Community in our hands

ShowImageMoses' father-in-law said to him, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." (Exodus 18:17-18)

This week's Torah portion is named after Yitro, father-in-law to Moses. Yitro was not part of the Israelite community. Torah describes him as a "priest of Midian," an outsider. Maybe that's why he was able to take one look at what Moshe was doing and say, "Hold up, son, this isn't going to work."

Moshe was working himself to the bone, all day, every day, standing in judgment. He was the sole point of contact between the people and God: their spiritual leader, their judge, their administrator, their magistrate, everything. Yitro knew that wasn't a sustainable model. His solution was simple: share leadership.

He told Moshe to draw others into leadership and to empower them. This way the burden of caring for the community, and carrying the community, is shared. And it gives others the opportunity to step up and take some responsibility for the community, and in that way, the fabric of community is strengthened.

This is a basic leadership lesson, and it still resonates. The work of building community isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's a job that belongs to all of us. The work of building the Jewish future isn't the job only of those in leadership -- it's work that belongs to all of us.

Not only because "many hands make light work," though that is true. But because when we step up and take responsibility for building healthy community, the whole community gets stronger... and those who have stepped into holy service don't burn out, because others are willing to tend to the needs of the whole.

After this advice from Yitro, God tells Moses that the children of Israel are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Ex. 19:6) It's the same theme: holiness isn't just for priests (or rabbis) or public servants. All of us are supposed to strive to be holy. The whole community is instructed to be holy.

And then after that, the whole community hears the revelation at Sinai. Not just Moshe; not just the judges; not just the men; everyone. All of us are a "nation of priests and a holy people," and all of us received Torah at Sinai. Torah is our collective birthright, as the community is our collective responsibility.

What will we do this Shabbat to open our hearts to revelation?

And what will we do in the new week to take responsibility for co-creating, and caring for, the holy community we're called to be?

 

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

Image: Darius Gilmont.


To Know God

Hardened-Heart-300x275This week's Torah portion (Bo) begins like this:

God said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your children and your children's children how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them, in order that you may know that I am God." (Exodus 10:1)

I like the interpretation that Pharaoh hardened his own heart first, which means God just helped him along -- the spiritual equivalent of, "if you keep making that face, you'll get stuck that way." I can understand that as a spiritual teaching about how the choices we make about compassion (or lack thereof) shape who we are and who we become.

But this idea that God "made a mockery of the Egyptians" so that we would know God -- it's troubling, to say the least. It seems to treat the Egyptians as meaningless pawns in our journey of spiritual awakening. How can we redeem this verse?

Talking this over with one of my hevruta partners this week, here's where I arrived. Yes, Torah and the classical commentators show a distressing lack of concern for the Egyptian people who will suffer under Pharaoh's hardened heart. I can't magic that away. I can temper it by saying that this is a natural way for a traumatized people to react to abuse of power, and surely the children of Israel are traumatized at this point in their story.

And, I don't want to operate from a place of trauma. I reject the idea that the suffering of the Egyptians was fine because hey, it got us to a place of knowing God. And, I'm moved by the fact that Torah says that the whole point of this story is for us to know God.

We could even say: the whole point of our being alive is to know God. Maybe the G-word doesn't work for you. In that case, substitute something that does. The point of our being alive is to know love, or compassion, or justice, or meaning, or truth. The whole reason we're here is to connect with something greater than ourselves -- to "know God."

Maybe this means: to have deep spiritual encounters, to live in such a way that our hearts are open to the sacred. Maybe it means to know each other more deeply, because each of us is made in the divine image. Maybe it means to know creation more deeply, because when we delve into the natural world, we can (in the words of poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr.) "put out [our] hand and touch the face of God." Maybe we seek God through Torah study, or prayer, or environmentalism, or pursuing justice. One way or another, our purpose in this life is to connect with the sacred.

And that leads me to the spiritual practice I find in this week's parsha: approaching everything with that lens. It's the first lens in my spiritual direction toolkit: "Where is God in this?" If someone in a position of power has hardened their heart and they're making choices that harm me, how can I harness that experience to open myself to God? How can I choose to center justice and love and hope, even when others are acting unethically -- or especially then?

I love this as a spiritual practice. And... it's really important that it's a practice I'm choosing, not one that's imposed from outside. It's one thing for me to say that I want to respond to a hardened heart by opening to holy connection. It's another thing to say that anyone else has to respond to injustice in the same way. "Your boss mistreated you -- great, what an opportunity for you to know God more deeply!" Um... no. If I were to say that to someone who'd been mistreated, that would be rabbinic malpractice.

Here's the choice I think we each have: when we encounter injustice -- when someone hardens their heart and acts wrongly -- will we harden ours in return, or will we choose to soften and to make space for the ineffable? I'm not talking about softening to an abuser. I'm talking about making the choice to keep our hearts open to God even in the face of injustice and suffering.

Torah says the whole drama of the plagues and the Exodus happened so we would know God. This year, that says to me: whatever's unfolding in our lives -- on a personal scale, on a communal scale, on a national scale -- can be an opportunity to soften our hearts and to more deeply know God... if we choose to use it that way.

Finding God in whatever's unfolding won't erase injustice, but it can give us resilience in the face of injustice. It won't erase suffering, but it can give us hope in the face of suffering. And maybe that resilience and that hope will give us the capacity to create justice: for ourselves, and for everyone.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning. (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.) 


Vayechi: angels, memory, blessing

Golden_Haggadah_Jacob_Blessing_Ephraim_and_Manasseh-1This week's Torah portion, Vayechi, begins with Jacob on his deathbed. Joseph comes to him with his sons Ephraim and Menashe, and Jacob marvels: he hadn't expected to see Joseph again, and now here he is with Joseph and the next generation too! He blesses the boys with a verse (Genesis 48:16) that became part of the liturgy of the bedtime shema -- "May the angel who kept me from harm, bless the ones who come after," in Reb Irwin Keller's beautiful translation that we sang this morning.

The syntax of this verse is unclear. Rashi reads it in a literal, non-mystical sense. He thinks Jacob is talking about the angel whom God sent to wrestle with him at the banks of the Jabbok. But many translations capitalize Angel, because the way the sentence is phrased makes it seem as though Jacob is referring to God as an Angel, both a protector and a source of blessing. As Reb Irwin writes, "So he could mean a guardian angel, or he could mean God, or he could intend the ambiguity, knowing that angels are just a face of the Divine anyway."

