Coming isn’t Going

First a little Judaism 101 for those who may not know: The Jewish people read a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) every Saturday, the same portion in every Jewish community all over the world. We do this in the order these portions arrive in the text of the Torah. It takes us a year to read through from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Last week’s Torah portion is called “Bo“, which is the first significant word of that portion. “Bo” means “come”. The whole first phrase of the portion is Bo el Paroh, בא אל פרעה, which is often translated “Go to Pharaoh” instead of “Come to Pharaoh”. Honestly, “Go to Pharaoh” makes more sense! Why. then, would the text say “Come to Pharaoh”?

“Come” is a command of beckoning. Who is beckoning? Certainly not Pharaoh! Plus, Pharaoh’s not even doing the talking! So, it must be God! Now the question is why; why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh rather then to command him to go to Pharaoh? The answer could only be that God is there, with Pharaoh! For those who are students of this story, you might know that God has anything but a congenial relationship with Pharaoh in this part of the Torah. In fact, Torah portion Bo chronicles the last three of the Ten Plagues. God and Pharaoh are adversaries. God is proving not only that God can best all the Egyptian gods but also can manipulate Pharaoh at will, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart to Moses’ pleas to let the Jewish people go free. With all this in mind, our need to answer our questions is even more intense: why would God beckon Moses to come to Pharaoh and why is God with Pharaoh?!

Why is God with Pharaoh? Because, in the end, God is with everyone, even those we might dismiss as the embodiment of evil. In the end, God is as much Pharaoh as God is Moses. In the end, we must see the image of God (tzelem Elohim, צלם אלהים) in everyone, in everything. After all, the Ten Plagues themselves are manifestations of God and they are certainly evil if you are an innocent Egyptian suffering their effects. God is the process of negotiation between Moses and Pharaoh. God is the Nile and the plankton that died in that water and gave it its rusty, bloody, color. God is the frogs, the flies, the disease, the locusts. God is the death of the first born. And…God is the empowerment of an enslaved people to see the slim possibility of freedom and run toward it through the sea, beckoned by the Voice-of-the-Universe. God is the complexity of their freedom in a foreboding wilderness that could consume them as much as it could be the path to their future.

When God beckons Moses to come to Pharaoh, Moses is coming face-to-face with the inscrutability of Life – how much potential there is for good and evil in everyone and everything. The difference between Moses and Pharaoh  was that at the same moment in time that Moses was beginning to understand the mystery of God/Life/All, seeing himself as a small but significant part of Something-much-Larger, Pharaoh was retreating from It. As Pharaoh’s heart became more and more petrified (in both senses of the word), his horizon became more and more narrow. He was desperately trying to aggrandize himself within a very small world rather than seeing himself as part of Everything. Eventually, he was defeated, not by an external punishing God, but rather by the same God of which he was a part that beckoned Moses and Pharaoh perceived an outside enemy.

In our day, too, we are faced with leaders whose horizons are self-limited, who’ve created an artificial universe in which they see themselves as pharaohs. The only way to countermand them is to maintain our humble understanding that they are no bigger than we are. That humility, as it was for Moses, is empowering. When leaders’ own misperceptions of the wholeness of the world, of the Universe, of Life Itself cause them to narrow their vision, we must keep ours wide, even when we feel beckoned toward what seems at first glance to be an overwhelming confrontation with evil. It isn’t evil. It’s Life – in all of its intricacy, simplicity, incomprehensibility and comprehensibility. We have as much power and influence in that Life as those who claim they have it all.

Two Chants that I Won’t Chant

Like many of you, I’ve been out there already, on the street and at the airport. I know there’ll be many more occasions. I am clear as to what values and principles brought me to those events. I went because I am a Jewish-American. I went because I am a human being. I went because I am a small part of the Holy-Everything with a voice that had to speak.

Here’s what may be surprising to those who know me: I went because Donald Trump IS my president. I couldn’t chant along with others when they shouted, “Not my president!” Don’t get me wrong, I feel that sentiment deep inside me. Still, I’m marching because Donald Trump IS my president and I disagree with everything he stands for. I am marching because I believe in America and the grand purposes and values for which it was created and for which it ultimately stands. I believe in those who created our freedoms and our systems of checks and balances. As a Jew, I am commanded to rebuke those whom I believe are acting immorally and, as an American, I have the right to do so. I am exercising that right and that obligation because I can and because I must and NOT  because he isn’t my president, but rather because he IS and I won’t allow his narcissism, his petty tweets, his selfishness, his small mindedness and his “alternative facts” to hijack America.

I was recently introduced to another chant, “From Palestine to Mexico, all the walls have got to go!” Several Jews who were around me reacted in horror and amazement when they heard those words and that simplistic, conflated thinking. I also felt that reaction and I felt that a chant like that in this new movement was inevitable. I am a Zionist. I love Israel. Still, if Israel insists on building more settlements, I believe, if she is not completely destroying her own future, she is certainly destroying a future in which she could be at peace with her neighbors. However, what those in the growing movement against the agenda of the Trump administration need to learn is that not all walls are the same. The proposed wall between Mexico and the US is certainly unkind, closed-minded, short-sighted and against the best interest of the United States. Who more do we want in our country than those willing to work and pay taxes and who appreciate our guaranteed freedoms  The wall between the U.S. and Mexico borders (pun intended) on being immoral because it would need to be enforced by those who would have to ignore the basic humanity of those trying to enter the United States. I know that if my grandparents had faced a land barrier rather than an ocean between them and the possibility of a better life, they would have done anything to make that dream a reality, even if it meant crossing that border without documents.

