Be Like Avraham (Vayera 5783 / 2022)

 

Licensed-image

The Dead Sea (called the Salt Sea in Hebrew.) Some connect these salt flats with the story of Sodom and Amora, in which Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. 

 

As Jews we trace our spiritual lineage back to Avraham. We call him "Avraham Avinu," Abraham our Father. What was it that made Avraham worthy of being the progenitor of the entire Jewish people? Hold that question; we'll come back to it. First, a quick recap of one story from this week's parsha.

God says: the outcry from these cities is so great! If it's as bad as I hear, I'm going to wipe them out. Avraham pushes back: c'mon, God, is that fair? What if there are 50 righteous people? Or 45? Or 40? and he bargains God down to 10. For the sake of a minyan of righteous people, they'll be spared.

This isn't the first time God has gotten angry at humanity for wickedness. Though last time (the Flood) was a "gonna erase the Earth" kind of thing, a reboot of humanity. This time God's considering destroying a smaller subset: two towns from which apparently there is an outcry of suffering.

Anyone have theories on what the sin of Sodom was, to merit this kind of response from God?

In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, around 580 BCE, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.” That's a pretty damning indictment... and is still all too real.

Another interpretation is that Sodom really didn't welcome the stranger. When two messengers of God (aka angels) arrive to check out the scene, Lot urges them not to sleep outside. Sure enough, come nightfall, men bang on his door demanding that he hand over the strangers to be raped.

(Lot says, "Oh, no, don't do that -- take my daughters instead." Um... not actually an improvement.)

In the end, ten righteous souls can't be found, and the towns are destroyed. But this story is one of the reasons why God blessed Avraham to become the father of the Jewish people. Faced with God's initial plan, Avraham demands, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"

Avraham stands before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, God Almighty, and insists that God live up to God's own standards of righteousness. And God agrees. Sometimes I think of much of Genesis as God learning how to be in relationship with us. Like a new parent, finding that children are unpredictable.

Midrash speaks of angels created before us. But unlike the angels, we have free will. I like to imagine that God was pleased when Avraham pushed back. Maybe God was happy that one of God's children had become ethically aware enough to legitimately challenge God on a decision like this one.

Later in this parsha, God will make a different ask of Avraham and Avraham will not push back. That's the story of the binding of Isaac. To me, that was not Avraham's finest moment. And after that story, God never speaks to him again, which to me is an indication that yes, Avraham made a mistake.

Maybe there's comfort in knowing that even our greatest spiritual ancestors made mistakes. But pushing God to act justly is a move worth emulating. And readiness to question God, to rage against injustice, and to demand better for our world, is a very Jewish thing. It's a hallmark of who we are.

Avraham argued with God. And Moshe, Elijah, Jeremiah -- all of them disagreed with God, or pushed back, or asked God to change a divine decree. The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev famously put God on trial, arguing that the Jews deserved better than what we'd gotten.

Perhaps consciously following in those footsteps, Jews in Auschwitz did the same one Rosh Hashanah. They called God to judgment for the horrific suffering of the Holocaust. Both stories end the same way: after declaring God guilty, they prayed and said Kaddish, proclaiming God's sovereignty.

Pushing back against injustice doesn't mean giving up on God or on hope. As Jews, we're called to argue with God and to decry injustice. Far from damaging our hope in a better future, that outcry is precisely how we move toward that better future. We demand justice, and we build it ourselves.

Being a Jew means being willing to call things what they are. It means speaking truth to power, even to God. And it means pursuing justice and doing what's right. Feeding the hungry, protecting the vulnerable. No matter who wins elections, those mitzvot are our covenant and our work in the world.

 

This is the d'varling Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)


Don't Be Like Noah

"image


Here's the thing I can't get past this year. God tells Noah that the human experiment has failed. Humanity has become corrupt and lawless. So God instructs Noah to build an ark and use it to rescue his own family and all the animals of the earth. And after some description of what the ark is supposed to look like, Torah tells us, "Noah did so; just as God commanded him, so he did."

Why would I have a problem with Noah doing exactly what God told him to do? Imagine a great environmental crisis is coming, and all living beings on Earth are going to perish. So you build a spaceship and you take a genetic seedbank and your own family and you set off into space. But what about all of the other human beings? (And for that matter, the other beings on Earth, too?)

Later in our ancestral story we'll meet Avraham. And God tells Avraham that God plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. (We'll talk another week about their fundamental sin, which seems to have been a combination of selfishness, violence, and rape.) Hearing this, Avraham argues with God. He bargains: what if I can find you 50 good people? 45? 35? Even 10!

Avraham pleads with God to find a way to spare a couple of towns. In contrast, Noah learns that God is going to wipe out literally every other human being, animal, and plant on the surface of the earth, and he doesn't say a thing. And maybe this is why our sages argue about what Torah means when it says that Noah was a righteous man in his generation. Personally I like Rashi's second theory:

בדורותיו IN HIS GENERATIONS — Some of our Rabbis explain it (this word) to his credit: he was righteous even in his generation; it follows that had he lived in a generation of righteous people he would have been even more righteous owing to the force of good example. Others, however, explain it to his discredit: in comparison with his own generation he was accounted righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been accounted as of no importance (cf. Sanhedrin 108a).

This may be one reason why we don't consider Noah to be the first Jew, though Noah heard directly from God and followed God's instructions to a T. To be a Jew is to question, to argue, to push back when something is unethical. To be a Jew is to be Yisrael, a Godwrestler -- one who wrestles with the Holy, with our texts and traditions, with what's right and what's wrong: not a silent follower.

To be clear, I don't believe that the climate crisis is a punishment for human wickedness the way Torah says that the Flood was. The climate crisis is the natural consequence of generations of collective human choices made by the industrialized world. We broke it, and we're going to have to fix it. But I do believe that the story of Noach has something to teach us today, to wit: don't be like Noah.

Noah protected his own family. I have empathy for that. It's natural to want to save our own loved ones. But that should be the start of our work, not the whole of it. And I believe that Judaism asks of us much more than that. Torah calls us to pursue justice, literally to chase it or run after it. And in the words of my friend R. Mike Moskowitz, justice can't be for "just us".

R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev teaches that that because Noah was so bad at tochecha -- rebuke, as in telling one's fellow human beings that they are acting unethically -- Noah's soul was reincarnated into Moses... who spent most of his life wandering in the wilderness with the children of Israel, grousing at them for being stiff-necked and stubborn, rebuking them every time they made a poor choice!

