Picture the scene: The Israelites have been wandering for 40 years in the desert and are finally on the banks of the Jordan river just mere miles from the Holy Land. Moses, knowing that his time as their leader is coming to end, offers one final speech to his people. This not-so-short speech, which is basically the entire book of Deuteronomy, is a look back at their shared history and words of advice for their future. Specifically in this first portion of Deuteronomy, D’varim, Moses does not mince words and offers a harsh rebuke of his people. He says:
…you rebelled against the command of your God. You grumbled in your tents… I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid…your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as God did for you in Egypt…” In spite of this, you did not trust in your God, and when God heard what you said, God was angry and solemnly swore that no one from this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your ancestors… And because of you God became angry with me also and said, “You shall not enter it, either.
We have name for this type of unsolicited advice in Judaism – tochecha. Literally, tochecha is a reproof or a rebuke, a spoken frankness that reveals a fixable flaw. The purpose of giving a tochecha is to point out an important truth that someone just seems to keep missing. It is one of Judaism’s most spiritual practices, not to be dished out carelessly or in anger, but with genuine concern for another human being.
In the case of Moses and the Israelites, the tochecha from Moses is related to people’s lack of faith in God. Moses, seemingly coming from a place of love, is worried that if they continue to grumble, and fear, and fail to have faith, then it will not end well for the Israelites; especially without Moses to have their back as has throughout the journey. Moses knows he will no longer be there to help his people and so this final speech, this final rebuke, is an act of love.
Fundamentally, tochecha is a mitzvah of connection — a cornerstone of healthy relationships and strong community. If we can trust our neighbors to tell us the truth lovingly, and if we can hear a reprimand with calm consideration, then our path to one of Judaism’s most sought after spiritual destinations, shalom/wholeness, is well paved.
Tochecha — the art of giving and receiving honest feedback or rebuke — is part of the biblical formula for sustaining friendships and relationships. According to the talmudic rabbis, it is an integral part of love; without tochecha, love cannot endure. (Bereshit Raba 54:3) I see evidence of this every day while counselling wedding couples. Those who are skilled at giving and receiving feedback are able to sustain healthy relationships over the long term, while those who lack such skills are ill-equipped to deal with relationship challenges when they arise. Tochecha requires great integrity and impeccable communication skills. It also requires the use of an array of psychological capacities and virtues, including humility, empathy, mindfulness, courage, non-defensiveness, and integration. While highly evolved individuals welcome tochecha as an opportunity for self-improvement, most people defend against having their shortcomings pointed out to them, and they will employ a range of psychological defenses, including denial and projection, to protect themselves from the pain of reproof. According to Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and Jewish educator, we increase the likelihood that our words will be heard by paying attention to three things: our timing, tone, and intention.
Timing: The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard. (Yevamot 65) Before speaking, we need to be mindful of our own emotional state as well as that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time — one that is mutually agreed upon.
Tone: A voice that is angry, disdainful, blaming, or judgmental can undermine our message. It is better to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is key. When possible, offer feedback and insight as an equally imperfect individual — no better or worse than anyone else. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 5), “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”
Intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms at the same time that we remember the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.
Looking back now upon Moses’ words of rebuke in this chapter, we find that perhaps he could have done it a bit better. One of the amazing aspects of our tradition is that our prophets are not perfect and that we actually learn quite a bit from their failings. Moses’ tone seems overly harsh and the setting perhaps not ideal. In addition, I think there is one more major flaw in Moses’ rebuke.
The Baal Shem Tov (c.1698-1760), the founder of Chasidism, taught that if we see another person doing something ugly, we should meditate on the presence of that same ugliness in ourselves. He writes that we should, “know that it is one of God’s mercies that God brought this sight before our eyes in order to remind us of that our own faults, so as to bring us back in repentance…” He then gives examples such as, “if you saw someone desecrating Shabbat, or desecrating God’s name some other way, you should examine your own deeds and you will certainly find among them desecration of the Shabbat and cursing God’s name.”
According to the Baal Shem Tov sometimes when we judge others about a particular character fault, we might actually be subconsciously critiquing a character fault of our own. Since we’re uncomfortable doing a self-critique because it hurts too much, yet at the same time we don’t like that aspect of ourselves, we “project” that unwanted character trait onto another individual and critique the other person—which is a much more comfortable thing to do. What the Baal Shem Tov is asking us to do is to be aware that we might subconsciously do this, and to focus our critique inward instead.
Moses is near the end of his life, knows he won’t be going into the land and is working through some issues – trying to come to terms with his own failings and thus projecting them on others. Yes, the people had anger issues, trust issues and complained a lot during the journey. But so did Moses! Moses claims that he won’t be allowed in the land because of the people’s sin. Here Moses is failing to see his own flaws and projecting them on his people.
When we practice tochecha, who are we doing it for? To what degree do we see our own failings in our loved ones? It is not always so easy in the moment but we most constantly ask ourselves before giving criticism, who is this for? Is the timing and tone right? What are my intentions? Will this person actually listen? How can I give feedback in the most thoughtful, least humiliating way?
