Shabbat Chol haMoed Passover Sermon

Here is the sermon I delivered at Temple Beth Hillel.

Shabbat Shalom, Moadim l’simcha. I hope that this Passover week has been liberating and delicious.

While these are my wishes and hopes for all of us this special week, unfortunately, I have been quite worried this week. My worry stems the news this week and from the modern day plagues so many in our world deal with on a daily basis. At my s’darim in addition to the 10 drops of wine at my Seders, all of us around the table added modern plagues; hunger, ignorance, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were just a few that Seder attendees suggested.

Jews are not the only people with sacred observances this week. Today is Good Friday. On this day the Christian and Catholic world commemorate the death of Jesus. According to the Christian Bible, after Jesus was sentenced to be tortured by crucifixion, he carried a wooden cross through the streets of Jerusalem from the court at the Fortress Antonio adjacent to the Temple Mount to Cavalry the spot where he would die. The place of Jesus’s death is today, found inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which was built over the last several Stations of the Cross.

Today in Jerusalem thousands of Christian pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa – the street of suffering – marking the 14 Stations of the Cross which trace the final footsteps of their messiah. Some carrying large wooden crosses as they imagine Jesus to have done.

There are some who will misinterpret the readings from the Bible and blame Jews for the death of Jesus. And in history, this week has been one filled with a history of anti-Semitism. And in our own day as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head, our local Lutheran Bishop, Guy Erwin sent the following letter to the pastors in his synod as they prepared for Holy Week worship:

I want to encourage, even urge you, to consider carefully the impact of the words you use in worship this week. Starting with Palm Sunday, we use scripture readings this week and next that often refer to the opponents of Jesus and the disciples simply as “the Jews.” In the context of the earliest Christianity, when it went without saying that Jesus and his closest followers were themselves Jews, the listener would know that what was meant were “those who opposed Jesus” or, more narrowly, the religious leaders. I want to tell you that I believe it appropriate and proper for you to alter the readings if you need to, to make this point more clearly and avoid misunderstanding …

And particularly in this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, when we are doing our best to be both charitable and honest in our recounting of our church’s origins, we should be especially aware of the pernicious nature of quiet anti-Semitism. I would like us Lutherans to be known today as a church that deals directly and honestly with the shadows in its past, and which rejects prejudice against Jews or members of any other religious community.[i]

Bishop Erwin understands the covert and overt anti-Semitism and the complicated history between Christian Holy Week scriptural readings and hate crimes against Jews.

One of the manifestations of anti-Semitic hatred was the blood libel.

“The “blood libel” refers to a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians – especially Christian children – to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread). It is also sometimes called the “ritual murder charge.” The blood libel dates back to the Middle Ages and has persisted despite Jewish denials and official repudiations by the Catholic Church and many secular authorities. Blood libels have frequently led to mob violence and pogroms, and have occasionally led to the decimation of entire Jewish communities.”[ii]

The blood libel is still around today in many forms. Right-wing Christian extremists who predict the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus use it. Radical Islamic warriors have picked up on the rhetoric to perpetuate their own propaganda against Jews and to justify attacks on Israel.

In our own country in this era of alternative facts we are seeing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial coupled together from government offices. On Tuesday, the first day of Passover, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was answering questions about the heinous use of chemical weapons on citizens of Syria. Spicer made a completely incorrect and horrendously offensive statement when he said, and I quote, “You know, you had a, you know, someone as despicable as Hitler, who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”[iii] Spicer then continued to dig himself into a hole stating, ““He [Hitler] was not using gas on his own people the same way…” and then went on and “added awkwardly that he was aware of “Holocaust centers” and that he meant that Hitler did not use gas in the middle of towns.””[iv]

These blatant lies are more than misstatements. They are revisions of well documented history. And they are part of a pattern of Holocaust denial. Unfortunately it gets worse. Dr. Deborah Lipstadt is a Holocaust scholar who was sued for libel in England by a Holocaust denier, David Irving. You can see this story portrayed in the film, Denial. Dr. Lipstadt wrote in The Atlantic today:

Spicer’s inept historical analogies may have attracted the most media attention in the United States, but they hardly constituted the worst recent such transgression. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a long term Labour party stalwart, engaged in a far more premeditated attempt to manipulate World War II history. For the third time in a year, he repeated his claim that Zionists and Nazis engaged in “real collaboration” in the 1930s. According Livingstone, the Nazis did the Zionists’ bidding, including forcing rabbis to stop giving sermons in Yiddish, setting up training camps for Jews who wanted to go to Israel, and selling them arms.[v]

And then in France, Lipstadt writes:

…Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right French National Front, who stands a chance of winning the presidency in the forthcoming elections, contended that France bore no responsibility for the Val d’Hiv roundup of 13,000 Jews in the summer of 1942. The Jews were held for days in searing heat and horrific conditions—little food, water, or facilities—until they were deported. Most ended up in Auschwitz, where they were gassed.

For over two decades French leaders from across the political spectrum have acknowledged that this roundup was instigated by French authorities, conducted by French police, and supervised by French officials … To their credit every French president since Chirac has reaffirmed responsibility for this blot on France’s history.

In contrast, Le Pen attacked the fact that French children are taught of their nation’s complicity. “I want them to be proud to be French again.”

In making this claim she echoed her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, the former party leader and a man with a long record of anti-Semitism, who has resurfaced in recent weeks with his oft-repeated statement that the Holocaust and gas chambers were just “details in history.” …[vi]

We know too well that the gas chambers were more than details in history. They represent one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind. Every time a leader takes the microphone and makes anti-Semitic statements or those that deny the horrors of the Holocaust they are attempting to normalize their views. However we know our history.

History is what Passover is all about because our history is an active history. We do not just tell the story of what happened then, long ago. Our tradition instructs each one of us, “bchol dor vador hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’elu hu yatza mi’Mitzrayim”, in every generation every single person is to see themselves as though they went forth from Egypt. From degradation to celebration, from enslavement to freedom, from despair to hope.

And so we will tell the story, tell our story. We will speak out when we hear lies and falsehoods and call on our friends and partners to stand with us and speak out. We will not get stuck in worry and fear. We will continue to teach the story of our people to the next generation as our parents and grandparents did for us.

I’m ready to get to work. Are you?

 

 

 

[i]  https://www.facebook.com/notes/r-guy-erwin/palm-sunday-letter-to-clergy-on-the-jews-in-holy-week-texts/10155269319438130/. April 14, 2017.

[ii] https://www.adl.org/education/resources/glossary-terms/blood-libel

[iii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/04/12/what-the-anne-frank-center-thinks-of-sean-spicers-apology-too-little-too-late/?utm_term=.772249333b77

[iv] http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-white-house-press-secretary-ignores-1491936525-htmlstory.html

[v] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/04/holocaust-history-spicer-le-pen/523005/

[vi] Ibid.

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Parshat Tzav – Shabbat haGadol

Here are 2-minutes of Torah for this Shabbat.

Shabbat Shalom!

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Parshat Vaera, perhaps the cutest video ever

Here is this week’s two-minutes of Torah, click here.

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Shabbat Chanukah, Parshat Mikeitz

Here is this week’s two minutes of Torah. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

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What does one do?


Last night I marked the 6th yartzeit for MY MOM. As I was looking through pictures I started to think about memories of those horrendous days following her death and maybe a few of them could help to inform actions you might think about taking when you learn of a death or, God forbid, someone you love dies unexpectedly.