Reading these verses this year, I couldn't help remembering last February when I took my son to Texas to say goodbye to my mother. I knew when we flew down that it would be our last time seeing her alive.

While we were there, she soaked up every moment she could with her youngest and final grandson. She managed to get out of bed once to sit with him while he ate dinner. I remember that she asked him about his favorite cartoon -- an anime called Pokémon, which was completely foreign to her, but he happily told her all kinds of details about the various Pokémon and their evolutions. And -- this is a story I told in my Yom Kippur sermon, Come... and Prepare to Go -- she came downstairs for that final Shabbat, and heard him sing the words of the kiddush over wine one last time.

My mom didn't use the language of "blessing" each other, and angels were not part of her Judaism. They were as foreign to her as Pokémon. But I think her presence with her generations that Shabbat was the blessing she was able to give us from her deathbed. She spent the last of her strength making it to her wheelchair to come downstairs for Shabbes dinner because celebrating Shabbat with her children and grandchild mattered to her. She showed us with her actions that family and Jewish tradition had been a blessing for her that she hoped would continue to be a blessing for us.

Her unveiling approaches in two weeks. I still think of her every week when I make challah, remembering that she tasted my homemade challah on that last Shabbes of her life and declared it good. And my son remembers her when we make kiddush on Friday nights, because he was proud of being able to sing those words where she could hear. In these ways she's still with us even though she's gone. Sometimes I imagine that she peeks in at our Shabbes table each week, like the two angels described in Talmud who seem able to say only one thing: "May next week be just like this one." Even on the weeks when we only spend a few minutes over candles and wine and challah, I like to imagine that she feels joy when she sees us carrying this tradition forward. 

Before he dies, Jacob reminds Joseph that he wants to be buried in the same place where his parents are buried. Joseph gets Pharaoh's permission to travel, and then Joseph carries Jacob's bones back to the Cave of Machpelah before returning to Egypt. 

Later in Torah, this carrying of bones will be recapitulated. Moshe will take Joseph's bones out of Egypt when the children of Israel depart. The word used in that verse (Exodus 13:19) is etzem, which means both bone and essence. I see a deep truth in these two parallel stories. No matter where our forebears are buried, we carry their essence with us. Like Joseph, and like Moshe, we carry our forebears with us. Sometimes their physical features reverberate through the generations. Sometimes their traumas, their memories, and their stories live on in us. And that's true whether or not those whom we remember were good to us, whether or not they could be be the parents or grandparents we needed them to be. We carry both the bitter and the sweet. 

May the memories of those whom we carry -- in our minds and hearts, and sometimes also in our DNA -- be the blessing that we need in our lives. May they inspire us to live up to our best selves. May they help us shed any baggage, any hurts, so we can grow beyond them and not transmit them further. May we experience their memories as a blessing for us... so that we can transmit that blessing in turn to those who come after, our children and the children of our children. Or in the rabbinic reinterpretation, our students and their students and the students of our students. So that all of us can experience ourselves as part of a chain of generations and a chain of blessing, watched-over by that same angel (or Angel) whom Jacob evoked so long ago.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbes morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image from the Golden Haggadah.

 


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.)

 


Vayetzei: the earth in our hands

Earth-in-our-hands5Jacob left Beersheba, and set out for Haran. He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And Adonai was standing beside him and He said, “I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. (Genesis 28:10-13)

These are the opening verses of this week's parsha, Vayetzei. Jacob dreams of a stairway rooted in the earth and reaching the very heavens, with angels going up and down. And when he wakes, he exclaims, "God was in this place, and I -- I did not know!" What an amazing story of spiritual awakening. And this isn't just something that happened to "him" back "then" -- it also happens to us now. We fall spiritually asleep, and then something wakes us into wonder.

This has long been one of my favorite stories in Torah. This year, though, I'm reading it through new eyes -- thanks to our speaker on Wednesday night.

Rabbi Ellen Bernstein is the founder of Shomrei Adamah ("Keepers of the Earth"), the very first Jewish environmental organization, which came into being 30 years ago. She came to CBI to speak about her new haggadah, The Promise of the Land,  which offers an earth-centered and environmentally-focused path through the Passover seder.

And one of the first things she said blew my mind. The Hebrew word aretz -- land, earth, ground -- appears 2000 times in the Hebrew scriptures. Often, when we think of "land" in Torah and Jewish tradition, we think of one specific land -- Israel. But what happens if we broaden our sense of aretz to mean all land -- every land -- in other words, the whole earth?

Torah has clear instructions for how we're supposed to treat the land. Torah tells us to care for the land in specific ways, and to behave ethically in specific ways, lest the land spit us out. Seen through the lens of a specific piece of land, those teachings are instructions about how to care for that land, and how to treat each other in that land, lest we become a stateless people again.

But if we read those verses as a teaching about not just that land, but all land -- the whole earth on which we live, the planet that is not only "my land" or "your land" but everyone's land -- and in fact is truly God's land, lent to us only as long as we can care for it responsibly...? Then Torah feels unspeakably prescient. We need to do right by the earth, or the earth will spit us out. 

Treat the land with respect. Don't pillage the land. Give back to the land, let the land rest, don't suck all the resources out of the land. Treat the land properly. Treat each other properly and ethically. Don't poison and pollute our community life or our home. Because if we do, the land will spit us out -- the earth will become uninhabitable. Is this sounding familiar?

Granted, Torah doesn't say the planet will warm beyond repair, the ice caps will melt, the seas will rise, the farming systems will fail. Torah doesn't speak in scientific terms. Torah uses the language of ethics and morality, the language of poem and story. Torah just says, "do what's right, or the earth will spit you out." But any newspaper today can give us the horrifying details.

In this week's parsha, Jacob dreams of a ladder rooted in the earth ascending all the way to the heavens, with angels going up and down. And in Jacob's dream, God is right there with him. God says: the ground on which you are lying is yours to care for.  Or as Rabbi Bernstein teaches, this entire earth is yours to care for, you and your generations. This planet is in your hands.

Later in his story, Jacob, "the Heel," will gain the new name Yisrael. We are his spiritual descendants, the children of Israel. Like our ancestor, we're spiritually asleep a lot of the time. This week's parsha invites us to wake into wonder. To see the holiness of this place. To recognize that "we've got the whole earth / in our hands" and that it's our job to protect it and give back to it.