I’ll end with a short story about the famous 19th century rabbi, Israel Kagan, also known as the Chofetz Chayim, which illustrates one possible, non-shaming way to give tochecha. A student at the yeshiva was caught smoking on the Shabbat. When he was called into the Chofetz Chayim’s office, he anticipated being harshly rebuked. Instead, the old rabbi took the young man’s hands into his own and gazed into his eyes with loving concern and sorrow. A tear fell from the rabbi’s eyes, landing on the student’s hand as he uttered three words: “Shabbos, Shabbos HaKodesh – Shabbat, Shabbat is holy.” The young man was deeply distressed to have caused his teacher such sorrow. On the spot, he repented and never broke the Sabbath again. The rabbi’s tears, an expression of his love and concern, left an indelible mark on the young man’s soul.
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One woman and her reticent seven year old child came in because she saw the chalk and balloons from the street. We invited her in, and gave her daughter a meal, and after she devoured a bagel, we gave her more. The way they ate said they hadn’t eaten in a while. When I told her she could have more, her eyes brightened. Then, we sat and played Penny Pack with the deck of cards, and then the teen leaders taught her Rummy, which I had taught them. She asked her young daughter to decide whether she wants to stay for a bit. After some food in her belly, the daughter was more social and said, “I’ve made my decision.” Then she pulled up a chair next to me. We sat and played the card game that her mother had been playing with the interns. I invited both of them into the library, and had her take books to read for herself, or for her child. She said under her breath, “thank God, this program exists, something positive like this exists, because I would have gone somewhere else I shouldn’t have gone today.
But I’m here.” I welcomed her back and said the doors are always open.
A Latino family came in clutching a flyer that I had passed out at Spring Garden Elementary, and the hands of two kids. The parents didn’t speak any English. We had the interns effortlessly include the kids and involve them in their games. I speak Spanish, so I managed to learn from the parents that they were just on their way to receive social security benefits and figured they’d stop in for the kids’ breakfast before a long day. Eric, the chairperson of Breaking Bread on Broad, put on Bachata music, and the parents’ faces morphed from a glazed-over look to two happy smiles.
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The 7-year old boy’s heart begins to beat faster as he listens to the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The boy actually begins to sob with pity for Isaac. After the service, the rabbi approaches the boy. “Why were you crying? The rabbi asks, “You know the story; you know that Abraham does not kill Isaac.” The boy questions the rabbi, “Suppose the angel, had come a second too late?” The rabbi comforts the young boy saying, “angels, do not come late.”
That boy would become the great 20th century scholar, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. Years later, Heschel would still be haunted by the same question: Suppose the angel had come, a second too late! As an adult, Heschel reflected that, while angels do not come late, human beings sometimes do. “All of history,” Heschel teaches, “has been a dry run for the moment when we can act like the angel; we must not be late.” Heschel insists that every human being has the capacity to be an angel, for we are put on this earth to do God’s work. And so, we learn from the angel. Understanding the urgency, the angel calls out: Abraham, Abraham, in order that a wrong might be prevented, a life might be saved.
Recent news of our nation’s struggle for health care, reinforce for me, a sense of urgency. A call to pay attention, if a life might be saved.
When you unroll the Torah, if you open to the exact middle of the scroll, there you find Kedoshim, meaning holiness. This literal and metaphorical heart of the Torah teaches us the why and how of Judaism. Why? Kedoshim tihiyu: You shall be holy, because God is holy. How? Here’s a summary of the first 19 verses of the portion:
Honor your elders
Reflect on Shabbat
Provide and eat fresh food
Sustain the poor
Do not take what is not yours
Your excess is not yours
Pay your worker on time
Show dignity and support for people with disabilities
Make fair decisions
Do not gossip
Do not profit from someone else’s loss
Do not hate
Do not hold a grudge
Take responsibility for your neighbor
Love your neighbor as yourself
Why? This is the source of holiness. How? Over and over again the Torah spells out the Jewish mandate to care for the vulnerable. There is no exception for pre-existing conditions. When we take responsibility for our elders, the poor, our workers, children, people with disabilities, when we bring more fairness into a world where not everyone has the privilege of equal opportunity, education, neighborhood, health care, that is how we become holy. That is how we do God’s work here on earth.
When it comes to the challenge of health care, this season’s urgent focus, Jewish tradition had much to teach. Now, no political party has the monopoly on the truth, on compassion or on values, and no health care system has been perfect. The question is: what does a health care system need to address, according to our Jewish values?
Our tradition interprets the Torah’s mandate for care in compelling ways for our own time. The Talmud* teaches: Whoever is in pain, lead him to the physician. The revered 12th century scholar and physician, Maimonides, interprets this to mean that physicians are obligated to heal, and that patients are obligated to see a doctor. Maimonides also legislates that we ought to conduct ourselves in ways that promote good health. When you exercise or eat right, you are doing a mitzvah!
Not only does tradition mandate that we care for our health, it also insists we make medical care accessible to those who are in need. The Talmud teaches, “a physician who charges nothing is worth nothing!” Care needs to be made accessible, but clinicians are not expected to waive the bill. So the question is: who pays the doctor? The Jewish answer: we all do. The mitzvah, Pekuach nefesh, to save a life, is not only an obligation for physicians, it is an obligation for each of us. Financial responsibility lies with the individual, the physician, the family members, and the entire community. Jewish law goes so far as to require a community, to establish subsidies for those who cannot otherwise afford access to medical care.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writes that American health care is entirely relevant for our own Jewish community; yet this is not primarily an issue of self-interest. He teaches: A Judaism that ghettoizes itself has no real purpose. We cannot pray for the sick (in our Misheberach/healing blessing) and then do nothing to get health care, for those who need it.