I love the idea that our souls return to this world as many times as they need, to learn the things they most need to learn. Have you ever heard someone say, "What did I do in my last life to deserve this?" It's a kind of pop culture version of karma. Jewish tradition frames repeated lifetimes not as punishments (e.g. "I screwed up last time so now I gotta do it again") but as opportunities for growth.

What are the qualities we need to strengthen, the patterns we need to shed -- and how can we each use that spiritual curriculum in service of helping each other? Noah could have argued with God, or urged his fellow human beings to make better choices, or helped other people build boats too -- but he built a boat for his own family and the menagerie, and kept to himself. I believe we can do better.

In this era of climate crisis and misinformation, we have to do better. The mitzvah most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Torah tells us to feed the hungry, to pay fair wages, to meet the needs of the disempowered. So no, building a boat (or a spaceship) just for us isn't sufficient. Our task is to care about each other -- to care for each other. 

And in so doing, together we can build a better world.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

Shared with extra gratitude to the Bayit Board of Directors for Torah study this week.


Absurd

Ortelpa-sisyphus-768x576

Sometimes it feels like we're living in an absurdist novel. "And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth." (Yep, that's Orwell.) Many today declare lies to be truth. And it's entirely possible that they're succeeding. "I can declassify documents with my mind" is literally absurd, and yet here we are.

Also absurd is the claim that "antifa" was responsible for the January 6 insurrection, when evidence makes abundantly clear that the Capitol was stormed by supporters of the former President and he knew he'd lost. What really worries me is that people who accept "The Big Lie" may be unswayable by evidence, and many of them are avowed Christian nationalists. (That's never good news for us.)

There's a tactic used by domestic abusers known as DARVO: Deny, Accuse, Reverse Victim and Offender. (The term was coined by professor Jennifer J. Freyd.) It feels like an apt description for a lot of what's happening the public sphere lately. Did it begin with the reversal of, "No, you're the puppet"? I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but I've been really struck by it lately. 

There is an abusive-bully quality to so many of today's interrelated abuses of power. There's an abusive-bully quality to the authoritarian disdain for diversity. There's an abusive-bully quality to the love of power -- after all, when you're a star, you can do anything to people who have less power than you. And when that's how you treat the disempowered, it makes sense to be afraid of losing power.

Sometimes I wonder how worried we should be that the party of election deniers really admires Viktor Orbán. Orbán proudly champions Christian nationalism. Under his rule, Hungary is no longer a democracy. Authoritarian, nativist, homophobic, wants white Christian men to rule -- how awful and regressive. I tell myself that won't happen here. But it may already be happening here.

What does any of this have to do with Judaism, I imagine you asking. Why are you writing about this, rabbi? Because in naming what is, there is agency. Because the only response I can bear is to double down on our values: truth (there's no such thing as alternative facts), diversity and inclusion, care for others (especially for those in need), equity and justice. Even, or especially, if everything falls apart.

 

I found the image that accompanies this post via a beautiful essay at On Being: The Absurd Courage of Choosing to Live. The image is by Olivier Otelpa, and the essay by Jennifer Michael Hecht is worth reading.


Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783

Screen Shot 2022-09-12 at 10.08.31 AM

In the melody of Kol Nidre, I hear aching. I hear yearning. I hear the heartbroken cry of a soul who knows they’ve missed the mark. How the melody descends – and descends again – and then rises in hope!  It’s such a powerful piece of music, I suspect most of us don’t think much about the fact that it’s a setting of… a legal filing. 

Screen Shot 2022-09-12 at 10.08.39 AM

In that legal filing, we ask to be released from “all the vows, promises, and oaths we make with God, the things we say only to regret them, the things we promise and forget, the resolutions we fail to keep.” We make this request in front of a beit din, a rabbinic court – symbolized by the rabbi or cantor flanked with two Torah scrolls. But really we’re making this request in front of the ultimate Judge. The Kadosh Baruch Hu – the Holy Blessed One. God on high. 

This is not usually my go-to image of God. I like to imagine Shechinah, the immanent, reachable, intimate aspect of God, sitting in my car in bluejeans and listening to me pour out my heart as I drive. I like to connect with God as Creator, as Beloved, as Source of Life. But Kol Nidre invites me into a different kind of dialogue with the sacred. It invites me to open myself to the metaphor of God as source of Justice.

Tonight I imagine God in judicial robes. I can’t quite imagine God’s face – the image flickers between every face of every human being who has ever been or ever will be – but I imagine an expression at once serious and kind. Both gentle and solemn. Ready to give us the benefit of the doubt, and also able to see right through us to the things we don’t want to admit.

Continue reading "Toward Transformation (Or The Holy Atonement Reset Button): Kol Nidre 5783" »


Who Are We? Lessons from D'varim for Now

 

"אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן…"

"These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan..." (Deut. 1:1)

Banks-of-the-jordan-river-1839-munir-alawi

Photograph by Munir Alawi, 1839: the banks of the Jordan.

These are the opening words of this week's Torah portion, and the opening words of the book of D'varim, Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is the last of the Five Books. If we're starting Deuteronomy, then the Days of Awe must be just around the corner.

(They are.)

This is the moment in our ancestral story when we pause and take stock. The children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for forty years -- in Torah's language, a lifetime.

So we encamp by the river, and Moshe tells the story of the wilderness wandering. He's speaking to the generation born in the wilderness -- those who experienced the Exodus are now gone. When he's done retelling the story, he will cross over into whatever comes after this life. The people will cross over into the next chapter of their journey. And we will cross over into 5783, a new year full of unknowns.

For Moshe and the children of Israel, this is a moment to pause and take stock of where we've been, who we've been, and what we want to carry forward. Of course, the same is true for us every year when we reach this point in our story.

It's a little bit like the moment in Disney's cartoon Amphibia where the protagonist Anne looks at the blank page inscribed, "Who am I?"

Tumblr_354f61b851495ba01af557588fabf656_782d02f0_1280

Asking the question of herself helps her realize that she chooses to be someone who does the right thing. As Jews, we ask ourselves that question all the time. Some of us nightly before the bedtime shema. Some of us weekly, before Shabbat. All of us annually, before the Days of Awe. Which is to say... now.

In the midst of this, here comes Moshe in this week's Torah portion, retelling the story of the scouts.

Screen Shot 2022-08-04 at 8.06.23 PM

 

Remember Shlach? The giant grapes? Mirror illustration by Steve Silbert.