In early 2020, we'll be forming the CBI Green Team: a group of congregants, clergy, and staff committed to mitigating the effects of climate change and making climate justice and preservation of the earth core values of our community. The earth is in our hands. Let's wake up to God's presence in every holy place, and together take care of this earth, our irreplaceable home.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI on Shabbat, offered with gratitude to Rabbi Ellen Bernstein for her teaching and her wisdom. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Constancy and change - a d'varling for Chayyei Sarah

De57530a4e6fe4f8bb17499c29cdf65dThis week's Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, is bookended with funerals. Sarah dies and is buried; then Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, and Eliezer brings Rebecca back for Isaac; and then Abraham dies and is buried. This moment in our ancestral story is about generational change. It's about the first patriarch and matriarch being laid to rest, and the next generation picking up the mantle and carrying on our people's story.

Torah doesn't say anything about how Sarah felt at the end of her life, but Abraham was "old and contented." I like to think that he was contented because he saw that the next generation was ready to take ownership of the Jewish story. Every generation inherits stories and practices and values from those that came before. And every generation chooses what to lift up and what to let go, out of all of the things they inherit from their forebears.

The Judaism we practice now is not the same as what Abraham and Sarah knew. Honestly it's not the same as what our ancestors knew even a few centuries ago! Our ancestors might be startled to see a female rabbi on the bimah. Or a synagogue where people of all genders sit and pray together. Or a guitar in my hands.

And yet our Judaism is still rooted in the Judaism that our ancestors practiced, the Judaism that our Torah forebears began. We live our Jewish values as our Torah ancestors did: making our "tent" open and welcoming to all, like Abraham. Speaking directly to God, like Rebecca. Dreaming big dreams, like Joseph, even when life takes us into tough places.

It's natural for one generation to give way to the next. And it's natural for Judaism to evolve and grow as we human beings evolve and grow. Every generation has the sacred responsibility, and the joyous opportunity, of keeping our Jewish story alive. Every generation has the sacred responsibility, and the joyous opportunity, of building anew on the foundations laid by those who came before us.

I can't wait to see the Judaism that my son will practice as he grows up -- how it's just like mine, and also how it becomes his own and is different from mine. The Judaism we're building now at CBI is rooted in what came before, and it also needs to be our own, reflecting today's values in balance with the ancient values of gratitude and welcome and seeing each other through generous eyes. This interplay of constancy and change is core to what Judaism is, what Judaism has always been.

I love the fact that this week as we elected new directors and officers to take the helm of CBI, we're reading in Torah about generational change. The page turns and it's time for new figures to take center stage and carry our story forward -- in Torah, and in the lived Torah of our human experience.

May our new directors and officers be blessed with Abraham's spirit of inclusion, with Sarah's capacity for laughter, with Isaac's willingness to tread new ground, with Rebecca's willingness to ask big questions. And may we all be blessed with a Shabbat of wholeness and peace, so that when we make havdalah tomorrow night, we're restored and rejuvenated and ready to continue co-creating this community and writing the next chapter of our people's story, together.

 

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


A first visit to Cuba 9: Coming home

This is the final part of a nine-part essay about my first trip to Cuba. 

 

 

9. Coming home

What can I bring home to my own Jewish community from Cuba?

I want to bring home an awareness of how lucky I am to live as I do -- and how that good fortune makes me responsible to do what I can to lift up those who are in need. I know it won't be long before I settle back into "regular life," and the incredible abundance of my life will cease to be a shock to the system. I hope I will be able to wake myself into remembering again.

I want to bring home an awareness of what I don't have -- what I've seen here among the Cuban Jewish community that is more precious than my pleasant first-world standard of living. The connection to family. The connection to place. The preciousness of connection with Jewish tradition and spiritual life -- especially in a place where one can't take Jewishness for granted.

I want to bring home (and share with my community) a sense that we are truly part of clal Yisrael, the broader Jewish community. This community of tradition and spiritual life connects us across time and space. Talmud teaches (Shavuot 39a) that all of Israel is responsible for one another. We are family with the Jews of Cuba. We are responsible for them and to them

Of course I don't just feel responsible for or to my fellow Jews. I also feel an obligation to help human beings everywhere who are in need. That tension between particularism and universalism is woven throughout Jewish tradition. The obligation to care for "our own" and the obligation of tikkun olam, repairing the whole world's brokenness, both are core Jewish obligations. 

What responsibility do I have to people in other nations whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? For that matter, what responsibility do I have to people in my own nation whose lives are shaped by the policies my government enacts? As someone who lives in relative comfort, what responsibility do I have to those who don't? I'm bringing home these questions.

And experiencing Jewish Cuba has shown me Judaism's beauty in new ways, and I want to bring that home too. I've loved seeing how Judaism in Cuba brings light to people's eyes and joy to people's hearts. I've loved difference and common ground. I've loved seeing my familiar tradition -- words, ideas, practices -- translated into a different idiom, literally and metaphorically. 

And especially in the provinces, I've been moved to encounter tiny communities that celebrate their Jewishness week after week with joy. My small Massachusetts town is different from Cuba in almost every way. But we can be inspired by our cousins in Cuba and the Jewishness they keep (and that keeps them) vibrant and spiritually alive. Their existence enlivens our Judaism too.

I hope to someday return to Jewish Cuba, and to bring more members of my community to Cuba with me next time. So that they too can have their hearts and their sense of Jewishness expanded by this complicated, intense, heartbreaking, beautiful place -- and by the Cuban people, whose generosity of spirit humbles me, and whose light continues to shine.

 

I'll make one more post tomorrow, containing the whole essay all in one fell swoop for those who want to read it all in one place. If you're interested, you can also see more of my Cuba photos on Flickr.

Any errors in this essay are my own. Offered with infinite gratitude to the Cuba America Jewish Mission, Congregation Beth Israel of North Adams, Temple Beth El of City Island, and most of all, the Jews of Cuba who shared with us their stories, their communities, and their hearts.


A first visit to Cuba 8: Miracles in Camagüey

This essay will be posted in nine parts. Once it's all online, I'll also share it as a whole essay for those who prefer to read it in one sitting. This is part eight.

