Holy Ground? – Shemot 5781

It has been a difficult few days. The abhorrent violence in our nation’s Capitol on Wednesday has left many scared, angry, and sleepless. Whatever our political leanings, the desecration through violence of the halls of Congress and the hate-filled, antisemitic, propaganda that ran amok in the streets around the center of our national government is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. 

On Wednesday the temple of our democracy was desecrated. The images we saw will not leave us any time soon and the trauma for our representatives to government, the people who work in those buildings will linger. What was, for our country, the holy space of justice and liberty needs a cleansing. And as I ruminated on what this might look like I did some research, perhaps the purification needs are much deeper than any events on Wednesday. 

The stone used to build the Capitol, Aquia Creek sandstone, was quarried, in part, by slaves. Enslaved laborers completed large sections of the construction, too.[i] Throughout the buildings that house our national government are statues of complex people whose memories we ought not venerate. And there has been a movement afoot over the last number of years to tell the whole story. In 2012 a commemorative marker was placed to honor the enslaved laborers who built the structure. Sojouner Truth, Rosa Parks, and Chief Standing Bear’s statues can be found throughout the grounds in a move to include the narratives of those who were too often silent. The terrorists who walked about the Capitol on Wednesday with Confederate flags are clinging to a vision of America from a time long gone, one that silences the stories and experiences of all Americans. The story of our democracy includes the narratives of the enslaved person, the immigrant, the African-American, the Native American, the Jew, and the women, each who worked tirelessly in order for our republic to thrive. The holy space of our democracy can be made holy again. 

This week in Torah we begin the book of Exodus we begin to learn how. For the first time we meet Moses and in the course of the narrative of his life, Moses meets God. Moses is herding the flock of his father-in-law in the wilderness when he encounters the burning bush, a plant on fire that was not being consumed by fire. And when God saw that Moses saw this, “God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘here I am.’ And God said, ‘come no closer here. Take off your sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.’”[ii] This awesome moment between Moses and God at the burning bush begins with the definition of space indicated by the request by God to Moses to remove his shoes. Shoes in this particular moment are an indicator of the profane, and when Moses removes them, he is preparing himself for the opportunity to know God in an encounter that will change the course of the Israelite people. We know the importance of space, whether made holy through divine encounter, or built to inspire eye through the wizardry of architecture and engineering. Sacred space can be built by the hands of people and it can be in the wild among God’s creations.

Just a few weeks ago that we recalled a desecration of space from a different era. When we celebrated Chanukah we remembered a time when our sacred Jewish space, the Temple in Jerusalem, was vandalized. Statues of Greek gods were placed, unkosher animals ran around the spaces that were once consecrated to our God. It was only after the Hasmonean victory, that the Maccabees were able to begin to clean the Temple. In doing so, they created a new holiday. The festivities, of course, were centered around lighting the menorah, the seven branched candelabra. In addition, “the Maccabees also marched around the Temple, singing hymns of praise and bearing lulavim and etrogim…”[iii] This celebration of rededication that we know as the festival of Chanukah provides pieces of a framework for reconsecration. 

We also know that we come from a religion that venerates time with ritual, not space. Rabbi Ed Feinstein tells the story:

At a synagogue service one Shabbat morning, a Torah scroll rolled off the table and fell to the floor. It was an accident, completely unintentional. Nevertheless, there was shocked silence for some moments. The Torah is sacred; the most sacred object of our faith. To see it fall to the floor was a desecration, a violation. It was then that the wise rabbi rose to bring us back together. The scroll, he explained, sacred as it may be, is a symbol. What is truly sacred are the words recorded within it and the community that gathers for learning. An atonement must be offered. And the best atonement, declared the rabbi, is a re-dedication of the community to the word, to the sacred task of learning and living Torah.[iv] 

As human beings we are often reliant upon symbols to help us understand and make holiness among us. Our Jewish tradition wisely teaches that it is the actions that we take, the study of Torah, words of prayer, the atonement, sharing of rituals, and preservation of sacred principles that are holy and make a space sacred. Whether they knew it or not, the re-dedication of the Houses of Congress began again on Wednesday. It started when people like Representative Andy Kim of New Jersey aided in cleaning up the building. And most certainly it was formalized when Representative Pelosi, Senator McConnell, and Vice President Pence moved forward with the certification of the votes of the Electoral College. In a process that happens every four years that I am reasonably confident has never received as much viewership, the election of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris was certified, and the voice of the people was preserved and the purification began. 

Wednesday, we pray, marked the beginning of a new era for our country. A time of dedication to the principles of our democracy that we share regardless of who we voted for in the election. And so we pray, A Prayer for Our Country[v]

Every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea. 

There is much to be done in our time, the sort of hard work on which God smiles because it is done for the sake of the dignity and well-being of all God’s creatures. 

Together, let us work to preserve and make manifest the values upon which our democracy was founded. 

The task of all people of faith is to call governing authorities to fulfill God’s purpose of bringing about justice, mercy, and peace. 

Individually and as a nation, may we heed our obligations to each other as we navigate the tensions of building a just society. 