On the other hand, the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank has a two-fold reality. On the Israeli side, it’s a security fence. It has dramatically reduced violent attackers coming into Israel, especially suicide bombers. For the most part, Israel kids are pretty safe now riding the buses and going to buy pizza. However, on the Palestinian side, it’s just a wall, a wall that keeps those behind it in prison, without the freedoms or hopes or possibilities that exist on the other side. That wall is more complex, it’s reality is more nuanced and in order for it to come down, both sides are going to have to own the other’s narrative about the wall and what it means. That wall cannot stand forever. Every day of its existence, it weakens Israel’s personality, democracy, and freedom. Every day of its existence, the possibility of a real Palestine living with a modicum of prosperity and in an economic and cultural symbiosis with Israel becomes more and more impossible.

The wall between Israel and the West Bank prevents Palestinians who would do Israelis harm from coming into the country. It also prevents that great majority of Palestinians who desire a life with a bit of security, a decent job, a government that operates with integrity and access to health care and education from getting anything near that.

Mexicans are not coming into America with the intention of blowing themselves up and taking as many people as they can with them when they die. They are coming here to work. That’s all. That’s different.

See you on the street.Me at Lax 2.jpg

Praying and Marching Together – My Words at Macedonia Baptist Church

Jewish American and African-Americans, are both diaspora peoples. We are both people living in exile whence we came. As Jews who do not live in Israel, our diaspora has lasted since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70. However, our first taste of diaspora came in 586 BCE when the First Temple was destroyed and we were forced into exile into the Babylonian kingdom. Despite the fact that Cyrus the Great came along half a century later and let us return to the land of Israel, some of us stayed. We became another kind of Jew, diaspora Jews whose identity was forged more by custom, ceremony, values and law than geography. As a result, it is the Babylonian Talmud, the Babylonian compendium of commentary on the 613 commandments in the Torah and the commentaries on the commentaries, which became the backbone of Jewish jurisprudence.

The Babylonian Exile forced us to come face-to-face with something with which we previously had no need to contend: the reality of being Jewish in a non-Jewish host culture. Certainly, a good deal of this had to do with day-to-day custom but more-so it would appear in legal matters, particularly when there was a disparity between the way in which Jewish law views a particular matter compared to the way the host government saw things.

For several hundred years, the Jews lived fairly autonomously in Persia. Things changed somewhat in the latter part of the 3rd century BCE. As a result, Samuel, the Jewish leader of the Persian Jewish community, promulgated a consciousness that the Jews must be reconciled to the government, obeying its laws and paying the imposed taxes as long as they were fairly and equitably administered. Samuel’s perspective is summed up in the Talmudic phrase dina de-malchuta dina, essentially meaning that the law of the land is the law. Since his was a view strongly influenced by the geopolitical conditions of his time, especially his personal friendship with the Persian King, Shapur I, dina de-malchuta dina was tweaked over the centuries by generations of later rabbis but the basic principle has remained a part of Judaism.

Similarly, for the African-American community, yours, too, is a community that was forced into diaspora. For you, you came here via the horrors of the Middle Passage and, upon landing, relegated to slavery. My ancient ancestors were brought to Babylonian involuntarily. Likewise, your ancestors are the only group who DID NOT come to this country by choice. African-Americans, like the Jews of ancient Persia, had to reconcile themselves to certain aspects of the overall American reality. Still, you did that in ways that you made your own. The African-American church, the Black church, is unique. It’s beautiful, strong, powerful, wondrously musical and lyrical and the place where African-American values are kept alive. There would have been no Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without the Black Church.

I remind you of the apocryphal story of my senior colleague, Rabbi Harvey Fields, who, while a rabbinical student here in Los Angeles, was assigned to pick up Dr. King from the airport and take him to a speaking engagement. Along the way, Dr. King informed Rabbi Fields that he was intending to begin an organization to concretize the movement for civil rights and the working title was the “Southern Christian Leadership Conference”. Ever aware of and sensitive to the support of other communities, especially the Jewish community, that were enabling his work, Dr. King asked young Harvey how he thought the Jewish community would respond to the use of the word “Christian” in the title of the conference. Harvey Fields, who would later make interfaith relations a hallmark of his rabbinate, replied, “It will be fine, Dr. King. That word is authentic for you. It’s whence you come. The word “Christian” won’t affect our involvement with you or the Civil Rights Movement.”

When the sixth annual celebration of Dr. King’s birthday by Macedonia Baptist Church and Beth Shir Shalom commenced at my synagogue on Friday night, our Pastor Scott was on fire! Depressed, inspired, exhausted and made determined by his participation in the protest against Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination to be the next Attorney General, Shane Scott was impassioned about what our response to this nomination and other actions by the transition team should be, must be. During his preaching, the pastor referred to Donald Trump as “your President-elect”. Some in the congregation took umbrage at that assumption and shouted out, “He’s not my President-elect!” Wisely protecting the religious non-profit status of both Macedonia Church and Beth Shir Shalom, Pastor Scott did not respond specifically to those protestations. I guess he left that to me.

