As Cheshvan draws toward its close

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It's the day after the midterm elections. It feels a little bit like the day after all of the fall holidays are complete. 

I always come out of the high holiday season feeling some combination of exhilarated and grateful, and exhausted and tapped-out. Many rabbis I know joke that our favorite month is Cheshvan, the empty month that follows the intense round of festivals. We need the downtime (both practical and spiritual) after the Days of Awe, which can feel high-stakes both spiritually (it's arguably the most spiritually intensive season of our year) and practically (because many of us who serve bricks-and-mortar congregations rely on this season for the donations that allow us to keep our doors open and to continue to serve.)

But this year, Cheshvan has not offered the respite I yearn for. This year Cheshvan has included horrific antisemitic attacks, from pipe bombs and their accompanying antisemitic dogwhistles to the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. And Cheshvan has also included the tense and intense ramp-up to the midterm elections. Yesterday I saw someone observe on Twitter that it felt like the entire nation was waiting for the results of a biopsy. That feels apt to me. And as anyone who's ever anxiously waited for test results knows, that immersion in anxiety is the opposite of restorative or restful. 

Now at least the waiting for results is over. If the "patient" in question is our democracy, last night I think we learned that the prognosis isn't as bad as some of us had feared. Indeed there are many reasons to feel hope, including unprecedented voter turnout, the preservation of trans rights in my own home state, the election of many remarkable progressive women of color to Congress, and many "firsts" that are worth celebrating, like the first Muslim American women in Congress, and the first Native American women in Congress, and the first openly gay governor in the nation. 

And we also learned that we still have an awful lot of work to do before this patient can be declared healthy again. Voter disenfranchisement was rampant, perhaps most notably in Georgia. Nazi sympathizers have been re-elected to serve in our nation's government. Ugly anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be working in some quarters, and that reality is deeply upsetting.

How do we balance our hope and our fear? How do we celebrate the very real accomplishments achieved by the tireless work of countless volunteers, while acknowledging how far we have to go before our nation is the bastion of welcome and diversity that we aspire to be? At the same time that I'm asking that national question, I'm also grappling with this jewish one: how do we celebrate the very real embrace of our non-Jewish friends and neighbors during this time of trauma, while acknowledging how far we have to go before antisemitism and white supremacy and white nationalism are a thing of the past?

I think again of the story of R' Simcha Bunim and his two slips of paper: "for my sake was the world created" and "I am but dust and ashes." The work of authentic spiritual life is learning how to hold these two truths simultaneously. Learning how to cultivate real gratitude and joy without falling prey to the danger of spiritual bypassing. Learning how to feel real grief and fear without falling prey to the danger of despair. How to feel these two opposites without blurring them into an amorphous middle that partakes neither in the grief of knowing how far we have to go nor in the joy of recognizing how far we've come.

I've seen many wise people point out that our work today is the same as our work every day: repairing the broken world. Being a light in the darkness. Working tirelessly to combat injustice and bigotry. That's our job as human beings and as Jews. It was our job before the midterm elections, and it is our job after the midterm elections. I agree with that wholeheartedly. And -- the month of Cheshvan is my annual reminder that we also need to give ourselves time to rest, and time to feel our feelings, especially in the aftermath of something that's taken up so much of our time, energy, attention, anxiety, and hope.

The work of rebuilding our nation into a place of liberty and justice for all isn't over. Yesterday was a big day, and today we may be feeling tapped-out. It's okay to take some time to decompress and to just be. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to start working again at redeeming our broken world and our broken society. True on a national level, true on an individual spiritual level. The work of authentic spiritual life isn't over, either. It's okay to feel tapped-out right now. And when we can muster the strength to begin again, it's our job to once again take up the inner work of teshuvah.

The work isn't over. The world isn't yet redeemed. But we can pause to take stock of what we've accomplished, and we can allow ourselves space to feel both our anxieties about the path ahead and our exultation at every newly-rekindled spark of hope.  For now, it's the end of Cheshvan. It's the end of an election cycle. Here where I live most of the leaves have fallen. It's too soon to know what they will mulch and fertilize in months to come. For now, maybe it's time to embrace the feeling of going fallow, and to trust that in time with the work of our hands and hearts new growth will come.