Rather than a politics of divisiveness, may we move our country toward a politics of empathy. 

May we use our power well so we do great things for all God’s creatures, all those made in God’s image who yearn for an equal place at America’s table. 

If we do all this, may grace and peace be ours in abundance. May we be a beacon and a blessing to the world. 

And let us say, Amen. 

Shabbat Shalom.


[i] https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2021-01-07/mob-invades-capitol-symbol-of-democracy-troubled-history

[ii] Ex. 3:4-5.

[iii] https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/286527.2?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[iv] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/A-Message-from-Rabbi-Ed-Feinstein–What-s-Sacred-.html?soid=1120967546000&aid=rDkEQga8u-M

[v] © Compiled and adapted by Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss from American Values, Religious Voices: 100 Days, 100 Letters.
By Eboo Patel, Jean Pierre Ruiz, Andrea Weiss, Susan Garrett, Carmen Nanko-Fernández, Aristotle Papanikolaou, Katharine Rhodes Henderson, M. Craig Barnes. Used with permission of Rabbi Dr. Andrea Weiss. All rights reserved. 

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A blessing for 2021

As the sun sets and the first Shabbat of 2021 begins, and we read the final words of the book of Genesis. In this portion, Jacob blesses his children as he prepares for death. So, on this Shabbat I too offer this blessing for you, a blessing based upon the 12 Torah portions of Genesis for our future.

It is the beginning, bereshit! As we take the tohu v’vohu, the unformed and unknown of this new year may we be like You, God, and be creators of beauty, invention, and opportunity for us and our world. From breads to new technologies to needlework to literary breakthroughs, may our individual and collective creativity know no bounds!

Noah and his partner Na’amah were trapped on an ark with their families and a whole lot of animals until a dove returned to the ark with an olive branch. May we use the wisdom of Noah and the dove and emerge from our shelter in place only when the signs indicate it to be safe. May that time come quickly as the heroes among us, healthcare workers, scientists and truck drivers deliver our 21st century olive branch—vaccines. Let us know patience as we wait and steadfastness in our choice to maintain social distance, wear a mask, and be safe!

Lech l’cha, go forth, You said to Avram, and he became the first Jew. In 2021 may we each journey on our path of relationship with You, God. Some will call you Higher Power, others may know you as the Force of the Universe, for others metaphors of Parent, Ruler, or Nature will do. As we traverse life’s path and experience longing, questioning, anger, and comfort for You, may we find You in ways planned and unexpected this year and know that this expression is authentically Jewish.

In 2021 may we be pursuers of justice and seekers of righteousness. When Abraham learned of the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah he asked challenging questions of You, O Eternal. May we be like Abraham and ask questions about justice and be relentless chasers of freedom. May the work of our hands enable us to bring equality and equity to our city, our state, our country and our world. As rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, will us to pursue to do this holy work because it is our sacred duty.

Parshat Chayei Sarah teaches the power of love and reconciliation. In this new year may the loving relationships that sustain us grow deeper roots and blossom. When appropriate, may the fractured relationships from our past find one form of reconciliation or another. May 2021 be the year that each of us, each created in Your image, show ourselves self-love. 

Oh the wonder and majesty and fragility of our bodies. Within Parshat Toldot contains the complete lifecycle, from birth to death. This year may we care for our bodies with sustaining nourishment, meaningful exercise, and gentle care. Let us appreciate the changes and sometimes challenges of aging and accept the wisdom of those who have walked this path before. May we appreciate the miracle of the life force that pulses through us and may we all know good health this year.

Families come in all shapes and sizes. Vayeitze reminds us of the complexities and opportunities of family relationships. Permit those who long for a family to build one. May our families of origin and families of choice be blessed this year. Let each of us know relationships that sustain us and may our families know safety and Your overflowing blessings. 

Vayishlach teaches painful lessons about physical and psychological safety. In 2021 may the audible cries and silent screams be noticed to bring us protection. May those who call to you God as their Protector find access to interventions and help. 

2021 will be the year of big dreams. While Joseph’s dreams in Vayeishev might not be the model we follow, let us believe in potential. May the the possibilities for ourselves personally and professionally expand. Allow us to learn and grow in new educational pursuits to achieve our goals. Let our aspirations be limitless!

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams of plenty and famine and creates stability for Egypt. Dear God, let us have enough. Enough to meet our own needs to feel stable and enough to offer grace to others. Should we need help, may our earnest requests be met with compassion and gentleness. 

Tzur Chayeinu, Rock of our lives, may the day come this year when we can safely embrace those we know and love. When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers they embrace and kiss one another and weep tears of joy. O how we long to be together, to pray as a community, to sing in harmony, to kiss and hug our children and grandchildren, to appropriately demonstrate our affection for our friends, and share meals with the people who bring joy and meaning to our lives. Until that moment may we have patience and use our words to convey our emotions so that those embraces will be sweeter.

May 2021 be a year of blessing! Just as Jacob takes opportunity in Vayechi to bless his children may we remember to invoke your name and bless those we encounter. May we see the blessings in our lives and when they seem distant, may we draw them near. And so now on this Shabbat I offer these words of blessing from the Torah to each of you:

יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה. 
יְשִׂימֵךְ אֱלֹהִים כְּשָׂרָה, רִבְקָה, רָחֵל וְלֵאָה. 