Donald J. Trump is my President-elect, not because I agree with anything that he has thus far proclaimed to be his intentions for the policies and direction of this country, the often hateful and offensive ways in which he has said them and the values they represent, but rather because: Dina de-malchuta dina, the law of the land is the law. The transition between Barack Obama’s administration and the incoming one will be peaceful, as all the previous transitions in this country have been. But I am not at peace with it. I say dina de-malchuta dina not in a defeatist sense. Personally, I’m not defeated. I can’t afford to be; we can’t afford to be defeated. There’s no time for it. It’s a waste of our energy.

Diaspora peoples are survivors. We have to be. We have no choice. For Jews, the possibility of returning to Israel is relatively recent in our history and only a minority of us have taken advantage of it. Like the ancient Jews of Babylonia, for the great majority of us, we have made a life in diaspora. Unlike our ancestors, we refer to the United States as our country. This country does not belong to the President. For the next few days, America does not belong to President Barack Obama; Barack Obama belongs to America. I do. We do. Being an African-American or Jewish-American is being a kind of an American, not the other way around. As African-Americans and Jewish-Americans our individual and mutual experiences in this country fuel us with a passion to ensure that those experiences, and our values, the values of embrace, inclusiveness, justice, fairness, kindness, equity, and peace, are prioritized as our duly-elected representatives, make their decisions and take their actions.

Dr. King and his dear friend, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, were kindred spirits. They expressed themselves in similar ways, ways that articulate some of what our communities have in common. In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Dr. King wrote: “One day the South will recognize its real heroes. They will be the James Merediths, with the noble sense of purpose that enables them to face jeering, and hostile mobs, and with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneer. They will be old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: ‘My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.’”

Dr. Heschel said: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Neither Dr. King nor Dr. Heschel thought of prayer in a passive way. Dr. King prayed: “…We thank thee for thy Church, founded upon thy Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon Thee.”

And Dr. Heschel said: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism and falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

Today, for the next four years and beyond let us pray and let us walk together!

Lights

It’s hard not to notice that Chanukah and Christmas occur simultaneously this year! Some are calling it Chrismakah. Fun, but the symbolic possibilities are much richer than that. The holiday of Chanukah and the holy day of Christmas both have their roots in the winter solstice, each spiritual community cajoling its participants to incorporate that beautiful pagan practice into something specific to each religion’s perspective. Both Christmas and Chanukah are festivals of light.

In Jewish tradition, there is a morning prayer that welcomes the light of each new day. It has many glorious images and wonderful poetic phrases. For me, the most wonderful of these phrases is that which celebrates the Oneness-of-All for the “lights of light”. We often hear a similar phrase, referring to God as the “Light of lights”, that God is the ultimate “light.” “Lights of light”, on the other hand, emphasizes and expresses awe and wonder at the many lights that “Light” creates. Jews create light. Christians create light. Muslims create light. Hindus create light. Buddhists create light. Sikhs create light. All spiritual paths, whether they are of a group or individuals, create light.

The coming together of Chanukah and Christmas creates a symbolic opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us not to merge these lights but rather to recognize and celebrate them for their uniquenesses and for the greater light they create when their individualities stand together, not melded, but honored for their differences. Most importantly, if we only create this greater light only during this “season”, we’re missing the point. We need to do it every day and always.

Today and tomorrow we need each other’s respect. Today and tomorrow we need each other’s love. Today, tomorrow and every day we need each other’s light.

[I’ve attached my song “Two Candles” written with Larry Steelman. Larry’s playing keyboard and the additional vocals are from Lisa Sharlin. Enjoy]

Resolution and Resolve

Some of us may be having a hard time with a United Nations resolution that demands that Israel halt the building and expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It may seem that Israel is singled out in this decades-long conflict for which no end is apparent. I understand your feeling because I have reacted similarly to UN resolutions. No matter how liberal many of us are, we become extremely cautious, protective and, dare I say, conservative, when it comes to our Jewish nation, Israel. I love Israel and that’s why I want what is best for Israel, peace – via a two-state solution with Palestine.
Last Friday’s Security Council resolution is not in the same category as many from the past. It is more comprehensive. It strives to be balanced by saying that violence must end. Terror and incitement must end. In addition, this resolution calls for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.
One of the issues that the resolution does not resolve, but rather leaves to negotiations, is the status of Jerusalem. For me, the there is no place I’ve ever been like Jerusalem, and much of what I feel is inexplicable in concrete terms. I think it’s that way for most who’ve been there or live there. Jerusalem is symbolic for so many in so many ways. Jerusalem is powerful and that feeling of power can intoxicate and that toxicity has desecrated Jerusalem by turning it into a battlefield. The resolution should have set as the goal the internationalization of Jerusalem, with the further intention for both Israel and Palestine to place their respective capitols there.
It took courage, not weakness, for President Obama and his administration to resist those who were urging the United States to use our UN veto power to nullify this resolution. It was out of love and concern for Israel’s present and future that the President took a firm stance, pro-peace, anti-incitement and pro-two-state solution. This was not a swipe against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The President took a position that gives possibility to both a short-term end to hostilities and a long-term road to peace, cooperation and symbiosis.
I take it as no small coincidence that this resolution came on the cusp of our celebration of Chanukah. Chanukah is a holiday that celebrates cultural integrity and respect. Chanukah celebrates a miracle – the miracle of trying something that has a slim possibility of working. That is precisely the step that the Security Council took . Over two-thousand years ago our ancestors tried something that they knew might not work, lighting the candelabra of the Temple in Jerusalem from a small cruse of oil that would only last one day. Instead, somehow the oil lasted for eight days until more kosher oil could be retrieved. Last Friday a resolution was passed that encouraged the same kind of hope, the same kind of belief in possibility. Jewish tradition teaches us that while we may believe in miracles…we should not depend on them. That means, always, that we never just sit around and wait for miracles to occur, we make them happen.
The Haftarah for the Shabbat of Chanukah (this coming Saturday), is from the book of Zechariah. It’s most famous line is, “[Change will come] Not by might, not by power, but rather by The-Spirit-of-All.” I think that pretty much says it. Continue to have a meaningful Chanukah – filled with hope, miracles, empowerment, and freedom and sovereignty for all peoples.