There were so many bagels. When MY DAD, MY SISTER, and I returned to Minnesota where my parents live (long story, not relevant here), the doorbell did not stop ringing. And it seemed that every time the door bell rang there were more bagels. Friends were sending food to us so that we did not need to think about anything other than mourning. Whether it is bagels (easily freezable!), something that can be frozen, or a meal of consolation following the funeral or during the shiva period, providing meals brings tremendous comfort. It is immensely helpful if someone can coordinate all of that food (there are apps and online services like meal train.com that make it really easy). Are there food allergies, does one family really need 100 bagels? Maybe you can be the person to coordinate the food for the family so they have what they need.  

Showing up matters. I will never forget the names and faces of the people that showed up, some even from out of town. Though I was not in a place for meaningful conversations and my capability for such conversations was virtually non-existent I will never forget the people who showed up because that is what matters most. How can you be the one to show up when someone you know, maybe not even that well, experiences a loss? Can you go to the funeral, shiva, or other appropriate gathering? Can you go to coffee and ask caring questions about the deceased? 

It is never too late to send a note or card. Remember snail mail? You know, that stuff that you used to get that brought news like your college acceptance letters, your SAT scores, and the opportunity to win the Publisher’s Clearning House? Condolence notes have not and will never go out of fashion. The note does not have to be long, it is okay to used the word ‘died’ and it will make a difference.

You want a clergy person. Whatever your faith or tradition, you want someone to guide you through the mourning rites. If you are a person of no faith do you have a cultural heritage that might inform a memorial/funeral? Trust me. You want someone to guide you through. Pro-tip, do not finalize the time of your service before you speak to your clergy person of choice. I cannot emphasize this enough. 

If you’re Jewish, the markers in time are immensely helpful. There is shiva, sheloshim and the yearly yartzeit.  It is also customary after the death of a first-degree relative; spouse, mother, father, sibling or child, to attend Yizkor services on Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. These times of memory and healing, and the familiar rhythm of the Mourner’s Kaddish recited at the funeral and at a variety of services can bring comfort. There are a variety of reasons that people eschew these ritual moments, however, in my experience both personally and professionally it is damaging. Yes there are lots of ways to remember and each person will find the ways that are appropriate for him/her, however there is something about the rich Jewish tradition and being in community that ought not to be an either/or. Judaism ought to be a both/and. Wear her favorite perfume AND go to Shabbat services to say the Kaddish. Drink “his” drink AND light a yartzeit candle. 

There is no one size fits all when it comes to mourning. Grieving takes navigating and it can be exhausting and overwhelming. You do not have to do it alone. 

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Toldot, a story of siblings

This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, is the story of siblings who don’t get along. At all. It is unclear from our Torah text who is to blame for their poor relationship, their parents, it started in the womb. Though Jacob and Esau can’t get along and there are certainly sibling pairs who struggle similarly, that is not the case for me. I am immensely grateful or MY SISTER (I don’t use her name to protect her privacy. She just gets called MY SISTER. For awhile she was THE DIVA on this blog, however she requested a name change). We got to spend Thanksgiving together and it was the first time in far too long we got to see one another for consecutive days (I stayed at a hotel, this is probably why we continued to get along days later). MY SISTER is amazing. If you know her you are already aware of this. She is kind, funny, smart, compassionate, she can sing pretty much better than anyone on the planet (I never said I was unbiased), and creative. 

Here is this week’s 2-minutes of Torah about siblings that don’t get along. I am grateful that MY SISTER and I have a very different story.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Judaism is our Raison D’être

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Judaism is our Raison D’être

Did you hear about the recent incident in New York City? Rudy Rochman, a student at Columbia and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces posted about it on his Instagram, a social media app where you share photos. In the photo, a man is holding a sign that says, “”Google it! Jews Financed Black Slavery.” on the right and a person, Rudy Rochman, is holding a slightly, more hastily made sign that says, “This is what anti-semitism looks like,” with an arrow pointing at the man and the other sign.

As reported on a blog:

The man [holding the sign about the Jews] experienced no opposition for about an hour after Rochman arrived and when two officers from the New York Police Department came, [they] saw the situation, and did nothing about it. A short while later, another pair of cops came and told [the man with the anti-semitic sign] to leave. He refused for a while and finally relented.