As Jews in 21st century America, we balance a complicated tension. We affirm the recently threatened Johnson Amendment, which secures the separation of Church and State. The separation of church and state rightly prevents me or our congregation from endorsing or opposing a political candidate.
Still, the separation is not meant to silence religious people from expressing our views related to policy. When our religious sages, in their deep exploration of moral obligation, teach us lessons about what it means to care for our fellow citizen… when our Jewish values offer guidance for some of the great dilemmas of our day, it is for us to express those values, that our society may learn from them. In this case, open the Torah to its literal center, and it’s right there in Kedoshim. Our Torah cannot and ought not write the legislation; but it can and ought to inform our message, about what that legislation must protect.
As American Jews, we now anticipate Independence Day. I am a patriot. When I am with my children in the Independence Park neighborhood, we stop to pay tribute. And in for my family, July 4 is truly a holiday. A day off from work and my mother’s cake with the blueberries and strawberries designed in the shape of the American flag, cannot be the entirety of my patriotism.
As our guest speaker former Deputy Speaker of Kenesset Naomi Chazan taught last night in her remarks about democracy: “A patriot is a person who loves one’s country and believes on the principles on which it was founded. One who wants to stand up for its founding ideals.”
Our tradition, in its deep exploration of moral obligation, teaches us… Why? Kedoshim tihiyu: You shall be holy, for God is holy. How? Take care of each other. Feed the poor. Organize systems of fairness to the vulnerable. Do not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block in front of the blind. Protect your elders. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This shabbat may we discover paths to holiness, that we may do God’s work here on earth.
Filed under: Community, God, Social Justice
Resolution of the Board of Trustees of Congregation Rodeph Shalom concerning Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall and Conversion in the State of Israel – June 27, 2017
Resolution of the Board of Trustees of Congregation Rodeph Shalom concerning Egalitarian Prayer at the Western Wall and Conversion in the State of Israel – June 27, 2017
This week in Israel, the Netanyahu government made two major decisions affecting most of the Diaspora, decisions which are especially hurtful because, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism put it, North American Jews have a “deep and unshakeable commitment to Israel.” Like we see our fellow Rodeph Shalom members as family, we see the Israeli people as family. We feel joy and pride with each Israeli accomplishment and we mourn each Israeli loss.
This week Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government walked away from the Kotel agreement brokered by JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) Chairman, Natan Sharansky. Under the agreement, the egalitarian section of the Western Wall near Robinson’s Arch was to be significantly expanded and placed under the authority of a pluralistic committee.
The essence of the agreement states, “The customs of this site will be based on principles of pluralism and gender equality, and prayer at this site will be egalitarian and un-segregated, women and men together, without a partition.”
This egalitarian section of the Kotel would have had a common entrance with the rest of the Western Wall plaza.
By permanently suspending the agreement, Reform and Conservative Jews, including our congregants, will continue to be unable to pray together at the Kotel. We will have to separate, men to one side of a fence, and women to the other.
Moreover, the Chief Rabbinate could again attempt force women to pray in silence at the Kotel, with no group prayer, no tallit and no Torah scrolls. In fact, on Sunday, 100 members of the Women of the Wall participated in a service at the Kotel, but before entering the Western Wall Plaza, the women’s bags and belongings were searched, including every page of every prayer book they had. The search was conducted in large part to prevent the women from bringing a Torah scroll to the Wall. While praying aloud, they were whistled and shouted at in order to silence them. Those harassing them were not removed. They did manage to smuggle a Torah scroll in with them.
Also this week, the Netanyahu government agreed to a conversion law which grants to the Chief Rabbinate a total monopoly over Jewish conversion in Israel. The conversion legislation revokes the de facto state recognition of Orthodox conversions through independent, Orthodox rabbinical courts, and the right of Reform and Conservative converts to register in the Interior Ministry as Jewish.
In other words, those Jews converted by Rodeph Shalom clergy, many still members of our sacred congregation, along with countless converts to Judaism by Reform and Conservative clergy across the globe, will not be considered Jews in Israel.
The actions of the Israeli government are an attack on the ethics and principles of the Reform movement. They are disrespectful of our clergy, our mothers, daughters, sisters, Jewish women across the world and our Jewish values as human beings. They disenfranchise those who became Jews by choice in Reform synagogues, including cherished members of our Rodeph Shalom family.
Rabbi Jacobs was clear this week that we cannot go on as if nothing has happened. He is correct that the Israeli government’s shameful decisions annulling the Kotel agreement and passing the conversion law “have caused an acute crisis between the Israeli government and the diaspora Jewry.” The Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear we cannot depend on the Israeli government honoring its agreements.
By adopting these two actions, it would seem that the Israeli government has definitively rejected Klal Yisrael, the concept that we are of one community, regardless of our background.
We therefore resolve:
While our love and support for the miracle of Israel is steadfast, in consideration of the historic actions by the Israeli government this week, the Board of Trustees of Congregation Rodeph Shalom,
Resolves to continue to support the concept of Klal Yisrael, that all Jews are members of the Jewish community of the world regardless of background, and
Resolves that we continue to believe in the equality of all Jews and are committed to Jewish peoplehood, the underlying unity that makes each individual Jew a part of the Jewish people, and
Resolves to support the clergy of the Reform movement by our acknowledgement that they are our teachers and spiritual leaders, with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of any ordained clergy throughout Klal Yisrael, both in Israel and the Diaspora, and
Resolves to support the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Women of the Wall, and other Jewish organizations seeking to bring equality of prayer to the Kotel where women have the same rights as men and where men and women may prayer together both figuratively and literally, hand-in-hand, and
Resolves to support those who have been, are and will be converted to Judaism by Reform clergy and recognizes them as authentic Jews along with their progeny.