Don’t Mourn, Work – Don’t Grieve – Organize

Taking a cue from President Obama, who famously says during his campaigns and during the one just past, “Don’t boo – vote!”, I’ve been signing my emails with the addendum, “Don’t Mourn, Work – Don’t Grieve – Organize.” Here’s why:

The evening after the election I received an unexpected gift (the best kind). Along with other clergy from the area, and as part of an organization called CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, whose commitment is to lend support in situations in which workers are being treated unfairly and unjustly, I found myself at the Le Merigot Hotel in Santa Monica, where the workers were struggling against a mean-spirited ownership and managerial staff. I’ve been involved with CLUE since its inception and, unfortunately, we don’t have to look far to find conditions in which we are needed. So it was with the workers at this hotel, who were suffering economic, emotional and even physical (in the form of an overload of heavy physical labor and unrealistic time constraints) oppression. Clergy and others joined the workers on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, a couple with their children in tow, some at the beginning of a shift, some at the end of one. We chanted. We sang. Encouraging words were spoken. Prayers and blessings were offered. I felt humbled just to be standing with these amazing people. And…I felt as though I was receiving a great gift.

Gift #1: Were it not for my work with CLUE, I would never meet and get to know these people. They are mostly anonymous to the “customers” because they wear a uniform (so they become more “the company” than they are themselves). They are not only hard-working; the take great pride in what they do. It is an honor to know them.

Gift #2: These are some of the most courageous people I’ve ever met. I’ve watched them confront supervisors and managers and tell them that demand to be treated as people – with respect. I know that I speak to those same supervisors and walk away without any potential harassment. They, on the other hand, are wide open to retribution and even being fired.

Gift #3: They helped me realize what my response to my disappointment over the outcome of the presidential election needs to be. After election night, I felt (and still feel) as though this election amounts to a polemic against my most cherished values, my American values, my human values, my Jewish values. Like many others, I was in mourning for those values. I felt immobilized. Then, I went to be with the hotel workers at the Le Merigot and I was “schooled”. Immediately I realized what my response to the attempt to usurp these values should be, must be: Don’t mourn – work. Don’t grieve – organize. I also realized that the “work”, the “organizing”, needs to be done at all times and in all circumstances because it’s never about the president. It’s about the absence of justice and feeling mandated to create justice in that space. It’s about the absence of decency and feeling mandated to make certain that people are respected because we are each and every one of us is b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of All-There-Is, All-There-Was, and All-There-Every-Will-Be. If that urgency feels overwhelming, we should remind ourselves of what Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirke Avot: “ You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you free to abandon it”(2:21). In other words as, Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains, “While the task is long and the time is short, you are not obligated to complete it. Effort alone is what matters.”*

Now is the time for such effort. It always has been. It always will be.

 

*Ethics of the Sages: Pirke Avot—Annotated & Explained (SkyLight Illuminations) (Kindle Location 1608). Turner Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

 

A Prayer WITH Everything

There are times when prayer is more difficult than others. Today is such a day for me. I don’t believe in praying FOR anything or praying TO anything or anyone. Prayer is my process of recognizing that I am inextricably integrated WITH every thing and every one. I try to pray WITH every thing and every one. This morning, that is hard. After last night’s election, I feel as though attitudes and perspectives which I consider to be the least progressive, the least compassionate, the least wholistic, the least egalitarian and the least kind were “elected”to lead the way for the United States of America and, in many ways, the world. As a Reform Jew and a Reform Rabbi I have been struggling against these notions my whole life and my whole career. I believe that the prophetic tradition of Judaism, which is the source for much of the Reform movement’s values, has always boldly confronted such tendencies. From Natan, the prophet who “called out” King David for his adultery with Bat Sheva, to Zechariah, who taught us “Not by might and not by power, but rather by spirit,”Jews admire leaders who move society to more loving and caring ways. The morning “torah” which we traditionally recite daily, lists these values in a grand rabbinic summary: honoring those who are older in society (i.e., making sure there are systems of social support and healthcare in place for them – who will be us!), acting lovingly and kindly, making study and constructive debate a daily commitment, welcoming the stranger, caring for (all of) the sick, rejoicing with all who create families and continue the human creative process, building  respectful and life-affirming legacies for those who die, praying sincerely (despite how challenging that may be some days), bringing love between one person and another and constantly making Torah into a verb, not a stagnant relic. These are the values for which we must and we will continue to struggle.

With all that in mind, here is my prayer for this day – and our tomorrows:

I open myself to and feel myself within the Oneness-of-All

And I feel the great responsibility of being “there”, being “here”, being.