God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. 

יְבָרֶכְךָ אֲדֹנָי וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ. יָאֵר אֲדֹנָי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ. יִשָּׂא אֲדֹנָי פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

May God bless you and keep you. May God’s presence shine upon you. May God bring the blessing of peace for you and for our world.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Shoulda, woulda, coulda: A sermon for Vayeitze

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

When I was growing up and would suffer a disappointment, losing a soccer game because an opposing player found the back of the net despite my efforts as goalie, not being cast in a role I wanted in a school performance or the solo for the upcoming choir concert, or not getting an invitation to a party of one kind or another, I can recall my mom of blessed memory saying to me, “shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Honestly, if I remember correctly this response from my mom infuriated me. In the moment of disappointment, I wanted company at my pity party and was not always ready to move onto the “what can I do better next time” conversation. However, as per usual with the gift of hindsight, my mom was teaching me an important lesson; disappointments will happen, it’s what we do with those setbacks or losses to guide us going forward where we grow. Even if I wasn’t ready to move on from the pity party, her urging always pushed me.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, perhaps a mantra for those who know disappointment. A framing for growth mindset, in our current educational scholarship. In all the Hebrew Bible, there is no greater exemplar of this than Leah who we meet in this week’s Torah portion. We learn of Leah in Genesis 29:16 and 17: “Now Laban had two daughters; the elder was named Leah, and the younger was named Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and of face.” The portion continues with the deception of Jacob as Leah becomes his wife in the place of Rachel and in the morning as Jacob awakens surprised to find her as his wife. Leah is a pawn in her father’s schemes and, we can only imagine her disappointment as the text reveals that Jacob “loved Rachel … so much more than Leah.”[i] The truth is that we don’t have all that much information about Leah when we first meet her. We know she is not the favored wife, and the text intimates that she was loved, just not as much as her sister. Rabbi Shai Held asks us to:

imagine Leah’s predicament, and her humiliation. She is older and less physically attractive than her sister. While Rachel presumably has suitors, Leah remains alone, with no sense that this situation is likely to end happily, or soon. Perhaps her father thinks he is doing his elder daughter a favor, protecting her honor by deceiving Jacob into marrying her. Perhaps Leah herself harbors the fantasy that Jacob will learn to love and appreciate her. Imagine her feeling, when, on the morning after her wedding, her husband’s only response to discovering that she, rather than her sister, is his wife is an excruciating mix of outrage and disappointment.[ii]

Leah’s pain does not go unnoticed though. God sees that she is not favored and opens her womb.[iii] And it is in the naming of her sons that we begin to see Leah’s acceptance of the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” in her own life as she bares children in rapid succession. Her first son is named Reuven, Leah names him thus because “God has seen my plight, yes, now my husband will love me.” [iv] Shimon is born next, and Leah grants his name noting that “God heard that I am despised and has given me this one too.”[v] Without giving up hope, Leah’s third son is named Levi for she prays, “my husband will be attached to me.”[vi] But then something inexplicable happens. The text provides us with no hints, however, when Leah’s fourth son is born, she names him Judah, Yehudah, because “this time I give thanks to God,” she explains.[vii] Leah managed to move through her frustration to a place of gratitude. It is not that a magic wand of gladness was moved over her, something fundamentally changed about her perspective in the midst of pregnancies and child rearing. We can imagine a thousand reasons for this change, yet the Torah does not provide us with the reasoning. We can only know that Leah knew disappointment and through her pain she found the capacity to feel grateful even amid her sorrows.

It is taught in the Talmud about Leah that “she was the first person in the history of the world who ever expressed gratitude to God.”[viii] Leah teaches us that disappointment does not impede gratitude, nor does gratitude prevent the possibility for disappointment. As Rabbi Held teaches, “Judaism does not ask us to choose one feeling or the other but rather makes space—indeed seeks to teach us to make space—for the sheer complexity and contradictoriness of human experience. Who better than Leah to teach us that a broken heart can also have moments of profound fullness.”[ix]

On the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, a weekend unlike any that we’ve experienced before, there can be no better message. We have known disappointment this week because our plans needed modification in the interest of health as this pandemic rages. How can we take our disappointment and feel all the feelings while also making space for gratitude and blessing? My colleague Michelle Shapiro-Abraham penned a poem for Rosh Hashanah that also fits perfectly for this weekend. She wrote:

Shards of Glass: A Poem for the New Year

A friend once told me
that we smash a glass at a wedding
to bring a bit of sadness into a joyous moment; so that
we know how to bring a bit of joy into the sad ones
I come from sturdy stock who know how to keep our sorrow on our fingertips
So our feet are free to dance
My people have celebrated New Years when the food is old and stale
And Freedom when none is in sight
My people leave the house of mourning to celebrate the Sabbath
And my people find a 100 blessings a day even
when the days are thick with smoke
And you can barely find yourself in the darkness

Remind my tired soul, I beg You
My kitchen is far too clean and the china is still in the basement
Remind me how to stop the mourning
for tables that don’t need extensions
quiet synagogues with no children to be shushed
For lives lost along the way
Help me to shake the sadness to my fingertips
and free my feet to dance across the family room floor
Let me embrace my blessings
Let me drink deep of gratitude for all I have
Let me shake off this foolish melancholy
and help me find the broom so I can sweep away
the tiny shards of glass left alone under the wedding canopy[x]

Shoulda, woulda, coulda, my Jewish mother’s attempt at finding the space for the disappointment and the blessing. May there be space for these and all of the other emotions this Shabbat and even in their complexity, may we find the blessing. Ken y’hi ratzon.


