It was a few days before our Berman Mercaz Limud model seder. As I was heading home for the day, I said to Rabbi Maderer in passing, “I’m off to boil six dozen eggs or so.” She looked at me incredulously, “Why exactly are you boiling all those eggs?” I explained that we had done a sign-up for our model seder and most of the items on the list had been covered but not enough families signed up for the hard boiled eggs and I was just going to do it myself.
Rabbi Maderer, an amazing mentor, then gave me some great advice that will always stay with me; she said, “You did not become a rabbi to boil six dozen eggs, you became a rabbi to empower others to boil eggs!”
And she was right. Although it probably took longer to find enough families to boil the eggs than it would have to just do it myself, I learned a valuable lesson that day about the role of a leader vis-a-vis the greater community.
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, Moses learns a similar lesson from his father-in-law, Jethro (or Yitro in Hebrew). When Jethro sees Moses single-handedly serving as judge for every single minor dispute among the Israelites, he pulls his son-in-law aside and says, “What you are doing is not good – lo tov.” (Exodus 18:17) This is one of only two places that this phrase, lo tov, occurs in the Torah. The other (Genesis 2:18) is, “it is not good for man to be alone.” We cannot lead alone; we cannot live alone.
Moses and I both learned an important lesson – we cannot do it alone. We need every part of our community in order to be whole. For both Moses and me, including others in the community is not just a nicety, but a requirement.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes this idea of inclusion a step further by looking at the final verse in Jethro’s advice to Moses. Jethro ends his talk with Moses by saying, “If you do this [delegating responsibility] and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” (Exodus 18:23) The first part of this statement makes sense, if you delegate responsibility to the people, “you will be able to stand the strain.”
The last part of the verse is a little more complex, “and so too all these people will reach their place in peace.” What does it mean that they will, “reach their place in peace?” The people are not exhausted, Moses is. How then would they gain by a system of delegation?
To find the answer, Sacks looks to a somewhat obscure text in the Talmud dealing with the nature of mediation. The text from Sanhedrin 6b creates a dichotomy between strict judgement and peace – saying that where there is strict judgement, there is no peace and vice-versa. The Talmud then asks, how can judgement and peace coexist? The answer: mediation. Essentially the sages of the Talmud are saying that if a case goes to court, there is always going to be a winner and a loser and thus some strife even at the end of the case. However, if a case is able to enter mediation before trial, everyone has the opportunity to win through compromise, and there can be peace.
Ingeniously applying this principle to the Israelites of Moses’ day, Sacks points out that Moses would have been a strict judge. Having greater wisdom and intuition than the average Israelite judge, Moses would have almost immediately known in every case who was right and who was wrong and thus would not have been able to offer a solution through mediation. Getting into to Moses’ head, Sacks imagines that Moses would have felt mediation to be unethical if there was already a clear judgement in sight.
However, the average Israelite judge appointed by Moses would presumably not have the same mind for judgement and thus their “ignorance” would allow ethical mediation. It is because of, not in spite of, their lack of special prophetic or legal gifts, that the Israelites, as the verse reads, “will reach their place in peace.” Being impartial mediators and creating peace among their brethren was something ordinary individuals could achieve that even Moses in all his glory could not achieve. This is why a nation is greater than any individual, and why each of us has something to give.
The same is true of our community today. It is because of, not in spite of, those among us with differing abilities that we are such a strong community. This month is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month; a time in our modern Jewish calendar that we celebrate and acknowledge the diversity of our community and how it strengthens us all.
It is because of physically disabled congregants that we sought to embark on the Legacy Campaign to renovate and expand our building. Our addition has done so much more than just create a more accessible building, it has created a more welcoming building for all.
It is because of students with learning disabilities that we brought on a special educator for our Berkman Mercaz Limud. But she has done so much more than just help these students; she has helped all our teachers create more effective classrooms for all learners, regardless of ability.
It is because of children on the autism spectrum that we have created a quiet space during our Purim carnival; a space now used by many different families that may need a break from the noise and energy of the day.
And there is so much more outside of these walls that the entire Jewish community is doing this month and throughout the year to celebrate inclusion. Check out websites like our local Jewish Learning Venture or ReformJudaism.org to see some great resources on inclusion and Judaism. Or go to the National Museum of American Jewish History on Monday for a special President’s Day Sensory-Friendly Access Event from 10 a.m. to noon, where children and teens of all abilities are invited to join in a quiet setting for art activities and story time at the Museum, and participate in a specially designed museum tour.
Later in this week’s portion, Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In a few weeks, we will read about the Golden Calf and how Moses, consumed by anger, smashed the first set of tablets. After carving a new set up tablets, the broken tablets are placed in the ark along with the new.
Why keep the old? Why lug around all that extra weight through the desert? The broken tablets represent all among us who have brokenness in our lives. God made the covenant at Sinai, not just with those free of physical, mental or emotional disabilities – God made that covenant with all Israel. I could almost imagine those Israelites with disabilities in Moses’ time seeing themselves in the broken tablets. And what a statement, to place those tablets, central among the community, in the ark, in the holy of holies, alongside the equally important second set of intact tablets.
I’d like to conclude with one of my favorite traditional Jewish blessings of gratitude. It reads, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot.” “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who varies creation.” This is the benediction one is supposed to say upon seeing an exceptionally strange-looking person or animal.
The rabbis teach us that we should say one hundred blessings a day, and they have certainly provided enough material to make that task possible. There are the many prayers we say before eating different kinds of food and the prayers we say before performing a mitzvah like lighting Shabbat candles. Reciting these blessings directs our kavannah, our intention, and gives meaning to our actions. We say HaMotzi before eating and all of a sudden, our meal is elevated into a religious act. When we recite the blessing before reading Torah, we are reminded of the great gift the Torah is and are, perhaps, more focused on the lessons to be learned from reading it.