Remember, twelve men went into the Land. They retrieved giant grapes. They said they felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants they saw there. When they came back, ten of them said "we can't do this," and only two said "sure we can." And the people believed the ten who despaired.

So God said, if the people don't have faith, they won't enter the land. This whole generation that knew slavery is going to die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.

Moshe tells that story more or less the way we heard it the first time. But he makes one significant change. "Because of you," he says, "יהו''ה was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter it either."

Hold up. That's not the reason Torah gave for why Moshe won't enter the land!

DQli11309745

An artist's rendering of what actually kept Moshe out of the Land of Promise.

God makes that call when Moshe angrily hits a rock to make it produce water, instead of speaking to it as God instructed him. We might quibble with that decision-making. Was it really fair for God to punish Moshe that much for one moment of anger? But fair or not, that's definitely how the story went.

And now Moshe's changing it up. He's conveniently forgetting that the reason he won't live to enter the Land is because he chose violence instead of speech. It's because of his own actions and choices -- not because the people lost faith.

As our ancestral story pauses on the banks of the Jordan, we're at the edge of a new year. Because it's human nature, maybe we're tempted to do what Moshe just did: to retell the story of the last year in a way that avoids taking responsibility.

Where do we want to pretend away our own poor choices? How often do we want to say, "it's their fault," pointing a finger at someone else because that feels more comfortable than admitting that we messed up? 

It's okay to feel the impulse to do what Moshe did. It's not okay to actually follow in his footsteps here. Our spiritual tradition asks us to do better than that. 

This is the inner work of teshuvah -- repentance; return; turning our lives around. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg writes that there are five specific steps to repentance work:

1. Owning the harm perpetrated (ideally publicly) / 2. Do the work to become the kind of person who doesn't do harm (which requires a ton of inner work) / 3. Make restitution for harm done, in whatever way possible / 4. THEN apologize for the harm caused in whatever way that will make it as right as possible with the victim / 5. When faced with the opportunity to cause similar harm in the future, make a better choice

(I can't wait for her new book on this subject, On Repentance and Repair, due just before Rosh Hashanah.)

Unfortunately we don't get to see Moshe doing this kind of repentance work. He blames his misfortune on somebody else -- the scouts who brought back a negative report. Tradition teaches that the scouts returned with that negative report on Tisha b'Av, which begins tonight -- though it's Shabbat, so we'll observe the day on Sunday instead.

Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning. In addition to being the anniversary of the scouts' screw-up, Tisha b'Av is the date when Babylon destroyed the first Temple, the date when Rome destroyed the second Temple, the date when the first Crusade began in 1096. Also the date of many other tragedies visited on the Jewish people through our history.

Tradition also teaches that the 9th of Av is the day when moshiach will be born -- the messiah, redemption, ultimate hope, or maybe the age or era when the work of healing creation will be complete. It's as though recognizing that wow, the world is really broken can be the first step toward repair.

(It can.)

On Sunday we'll take first steps toward the repair inherent in a new year, full of new possibility. We'll begin the reverse Omer count -- 49 days until Rosh Hashanah. In the spring, after Pesach, we count seven weeks of the Omer as we prepare ourselves to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. Now, as fall approaches, we count seven weeks as we prepare ourselves to enter a new year.

So much has happened in the last year that it may feel like a lifetime. 

Who have we been, over the lifetime of the last year? When were we hopeful, and when did we despair? What do we feel proud of, and what do we wish we could pretend never happened (or wish we could blame on someone else)? What's the inner work we need to do, in order to do the outer relational and healing work that others can see?

Rosh Hashanah begins seven weeks from Sunday night. Who have we been this year, and who will we choose to become?

D3F0R6ll

 

This is the d'varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog at the new CBI website.) 


Holy work

Download

When I got the summons for jury duty, I grumbled a bit. Who doesn't? I groused, and assumed that as usual this would be one boring morning out of my life. I'd watch a video about jury service, sit in a courtroom for a while, not get impaneled, and hopefully by lunchtime I'd be out and heading home.

I knew how to get out of it. I could tell what answers to give to their questions so they'd release me. As I sat in the courtroom that morning, listening to the judge, I realized I couldn't do that -- not without compromising my integrity. So I answered truthfully, knowing I was likely to be tapped to serve.

This spring I've been studying Pirkei Avot with my b-mitzvah students, and it's sparked endless conversations about Jewish values. "Give others the benefit of the doubt" (Pirkei Avot 1:4) -- what does that mean in practice? "Don't separate yourself from the community (2:4) -- how do we live that?

I did not expect that being impaneled for a jury would feel like being called up to do taharah, the holy work of the hevra kadisha: preparing the body of someone who has died for burial. But the instant I stepped into the jury room, I felt electrified, as though vibrating at a different frequency than usual. 

Of course the hevra kadisha doesn't ask me to consider justice, nor to deliberate toward an outcome. And jury duty doesn't involve the kinds of hands-on work the hevra kadisha does. But spiritually they feel similar to me. Both feel like sacred responsibilities. Both ask presence of heart and mind.

Both rely on volunteers stepping up to serve, to be present for each other because that's what it means to be part of a community. As a citizen, I have both the right and the responsibility of serving on a jury when called. That's more or less how I feel about my work on the hevra kadisha, too.

Not everyone can say yes to either of these forms of service. That makes it all the more important that those of us who can, do. Both of these ask me to step outside of my comfort zone, to backburner my own needs and desires so that I can serve. This is "walking my talk" as an American and as a Jew.

*

It's not easy to sit with genuine not-knowing. To practice shedding preconceptions about anyone or anything, to be present with heart and mind, to grapple with difficult situations, to presume innocence and take part in the work of justice. But what could be a more holy responsibility than this?

This holy work came with some heartbreak, and reminders of how much is broken in our world. Sometimes my head spun with details. Sometimes I came home and cried. And then I did my best to wake up the next morning and return to the courthouse with an open mind, ready to listen.

I wore my kippah in the courtroom. In Yiddish, it's called a yarmulke; that name derives from yirah malka, awe of the King. It reminds me of God's presence, and calls me to be ethical. I aspire to that all the time, but it felt extra-important as I tried to follow Micah's call to do justice and walk humbly.

I often felt inadequate to the task, because who could be "adequate" to making decisions about guilt or innocence that will deeply impact people's lives? The feeling of inadequacy is uncomfortable, but I think it's important. If I thought I had the answers, that would be hubris -- which would be a problem.

Jury service asks us to do our best to root out any preconceptions or prejudice, and to approach everything we hear with an open mind. That's a pretty good spiritual practice for anytime, honestly. So is holding deep empathy while also upholding accountability. Like balancing chesed and gevurah.