 

8. Miracles in Camagüey

Our final stop is Camagüey, where we admire Spanish colonial architecture and beautiful narrow streets (which we tour via "bicitaxi.") It is our last full day in Cuba and I can feel my gears grinding. I am overstimulated, my mind racing with images and questions. I want to spend a few years studying political economy so that I can better understand what I've just begun to see.

And then we reach Tifereth Israel, the Jewish community of Camagüey. They meet in an old house: a little sanctuary, and a social hall, and a room for feasting, and an arbor in the back where pomegranates grow. From the moment we walk in, the joy is palpable. Dra. Sara Bedoya Pulin, the president, welcomes us warmly. There are 32 people in the Jewish community here.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves. And then we sing. Two of us have guitars and one has a ukelele and we all sing niggunim (wordless melodies) and songs together. "Hevenu Shalom Aleichem." "Am Yisrael Chai." Welcoming the stranger. Asserting that the Jewish people yet lives. Old familiar words, but they take on a spine-tingling resonance here.

We ask the Cubans what they sing when they are feeling grateful, and they lead us in a shehecheyanu. There is dancing. There is beaming. The little girl beside me is shy at first, and then -- when I give her a "You Are Beautiful" sticker and translate it for her ("tu eres bella"), she smiles at me and no longer seems afraid. I experience a feeling of welcome from their hearts to ours.

And then the rabbis walk into the sanctuary. Their aron kodesh (holy ark, the cabinet in which Torahs are stored) is painted with letters of the alef-bet flying upward. Evoking the mystical teaching that the world is made out of holy speech, and the Hasidic story about the humble person who recites the alef-bet and the letters fly up to heaven where God assembles them into prayer.

It is dazzlingly beautiful to me. We walk up to look at the ark, and I feel a spiritual energy that I can't quite describe or explain. On the amud, the Torah reading table, is a prayerbook open to the words we were just singing in the other room: Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel live. This Godwrestling people yet lives. What a miracle it is that we are here and alive. What a miracle.

We have brought pharmacy supplies, and they have prepared a feast for us. Someone made the long drive to the ocean to get us fresh red snapper. And there is yuca, and rice, and papaya, and pineapple, and cucumbers, and avocado. We sit at a long table, and those of us who barely share a language communicate in smiles and broken phrases and pressing our hands to our hearts.

Down at the other end of the table, Rabbi David who is fluent in Spanish is asking a young man what makes him stay here. His answer: sure, he could go anywhere in the world. But he would lose his connection with his family. And the closeness of the Cuban family and community is precious. It is worth more than the money he could earn if he were to decide to leave.

 

Stay tuned for part nine of this essay, coming tomorrow.


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

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

Here's a taste:

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

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

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


Pursuing justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean for us to pursue justice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here's my prayer today:

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

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

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

Kein yehi ratzon.

 

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


Plant a tree: on action, and compassion, and bringing repair

Plant-a-tree

Reading this week's Torah portion, Eikev, the verses that leapt out at me were Deuteronomy 8:3-4:

"God subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your fathers had ever known, in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that God decrees. The clothes upon you did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years."

Reading these verses, I thought two things:

One -- what an extraordinary teaching about trust. Moshe is reminding the children of Israel that during their forty years' wandering in the wilderness, God gave them everything they needed. God gave them something entirely unprecedented and new, this foodstuff called manna. And God kept their clothes from going threadbare, and kept their feet nimble and comfortable. This is a teaching about trusting that if we are open, the universe will give us what we need.

And two -- holy wow, I wish we had access to that right now.

This has been an extraordinarily difficult week to pay attention to the news. There's talk of detaining refugee and migrant children indefinitely. The Amazon rainforest, the "lungs of the earth," is literally on fire -- and not because of an accident, but because people are intentionally clear-cutting forest and burning the stumps to make room for more profitable cattle-grazing land, even though without that rainforest our planet may not survive.

God, we could really use some manna. And we could really use a miraculous rainstorm to put out the Amazon's fires. And we could really use a boost in humanity's capacity for compassion. Our compassion and our readiness to act need to not wear out, the way our spiritual ancestors' shoes didn't wear out. On the contrary, we need for our compassion and our readiness to act to be strengthened, because the needs of the world are so great, and it looks like they're only going to get greater.

I poured out my heart to God asking for those things, and here's the answer that came to me:

Manna isn't on offer these days. And God doesn't send floods to save us from our own avarice. That's not how God works in the world. God works in the world through us. As we sang earlier tonight, "Ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices." 

We have tools at our disposal to help us cultivate and strengthen our compassion, our love for the other, our willingness to extend ourselves to the migrant and the refugee, our readiness to care for the holy temple we call planet Earth. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual practices designed for exactly that purpose. Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah are spiritual technologies designed to refine our souls and boost our readiness to do what's right.

Prayer and meditation and tzedakah and teshuvah can help us respond ethically to the current administration's attacks on the Flores settlement that protects the rights of refugee children. And to the burning of the rainforests and the greed that fuels those choices. And to every need there is. These are our tradition's core spiritual technologies: are we using them?

In just over five weeks, we'll come together for Rosh Hashanah and we'll hear the majestic words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. (I've written about that prayer before.) We'll remind ourselves that we never know, in the year to come, who will die by fire and who by water. And we will affirm that tefilah, and teshuvah, and tzedakah, avert the severity of the divine decree.

Tefilah: prayer, meditation, spiritual practice writ large. Teshuvah: repentance, atonement, turning ourselves around. And tzedakah: righteous giving, giving to the other in a way motivated not by "charity" but by our core sense of justice. That's how we mitigate whatever comes our way. That's how we take care of each other. That's how we take care of our world.

Prayer and repentance and tzedakah can't necessarily change what is. (Though sometimes they can. And if you have a few dollars to spare, donate to a worthy cause at havdalah, and #bealight to make the world a better place.) But tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change what we do about what is. We can "believe in God" or we can choose not to believe, but either way, Jewish tradition demands that we do what's right. Jewish tradition demands that we act. Prayer and teshuvah can strengthen us to act.

We're entering into Shabbes-time: the one day each week when we get to set the cares of the world aside. Let our worries and our griefs run off our shoulders. And when the new week begins, it'll be on us to do what we can to build a better world. Even if we know we can't do enough. The only unacceptable choice is despair and inaction.

