us, but embedded into the heart of the tefilot that were so much a part of Mordecai's being that, when advanced dementia had taken almost all else from him, davenning was the only activity that he could still do, in short bouts.

In the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, we find a version of precisely how we did our remembrances on the last night of shiva.  We are offered 7 paths, where readings, psalms and reflective texts are woven around the 7 thematic blessings of the Tefilah, or Amidah prayer, the central prayer of our Shabbat and Festival liturgy.  There is an abundance of material - many, many years worth of exploration and contemplation. There is a clear recognition that everyone remembers differently. There are ways to remember children who died too young. There is a prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. There are words to remember one who died violently. There are words to remember dearly beloved ones. And so many more.

As we return to Yizkor, year after year, we do not necessarily have to engage in the memories in the same way. With the passage of time, and the ways we remember may we, as invited by Rabbi Wenig in the reflection above, find the possibility to change our relationships with the dead, and thus effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

Monday, September 8, 2014

#BlogElul 13: Buying forgiveness on credit

Avinu Malkeinu - one of the central prayers associated with the High Holy Days. I remember a congregant in my last community commenting on how uncomfortable she felt reciting the long list of 'asks' that this prayer contains:
Avinu Malkeinu - listen to our voice!
Avinu Malkeinu - let our hands overflow with Your blessings.
Avinu Malkeinu - do not turn us away from You with nothing.
Avinu Malkeinu- listen to our voice; treat us with tender compassion.

On and on it goes - these are just a sampling of the lines. My congregant asked, 'Isn't this the ultimate act of chutzpah? What right do we have to make these demands of God?'


She had a good point. And it reminded me of a story that I once heard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z'l tell. He describes a time when you would go to the General Store and you'd ask the shopkeeper behind the counter, 'Can I have a ball of string?' and the shopkeeper would go to the shelves behind the counter and bring down a ball of string. 'Can I have a yard of cloth?' 'Can I have a dozen cans of this' and 'half a dozen boxes of that'.  So it would continue, and the shopkeeper would pull down all the items on your order list and pile them on the counter. At the end he would calculate the total bill. And, embarrassed but hopeful the man would respond, 'I don't have any money to pay you, but may I take these items that I need nevertheless?!'

You can imagine how that would go in real life. But at the end of Avinu Malkeinu, we acknowledge as much in the closing line:
Avinu Malkeinu, chonainu vaaneinu, ki ein banu maasim - aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed, v'hoshieinu.
Avinu Malkeinu, Almighty and Merciful - answer us with grace, for our deeds our wanting. Save us through acts of justice and love. 
(translation from the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan haNefesh)

We ask for the response to our pleas to come as an act of grace. That's not language that we are used to associating with Judaism, but it is, in fact, very present in our liturgy and many of our teachings. Ki ein banu maasim - because there isn't anything in our deeds.  We showed up the store without any money to pay for our requests.

Here is how I translate these words into more contemporary concepts that speak to our inner lives. When I really engage in the work of the High Holy Days and look deeply at myself, there is plenty to cause me disappointment. We are often pretty harsh judges of ourselves. And here we are, in an act of chutzpah, hoping that life will be good anyway. That we will be forgiven for our failings. Can we give to others what we ask for ourselves? Can we respond to others from a place of grace? We go to the store without credit, but one of the ways we can acquire credit is by paying it forward.

Living more of life with that awareness we understand that only through acts of tzedakah and chesed can we change the meaning of our lives. Its not about what we have or haven't got. A lot of life 'just happens'; we like to think we are in control, but that's seldom the reality. So we're never going to be able to 'pay' for our fate through our deeds. Because it doesn't really work that way. Acting morally doesn't buy us more life, but it does enable us to practice and to receive forgiveness. Because it gives us the tools we need to be authentically remorseful and try to make amends when we mess up. And that is the answer, from a place of grace, that we seek.  Remind us, as we pray, that we can change the quality of our existence, and the existence of others, through our acts. This is how salvation comes to this life and this world. 
Avinu Malkeinu - our deeds are wanting; help us to do a little bit more in the year to come.