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Rosh Hashanah: Come, Whoever You Are

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In 1939, my mother, of blessed memory, emigrated to the United States on the SS President Harding. She was three years old. She and her family made it out because her father, my grandfather, had an American birth certificate. He was born in New York in 1908 to Russian parents who returned to Europe when he was a baby. He and his wife and child fled Prague in 1939. I don't need to tell you what became of those who remained behind.

Also in 1939, a ship called the MS St. Louis -- carrying 900 Jewish refugees, many of them children -- attempted to seek refuge on these shores. They were denied entry and had to turn back. Some committed suicide rather than face concentration camps or death camps.

That same year, Congress rejected a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to be rescued from the Holocaust. The bill's opponents took an "America First" approach to immigration, arguing that America should care for "our own" rather than serving as a safe haven for outsiders. The President's own cousin testified that "20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." US immigration policy at the time had strict quotas. A senator -- who would later become one of the nation's leading segregationists -- amended the bill so that the 20,000 refugee children would count against the quota of Germans allowed to enter the country. As he intended, that killed the bill.

Seven weeks ago, at Tisha b'Av, we heard the haunting words of Lamentations, the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures that describes the destruction of Jerusalem and our people becoming refugees in 586 BCE. We heard it interspersed with some contemporary lamentations: "We are kept in a cage. It is very crowded. There is no room to move... We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor. The lights are on all the time... My sisters keep asking me, 'when will mommy come get us?' I don't know what to tell them."

As of now there are countless migrants and refugees in custody at our nation's southern border. (I literally couldn't find out how many.) At least 2,654 children have been separated from their parents (at last count). Migrant testimonies describe heart-rending realities: children weeping for their parents, use of the hielera (icebox) as a punishment, inedible food, lack of adequate sanitation. A pediatrician who visited the border camps decried the inhumane and unlivable conditions as "comparable to torture facilities."

This is not okay. It shouldn't be okay with anyone. And it especially shouldn't be okay with us. 

Not just because within living memory, Jews were denied entry into the United States, and were sent back to the hellish persecutions from which we were trying to flee, and suffered horrendously, and died. (Though all of that is true.) But because our nation's current immigration policies and response to refugees, especially as unfolding on our southern borders, are profoundly counter to Jewish values.

Seeking asylum is not illegal. It's a human right, guaranteed by international law -- law that was written partially in response to the Jewish experience in the Shoah. And yet, today's migrants and asylum-seekers on the southern border are treated like criminals.

Meanwhile, those seeking to enter via means other than the southern border are also being turned away in numbers that are unprecedented in recent history. The United States has drastically reduced the number of refugees we accept each year. In 1980 we took in 200,000 refugees. The average in the last decade had been 70,000 a year. Last year, the number of refugees allowed into the United States was only 30,000. And now the cap has been cut to 18,000, a shameful historic low.

It's easy to think that this doesn't impact us directly. After all, we're not refugees. But the national climate impacts everyone -- whether it's a climate of welcome, or one of closed doors. And to say "hey, our people made it out of a burning building, it's not our problem if someone else's home is on fire" is inhuman. That is the opposite of Jewish values.

Besides: the same language being used to target refugees and asylum seekers is also used to target us. Last month, the El Paso shooter released a manifesto that said, “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” That word invasion reminded me of the manifesto released by the shooter at Chabad of Poway in April, which said that Jews are "invading" this nation, and that it was his white nationalist Christian obligation to kill us on sight. The shooter in Pittsburgh last November also accused Jews of being "invaders." 

This is the hateful language of white supremacy. White supremacists see immigrants and refugees and people of color as "invaders" taking jobs and homes and resources that are rightfully theirs... and they see Jews the same way, regardless of the color of our skin.

And all of this brings echoes of something we've heard before. Maybe you're thinking of Nazi rhetoric and propaganda that spoke of Jews as invaders and vermin infesting the Fatherland. But this is far older than the 20th century.

In Torah we find this language in Pharaoh's mouth. Pharaoh describes the children of Israel as vermin, overrunning Egypt, a danger to his land. Our ancestors had come into Egypt as starving refugees escaping famine. Maybe you remember that story. It began with Joseph being sold into slavery. Through a long and twisting series of events he wound up as Pharaoh's chief vizier, helping him prepare for a time of famine. And when the famine came, Joseph's family went down into Egypt as migrants, as refugees. But then a new Pharaoh arose who saw us as an infestation. He ordered the wholesale slaughter of our sons, and then he ordered us enslaved.