For and with every thing and every one that is

May I know that life is love, and life is also…work

The work of countermanding isolation, selfishness, greed, narrow-mindedness, selfishness, and fear.

The work of knowing that my present and future are wedded to the present and future of creatures and all the elements of creation.

The work of learning from the past but not glorifying it.

The work of pushing myself beyond my limitations so that I move from one purpose to another.

The work of making the world better, bit-by-bit, day-by-day.

 

 

“MIRACLES” KOL NIDRE 5777/2016

A teacher of mine in rabbinical school once commented to me disparagingly about the word “spirituality”. “Spirituality is not our word”, he said, “Kedusha, holiness, is our word!” He was a great teacher and a great leader in the Reform movement, and I’m going to disagree with him. Kedusha, holiness, comes from a general sense of separateness and setting apart. “Spirit”, on the other hand, comes from the Latin “spiarare” which means “breathe”. In other words, to be “spiritual” is to breathe, not just involuntarily, but purposefully and mindfully, leading to purposeful and mindful action in the world.

In January, as part of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, I, accompanied by many Beth Shir Shalom members, traveled to Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts, one of our spiritual partners. I say “traveled to Macedonia” because, let’s face it, despite that it’s 2016 – there is, sadly, more than miles that separate our congregations. We may have some things in common “spiritually” but we live in very different cities.

As I spoke at church that morning I reminisced about the summer before when I marched for a day with the NAACP in Athens, Georgia, one day of many weeks in a march from Selma leading ultimately to Washington, D.C. I remembered that from time to time on that march we would shout out to encourage each other and to tell onlookers what we were doing, “This is what America looks like! This is what equality looks like! This is what freedom looks like! This is what justice looks like!”

If it’s hard to believe that such an America, such a world of equality and freedom and justice is possible, we won’t be the first people to express cynicism and doubt about America.

That Sunday, I was honored, as I always am, to speak from the Macedonia pulpit. I spoke about the Jewish people trapped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds. They, too, expressed cynicism and doubt. They said to Moses, “Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us this way…? Didn’t we tell you …, ‘Leave us alone, so that we may serve the Egyptians?’ It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than die in the wilderness.” They just were liberated from Egypt after four-hundred years and they were already k’vetching? They accuse Moses of purposefully taking them out into the desert to die, saying they prefer slavery to freedom!

Moses, apparently complains to God, to which God responds, “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel that they go forward; and lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the people of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea.” The people, quite rationally but with some hyperbole, express their concerns about their ominous situation, either drowning in the Sea of Reeds or being killed by the Egyptians. In turn, Moses steps aside to ask God for help. God says, “Go help yourself! Stretch out your hands and hold up your walking stick. See what happens.” Now let’s imagine that we are the Jewish people looking at Moses as he stretches out his hands over the water and…nothing happens, not right away anyway. He’s standing there with his arms outstretched over the sea, holding fast to his “miracle” staff which doesn’t seem to be making any miracles at the moment. And we, the Jewish people, what do we do?

There’s a rabbinic notion that all the miracles that would ever occur aren’t really miracles at all because they were woven into the fabric of the Universe just as the Sun set on the sixth day of Creation. Each of them “sits” there frozen in the fabric of time and space waiting for the perfect conditions for them to release themselves and impact history and society. And what are those “perfect conditions” under which these seeming “miracles” take place? It’s when we stop believing in or hoping for miracles. It’s when we do something. The rabbis imagine that in that moment between Moses raising his hands and the sea splitting open, a man named Nachshon with presumably others following, walked into the water to their nostrils. That’s when the sea split!

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We do not have faith in deeds. We attain faith through deeds – Deeds, not just thoughts or intentions.” So did Nachshon believe in what Moses was doing, standing there holding out his hands? Nachshon and his followers realized that this was a moment to act – not out of faith, but to leap toward faith. Faith in God? Maybe. Faith in Moses? Perhaps. Faith in miracles? Not obviously. But they did have faith in themselves to be active participants in making and changing history.

Moses must have looked crazy standing there with his hands over the water! He was waiting for God’s word to be fulfilled. It wasn’t God but rather Nachshon and a group of others who breathed a breath of courage and hope and, in an act of great spirituality, walked into the water.

One Shabbat in early July, Toby said to me, “We have to go to church tomorrow.”  That “tomorrow” was the Sunday after unarmed black men were shot and killed in Minnesota and Louisiana and white police officers were killed in Dallas. Toby, as usual, was right. We had to go to church.

As we took our places in the pews and waited the words of the poet, C. P. Cavafy, in his poem “The Great Yes” spoke to the moment:

For some people the day comes

when they have to declare the great Yes

or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes

ready within him…

On that sad morning, using few words, Pastor Shane Scott, like Nachson stepping into the water, stepped down from the pulpit and split the sea of silence and asked his congregation to do something. Quietly, he asked all the young men in the congregation to stand up so we could see these wonderful human beings who, in some eyes in the larger world, are immediately deemed to be suspicious because of the color of their skin. Pastor Scott asked them to come forward to where he was standing. Then the pastor asked all the older men of the congregation to stand and come forward and surround the younger men. Finally, Pastor Scott asked everyone in the congregation to rise and stretch out our hands over this gathering of the men of their community. We did. I thought of Moses with my arms and hands outstretched. Then the miracle happened. After saying some words of encouragement and prayers for protection for these black men of the Macedonia community, Pastor Scott asked his musicians to begin playing a contemporary Gospel song to which I’d been introduced there some years before. We sang:

“I need you

You need me

We’re all a part of God’s body

Stand with me…

You are important to me

I need you to survive” © Hezekiah Walker

That’s it. THAT is the miracle – the Great Yes, that in order to keep these young men from being vulnerable to the fate that too many African-American men (and women) have met, unarmed, innocent people, they need everyone’s pledge that we are there for them to help them to be safe. Those young men need every one of us to help them survive. This is not “their” problem. It’s our problem. They need us all to survive. Especially Jews, because we’ve known what it’s like to have members of our community killed simply because they are Jews. In France they still know it. Israelis still know it. Because we have that history and the present and that awareness, it is incumbent upon us all the more to be part of the net of protection for young black men and women and to be part of the change that needs to happen. Racism isn’t over and Dr. King’s dream is still just that, a dream. Once each year our congregations look like what the messiah time will look like. That’s not enough. We’re each a tiny part of that messiah time and it can’t be built without the active participation of each one of us.

We can’t stand like Moses waiting for the miracle. We have to be like Nachson; we have to be the miracle. We can’t go back to some imagined great America or a better civilization. It doesn’t exist. We have to build that America and that world. We have to be like Nachson, we have to vote with our feet in the water. We need to address the clear unequal financial and educational opportunities that exist in this city and this country.  We need to do something about the unfair judicial system and prison system. We need to get honest about our innate biases. This election day, we need to  elect ourselves. Like Macedonia and Beth Shir Shalom coming together once a year, voting day is not enough. There are many more seas to cross and to cross them we must believe that we are the Great Yes. We are the breath of a better tomorrow. We are the miracles. There aren’t any others.

Amen.

“THE VALUE OF QUESTIONS” – YOM KIPPUR MORNING 5777/2016

Like all of us, I do my best to learn from everyone and every experience. Every morning, when I say the blessing for studying Torah, I think to myself that torah is everywhere, if I’m open to it. In that way, I’ve learned torah from many of you here and I am deeply grateful for it. Still, I have to say that what I cherish the most is what I’ve learned from kids. I’ve heard many, many kids say many, many insightful things over the years that have touched me deeply and I honor them all. I’m only picking out one now because, in many ways, it embodies the rest.

When the kids from JELLI gather with me on a Sunday morning for t’fillah, a learning service designed to give them not only some practice with our prayers, but also a time to explore their meaning and purpose, I ask many questions. After asking questions about God all year from every perspective I could, I received the response I didn’t know I was waiting for. It turned out to be a question! One of our students, Nate Jaffa, asked, “So, do you mean God’s a verb?” I almost jumped out of my skin on the spot. “Yes! Yes!” I said, “That’s exactly what I mean!” I could have said, “My work here is done!” But now, there’s another question: “What could it mean that God is a verb?!” I can’t wait for some of the questions that follow that one!

As Jews, we treasure questions. On my first day with my beloved first-year rabbinical school teacher, Cantor Avram Alkai, he told our class that our JOB was to ask questions and that there were no bad ones. Judaism engenders questions. The Bible is filled with questions, many of them rhetorical. One of the most famous scenes with the first humans in the Garden of Eden is when, after they have eaten the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and are hiding, God asks them, “Ayekah, where are you?”, as if God didn’t know! Again famously, in the book of Job, when he questions the steep decline of the circumstances of his life and God’s role in that decline, God asks Job two chapters of questions beginning with, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” The great commentator Rabbi Isaac Abravanel always began his comments with questions, upwards of forty of them!

Questions are central to the ways in which I teach and central to the way in which we teach in our education program that we call JELLI, the Jewish Experiential Living and Learning Initiative. Under the wonderful direction of Elana Mabashov, who has now returned to us as our Education Director with her great passion for teaching, individual care for our kids and her incredible smile,  JELLI is back and better than ever. This year, we’ve added to Elana’s electric presence, the talents, wisdom and experience of one of the top Reform educators in the country, Rabbi Laura Novak Weiner, to serve as our consultant. Laura is helping us turn the JELLI dream into the JELLI reality. JELLI is living up to its name and its mission – to create literate American, progressive, Reform Jews. We create that literacy and progressive attitude by asking and stimulating questions.

The Pew Report of a couple of years ago, entitled, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”, paints a complex and often self-contradictory picture of American, non-Orthodox Judaism. Here are a few major points:

  • The overwhelming proportion of Jews (94%) say that they are proud to be Jewish.
  • The American Jewish population turns out to be larger than expected: 6.8 million rather than previous estimates of 6 million or less.
  • Most (61%) Jews who intermarry are raising their children as “Jewish or partly Jewish”.
  • Overwhelming numbers of American Jews of all ages rate working for justice and equality as well as leading an ethical and moral life as essential aspects of their Jewish identity
  • While American Jews say they proud to be Jewish, the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America: one in five Jews (22%) now describe themselves as having no religion.

There are easy, “safe”, knee-jerk responses to these challenges like…PANIC! “Quick! Indoctrinate the kids and shove as much tradition down their throats as possible!” Seems like Jews have been experiencing this sense of panic for a long time! Some of us bore the brunt of such attitudes as we were growing up.

