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]
Filed under: Uncategorized
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.3/04/2017
Filed under: Adult Education, Spirituality, Torah Study
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.
Filed under: Uncategorized
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