Graffiti love-in

When I arrived at my shul on Shabbat morning, it was covered with graffiti. Not the kind of hateful graffiti that's been cropping up at synagogues around the nation in recent days: rather, signs, cards, and messages of love and support from our non-Jewish neighbors. 

I had advance notice of the "graffiti love-in." (The organizers checked with me to make sure their plan was okay.) But even so, when I arrived at shul on Shabbat morning and found what they had done, I couldn't help weeping tears of gratitude.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Forward: Our Neighbors Graffitied Our Synagogue -- With Love.

I'm enclosing some photos below.

It's easy to pay attention to the acts of horror and trauma and hatred that are sweeping our nation. But I hope you'll also pay attention to this act of spontaneous love, support and care. 

 

(You can glimpse the artists at work in this photo album at the Berkshire Eagle... and I hope you'll read my piece for the Forward, too.)

 


Morning conversation, two days later

"But why did he do it?" my son asks me this morning in the car on the way to school. "It couldn't be just because he hates Jewish people."

"Some people hate anything that's different from them," I say, carefully, feeling my way into the words. "It may be that he hates us just because we're not like him."

"That's bad," my son observes.

"It is," I say, nodding. "But the shooter did say something, before he went into the synagogue with his gun, about being angry that Jews are welcoming refugees into our country."

Then I realize I'm not sure my son knows what that word means. "A refugee is someone who comes here fleeing war or danger, someone who comes to our country looking for a safe place to live. The shooter thought that welcoming refugees was a bad thing that Jewish people do. But we think it's a good thing, it's something to be proud of about who we are."

"That's why we give tzedakah," says my son, his voice more certain now.

"It is," I agree.

 


From hope to horror and back again

On Friday, I stood with friends and children, townspeople and college students, on the town green. We were holding up signs that said things like "Trans people matter" and "trans rights are human rights." Some of our signs were painted in rainbows, others in the colors of the transgender flag. Every car that drove by honked and waved and gave us thumbs-up signs of solidarity.

Among the hundred or so participants I saw some who I know to be transgender and some who I know to be cisgender, some who were young and some who were older, some who I know to be religious people like me and some who were probably non-religious. I saw rainbow hats and facepaint. I saw togetherness. I saw hope in our affirmation that even if the current administration succeeds in changing the legal definition of how gender works, we will stand up for our transgender friends and family and congregants and community members, and we will support them and help them thrive in all the ways that we can. 

On Shabbat morning, I emerged from synagogue to the news of a horrific shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The shooter screamed "all Jews must die" before opening fire.

It's hard to overstate the cognitive dissonance between the feelings of hope and togetherness that carried me into Shabbat, and the feelings evoked by news of this latest act of murderous hatred carried out against my fellow Jews in a house of prayer. 

I was talking with my therapist recently about the collective trauma of the Holocaust and the ways I'm noticing it now not only in those whom I serve but also in myself. As a kid, I used to lie in bed and make plans for what I would grab in my suitcase if "they" came after us again and we had to flee for our safety. (Usually my answer was "my loveys, my diary, and my cat.") I don't think I grew up in a particularly Holocaust-focused household; I was just an ordinary Jewish kid in the 20th century. But of course I grew up with knowledge that anti-Jewish hatred exists and is deadly and might someday endanger my family and me.

To be clear: I don't think my family and I are in danger. I routinely wear a kippah around town, and have never been met with anything other than warmth or occasionally well-intentioned curiosity. I feel safe, and I think the rest of my family is safe, too. Unless someone who hates Jews and has a gun walks into their synagogue and opens fire, though I'm pretty sure their big-city synagogues in Texas have armed guards outside them already for precisely this reason. (And I hate the fact that many synagogues across the nation feel the need for armed guards for this reason, but in this moment, I understand why they do.)

I know that many people are in far more danger than I am right now. Queer and trans people are in more danger. Muslims and people of color are in more danger. Immigrants and refugees are in more danger. The children who have been imprisoned in cages in south Texas are in a kind of danger I can barely bring myself to comprehend. I'm white, and I live in a town that feels safe -- as safe as anywhere can, these days. A town where a hundred people gathered together on a Friday afternoon to chant and cheer and embrace our transgender community members and promise them that we will stand by them in their time of need. 