There are also prayers for seeing something special. When one sees a king, he should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shenatan mik’vodo l’vasar vadam,” “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who has given of Your glory to flesh and blood.” When one sees the ocean, she praises God “she’asah et hayam hagadol,” “who has made the great sea.” For lightning, the blessing ends with the evocative “shekocho ug’vurato malei olam,” “whose might and power fill the world.” We have benedictions for seeing natural wonders, wise people, old friends. It seems that nothing is left out.
This last class of blessings, the ones for seeing something special, has the potential to have an even more powerful effect on us than the others, I think. The words we recite before an activity are expected; we may have to pause and think of the right formula for the particular meal we are eating or the task being completed, but we know what is coming. On the other hand, these blessings are for surprises: who knows when we may come across a powerful leader or a funny-looking person?
In order to recite these blessings, we have to be alert and aware of our surroundings. Not only do we have to be paying attention in order to notice these sights, but we have to cultivate an appreciation for them in order to remember to say the appropriate blessing. Only we can decide whether the tree we are passing by merits the blessing for beautiful creatures or trees: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shekachah lo b’olamo. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who has such things in Your world.” These blessings require us to see and be grateful for the beauty in our surroundings. This attitude towards the world is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously described as “radical amazement,” one of the key ways he believed people could connect to God.
It is hard enough to remain perpetually amazed at the beauty of the world. How often do we have time to stop and smell the roses, much less stop, smell the roses, and recite a bracha? Nevertheless, most of us will agree that we might be more fulfilled, less harried, maybe even happier if we took the time to acknowledge the goodness of creation. And while we work on developing that virtue, the rabbis also give us an even more difficult task: to bless not only the beautiful, but the strange and off-putting.
My favorite blessing, the one over seeing a strange-looking creature, seems very un-PC. The Talmud’s list of the people this blessing applies to includes those of a different race, extremely tall or short people, and people with particular physical abnormalities. It is human nature to make distinctions, to notice those who are different from us. It is also, perhaps, human nature to be afraid or suspicious of those who are different.
But today, it would be impolite to exhibit our reactions to strange people. The little kid who says, “Mommy, look at that funny-looking man!” is usually shushed and scolded for being rude, as well she should be. Like those who insists that they doesn’t see race, we might pretend that we don’t see difference of any kind. Unfortunately, this attempt to not see difference in people often turns into not seeing different people. We may be able to refrain from making comments or staring, but all too often, we ease our discomfort by keeping our distance from them.
The blessing for the strange is an antidote to our inclination to turn away. When we see an occasion to recite it, we are called on to recognize and honor this unusual person by acknowledging that she too was created by God, “B’tzelem Elohim.” Diversity is to be celebrated. So as we celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, may we also find a way to appreciate and be grateful for the differently abled, who are not only gifts from, but reflections of our Creator. “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who varies creation.”
Filed under: Uncategorized
Princess Leia, actually Carrie Fisher, of blessed memory, recalls an outraged father challenging her, because she agreed to wear the skimpy iron bikini, in the scene with Jabba the Hutt, in The Return of the Jedi movie. Fisher’s response? A giant slug captured me, and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him, because I didn’t like it. And then I changed my clothes, back stage!
Decades later when the newest episode, The Force Awakens was produced, Fisher observed : the female protagonist Rey shows no cleavage, wears baggie pants, and is essentially wrapped in what we might call, a shmata. Progress.
During these decades of Star Wars movies, we have witnessed so much progress for women and other under-privileged groups, in so many areas of our society. Yet, I would submit one area that still demands focus, an area that slows further progress, is the way women are judged on their looks. In many ways, women’s status around appearance is still closer to Princess Leia’s bikini than to Rey’s shmata.
In the presidential campaign, there was a fair amount of attention given to now-President Trump’s comments, that he sometimes sneaks into the backstage of his beauty pageant to take a look at the contestants while they are getting dressed. There was outrage for this violation. But did you notice? We did not hear outrage that there is a pageant in the first place. The problem is not one man’s lack of respect towards women. The problem is that there is a market, an economy that supports proudly parading half-naked women across a televised stage! This misogyny that allows us to measure a woman’s value by how she looks in an evening dress or a swimsuit does not live in Trump Towers; it lives in us. It is normalized—in our mainstream culture, in our workplaces, in our healthcare, in our bias… in ourselves.
Bias is so hard to see. The Psalmist calls to God: “Alumenu limor panecha” (Ps 90). “You can see our concealed darkness; You can see our concealed shortcomings, in the light of Your face.” Why does our Hebrew Bible may this point that God can see our concealed shortcomings? (How do they know what God can see?) Perhaps the Psalm is reminding us about what we do not see – challenging us to dig deep, to find our shortcomings, so they are no longer concealed. That’s how we grow.
Last week, the New York Times featured Michelle Obama in perhaps its final article during her time as first lady. This final article’s focus– on a woman with superior intellect, a legal mind, a history of service, strategic thinking about how to raise her children in the Whitehouse, and initiatives for veteran’s families and national health—the final article’s title was “What Michelle Obama Wore and Why It Mattered.” The article was respectful, appreciating her creative choices as well as her effort to lift up different designers. But it’s hard to imagine, that when someday there is a husband of a president, he would be featured in the New York Times, for his fashion choices.
I believe the focus on women’s appearance conceals from us, women’s wholeness. The bias lives in us. It is normalized—in our mainstream culture, in our technology, in our classrooms, in ourselves. Patriarchy does not only live in men, women are a part of this society as well. And if bias is out there, it’s in here.