In the rabbinic text known as Avot de Rabbi Natan (page 31b), we read,

If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, 'Come quickly, the messiah is here!', first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.

If you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is healed, the traumas of the world as we've known it are over, there's no more war or bloodshed or hurt -- plant the sapling before you celebrate. And I think this also means: if you're holding a sapling and you hear that everything is destroyed, that the world is burning and cannot be redeemed -- plant the sapling before you mourn. No matter what, plant the sapling. Plant the seeds of hope. Engage in an act of compassion. That's what it is to be a Jew.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


New on Builders Blog: building lessons from D'varim

I had the profound pleasure of coauthoring this week's Builders Blog post with my friend and colleague Rabbi Bella Bogart. In studying this week's Torah portion together, we discerned some important building lessons. And we also discovered that when we were rabbinic students, we had parallel but opposite conversations with mentors, who taught us -- by example both positive and negative -- an important lesson about how to relate to those whom we serve.

Here's a taste:

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...First and foremost, Moshe speaks to everyone. (Deut. 1:1) Moshe wants to be sure that no one has reason later to complain that they weren’t there, or they didn’t hear it, or he wasn’t talking to them. No one’s left out or ignored, neither individuals nor groups. This is the first building lesson we find in this parsha: Moshe doesn’t speak about people behind their backs. He doesn’t triangulate. He doesn’t discuss any of the community without all of the community present...

(Sketchnote by the marvelous Steve Silbert, as always.) Read the whole post at Builders Blog: Building lessons from D'varim

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


All our vows: on making promises, seeking justice, and taking refuge

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This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, opens with instructions concerning vows. Torah's not just talking about little promises; it's talking about swearing, as in "I swear to God" -- or "I swear by God." Torah takes oaths like these very seriously. So does Jewish tradition writ large. In Hebrew, they're most often called nedarim and shavuot. If those words don't ring a bell, try hearing them this way: "Kol nidre, v'esarei, v'charamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei, u-shavuot..." I don't know about you, but when I sing the first line of Kol Nidre I quake in my sandals. I feel like: oh God it can't possibly be time for that yet.

I'm not ready to face the end of summer. (Can't we have another month of July before we move on to August?) I'm not ready to face the Days of Awe and all that they ask of me, not just as a rabbi but as a human being. I'm not ready to face everything I need to repair in my life or in the world. I'm not ready to face the ways in which I've inevitably fallen short. Well: ready or not, here it comes. Tisha b'Av is next weekend, and that spiritual low point places us firmly on the onramp to the Days of Awe. This week's verses about vows and oaths come eight weeks before the new year. The time for taking stock is on its way.

So I read this week's Torah portion, which opens with verses about making vows. And then I turned to the Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master Yehuda Lieb Alter of Ger, whose writings I'm studying this year with my Bayit hevre. The Sfat Emet cites the prophet Jeremiah, "You shall swear by the living God in truth, in justice, and in righteousness." And then he explains that these three qualities of truth, justice, and righteousness map to the three ways we are instructed (in Torah / in the V'ahavta) to love God: "with all [our] hearts, with all [our] souls, and with all [our] being." 

The Sfat Emet looks at these two triplets -- truth / justice / righteousness, and hearts / souls / being -- and connects them. He links "truth" with our souls, the life-force that animates us. He links "justice" with our hearts, because the heart needs justice in order to incline in the right way. He links "righteousness" with our very being, as though to remind us that we're called to embody righteousness in all that we are. And then he says that in order to truly receive words of Torah, we need to seek to heal or restore our whole selves, body and soul. I want to unpack that a little bit, because there's something beautiful here.

When the Sfat Emet talks about receiving Torah, he's talking about something beyond just hearing or reading the words of our sacred text. L'kabel, "to receive," isn't passive. It's a whole-self spiritual practice of receptivity to the flow of blessing and wisdom from on high. (It's the root of the word "kabbalah.") He's talking about taking the words into ourselves, taking them on, taking them in, being transformed by them. So that when we say the shema, we're not just singing a nice song: we're experiencing fundamental oneness. So that when we say the v'ahavta, we're embodying love with all that we are.

And in order to do that, we need restoration of our whole selves. We need to do the inner work of repairing our relationships with body and soul, with the physical world and the spiritual world. And we need to pursue not only inner repair, but outer repair: truth, and justice, and righteousness, those qualities that Jeremiah cites. Because inner repair without outer repair is at best insufficient, and at worst deeply damaging. If we use navel-gazing as an excuse to shirk our responsibility to heal the broken world, that's spiritual bypassing -- using the trappings of spiritual life in order to avoid facing what hurts.

So far, so good. But then the Sfat Emet says something that really surprised me. He says it's okay to take an oath to fulfill the mitzvot, because making a promise out loud can help us live up to who we aspire to be. Our tradition regards oaths as serious business, not something to be entered-into lightly. The classical tradition frowns on them altogether! And yet, I know that making a promise aloud can change me. If I say to my child, "I promise I will do everything I can to take care of you," those words express an inner truth and they strengthen my commitment to that truth, because I've spoken it aloud.

What kind of commitment are we willing to make to the mitzvot? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to spiritual practice and the inner work of teshuvah, turning and re-aligning ourselves with God? And -- because inner repair without outer repair is flawed at best -- what kind of commitment are we willing to make to feeding the hungry, protecting the powerless, welcoming the stranger? What kind of commitment are we willing to make to truth, justice, and righteousness? What would our lives look like if we took those commitments seriously, receiving and embodying them in all that we are?

Making commitments is risky. We might fail to live up to them. (Which is why the classical rabbinic tradition frowns on making vows in the first place.) But I've got a secret for you. Yom Kippur is coming, and when it gets here, we're all going to discover that we've fallen down on our promises. Because we're human, and we always do. We're bound to fail sometimes. I don't think that's a good reason to not even try. Yes, making commitments is risky. But a life without those commitments -- without even trying to live by standards of love and justice, truth and righteousness -- would be worse.

And this is where I want to bring in another Hasidic rebbe, the Slonimer, on a passage from the end of this week's portion. He's writing about the establishment of cities of refuge where those who committed manslaughter could be safe from retribution. He goes into some detail about the cities of refuge, and about the spiritual implications of having done something terribly wrong. And then he says that in our day we can take refuge in faith, and in community, and in the shema, and in Shabbat which is the source of holiness and the time each week when we can rekindle our God-connection.