Speaking of any human being as though they were part of an infestation is antithetical to Jewish values.  Torah teaches that every human being is made in the image of the Divine, period. And speaking of migrants and refugees in this manner is even more antithetical to Jewish values. That's the dehumanizing rhetoric of Pharaoh, who said the children of Israel "swarmed" like vermin.  Pharaoh is Torah's exemplar of evil, craven power gone awry. Pharaoh is exactly what we don't want our leaders to be.

Meanwhile, the commandment most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah says this thirty-six times. Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Love the stranger. Love the stranger.

Maybe Torah says this over and over because it's a difficult commandment for human beings to follow. It can be hard to love someone who's not like us. To love people who don't look like us, or dress like us, or talk like us, or pray like us? To welcome people who are fleeing trauma and seeking safety and a better life, when we might fear there won't be enough jobs or resources here for us? Sometimes that's a tough ask.

But that's exactly what Torah demands. Torah demands the spiritual practice of loving the stranger, the Other, the one who is Not Like Us. Torah demands the spiritual practice of protecting the welfare of the widow and the orphan and the refugee. In the Biblical paradigm, those were the people who were most vulnerable to mistreatment and abuse. Maybe today those who are most powerless are the migrant, the transgender person, the person of color... and, still, the refugee. That one hasn't changed.

What our nation faces today is not new. It did not arise overnight. And the fact that I wasn't this horrified about it five years ago is in part because it's genuinely gotten worse, and in part a testament to the rose-colored glasses through which I used to see our country.

Racism and xenophobia have been part of the United States for as long as there has been a United States. Tragically, our nation has a history of mistreatment of non-white peoples. It began with violence against the Native inhabitants of this land. It continued with centuries of human chattel slavery, which literally regarded Black people as subhuman. And then there were laws restricting immigration. And rhetoric painting communities that were not white or not Christian as un-American and antithetical to American values. And all kinds of legal discrimination, including laws aimed at keeping certain kinds of people out: Chinese people, or Irish people, or Jewish people.

Discrimination has often been the law of the land. It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to turn back the MS St. Louis, sending Jewish children back to the inferno. It was legal to keep non-white immigrants out. These things were legal, but they were never right.

It's tempting to say "this isn't America." No: this is America, or part of it, anyway. But it doesn't have to be. We can make our nation better than this.

At my mother's funeral, the pianist played three songs that she had requested. One was "Taps," in honor of the bugler that she married. The other two were "Jerusalem of Gold," because she loved Israel and the promise it represented, and "America the Beautiful," in appreciation for this nation that welcomed her when she fled Europe in 1939.

I grew up on the Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant story of America as the goldene medina, where we can be full citizens, where we can be who we are without fear. I still cherish that dream. I cherish the dream of this nation made stronger by its diversities. I cherish the dream of the United States as a beacon to the world, a place where human rights are upheld and uplifted. I cherish the promise that Emma Lazarus evoked when she wrote, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!"

Some have said that "give me your tired, your poor" should be amended to indicate that we only want wealthy immigrants, or perhaps white immigrants. I believe that statement is profoundly counter to Jewish values, and it betrays the core of what I understand the American promise to be.

Our theme for the Days of Awe at CBI this year is "Come, come, whoever you are." Of course this is a spiritual teaching. Whoever we are, no matter what our relationship with Judaism or with God, we are welcome at CBI now and always, and the covenant of Jewish life and practice is open to us now and always. 

And of course "Come, whoever you are" is also political. Not partisan, taking one side or the other, "red" or "blue." Political means "having to do with the polis," the community. To say "come, whoever you are" is to say "the doors of our community are open because we seek to embody the Torah's imperative to love the stranger."

Our theme this year is a reminder of Torah's repeated refrain of welcome. Torah demands that we love the stranger for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  Torah reminds us that we know the heart of the migrant and the refugee, because that's been us, that's been the Jewish people time and again.

But we say "come, whoever you are" not only because our people's story has been one of migration and refugee status over and over for thousands of years. We welcome the stranger because that's the moral and ethical compact that Judaism asks of us.