Ask my young daughter: what is the most common comment you hear when adults meet you? She will tell you: they say she is beautiful, or they like her clothing. I tell her that people comment on her looks because they don’t yet know her well enough to understand how smart and thoughtful and creative she is. But her brother is standing right there. And no one is commenting on his appearance. The comments on my daughter’s looks come from women as often as men. And when I meet your young daughters and granddaughters, I am certain that I too, remark on their looks. I, like you, miss my concealed shortcomings.
If you are a woman, think about how many comments you heard about your appearance this month. If you are not a woman, ask one.
When women – or men (or anyone)—are judged based on their appearance, so much humanity is concealed. In our gender bias, we miss women’s equal capacity for brilliance and creativity, we miss their reproductive and general healthcare needs, we miss their entitlement to equal pay (not until Equal Pay Day— April 4 in 2017– will women have earned the 2016 salaries of men). In our gender bias, we miss women’s contributions and leadership in our world, and we miss out on our empathy for women’s experiences.
We see this emphasis on women’s appearances in our own biblical text. Leah has weak eyes, Rachel is shapely, Esther, beautiful.
This week, we meet extraordinary women in our Torah portion, Shemot. And we do not know what they look like! When a cowardly Pharaoh decides the Hebrew immigrants have become too numerous, he decrees their baby boys be killed. Grounded in their fear of God, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah defy Pharaoh’s decree, and save newborn Moses who will become the leader of the Israelites. The midwives cleverly explain their civil disobedience to Pharaoh by saying the Hebrew women are so vigorous, they just deliver their babies too quickly, for the midwives to intervene and kill them.
Our commentaries ask, were Shifrah and Puah themselves Israelites, or were they Egyptian midwives assigned to the Israelite women. According to the accepted reading of the text, lam-yal-dot ha-ivriyot, they are Hebrew midwives. Yet our Torah originated in Hebrew consonants, with vowels only added generations later, and not appearing in the scroll. In this case, one’s choice of vowel determines the meaning. Instead of Hebrew midwives, lam-yal-dot ha-ivriyot, some of our medieval commentators read, lim-yal-dot ha-ivriyot, meaning “midwives to the Hebrews.”
If Shifrah and Puah are midwives to the Hebrews, but not Hebrews themselves, then their resistance is not for the sake of their own people. They act not in self-interest but with courage and compassion for another vulnerable group. Inspired by their yirah—their awe and fear of God– the midwives love and save another tribe’s child.
Shirah and Puah remind us, it is not a mitzvah to look good. It is a mitzvah to be in awe of God, to be in tune with our moral compass, so much so that we boldly love the vulnerable.
That’s why I am marching in Philadelphia tomorrow, with Shifrah and Puah, and so many others.
In these months, hate, bigotry and demonization have fueled a new sense of urgency. But ask a black person and they will tell you, the bigotry was already there. Ask an undocumented immigrant and they will tell you, it was there. Ask a Jew, a person with a disability, a Muslim, a woman, an LGBTQ American, they will tell you, it’s been there. And if it’s been there all along, it’s been here, all along.
The Psalmist calls to God: “Alumenu limor panecha/You can see our concealed darkness; You can see our concealed shortcomings, in the light of Your face.” May the Psalmist’s cry, urge us to see our own concealed darkness, our own concealed shortcomings.
And when we shed that light, and we see, may we be inspired to overcome our gender bias, to see through the veil of appearances, to the humanity in us all.
Filed under: Sermons, Social Justice, Spirituality
A rabbi named Francine Green Roston recently moved with her family from New Jersey to Whitefish, Montana, in search of a slower pace of life. As you can imagine, there are not many Jews in their new small town (although with a name like “Whitefish,” you’d think…) but Rabbi Roston has found a small Jewish community.
She also discovered that her neighbors include the white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Last week, ignited by the emerging white supremacy movement, a neo-Nazi website issued a call to take action against the Jews of Whitefish. The site listed the names, pictures, contact information, and addresses of alleged Jews in town, and photo-shopped pictures of Rabbi Roston with a Nazi-era yellow star.
Here in Philadelphia in recent weeks, we have witnessed swastikas, racist texts targeting African Americans at Penn, and news like that shared at our Men of RS Anti-Defamation League presentation last week, of targeted hate speech against Jews, Muslims, immigrants and other vulnerable groups, here and in other areas across our nation.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has raised its voice, and last month issued a statement that included these excerpts: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is deeply alarmed at the hateful rhetoric at a conference of white nationalists held on November 19 just blocks from the Museum. Richard Spencer, the leader of the National Policy Institute – a white nationalist think tank – that sponsored the conference, made several references to Jews and other minorities, often alluding to Nazism. He spoke in German to quote Nazi propaganda, implied that the media was protecting Jewish interests and said, “One wonders if these people are people at all?” He said that America belongs to white people. His statement that white people face a choice of “conquer or die” closely echoes Adolf Hitler’s view of Jews. The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.
The targeted hate speech in our nation and the tolerance of bigotry among many citizens and leaders, is horrendous, and it is our obligation to take it seriously, to call it out, make each other aware, and to bring love-speech into the rhetoric so that our vulnerable neighbors know that we stand with them.
And I want to suggest caution, in the way we choose to describe the hate speech. Although I can understand the temptation to compare current bigotry to the Holocaust, we ought to be careful to reflect in our words the fact that we understand, this is not Nazi Germany.
For a moment such as this, our historians are instructive. Temple University history professor and director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, Dr. Lila Berman explains we need to be clear: the factors are different and Eichman is not here; but history equips us with key characteristics and phenomenon that produce forces of group hate… these tools of history should guide us.
Among the key lessons that have captivated me this season, is the notion of resistance. I cannot stop thinking about Pastor Martin Neimoller’s 1946 poem, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist… Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Neimoller’s cautionary words urge us to understand that when one vulnerable group is unsafe, we are all unsafe. And he warns us how dangerous it is to be silent, to hide our difference, to disconnect, or to allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.