Community is always available to us, if we choose to seek it, and in community we can be inspired to be our best selves even if we know we've fallen short. The shema is always available to us, and we can pray it every day. Shabbat is available to us every week. Even if we've done something wrong, even if we've broken our vows, even if we've fallen down on the job of being the people we want to be, we can take refuge in community and in spiritual practice and in Shabbat. And then when the new week begins, we can try again to live up to all our vows, and to be the people we know we are called to be.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). I share it here with gratitude to all of my hevruta learning-partners, and with gratitude to (and for) the spiritual practice of study.

 


From Tents to Dwellings - at Builders Blog

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Parashat Balak introduces us to two non-Jewish figures: the titular Balak, a Moabite king, and the prophet Balaam. Balak, seeing the children of Israel encamped in his territory, becomes fearful that these strangers will overrun his country. (Echoes of Pharaoh, who said the same thing.) So he asks Balaam to curse them. Intriguingly, Balaam says he can do only what God tells him to. And he clearly has a working relationship with the Holy One; “God comes to him” (Numbers 22:9) and speaks to him. That’s the first building lesson I find here: Torah transcends its own triumphalism to remind us that we’re not the only ones in relationship with the Holy. 

Balak pesters Balaam until finally he heads to Moab. When an angel bars his way, he doesn’t see the angel — but his donkey does, and the donkey balks. In a comedic moment, when Balaam beats the donkey, God opens the donkey’s mouth (Numbers 22:28) to talk back! And then God opens Balaam’s eyes to the angel who’s been placed in his path to be an adversary for him, and the angel reminds him that he can only prophesy as God instructs. Second building lesson: when others stand in opposition, we can use that to help us refocus on our own core principles, in this case Balaam’s commitment to speak only the words God gives him to say.

Balaam ascends to a mountaintop and offers not curses, but blessings. Balak is predictably angry, but tells him to try cursing again. Three times, in three locations, he opens his mouth — and every time, he speaks blessings, not curses. The third time, he sees the children of Israel encamped tribe by tribe (Numbers 24:2). Rashi, writing on this verse, cites Talmud’s interpretation that what Balaam saw was the placement of their tents, set up such that people couldn’t look into one another’s dwellings. (Bava Batra 60a). In other words: each household was guaranteed privacy. The community was set up in a way that ensured healthy boundaries...

That's the opening of my latest post for Bayit's Builders Blog (with sketchnote, as always, by Steve Silbert). Read the whole thing here: From Tents to Dwellings

(And if you haven't yet subscribed to Builders Blog, I hope you will do so -- this year we're publishing a series of voices uplifting building lessons from the weekly parsha, and we also share holiday resources and posts about innovation in Jewish life. You can subscribe via the "follow this blog by email" link in the sidebar on the blog page, and you can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you're so inclined.)


Water from the living well

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Water from a well.

 

I sat down to write about the episode in this week's Torah portion, Chukat, where Miriam dies and the people have no water. And I kept thinking about the people who've been arrested for the supposed "crime" of giving water to save the lives of migrants and refugees at our nation's southern border -- and the camps along that border where human beings are held in horrific conditions. The world is so very broken. In the face of that, pretty words about Torah and water seem... insignificant.

Many of you have said to me lately that it's hard to sleep, it's hard to breathe, that you feel assaulted on all sides by the constant furor of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant drumbeats of the atrocities being committed seemingly everywhere we look. Me, too. So I struggled to find words to share with you today. It felt almost inappropriate, like a sign of a profound and terrible kind of privilege, to focus on Torah while the world is burning down, while our nation is in disarray, while people are being harmed.

And then I sat down with my Bayit hevre (as I do every week) to study commentaries on this week's Torah portion. This year we're studying the commentary of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. We agreed when we founded that organization that we wanted to meet regularly not only for work and for board meetings, but also for Torah study lishma, for its own sake. Learning for the sake of the sweetness of learning, strengthening our connections with Torah and with each other.

In one of the commentaries we read this week from the Sfat Emet, I found a teaching that gave me a different way to look at Shabbat and Torah study and why we need them even (or especially) when the world is broken. The Sfat Emet references the well that tradition says followed Miriam in the wilderness, providing water for the children of Israel. Talmud (Pesachim 54a) says it was one of the ten things created on the eve of the first Shabbat of creation, held in reserve until it was needed.

After mentioning Miriam's well, the Sfat Emet quotes Proverbs 5:15: "Drink water from your cistern, and flowing water from your well." There are two ways to get water: from a cistern, and from a well. A cistern holds "gathered waters" -- it's a tank, a water tower, a bucket on a roof. But eventually, a cistern will run dry. A well, on the other hand, is "joined directly to the source of an ever-flowing spring." A well is a symbol of intimate connection, in its root, to a source that will never run out.

This, says the Sfat Emet, is the difference between weekday and Shabbat. On weekdays we drink from a cistern. We measure out some of our saved water, and it renews us -- in the ways that it is able. But we know that the water in a cistern will eventually turn brackish and run dry. We know that our resources are limited. We always know, in the back of our minds, that there might not be enough. But on Shabbat, "the inner wellsprings are opened." On Shabbat, we get to drink from the well, from the source.

He's no longer talking just about the difference between water from a jug and water from a working faucet. He's talking about the difference between measuring out a little bit of our limited spiritual resources each day, and basking in the complete spiritual plenitude that Shabbat offers. Weekdays are a time of limited resources: we all know how that feels. There's so much that's broken. There isn't enough of me to go around. Shabbat is qualitatively different. Shabbat herself is the ever-flowing spring.

"Wellspring" and "Source" are two of our tradition's names for God. On Shabbat, we can open our hearts and souls to the flow that comes from the living well, from the living waters of Torah, from the living waters of divinity itself. That's how we renew ourselves for the week to come. That's how we refill our cisterns so we'll have water to drink, strength to go on, sustenance for the work at hand. In the Sfat Emet's metaphor, Shabbat is the one day of the week when water flows directly from God, for us.

Yes, immersing in words of Torah can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. Immersing in Shabbat practices can seem a luxury when the world is on fire. I get that. I feel it too. And... I think the Sfat Emet would say that when the world is on fire, we need our sources of replenishment even more. Each week we get to shift between the cistern and the living well -- if we chose to. Or we could just stick with the cistern, live in weekday consciousness 365 days a year... but I'm pretty sure we'll run dry.

