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The blog of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia's Reform Jewish Synagogue
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Loving the stranger: My trip to Abu Dhabi

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 8:51am

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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This Is Hunger

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 8:10am

More than 1 in 8 Americans struggles with hunger; and many in our own neighborhood. I recently heard a story from Principal Laureal Robinson at Spring Garden Elementary about a student who was putting some of her free school breakfasts and lunches in her backpack to take home because her family did not have enough money to buy groceries last month. The faces of hunger in America are both familiar and hidden from view, yet they are all too real and far too many.

Our tradition teaches that:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the strangers. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

Although most of us no longer have fields and vineyards, the message is clear. We must share our resources with the most vulnerable in our society. And one of the strongest Jewish advocates for promoting this message is MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Many of you may be familiar with MAZON; maybe like me, you gave some of your bar or bat mitzvah money to help support their important work.

MAZON has a long tradition of engaging the American Jewish community as well as anti-hunger organizations to become catalysts for the change we need to end hunger in America. We know all too well that there are persistent myths about hunger in America, about who is hungry and why. Until our nation recognizes the profound prevalence of hunger here at home, we will never be able to rally the political will required to end it.

That’s why we are partnering with MAZON to bring a powerful community engagement program that will encourage individuals to embark on a journey—one that that will challenge their beliefs about who in America struggles with hunger and why, and empower them to take action.

The exhibit, called “This Is Hunger,” is a high-impact, experiential installation on wheels—literally, it’s a big rig. When the 53-foot-long double expandable trailer is parked and open on both sides, it provides nearly 1,000 square feet of interior space to take participants on a two-part journey: to understand the stark reality of hunger in America and to take action to end hunger once and for all. It consists of two main parts:

Part One: Illuminate—Participants enter the truck and are invited to sit at a communal table to meet, virtually, real people struggling with hunger. Portraits are projected at each end of the table, one by one, as they share their stories in their own words and in their own voices.

Part Two: Advocate—At the conclusion of Part One: Illuminate, participants will be invited to engage in activities and experiences that will deepen their awareness about the complexities of being hungry and invite them to join MAZON in educating the rest of our nation and advocating for change.

Rodeph Shalom is proud to host “This Is Hunger,” on March 17th-19th. The installation will be open the whole weekend for the entire community and we have blocked off special times for our congregation: right after services on Friday night, during a special Torah study on Saturday morning, and all morning Sunday for our religious students and parents.

To sign up for the exhibit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/this-is-hunger-pa-congregation-rodeph-shalom-tickets-32277891041

To get involved in some of our congregational hunger relief efforts or to find out more information about “This Is Hunger,” please contact Benay Stein – [email protected]


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How to Move the Right Heart at the Right Time

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 10:23am
Davar Acher By Cantor Erin R. Frankel (as posted on ReformJudaism)

When, in Exodus 25:1-2, Torah tells us “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved,” the text manages to be both inclusively open and exclusively specific. We tend today to read this invitation as an equalizer; no matter the gift, God will accept it. The most important quality of the gift is the zeal of the giver to share it. But building the Mishkan required specific materials: gold, silver, copper, fine linen, dolphin skins, for example. Any gift not found on this list would not be of much use. Did every Israelite possess something on this list?

Not all gifts are equal in value. Not all materials are central to a project. In making a request of the community, sometimes we are not specific enough about our needs, for fear of offending those who may not feel included. But in valuing willing energy over specific skill, we lose the opportunity to empower those who could rise to lead.

In this opening instruction of the parashah, Torah also clearly struggles with how to word such a request. How does a developing community welcome and include all while also elevating some over others? Did the community really want all gifts or only the ones most relevant to the task?

Perhaps the text hoped to move the heart of the individual who would hear and understand that she had a valuable contribution to make, in material or skill. When the details of a project speak to your particular strengths, you are required to step up and participate. We must be willing, when the call comes, to evaluate ourselves and know when it is our time to lead. Do not fear the display of confidence or bounty. The success of the community relies upon your heart being moved at the right time.