What is the opposite of being pitted against each other? Certainly not silence and not hiding. The opposite of being pitted against each other, is the embrace, the expression and the understanding of difference. As fulfilling as it is when we discover things in common with other groups, the opposite of being pitted against each other, is the creation of a world where I proudly express my background and beliefs, and I encourage others with a different experience to do the same– I don’t cover up my difference. It is an interesting message in the American holiday season.
Historian Simon Schama teaches: In the days just before the Hanukkah story, it was not a problem to be a Greek-Jew. He says: “I think what we’re actually celebrating is the difficulties of pluralism which could not be more resonant in the contemporary world. How do you stay faithful to one kind of religion while living as a part of a much broader religion which may not agree… but without the obligation to exterminate each other?”
The lessons of Jewish history and the lessons of Hanukkah urge us to honor pluralism while staying faithful to our own practice and identity, to ask our neighbors about their different celebrations, as we proudly celebrate the Hanukkah mitzvah–the sacred obligation– of pirsumei nisa, of publicizing the Hanukkah miracle by displaying the Hanukkiah, the Hanukkah menorah.
For several years, in partnership with the Center City Kehillah–a network of Jewish organizations, congregations and start-up’s–we have engaged in the mitzvah of pirsumei nisa/publicizing the Hanukkah miracle, with a public space Hanukkah candlelighting in Rittenhouse Square. When we began to plan for next week, one of the Kehillah leaders wondered if this year, we should hold it indoors, in a less public, more secure space. Indeed, Jewish law teaches, if there is danger, do not put your Hanukkiah in the window.
I encouraged the Kehillah to be outdoors for two reasons. First, as much hate speech as we are witnessing, we are also seeing extraordinary love speech, and efforts to protect vulnerable groups. In Montana, the citizens responded to hate by creating an anti-bigotry group called Love Lives Here. Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Secure Communities Network and the Holocaust Museum are raising voices, dollars and friends who are ready to stand with all who embrace difference.
The second reason we need to be outdoors is because history teaches: there is no hiding from difference. When we fail to express our difference and to understand others’ differences, we do not come closer together, and we do not become safe. Without being reckless, our history and our Hanukkah story charge us to publicize the miracle and to publicize who we are. So on Wednesday evening, the Center City Kehillah will be in Rittenhouse Square to publicize Hanukkah.
Tomorrow night, we place our Hanukkiah in the window, and kindle the first candle.
Light the candle in celebration of the miracle.
Light the candle, in invitation to your neighbors to ask you about your practice.
Light the candle, with intention to ask your neighbors about their practices.
Light the candle, to defy hate and fear, and the pitting of one person against the other.
This Hanukkah, may we light the candle,
because darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can (Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.).
Filed under: Chanukah, Community
Last week I shared with you a time when I lived in the suburbs and my family overdid it in the area of home security. I made fun of the way that, even with a burglar alarm in our house, we added to the front porch, an extra security measure: a big dog-food bowl. Even though we did not have a dog. I went on to make fun of — and to be clear, I was making fun of my mother– I went on to make fun of the way that, to make it seem real, we painted onto the bowl the name of our fake dog: Shomer, Hebrew for “guard.”
Funny story: Last week, here in Philadelphia… you guessed it. My garage was broken into. Who here believes in karma?
Now, seriously, do you think there is a connection? One week I am making fun of my mother for over-securing our house all those years ago, and days after I write those words, a break-in. Coincidence? Karma? God? There was a time I would have said: there is no such thing as coincidence. I believed God influenced the details of our lives. Yet as my life and rabbinate move forward, I find my response to the world changes: more questions, less certainty of God’s role, judgment, or expectation.
And yet, I do not feel further from what I would call God, or spiritual search. As my God-idea changes, I know that my journey has a home in the Jewish community.
This week, in Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious divine being, he injures his hip but triumphs, and he refuses to let go. Every time we encounter the story, we imagine a different interpretation: he struggles with an angel, with his brother, with himself, with God. The struggle evolves depending on how we understand Jacob that year, and how we understand ourselves that year. As one rabbi, Laura Geller, teaches: all theology is autobiography. For many in our community, a strong sense of faith in God’s role in the world endures, and Judaism offers rich foundation for those beliefs. Many others who are in the Jewish community, or who could potentially connect here, feel alienated by typical religious faith language and religious institutions.
Some Jewish leaders bemoan the disinterest out there — why don’t more people come to our building and do Judaism as we do? Two years ago, the Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans asked: Is your belief in God, a) absolutely certain; b) less than certain; c) no-belief; or d) don’t know. With a multiple-choice question inherently lacking in spiritual imagination, of course many respondents appeared to be uninterested in spiritual matters.
So many Jews, potential Jews, seekers — yes, even and especially the millenials, and the generation that follows — so many are engaged in intentional journeys, asking profound questions about their spiritual lives and ethical purpose, and about our institutions and the world in which we live. There are many who have not yet brought their questions inside our walls; but that is not because their spiritual life is absent. For some, it is because Jewish walls—Jewish institutions—do not appear to be a home for spiritual wrestling. I believe that when we listen to them– when we open our understanding of what is spiritual– not only do we make space for the next generation, we learn from their curiosity and empower them to lead us all in spiritual revival.