Today the inner wellsprings are opened: will we cease from working and doing and worrying and checking Twitter and watching the world burn in order to drink from them? I know it can feel almost irresponsible to do so. But I believe it's irresponsible not to. We need this day of spiritual respite to refill our cisterns -- so that when we make havdalah tonight, we can choose to #bealight and begin the new week with a conscious act toward building a world of greater justice, righteousness, and love.

So today as Shabbat continues, take a break. Study some Torah. Sing a song. Dip in a swimming pool. Take a Shabbes schluff, a holy Shabbat nap. Live in the "as-if," as-if the world were already redeemed, as-if all of the suffering that consumes us were lifted. Refill your cistern in every way you know how. Because when havdalah comes, the world will still be in desperate need of repair, and we'll need to be strong and replenished and renewed and refreshed in order to face the challenges of that repair.

Shabbat shalom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog). Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study group.


Boundaries and forgiveness

Barricade-barrier-border-48246In this week's Torah portion, Shlach-Lecha, we find the story of the scouts. Maybe you remember it. Here's the thumbnail sketch: Moshe sends twelve scouts to check out the Land of Promise. They come back bearing a giant bunch of grapes, so big they require two men to carry.

They agree that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. But ten of the men say that the inhabitants of the land were giants, and that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison. The people rebel, demanding to know why God would bring them into a land only in order to be slaughtered by its giant inhabitants. "If only we had stayed in Egypt," they wail. "Let's go back!"

And for a moment there, God is really angry. Moshe convinces God to calm down. And Torah says, ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך / vayomer Adonai salachti kidvarecha. "And God said, 'I pardon, as you have asked.'" And, God adds, none of you will make it into the Land of Promise. None of you are ready for freedom. Your outburst just now made that clear. So you won't be going.

I've written before about how Moshe, in the wilderness, seems like an overtired parent. This time it's God who seems to me like the exasperated parent. God and Moshe are the two-parent duo: when one of them gets angry, the other acts as the balance. Ultimately God is forgiving, and affirming love, even while drawing boundaries around what's appropriate and what's not.

We can quibble with God's parenting choices here -- was that a proportional response? -- but what God is doing here feels entirely familiar to me. Appropriate. Even necessary.

Drawing a boundary isn't a sign of lack of love. On the contrary: it can be precisely a sign of love, love for the other and love for oneself. It's precisely because I love my child that I set boundaries around appropriate behavior.

And if my child were to do something that goes counter to the rules and expectations of our household, I would hope to respond as God does here: I love you; I forgive you; and, here's the consequence for the poor choice that you made.

Earlier this week I had my second voice lesson, as I work on preparing for the Days of Awe. My voice teacher asked me what piece of music most intimidates me, and I said "Kol Nidre," whereupon she brightly said, "Great, let's start there!" So I've spent part of this week singing Kol Nidre.

And I couldn't help noticing, looking at my machzor -- my high holiday prayerbook -- that there's a line from this week's Torah portion immediately following Kol Nidre. ויומר ה׳ סלחתי כדברך are the words that are sung immediately after Kol Nidre.

These are the words our liturgy gives us, from God, in that tender moment of confronting our own failings. And they come from this week's parsha, from this moment in the unfolding of Torah's story. "And God said, I pardon, as you have asked."

The pardon still comes with a consequence. Sometimes a loving parent has to say, "I love you, and the answer is no." If a child does something wrong, and the parent doesn't draw a boundary, the child won't learn about consequences. But the consequences should come hand-in-hand with forgiveness and love.

Sometimes the answer we get -- from God, from each other, from the universe, from our lives -- is "you screwed up, so the answer is no." Mature spiritual life asks us to receive that answer when it comes, and to learn from it.

Ideally that doesn't mean self-flagellation. Ideally we remember that even when we've screwed up, we are loved. Ideally we remember that God forgives. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that someone we've wronged will forgive. Forgiveness from human beings isn't guaranteed. Apologizing and doing our inner work and making teshuvah and becoming better people is worth doing even so.)

Life comes with boundaries. We don't get to ignore the rules or what's ethical. We don't get to blithely make bad choices without consequence. But if we can hold on to the knowledge that love and boundaries are two sides of the divine coin -- that God balances chesed and gevurah, and so can we -- we can learn to take comfort both in the tochecha of being told where we've mis-stepped, and the sweetness of being reminded that we are loved.

 

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


Making Everyone Count at Builders Blog

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?” ...

That's the start of my latest d'var Torah for Builders Blog at Bayit: Building Jewish -- with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert:

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The post goes into questions of leadership and service, the story of Reb Zalman z"l and the rotating "rebbe chair" (and how that inspired Bayit's leadership structure), and implications for the Jewish future. Read the whole thing at Builders Blog: Making Everyone Count.

 


Walking in God's Paths, Everywhere We Go

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אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ וְאֶת־מִצְותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָֽם׃

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments,

וְנָתַתִּ֥י גִשְׁמֵיכֶ֖ם בְּעִתָּ֑ם וְנָתְנָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ יְבוּלָ֔הּ וְעֵ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה יִתֵּ֥ן פִּרְיֽוֹ׃

I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit...

These are the opening lines of this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then we will receive rains in their season. If we walk in God's paths and keep God's mitzvot, then kinds of blessing and abundance will flow. And if we don't listen, and we don't keep the mitzvot, then all kinds of curses will ensue. (Torah goes into some detail here.)

This is the kind of problematic theology that caused the early Reform movement to remove the second paragraph of the Shema from our siddurim. Because we all know that following mitzvot is not a guarantee of prosperity and blessing, and that scarcity and tragedy are not signs of someone's wickedness. We all know that bad things can happen to good people and vice versa.

But I want to look more closely at the parsha's opening words. "If you walk in My paths..."

The Hebrew word for "My paths," chukotai, shares a root with one of our words for mitzvot, chukim. That root means engraved or carved, which is why chukim is sometimes translated as engraved-mitzvot, or "commandments that engrave themselves on us." So "if you walk in My paths" can also be rendered as "if you walk in My pathways that engrave themselves on you."