[i] Gen. 29:30

[ii] Held, S. (2017). The heart of Torah, volume 1. Philadelphia: Jewish publication society. P. 60,

[iii] Gen. 29:31

[iv] Gen. 29:32

[v] Gen. 29:33.

[vi] Gen. 29:34

[vii] Gen. 29:35.

[viii] Held, p. 63 citing BT Berakhot 7b.

[ix] Held, p. 63.

[x] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/shards-glass-poem-new-year?fbclid=IwAR116OAHNI8ovYGFosQKtmnM-Z4dqMQyVthi9LBzNHnw4GwCsebrUAX50zs

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10 years

Shabbat candles, yartzeit candle, kiddush cup, and challah ready for Shabbat.

Tonight, the 5th day of Kislev, I will light a yartzeit candle before we kindle the Shabbat candles to mark my mom’s yartzeit. 10 years ago according to the Hebrew calendar, my mom died. (Thanks to my amazing wife for the new yartzeit candle holder that we will use tonight for the first time and will continue to use to remember those we’ve loved and lost on their yartzeit and holy days).

I am struggling to wrap my head around the fact that 10 years have passed, a lifetime and an instant. My mom loved to sing and make music. She had an incredible smile and a generous heart. She was an incredible cook and I cannot think of one item that she ever baked, cookies and cakes were store bought or made by someone else in Jane’s house. She loved my dad, my sister, and me fiercely. Jane loved a party. She would hate Covid and would want you to wear a mask so eventually she could go back to travel, gathering with family and friends, and singing together. She was a talented knitter, an occasional reader, and she subscribed to People magazine. Jane always had fabulous nails, often painted red. She liked original chapstick. She liked the dress code “funky casual” and we liked to hold pinkies when we walked together. I am so grateful for the memories big and small.

I miss her.

Tell the people you love how you feel.

Mom, I love you and I always will.

Shabbat Shalom.

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To Pray for Healing is to be Human

Here is a recording of my Rosh Hashanah sermon.

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To Pray for Healing is to be Human

 

Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon delivered to the beautiful souls of Temple Beth Shalom, Austin.

Once upon a time, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba were strolling in the streets of Jerusalem. They noticed someone who was visibly ill and they went up to him. The sick person said, “my teachers, please, rabbis, how can I be healed?” They gave him some advice on how to get better. The sick person asked them, “who made me sick?” They replied, “the Holy One of Blessing.” The sick man responded, “God made me sick? And you have the cure? You are out of your league.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael asked him, “what is your occupation?” The sick man answered, “I’m a farmer, here is my sickle.” The rabbis asked him, “who created the vineyard?” “The Holy One of Blessing,” the sick man answered. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “You created the vineyard? God created vineyard and you take from it.”

The man with illness said, “did you not see the sickle in my hand? If I did not plow, sow, fertilize, and weed, nothing would sprout.”

Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael said to him, “Foolish man!… Just as if one does not weed, fertilize, and plow, the trees will not produce fruit, and if fruit is produced and is not watered or fertilized, it will not live but die, so with the human body. Drugs and medicines are the fertilizer, and the physician is the tiller of the soil.[i]

Since the dawn of time, including the time of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael the 2nd century of the common era, healing and the healing arts have been part of life. Perhaps it is innate in the biology of our species to heal ailments, and maybe even more significantly, to help another human being to return to health if that is possible.

Illness and disease have been and remain a part of life. Ailments big and small, chronic, fatal, and short-term are part of the reality of being a human. Widespread contagions are nothing new, our world has known epidemics before: in the year 430 B.C.E., not long after a war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was ravaged by an epidemic.[ii] The Black Death of the 14th century was estimated to have killed half the population of Europe as the disease ravaged Europe and Asia.[iii] We’ve started to learn more about the Spanish Flu that afflicted the world just as the first World War ended, and in more recent history we can recall H1N1 Swine Flu, polio, Ebola, and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. We now add Covid-19 to this list and this pandemic is weighing on our hearts, minds, and spirits, as we celebrate and mark this new year.

Covid-19 has forced us to change our lives in so many ways. We don’t leave our houses without masks, who knows when we might shake someone’s hand when we meet them for the first time, and I don’t know about you, but I am acutely aware of six feet of distance when I am making necessary supply runs or taking a walk in my neighborhood. We have also been reminded of the wisdom of our Jewish tradition, more people are observing Shabbat mark time, and adults are flocking to online learning opportunities, especially Jewish content, in droves. Jewish tradition also offers us the wisdom of praying for healing.