Through the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, especially through the Center City Kehillah, which is a network of Jewish organizations, start-ups and initiatives comprised of many people who are not members of congregations, I encounter all generations of seekers are out there on a journey. Empty nesters moving into town and rediscovering their identities. When it comes to the next generation, I encounter young adults in search of mindfulness creating Shabbat in their home, I encountered a young attorney who is creating an organization to advocate for abused Jewish women, I have encountered couples who create their own chuppah, hipsters with tattoos of Jewish or spiritual symbols, activists who volunteer or who quietly feed the hungry person on their own sidewalk. I encounter lovers of Israel who advocate both for a two-state solution and for the rights of Palestinians, and will not stand for leaders who liken them to Jews who aided the Nazis in the Holocaust. I have encountered people choosing careers, homes and schools in ways that directly express their Jewish and spiritual values.
I find one of the great spiritual lessons of the next generation is their commitment to align their outer and inner lives, their refusal to disconnect who they are from what they do (Krista Tippett). Where my peers and I are likely to bring reusable bags to the grocery store; the next generation is likely to ride a bicycle to that grocery store.
In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett offers an interesting example: Now, I’m not sure how history will judge the economic impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, it was the Occupy Wall Street folks who initiated the relief effort, had the first website up, the first place on the ground where people could deliver supplies. And to where did they turn, when they needed collection sites? Churches. Occupy Sandy reminded us in the most grassroots, authentic way: when religion serves not an institution, but serves people in their hearts and souls, in their ethics and integrity, religion can be the place for spiritual wrestling.
There are people who have never stepped through our door, but are wrestling– with God, with themselves, with their brother, with consumerism, with institutional life, with global injustice, with disappointment, with fear, with purpose. I think that we within these doors need to challenge ourselves to more and more make the synagogue a place where we wrestle and invite others to do the same. And I think we need to stretch ourselves beyond these walls, to bring our open, inclusive quest to seekers, wherever they may be.
That image of wrestling is so interesting. We sit right now in perhaps the most glorious room in the city of Philadelphia. But a beautiful room–as awe inspiring as it is– does not always invite people to wrestle. Wrestling is messy. Torah commentator Rashi noticed that the root of the Hebrew word, 1st used in the story for wrestle, is the word avak. Avak means dust; when we wrestle, we raise dust with our feet. True wrestling is not always neat and tidy. Sometimes it does not arrive in a beautiful sanctuary in high heels. Often, it arrives in a bicycle helmet.
Rashi adds, avak, also means “to become bound up.” Picture 2 wrestlers. When Rashi imagines them he sees that, although sometimes they raise dust with their feet, other times wrestlers appear bound up as if they are hugging. We kick up dust; and we hug.
Judaism does not demand theological certainty. We may attach to some of the many Jewish God ideas from our texts. Our perception of God may simply be a connection to that which is greater than ourselves. Although many in the next generations are inspiring us to challenge traditional ideas about God and community, their questions have been with our people for the ages; they are simply introducing new language. When, in our annual Introduction to Judaism class students ask if belief in God is a requirement, I respond that a particular belief is not required, but don’t reject the spiritual journey. To skip the wrestling with curiosity about deeper meaning, would be to miss out on the depth of Jewish life. Contemporary commentator Rabbi Jonathan Sachs teaches: the most important part of Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine being, is that Jacob refuses to let go.
In Jacob’s story, the 2nd Hebrew word for wrestle, shares its root with Yisrael, the name bestowed upon Jacob and upon us, the people of Israel, meaning, One who Wrestles with God.
Sometimes it’s a dusty struggle.
Sometimes it’s an embrace.
We are all wrestling!
I know I am. My hip is killing me.
But I refuse to let go….
May we wrestle together.
Filed under: Community, God, Sermons, Spirituality
Years ago when I lived in suburban NJ, there was a break-in in our neighborhood. We already had a burglar alarm in our house, so we added to the front porch the only extra security measure we could think of: a big dog-food bowl. We did not have a dog. But we were going to scare those intruders away! To make it seem real, we painted onto the bowl the name of our fake dog: Shomer, Hebrew for “guard.” Once guarded by Shomer, in our alarm-shielded house, we proceeded to protect ourselves with a light-timer, for evenings when we were out…
How much worry is too much worry? Some of our concerns and precautions are well-founded. But there is a point when our energy is so channeled into the worry that we are at risk of losing our focus and our purpose. Meanwhile, the anxiety reduces us, to wasted grief.
As we think about our roles in civic life, teaching, parenting, business, politics, it is important to consider: where do I have control and what is beyond my control?
Since Nov. 8, we have seen that many citizens feel their voices were heard in the campaign; many who did not feel heard, are now seeking ways to influence our nation and world. It is heartening to see people rededicated to social justice; yet the urgency has created a curious energy. On the one hand, hate-speech demands our attention, and we cannot accept threats targeting vulnerable groups. On the other hand, daily outrage at hate speech and worrisome policy proposals puts too many of us in a dizzying state of amplified anxiety, that we cannot sustain in a productive or healthy way.
The Hasidic master Rav Nachman of Bratzlov understands the tension between complacency and anxiety. Rav Nachman teaches there are 2 kinds of fear– pachad and yirah. Pachad is when fear translates into anxiety. Pachad is unproductive, it hides our courage and holds us back. Yirah is when fear translates to reverence for God, and for God’s holy world. Yirah is inspirational, it uncovers our courage and urges us forward.
In the tension between complacency and anxiety, we encounter the challenge of unsustainable daily outrage. Rav Nachman’s concept of Pachad, in modern terms, can be linked to our understanding of fight or flight–the reaction that is activated the moment you the face of a bear in the woods, and then is de-activated once the bear runs away. Today, if you endure panic-provoking facebook post after post or 24-hour news stations, then you might maintain ongoing active anxiety, and drain your physical and emotional resources. Through prayer, healthy habits, meditation, community and mental health care, we need to find ways to overcome anxiety.