We further resolve to carry out each of these resolutions in word and deed to the best of our ability.
Filed under: Community, Israel, Reform Judaism, Social Justice, Spirituality
Have you seen the new, Wonder Woman movie?
I have been thinking about Wonder Woman this week, because of some recent news commentary. The Israeli Woman who sued El Al airlines for sexism won her landmark case. She had been told to change her seat because an Orthodox man wanted to ensure that he would not inadvertently be touched by a woman. The Israeli court found the gender-based seat-changing coercion practice, violates Israel’s anti-discrimination codes.
The woman, Renee Rabinowitz, was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, the public advocacy and legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The head of the Israel Religious Action Center, Anat Hoffman, described the 83-year old plaintiff Renee Rabinowitz as Wonder Woman. Funny, because Anat Hoffman might herself be called a Wonder Woman. From the courtroom to the Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman has for years advocated for civil rights, women’s rights, state separation from Orthodox authority, and democracy in Israel.
Israel and the United States are of course, vastly different in many ways. Yet we share some things in common and can learn from each other– from one another’s challenges and successes, and from one another’s great thinkers.
Our own nation has so much more to learn in the area of gender equality, particularly in leadership. Israel has had one female Prime Minister. How many women do you think have been elected across the globe, for all time, to the position of president or prime minister? 50! Israel, Bangledesh, Germany, United Kingdom, Phillippines, Pakistan, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Senagal. We’ll get there.
In the Israeli Kenesset today: Out of 120 Members of Kenesset, 33 are women — over 25%. In the US Congress: Out of 535 members of Congress, 104 women — 19%. Israel’s parliament many have a higher percentage of women, but both of our nations and all of us in religious life should be outraged. Israel and the US have similar work to do here.
We both have talented women who have yet to contribute to their potential because of their gender. We both have cynicism that drives society to question women’s strength and ability, sometimes explicitly, such as in the 2009 Likud campaign slogan about their party’s opponent Tzipi Livni, which read; “It’s too big for her.” We might not have seen that precise bumper sticker in our own country, but we have sure heard the message.
We both have challenges, yes… And Israel and the US also both have bold leaders who devote themselves to social change.
Next week Rodeph Shalom will be privileged to host an Israeli activist, political scientist and Former Deputy Speaker of the Kenesset, Naomi Chazan. Naomi Chazan is a name I have known my whole adult life, because of her devotion to so many issues of social justice and democracy in Israel, especially her fierce leadership against gender equality-phobia.
In 1984, Naomi Chazan helped to found The Israel Women’s Network which was formed as a result of a conference held in Jerusalem by Bette Friedan, and has advocated for women’s health, equality in the workplace, the portrayal of women in the media, representation in the government, and sexual harassment.
Later Naomi Chazan served as a Member of Kenesset as deputy speaker. There she continued to advocate for women’s rights and supported the case which paved the way for women to serve in combat roles in the Israeli military.
As one of Israel’s great thinkers, Naomi Chazan has much to teach us outside of Israel. One of her great lessons is in the methodology she brings to each cause in women’s rights advocacy. Professor Chazan teaches that in feminist social change there is a horizontal axis. This line across includes the critical mass of supporters we need in order to mobilize. But women’s movements have relied too much on the horizontal axis. In feminist social change, there also needs to be a vertical axis. The vertical line involves the decision makers — key positions of leadership.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, teaches Professor Chazan, can we challenge the status quo.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, can we lift up women and men.
Only with the horizontal and the vertical, can we affect change.
In this week’s Torah portion, Korach questions Moses and Aaron’s authority. (Ultimately things do not go well for Korach, so our commentaries explain away his perspective, as arrogant.) But if we see Korach’s point of view in the Torah, without the later interpretations, we may notice he foresees something of feminist theory. (He might not have put it exactly that way). Korach approaches Moses to say: “Rav lachem! Ki chol ha-eidah kulam kedoshim, uv-tocham Adonai / You have gone too far. For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach seeks a leadership position, and also brings a critical mass. Both vertical and horizontal. As if he and Naomi Chazan had studied together.
For me, the opening up of gender roles is a deeply spiritual mandate. Personally, I stand on the shoulders of the first women rabbis: Regina Jonas in Germany, Sally Priesand in the US, and the early pioneers who followed… those who were called “gentlemen” in class at seminary, who were told they would never get a job, who were paid less, who were sexually harassed, and daily disrespected.
Those early pioneers helped to pave the way for more than just women in the rabbinate. The opening of gender roles anywhere, has potential implications for the opening of gender roles everywhere.
And here is where, for me, it is spiritual. In this community we affirm every individual’s journey to discover our purpose. We ask the question: what was I put on this earth to do? We don’t ask: what was I meant to do within the confines of gender roles. This is true for women, or men, or any gender, and especially important to mark during this gay pride month. We celebrate everyone’s right to dignity and opportunity.
For, in Korach’s words: Ki chol ha-eidah kulam kedoshim, uv-tocham Adonai / All the community is holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst.
As a construction worker turned poet, the founder of the poetry slam movement, Marc Kelly Smith* opens up gender roles by embracing his call to poetry. He writes:
When you get to the top of the mountain
Pull the next one up.