We don’t indoctrinate. We don’t shove Judaism at unwilling or unsuspecting young recipients. We won’t do that. I’d rather motivate our kids to ask good questions, questions that they would no doubt ask later about Judaism if we didn’t entertain them now. The difference would be that later, with no one around to tell them that Judaism not only welcomes their questions, but has been asking similar ones for several millennia, they would probably become frustrated and cynical and reject Judaism altogether.

We need your help to support this kind of Jewish learning experience. Elana only works a few hours and week and Rabbi Laura is very much an outside consultant. I know that JELLI does, can and will make a significant contribution to the future of a thinking, organic, exploratory, exciting, individually validating, process and project focused and joy-filled Judaism. Elana and Rabbi Laura are doing wonderfully, but I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have them even a few more hours a week. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to have more special programs like the Kosher Chocolate Factory and the Jewish Cooking Workshop and the Drumming Workshop. I wish we had a little more a JELLI budget to fix up our classrooms so that they could really flip from a preschool room to a room, an entire room, that’s fit for older children. I wish we had a little more of a JELLI budget to afford musical performances, plays and a guest Torah scribe for our kids!

Some of you are thinking, “I’ve figured out a reason why I don’t have to do this! I don’t have kids in JELLI! My kids are too young or too old so this isn’t relevant for me.” “I don’t even have kids at all!” “I’m not even a member of this community!” Now that we have all those smart reasons out of the way, let me say why we should do this. If you believe that Judaism and Jewish values and Jewish perspective and the Jewish sense of moral imperative is in any small way relevant now and will be in the future, then you should help support our JELLI program. If you believe that it’s not just happenstance that the Civil Rights Act was largely drafted on the tables of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, then you should support our JELLI program and the Reform Movement’s curriculum we mix into our approach. If you believe that kids grow into empowered, change-making adults when their questions are encouraged rather than ignored or discarded, then you should support this open, daring, provocative and creative way of teaching and learning we call JELLI. If you’ve had a positive experience at these High Holy Days, it’s because of the Beth Shir Shalom way of expressing our Jewishness and our humanity and we give our kids the same experience through JELLI every Sunday morning.

Of course, we’ll take any contribution to the future of Judaism you think is your fair share and…I’d like to make a more specific plea. We call it “Chai” and “Double-chai” giving. Here’s how it works: this drive, this campaign to raise money for JELLI, and it REALLY will go to JELLI – all of it – starts now and will end on the first night of Chanukah. That means we have a bit more than three months to gather your donations, donations that will not just enhance but bring great new possibilities to JELLI. If you can contribute $60 in each of the next three months, you will make a “Chai” donation, 180 being 10 times 18 and 18 being the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew word “chai”, which means life. If you are able to contribute $120 per month that will be a double-chai contribution. Again, while our campaign will create its foundation from those chai and double chai gifts, whatever you can contribute will be accepted – gratefully

Let me leave you with some questions and some answers. In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, the rabbi known as Ben Zoma asks, “Who is wise? One who learns from all…Who is strong? One who manages oneself. Who is rich? One who takes nothing for granted. Who is honorable? One who honors others.” So, be wise and learn from all, especially children. Be strong and help Jewish children be strong enough to take Judaism into the future. Be rich, and don’t assume that someone else will take the whole task of ensuring Judaism for another generation. Be honorable and honor these kids. Amen.

“Lashon haRah – The Evil Tongue” – Rosh haShanah morning 5777/2016

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…”

In 1985, I was invited to a meeting between local rabbis and African-American ministers and pastors at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum, a great, progressive activist who always had his finger on the pulse of what needed society’s attention. Looking back at the list of prominent figures from both the Black and Jewish communities who attended that gathering, it’s kind of a miracle that a young rabbi, barely five years into his career, made the roll call. I felt honored and humbled to have had that experience and still feel so today.

Mr. Sheinbaum brought us all together to talk about the impending appearance by Minister Louis Farrakhan in Los Angeles. He was to speak at the Los Angeles Forum before an estimated 18,000 people. As it still is with Beth Shir Shalom and Macedonia Baptist Church today, in wake of the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, many Jewish congregations were, by the mid-1980s, long-partnered together with African-American churches of various denomination. Many pairs of those Jewish and Black clergy were in the room that day. The rabbis came with one basic question: “Why hadn’t their African-American colleagues said anything to denounce, if not Minister Farrakhan entirely, at least some of his more controversial, derogatory, hurtful and provocative statements, especially about Jews and Judaism? In particular, why hadn’t the pastors discouraged their congregants from attending Minister Farrakhan’s presentation?”

What we received in response was certainly not what I, and I don’t believe most of my rabbinic colleagues, expected. The pastors and ministers said that the Black voice had been stifled since the beginnings of slavery in the pre-colonies and that now was vital to hear every Black opinion and perspective, both to compensate for all that suppression as well as to guarantee the freedom of Black expression in the future. They maintained that no matter how controversial, inflammatory, provocative, or even hateful, everyone must be heard.

The Jewish response was rooted in history as well. We agreed that the freedom of speech is a precious American democratic value that needs to be protected. We acknowledged that we, Jews, have certainly benefited from it. We also acknowledged the bitter truth that the African-American perspective, a unique expression because of their legacy of being the only people in our complex and variegated American mix who did not come here of their own free will, had been silenced and/or unheard far too long. Yet, we told them, we, as a Jewish people have personal experience with, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, “lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification” and the consequences of those words being heard by thousands of people. We rabbis were appropriately wary of Rev. Farrakhan and his message. He was on record accusing the Jewish people on a regular basis of “rewriting the Bible to depict themselves as God’s chosen people” (New York Times, 6/29/1984) and an infamous sermon in which he said, “that nation called Israel never has had any peace …and she will never have any peace because there can be no peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your gutter religion under His holy and righteous name”. More than messages like that themselves, history has demonstrated to the Jewish people that it is the recipients of that message and the technology enabling its promulgation that are the real concern.  Jews know that the medium is at least as much the message as the message is itself.