In the tension between complacency and anxiety, we encounter the challenge to resist acceptance. In J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and A Culture in Crisis, a Yale-educated lawyer who was raised in Appalachia, tells his story of rare success. His description of economic insecurity, gun culture, addiction, and absence of work ethic or social structures, among the white working class of his childhood, sheds light on a part of America who felt heard in the election. Strikingly, Vance says if there were one thing he could change about the white working class, it would be “to change the feeling that our choices don’t matter.” The belief that nothing they do can positively impact their circumstance, demonstrates a despair that can lead to complacency.
Here in our part of the country, one with some different challenges, we too can feel overwhelmed by injustices and tempted by acceptance. Perhaps we all suffer from that question: What is my impact? Through study, action and community, we need to find ways to overcome complacency.
In this season, how can we remain tuned into the injustices that demand our attention, without submitting to the perpetual anxiety of the bear?
This is the role of Jewish wisdom. The values from our tradition steer us away from complacency; the spiritual and prayer life in our tradition steer us away from drowning in anxiety.
This week’s Torah portion brings us a message about our values, and about our spiritual journey to discover our role. Our patriarch Jacob dreams that a sulam, a stairway is set on the ground, its top reaches to the sky, and angels of God are going up and then down on it. Funny–you might expect that angels of God are traveling down the sulam to earth, and returning back up to the heavens. But these angels start on the ground. Here, among us. Could these angels be you and me? And if so, how can we be messengers of Jewish values and Jewish spiritual life?
The midrash, suggests the values are embedded in the word sulam: Count up the numerical value of the letters in stairway–sulam–and it adds to 130. The same numerical value for the word Sinai–the location and symbol of the revelation of Torah—God’s purpose for us. So closely linked to Sinai, the stairway has the potential to guide us towards the Jewish values from our tradition, that steer us away from complacency. The value that Exodus teaches: Love the stranger, for you have been there. The value the Talmud teaches: The first person was created alone for the sake of peace among people, so that no one could say to another, ‘My ancestor was greater than yours.’ Our values are right there in the Torah of Sinai and the sulam.
Contemporary Torah commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, suggests a guide for our spiritual life is embedded in the sulam. He interprets the stairway to heaven as a model for prayer. We climb the sulam, encounter the divine and return as an agent of God. Together in community we invite prayer–contemplation–meditation–to interrupt our days, to enlighten our perspective, to steer us away from drowning in anxiety. Our spiritual guide is right there in the sulam.
At Rodeph Shalom, many of you are sharing ideas that have come from your own sulam climb—your pursuit of Jewish values and of the kind of contemplation that leads to discovering our role—our mitzvah. One of you is helping our Tot Shabbat community to invite Muslim families next month. One of you is writing in your community to encourage people to meet their neighbors. One of you asked if we could create a relationship with a community in Appalachia, to better understand their perspectives. Some of you are expanding our efforts to partner with HIAS and support new immigrants to Philadelphia. Some of you have been reading the memoir Waking Up White and have expressed interest in a discussion group about race in America. Our Men of RS group is partnering with the Anti-Defamation League to offer all of us sessions about Anti-semitism, Anti-Israel hate and racial bias. You can find specific “For the Sake of Peace Among People” mitzvah opportunities on our website.
More and more, we in our congregation need to climb the sulam, discover our purpose, and return with clarity about our mitzvah—our sacred action.
Jacob awakens from his dream with a realization of his purpose and of the divine. He is shaken, vayirah, the text says, the same word Rav Nachman taught all those years later. When Jacob awakens, with yirah, he is shaken with the kind of fear that translates to awe–reverence for God and for God’s holy world. When we awaken with yirah, we are shaken with reverence for God and God’s holy world. Yirah inspires us, it uncovers our courage, and urges us forward.
With Yirah, with fear and awe of the divine, may we be guided towards acts of righteousness.
With Yirah may we commit to defying hate.
With Yirah may we proudly express our Jewish identity and stand against anti-Semitism.
With Yirah may we devote ourselves to protecting the immigrant, the stranger, the vulnerable.
With Yirah, may we see the divine in the eyes of every human being.
Filed under: Community, Prayer, Sermons, Social Justice, Spirituality
Shabbat with Renowned Composer & Musician, Noah Aronson, on Friday, December 2 @ 6pm
Sponsored by the Miles Jellinek Memorial Fund
“Noah Aronson performs with joy, passion and a rich musicality that connects with audiences, heart-to-heart and soul-to-soul”(Anita Diamant)
We are priviledged to have the extrememly talented composer and vocalist, Noah Aronson, join us for a Shabbat Service. He will enhance our service by collaborating with Makheilah: The RS Choir and our Youth Choir, and by sharing his music.
Join us for a community dinner following the service (RSVP) and a cafe style concert with Noah Aronson.
Listen to Noah’s beautiful “Eileh Chambdah Libi”
Filed under: Uncategorized
Discover more Jewish values on raising kids who are responsible, grateful and menschy with money on Tues., Nov 29, when NY Times money columnist Ron Lieber speaks.
When this year’s Slichot speaker, Dr. Dan Gottleib of WHYY hosted his final weekly Voices in the Family last year, he focused the show on gratitude. As callers thanked Dr. Dan for giving them something– courage or patience or thanks… he responded (paraphrased) “I don’t give anyone anything that isn’t already there. It’s about seeing what’s already there.”
Seeing what’s already there– this is Judaism’s approach to Thanksgiving. One Hebrew term for gratitude is “hakarat hatov.” The word thanks isn’t even in there. Hakarat hatov means “recognizing the good.” The good is already there. It’s our mitzvah, our sacred action to, call it out. Why is it so important to call out the good — to see what’s already there?