Then there’ll be two of you
Roped together at the waist
Tired and proud, knowing the mountain,
Knowing the human force it took
To bring both of you there…
When you ask how high is this mountain
With a compulsion to know
Where you stand in relationship to other peaks,
Look down to wherefrom you came up
And see the rope that’s tied to your waist
Tied to the next man’s waist,
Tied to the next woman’s waist,
Tied to the first man’s waist,
To the first woman’s waist
…and pull the rope!
…Don’t waste time scratching inscriptions into the
You are the stone itself.
And each man, each woman up the mountain,
Each breath exhaled at the peak,
Each glad I-made-it…here’s my hand,
Each noise panted or cracked with laughter…
All these are inscriptions of a human force that
Conquer conquering hand over hand pulling the
Next man up, next woman up.
Sharing a place, sharing a vision.
Room enough for all on all the mountain peaks.
Force enough for all
To hold all the hanging bodies
Dangling in the deep recesses of the mountain’s
Steady…until they have the courage…
Until they know the courage…
Until they understand
That the only courage there is is
To pull the next man up
Pull the next woman up
Pull the next up…Up…Up.
Filed under: Community, Israel, Reform Judaism, Sermons, Spirituality
Filed under: Bulletin Article, Community, God
Have you ever seen the hashtag #firstworldproblems? A simple google search brings up some great ones like:
The struggle of finding storage for 20 bottles of champagne #firstworldproblems
I got really tan this weekend and now my concealer is too light!!!
My dog won’t eat that chip I dropped, so now I have to pick it up.
When it takes 6 weeks for the new iphone to come in #firstworldproblems
First World Problems are frustrations and complaints that are only experienced by privileged individuals in wealthy countries. It is typically used as a tongue-in-cheek comedic device to make light of trivial inconveniences.
I came up with a new hashtag for this week’s Torah portion: #WanderingJewProblems. In Numbers 11 we read about the Israelites once again complaining to God and Moses during their long journey in the wilderness:
4 The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. 6 Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Talk about privilege and lack of gratitude?! These Israelites were freed from Egypt through miracles and wonders – from hundreds of years of slavery – and all they can think about is onions and garlic! And they are upset that all they have to eat is manna?! Manna, a miracle from God that appears every morning for free, that according to the Torah tastes like delicious sweet cream – and yet still they complain.
You could imagine if they had twitter back then, a sarcastic Israelite might have written, “Ugh, another day of eating delicious manna #WanderingJewProblems”
Many of us, especially when we are hangry, often complain as well about our food woes, forgetting the privilege that we enjoy. When we can’t get a reservation at the hottest new restaurant or when Whole Foods has run out of our favorite flavor of vegan ice cream, we sometimes forget that there are many in our own neighborhood who struggle with food insecurity on a daily basis.
Some of you may remember a few months ago we hosted a special exhibit from Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. The mobile exhibit called, “This Is Hunger,” gave the hidden problem of food insecurity in our very backyard a face and a name. The exhibit told the story of people like 13 year old Dylan:
Dylan’s mom was laid off from their local school district four years ago. The only work she can get these days is substitute teaching. It’s part time and not enough to pay for the basics. Recently their food stamp allowance has gone from $300 to $200 a month. Dylan writes, “Being hungry affects your appearance, how you act. When I’m hungry, I’m not in the mood for anything. I’m depressed. It’s not fair that we have to go through this. It’s not fair for anybody to have to go through this. You shouldn’t have to worry about where your next meal is gonna come from – especially people with kids.”
As you may know, many kids in our immediate neighborhood struggle with hunger. Thankfully many get free breakfast and lunch at their local public schools during the year. These meals are crucial to keeping these children healthy and giving them the nutrition to properly learn. But what do they do in the summer when school is out? This is where we come in.
This summer from June 26th – August 25th, Monday – Friday, we will be serving free meals to underserved children in our immediate neighborhood. With generous support from congregants Robert Schwartz and Judith Creed, and in partnership with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Nutritional Development Services and various neighborhood groups, we are excited to embark on a truly unique opportunity to engage with our community.
There is a story in the Talmud in which two rabbis debate the best way to ensure that Torah is passed down and taught to the next generous. The first argument from Rabbi Hisda says that the scholars in the yeshiva have the ability to preserve Torah in their ivory towers of Jewish education. The counter argument, however, has always stayed with me.
Rabbi Hiyya rejoined: What did I do? I went and sowed flax, made nets [from the flax cords], trapped deer, whose meat I gave to orphans, and prepared scrolls [from their skins], upon which I wrote books. Then I went to a town [which contained no teachers] and taught children. And I bade them: “Until I return, teach each other.”
Rabbi Hiyya gives us deep insight into the holistic way in which we must help our children to grow and prosper. He teaches us the in order to feed a child’s mind, we must first feed the child’s stomach. Just as Rabbi Hiyya understands that we need to not only feed the physical but also the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sides of the children, we are also planning on doing so much more than just serve free meals. This is where we need your help! Do you have a unique skill that you would like to share with the neighborhood children? Maybe you are a pro at yoga or you love pottery and want to share those passions with our neighborhood youth. Or maybe you just want to come in and do some summer reading with the kids.
We are calling the program “Breaking Bread on Broad” because the term implies a mutuality. This summer meal program is not about “us” helping “them.” It is about sharing a meal together, learning from one another as Rabbi Hiyya suggested, and understanding what it means to truly, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is about food, but it is also about so much more.