And I'm still a Jew whose mother and grandparents barely escaped Europe before everyone else in the family was sent to the death camps. Acts of violence against Jews awaken ancestral collective trauma in me, as they do in many of those whom I serve. We can't help wondering whether this is the beginning of another Holocaust, another slide into fascism and national xenophobia. The Holocaust claimed eleven million lives: six million Jews, and five million who were queer or Roma or otherwise "undesirable." Will it happen again? Is it happening again even now? Many Jews wake and sleep and live with this fear.

What can we do but continue to work toward a world of greater justice and righteousness? What can we do but reach out to comfort those who mourn -- and then continue existing, and davening, and singing, and hoping, and building toward the better world our tradition teaches us is possible? What can we do but continue learning and praying, naming our babies and celebrating our adolescents' coming of age, marking lifecycles and festivals with music and hope and tears and even, when we can manage it, joy? We have to persist. We have to keep hoping in, and building toward, a world that is better than this one.

And we have to keep standing up for others who are in even more marginalized positions than are we. We have to be upstanders who help those in need. Those of us with white skin, like me, need to use the privilege of that skin to stand up for people of color who feel attacked and afraid. Those of us who are cis-gender, like me -- whose sense of self fits with the gender label we were given at birth -- need to use that privilege to stand up for transgender people who feel attacked and afraid. We who have safe places to live need to stand up for refugees who are fleeing in desperate search of safety. We need to stand up for each other.

I don't want to be writing about hatred and xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, or pipe bombs, or a shooter walking into a synagogue and opening fire. But this is the world we're living in, and I can't ignore that. All I can offer is this: as Jews, we need to keep being who we are, and we need to stand in solidarity with others who are also frightened and at risk. We need to build a world where this kind of hatred is a thing of the past. Right now it's hard to believe that such a world will ever be possible, but we have to keep building toward it. Because the alternative is accepting that what's happening now is okay, and that's unbearable.

 

In case it's helpful, here's what I sent to my synagogue community.


On embracing the globe

The president has been ranting about globalists. I did some research into why the "globalist" label is considered anti-semitic, and what it means to be a globalist, anyway. And then I wrote an essay for the Forward, and here's a taste:

 

...The connection between globalists and Jews is, in part, the old anti-Semitic smear that Jews are not truly loyal citizens of any nation. Hitler described Jews as “international elements” that “conduct their business everywhere,” thus harming and undermining good people who are “bound to their soil, to the Fatherland.” Use of globalist as a negative term can be a dog whistle for the far right: those who recognize its roots in Hitler’s philosophy recognize that it’s an encoded way of denigrating Jews.

Some people speak interchangeably of globalism and cosmopolitanism. I absolutely identify as a cosmopolitan — someone who aspires to be a citizen of the wide world, with an awareness that in an interconnected community, we have ethical obligations even to people who live differently than we do... So does that mean I’m a globalist, too?...

 

(Spoiler: yes. Yes, I am, and proudly so -- and I believe that Judaism demands no less, and I wouldn't want to be otherwise.)

Read more in the Forward: Yes, Ranting Against Globalism Is Anti-Semitic.


All the tools you need to write that world into being...

When Moshe ascended to heaven, he saw the Holy One of Blessing writing the words of a Torah scroll as does a soferet, with quill and gall-nut ink, and painstakingly adding filligree and crowns to the letters.

Moshe asked the Holy Blessed One, "Why are you taking the time to do that? Surely You could just think the scroll into being perfect and complete."

The Shechinah answered him, "I do this to teach you that it is worth taking the time to beautify what you create. Also, I know that on the hooks of these crowns, your students and their students and the students of their students will hang interpretations for generations to come."

Moshe asked Her, "And are the interpretations important?"

"Yes," said the Holy One. "They are part and parcel of what I am writing now. Indeed: without them, My Torah is not complete."

Moshe was puzzled. "Then why don't You include the interpretations Yourself, and give us a Torah that's finished?"

The Shechinah smiled. "Because if I gave you all the answers, that would be too easy. And because it is precisely in wrestling with this text, to find and create meaning in every generation, that you and your descendants will make My Torah your own."

"What will be the reward for making Your Torah our own?" Moshe asked.

"Sometimes your children who interpret Torah will be lauded for their creativity and bravery, and sometimes they will be vilified."

"Can't You speak into being a world in which no one would ever be vilified for the study of Torah?"

"Just as the Torah requires your voices in order to be complete, so the world requires your efforts toward love and justice in order to be complete. But all the tools you need to write that world into being, I place in your hands."