My jury service came during the Omer count, when we focus on seven inner qualities. My first week was the week of hod, humble splendor, which feels pretty on-the-nose: humility was certainly core to this experience. My second week was the week of yesod, foundations... including ethical ones.

This case raised a lot of big ethical questions. I struggled with them mightily. I know that our system isn't perfect, and I also know that the jury did the best we could to listen with open minds, to be conscious of our own biases, and to serve with integrity. I think that's the best that anyone can do. 

 

 


In a Society: Teachings from Kedoshim for Right Now

Screen Shot 2022-05-04 at 12.16.08 PM

My son and I often say, "We live in a society." For us it's shorthand, a reminder about community. We need to be mindful of people's needs, because we live in a society. If a kid is being bullied, stand up for them, because we live in a society. If a neighbor needs help carrying in the groceries, offer to help, because we live in a society. We have obligations to each other, because we live in a society.

Enter this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim. קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / Kedoshim tihiyu: "y'all shall be holy, for I your God am holy!" The imperative is in the plural. Y'all be holy now! This isn't about individual righteous behavior. Because -- say it with me now -- we live in a society. So what does it mean to be kedoshim, to be holy as a community? Here are some of Torah's answers in this week's parsha:

Don't glean to the edges of your fields... leave [harvest] for the poor and the stranger. (Lev. 19:10) 
Don't withhold a worker's wages until morning. (Lev. 19:13) 
Don't place a stumbling block before the blind. (Lev. 19:14) 
Don't render an unfair decision; judge justly. (Lev. 19:15) 
Don't stand idly by upon the blood of your fellow. (Lev. 19:16)

These verses are so important that we hear them twice a year: in our cycle of regular Torah readings, and again on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. On that holiest day of the year, Torah reminds us: a righteous society is one that centers the needs of the vulnerable. In a righteous society, we take pains to ensure justice. And we must not stand idly by when others are harmed.

Earlier this week the news broke that the Supreme Court is likely to strike down Roe v. Wade. This isn't a surprise, but it still feels shocking to recognize that the right to bodily autonomy can be taken away. Here in Massachusetts that right is protected, but there are 26 states where that right will disappear as soon as Roe falls. In half of this country, half of the people will lose a right.

Jewish tradition not only permits but even mandates abortion when the pregnant person's life is at risk. Until a fetus is born and draws breath, the life of the pregnant person is paramount. This is a mainstream understanding of Jewish law, expressed by rabbis ranging from Reform to Conservative to Orthodox. What SCOTUS seems poised to do violates our religious freedom.

What SCOTUS is poised to do will cause unimaginable harm. It is horrific to think of being forced to bear a child. In many states, abortion will become illegal even in cases of (God forbid) rape or incest. These are ugly words. It pains me to say them. But this is real, and we need to face it, because people are going to suffer. I don't know how best to help them. But we need to try.

Talmud teaches kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, all of Israel is responsible for one another. Phrased more universally, we are all responsible for one other. Living in a society means there are things we owe to each other. As Jews, we especially have an obligation to those who are most vulnerable. Torah tells us repeatedly to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger: those most at risk. 

As the National Council of Jewish Women reminds us:

We know that limiting reproductive health access has disastrous consequences. Those who lack access to reproductive health care — disproportionately those struggling financially; Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities; young people; rural communities; immigrants; people living with disabilities; and LGBTQ individuals — are more likely to live in poverty and to remain in abusive relationships. And unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death worldwide; high rates of unsafe abortions are directly associated with laws restricting access to critical health care. [Source: Rabbis for Repro.]

I am not a legal scholar by any stretch, but reputable voices have argued that if the Supreme Court nullifies the fundamental right to privacy that underpins Roe v. Wade, other decisions that hinge on that right may also be at risk. I keep coming back to words from the writer Roxane Gay: "Any civil right contingent upon political whims is not actually a civil right." 

I've spoken with many of you this week who are profoundly shaken by what's unfolding. I hear and I honor your grief and anxiety, anger and fear. We may be poised to lose many of the last century's advances. It's important to give ourselves space to feel what we're feeling. And then we need to channel our feelings into action, to help those who will be most at-risk in days to come.

The work of justice is long. If the Supreme Court takes away rights that we now enjoy, then we will work toward a world in which those rights are restored. As we read in Pirkei Avot (which I've been studying with our b-mitzvah students), "It is not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it." As Torah teaches, do not stand idly by.

A couple of verses after the one about not standing idly by, we reach the verse we've been singing all morning: וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / "Love your fellow human being as yourself."  Rabbi Akiva called this vderse clal gadol, "a great principle," or possibly "The great principle" of Torah. It's at the heart of Torah -- metaphorically, per Akiva, and also pretty much literally in the very middle.

Cornel West wrote, "Justice is what love looks like in public." The way we love our fellow human beings is by working toward justice. God, give us the strength to stand up for those who are most at risk. Give us the strength to not stand idly by. Give us the strength to build a world of greater justice for everyone, because that is how we live out the commandment to love.

And let us say: amen.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires, cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog on the synagogue website and to Builders Blog at Bayit.


Identifying with Chidi

Download

Chidi Anagonye teaching about ethics on The Good Place.

 

I was driving to the cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a headstone when I realized why there was  such a tangled knot in my stomach. It was because of the news articles I'd been reading: about the local COVID outbreak at North Adams Commons, and medical predictions that the summer coronavirus surge will get worse before it gets better, and the news that the delta variant is more contagious than chickenpox, and reports from the COVID outbreak in (95% vaccinated) Provincetown

I want so much to be able to gather for hybrid services for the Days of Awe this year. The small synagogue I serve has developed a plan to limit capacity to 50% (e.g. 60 people) onsite, socially distanced and masked, with doors and windows propped open for airflow. We've invested in a big screen so I can use the slideshare machzor both for those onsite and those participating online. We're working on equitably insuring that each member gets to be onsite for at least one service of their choice. 

Our plan seemed reasonable earlier in the summer. I don't know if it's reasonable now. So many people around the country have refused vaccination. The delta variant is so contagious that even vaccinated adults can spread it. And because so many refuse to vaccinate or even to mask (and some governors have made it illegal for local municipalities to mandate masking to protect the vulnerable!), more variants will evolve, and the "finish line" of reaching safety keeps getting further away. My heart sinks.