Perhaps that is why, from ancient times, Judaism not only identified Lashon haRah, the evil tongue, as a major transgression but has also compiled a compendium of laws and philosophical reflections on evil speech.

In his book on Lashon haRah, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known popularly as the Chofetz Chaim, an influential rabbi of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes that, in rabbinic tradition, there are 248 organs and 356 tendons in the human body, each one being a physical “cloak” for the spiritual organ or tendon that lies within and that each of these corresponds to one of the 248 positive mitzvot and the 365 negative mitzvot, that comprise the 613 commandments. The Chofetz Chayim adds to this rabbinic-given that when a commandment is trespassed, it disables the corresponding organ or tendon from functioning in the world-to-come. In relationship to Lashon haRah, evil, slanderous speech, it means that a person is condemned to being a deaf-mute for eternity, since s/he both heard and relayed Lashon haRah.

Of, course, we are all susceptible to engaging in Lashon haRah. That susceptibility in Jewish tradition even has a name! It’s called the Yetzer haRah, the inclination to do evil. The Yetzer haRah, is counterbalanced by the Yetzer haTov, the inclination to do good. The evil inclination is not a force that acts independently from the Energy-of-All-Things. It is part of that energy, a constant presence in our lives. As the Chofetz Chayim says, “The general rule is that a man or woman will spend his/her entire life struggling against [the] Evil Inclination…That rule is the intent of Our Sages’ teaching that ‘a person should constantly urge [the] Yetzer haTov to contest [the] Yetzer haRah.’” Even more, the Chofetz Chayim hears a verse in Ecclesiastes (10:4) alluding to the struggle between the Good and Evil inclinations when it says, “If a ruler becomes incensed against you, do not leave your place (stand your ground) because patience appeases great offenses.”

Sometimes it is so hard to “not leave our place” to “stand our ground” when the provocations are constant and searing. Perhaps the most difficult situation in which to hold our ground against the Yetzer haRah and Lashon haRah is when group-speak takes over and those around us are disparaging others. It is not always the case that we are caught up in the energy of the group but rather that we feel we would risk too much by speaking up and countering negativity, insults, generalizations, stereotyping and bigotry. So we stay silent. And when we do, we don’t need to wait for any World-Yet-to-Come to be deaf and mute. We, in this world, are the cause of our own disabilities.

I worry about this country and this world in which people feel such abandon and recklessness with what they say, in public, in private, in emails, on reality TV and more. I once heard that language is the true human art-form. Every time the tone of our national discourse allows a hostile `and violent manner of speech, including simplistic categorization by gender, ethnic group, age, country of origin, sexual reality and brutalization by insults, threats and generalizations, it is as though great paintings, sculpture and music have been destroyed.

Rev. Louis Farrakhan may not have the soapbox he once did, but others do. As part of their manifesto, Black Lives Matter has the following statement, “The U.S. justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.” Words matter. Jews don’t use the word “genocide” lightly and whereas I’m one of the first to say that Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, be they Israeli citizens or living in under Israeli Occupation, is often cruel, passively and actively violent and dismissive of Palestinian’s undeniable grievances, national aspirations and their basic human rights, nothing in those policies is tantamount to “genocide”. Words matter. Especially in light of recent events, and certainly related to the long history of ignoring the limitations on African-American social, economic and educational mobility, opportunity and access – Black Lives really matter. Palestinian lives really matter but not at the expense of Jewish lives, Israeli lives. This is the Farrakhan approach all over again. Palestinian and Black Lives Matter only if All Lives Matter. Otherwise, this tired old world stays the same. Why is reverse racism or deflective racism any different than any racism? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

“Racism is worse than idolatry…Few of us realize that racism is humanity’s gravest threat to humanity, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

George Orwell prophesied: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Corruption of thought may well be the most disastrous consequence of the degradation of the way in which we allow people to speak, from the top down and from the bottom up. At what point are we going to “stand our ground” against the Evil Inclination and the Evil Tongue? At what point will we realize that we are all responsible when any one of us, whether we agree or disagree with what that person says or not, speaks in a manner that belittles or demeans others? If we say and/or do nothing to countermand either what that person said or the way in which she or he said it, it is as if we ourselves let loose the damaging words and the consequences thereof. As Maya Angelou warns:

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”

The Chofetz Chayim, who made the battle against the Evil Tongue so much of his work, received his nom de plume aptly. Psalm 134 asks: Mi ha-ish hechafetz chayyim, ohev yomim lirot tov? “Who is the Chofetz Chayim, the one that has a passion for Life, loving every day, seeing the Good?” The Psalmist answers: “The one who guards his/her tongue from speaking evil and her/his lips from speaking deceit. Who turns away from malicious action and does good. Who (not merely) seeks peace but pursues it.” That shouldn’t only be a wise rabbi from over a century ago, it should be us, as individuals and a nation and as a world culture, from Presidential candidates to those who vote for them – from now through November 8th and beyond.