In this week’s portion, the Israelites failed to recognize just how lucky they were to have the miraculous gift of manna from heaven. However, our community does not take for granted our resources and understands not only that we must be grateful for what we have but that we must share that bounty with others and “leave the corners of our fields” for the underserved. Maybe we’ll even come up with a new hashtag out of this whole experience like #gratitudeonbroadst
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When Cantor Frankel chants the 7 Blessings/the Sheva Brachot in the vows renewal ceremony, we will hear a list of almost every word the Hebrew dictionary knows for joy. And what a joy it is to celebrate the bond of love and commitment! The conclusions of the final two of the blessings ask God to cause the couple to rejoice. Traditionally text says chatan and kallah, groom and bride; we are a community that thankfully includes LGBTQ couples and so we make a change to: reh-im and ahuvim, two words for beloved. If you listen closely, you will hear that in the 6th blessing, we ask God to cause one beloved and (in Hebrew v’) the other beloved, to rejoice together. In the 7th blessing, we ask God to cause one beloved with (in Hebrew im) the other beloved to rejoice together. By the time we reach the 7th blessing, the couple is not only one and the other, but one with the other, bound together in covenant.
Please take a look with me at the high bimah. Above the chuppah and the ark, what do you see?… Another chuppah! As the temporary chuppah celebrates the covenant of a couple, that permanent chuppah celebrates the covenant of our people with God, the Torah scrolls just beneath serving as our ketubah, our marriage contract.
Tonight we celebrate brit, covenant. Our couples share a covenant with each other, our community shares a covenant with God. And on this Shabbat, my first as your new senior rabbi, I celebrate a covenant with this congregation. When I see that chuppah that always adorns our sanctuary, I think of the relationship you and I share, the bond, not only you and me, but you with me. And that is a covenant I cherish.
How beautiful to celebrate tonight, the commitment of married couples, and the commitment of a rabbi and congregation — and I will add, the other enduring commitments that members of our community make, to friends, work, families, and world around you — how beautiful to celebrate commitment tonight, during the very week when the Jewish people observed the festival of Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot, the revelation of our people’s tradition, values and purpose, sanctifies the ultimate Jewish covenant!
Filed under: Community, Sermons, Shabbat, Wedding
What a profoundly moving season we have shared in our celebrations of Rabbi Kuhn, his legacy and his retirement! As powerful as our community events have been, the more behind-the-scenes transition process has been important as well. Rabbi Kuhn’s extraordinary generosity as my career-long mentor has guided the path of transition as he has been teaching me, empowering me, and handing over the reigns.
I already am blessed with deep relationships with our congregants and professional team; yet the time has come for us to be reintroduced to one another. Over the coming months and throughout this first year of my senior rabbinate, I plan to work with our lay-leaders and professional team to create a series of opportunities for us to get to know each other, for me to share of my vision and my personal connection to Rodeph Shalom, and for you to share what matters to you most about your relationship to our community. Please look for more information soon about those opportunities to encounter each other anew.
Over the coming months I will also begin to share with you my vision for how our congregation can take the next steps in our Rodeph Shalom vision: creating profound connections. Ever aware that even small changes can often feel unsettling, I look forward to the chance to begin to bring my own interpretation to our pursuit of what it means to be the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia.
To begin, I share with you an adaptation of the vision statement I provided to the rabbinic search team during my interview process for the position of senior rabbi:
Ohev Shalom v’Rodeph Shalom: A Vision for the Future, Rooted in the Past, to Pursue in the Present
First generation American, my grandfather’s vision laid the foundation for the future of our family. In 1958, Grandpa Sol visited Montauk, the small fisherman’s town at the eastern end of Long Island, where he glimpsed at the most beautiful beach he had ever seen.
In that first moment, Grandpa pictured his future business and the life he would create for the next generation. Then he looked to the past to learn from the experience of his Russian immigrant parents who knew hard work, fear and courage. Soon after his first visit to Montauk, Grandpa picked up his hammer and with his own two hands built the motel and then a house for his wife and three children that would become the family’s business and its center.
My grandfather, of blessed memory, is no longer with us and the motel was sold upon his retirement; yet we still have the house he built. Every summer we continue to gather the family. As first cousins, second cousins, aunts, uncles and great-grandchildren build sand castles and ride the waves, we are grateful that wherever life takes us, we truly know our extended family, we are sustained by our roots and we are grounded in the vision Grandpa brought to fruition.
Much like my grandfather’s journey, Jewish time does not move linearly from past to present to future. In Jewish time, taught the 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik, we move from future to past to present. We envision the future, learn lessons from the past and then take action in the present. All of this begins with a vision for the future. Rabbi Soleveichik’s Jewish time guides my rabbinic work, and I believe that when it guides our community’s work, we begin to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
For our congregation, the time has come to step into our next era of Jewish time. As the senior rabbi of the next era of Rodeph Shalom, I will build on Rabbi Kuhn’s steadfast and transformative leadership and I also am eager to focus in new areas to respond to the realities of our day. I extend my hand to collaborate with the congregation to move from future to past to present. In sacred partnership with lay-leaders and in a relationship with the broader congregation grounded in listening, adjusting cadence and honoring our rich history, let us envision the future of our center of Jewish life, learn from our history and passionately lead the congregation to take new direction in the areas of outreach leadership, moral leadership and organizational synagogue leadership.