And so my stomach ties itself in knots. Driving to the cemetery, I realized that I feel like Chidi Anagonye -- the ethical philosopher in The Good Place who gets anxiety stomach-aches. If unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant, is it ethical for any congregation to seek to gather for the Days of Awe? One could argue that anyone who comes to services onsite is aware of the risks and is taking those risks willingly -- but what about our extended circles, and what about our unvaccinated children? 

How responsible am I for the safety of those whom I serve? I believe we are all fundamentally responsible for and to each other; that's part of what it means to be an ethical human being in community. (Which is part of why I can't understand those who refuse to mask to protect other people.) But do those of us in positions of community leadership have additional responsibility -- to make communal decisions with the needs of the other, especially the needs of those most vulnerable, in mind?

This morning I turned to deep breaths and quietly singing words of prayer in my car, and I managed to untie the inner places that felt knotted up in anxiety. We'll make the best decisions we can. The pandemic is far from over, and I suspect we're facing another long winter. At the end of the unveiling, one of the mourners who was there pointed to a nearby grave with an obviously-new stone: a friend, who had died of COVID. As I drove away, she was placing a memorial pebble on that friend's stone. 


Wholeness, justice, and peace

0fcd67ed284eff95a8b989d1a2875422

 

A d'varling for Pride Shabbat and Shabbat Korach.

 

In this week's Torah portion, Korach, there's a rebellion. Korach stands up against Moses and demands power. He cloaks his demand in words that sound nice -- aren't all God's people holy? -- but it becomes clear that he doesn't want to democratize spiritual power, he wants to claim it for himself and his sons. So, the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

Korach insists he deserves to be in leadership, but he really wants power. He doesn't want to be a public servant, he wants to be a bigshot. Torah offers us this fantasy: what if the earth swallowed the power-hungry? Imagine what a world we could build if all of the Korachs just disappeared! We can't rely on that. But maybe it can help us envision what ethical leadership really is.

God instructs Moses to take a staff from the leader of each of the 12 tribes and put them all in the Tent of Meeting overnight. In the morning, Aaron's almond-wood walking stick has flowered and borne fruit. With that, the rebellion is truly over. Everyone can see who God has chosen to be in spiritual service to God and to the community. The question for me is: why Aaron?

Pirkei Avot 1:12 says, "Be like the students of Aaron: loving peace and pursuing it." During homeschooling earlier this year, my son and I read some Pirkei Avot together. I asked him what he thinks the difference between those two things might be. "You can love something, but not do anything to make more of it," he said. "Pursuing it means running after it, trying to make it happen."

Tradition holds that Aaron pursued shalom (peace) and shleimut (wholeness). That's why his staff was blessed to flower: because he actively pursued shalom. But what is peace, really? It can sound kind of wishy-washy. It can sound like a band-aid we put over community divisions and injustices in order to ignore them. That's a false peace, a spiritual-bypassing peace. 

Shalom and shleimut don't mean the absence of war, and they don't mean that false peace, the band-aid that papers over injustice. They mean integrity, living in alignment with what's right. In Rabbi Brad Artson's words: "Shleimut, wholeness, means offering to the world the fullness of who you are at your best: your beauty as you are, your greatness as you are."

Reading those words this week, I was struck by how right they feel for Pride Shabbat. Coming out likewise means offering to the world the fullness of who one is. And as Rabbi Artson continues, shleimut also means inviting others to live out their truest selves too. When we stand in our truth and let our authentic selves shine, we give others permission to do likewise. 

Aaron pursued peace. That verb also appears in the verse, "Justice, justice shall you pursue." As my kid reminds me, pursuing means taking action. When we act for justice, we lay the groundwork for peace. Today's protestors say "No justice, no peace." I've also seen signs that say, "Know justice, know peace." When we know justice inside and out, then we'll know shleimut.

Justice means equal rights for everyone: for people of every gender expression and sexual orientation, people of every race and ethnicity. Justice means safe access to healthcare for everyone: including queer and trans people and people of color. Justice means equal treatment under the law for everyone: for queer and trans people, and for people of color, and for all of us. 

Justice means fundamental human rights and dignity for everyone, because we're all created in the image of God. These are core Jewish values. Our world doesn't quite live up to them yet. We still have a lot of work to do before everyone can safely know shleimut, the wholeness that comes from offering the world the fullness of who we are. That work is our calling as Jews.

Korach said we're all holy, but he really meant: I want more power for me and those who are like me. We can be better than that. We can build better than that. And when we do, then we won't need to fantasize anymore about the earth swallowing the power-hungry. And then structures that had seemed wooden and lifeless will flower and bear fruit. As Judy Chicago wrote in 1979:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will

And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many

And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance

And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old

And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures

And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


The world is our kin: lessons from Moshe about being an upstander

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk and witnessed their labors. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. (Exodus 2:11)

UpstanderI always imagined that Moshe didn't know, growing up, that he was an Israelite. He grew up in Pharaoh's household as though he were a grandchild of Pharaoh. Surely Pharaoh didn't know the baby's origins -- he wouldn't have let his daughter adopt a Hebrew baby when he'd just ordered them all drowned, right?

Along with that, I've imagined a dramatic moment when Moshe discovers that he wasn't originally part of the ruling family. A moment when Moshe learns that he was born into a slave household rather than the royal one. But Torah here calls the Hebrew his kinsman. In this moment, it seems that he knows.

Two enticing possibilities flow from that. One is that Pharaoh's daughter told him, in secret, where he came from and who he really is. Maybe he's always known that he is secretly part of his nation's most oppressed people, rescued only by miracle, and that his destiny would be to help his people go free.

Or maybe he grew up as an Egyptian royal kid, having no idea that he was different from the rest of his adoptive family... and when he saw the overseer mistreating the slave, he knew in his bones that the man being oppressed was his kin, because all human beings are kin, and mistreatment is never right.

The commentator known as Ramban says that someone told Moshe he was a Hebrew, so he went out to the fields to see what kind of life his kinsmen lived. The commentator known as the Sforno says he was moved to strike the overseer because of a feeling of brotherliness -- he felt that the slave was his kin.

This year I'm moved by the idea that maybe Moshe didn't know his origins. Because in that case, his choice to be an "upstander" -- to step in and protect someone powerless who was being harmed -- was based not in a sense of loyalty to "his own," but in the sense that oppression is wrong, period.

Maybe I'm drawn to that interpretation because I want us to be like that Moshe. I want us to open our eyes to unethical behavior and oppression and abuse of power. I want us to step up and say: that's wrong. The world shouldn't be like that. As a human being, it's my job to protect the vulnerable from harm.