As long as there has been illness, Jews have prayed for healing. Rabbi Dr. William Cutter teaches in his book Healing and the Jewish Imagination, “It is certain that our bodies do not last forever, and that they can’t even do everything we want during their physical lifetime. This condition makes life difficult and interesting, and it is a condition that has created much of the search for healing in Jewish tradition.”[iv]

Judaism has long engaged in all aspects of healing, from strange remedies described in the Talmud to prayers for healing. It is Moses who utters a healing blessing for his sister Miriam when he utters, “el na r’fa na la,” “God, pray, heal her, pray,”[v] in the book of Numbers. We know that in addition to being one of the greatest writers on Jewish law and philosophy, Maimonides was the court physician to sultan Saladin.[vi] And there are at least 20 mediocre to terrible jokes I could tell about a parent who wishes for their child to become a doctor or marry a doctor.

Jews pray for healing all the time in formal and informal ways. In the weekday Amidah there is a daily benediction for healing. We say, “refaeinu Adonai v’nirafe,” ‘Soften us up, O God, so that we may be able to receive healing.’ Open our hearts so that we can receive the gift of those who seek to heal. Help us to break down our own resistance to Your healing love!”[vii]

Then of course there is the Mi Shebeirach. Mi Shebeirach, “mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu” is a prayer form traditionally offered in the midst of the Torah service and is most versatile. It can be offered for the person doing the Aliyah blessing, for soldiers, and we know this prayer best as a blessing for healing. For many of us liberal Jews, it wasn’t until Debbie Friedman and Rabbi Drorah Setel wrote their iconic melody [in 1987] in response to the AIDS epedemic that this prayer became an essential part of our worship experiences.

As renowned historian Jonathan Sarna describes: this Mi Shebeirach prayer setting, “With a holistic view of humankind, this prayer asks for physical cure as well as spiritual healing – asking for blessing, compassion, restoration, and strength, within the community of others facing illness, of body and spirit…”[viii]

The Jewish healing movement, in some ways spearheaded by the Mi Shebeirach melody we all know and love, has transformed the way that we Jews pray. Take the example provided by Dr. Gila Silverman, an anthropologist did an ethnographic study in Tucson, Arizona to understand why nonreligious Jews pray and why they pray for healing by asking questions like, “what does prayer do?”[ix]

Silverman tells these stories:

In the early winter of 2014, I attended the monthly meeting of a support group for Jewish women with cancer… I was there to recruit women for my study on Jewish prayer and healing. In response to my inquiries, one woman told me, ‘I don’t pray.’ Another said, ‘I’m not religious at all.’ Several women told me, ‘We’re not sure we can help you.’ At the close of the meeting, the women all got up from their seats and stood in a circle at the side of the room, holding hands, shoulders and hips touching. Eyes closed they began to sing a modern version of the Mi Sherberach … by [Debbie Friedman].”[x]

Then:

As the song came to an end, the hands holding each other lingered a little longer. There were gentle squeezes, then a slow letting go, a shoulder rub, a hug, and a few small conversations, and then the women left to go on with their day. Afterward, I was chatting with one of the women. She told me that she doesn’t pray. ‘‘What about that?’’ I asked, referring to the closing with Mi Sheberach. There was a thoughtful pause. ‘‘Oh,’’ she said, ‘‘I love that. It’s my favorite part of the morning. I guess you’re right. That is prayer. I hadn’t thought of it that way.’’ Later, another woman, who describes her Judaism as peripheral to her life, saying that she is mostly an ethical Jew, but not at all a religious one, told me this: ‘‘When we’re all together, holding hands and swaying, when I hear the Mi Sheberach…something in me just responds. I guess it’s my Jewish genes! We have so much love for each other in the group, and we are just surrounded by that love right then. It’s so beautiful.”[xi]

Singing, “Mi shebeirach imoteinu…” truly praying the words of Mi Shebeirach is now a vital part of the prayer life for many people because this prayer gives us an outlet for our hopes and fears. As Silverman’s study elucidates, the practice of praying for healing also brings connection, comfort and strength, agency, and identity to the ill and those who are offering prayer. People find connection with their community as a whole and with specific individuals who they knew prayed on their behalf. Comfort is found when reciting the Mi Shebeirach as it provides “some sort of emotional relief, often expressed as ‘acceptance,’ … both for those saying it, and for those for whom it is said.”[xii] Prayer also serves as a vehicle for “agency in a time and place characterized by increasing biomedicalization and technoscientific innovations.”[xiii] Finally, the practice of singing Mi Shebeirach connects or reconnects Jews to their religious identity in new ways.