And that means we have a moral and ethical obligation to grapple with our nation's civic life today. It's not my job to tell you which politicians are best-suited to uphold Jewish values. You should do your own research and reach your own conclusions on that. But it is my job to tell you what Jewish values are.

Jewish values tell us to love the stranger. Jewish values tell us to protect the immigrant and the refugee and all who are vulnerable. Jewish values tell us that every human being is made in the image of God and that our diversity is part of God's creation.

Jewish values call us not to separate ourselves from community, not to turn away from our nation's challenges. Talmud teaches, “When the community is suffering, one must not say, ‘I'll go into my home and eat and drink and be at peace.’” (Taanit 11a)

Jewish values call us to seek justice and pursue it. Jewish values call us to embody an existential welcome, like the patriarch Abraham, famous for his tent that was open on all sides. May our Judaism live out that promise, now and always.

 

Come, come, whoever you are

Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving

Come, come, whoever you are

Ours isn't a caravan of despair.

 

It doesn't matter if you've broken your vows

A thousand times before: and yet again,

Come again, come, and yet again...

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.

בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:

אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.

 

מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים

אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב - בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.

עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב ...

 

This is my sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


One more d'var Torah as the old year is ending

We're almost done with our year of reading Torah through a building-focused lens at Builders Blog. I wrote this week's post -- beautifully sketchnoted, as always, by Steve Silbert -- arising out of parashat Vayeilech. I found two lessons, and one warning. 

Here's a taste:

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...The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us. All genders and gender expressions. The insiders and those who feel like outsiders. The locals and the immigrants. A vibrant and meaningful Jewish future can’t be built only by men, or only by white people, or only by Israelis (or Americans), or only by rabbis. On the contrary: this building work belongs to all of us. Only when all of us are present, and all of us are appreciated for our differences and our unique gifts, and all of us are uplifted into service, can we fullfil the blueprint of a world redeemed...

Read the whole thing here: Keystones: Great for Buildings - Not for Relationships.

And while I'm at it, here's a new year's greeting from all of us at Bayit.  Here's to a sweet new year of building together!


Soft

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My voice teacher this summer, Rabbi Minna Bromberg, begins all of our lessons the same way. She walks me through grounding myself: feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly. The body is a connector between heaven and earth, as the singing that we do in leading prayer seeks to connect heaven and earth. Each week as she walks me through the litany I can feel myself shifting and settling into my body and into a grounded stance. And the first time she said "soft belly," I felt myself flinch. 

Of course, she's right, and I get why she says it every week. Singing is a full-body activity. I can't sing -- no one can sing -- while holding my breath or sucking in my belly to make myself as unobtrusive as possible. And yet I've absorbed decades of voices telling me that as a woman, maybe especially as a single woman, that's precisely what I'm supposed to do: take up as little space as possible. But physically I can't sing if I'm trying to shrink myself. And spiritually, I can't lead others in prayer if I'm hiding.

When I was fourteen, my mother signed me up for modeling lessons. I remember learning how to suck in all of my soft places to make myself as slim and taut as possible, and learning to walk as though my high heels enabled me to float above the runway. (I never enjoyed it, to mom's chagrin, and I never pursued the modeling career she temporarily had in mind.) Sometimes I still suck in my soft places without even thinking. And R' Minna reminds me, every week, that no one can sing in that posture.

Physically, no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. And spiritually no one can sing while trying to clench into smallness. The message conveyed by that compulsive clenching is: take up less room. That's a be-quiet message, not a sing-out message! But prayer asks me to be ready to sing out with all that I am -- not just the convenient parts. I can't lead people into a place in prayer where I myself won't go. How can I give permission to be whole if I won't take that permission myself?

Last fall I received a blessing for taking up space in the world -- for feeling able to inhabit my 100 cubits of holy space, like the 100 cubits of the mishkan. That blessing has been reverberating ever since. Learning how to better use my voice in service of leading prayer is one of the ways I'm living into that blessing. And learning how to use my voice also turns out to mean learning how to love my body, including my belly, including the soft places of which I was taught (most of us are taught) to feel shame.