Earlier this week, my son attended an assembly at his elementary school about systemic racism. He came home deeply upset, having learned about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Three hundred were killed. Ten thousand became homeless. It's a horrific story of white people slaughtering black people.

My son wanted to know, how could human beings treat other human beings like that? He was shocked and angry and full of grief. I know that his surprise at the horrific viciousness of racism is a sign of his privilege. Through no merit of his own, he's been able to grow up mostly oblivious to racism.

My job now is to help him grow into awareness that we who have privilege are obligated to use our power to help those who don't have it. Because oppression is wrong. Which Moshe knew. And he knew in his bones that the man being beaten was his kin; Torah calls him "kinsman" twice to make that point.

Now, I don't recommend Moshe's methods here. (Killing the overseer: not the way to go.) But Moshe's apparently immediate knowledge that this person who was experiencing systemic oppression is his family, and that therefore he has an obligation to act -- that's Torah's role model for us this week.

Who experiences systemic oppression in our world? I'm not talking about individual acts of mistreatment, but about the systems and structures that give some people an inherent advantage and others an inherent disadvantage. Oppression expressed in the practice of social and political institutions.

[Harvest answers from the room]

Here are some of my answers: Immigrants. Refugees. People of color: at increased risk of unfair sentencing, and of being shot by police because of unconscious bias. Trans people: at increased risk of suicide because of prejudice and mistreatment. Women. Non-Christians. Those who live in poverty.

And, of course, one can be many of these things at once. This week I see Moshe's choice to stand up against the oppression of that Hebrew slave as Torah's lesson for us. Our world contains systems of oppression too, no less than the Mitzrayim ruled over by this Pharaoh who didn't remember Joseph.

Those who are oppressed are our kin, and it's our job to stand up for them as we are able, as Moshe stood up for his kin in the field. Not necessarily because we see ourselves in their faces, though maybe we do. But because oppression is wrong, and Jewish tradition calls us to pursue justice with all that we are.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) 


Vayigash: choosing again

ThinkstockPhotos-177537390In this week's Torah portion, Vayigash, there's a poignant moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Last year I was struck by the beautiful Hebrew word להתודע, "to make oneself known" or "to reveal oneself." This year what leapt out at me is the precursor to Joseph's revelation of self. Before he could make himself known to his brothers, he needed to know that they had changed. He needed proof of their genuine teshuvah, their repentance, their turning-themselves-around.

But how could he get that proof? He couldn't exactly ask. So he demanded that they abandon their youngest brother Benjamin in Egypt. Judah's response -- "I promised our father that we would keep him safe. He's already lost one beloved son; if he lost this one too, it would kill him; take me instead" -- proves to Joseph that Judah, at least, is different than he once was.

Judah has learned from the brothers' mis-steps. He understands now that their scheme to get rid of Joseph caused incredible harm to their father... and presumably also to Joseph, though he doesn't yet know that he's speaking with the brother they sold down the river. Presented with the opportunity to make a similarly damaging choice a second time, Judah chooses differently.

Heraclitus famously wrote that one can't step in the same river twice. But Rambam argues that we can. In fact, that's precisely how he says we can tell if our teshuvah -- repentance and re/turn -- is genuine. When we are presented with the same opportunity to miss the mark, and we choose differently, then we know that we've really made teshuvah. We've done the work to actually change.

Conventional wisdom holds that "[w]hen someone shows you who they are, believe them." In general I think that's a good rule of thumb. Our actions and choices show who we are, and sometimes they reveal realities we might not want to admit. We can say all kinds of pretty things about who we imagine ourselves to be, but when push comes to shove, our actions will speak deep truths about who we are.

If someone says they value kindness, but they act in ways that are unkind -- if someone says they are truthful, but they act in ways that are mendacious -- if someone says they are ethical, but they act in ways that are power-hungry or abusive -- I'm inclined to say, then believe them. Their actions show who they have chosen to be. It's reasonable to expect their choices to continue.

And yet -- Judaism stands for the proposition that change is always possible. As is written in the CBI Board covenant, which is posted in our social hall, "We acknowledge that things can always change; can always be better than they have been." Things can always change. People can always change -- if we put in the hard work that's required in doing so. But we have to choose to change.

Change isn't easy. Our actions and our choices carve grooves of habit on heart and mind, and it's difficult to become someone new. Difficult, but not impossible. Authentic spiritual life asks us time and again to do what Judah did: to face our mis-steps, to apologize and make things right, and when our lives lead us to the same river again, to choose other than we did before.

Judah's teshuvah leads to their family becoming whole again. It leads to plenty and prosperity instead of famine and sorrow. I believe that doing the work of teshuvah can open us to abundance too. Not necessarily a full pantry and a family reunited -- but surely the comfort of knowing that we're doing the work and "walking our talk." That we are living up to who we say we are.

I have the sense that the coming year will challenge us, repeatedly, to do our inner work -- and to live up to the values we say we hold dear. What are the values we want to embody this year... and what tools can we use to keep ourselves honest, so we're not just paying lip service to Jewish values but actually taking action to live them, every day? 

 

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


On silence, and speaking out, and bringing a better world

This morning with my Hasidut hevruta, R' Megan Doherty, I read a beautiful teaching from the Aish Kodesh (R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rabbi of Piaseczno, Poland -- later the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto.) Joseph's dream, in this week's parsha, depicts his brothers' sheaves bowing down to his in the field. But the Aish Kodesh reads it through a different lens. He draws on a Hebrew pun between "sheaf" and "muteness," and he explores what it means to be silenced. This speaks right to my heart. 

Think about the difference between holding one's silence, and being silenced by an external force. There's a huge difference between holding silence for whatever reason(s), and having one's spirit be so broken by external circumstance that one cannot even begin to speak. Our job, in times of struggle, is to wait until our anger passes. And then we can say to ourselves: okay, I feel silenced by this circumstance, but I can still communicate. Even someone who has no (literal) voice can still communicate.

When the suffering of a whole community is such that everyone feels crushed and broken (in today's language, we might say traumatized or suffering from trauma), that's when we reach the circumstance alluded to in Joseph's dream of the sheaves. All of our sheaves are "bowing down," all of our souls feel silenced. But if one person can find the capacity to speak, then everyone else's silencing is lessened. If one person can find the inner strength to speak, everyone else can be strengthened thereby.