More than ever, in the midst of this pandemic and on the dawn of a new year we need blessings for healing. Individuals, congregations, communities, cities, nations, and our world are crying out for healing. As my friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Weiss writes:

All healing is a journey towards wholeness. Most of us know ourselves best when we are healthy and well. When we become ill, we are suddenly estranged from our familiar surroundings and often by ourselves. It is as if we are in a foreign terrain with no guide … Spiritual reflection – in prayer or ritual – is the form that allows us to link our history to our personal story. It is a glimpse into a moment of life that longs to be held, to find comfort, to strive toward wholeness.[xiv]

Healing comes in many forms. Maimonides taught that it is an obligation, religious duty for those with the skills to create healing. In his explanation of the verse, “and you shall restore it”[xv] Maimonides explicates that this includes the person’s body, “that if she saw him lost and she can save him, she must save him with his body or with her money or with her knowledge.”[xvi] Should we possess the knowledge or the capacity to heal the body or heal the spirit it is up to us to do it. If we can offer words, we must pray.

So on this Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat morning we pray: R’faeinu, our Healer, we cry out to You like our ancestors of old to bring Your healing blessings to those individuals in need of healing of body, mind, and spirit. May those suffering with the Corona virus know wholeness and good health quickly. Continue to grant wisdom, compassion, and patience to the health care workers tirelessly working to aide, heal, and support all of those who are ill. May those who worry find small relief from their anxiety. May we all find wholeness, healing, renewal, and peace in this year 5781. Amen.

[i] Dorff, E.N. Matters of Life and Death: a Jewish approach to modern medical ethics. P. 28. I have edited this story from the version in the book slightly to appeal to a listening congregation.

[ii] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html. Accessed 09/09/2020.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Cutter, W. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 3.

[v] Num. 12:13.

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moses-Maimonides

[vii] Green, A. Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 55.

[viii] http://www.debbiefriedman.com/healing.

[ix] Silverman, “’I’ll say a Mi Sheberach for you’: Prayer, healing, and identity among liberal American Jews,” Contemporary Jewry 36(2)p. 173.

[x] Silverman, G., p. 170.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Silverman, 179.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Weiss, E. Mishkan Refuah ebook edition. CCAR Press. Location 153.

[xv] Deut. 22:2.

[xvi] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3678790/

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Don’t become paralyzed with fear

My sermon from tonight, Parshat Va’etchanan, Shabbat Nachamu

Don’t Become Paralyzed by Fear, in memory of Rep. John Lewis

There is a tremendous amount of disappointment in our lives today. We’ve cancelled vacations, missed eating with friends at restaurants, there will be no peanuts and cracker jacks at a baseball stadium this summer, and so many other things.

It is fitting in some way to name some of these things aloud this Shabbat, as this week in our tradition is called Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of comfort following the lowest point of our liturgical year, Tisha b’Av. Shabbat Nachamu gets its name from the opening words of the Haftara from Isaiah, “nachamu nachamu ami, comfort oh comfort My people,”[i] begins this reading beginning the cycle of prophesies of comfort and consolation from the prophet Isaiah that culminate 7 weeks from tonight when we gather together to observe Rosh Hashanah.

And so tonight I fear I must present to you another small disappointment. We all know the now famous statement from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od v’ha’ikar lo lefached klal, the whole world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid. We know this quote, maybe even better we know melodies that use these words, and we each can picture our own version of that narrow bridge. So, here’s the bad news. This is not exactly what Rebbe Nachman said.

The first part of the Rebbe Nachman’s quote is just what he said, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear. If you are a grammarian, particularly a Hebrew grammar lover, you notice that the verb root stayed the same pachad, fear, but the verb tense is different. Technically we went from the piel to the hitpa’el verb form, from an intensive action verb to a reflexive verb. The whole world is a narrow bridge, the most important thing is don’t freak yourself out, don’t become paralyzed with fear.

I have been thinking a lot about bridges this week, in particular, one bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Edmund Pettus bridge that crosses the Alabama River. This bridge, not terribly long has a unique construction that makes it feel like a hill with a rise in the middle of the river. One day, God willing, we may be able to make a pilgrimage like I did a few years ago and we will be able to see for ourselves that when you stand at one end, you cannot see the other side. This bridge became famous in the 1960s at the height of the Civil Rights movement. On March 7, 1965, a peaceful protest was initiated from that bridge from Selma from Montgomery, however, when the peaceful marchers reached the crest of the bridge they were met by State troopers, local possemen who advanced on the marchers and beat many of them on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. One of the 600 peaceful protesters badly beaten was a man named John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama. At the age of 15 he heard Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time and closely followed the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott. Mr. Lewis was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, as a student in Nashville he organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, he became a student of non-violence from teachers like Rev. James Lawson and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, and a leader of SNCC, the student nonviolent coordinating committee. He served as chairman and was one of the “Big Six” who organized the 1963 March on Washington where he was the youngest speaker and took the microphone just before Dr. King who would go on to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech.” Mr. Lewis was also active during Freedom Summer and a regular Freedom Rider. He was repeatedly the victim of violence and was arrested but he never strayed from his beliefs in nonviolence. When the the organizers of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, gave up the rides because of violence, it was Lewis and fellow student, Diane Nash from Nashville that continued riding, bringing the rides to their successful conclusion.

John Lewis was never paralyzed by fear. In fact he said, “you cannot be afraid to speak up and speak out for what you believe. You have to have courage, raw courage.”