My friend Rabbi Bella Bogart understands this verse to mean that if we walk in God's pathways and let those pathways engrave themselves on us, then we will necessarily follow the mitzvot, the connective-commandments. It's not that we walk in God's ways and follow mitzvot and then blessings come; it's that when we walk in God's ways, we can't help following the mitzvot.

And when we can't help following the mitzvot, we receive blessing, because we will experience blessing in whatever unfolds. If we walk in God's chukim, if we let God's chukim engrave themselves on us, then we will experience blessing no matter what happens in our lives. It's a matter of epistemology rather than ontology, how we feel rather than "what measurably is."

Every week I study the writings of the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet with my Bayit colleagues, and this week I was struck by a riff on this verse. The Sfat Emet cites a midrash about King David, that wherever he intended to go -- be it to somebody's house, or off to war -- his feet would carry him to the synagogue or the beit midrash, the house of study.

Now, on first blush this might look a little bit ridiculous. Because know that there were no synagogues or houses of study -- at least not as we now understand them -- in King David's day! It's as though the rabbis, who cherished the shul and the beit midrash, were trying to impose their own frame on a Biblical figure who didn't know what either of those things were.

But the Sfat Emet quotes our daily liturgy to argue that God's greatness and goodness fill the world. He says that God's "greatness" refers to the ten utterances with which Creation began, and God's "goodness" refers to the ten utterances we received at Sinai. To say, then, that "God's greatness and goodness fill the world" is to reference both creation and revelation.

And Rabbi Art Green notes, in his translators' notes, that there's an unspoken conclusion to the Sfat Emet's teaching. If the whole world is full of God's glory, then every place we go can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. King David, in this midrash, becomes our model for recognizing God's greatness and God's goodness wherever our paths may lead.

We can find God everywhere our paths take us. What a radically transformative idea that is. Every place we go -- to work, to the grocery store, running errands, karate class, dance rehearsals, you name it -- can become a place of holy encounter with Torah and with God. That's what it means to walk in God's engraved paths, and to let God's paths engrave themselves on us.

When we let God's paths engrave themselves on us, that changes how we experience the world around us. Then suddenly the gas station and the hardware store and our workplaces and our homes become the synagogue and the beit midrash, places of learning and places of prayer. Because we carry that lens of learning and prayer with us, wherever we go.

And when we carry learning and prayer with us wherever we go, then all the world is our beit midrash where we can marvel in awe and wonder at how much there is to learn -- in Richard Levy's words that we prayed this morning, "how much Torah unfolds from each new flower!" And all the world is our synagogue, where we can pour forth our hearts in prayer.

And that's how the blessings promised in this week's parsha come to pass. When we walk in God's engraved pathways, when we let God's engraved-pathways carve grooves of gratitude and wonder on our hearts, then all the world becomes our house of prayer and study, and everywhere we go becomes a place where we can encounter the Holy. Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Bayit study buddies, especially (this week) R' Bella and R' David!


The old new, and the new holy - a d'varling for Kabbalat Shabbat

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One of the verses in this week's Torah portion, Bechukotai, says that if we walk in God's ways and keep the mitzvot, we will find ourselves in a position where we need to clear out the old grain to make room for the new. (Lev. 26:10) I'll say more tomorrow morning about what it might mean to walk in God's ways. Tonight I want to stay with this one little half-verse about grain.

Rashi explains that this verse means that the old grain we've stored up will stay good and sweet and healthy. It won't turn rancid or go bad. Even years after its harvest, it will still be nourishing and delicious. And eventually we'll have to move it out of our granaries to make room for the new grain, because the prosperity and abundance are going to just keep flowing.

A whole bunch of other subsequent commentators follow in Rashi's footsteps. Everyone seems to agree: this verse means we'll have more grain than we need, and miraculously it will not rot, and we'll need to clear it out to make room for the new harvest.

Okay, so what? Most of us today are not farmers. We don't have granaries. But if we read this verse metaphorically, I think it offers a deep teaching about spiritual life. The first promise I think Torah is making to us is that old grain -- old traditions, old pathways, old teachings, old ideas -- will still nourish. Our ancient texts and traditions remain rich and full of sweetness.

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet notes, in his commentary on this week's Torah portion, that when we immerse ourselves in Torah we may only "get" 1/1000th of its meaning. And that's okay! What matters is that we're immersing. What matters is that we're learning, delving into the traditions and seeing how they shape us. They are old grain that still nourishes.

And the second promise I think Torah makes here is that the abundance of Jewish wisdom, the abundance in spiritual practice, the abundance that comes from tending our spiritual selves through learning, study, mitzvah, ritual, prayer, poetry, text and tradition -- that abundance doesn't stop. On the contrary, it keeps flowing. It is still flowing. It will always be flowing.

And sometimes we have to move the old ideas and teachings and practices to the side in order to make way for the new. Just as our priestly ancestors once moved the ashes off the altar so the eternal flame could continue burning, sometimes we need to let go of old interpretations or practices in order to make space for new ones that meet our spiritual needs in this hour.

Does this sound far-fetched? Am I stretching too far to find meaning in a verse that on its surface is about literal grain?

Rav Kook -- the first chief rabbi of what would become the State of Israel -- offered the teaching that "the old shall be made new, and the new shall be made holy." In Hebrew, הישן יתחדש והחדש יתקדש / ha-yashan yitchadesh v'ha-chadash yitkadesh. And that first word, ha-yashan, "the old" -- is the same word we find in this week's Torah portion, the word for old grain.

Rav Kook found in ancient teachings about storing and using old grain a powerful teaching about renewing modern spiritual life.  Old grain, old ideas, old practices will be made new. We can renew ancient spiritual practices and make them alive in our hearts and souls. We can (I would argue we must) turn to that old grain and find sustenance in it!

And we can also sanctify new ideas and teachings and practices. We can make the new holy. That's the work of spiritual practice writ large: making the old new, and the new holy. Turning to the "old grain" that's already in our granaries, while also trusting that the "new grain," the new ideas and teachings flowing now, are also a source of spiritual nourishment and plenty.

May this Shabbes nourish us with wisdom both ancient and modern. May we drink deep from the ancient well of sacred time and traditional practices, and also from the newly-flowing stream of new traditions and translations and ideas. And in so doing, may we nourish our hearts and souls so that we can return to the new week restored and renewed in all that we are.

 

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