One response comes from Ron Lieber, a Reform Jew and the author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous and Smart About Money, who will be our guest for our Helen and Alfred Sellers lecture Nov 29. Lieber believes that saying grace is one of the single best things parents can do for their kids — no matter what god you do or don’t believe in. He explains there’s a link between gratitude and lower levels of envy and depression, because gratitude helps us to feel a sense of satisfaction, a sense of enough.
Why would young adults who have been raised to say grace, be less likely to overreach on a mortgage? As we would say at the seder table, Dayenu. A sense of enough. It doesn’t slow our ambitions, it helps us cherish and find satisfaction in the possessions we do have.
Why would teenagers who have been raised to say grace become less likely to get themselves into credit card debt? The delayed gratification that comes with a pause before a meal, in a reflection of thanks, might help us to pause before purchasing the item we cannot really afford, and might help us be more satisfied with what we already have.
When we count our blessings, we become less wanting, more fulfilled, more satisfied with our blessings. Now, we live in a broken world plagued by injustice. This outlook does not mean we ought to be satisfied with the world. It just means we might seek to be more satisfied with what we have. Saying thank you or hakarat hatov, recognizing the good, helps us feel the good.
Now, what if you’re having trouble seeing the good, having a sense of gratitude. What if you’re just not feeling it? Do you still acknowledge the good? In a NY Times column, Arthur Brooks recalls the first time he made Thanksgiving dinner for his Spanish in-laws. The holiday was completely new to them. They had never heard of cranberries. He recalls the questions they asked: “What does this turkey eat to be so filled with bread?” And more philosophical: “Should you celebrate this holiday even if you don’t feel grateful?”
Is it inauthentic to express gratitude if you’re just not feeling it? Do you need to have kavannah– intention, for gratitude to be real? Jewish tradition is clear. Gratitude inauthenticity is not a problem. You do not need to wait to feel grateful before you say thank you.
When at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelites received the Torah, they said, “we will do it and we will understand it.” Na-aseh v’nishma. Jewish tradition interprets this to mean: We will do it and then we will understand it. We will act and then we will feel it. Don’t wait until you have perfect kavannah — intention or inspiration– before you begin to make a practice of lighting the Shabbat candles. Just light the candles. The action will lead to the inspiration. Na-aseh v’nishmah. Do it, and then you will understand it.
Say thank you… Then you will feel it. Express gratitude… Then you will gain a sense of enough — the wholeness that comes with fulfillment. Hakarat hatov, recognizing the good helps us feel the good.
So… easy enough, right? A teacher of Mussar, the Jewish system of developing character virtues, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakudah teaches — NOT so easy. We often suffer a kind of blindness that keeps us from seeing the good, from seeing the abundance we have in our lives. We are so involved in worldly things constantly pursuing them, as if our pursuit could ever be complete. We grow accustomed to our gifts and take things for granted. Or we focus so much on our afflictions, we forget to awaken to the good. No matter our obstacle, tradition is clear: look harder.
Afflictions are real and worthy of compassion. We just cannot allow ourselves to stop there. We have to call out the good. Or we will miss out. We will miss out on the fulfillment, the joy that comes from recognizing, and then feeling, the good.
Perhaps that’s the purpose of Psalm 100 — to speak thanks, in order to feel it:
Shout for joy to the Eternal, all the earth.
Worship God with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.
Enter God’s gates with Thanksgiving.
Filed under: Bulletin Article, Holidays, Jewish Home, Raising a Jewish family, Spirituality, Synagogue Events, Tzedakah
Filed under: Community, Social Justice
Thank you to RS Board member David Mandell, ScD, for offering these words on the post-election world, gratitude, and a congregational learning opportunity.
“Praise God, even if God takes your life”
I am heartbroken by the results of the presidential election. I alternate between deep mourning and rage. Yesterday morning I expressed my anguish to a colleague from Turkey. She said that she too is disappointed but was not experiencing the same depths of despair that I was. She pointed out that living in the United States is still preferable to the violence and unrest in Turkey. A Russian man told me, “so your party lost? At least you have two parties. And you’re not thrown in jail for not being a member.” Another friend listened in on a phone call with President Obama, who gave us permission to mope for a week, and then have to get back to work. We’ve made a huge difference to the country and if 20% of it gets rolled back, 80% is still left.
In these three moments I felt hope. And driving that hope was gratitude. Gratitude for living in a country with a strong system of laws that curb the worst excesses of our politicians. Gratitude that my family is not subject to constant threats of violence and poverty, even as I am keenly aware that many are. Gratitude that there is work to be done to make the world a better place and that I can do it.
Last Sunday Rabbi Sarrah Lev, chair of the Department of Rabbinic civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, taught at Rodeph Shalom using Jewish texts about gratitude. Rabbi Lev is a phenomenal teacher who wears her considerably erudition lightly. She engaged us in close reading of Jewish texts to learn how Jewish conceptions of gratitude changed from the Torah to the Talmud. She spoke of how the Talmudic rabbis thought and how they read Torah, Prophets and Psalms. One very striking and relevant text for me was from the Mishnah. It states that one is required to bless for evil in the same way as for good, “even if God takes your life.“ How powerful to think that even in the worst of times in the face of the worst of crimes, we are called upon to express gratitude by praising God. What does that mean for us today as we face perhaps the single biggest challenge to human rights and dignity that we have faced in the last 50 years? Can gratitude become a tool of change for us? That which keeps us hopeful in difficult times?
Rabbi Lev will be back next Sunday at 10:15 to continue her teaching. Please join me in learning from her as we continue this discussion.
Filed under: Adult Education, Community, God, Social Justice, Study
Last month, I had the opportunity to watch the movie E.T. as the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the John Williams score live with the screening of the film at the Kimmel Center. It had been years since I had seen Steven Spielberg’s imaginative masterpiece about a lost alien who is befriended a 10 year old boy.