Mr. Lewis’s life of public service really was just getting started in the 1960s. He believed fundamentally in the importance of the vote. He said, “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.” In the 1970s he led the Voter Education Project, during his tenure 4 million minority voters were added to the rolls, making their voices heard. He first ran for the United States Congress in 1977 and lost, but his calling towards the political arena was strong. He became a member of the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and served there until winning the election to become the representative of Georgia’s 5th district in the House of Representatives. He was reelected successfully 16 times.

The principles of nonviolence remained core tenets of Representative Lewis’s life and legacy.

On July 17, Representative John Lewis died. This past Sunday, his coffin went over that bridge one final time as the funeral services in Selma were followed by his coffin lying in state in the capital building in Montgomery, and subsequently the capitol rotunda in Washington, DC., and the Georgia State Capital before his funeral in Atlanta.

On the day of his funeral Mr. Lewis sealed his legacy as a hero of our nation with final remarks that he arranged to appear on the day of his funeral. He wrote:

Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.

You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. People on every continent have stood in your shoes, through decades and centuries before you. The truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time. Continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.

Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.[ii]

May we now continue the work of Representative John Lewis to make freedom ring. May we do the work knowing that, Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od – the whole world is a narrow bridge and the ikar, the most important principle, sh’lo yitpached klal – one should not paralyze themself with fear, because John Lewis picked up Rebbe Nachman’s lesson and taught us by his profound example not to become paralyzed with fear.

Amen.

 

[i] Isa. 40:1

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/opinion/john-lewis-civil-rights-america.html

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My favorite teacher

Dear AE (initials only for privacy),

I saw your social media post announcing your retirement from teaching after an incredible 33 years. I know that we have not been in touch formally, though we are friends on Facebook. It seemed like given your exciting announcement it is the perfect moment to share with you what an incredible gift you gave me by being my teacher.

Without a doubt, when I am asked, “who was your favorite teacher,” your name quickly exits my lips, Mrs. E.  And no, I still won’t call you by your first name. If memory serves (and being that high school was few moons ago it is foggy), you taught me math for three years in high school. I think there may have been one horrendous semester when I had another instructor, such mistakes were only made once.

To say that math and I had a complicated relationship is to put it mildly. Though I was in the “advanced” math classes culminating in AP Calculus my senior year, math was always a struggle for me. I worked really hard, spent countless hours in your classroom after school getting extra help, and still struggled. I don’t think we ever figured out why I could solve a calculus problem on your whiteboard, but struggled on the lined paper and pencil at my desk. As your student you taught me that to a great educator sees every student for who they are and does everything within reason to see that lightbulb in their eyes that they understood the concepts. Maybe even more than the content is the process to get to that knowledge. You devoted countless hours to me and to so many of your other students and we are all better people for your unwavering devotion.

As an educator myself, I have been asked to identify a memorable moment in my own educational journey. It takes a few seconds for me to remember you sitting in your classroom in what was then the “new” wing at MHS. You were sitting on a stool at the overhead projector (yes I’m that old) teaching AP Calculus. You put down your pen, for some reason I remember green ink, and said, “Today is the most important day of your life. Today you learn that the integral is the reverse of a derivative,” and continued to prove to us why. [Full disclosure: I needed to search the internet to remember what was the reverse of a derivative]. If you could have played music and make fireworks explode for visual excitement on the overhead projector you would have done it. Math mattered so much to you and your excitement and energy for these concepts was infectious for all of your learners.

Mrs. E you went above and beyond to be present for your students. Due to my extensive after school hours working on math in your room we got to know one another pretty well. The holiday of Passover approached and you asked me some questions about my family’s observance that quickly led to an invitation to our family Seder for my remaining high school years.

My teenage years were not easy for me and there were some particularly difficult experiences at MHS. You support and the safe space you created for me in your classroom were a refuge for a young woman struggling to make her way through socially. Thank you for that, too.

I will never forget that you came to offer condolences to me after my mom died, I even tear up writing these words, 13 years after I graduated from high school. That lesson continues to guide me even these many years later. Good teachers show up when it matters most.

Mrs. E, if you will permit a rabbi (maybe your only student to be a rabbi??) to offer you a blessing on your retirement, it would be my honor.

May the abundant talents that you have continue to be blessings for all of those who you encounter as you enter this next fabulous phase of your life. May God continue to bless you with good health, abundance, precious time with family, and exciting adventures. May the blessings that you bestowed unto your hundreds of students come back to you as unexpected gifts and blessings on your journey. Amen.

If we are ever in the same city you and your family will always have a place of honor at my Passover Seder table, and should we see one another again, I will even make you those macaroons you liked so much. Congratulations on your much deserved retirement, Mrs. E!

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What a Basketball Star Teaches about Antisemitism

Here is my sermon from Friday night.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles there were many advantages. Surely one of them were the Los Angeles Lakers of 1987 and 1988. Playing center was the graceful Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose iconic skyhook was one of the most graceful basketball shots of all time. Even today I can close my eyes and see Magic Johnson bringing the ball down the court and finding Kareem who seamlessly moved his 7 foot 2 inch frame into position away from a defender and released the basketball in a perfect arc with just the right amount of back spin. Kareem was a basketball fan’s dream center; fast, tall, quick hands, and an excellent free point shooter. Today, decades later, Kareem continues to be an exemplar for new reasons.