The campus police did absolutely nothing. Like everyone else who witnessed the display, they pretended nothing happened.[1]

My friends, the challenge is that in 2016 there are too many possible examples of anti-semitism; in our workplaces, on college campuses, on the internet, in our own interactions. This day, Yom Kippur, Shabbat Shabbaton, this Day of Atonement, is a day of public confession. I must share with you that it is shocking to me that we are living in a time when a rabbi is compelled to address her congregation about anti-semitism. Nevertheless, categorizing people, naming, blaming and fearing the ‘other’ is commonplace in public discourse, especially in this election season. Instead of treating people and recognizing the fulness of their humanity we are living in a time of fear, doubt, and accusation.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes:

Anti-Semitism has always been, historically, the inability to make space for differences among people, which is the essential foundation of a free society. That is why the politics of hate now assaults Christians, Bahai, Yazidis and many others, including Muslims on the wrong side of the Sunni/Shia divide, as well as Jews. To fight it, we must stand together, people of all faiths and of none. The future of freedom is at stake, and it will be the defining battle of the 21st century.[2]

And since this prescient piece was written on the eve of Yom Kippur two years ago, the future is now.

A recent Anti-Defamation League survey reports there are two areas where anti-semitic incidents are on the rise and sadly, it is in the face of our young people: the internet and college campuses. “A total of 90 incidents were reported on 60 college campuses in 2015, compared with 47 incidents on 43 campuses in 2014. Campus anti-Semitic incidents accounted for 10 percent of the total incidents reported in the U.S. in  2015.”[3] In January 2015, vandals spray-painted swastikas on the exterior wall of a Jewish fraternity (AEPi) at UC Davis on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz from the Nazis.[4] In March at Berkeley, The phrase “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” was found in a campus restroom, not long after a swastika was found on a university owned building.[5] And most troubling, for every incident that is recorded there is at least one other incident that goes unreported.

In California reported anti-semitic incidents are on the decline. But Los Angeles and California aren’t most of the country. We have chosen and been able to live in this large metropolitan, liberal, Jewish enclaves. Sadly, this shtetl for the 21st century cannot follow us and our children everywhere we go. In other parts of our great nation, public schools do not close for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur like they do here. In much of this country, you can’t find matzo ball soup on the menu at your local diner, finding kosher for Passover matzo during Pesach is difficult, and seemingly innocent anti-semitic slurs are far too common to hear.

Take this example from a midwestern suburb.

A shy, sixteen year old Jewish girl attends the public high school in a small suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. She is on the tennis team, sings in the chamber choir, leads student groups and is a good student, already thinking about where to go to college and mildly fixating on college entrance exams and scores. She and her family are active in their synagogue, she works as a madricha on Sunday mornings and she is on the board of her temple youth group. One December day, she walks to her locker in the packed hallway between 4th and 5th periods to drop her English books and retrieve her Spanish books and stops short. Drawn in blue ink on her locker, in the middle of a seemingly endless bank of several hundred lockers is a swastika.

Panicking she does what any over-protective sister would do and goes to check her younger sister’s locker just down the hall. It’s clear. She makes it to her to Spanish class before the bell. Good students are never late for class. The panic and fear subside and this new, anti-semitic reality sets in. “She’s being singled out. This was not a random doodle on a locker. She’s a target because she is Jewish.” The student receives permission to leave class and makes a report to the school administration. Before the end of the school day, a witness steps forward and says she saw a student writing on the locker, the police are notified and appropriate statements filed. In the weeks and months to come, ccharges would be filed by the county and, in the end, the perpetrator brokered a deal by serving as a witness for a case with a more serious charge and the misdemeanor charges against him were dropped.

And the girl? The after effects of this incident took some time to heal. With thanks to a supportive family, mental health professionals, and her deep relationship with her community she came through okay. And today you all know her because that girl’s story is my story. It was my locker.

I tell you what happened to me because, unfortunately, incidents like it happen to too many of us and these are not the stories we share with another. Whether it is the ignorant comment made by someone at the gym that we overhear, or something that happened in high school or college, or comments on social media platforms, prejudice and hatred towards Jews, towards us, is everywhere and it hurts.

But what are we teaching our children? Are we telling them about these incidents in our own lives in age-appropriate ways or are we washing them under the rug. Perhaps it is time to tell these stories to our families and our friends. If we start to break the cycles of ignorance and hate that fuel anti-semitism, perhaps the next generation can know something different.

Our parents, grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents, knew the fear of anti-semitism all too well.  It was this fear led many of them to change their surnames at Ellis Island to sound “less Jewish.” And we, inheritors of those new names, instead of wearing and owning our Jewish identity with pride like our relatives hoped, are hiding and adapting to minimize threats of anti-semitism. It is time to break our silence.

We need to stop being fear-filled and confront the realities in front of us and we need to ask, what are we doing for our children and for ourselves to take pride in our Judaism and to live according to our Jewish values? Judaism isn’t meant to be an item on the weekly to-do list, Judaism is the raison d’être.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff explains,

The ‘lig’ in the word ‘religion’ comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘ligament’ which is connective tissue. The Latin root ligare means to tie, connect, or link. Religions, among other things, provide us with a broad picture of how we are and ought to be linked to our family, the members of our community, other human beings, the rest of the animate and inanimate world, and to the transcendent element of our experience, imagined in Western religions as God. That is, religions give us a perspective of who we are, both as individuals and as members of a family and community, and who we should strive to be.[6]

Our religion, our Judaism helps us to make sense of our world and to live meaning-filled lives.

We Jews want to be people who see the humanity in others. Jews do the right thing even when it is inconvenient. Jews pursue knowledge and seek deeper understanding. Jews have the capacity to appreciate the awesome and beautiful moments of life. Jews crave a community that will care for them in times of sorrow. And when we join together in sacred Jewish community, we teach our children that, like the generations before them, belonging to a synagogue matters. Being Jewish matters.

For 70 years now, TBH has been an antidote to anti-semitism. Under the visionary leadership of all of its rabbis, TBH as an institution has stood for and stands for doing what is right and not what it is easy. As an institution, TBH provides opportunities for Jews to learn about their faith and about themselves at every age and stage. We work with our families to create young Jews who know how to ask hard questions and to treat others with compassion. TBH provides countless opportunities to work in interfaith partnerships with our neighbors in social action and we create beautiful music together. Our doors are open for you to come home, as Rabbi Hronsky spoke about so beautifully on Rosh Hashanah, you just have to take the first step and we will meet you.

The Torah portion we will read in a few minutes describes the communal covenant and reminds us, “b’charta b’chayim, choose life.” In this year, how will you embrace Judaism to drown out the voices of those who want to wipe us out? How will you make Judaism your raison d’être? We can’t know how anti-semitism may present itself next. We can only to choose to tell our stories, to seek justice, and not to let fear quelch our pride in our Jewish identities.

Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yivarech et amo bashalom. God, may you continue to imbue us, your people, with strength to stand strong against those who hate us. Adonai continue to bless this people and this sacred congregation so that we can strengthen one another in times of need. Amen.

[1]http://www.israellycool.com/2016/10/06/the-mask-has-fallen-antisemitism-clear-as-day-at-columbia-university/

[2] ibid.

[3]http://www.adl.org/press-center/press-releases/anti-semitism-usa/2015-audit-anti-semitic-incidents.html#.V_uzXuArLIU

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid.

[6] Dorff, Elliot N., “A Jewish Perspective on the Ethics of Care.” Intercultural and Interreligious Pastoral Caregiving, p. 235.

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