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October 2012
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December 2012

Kallah 2013: Save the Date!


Franklin Pierce University, site of next summer's ALEPH Kallah.

Save the date for the 2013 Kallah, the Jewish Renewal biennial -- a week of community, learning, davening, singing, connecting, and joy. The 2013 theme is Kol Echad: Connecting With the Divine, Within & Around Us, and this year's Kallah will take place from July 1-7, 2013, at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire -- a scant two hours and ten minutes from the synagogue I'm blessed to serve.

If you've ever been curious about Jewish Renewal teachings or teachers, coming to a Kallah is a fantastic way to get a sense for who we are and what we do. There's no better way to experience Jewish Renewal than to spend a week learning, dining, davening, connecting with other Jewish spiritual seekers. And this year, the Kallah takes place at a campus on a beautiful lake at the foot of Mount Monadnock -- it will be a beautiful and serene place to spend a few days, and the retreat will culminate in a fabulous, spirit-filled, awesome Shabbat.

I've submitted a proposal to teach at the Kallah next summer, and should know by the end of the year whether or not my proposal's been accepted. I'll be there no matter what. I hope to have the opportunity to teach (and I'm excited about the class I've proposed), but I'm most excited about spending that week with so many of my hevre, my friends and colleagues, and about the spiritual rejuvenation which always ensues.

Anyway: all are welcome! For more information, you can contact the Kallah office at kallahajr (at) rcn (dot) com. I'll post here again to announce the course offerings when they're finalized.


(For more, feel free to check out my ALEPH Kallah category on this blog, which features posts about and from the last few Kallot I've attended.)

Election week Torah

If, after you have entered the land which Adonai your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

I decided yesterday morning to modify the lesson I had been planning to teach to our fifth through seventh graders, our b'nei mitzvah prep students. We still did some of what was originally on the syllabus for the day, but in honor of this week's Presidential election, we also took some time to read and discuss the short Torah passage above.

I was curious to hear how my students would respond to this short Torah teaching. Would they interpret this passage from Torah as favoring the idea of appointing a king, or not? (I tend to read it as begrudging acceptance -- it might be preferable not to have a king, because it's too easy to get attached to human sovereignty and power, but once the children of Israel have a nation-state of their own they'll inevitably want a government like everybody else's, so here are the Torah's stipulations about how the ruler should be chosen.)

How would my students understand Torah's qualifications for a king? Which of those qualifications still resonate for us today? What might be a modern equivalent of keeping too many warhorses, or of sending people back into slavery in order to add to the might of the army? What is the Teaching, or Instruction, which our modern leaders study and interpret and live by?

And is any of this relevant to us in an era and a place where we vote for a President instead of living in the old system where the power was shared between a King, the priests, and the prophets? My answer to that last question is, of course, yes -- there are always ways to find relevancy and meaning in Torah, even as times change. But I was interested to know how, and whether, my students would relate this passage to the process of choosing the American President.

The kids settled first on the matter that a king of Israel needed to be an Israelite, not a foreigner. We talked a bit about the extent to which different peoples worshipped different gods in those days, and they drew the connection between this idea in Torah and the American system in which only native-born citizens can run for President. We talked a bit about the matter of warfare and wealth, then and now. And then we talked about the question of whether or not, in our modern paradigm where we elect our government, kids ought to be able to vote. (My class's opinions were divided on that one.)

I'm curious to hear your responses, too. Does this bit of Torah have any bearing on how you think about our government today?



Related reading:

  • Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 2008. "The perek hamelekh (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America."

  • YU Torah on Elections, a collection of texts about the Torah's concept of democracy, the responsibility of voters, the responsibility of elected officials, etc. Read it online, and/or download a PDF or TXT file to keep.

  • A Prayer for Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth, which I've shared (with permission) on my G+. "On this day we are called to discern and choose, to embrace a vision and cast our vote..."

A poem, and a few links, for Election Day

Four years ago, I wrote this Torah poem on Election Day. That year, Election Day fell during the week when we read parashat Lech Lecha, in which God tells Avram to go forth from his native land and his father's house to the land which God will show him. (This poem now appears in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published 2011 by Phoenicia Publishing.)




It's not going to be easy.
All of your roadmaps are wrong.

That was another country:
those lakes have dried up

and new groundwater is welling
in places you won't expect.

You'll begin the journey in fog
destination unknown, impossible.

Don't be surprised by tears.
This right here is holy ground.

Take a deep breath and turn away
from cynicism and despair

listen to the voice from on high
and deep within, the one that says

I'm calling you to a place
which I will show you

and take the first small step
into the surprising sun.


I still find the poem meaningful as an expression of Torah and of my own experience of entering the voting booth and casting a vote for hope and change. Even if we're not reading Lech Lecha this week (we're not; this year, Election Day falls during the week of parashat Chayyei Sarah), there's something about the act of voting which feels to me very lech-lecha, very much a journey into hope for new possibilities.

Also worth reading today: Jay Michaelson's The Nexus of Spirituality and Politics in Zeek.

And: Rabbi David Seidenberg's Prayer for Voting, which I shared here four years ago.

May the outcome of today's US elections bring blessing to us and to the world.

Postponing my visit to Slifka

I posted a while back about a pair of events I've been planning to do at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University -- a lunch gathering with students, and a 4pm poetry reading / tea / Q-and-A about poetry and midrash and Torah and so forth.

I'm still looking very forward to those events, but I've had to postpone them; a congregational funeral has arisen, and funerals trump everything else on the docket.

I'll post again here when I know the rescheduled date. Thanks for understanding, all.


Edited to add: it looks like we'll do these two events on Wednesday, December 5. My apologies to everyone in the Slifka community and everyone who was planning to come to one or both of these events this week; I hope to see you next month instead!

Resources and information about African migrants in Israel

Since I referenced this summer's violence against African refugees in Tel Aviv in my Rosh Hashanah sermon Being Change, a few people have asked for more information about African migrants in Israel. Here is a collection of (English-language) resources: an overview, some news links, some opinion essays, and some nonprofit organizations in Israel doing good work in this area.

Overview: Israel houses a large number of African migrants (most estimates say that the African population in Israel is between 60,000 and 70,000). Most of those migrants come from Eritrea and Sudan, and most are in the country illegally, which means that they cannot obtain work visas.

Some argue that the Africans who enter Israel illegally (sometimes called "infiltrators," which is a term with a specific history -- see Infiltrated by history, The Daily Beast) are linked to an increase in crime, that Israel does not have the resources to support them, and that they should be detained and/or deported. Others argue that the Africans who enter Israel illegally are refugees fleeing persecution and seeking a better life, and that Israel has both a legal and an ethical obligation to aid them. (I also know people who believe both of those at once: that the influx of migrants is more than Israel can support, and that they are refugees who deserve aid.)

Recent months have seen an increase in incidents of violence against Africans. Some blame the violence against Africans on crime committed by Africans, and others attribute the violence against Africans to general anti-immigrant sentiment or to poor economic conditions which contribute to social unrest. Also this year, Israel amended its 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, which now permits Israel to detain migrants for three or more years. (See Migrants in prison protest 'infiltrators' law, Jerusalem Post.) A Jerusalem district court judge issued a preliminary injunction on October 12 banning the summary arrests of Sudanese refugees (see Court prohibits detention of Sudanese refugees days before mass arrests begin, +972); another ruling on this is expected soon.

For more information: The Refugee Situation in Israel (a page provided by the African Refugee Development Center); FAQ on Violence Against Asylum Seekers in Israel (that page is courtesy of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society); African Refugees in Israel (Rabbis for Human Rights).

Continue reading "Resources and information about African migrants in Israel" »

This week's portion: Sodom and Gomorrah, Hurricane Sandy, and God

Here's the d'var Torah I offered on Friday evening at Shabbat Across the Berkshires, and in modified form on Shabbat morning at my shul. Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.


This week, in parashat Vayera, God decides to punish the wicked, declaring, "The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!" And Avraham argues, "Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?"

The two angels who had recently visited Avraham go to Sodom. They've hardly arrived when men swarm Lot's house and demand, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them."

Lot says, "I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong." So far, so good. But then he becomes abhorrent in our eyes when he offers his two daughters instead.

This is the sin of these two infamous places. The next day the towns are destroyed.

This is one way we used to understand destruction raining down from the sky, and our responsibility for that destruction. People make evil choices, and God metes out punishment. In this story, all those who suffer are wicked. Avraham cannot find even the single minyan of righteous souls whose presence would have caused God to spare the towns.

This week too, destruction has rained down from the sky. Not sulfurous fire, but torrential rains and hurricane-force winds.

Here in the Berkshires, Hurricane Sandy toppled trees, leaving thousands without power. Many of us had to keep our kids home from school, brush our teeth with bottled water, eat all the ice cream in our freezers before it spoiled. We're the lucky ones.

The damage in New York and Atlantic City beggars belief. You've probably seen the same photos I have: water flooding subway tunnels, emergency vehicles submerged by the seas, buildings washed away or destroyed by fire.

There are those who interpret storms like this as the wrath of God striking down the wicked: the gamblers of Atlantic City, the queer community in New York. This is toxic theology, and when it is aimed at those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender it is as destructive to hearts and souls as the storm is to property.

What created Hurricane Sandy? A set of systemic causes, a welter of economic and environmental choices, made over time by wealthy nations and corporations. The water along the Atlantic coast this year is 5 degrees higher than average, which increases the likelihood of "superstorms" like Sandy. And yet climate change wasn't mentioned at all in this year's presidential debates.

A storm like this one is a reminder of God's infinite and awesome power -- and also of our own role in creating a planetary system where ice is melting, currents are changing, and a summer of searing drought is followed by wind and rain we can't help but fear.

Continue reading "This week's portion: Sodom and Gomorrah, Hurricane Sandy, and God" »

Early November in an image and five lines

Early sunset in early November. Five years ago.

The fingertips on my left hand ache faintly this afternoon. When I haven't led services in two weeks, my guitar calluses begin to wear away.

It felt good to pray in our sanctuary again. We were only seven, this morning, but it's a gift to be able to sing with six people I have known for years.

Driving home I smiled at the line, stretching across the leafless hills, where the purple of distant bare trees gives way to the frosting of high-altitude snow.

I am grateful for the quiet whirr of the washing machine rotating our clothes, the even quieter hiss of wood crackling in the fireplace.

Even though I think I'm prepared, tomorrow I'll be startled by how early the sun goes down.

Visiting the nursing home

Late morning I go to visit a congregant who's recuperating in a nursing home / rehab facility. I call ahead to make sure it's a good time, and the staff tell me that it is. When I arrive, my congregant is sitting in a kind of parlor, where some fifteen or so elderly folks are singing hymns along with a cassette tape.

Slowly I realize that there is no standing furniture in the parlor. Even the flowered recliners which appear at first glance to be easy chairs are wheelchairs. Their inhabitants are sound asleep, mouths open. Some of them mumble words I can't make out. My congregant sleeps, too, even though several people are singing with gusto. "Amazing Grace." "When the Saints Come Marching In."

I murmur quiet prayers. The Mi Sheberach prayer which asks God to bring complete healing, a renewal of body and a renewal of spirit. A prayer I learned years ago from my teacher Rabbi Shaya Isenberg: may this person be blessed with simcha, joy; may he be blessed with shalom, peace; may he be blessed with refuah, healing; may he be blessed with whatever is best.

As a nurse collects the xeroxed hymn handouts, a parade of children with Halloween masks marches into the room. They make a quick circuit, waving to everyone and saying happy halloween. Most of the residents beam at them. One little boy, lagging behind the rest, enters the room and then takes the circuit almost at a run. "He wants to get away from all these ladies," chortles one white-haired woman, amused.

Behind me there's a man muttering that everyone can kiss his ass. The staff chide him: that's not a nice way to talk! Don't say that to people! but he doesn't seem to want to stop, so they wheel him to a different part of the room. Someone turns up the television, which is playing an old Western. The closed-captioning scrolls across the screen shortly before each line is delivered, giving me a peculiar sense of déja vu.

I don't want to wake my congregant. Maybe it's because I'm the parent of a three-year-old, but I can't bear to wake someone who is peacefully sleeping. He is breathing easy and his face is unworried in repose. I murmur to him that I am there and that I am holding him in prayer. I whisper a few more prayers for healing, for joy, for peace, for whatever is best. I pray for my congregant, and for the others who are sleeping, and for the man who's still grumbling that he can say "kiss my ass" if he wants to.

When I leave the nursing home, I feel curiously less anxious than I did when I went in. The aftermath of the storm has not changed. The coming election, and the nasty rhetoric around it, have not changed. But I feel I'm on more solid ground. We live, and if we are lucky, we grow old. We care for each other. We love one another. What else is there, in the end?

Two prayers after the hurricane

These two prayers have come across various Jewish Renewal email lists to which I belong. I share them here for anyone who needs them, with gratitude to my friends and teachers who composed them. Please feel free to share / use in your own community (with attribution.)

The first is by Rabbi Sami Barth, with whom I studied both liturgy and Codes some years back. The accompanying image shows a member of the New York fire department in the Breezy Point section of Queens, taken a couple of days ago. Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters. [Source.]


Prayer in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

by Rabbi Samuel Barth

Esa enai el leharim – me’ayin yavo ezri? I lift my eyes to the high places- where will my help come from?

Your Power God, Creator of the world, is manifest in the winds of the hurricane and the destruction they have caused. We turn to You to pray for the wisdom and strength of those responsible for preparation and rescue, for administration and co-ordination, the first and last responders. May they find the strength and courage the insight and judgment, the love of humanity to do their best to bring our wisdom and technology to alleviate suffering, to heal injury and to restore the services and infrastructure upon which our lives are built. And may we all find ourselves ready to give support, encouragement, love and gifts as needed.

Ezri me’im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’arets; My help comes from Adonai Who made the heavens and the earth (--Psalm 121; 1)

And the other is by Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu in New York City. The image is of a fallen tree bisecting the main building at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, where I have spent many happy retreats (some of them with Reb David, in fact.)



Prayer After the Hurricane

by Rabbi David Ingber

Source of all Life, soothe hearts aching with pain and loss. Source of Compassion, support all of those who are confused and bewildered in the wake of this shocking storm. Mysterious One, move within all of our hearts to help and support one another as we comfort and care for those who are in need. Master of All Healing, heal all who desperately need a refuah shleimah, a full healing in body, heart, mind and spirit. Ana El Na, Refah Nah Lanu - Please loving Source, please heal us.