Righteous people want to seek serenity or tranquility in this world (notes Rashi) -- that's natural; of course we want and need to seek our own sense of peace. (Without some degree of peace and equanimity, we can't persist in times of sorrow or suffering.) But seeking inner peace isn't enough. God urges us not just to rest in the satisfaction of trusting that everything will be fine in the future somehow. Instead, we need to work to arouse heavenly mercy. We need to cry out to God to bring a better world.

That's what I took from the Aish Kodesh this week. And maybe, because we're not living in the Warsaw Ghetto like he was -- we have power to act in the world in ways that he didn't have -- we need to do something more external than pleading with God for a better world. We need to turn our hands to bringing "heavenly mercy" into the world. We need to act to create a world of safety, a world where no one is ground down by injustice or prejudice or unethical behavior, a world where no one is silenced.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so, speedily and soon, amen.

 


Pursuing justice

Justice-768x465

 

"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.


Being a woman in America

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 9.07.41 PM

"These are not great times to be a woman in America," wrote Jennifer Wright in Harper's Bazaar. "At least, not if you are a woman who believes your body is your own." (She wrote those words two years ago. Now is worse.) Most of the women I know live daily with disbelief, anger, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, numbness -- all symptoms of trauma, as it turns out.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. Many women, of course, would say that it has always been painful and exhausting to be a woman in America. Women of color, visibly queer women, trans women, immigrant women. The fact that I thought this was a pretty safe place until a few years ago is a sign of how lucky I've been, how good I've always had it. 

It is also painful and exhausting to be a Jew in America today. This week, as it happens, I feel more anxiety about being a woman than about being Jewish. (I'm sure the next synagogue shooting will change that.) Women in America today can't help marinating in a bath of (others') misogyny and (our own) fear. I worry about what that does to our hearts and souls.

I don't often write here about politics, or out of a place of my own anger. Focusing on values and spiritual life is my lifeline. It's part of what keeps me whole. But the worse matters get, the more I fear that my silence is complicity -- and that it's spiritually damaging. I'm hoping that speaking these truths will help me, and maybe others, to work harder toward change. 

In 2016 this nation elected, to the highest office in the land, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. He proclaimed that when you're a star you can do anything you want. His opponent was smart, tough, experienced... and a woman. You know all of this already. We all know this. The morning after the election, many of us felt like we'd been punched.

Many of us felt, that next morning, as though there had been a referendum on our gender and we had lost. Too many people apparently feel threatened by successful women. They would rather vote for someone with no governance experience (not to mention, someone whose casual misogyny is staggering) than for a woman who has proven herself to be competent.

The Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating for many women, including me. Once again the takeaway was that men's comfort matters more than our safety. Their misbehavior is irrelevant. Women brave enough to admit being victims of sexual misconduct will be mocked, hounded, and threatened with death. Men credibly accused of such misconduct will rise to power.

Today's news is full of abortion bans and draconian heartbeat laws. (Here's where such measures have been passed so far; I suspect the list will grow.) This news shows me that women's bodily integrity, our very personhood, is increasingly at-risk. Men who apparently don't understand the first thing about female biology are legislating away our right to healthcare.

They blithely criminalize miscarriage, already an emotionally excruciating experience for a woman who is trying to conceive. Meanwhile, poor women and women of color will bear the brunt of this new legislation. Those who are poorest -- disproportionately women of color -- are likeliest to be jailed for miscarriage... or to be harmed by "back-alley" abortions.

In privileging the "rights" of the fetus over the rights of the mother, these laws assert that women don't deserve bodily integrity or autonomy. It's as though in this Christian supremacist worldview, women aren't people: we're fetus incubators who shouldn't have the right to make decisions about our own bodies. I don't have adequate words for how dehumanizing that is.

These laws derive from a very particular brand of Christian theology, which in turn makes a set of very particular assumptions about when life begins (conception). But the laws are not only being made for women who share that theology. They're being made for everyone. This is Christian hegemony, and its disregard for religious pluralism is deeply frightening. 

Judaism has an entirely different view than that evangelical Christian one. By and large, mainstream Jewish legal thinking privileges the health of the mother over the fetus. Our legal tradition argues that life begins at birth, with the first breath -- not at conception. The health of the mother, not the fetus, is paramount. Abortion is permitted, even necessary sometimes. 

But lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio (so far) don't care about that. They don't care about the fact that not all Americans are Christian, or that they're legislating their theology onto the bodies of people who don't necessarily share it. And that scares me both as a woman and as a Jew. That feels like we're falling down the slippery slope toward Christian theocracy.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. And I know I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I'm white, which means I'm not navigating the constant barrage of micro- and macro-aggressions that come with being a person of color. I'm not an immigrant or a refugee. I'm not transgender. I'm not in danger of having my child stripped of citizenship

I'm just a woman. Living, as most of us do these days, with anxiety and fear. Surfing the toxic waves of constant debate about whether or not I deserve healthcare or the right to make decisions about my own body. And facing the reality that for many of the white (mostly male) Christians in positions of power in this country today, the answer to those questions is no.

So what am I going to do? Tomorrow night, thank God, Shabbat arrives. I will aim to set this anguish and grief aside, and to live for one day in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed; as if people weren't trying to strip women of our rights. And then when the new week begins, I will do what I can to protect all who are vulnerable, and to work toward a better world. 

 

Related: What You Can Do To Help Women in States With Extreme Abortion Bans, at The Cut.

Image by durantelallera [source].


Holiness lessons

Holy"Y'all shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." (Lev. 19:2)

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim -- "Holy (Shall You Be)." But what does it mean to be holy as God is holy? It seems that the subsequent verses offer our answer. Treat our parents with respect and honor their needs. Keep Shabbat. When we make offerings to God -- remember, this arose at a moment when we still made physical sacrifices -- we are to eat them that day, or the next day, but not to let them linger. Wait, what? The first two things in that paragraph still resonate: honor our parents and honor Shabbat, so far so good. But what's with the need to eat sacrifices quickly?

We could regard that as an instruction pertaining to food safety. Meats, even meats cooked over fire, will go bad after a few days. Maybe this is an ancient precursor to germ theory? But I think there's more here than that. "When you make a wholeness offering to God," when you're seeking to draw-near to God because you feel that your life is whole, inhabit that feeling of wholeness... wholly. Make the offering and consume the offering. Experience your emotions completely. Inhabit your gratitude completely. Trust that the way to keep the abundance flowing is to celebrate and accept and enjoy the good you've received.