When I saw the movie as a child, I understood the message to be one of friendship. Although friendship was still present, this time, I saw something different. All of these years later, it was clear to me: the movie about the extra-terrestrial is an allegory. When faced with difference, children are driven by curiosity and love. Whereas many of the adults in the story see difference, and respond with fear, self-protection and even attack.
What is our inclination when we encounter something outside of ourselves? Do we open our eyes to see? Or do we remain covered, protected, in the dark?
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach, God witnesses earth’s corruption, and endeavors to destroy the world with a flood and repopulate the earth, by saving two of every species. God instructs Noah to build an ark for his family.
The specifics of the ark design include a tsohar, to be constructed on the top of the ark: “Make a tsohar and terminate it within a cubit of the top.” Got that? The translation of tsohar is unclear and the meaning changes according to how you execute the blueprint. Analyze the instructions, and the blueprints will either show an opening that is one cubit (about a foot) tall or a slanted covering that should project one cubit beyond the side of the ark. For those of us who are not in architecture or construction, simply put, a tsohar can either cover the light, or open to the light. The tsohar is either a roof, or a window.
Despite the language uncertainty, most translations agree: tsohar is a window. Our own translation clearly reads: “Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top.” As tempted as they may be to cover up and protect, Noah and his family need a window to let the light in. As alien or uncertain as the world around him may be, Noah is not meant to close his eyes, detach. No– Noah is meant to open his eyes, to see the world through the tsohar–through the opening for daylight.
I think it’s a beautiful image that might shape our relationship to the world today. The one halakhah–the one traditional Jewish law about the design of a sanctuary, mirrors the ark: a sanctuary ought to have windows. In Jewish life, we seek not to live in a bubble, but to be in the world. To get outside ourselves in our spiritual and ethical living. Through the opening to daylight, we welcome the opportunity to see what’s out there, and to understand difference.
Last week, Daniel Radosh, a writer at the television program The Daily Show received a permission slip for his son to read the book, Fahrenheit 451. The book remains controversial enough to merit a permission slip, in order to read it. Ironic since the controversy is born out of a dystopian tale of political commentary, about, censorship. There was no way Daniel Radosh could simply sign the permission slip. Instead, he wrote to the teacher: “I love this letter! What a wonderful way to introduce students to the theme of Fahrenheit 451— that books are so dangerous that the institutions of society — schools and parents — might be willing to team up against children to prevent them from reading one. It’s easy enough to read the book and say, ‘This is crazy. It could never really happen,’ but pretending to present students at the start, with what seems like a totally reasonable ‘first step’ is a really immersive way to teach them how insidious censorship can be.”
It seems to me what Radosh is advocating for is daylight. A tsohar–an opportunity to see and to understand different ideas, different experiences and different people.
This Wednesday, the Jewish world and those who love us, will observe Krystallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. On Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Nazis vandalized Jewish businesses, homes and schools, torched synagogues, and killed close to 100 Jews, initiating the Holocaust. For Jews, the pogrom of Krystallnacht marks the time when, more tragically than any other in modern history, the Jewish people as well as people with disabilities, gays, gypsies, communists, Catholics, and everyone else deemed to have a different ethnicity, homeland, body, religion, or idea, were dehumanized, feared, and attacked.
With his poem, “Then They Came for the Jews,” the German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller, captured the complicity of so many, during the time of the Nazis’ rise to power. From 1937-1945 Pastor Neimoller was interned in the concentration camps. Before his imprisonment, Niemoller conformed to some anti-Semitic norms, and only opposed Hitler once the Nazi platform opposed his church. Yet, upon Niemoller’s release, he said that his imprisonment was a turning point and changed his view. He expressed deep regret that he did not do enough to help the victims of the Nazis. Out of the regret was born Pastor Niemoller’s famous poem about persecution, guilt and responsibility:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Although the poem is well-known, fewer people realize that there are many versions and adaptations. The earliest of them, written in 1946, list the Communists, incurable patients, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In all versions, he begins with the group that for him, is hardest to see—the group that seems to him, farthest, most alien, least connected in his own life. The impact is carefully built up, by going from the smallest, most distant affected group, to the largest victimized group, the Jews…. and then finally to himself. The Pastor does not only come to see the world that was once alien to him. Pastor Neimoller comes to bring the distant world, closer to him.
In the Torah, Noah is meant to open his eyes, to see the world through the tsohar–to see even that which is distant from him, through the opening for daylight.
It’s not surprising that traditions who study our Hebrew Bible have embraced the meaning of window, rather than roof. But that translation choice is not only driven by inspiration and a compelling pull towards light imagery. Bible translators don’t actually translate according to inspiration. When scholars encounter an unclear word, they seek out other instances in the Bible that can provide a clue.
In parashat Noach, a couple of chapters later, at the end of 40 days, using the Hebrew chalon, a more certain word for window, Noah opens the window of the ark. It was a window all along. He opens the window to send out the raven and then the dove, who eventually returns with a plucked-off olive leaf in his bill. Noah does not only see the world through the window; Noah brings the distant world, its hope and its promise, closer to him.
At the conclusion of the narrative of Noah, God recalls the highest principle of the original creation story: “Ki b’tzelem Elohim asah et ha’adam / For in the divine image did God make human beings.”
When we have a choice to make,
When we can choose to seek protection under the cover of darkness,
or we can choose to open our eyes to the world, to all that is different, and to bring it closer to us,
may we build the opening for daylight.
And as we glance through the window, compelled by that light,
may we see in the eyes of the distant, the victimized, the stranger, the alien—
may we see the divine in the eyes of every human being.
delivered by Rabbi Jill Maderer 11/4/16 at Congregation Rodeph Shalom
Filed under: Community, Sermons, Social Justice, Spirituality