Cantor Erin R. Frankel serves Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.

Filed under: Adult Education, Spirituality, Torah Study

Reform Zionism: Shaping a Zionism That Reflects Who We Are

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 1:00pm

Maybe you’ve heard this one:

The Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Pope are in a meeting in Rome. The Rabbi notices an unusually fancy phone in the Pope’s private chambers.”What is that phone for?” he asks the pontiff. “It’s my direct line to God!” The Holy Father insists that the Rabbi try it out, and, indeed, he is connected to God and has a conversation with her. After hanging up the Rabbi says. “Thank you! Please let me reimburse you for my phone charges.” The Pope, of course refuses, but the Rabbi is steadfast and finally, the pontiff gives in. “All right! The charges were 100,000 Lira.” The Chief Rabbi gladly hands over a packet of bills. A few months later, the Pope is in Israel and in the Chief Rabbi’s chambers he sees a phone identical to his, and learns it also is a direct line to God. The Pope remembers he has an urgent matter that requires divine consultation, and asks if he can use the Rabbi’s phone. The Rabbi gladly agrees, hands him the phone, and the Pope chats away. After hanging up, the Pope offers to pay for the phone charges. The Rabbi says: “1 Shekel!” The Pope looks surprised: “Why so cheap!?” The Rabbi smiles: “Local call.”

Have you heard that joke before?  Perhaps, it’s been repeated over decades, because some truth lies in its message.  I would venture to guess that most of us, do not really believe that God is more present in Israel than in Philadelphia.  (I would venture to guess that actually, many of us are not certain about what, or where God is, in the first place.)  So why does that Rabbi’s punchline, “Local call,” ring true for me, and perhaps for some of you?

I believe that we understand that location matters.  One of our Hebrew names for God, Makom, literally means, place.  There is something holy about place.  In the place where the global Jewish community has understood that thousands of years of Jewish spiritual quest, Jewish history, and Jewish culture have taken place there is a rootedness that feels holy, even divine.

A Rodeph Shalom family recently took a trip to Israel just before their son’s Bar Mitzvah.  Describing Israel, the parents said: “It profoundly impacted us.  Experiencing Israel has cemented and reinforced our deep connection to Judaism and Jewish values. [We had] taken Judaism for granted… Seeing the existential struggle for survival of a Jewish democracy was eye opening.  One morning in the North we met a former IDF commander from Southern Lebanon. He pointed out a hill a few miles away in Lebanon where Hezbollah keeps rockets aimed at Israel, under a civilian area.  [We are] now more mindful of the tenuous nature of Jewish existence. This is not to say that we agree with all that the State of Israel does (in fact, we disagree with a lot of what the State does), but it certainly helped us understand the conflict better. One major take away was a greater mindfulness, that the freedom to live as a Jew should be cherished.”

I am touched by this couple’s ability to feel deeply what sometimes seem to be opposing views: Their Jewish life was deepened through a new understanding of Israel’s vulnerabilities; yet, they also appreciate the needs of other peoples.  They are informed by the particularistic lens of Jewish peoplehood; yet inspired by the universalistic lens of Jewish values that address all of humanity.

Whether or not they know it, this Rodeph Shalom family returned from their trip to Israel, with Reform Zionism on their lips.  Reminding us there is more than one way to love Israel, Reform Zionism integrates the purposes of Reform Judaism and of Zionism in a way that celebrates both Jewish peoplehood and Jewish universalism.  Reform Zionism teaches us that Zionism cannot be partisan.  It challenges the polarizing voices who would have us believe, either that the true Zionist must support Israel, with blinders to the needs of others such as the Palestinians; or that the true progressive must reject the promise of Israel as a Jewish home.