Read this way, it's a teaching about trusting that feelings of wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It's a teaching about trusting that reasons for wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It would be easy to want to cling to our reasons for gratitude, hoarding them, doling them out in little bits so that they will last -- like a box of chocolates eaten bit by tiny bit. But if we cling for too long, the thing we were grateful for may turn sour. The correct response to life's gifts is to celebrate them, express gratitude for them, and enjoy them -- now -- in the moment -- trusting that more will come.

Notice the interweaving of internal and external ways of cultivating holiness. Honor your parents -- which our tradition expands to include, honor your teachers, because one who teaches you Torah is like a parent, expanding your insights and showing you how to live. That's an ethical teaching about how to treat others. Honor Shabbat -- our tradition's core spiritual practice for experiencing abundance and blessing in our lives. Experience abundance and don't hoard your sense of blessedness -- trust that more good things will flow if you open your hands in gratitude. Those are internal teachings about how to carve healthy and holy grooves on our hearts so that blessing can flow in and gratitude can flow out.

Then we get a series of ethical and interpersonal instructions. When we harvest, leave the margins of the fields uncut so that those in need can glean. It is not holy to keep abundance for ourselves: holiness lies in ensuring that all who are hungry can eat and be satisfied. Don't steal or deal deceitfully with each other, or keep a laborer's wages until morning. Judge others fairly, not giving undue deference either to the poor or to the rich. Do not act vengefully. Do not engage in rechilut, gossip, or stand idly by when someone else's blood is shed.

Ordinarily I follow our sages in reading that one metaphorically. Harm to someone's reputation is considered tantamount to shedding their blood. Therefore we are commanded not to stand by when someone is being slandered, because that slander harms their integrity. But in a week that has contained yet another school shooting, the simple or surface reading of this verse leaps out at me anew. In allowing our nation's lax gun laws to stand, I fear that we are standing idly by on the blood of children who are slaughtered in schools where they should be most protected and safe. That is the opposite of holiness.

The culmination of the verses we read this morning is "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai." Love others: that is what it means to be holy as God is holy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva called this "The core principle of Torah." As though to underscore its centrality, this verse is at the literal heart of the Torah scroll -- in the middle of the middle book. This is the heart of Torah. Be holy as God is holy. The way to be holy is to love the other. Those are the words we've been singing all morning: "Here I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator, to love my neighbor as myself, my neighbor as myself."

These are our instructions for holiness:

1) Unclench our hands and trust that blessing will keep coming.

2) Share our abundance.

3) Be scrupulously ethical in feeding the hungry, treating workers fairly, enacting justice, and protecting the vulnerable.

4) And do all of these things not reluctantly or grudgingly but from a place of love.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Related: How to be holy: boundaries come first.


How to be holy: boundaries come first

I studied the most gorgeous text this morning from the Netivot Shalom (also known as the Slonimer, a.k.a. Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky). It's on the verse קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / kedoshim tihiyu, "y'all shall be holy."

The Slonimer teaches: the way we do that is first through strong boundaries and ethical choices. The first step in being holy as God is holy is having good boundaries and being scrupulously ethical in our interpersonal interactions.

That's the only part of holiness that we can control. That's how far we can go through our own strength. If we do that, then God meets us there and lifts us the rest of the way toward a more complete kind of holiness, a holiness in which our every act is sanctified and we ourselves become sanctuaries for God. But that higher level of holiness isn't possible unless we first do everything we can to steer clear of boundary transgressions. 

The Slonimer cites a Noam Elimelech teaching that yir'ah (awe) is the vessel and ahavah (love) is the light that streams through it. And we know from our mystics that when there is light without a strong container to hold it, we wind up with broken vessels. When there is unbounded love without good boundaries -- when there is chesed without gevurah, or when chesed is overprivileged above gevurah -- we wind up with broken vessels. We wind up with unsafe communities.

Holiness comes through living with rigorous integrity and being scrupulous about ethics. We receive the gift of being lifted to that higher level of holiness when we respect the boundaries that can safely channel our love.

 

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Megan Doherty, my Slonimer hevruta.

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017


Communities of safety and repair - at Builders Blog

IMG_0665

Acharei Mot (“After the Death” — e.g. the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, which took place a few parshiot ago) is full of instructions from our ancient sacrificial past. This parasha is one part OSHA safety manual, one part instructions for community cohesion and forgiveness practices, and one part ethical guidebook for avoiding power differential transgressions. And while instructions for correctly dashing blood on an altar are no longer useful to us as modern Jews, the need for strong systems (to ensure safety, offer pathways for healthy reconciliation, and maintain high ethical standards especially where there is power imbalance) seems to be eternal.

Among the laws covered in Acharei Mot are proper dress in the holiest of places (behind the curtain in the mishkan); which animals to offer up as we seek to draw near to God, and how to sprinkle their blood; and the origins of the “scapegoat,” a story many of us also hear each year on Yom Kippur. We also find, sandwiched between injunctions not to behave like other regional tribes in the Ancient Near East, a string of instructions about power differential transgressions. What leaps out at me from these instructions is their (very contemporary) insistence on the importance of systems for creating and promoting safety, justice, and ethical behavior.

So what does Acharei Mot offer us in terms of best practices for our communities today? ...

That's the beginning of my latest post for Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing: Communities of Safety and Repair.


Worth reading: on ethics in the Jewish world

Lately there's been a lot in the press about Jewish ethics systems failing -- in Jewish clergy associationsday schoolssummer camps and campus contexts. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus has written an op-ed on this subject, calling for systemic change. Here's a taste:

...Whether alleged misconduct relates to sex, money, administration, asymmetric power or other ethics infractions, the Jewish context vastly raises the stakes. Alleged misconduct, or responses inviting fairness critique, can exacerbate emotional and spiritual damage when identity, values or faith are on the line. Ethics systems for clergy and schools teach and model ethics, so those systems especially must be above reproach.

Too many confirmed reports, however, depict Jewish ethics systems failing. Reports show whistleblowers gaslighted or shunned for seeking justice. Investigators lacking proper training commit flagrant fairness violations, even deciding matters without speaking to complainants. Confirmed offenders are sheltered to avert shame, or perhaps for career or political reasons.

Too many hurdles. Too little expertise. Too little proper support. Wrong understandings of justice and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to victims’ courage that they come forward at all... It’s time to end the damaging and sometimes dangerous practice of Jewish institutions policing their own ethics. Jewish life needs a new and functionally independent ethics regime.

Read the whole thing: Jewish ethics demands an independent path forward. Deep thanks to R' David and to the Jewish Week / Times of Israel for this essay. May the changes called for here come to pass, speedily and soon.