This is not something I expected to learn from my voice lessons. But it turns out that my soft places help me sing. It turns out that my soft places are holy. My body is the instrument through which I offer song and praise, and lead others in doing the same. And I can only do that if I'm willing to be in my body -- my whole body -- whole and holy, exactly the way God remakes me, every single day. Feet on the floor, crown toward the sky, strong back, soft belly, ready to connect, ready to lift my voice and sing.

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Minna Bromberg. 

 


First day of fall

Mom, I'm on my mirpesset
on the first day of fall.
You loved that word --
a little taste of Jerusalem

or Tel Aviv. Two of the zinnias
my son planted last spring
have sent up new buds, like
dancers reaching toward heaven

with palms outspread.
They're trying to bloom
once more before first frost.
I don't think there's time,

but who am I to say I know
when death will come?
All morning I've been practicing
Torah in the golden melody

of the season. Last year
you watched holiday services
from your bed, Facebook Live
on the iPad propped on your lap.

From olam ha-ba I expect
you'll have better picture
and clearer sound. I wish
I could feed you honeycake.

I wish I could sing for you
and know that you hear me.
I don't want to be starting
a year that never had you in it.


Through this year's Selichot door

Tonight many synagogues will hold Selichot services -- an evening liturgy that usually includes prayers, piyyutim (poems), and some of the musical liturgy of the Days of Awe. At my shul, Selichot services are a first opportunity to immerse ourselves in the melodies of the season. I love how returning to those melodies feels like it awakens a dormant piece of my soul.

And for several years now at my shul, we've taken time during our service to write down anonymously on index cards the places where we feel we've missed the mark in the last year, places where we feel we need to make teshuvah and ask for forgiveness. Some of our written responses will be woven into a prayer for the community to recite on Yom Kippur morning.

This year Selichot falls on September 21, more or less the autumn equinox, which to me makes it feel all the more poignant. The equinox is a hinge, a doorway between seasons. And Selichot has always felt to me like the doorway into the high holiday season. So tonight is a doorway in at least two ways at once. Selichot is the mezuzah we hang on tonight's doorway in time.

If you don't have a Selichot service to attend tonight, or if you're not in a position to leave home this evening, you can still harness the spiritual energy of this moment in the year with a Selichot experience on your own. Here's the short booklet we'll be using tonight at my shul, and here are melodies for the season. Feel free to use them wherever you are.

Equinox Selichot [pdf]


Now

 

Suddenly the two stately trees
outside my window are shot through

with sprays of gold. My heart rails
against the turning season

like a child resisting bedtime, but
the trees hear the shofar's call.

Come alive, flare up, be
who you are: let your light shine!

The katydids and crickets sing
the time is now, the time is now.

The last time I visited my mother
I told her "it's okay if you're ready

to go." My heart railed against
her dying, but after one last burst

of color she was ready to rest.
This year the trees' razzle-dazzle

speaks to me in her voice: be here
while you can. Drink every drop

of daylight. And when night falls,
it's full of stars: don't be afraid.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2019

 

(Each year during the month of Elul -- the month leading up to the Days of Awe -- I write a poem to share with family, friends, & blog readers. This is this year's. Those annual poems are online here -- most recent at the top.)


Pursuing justice

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"Justice, justice, shall you pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

Or in the translation of my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, "Resist so that you may exist." Because Torah says we are to pursue justice in order that we may live.

It's not enough to support justice. Agree with justice. Nod our heads about justice. We're supposed to pursue it. To run after it. To seek it with all that we are.

We need to pursue justice because without justice we cannot wholly live.

We need to pursue justice because without justice, life isn't wholly living.

Cornel West wrote that "Justice is what love looks like in public." If we love the other -- and Torah is quite clear that we should: "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated no fewer than thirty-six times in Torah -- the way we are to express that love is by seeking justice.

And where there is no justice, "love" is a hollow word. In the absence of justice, love loses its meaning. If someone says they love you, but they won't pursue justice for you, then their love is at best false and at worst highly damaging. 

What does it mean for us to pursue justice?

It means acting ethically. Always. Without fail. As much as we can.

On a personal level, it means discerning where we've fallen short, apologizing to those whom we've harmed, and pursuing restitution for those whom we've harmed. That's the work of this time of year. (This is classical Jewish teaching; see Maimonides on teshuvah.)