Politically, Reform Zionism has advocated for Israel’s security and military aide, and opposed the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement.   It has opposed actions that would undercut a peace process: The leaders of Reform Zionism have lobbied against Palestinian efforts to enhance their status in international bodies, calling out the UN’s anti-Israel bias and have lobbied against construction of Israeli settlements.  This Reform Zionist advocacy expresses clear support for a Two State solution, the model for peace that reflects Ahavat Yisrael/love for the Jewish people, and Ahavat haGer/love for the other — the model that recognizes the mandate: two states for two peoples.

Reform Zionism speaks to me because although it honors both ends of the particularistic-universalistic spectrum, Reform Zionism does not weaken the principles of either one.

Consider the particularistic: Jewish peoplehood. When early Reform Judaism came to America, the religious trend was to focus on history, scholarship such as archaeology, and faith– not nationality.  20th century founding leader of Reform Zionism, Rabbi Richard Hirsch teaches that when the classical Reformers (the early leaders of historical Reform Judaism) eliminated for instance, the kippah, the tallit/prayer shawl, the observance of kashrut/dietary laws, and other traditional rituals, their major motivation was to expunge those observances that could be seen as symbols of Jewish peoplehood.  For Rabbi Hirsch, Reform Zionism has meant an effort to restore those elements the classical Reformers rejected, not because Reform should return to a system of halachah/Jewish law, but because Reform Zionism should embrace Jewish peoplehood.

Consider the universalistic: love for the other.  Our Reform Movement’s Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism is a critical source of social justice work in Israel, bringing Jewish values to life every day.  One of its very earliest initiatives was called “Heart to Heart: Camps for Arab and Jewish Youth” where Jewish and Arab teen-agers were brought together to live, study and engage in sports and recreation.  The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and it social justice arm The Israel Religious Action Center leads work for egalitarianism, separation of church and state, civil rights in Israel.  Our alma mater, Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus, ordains Israeli Reform rabbis.  This fall, HUC ordained its 100th Israeli Reform rabbi.  Pioneers, every one of them is entrepreneurial: one of this year’s ordinees founded Nature’s Child, devoted to education about environmental responsibility, another connects kibbutz community members with Bedoin community members, another picks up her guitar for service-leading, and travels to bomb shelters on Shabbat when there is an air raid siren.

This fall, our own congregation explored the particularistic and the universalistic of Reform Zionism in our Israel education offerings.  One of our congregants shared his work training Jewish and Palestinian teachers to offer personal narrative writing and sharing workshops.  Another presenter shared her work bringing Jewish leaders to the West Bank to dialogue with Palestinians in the West Bank.  And the head of Temple’s business school taught about innovation and why Israel is a Start-Up Nation.

Zionism is so many things to so many people; it is up to us to shape a Zionism that reflects who we are. In a recent column in the Jewish Forward, the president of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, writes: “American patriotism and the words of the Founding Fathers, can be equally used, to justify the savage oppressions of white supremacy, as it can be used to justify the cry for freedom of the Civil Rights Movement.  (For) Zionism (too): The right of the Jewish people to self-determination as much argues for assertive support of a Palestinian right to the same, as perpetual Israeli rule over the occupied territories. A Jewish state does not only mean a state based on Halakha (Jewish law) or a Jewish-majority state, but a state that is Or Le’Goyim, a moral beacon of democracy and justice for the world. Zionism can mean Occupation or liberation: the choice is ours.”

I believe that we can see the complexity of our world deeply enough to reject the forced, false choice of narrow-minded polar opposites.

As the prophet Isaiah said, “For Zion’s sake will I not remain silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation like a burning torch.”

My Jewish soul cannot rest until Israel experiences peace and security.  And my Jewish soul cannot rest until the Palestinians have opportunity, dignity, and a home of their own.

In our hearts and in our advocacy, may we stand firmly on our principles, embracing both Ahavat Yisrael/Love for the Jewish people, and Ahavat haGer/Love for the other.


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Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 3:23pm

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.”


Shabbat Shalom.


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