"You're sure You can't do that for us?" Moshe asked one more time.

"Shhh," said Shechinah to him, smiling gently. "This is what I have decided."

 

This is a creative re-visioning of a passage from Menahot 29b


On taking action and turning inward

Last night I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw tweets from the president and from his lawyer blaming George Soros for ostensibly paying people to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The tweets suggested that Soros is evil and should be jailed. (I'm not going to link to them; I don't want to give them the attention.)

The claim that Soros pays protestors is ugly falsehood and it has its roots in one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about global Jewish conspiracy. I expect that all of you who are reading this blog already know that. I don't need to preach to this choir on that front. 

But maybe you, like me, are having a panic response to news like this. Intellectually I know that I am safe, that my child is safe, that most of the people I love are safe. But like most Jews of my generation, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. And when ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric is parroted by the president and by his lawyer, I feel a paralyzing fear in my kishkes, in my gut and in my heart.

I suspect that many of us are feeling that fear. The casual dehumanizing of Jews and Muslims and immigrants and people of color and women that we see in the news and splashed across social media is horrifying. And many Jews carry the accumulated baggage of generations of trauma, including the horrors of the Holocaust, and seeing this stuff in the news and on social media can activate that trauma in us. That's why I'm writing this post. I have four suggestions to offer for how to navigate these difficult times. If you have others, please share them in comments.

1. Take care of yourselves and each other

Take care of yourselves, friends, and take care of each other. Give yourself permission to turn away from social media when you need to, because marinating in a constant bath of outrage and anxiety can do harm. If Twitter and Facebook are raising your anxiety and stoking your fear, it's okay to stop reading them for a while. 

If you have the capacity to reach out to others to see how they're doing, do that -- doing so can help both the person who's reaching out, and the person receiving the outreach. (For more wisdom along these lines, here's an excellent piece by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on self-care tips for those angered and activated at this moment in time.)

2. Reach out to someone who can help

If you have a therapist or spiritual director, bring the anxiety and fear to them. (If you don't, now might be a good time to find one.) Don't sit with the fear alone -- it's all too easy for fear to consume us when we grapple with it alone. Tell a friend or family member. If you have no one at all to whom you can speak about what you're going through, reach out to the crisis text line.

3. Speak out, when you can - especially when you yourself are not a target

Many of us are oscillating between times when we have the capacity to speak out against injustice, and times when we are activated / hurt / grieving and need others to speak out on our behalf. That night when I was activated by antisemitism, I found comfort in tweets from people who are not Jewish and yet were willing to stand up and say clearly that antisemitism is wrong and they won't stand for it. Like these:

Seeing their tweets (and others like them) brought me to tears of gratitude that someone who is not directly harmed by this particular wave of ugliness was willing to stand with us against it. And that reminds me that I need to be an upstander and do the same when ugliness is directed toward groups of which I am not a part, whether Muslims or immigrants or people of color.

4. Take action when you can - and turn inward when you need to

Sometimes taking action to build a better world can be balm for our aching hearts. We can donate to a candidate who inspires us or to a nonprofit that does work we find redemptive, or write an op-ed, or be a good ally and upstander on social media, or take groceries to a food pantry. And sometimes we're too activated by the news cycle even to do those things, and need to focus instead on regaining equilibrium. Each of us will know best when we're up to taking action, and when we need to focus inward and heal.

*

The work of repairing our badly broken nation is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Danya, it's a relay race -- where we take turns handing off the baton to each other, so that when any one of us is unable to keep going, the work of moving forward continues. When we have the strength to keep going, it's incumbent on us to do so... and when we need to stop and rest and heal, may we find comfort in knowing that others are carrying the flame of justice and hope forward in our stead. 

 


Dear survivors: I see you, and I believe you.

Il_340x270-1432392392_j7leThis post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully.

 

So many of the women I know -- my friends, my loved ones, my congregants, my colleagues -- are survivors of rape or sexual assault. It's everywhere. It's an invisible epidemic that is only now beginning to come to light. 

And right now the national news is so saturated with it that all of those women are navigating trauma all over again.

From a president who bragged about grabbing women by our private parts, to a potential Supreme Court justice now multiply accused of sexual assault, to Jian Ghomeshi's recent essay, to a long list of actors and comedians and public figures accused of sexual misconduct: our discourse is consumed by conversation about the damage that women endure.