This week Kareem wrote a piece calling out the recent round of antisemetic tweets and posts from Black sports and entertainment celebrities. The rapper Ice Cube, NFL player DeSean Jackson, NBA player Stephen Jackson, said and wrote antisemetic messages that are cause for alarm for everyone.

Kareem wrote:

Recent incidents of anti-Semitic tweets and posts from sports and entertainment celebrities are a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation. Given the New Woke-fulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.

When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse: apathy to all forms of social justice. After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others. Illogic begets illogic.[1]

Kareem’s warning of the coming Apatholypse, a widening sense of apathy of social justice and a myriad of other issues ought to be a warning to each of us. When we as a faith community stop ringing the alarm bells at injustice, we become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

We need to harken to our own calendar warnings for apathy, too. We are amid the period in our tradition known as the three weeks that mark the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, dates of trouble and turmoil for our people. The Mishna teaches that Moses broke the first set of tablets of the 10 Commandments on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans forbade sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 69 CE, and in the year 70 the Romans breeched the Temple walls leading to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.[2] These three weeks are a period of semi-mourning and decreasing joy for some Jews as they lead into the nine days of the month of Av, traditionally a day with a 25-hour like Yom Kippur when we read the book of Lamentations. The destruction of the Temple though historically caused by the Romans and their conquest of the lands of the Middle East as the Roman Empire expanded has a different root theologically and on the psyche of the Jewish people. The Temple, the epicenter for Jewish life at the beginning of the millennium, is destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, unwarranted apathy of people towards one another.[3]

We know the perils of apathy and we cannot afford to be silent when we begin to hear antisemitic tropes ever. A pandemic cannot quiet us. Our alliance with our siblings of color screaming for systemic change to the racist systems of oppression cannot distract us either.

Our Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a statement today that clarifies our position. The statement says:

Some in our country are resistant to the overdue changes and glimmer of hope which are blossoming for Black Americans at this moment of national reckoning. However, their efforts to impede important coalitions of change and sow seeds of division belie the fact that when any of us are oppressed, we are all oppressed. We as Reform Jews will not allow antisemitic words from individual members of an oppressed minority to diminish our support of Black lives or detract from our commitment to the dismantling of systemic and structural racism in our country. Instead of questioning the commitment of others, we reaffirm our own.[4]

We need to call out antisemitism every single time it rears its ugly head. We need to continue to educate ourselves and our allies so that our enemies’ attempts at fueling the fire of hatred get no oxygen. We need to be what Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers,” we cannot rest or be part of the Apatholypse because the threats to justice overwhelm us or seem like someone else’s problem. The book of Lamentations concludes with a verse we know well, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem, bring us back to You, Adonai, that we come back, renew our days as of old.”[5] May our weary souls find strength in our Eternal God and may our faith strengthen us as we root out baseless hatred in our hearts and in our world. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-is-outrage-anti-semitism-sports-hollywood-1303210

[2] Taanit 4:6.

[3] Yoma 9b.

[4] https://www.ccarnet.org/the-reform-movement-condemns-recent-antisemitic-statements/?fbclid=IwAR0QPMzFoeCIbCZUD9wm3hUB5dgWoOYf6xFg4FLXWPFy5A1vEppdeeq1Zss

[5] Lamentations 5:21.

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Passover 5780/2020

Every time I open my refrigerator I can smell it. That pungent, spicy horseradish root is permeating the space and wafts out the fridge door every time I open it. Passover is coming and my maror (bitter herb) is ready.

Passover this year will not be like any celebration before for any of us. Like many families in this time of physical distancing and social connection, my wife and I will celebrate the first Seder (Passover ritual meal) at our table without anyone else in person. We will be using an online platform to connect across the miles with close family and dearest friends, familiar faces at our Seder table now seen only via screen.

This is going to be hard. And that maror on our Seder plate is a reminder that Jews know hard and bitter times. Without a long recounting of thousands of years of history, I can say that Jewish creativity and innovation is also a part of the history of Passover . The Seder is our annual retelling of the Exodus. This narrative is not a story of people who lived long ago, it is my story, it is our story. In every generation each individual is obligated  to see themselves as though they went out from the Narrow Place/Egypt. We have known bitter times and narrow places. This Passover is happening while our world is in a narrow place and we will make it through.

I also have a confession. I don’t like horseradish. I don’t like it in any form, even wasabi. I always eat enough to fulfill the obligation for the bitter herb/maror moment of the Seder is sanctified with blessing, I think this year I might eat a little extra. I want to allow myself  the sensory experience of the fire in my sinuses. And those tears in my eyes? They may or may not be from the horseradish root. We shall see.

This Passover is definitely going to be different. May you embrace all of the feelings as you gather for Seder this year, however you are gathering. May you and all of those you love know safety and good health. May this time of physical distancing come to a conclusion when it is safe, so that we may all be together again.

Our Seder always concludes with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem!” To this I add, “next year around the table with those we love!” Amen.

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