A House of Prayer for All People: Outreach Leadership
Across the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is inscribed the words of Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Key to my purpose as a rabbi is my belief that Reform Judaism exists to help every person find a spiritual home, whether they are engaged in Jewish life or on the fringe. Now is the time for our congregation to interpret Isaiah’s teaching, “a house of prayer for all peoples,” as a mandate to become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia. Accountable to our membership, our congregation’s obligation cannot end there. We are accountable not only to our current members, but also to our future members. Ultimately, our highest responsibility is to serve the vision of the congregation: to create profound connections.
Classical Reform taught and continues to teach us that we do not exist in a Jewish bubble: our aesthetic is relevant when it reflects the cultural backdrop of the time. In its earliest days, Rodeph Shalom established itself on a foundation of Jewish values such as education, inclusion, imagination and modern relevance. Decades ago, the aim to remain relevant motivated the creation of a community in the suburbs while at the same time enduring as a presence in the city. In more recent years, Rodeph Shalom audaciously embraced interfaith families and reinvented strategies to include many, such as Jews of color and LGBTQ Jews, to ensure that they do not exist on the margins of the Jewish community.
In order to move toward the vision, ever learning from our past, this next era of Rodeph Shalom’s journey must be bold and move us forward. To become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia is not only our aspiration; it is our responsibility. Indeed, this responsibility extends beyond becoming the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia; our work is nothing less than to ensure the future of the Jewish people.
For Rodeph Shalom to become the center of Jewish life in Philadelphia—where we continue to witness and contribute to the vitality of urban transformation—we will need to take a giant leap outside of our walls (as magnificent as they are) to serve the Jewish people. If we release a sense of obligation to our walls and to the holy Jewish living that is already taking place within them, if we take Rodeph Shalom to the people of Philadelphia without fear of competing with our existing community, we can connect to the seekers and disaffected Jews in our city. Our embrace of Jewish diversity, our non-judgmental welcome to varying styles of Jewish observance and our openness to the faithful, the seeker, the doubter and the disbeliever, make Rodeph Shalom a place where so many Jews can rediscover their heritage and so many people can find a new path to religion.
Only limited by our imagination, our next step is to make our philanthropy more robust so that we may approach our highest aspirations. Once we do, it is not hard to imagine the possibility for a High Holy Day service in Fairmount Park, professional clergy who devotes significant time to outreach in the city, and partnerships with every Philadelphia organization who shares with us meaningful values. Once we do, it is not hard to imagine a vibrant future of the Jewish people.
Love Your Neighbor as Yourself: Moral Leadership
Over the left door of the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is inscribed the words of Leviticus: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Key to my theology is the belief that when I open my eyes, I can see something of the divine in every human being. The spark of God in every person demands that when we encounter the suffering of our neighbor, we find ways to bring repair to the brokenness in our world. Now is the time for our congregation to interpret this teaching from Torah, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” as a mandate to expand our role as leaders of social justice.
In order to move toward the vision, ever learning from our past, the next era of Rodeph Shalom’s journey must bring us from the place of social justice participation to the place of social justice leadership. My vision is to expand meaningful community service activities for all ages, much like we have begun to successfully accomplish in recent years. And my vision is to allow such direct-contact service experiences to permeate our souls, allowing us to see more clearly the divine in every person, the suffering in our world, and the potential we have to provide repair not only on the ground with community service but also in public policy. It is time for Rodeph Shalom, in partnership with as many organizations whose values overlap with our own, to raise its voice of moral leadership.
One key challenge in establishing our moral voice is our diversity of opinion. In the recent past, as we have favored caution and attempted unity, we have aimed to remain far from controversy. I believe it is time to grapple with difficult social justice issues that make us uncomfortable, so that we may engage congregants in relevant issues and discover more of our moral voice. This is the era to stretch ourselves so that we may face society’s toughest problems and challenge ourselves to step into the forefront of moral leadership.
Life in Center City has become vibrant and richly diverse in a way we might not have imagined even ten years ago. Empty nesters, young adults and families who are moving into and creating a life in Philadelphia seek to fully engage in urban life. They are not choosing the city so that they may be distant from human suffering; congregants and potential congregants are here intentionally to encounter and to repair brokenness in our world. Our role is unique: our physical location is in the heart of urban Philadelphia and our spiritual location is in the heart of Leviticus: to love your neighbor as yourself.
You Shall Make a Menorah: Synagogue Leadership
Over the right door of the North Broad Street facade of the original part of our building is carved the image of the menorah, the candelabra prescribed in the Book of Exodus: “You shall make a menorah.” Key to my perspective of synagogue leadership is that every individual has a sacred purpose. In order to build visionary synagogue governance, our work is to shine a light on and to inspire individuals whose purpose is leadership, and to shine a light on all arms of the congregation, that we may reflect and renew.
Ohev Shalom v’Rodeph Shalom/Love Peace and Pursue It: Pursuing the Vision
On the facade of our new expansion is inscribed the words of Pirke Avot/The Ethics of our Sages: Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom/love peace and pursue it. When I led our sacred congregational discussion that determined our text selection, this passage compelled us for many reasons: its message inspires inner-peace, its mission demonstrates global peace and our congregation’s name is embedded within the text.
“Love peace and pursue it” also captures a strategy for our vision. With “love,” we turn inward to strengthen our heart, our spiritual foundation and our inspiration. With “pursuit,” we turn outward to fortify our courage to move forward in action.
With both inspiration and with action, I am eager to join hands with our gifted senior staff Cantor Frankel, Rabbi Freedman, Jennifer James, Andi Miller, Jeff Katz, and Catherine Fischer, with our entire devoted professional team, and with our dedicated president Michael Hauptman and our Board of Trustees and with all of you, to look ahead to the future, learn from the past and pursue the vision at this moment in our present.
Filed under: Bulletin Article, Community
Have you ever gotten one of those emails that said something like, “A Nigerian prince wants to send you $10,000 dollars; just send your bank account information and social security number…”
About 6 weeks ago, we got a call to the office here at RS that Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah of Abu Dhabi wanted to invite one of our clergy to be his guest in the United Arab Emirates and we had until the end of the day to let him know! We were sure it was a scam… But just in case it wasn’t, I did a little research, followed up, and made a few calls. As you might have seen from my Facebook updates, it definitely was not a scam and with the unwavering support of our clergy and most importantly Laurel, I agreed to go. At around 2pm this afternoon, I returned from three of the most profoundly transformative days of my life. I want to share with you tonight of few of the powerful lessons that I learned. But first, a little background:
It all began over five years when Sheikh bin Bayyah, a former vice-Emir of Abu Dhabi and foremost leading expert in Islamic law founded the Forum for Peace in Muslim Societies with the mission of protecting religious minorities in Muslim countries. The Sheikh held countless closed-door meeting with political and religious Muslim leaders from around the world, getting them to agree to his vision, rooted in Islamic law, of religious freedom. Then, in January of 2016, the Sheikh brought together “more than 250 Muslim religious leaders, heads of state, and scholars,” in Morocco to sign unto the Marrakesh Declaration which champions “defending the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries.” If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Where are all the moderate Muslims, speaking out against radical Islam?” – This is your answer.
While Sheikh bin Bayyah was working with Muslim leaders across the globe, another religious leader was on a path of his own. Pastor Bob Roberts, an evangelical minister, who leads a megachurch of over 10,000 outside of Dallas, is creating what we might call the Reform Movement of the Evangelical church. Evangelical churches in the US tend to be the most Islamophobic, often preaching hatred out of ignorance. However, Bob and his cohort of evangelical ministries are quite progressive in comparison and a growing minority in the church. Yes, they do want to convert everyone, and yes, they do think I am going to hell. But they are honest about it and they want to dialogue.
They understand that we disagree and that I will not convert and we are closer because of that conversation.
This year, in January, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C., Pastor Bob, Sheikh bin Bayyah and the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks met and began talking. With the generous support of the Emirati government, they decided to bring together rabbis, imams, and evangelical pastors from 10 cities in the US to spread the Sheikh’s message of peace and understand to the US and the rest of the world.
During our three jam-packed days in Abu Dhabi our facilitators lead us in numerous exercises to prompt difficult conversations. The one that has stuck with me above the rest was one about perspective. We were divided up by religion and asked the following questions:
– How do you see your faith?
– How do you think Christians and Muslims see your faith?
– How do you see Christians and Muslims?
Many of the answers agreed; for example, we wrote that the Jewish community is highly organized and both the Christian and Muslim group wrote the same about us. However, there was one answer that really surprised me; the evangelical pastors wrote that they saw their faith as threatened. I was incredulous. Threatened?! Jews and Muslims are threatened. Evangelical Christians are the epitome of privileged. By all accounts, America is a Christian nation and evangelicals hold more political sway than any other demographic. “How could they have such a distorted sense of self,” I thought.
At dinner that night, sitting with a new evangelical pastor friend, I asked him what the group meant when they said they felt threatened. He said that many Christians in his community did feel threatened. They felt that they could not let their true beliefs about reproductive rights or marriage equality be known among their workplace colleagues for fear of being attacked. They spoke about being harassed on Facebook for their faith and about the assault on religious values by the growing secular majority in America.
This exercise in perspective made me think of this week’s Torah portion. Known as the holiness code, Kedoshim is, as Rabbi Kuhn likes to say, the physical and spiritual center of the Torah. We read in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And only a few verses later, we also read, (Leviticus 19:33) “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were stranger in the land of Egypt.”
The first verse, “V’ahavta l’rei’echa k’mocha,” can just as easily be read, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself.” Reminding us that it is easy to love the one with whom we can empathize already – with whom we share perspective.
In contrast, the second command, “Love the stranger,” is followed by a rationale (unlike the previous) because we need to be reminded to put ourselves in the place of the other and see their perspective. Remember what it was like to be a stranger!
In a similar vein there is a story I learned this week from the Muslim tradition about a man named Joha who was walking along a river and saw another man on the far side. The man called out to Joha, “How do I get across to the other side?”
Joha responded, “You’re already on the other side.”
The ‘other’ is purely subjective – it is all about perspective.
There is so much more I want to tell you and there will be lots more opportunities for dialogue in the coming year.
Sheikh bin Bayyah left us with powerful words last night. He taught us about a verse in the Quran that also speaks of Jacob’s message to his sons before their journey. “Oh my sons, go out and do not despair, because only those who do not believe, despair.”
The Sheikh then offered us this blessing:
Do not despair. Believe that we can make this world a better place, a more virtuous place. May God bless all of you and give you success and guidance. May God helps us improve this human condition. And we call on the name of God, Peace, Peace, Peace.
Kein Y’hi Ratzon, May This Be God’s Will. Amen. Shabbat Shalom.
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