Encountering this subject everywhere can be re-traumatizing for victims of rape and sexual assault. Making matters worse, the public sphere is full of argument about whether or not to believe women when we take the risk of telling the truth about the harm done to us. The excuses, the gas-lighting, and the victim-blaming compound the trauma and the damage. 

I simmer with constant low-grade nausea and grief and rage about this. This moment in time is so hard for my friends and loved ones, congregants and colleagues, who are survivors. This moment in time is hard for me.

One woman who is dear to me tweeted recently, "My body is on hyper alert, absorbed with past experiences, and I wonder - how many of us are just battling to stay upright right now?"

Dear survivors who are reading this: I see you and my heart goes out to you.

I believe you.

I believe you, and I see that you are hurting now. I see you struggling to get through the day, I see you unable to sleep or plagued by nightmares, I see your body clenched and on hyper alert. 

I recognize that you can't take a sick day from work just because the current news cycle is constantly triggering you. I recognize that re-activated trauma may be slowing you down, making ordinary things difficult, making every day a struggle.

I am sorry beyond words for what you endured, and for what you are enduring now as the national news cycle thrusts these subjects into your awareness again and again.

I also see that you are more than your victimhood, and I honor that, too.

Dear survivors who are reading this: please don't carry this burden alone. Post-rape PTSD is real and is deeply damaging. There are some suggestions in the article How to Cope with Rape-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I can offer anecdotal support for the positive benefits of several of the items on that list. I hope that you have (or will seek) a trustworthy therapist, ideally one trained in helping survivors navigate these issues. You might also seek a support group, so that you aren't alone.

(There's an excellent list of Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and Their Loved Ones online at RAINN.)

*

I pray that something good will come out of this moment's painful focus on rape and sexual assault.

May we shift the broader culture so that the women's voices, experiences, and bodily integrity will be honored. 

May we teach our children about active consent, and may we relegate "boys will be boys" and "this is just how men behave" to the trash. Boys and men can and should be better than this.

And may all who are survivors of rape and sexual assault find healing.

 


Op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle: on protecting transgender rights and dignity

Postcardside1smallforwebThanks to the Berkshire Eagle for publishing my op-ed: Protect transgender rights and dignity.

For those who can't get to the digital edition, I'm reprinting the op-ed here on my blog.

 

NORTH ADAMS — On Election Day this November, voters in Massachusetts will encounter a referendum on our state law that protects transgender people from discrimination and harassment in public places. A "yes" vote on Question 3 would uphold current law, which means transgender people would maintain the rights and dignity to which they are now legally entitled. A "no" vote on 3 would repeal current law, leaving transgender people vulnerable to discrimination in public places such as restaurants, stores, and hospitals.

As a rabbi, I'm horrified at the prospect of a repeal. I'm voting "yes" on 3 because I have transgender congregants, friends, and loved ones. Because repeal — denying transgender people's rights and dignity — would be counter to the religious values I hold dear. And because repeal would set precedent for the rest of the country, and would embolden bigotry in many forms.

Jewish tradition teaches that we are all made in the divine image. Judaism doesn't understand God to have a physical form (nor, for that matter, a singular gender; we speak of the Divine in terms that are masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral). We can glimpse the "divine image" through humanity's diversity of shapes and sizes, races, sexual orientations, and gender expressions. And because we're all made in the divine image, Judaism teaches that human rights and dignity are everyone's birthright.

My tradition also teaches that one reason why we trace human ancestry back to a single first person is so that no one should be able to say "my ancestors were better than yours" (or, its corollary, "I'm better than you"— or "I deserve to be served in this restaurant while you do not.") My religious values call me to proclaim the inherent rights and dignity of trans people.

Of course, given appropriate division between church (or synagogue) and state, I shouldn't expect any state to legislate based on my religious values. But the secular values we share as Americans also demand a "yes" vote on Question 3. All should be entitled to equal treatment under the law, regardless of gender identity. And all should have the right to be safe from discrimination and harassment in public places: no matter whether we are cisgender or transgender, no matter what our gender expression, no matter what pronouns we prefer.

This matters especially for transgender youth, including those who identify as nonbinary. I want to be able to truthfully tell transgender kids that we see them, and we value them, and we uplift and uphold them in all that they are. I want to be able to promise transgender kids that they will continue to be treated with dignity in coffee shops and movie theaters and doctors' offices, and that they can be who they are in the public sphere without fear. I want to be able to assure transgender kids that we who are old enough to vote will not strip away the protections to which current law entitles them.