Communally, social justice means "equal distribution of opportunities, rights, and responsibilities" across our differences. [Source.] If the systems of our society prevent any subgroup from having equal opportunities, rights, and responsibilities, that isn't justice. 

A world in which people of color are systematically disenfranchised from voting is not justice. (This week at havdalah when it's time to #BeALight, we might choose to support Fair Fight.) I'll bet we can all can think of other examples of injustice needing to be repaired. 

Pursuing justice means acting with integrity to uplift those who are disempowered -- in Torah's paradigm, the widow and the orphan; in today's paradigm, those who experience systematic discrimination.

This is our work in the world as Jews. This is our work in the world as human beings. This isn't new, but this year it seems more important than ever.

So here's my prayer today:

Please, God, strengthen our commitment to justice. Strengthen our readiness to not only uplift justice but to pursue it, to run after it, to seek it with all that we are. Because without justice, the world is broken.

And with justice -- only with justice -- we can aim to live up to our highest aspirations as individuals and as a society. With justice, we can live up to what God asks of us.

Because justice is what God asks of us. And justice is what we should ask of our government, and our communities, and our own selves. Justice is what we're called to pursue, all the days of our lives.

Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) I followed it with last year's Torah poem: Pursue.


A week of building with Bayit

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Within minutes of arrival, I'm drawn into a conversation about the meaning of the end of the Book of Jonah, its place in the arc of Yom Kippur, and what the ellipses implicit in that ending have to teach us. The guitars come out, and next thing I know I'm saying "wait, wait, show me that chord again," and I'm learning new chord progressions. We talk and sing and we sit by an outdoor fire for a while and I make dinner and we dine around a big table and then we move back outside, to the firepit this time, where we talk and laugh and talk and argue and talk under the wheeling spray of the Milky Way.

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I wake to coffee. The sunlight on the lake is dazzling. There is yoga, expertly led. There is impromptu davenen on the pier, sunlight shining through my sheer rainbow tallit, my feet dipping into the waters of the lake. We do a core values exercise and talk about what animates us. We sit outside in the sunshine on Adirondack chairs and make giant lists of our hopes and aspirations, what we want to get out of the week, what's on our priority list, dreams and goals for Bayit and for ourselves. We spend a few hours combing through the pages of Doorways one by one. And then we go kayaking.

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We look at plans for our Sketchnoting Jewishly book. We cook. We talk about working with college students. We study texts about masculinity and grace, and begin brainstorming modalities of menschlichkeit. Giant sticky-tab pages proliferate on the walls, covered with words, drawings, diagrams, charts, and ideas. We break for ice cream. We talk and laugh and sing and learn. I learn new melodies for prayers I know and love. The number of guitars in the room multiplies. Whoever finishes the coffee in the pot starts a new one. Whoever didn't cook, does dishes. We laugh and harmonize.

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We talk about board functions, about growing our build teams, about how our different projects (should) interrelate, about growing from a startup into what follows. We take a break to walk all the way around the lake, past houses and summer camps, exclaiming over the softness of pine needles underfoot and the beauty of the woods around us. The walls of the living room fill up with more ideas, and pages, and bright yellow post-it notes. We praise each others' recipes. We bring all of the guitars out to the firepit with the Adirondack chairs and we sing and laugh under the stars.

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We kayak onto glassy water, pause our boats under an arched stone bridge, and sing. We talk about the innovation pipeline and what we hope Bayit can accomplish next year. We come up with a new plan for Builders Blog, and learn how to use Trello. We break for mincha (afternoon prayer) overlooking the lake, two altos and a tenor with a drum and a guitar; the ashrei feels like heaven. The fabulous R' Wendy Amsellem teaches us Talmud on taking diverse opinions into our ears and hearts, on making our insides match our outsides, and on creating communities where it's safe to speak.

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At the end of the week I make challah, and we work on high holiday sermons under the trees, and some of us do mikvah in the lake, and then we gather outdoors with guitars to welcome Shabbat. There is nothing quite like Shabbes at the end of a week like this -- a week of brainstorming and kayaking, visioning and singing, planning and building. I am so grateful for this week. It's been sweet and song-filled, intense and real. And now I'm ready to return to my kid... knowing that my Bayit hevre and I will continue the work of building Jewish together, in all of the different places we call home.