I'm thankful to live in a state where people of all gender identities are protected from discrimination. Let's keep it that way. Join me in voting "yes" on 3 in November, and uphold human dignity for all.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. She is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. 


New in The Wisdom Daily: wisdom about refugees, from a talking Biblical donkey

...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?

King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.


Cultivating hope

That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)

Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)

I have two suggestions to offer. 

The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one. 

The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.

I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.

Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:

I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.

And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.

Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.

But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):

 

 

If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


Why I support the Child Victims Act

3dbacd5d-30f9-4f80-9f9a-2f57e6113844I'm going to Albany today to join colleagues (rabbinic and otherwise) in visibly supporting the Child Victims Act.

This legislation would change New York's statute of limitations for the crime of sexually assaulting a child, so that those who are sexually abused as children can seek justice. (You can read the bill here.) 

A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families found that 34% of childhood sexual abuse victims are under the age of nine. I have an eight year old, so that statistic hits home for me in a visceral way. At that age, most victims don't have the vocabulary to articulate what was done to them. Most victims aren't able to report their abuse until much later in life -- by which time, at least as New York law currently stands, nothing can be done. The Child Victims Act would change that.

If the #MeToo movement of the last few months has taught us anything, it’s that it is extremely painful and risky for victims of sexual harassment or assault — even those with power, money and connections — to speak out against their abusers. Now consider how much harder it must be for a child.

It should surprise no one that a vast majority of people who were sexually abused as children never report it. For those who do, it takes years, and often decades, to recognize what happened to them, realize it wasn’t their fault and tell someone. The trauma leads to higher rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, depression, suicide and other physical and psychological problems that cost millions or billions to treat — money that should be paid not by taxpayers, but by the offenders and the institutions that cover for them.

For these reasons, many states — including eight last year alone — have done the right thing and extended or eliminated statutes of limitations for the reporting of child sexual abuse. This has encouraged more victims to come forward and seek justice for abuse that was never properly addressed, if it was addressed at all.

New York, which has had no shortage of child sex-abuse scandals, should be on that list. In fact, it should be leading the nation on this issue. Instead it, along with Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Michigan, is one of the states with the least victim-friendly reporting laws in the country. New York requires most child sex-abuse victims to sue by the age of 23, 19 years before the average age at which such victims report their abuse...

(That's from a recent editorial from the New York Times editorial board: Albany, Pass the Child Victims Act.)

I did my chaplaincy residency at Albany Medical Center, and I have congregants who live over the border in New York state, so I feel multiple layers of connection to New York and New Yorkers. I also have beloveds who were sexually assaulted as children in the state of New York. For their sake, and for the sake of the (too many) others like them, I hope and pray that this legislation passes at long last.

I'm honored to stand with colleagues today (including my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, who recently wrote Why on earth are Orthodox Jews opposing the Child Victims Act?)  in support of the passage of the Child Victims Act.


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


On Avram and Sarai and #MeToo

This d'var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week's Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God's command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth -- or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I've always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, "You're beautiful, and if they think you're my wife they'll kill me and take you -- so pretend to be my sister instead." And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires "sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels." Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!"

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh's court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don't want this to be in our Torah -- our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women's rights and women's bodies and women's integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity's part, and arguably even on God's part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word "patriarchal" comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren't always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram's sake. We don't know; Torah doesn't say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don't do anything; I've never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don't walk alone. I don't go out at night. I don't park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don't wear certain clothes. I don't make eye contact with men...

Most of us don't even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don't want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That's the assumption when women's bodies are property.

Guess what: it's still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men's need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here's a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn't have a voice in this story: don't replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her. 

Don't say "but men get raped too." Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don't derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that. 

If you're sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone's not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no -- or "not right now" -- even if they say it through body language instead of words -- then don't do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else's body. 

Understand that men feeling entitled to women's bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, "but I don't do those things!" I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It's in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It's shaped the way I think about my own body, and there's a lot that I'm working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here's the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can't.

I wish this story weren't in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren't such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory -- seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited -- is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week's Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go. 

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

Posted with gratitude to my hevruta partner, who helped me think through this. Shabbat shalom to all.


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »