The Story of Dinah is Still Our Story

Shabbat Va-Yishlach
December 1-2, 2017 – 14 Kislev 5778
Torah: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1-21

Now Dinah, Leah's daughter, whom she bore to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land.
And Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her: he took her and lay with her, forcing her.
But his emotions clung to Dinah, Jacob's daughter – he loved the girl, and he spoke to the heart of the girl.
So Shechem said to Hamor his father, saying: Take me this girl as a wife!
(Genesis 34:1-4)

In these days, at this time, our reading of the Torah turns us to “The Rape of Dinah”.

Whatever we want to say about this story, at the heart of it is the power that men arbitrarily assert over women and over other men.

This should be a story of our ancient past. It is in fact still a story of the immediate present.

We can say that the core teaching of Judaism comes from this verse: “A sojourner, you are not to oppress: you yourselves know the feelings of the sojourner, for sojourners were you in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

We empathetically understand the feelings of those who have been abused by power. Every day we must work ever more diligently to make sure that none feel that oppression.

Wishing everyone a wonderful week and a meaningful Shabbat,

Jonathan

Share our Stories, Heal the World

Shabbat Va-Yeira
November 3-4, 2017 – 15 Cheshvan 5778

Torah: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1-37

“Indeed, I have known him, in order that he may charge his descendants and his household after him: they shall keep the way of God, to do what is right and just, in order that God may bring upon Abraham what God spoke concerning him.”
(Genesis 18:19)

This pivotal weekly reading comes during another difficult week in our State of New York and our country.

As our hearts go out to our family, friends, and fellow New Yorkers in the wake of yet another act of violence against humanity, I continue to ask: How can I fulfill the promise of doing “what is right and just”?

Hatred and intolerance seem to swirl around us. Scratch the surface and our personal and communal insecurity can quickly turn to anger. I know that I must take my elevated heart rate, my visceral responses, and turn them into expressions of my experiences that others can hear without recoiling.

We must turn our concerns and our worries into stories that connect us to one another. Yesterday, a teacher of reconciliation, Terry Cross, shared this piece of Native American wisdom with the Racial Equity Roundtable: “The shortest distance between two people is a story”.

Our stories are filled with our strivings to do righteously and live justly. Let us figure out a way to share what we’ve lived so that others can view us as companions.

May your week and Shabbat be filled with stories that bring us together,

Jonathan

Give Away the Woes of the World

Kol Nidrei - 10 Tishrei 5778 - Friday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.

A fortuneteller was walking between town fairs. On the road he met an old man driving a noisy cart. The cart-driver stopped and said, “We seem to be heading in the same direction, rest your feet and join me on the wagon.”

The fortuneteller considered the caring eyes of the older man, and said, “Thank you! I have little to spare to pay you for your trouble, and I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity.”

With a smile the driver replied, “Maybe you have something to trade?”

“I can tell your fortune.”

After a pause and a deep look at the fortuneteller, the older man smiled again, and agreed, “Done. A fortune for a ride.”

The fortuneteller gazed deep into the light gray eyes of the stranger and was drawn in, seeing depths and mysteries - he saw no glimmer of the futures that normally came so easily to him.

“I see nothing, no fortune at all. I can’t accept your ride.”

“I have no fortune that you can see, good enough. Join me. You’ve earned your spot.”

They rode together. The hooves of the donkey keeping time with a sound that emerged from inside the wagon.

“That sound, what is it?” asked the fortune-teller.

The old man sighed, “The woes of the world, my friend.”

They made good time and reached the town’s fair. Setting up next to each other, the fortuneteller saw that the old man was a peddler of precious stones. White, pink, blue; brilliant and pale, polished to perfection. The old peddler kindly kissed each stone before placing it into a buyer’s hand.

The fortuneteller saw clearly. Through his clients’ eyes he sampled despair.

The peddler sold amethyst, “a regal stone”, to a mother for her newlywed daughter.

The fortuneteller looked into a young woman’s eyes and saw her heartbreak on the horizon.

The peddler sold fiery opals, “a stone of the heart,” to a young man for his first love.

The fortuneteller looked into a father’s eyes, and saw his loss around the corner.

The peddler sold topaz, a gift to lift a friend’s spirit.

The fortuneteller looked into a well-dressed woman’s eyes, and saw the betrayal before her.

“It’s been a good fair,” the peddler said as he packed his booth. “Let me give you a stone for my future. Perhaps you will see more this time.”

“Why should I see more this time than the last? Why should you lose a stone?”

“I cannot lose a stone. I can only give it away. Which will you take?”

The peddler spread quartz, sapphire, and topaz before the fortuneteller. It was a green tourmaline with striations of anguish that held the teller.

“It is yours,” the peddler said. He kissed the tourmaline and placed it in the fortuneteller’s hand. “Now, what is my fortune?”

The fortuneteller gazed into those kindly grey eyes, seeing depths, mystery, and beyond them only light. “I see no future, only the present,” was all he could say.

“Such a gift you have, to speak the truth. Well worth the stone. Shall we ride to the next fair?”

The teller wondered, “We seem to be going the same way, to the same places, and still I have never seen you.”

“We’ve been traveling different circles,” the peddler said. “My path now seems linked to yours.”

As they rode on, the peddler asked, “How long have you been traveling?”

“Two years now. Two years since my family died.”

The fortuneteller didn’t intend to say so much.

The noise from within the wagon was louder this time, and again the fortuneteller asked, “Such noise back there. What is it?”

“The woes of the world. How did you lose your family?”

In two years, he had never spoken of it.

“In a fire. I was a broker of land. We had a wonderful home. I traveled to close a deal. When I returned, my life was ablaze, my family trapped inside.”

The continued on in silence.

After the next fair, the noise from within the cart was louder than ever. “The woes of the world”, again explained the peddler, and asked, “How did you come to be a teller of fortunes from being a broker of land?”

“The loss of my family opened my eyes. Before I could see only happiness. At weddings I used to rejoice for the bride and the groom. Bur after the loss of my family, I saw not only the happiness, but also the pain and the sorrow. I saw one dying first and the broken heart of the other.

“It used to be when a child was born I would rejoice. But after the loss of my family, I saw the joy the child would give, but also the heartbreak.

“No longer could I see only happiness. I saw the other side as well, and what I saw was what would be. I saw the truth. So I went on the road to speak the truth. My friend, it’s easier to sell stones than to speak the truth. You get repeat customers, I do not.”

The peddler made a turn away from the next town.

“The fair is the other way,” the fortuneteller said.

“We have a stop to make first.”

The wagon climbed the hills into the night. Dark as it was, the peddler did not stop.

Where were they going?

“Here,” the peddler said, answering the unspoken question.

He stopped the wagon, lit a lantern, drew the cover back from the wagon bed. Within was machinery the likes of which the fortuneteller had never seen. A contraption turned by the power of the wagon wheels to do some work within a closed box. The peddler opened the box, removed polished stones, each glowing its unique color in the lantern light. He added them to his inventory, one at a time, each with a kiss and a thank you. “Thank you,” he said to the agate. “Thank you,” he said to the amethyst. “Thank you,” he said to the aquamarine.

When the box was empty, he handed the fortuneteller a shovel, and took a strainer for himself.

“What are we doing?” the fortuneteller asked.

“What is necessary,” the peddler said. He walked to the side of a hill, held out the strainer, and motioned to the fortuneteller. The teller drove his shovel into the side of the hill, the grating of metal against rock echoing into the distance. He struck again and again. Sand and earth sifted through the strainer leaving behind a pile of jagged rocks.

“What are these?” the fortuneteller asked.

“These are beryl and chalcedony, citrine and emerald, garnet and jade. All the precious stones of the world. All exist everywhere at all times if you just know where to look.”

“All I see is rocks.”

“You are a teller of fortunes,” the peddler said. “Look more closely and see again.”

The fortuneteller looked into the rocks and saw - buried within - moonstones. And opals. And turquoise. He saw the tumbling each would endure to allow its beauty to shine. He saw that some would shatter and never emerge, but others would be polished to perfection.

“A stone for my fortune,” the peddler said. In his hand was a shard of rock. The fortuneteller saw within it the stone it would become.

“Why should I be able to see a fortune where I never saw one before?”

“Because you’ve tumbled to this place,” the peddler answered. He kissed the stone, and placed it in the peddler’s hand.

Deep in the eyes of his friend, the fortuneteller looked into the light and saw a man, once in pain, a man who had lost his own family decades before. A man who ever after knew the truth and wandered from place to place until he encountered his own vendor of precious stones. He saw the eyes of a man who had risen from despair to beauty and hope.

“Yes, you see,” the peddler said. “I’ve been waiting for you quite some time. Quite some time. Thank you for receiving my stones. They and the wagon are now yours.” The peddler smiled as he surrendered his burden.

The fortuneteller saw his friend buckle at the knees. He reached for him, embraced him, kissed his cheek as his life expired.

The fortuneteller cried for his friend. He cried for his family. He cried for the woes of the world. He buried his friend by the side of the hill. He said Kaddish, for his friend, and then, at last, for his family.

The rough rocks he put into the box in the wagon bed. As he drove on he heard tumbling behind him all the woes of the world. Ahead was the fair and the customers waiting for polished stones, each stone to be given with a kiss and words of comfort.

This is a story inspired by one of my favorite teachers and mentors, Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz [from his book, The Curse of Blessings, “Polished Stones”, pp. 29-37]. I have taken his words, adapted them, rethought them, and tumbled them to make them my own. Mitch tells us to do this with all stories.

On Rosh ha-Shanah we make t’shuvah - we return and make amends.

On Yom Kippur we confess and atone.

The list of our transgressions is long, but we are more than what we have done, We are also our feelings about what we’ve done and what has been done to us.

We are people who have been rumbled and tumbled, sometimes not so kindly, by and through the world.

We focus so much on our guilt. And then our tragedy, anger, and resentment remain in our vision.

We are transgressors.

But we are also heroines and heroes, the protagonists in our stories. It is only natural for us to feel more as if we are wronged than the wrongdoer.

On this day of all days we are more than one thing.

And so are the woes of the world.

The entire world seems to spiral with suffering and misfortune, resentment and alienation. We see tragedies befalling people everywhere, divisions that erupt in our country and in our families, the deep hurts of understandable outcries, the simmering and pent-up resentments, offenses taken, blames assigned. More misfortune than anyone deserves, dragging us deeper each of us into our own isolated selves.

Can we climb out?

We see so clearly all the problems. Can we see the goodness too?

Everyone has suffering, how do we overcome the woes of the world?

We must remember that we are more than either wronged or wrong-doer. We repeat our confessions so many times to remind ourselves that no matter how wronged we feel, no matter how heroic we are, we are all together in doing good and doing wrong.

john a. powell, who writes about the roots of racism, wrote: “We must begin to work for a new set of arrangements that will support a new way of relating, a new way of being.” [Racing to Justice, pages 158-159]. In this he echoes the great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, who teaches that only by encountering every person as a fellow teacher, will we truly relate to one another. Both scholars are asking us to remember that we live in a world filled with main characters - each of us is deserving of being a hero in a story that we all share together.

Each of us must recognize that we are not alone in our troubles. That by remembering that we are all wrong-doer’s we can also encounter everyone else as fellow travelers. That by remembering what we can do, what we can give, instead of what can be taken from us, we empower ourselves and overcome our impotence and silent suffering.

Our sages give us a Jewish answer to suffering, to resentment, to the loneliness of a world filled with personal and communal hardship. This answer is simple and difficult: give.

Give until the world feels a little bit more like we hoped it would. Give until we feel a little bit more like the person we hope to be.

Everyone must give tzedakah - no one is too poor to fulfill the obligation of giving to others. We are taught that even the poorest person must still give something. We are taught that giving is for the giver.

When we focus on the action, the doing of something kind, the giving generously, we can begin to cope with the harshness that we cannot solve. Our response to unfairness, from bad fortune or the hurt we feel, instead of turning inward to blame, anger, and resentment, must be turn outward, foster kindness, create sympathy, connect with generosity.

Find something of value, share it with a fellow traveler.

We do not need to find forgiveness for people who have not apologized, and, we must not cope with all the woes of the world by trying to find someone to blame. These are both dead ends.

Easing the weight of trouble must be our goal, not just for other people, but for ourselves. We ease the burden, see past the trouble, when we give.

Giving is for the giver.

May our Yom Kippur be one where we find kindness within ourselves the most valuable thing we each have, in limitless supply, hiding in plain sight, and share it with one another, those in need, all of our fellow travelers.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may we be sealed for goodness in the Book of Life.

“We are called to live with chutzpah”

Rosh ha-Shanah Morning
1 Tishrei 5778 - Thursday, September 21, 2017
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

Shanah Tovah - a good, and God willing, better New Year for all of us.

Under normal circumstances I would never present something mostly from another source. These are not normal circumstances.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis crafted a united message for us to adapt and offer, to bring to our congregations in One Voice, as a Reform Movement and as Reform Rabbis. The events of the last year demand that we come together as American patriots for the sake of our American Union, and for the sake of the Jewish people.

Here is our “One Voice” message as American Reform Rabbis:

The Talmud teaches, “If you see wrongdoing by a member of your household and you do not protest – you are held accountable. And so it is in relation to the members of your city. And so it is in relation to the world.” As Jews we are held accountable in ever-widening circles of responsibility to rebuke transgressors within our homes, in our country, in our world. One bold medieval commentator taught we must voice hard truths even to those with great power, for “the whole people are punished for the sins of the king if they do not protest the king’s actions to him.”

Today I speak words of protest, joining hundreds of my Reform rabbinic colleagues across the nation in fulfillment of our sacred obligation. We will not be silent. We will, without hesitation, decry the moral abdication of our leaders, even when it may be our President, when they fuel hatred and division in our beloved country.

We, like the prophets before us, draw from the deepest wisdom of our tradition to deliver a stern warning against complacency and an impassioned call for action. We call on you to rise up and say in thousands of ways, every day, as proud Jews and proud Americans: “You cannot dehumanize, degrade and stigmatize whole categories of people in this nation. Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, woman, man and child is beloved of God and precious in the Holy One’s sight. We the people, all the people, are created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Divine. All people are worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of sounding the Shofar. Its piercing tones sound an alarm, express our fears, and especially in these times compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.

We sound the shofar with: T’kiah [a single shofar blast]

This is the Sound of Certainty.

As rabbis we are, from sea to shining sea, speaking to our congregations in every accent of America to declare in unison: we will not tolerate acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness. We stand upon the shoulders of the sages, poets, and rabbis in every generation who fought for freedom. We speak in memory of every Jew and in memory of all people who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. We call on our political leaders; conservatives and progressives alike, to rigorously uphold the values brilliantly articulated in the founding documents of our country, the “immortal declaration” that all [men] people are created equal. We call on every elected leader to responsibly represent our country’s history and advance its noble visions of tolerance.

We sound the Shofar with Sh’varim [3 separate shofar blasts].

This is the Sound of Brokenness.

Something crumbled inside us when we watched the televised images of Charlottesville’s beautiful streets filled with hate-spewing marchers. The wound reopened when anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, racist, and homophobic graffiti appeared again, and then again, on the grounds of two of our local elementary schools, Windermere and Maple East - even after we had thought such displays done with last fall.

How much more vandalism, how many clashes, which other cities? We must not accept or become inured to some warped version of “normal,” of racist and anti-Semitic acts or rallies popping in and out of breaking news cycles.

Let us never grow numb to the brokenness. Let our pain fuel our vows to respond – with peaceful protests and with public calls for healing, yes, and even more by building alliances and by speaking in unison with other minorities and faith communities. Neither silence nor complacency nor waiting anxiously and fearfully for the next wounding event are options.

Not for us.

Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, possessed a rare understanding of unfathomable brokenness. His memorable words sound a warning to us today, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

May we never be neutral, never silent in the face of threats or of discrimination toward any. Let us fulfill the call of our Psalm, let us strive to:

רֹפְאֵי לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב

“healers of the broken-hearted”

and

מְחַבֵּ֗שִׁים לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם

“binders of their wounds.”

[Psalm 147:3 הָ֭רֹפֵא לִשְׁב֣וּרֵי לֵ֑ב וּ֝מְחַבֵּ֗שׁ לְעַצְּבֹותָֽם]

We sound the shofar with T’ruah [9 short staccato blasts].

This is the Sound of Urgency.

The events of the last few months have been a wake-up call.

Racism is wrong whether or not it seeps into explicit anti-Semitism. The Talmud teaches that God created us all from the first Adam so that no human being could ever say, “my lineage is greater than yours.” But just in case we thought the white supremacists were after someone else, or that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with modern day Nazi sympathizers, those fiery torches illuminated another truth, and starkly remind us again: if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny,” whether we are the least powerful or the most powerful person in our world.

We sound the shofar with T’kiah G’dolah [a long single blast].

This is the sound for the Endless Pursuit of Justice.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof the Torah admonishes: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Our sacred text reminds us that for a community truly to inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and to unity, to fairness for everyone. Every community relies on passionate and engaged citizens; it relies on you to be insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens every citizen. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our city and in our country -- in this New Year, and in every year.

 

That was my adaptation of the statement from the CCAR. Not surprisingly, I have a few more things to say.

A few years ago, one of my students attempted to end an argument by saying “That’s just an opinion, not a fact.” He thought that would end any reasonable debate. The rest of the Seventh Grade class supported their peer and lectured me on their rock-solid assertion that there are only two options: “opinions and facts”.

Strange. These were Jewish students - how could any one of them think that merely calling out: “That’s an opinion!” would somehow defeat an argument?

The rest of the class then instructed me about the basic differences between “opinions” and “facts” and the clarification that everything seemed to fall into these two categories and they were quite sure of this because they had all successfully passed the tests on these topics as taught in their schools according to the National Common Core curriculum.

Googling “fact and opinion common core” leads to links and lesson plans, including a summary for Sixth Graders that talks about facts, which can be proven true, opinions, which as they are a person’s feelings or views, cannot be proven true, and reasoned judgments, which are a mix of the two. The students didn’t remember the bit about “reasoned judgments”. It is easier to retain the “either-or” proposition so they got opinion vs. fact, and left out the interesting middle of “reasoned judgments”.

I then asked the students about laws - were they facts of opinions? They thought about it, and then quickly agreed that, since they were made up by people, laws must be opinions.

“What about ‘Thou shall not murder’?” I asked.

This got them talking about the middle ground - the area between facts and opinions, and the students eagerly embraced a more complicated understanding of things.

The really interesting thing about all of this is the way the students forgot all about the alternative to the easier view - the “reasoned judgment” fell away in face of a convincing “fact vs. opinion” alternative.

Psychologically, we have an intuitive preference for an easy answer. If we can find an easier story to explain everything, that’s preferable to a more difficult explanation, even if the easy story ends up being inaccurate, or even wrong.

Our minds have an intuitive preference for easy solutions and will even come up with a false answer to avoid working on the longer, more complicated, question. I am beginning to believe that all of us, all of American society, have fallen into this way of thinking.

I think this may be one of the difficulties of the past year that inspired Reform rabbis to offer today’s message in One Voice.

Here’s a big part of it.

We start with the idea that anything I say is an opinion. If I say it, it’s my perspective, it’s an opinion. Notice how stuck we become here. As soon as I say it, somehow it is no longer a fact. It can be challenged as an opinion.

Even when we admit the middle ground, the reasoned judgement that those Seventh Graders had forgotten, there are still opinions in there. If there’s an opinion we can cast doubt on the whole thing. After all, it’s only an opinion, and everyone has one.

Everyone has an opinion, and there are no facts.

If there are no facts, then what happened to truth?

Think about this.

It is terrifying.

In some ways, this is worse than the big lie.

This undermines the very idea that we have common ground, that there is truth that we can all agree about. If nothing is true, then we can never even have a real conversation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” - Thomas Jefferson understood with these words that only when we agree on certain shared ideals can we then go ahead and discuss the details of how we will put them into place together.

In order to make progress, in order to work together, we have to agree to common ground. We must accept that there is some idea, some assumption, some basic framework that all of us can agree is true.

As Jews we will argue the very nature of truth. What we can often agree about is that when we say “true”, what we may really mean is “too important to ignore”. And that the start of the discussion, the very foundation of why we care about each other’s truths, is that we see each and every one of us as potential speakers of truth. The Talmud teaches that respectful disagreement is useful, even more than that, it is a holy cause, literally, “l’sheim Shamayim”, for the sake of Heaven.

It’s why I reacted so strongly to the idea that an argument could be defeated by calling it “just an opinion”. I am my opinions. The good ones, the well-thought out ones, the less-thought out impassioned wrong ones, all of them. My truth is in my opinions.

We have majority and minority opinions in Judaism, like the U. S. Supreme Court. We know how to share an opinion, argue an opinion, and give ground when a better idea comes along. This is what we have to offer our fellow Americans.

We American Jews have a mission - we must bring our respect for each other’s opinions, for our individual truths, back to the public conversation about who we are as Americans.

We are experts at living with and learning from people with whom we disagree.

In a beautiful collection of stories, Rabbi Goldie Milgram teaches that “we stretch each other with our differences”, and continued:

“Loving our tradition while wrestling with it through changing times is how the Jewish people has continually functioned - as a research and development team on behalf of the Jewish and human future in every generation.” [Mitzvah Stories, page 5]

On of our most important contributions to American civilization must be the reawakening of real discussions about issues. We know how to acknowledge a good idea, and give ground when it comes from someone else, even from someone with whom we have historically disagreed.

On this holy day, on Rosh ha-Shanah, we encounter one a central question of Jewish civilization: the idea of sacrifice. What does it mean to give up something that we value? Whatever we feel about Abraham and Isaac, we learn from Abraham and from the rest of our Torah, the importance of giving something up for our community - to sacrifice for the greater good.

For me this includes a Jewish idea about a most difficult sacrifice - giving up my own belief that I am correct.

The key to progress everywhere may be accepting that we must occasionally, even often, retreat from the place where we are always correct, as one of sages of modern Israeli poetry, Yehuda Amichai wrote [The Place Where We Are Right]:

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a courtyard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Some of you may come to me, later today, tomorrow, or next year, and share your concerns with me about what I have said today. Please continue to trust me with your heartfelt and deeply concerned disagreement with me. Please don’t hesitate. I am so honored by your trust, especially when we disagree.

The Talmud says that “Chutzpah is effective, even towards Heaven” (BT Sanhedrin 105a).

We are called to live with chutzpah. 

We must be bold in the face of injustice, and bold in the face of authority.

We must even be bolder in the face of our own convictions. When we look inside and with chutzpah say, “You know, they may be right, and I may be wrong?”, then we may plant the seeds for a better year, and a better future, for us all.

Shanah Tovah!

Sacrifice, Creation, Instruction - Shalom to 5777 and 5778

Rosh ha-Shanah, September 20-22, 2017 – 1-2 Tishrei 5778

Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return - September 22-23, 2017 – 3 Tishrei 5778

Parashat Ha-azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10

As we enter the New Year, 5778, we celebrate and learn with three important stories:

-       the Binding of Isaac on the First Day of Rosh ha-Shanah at Temple Beth Zion, both at 805 Delaware Ave., and at Becker Farms;

-       the story of Creation from the opening of Genesis on the Second Day of Rosh ha-Shanah – I will join Congregation Beth Abraham to talk about this on Friday morning;

-       and the powerful final poem of Moses in Deuteronomy – Rabbi Scheldt will lead study and worship for this beautiful text for the Shabbat between Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, on Friday evening and Saturday morning.

Sacrifice and Creation, Instructions and Farewells – we find in these readings an abundance of themes as we reflect on the year gone by, and look forward with hope to the year to come.

In order to make the coming year a better one, filled with greater reverence for all aspects of Creation, what will we give up? Conservation of Energy and conventional wisdom agree, there is no free ride, we cannot get something from nothing – what will we sacrifice to make things improve in the year to come?

As we say goodbye to the things we leave behind, let us embrace good Instructions, good “Torah”, about what we build next.

May our thought and attention be applied to the creation of sound and supple structures.

May we find ways to balance our needs and desires as we work together to change things for the better.

Wishing everyone safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year.

Torah and Action

For the Shabbat of September 15-16, 2017 – 25 Elul 5777
Parashat Nitzavim - VaYeilech
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

I call as witness against you today the heavens and the earth: life and death I place before you, blessing and curse; now choose life, in order that you may live better… (Deuteronomy 30:19)

As we finish reading Deuteronomy, we also come to the end of the Jewish year and enter into our Days of Awe, Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.

This is when we attempt to figure out how to better “choose life” for the year to come.

Let us choose life for those in need.

As our worries about the lives of our family, friends, and fellow citizens, in the paths of Harvey and Irma subside, let us contribute to help those whose livelihood and homes have been drastically impacted.

TBZ is collecting gift cards to send to our Jewish communities affected –Home Depot, Target, Walmart, and local grocery stores (H-E-B and Kroger in Texas, Publix and Kroger in Florida) – please send or drop any cards with Becky. We will send them to the local Federations in the impacted areas.

There will be a mission to volunteer our assistance in person in November – we will pass along details as they emerge.

Let us choose life for our community.

Joining together for the High Holy Days helps energize us and our connections with our extended Jewish Family. Please check out this video about the URJ Biennial. December 6-10 in Boston will be the biggest gathering of Jews in North America, and the most exciting way to find Jewish inspiration in the New Year.

I hope that all of you will join us in helping those in need, gathering for our High Holy Days, and making the trip to Boston for the Biennial.

Wishing safety, comfort, and inspiration as we enter the New Year,

Jonathan

Where do we Stand?

This amazing post comes from Tikkun and Rabbi Arthur Green:

WHERE DO WE STAND?

by  Rabbi Arthur Green

American Jews looked on with horror at the events unfolding in Charlottesville – and elsewhere – over this past weekend.  Indeed, we have felt a shudder ever since the awful campaign of 2016 and much that has followed it, while our communal leadership has remained mostly silent.  There were, after all, some Jewish voices in the White House, and it was best not to alienate the Republicans.  “And who knows?” it was whispered, “maybe this crazy guy could do something for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

But in Charlottesville the masks were off.  Neo-Nazis with their swatstika flags were a welcome part of the celebration.  You heard the k-word along with the n-word quite frequently, we are told.  There was no longer any hasty “Judeo” hyphened on to the calls for a Christian America.  Not among these folks.

“Blood and Soil!” they were calling out in repeated marching chant.  Hitler’s Blut und Boden, which meant, of course, that only “Aryan” blood truly belonged to the sacred German soil.  Can you imagine the nerve of these people, saying that the beautiful God-given landscape of America belongs to white Anglo-Saxons, not to the native peoples whose blood indeed soaked the land as they were displaced and slaughtered by European invaders?  Can they really claim that this soil belongs to the slaveowners whom Robert E. Lee was defending (his statue was the center of these events) and not to their victims, the poor slaves who died anonymously, so many of beating and lynching, pouring their own blood into the American earth?  How dare they!

I was proud that there were rabbis and rabbinical students (including some of my own) present in the line of clergy who stood as the voice for human decency and sanity on that terrible morning.  Yes, even though it was Shabbat, I am glad that some made that decision, one I would not permit myself to do.  Shabbat was given us, we are told in the second version of the ten commandments, to help us recall that we were slaves in Egypt.  That is a message too often forgotten by many achievement-driven (and often success-drunk) American Jews.

Charlottesville forces us to take a stand.  It reminds us that we are a minority in American society, a religious and ethnic community that chooses to maintain a distinct identity.  There is a price to be paid for that, one forgotten amid the great wave of acceptance into “whitehood” that has engulfed us in most American circles since the 1960’s.  We need to remember how recent that acceptance was, and how it took the horrors of the Holocaust and the battle against Hitler to push most American Christians across the finish line of opposing anti-Semitism.  Moments like Charlottesville remind us that we are a minority among minorities, and that a threat or an insult to any minority – African-American, Muslim, Latino, LGBT, or any other – is a threat to us all.  To be a proud American Jew is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who defend diversity and equality in our country.

That does not mean that we see eye-to-eye with every opinion that is declared politically correct by the self-proclaimed spokespeople for the pro-diversity agenda.  We are deeply troubled by some of the “intersectionality” politics of the left, trying to force us to fall into line on every issue, or else be vilified.  Like all people, we bear complex and multi-faceted identities that cannot simply conform to norms too simplistically dictated by “left” or “right.” Precisely because we are such a highly successful minority group in this country, we are vulnerable to that sort of moral blackmail, sometimes coming from the people whom we most want to love and support.  But we have our own sense of integrity, including a need to take a nuanced stance with regard to Israel-related questions, which are vital (in the literal sense of that word) issues to us as Jews.  We decry the anti-Semitism emerging in some leftist quarters as full-throatedly as we denounce it on the right.

But Charlottesville makes at least this Jew say a very clear “Thanks but no, thanks” to the offered hyphen.  I say this to the Bannon and Gorka crowd, but also to the Jews who are allied with them.  Do not sully our good name by saying that your hate-filled and white privilege-based agenda represents anything called “Judeo-Christian” civilization.  I say to the president: “Enough of equivocation!  You cannot pander to the worst elements in American society and not expect decent people to stand up and call you out.  It is you who have brought forth this new aggressiveness in the grotesque far right.  Take responsibility for it!”  

Where we Jews stand has to be very clear.  The tradition we represent calls forth loudly and clearly that every human being lives fully in the image of God.  “Why was Adam created singly?” the Talmud asks.  “So that no man ever be able to say ‘My father was greater than your father.’”  We are here to witness to that truth.  The long history of our own suffering at the hands of bigots and bullies makes that witness an ever more urgent task for us. Let us proclaim it proudly in weeks like this one, and let us remember where we need to stand.

*********************

Rabbi Arthur Green, a founding member of Tikkun's editorial board, is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion and Rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston.

Learn from past, do differently - overcome Nihilism.

Reading about our country this morning, I am thinking in this time of reflection in the Jewish calendar we had better learn fast, and do differently quickly.

Below are a selection of Important quotes from this piece, "America, From Exceptionalism to Nihilism", in the New York Times yesterday.

Please read it all, if you have the moments to do so. We must develop an American soul of substance or lose the world in the process.

Self-interest as a morality that we attempt to direct to the public interest will always lead to the enrichment of the elite at the expense of everyone else. Self-interest as a moral guide is inherently immoral, and cannot be directed to the good of the many.

There is no way of turning self-interest into enlightened self-interest without selflessly investing in enlightenment.

 

We will have learned nothing from Mr. Trump’s victory if we do not examine today how and why American elites came to indulge in ressentiment-generating boosterism just as economic and cultural inequality was becoming intolerable to so many, and how their loss of intellectual credibility and moral authority brought about the post-truth era.

“Our gadget-filled paradise suspended in a hell of international insecurity certainly does not offer us even the happiness of which the former century dreamed,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Mr. Obama has described as an early inspiration.

The sociologist C. Wright Mills described how an elite connected by Ivy League education and overlapping interests could steal the choicest fruits of American progress. Walter Lippmann worried that the promise of private wealth-creation was a weak moral basis for a national community. For many midcentury thinkers, nihilism, a catastrophic breakdown of faith in national ideology and institutions that had occurred in Europe, was also a possibility in America.

But the American creed, originally formulated by 18th-century slave-owners and zealously upheld by white males across the ideological spectrum, still managed to command broad enough loyalty. This was largely because no alternative seemed as effective at generating prosperity and advancing personal freedoms. Gradual improvements, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the war on poverty and the gains of feminism, maintained faith in the American Dream — that most seductive ideology and substitute religion of the modern world.

It already revealed how a networked elite, consisting of neoliberal globalizers and liberal internationalists as well as neoconservative intellectuals, had amassed unaccountable influence while becoming a service class for politicians. Subsequent fiascos — the rise of Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State, the crisis of unregulated financial capitalism followed by the bailout of culpable bankers — confirmed that this elite was too entrenched to be displaced by its failures and too arrogant to learn from them.

They feel deceived by a class of politicians, experts, technocrats and journalists which had claimed to be in possession of the truth and offered a series of propositions that turned out to be misleading or wrong: the rising tide of globalization will lift all boats, the market is free and fair, shock therapy would bring capitalism to Russia, shock-and-awe therapy would deliver democracy to Iraq. Many of the aggrieved now see the elites, who offered to expedite progress while expanding their own power and wealth, as self-serving charlatans.

Everywhere the disaffected are recoiling from establishment politicians and the mainstream media, and succumbing to alternative facts — a fragmentation of truth quickened by digital technology. It is in this sense, unanticipated by optimists like Mr. Obama, that the 21st century is proving to be the American Century.

Authoritarian regimes like China and Iran stave off challenges to their authority by limiting internet access and repairing myths of national unity. But the country taken to be the world’s oldest modern democracy leads the free world in its helplessness before the dissolution of its most cherished beliefs and values. Rejoining the tormented history of modernity under an obsessive liar, America has accelerated its most insidious tendency: nihilism.

 

Judaism = "all in it togetherness"

This week Jews the world over read the following verses from the Book of Exodus, (Chapter 23):

1 You are not to take up an empty rumor. Do not place your hand with a guilty person, to become a witness for wrongdoing.
2 You are not to go after the many to do evil…

The news for Jews this week seems to be all about the effect of “empty rumors” getting turned into destructive actions. From the bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country, including our own here in Buffalo, to the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, it has been a rough week for American Jewry.

Words matter. When we speak we create and we destroy. When we don’t speak, or allow others to speak for us, we allow creation and destruction to take place around us.

The forces unleashed in the last year – many of them rallied around the election of President Trump – are terrifying.

This week, at long last, President Trump spoke out against Anti-Semitism. I am grateful that he has seen his way to understand that something is going on that requires his attention. He must do more, and we must continue to be vigilant.

We must speak out against empty rumors, and live our lives in ways that show people who we truly are, the standards of integrity and citizenship we uphold, and the kind of neighbors that we are and aim to be. Muslims in St. Louis raised money for the vandalized cemetery. Jews in Texas handed the keys of their synagogue over to the Muslim community whose mosque burned down last month.

We know how to do this, how to live by an “all in it together” philosophy.

We must hold fast to the principles of our ancient teachings that we renew every day in our personal and communal conduct. “If not now when,” as our teacher Hillel said, is always now.

A Reading for a Dream Group

Since "I have a dream" is a good thought for this weekend in particular...

A friend asked for an opening prayer or thought for an interfaith dream group, and this is the "Jew-ish" thing I came up with:

Climbing steps into the heights,
staring into the depths of a simple flame,
grappling with our inner selves
by the side of a murmuring stream,
Listening for faint whispers
of half-remembered voices.

We encounter the sacred,
moments of import,
in fleeting everyday glimpses
that make their way into
signposts on all our journeys.

Our ancestors heard the divine.
We pull threads and catch glimpses of mystery.
Our travels demand hearing.
We listen with our hearts and minds,
and dive in to find deeper meaning.

Talk to Strangers

Rosh HaShanah Morning - 1 Tishrei 5777 - Monday, October 3, 2016
Temple Beth Zion, Buffalo, New York

L’Shanah Tovah! A good New Year to all of you.

Here is a translation of the Binding of Isaac, which we have already heard beautifully chanted in Hebrew today.

God tested Abraham.
God called to Abraham saying: Abraham!
Abraham said: Here I am!
God said: Take your son, your only one, the one you love, Isaac.
Go forth to the Land of Moriah, and take him up there for an offering on one of the mountains that I will show you.
Abraham got up early the next morning and loaded up a donkey with all that he needed for the offering. 
He took two servants with him, and Isaac, and departed for the place that God talked about.
Three days later Abraham saw the place from far away and told the servants to stay there with the donkey while he and his son would go up, make an offering, and then both return.
Isaac said to Abraham his father: Father!
Abraham said: Here I am, my son.
Isaac said: here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?
Abraham said: God will see to the lamb for the offering.
Then the two of them went on together.
They came to the place that God had spoken about.
Abraham built the altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac his son, and placed him on top of the wood.
Abraham stretched out his hand, he took his knife to slay his son.
But God’s messenger called out from heaven and said, Abraham, Abraham!
He said: Here I am!
He said: Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!
For now I know that you are in awe of God. You did not withhold your son, your only one, from me.
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw: here was a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.
Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as an offering in place of his son.


Like many of you, I am troubled by this story. We read this every year on Rosh haShanah.

Why? Shouldn’t we be reading the opening chapters of Genesis, the story of the Creation of the World as a way to celebrate the birthday of the world?

Many years ago a congregant explained this to me. We Jews keep the stories that raise questions. We need stories that make us think. And so instead of the story of Creation, we read the Binding of Isaac, which forces us to ask this central question, “What was Abraham’s test?”

We ask this question on Rosh haShanah because how we answer it determines how we see God, religion, parenting - the sum total of Judaism in one single question.

Traditionally, we are told that this was a test of Abraham’s faith - will he blindly do what God told him to do?

I refuse to accept that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill his son.

I refuse to accept that the point of the story is proving that we are willing to do something abominable in the name of God.

If this is not the test, then what is it instead?

I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer’s new novel, Here I Am. He focuses on the idea that when we call out to one another, we should follow the example of Abraham and say, “Here I am”. Abraham had to pass the test of being present.

Think about that.

Someone calls our name, doesn’t have to be God, can be a friend, a child, a spouse, a co-worker. What is our initial response?

How often do we look up from the thing we are doing and say, “Yes?” “What can I do for you?” Or sometimes more brusquely, “What do you want?”

What happens if instead, the next time someone calls our name, we say or fulfill the idea of, “Here I am.”

“Here I am” - to listen to you, to see you, to be here for you, to be present and not multi-task while talking to you.

The test that Abraham faced was how could he be truly present for God and Isaac his son. God called Abraham and Abraham responded: “Here I am”.

God’s request was terrifying and made no sense but Abraham felt that he had to follow it through - he was present for God.

Isaac interrupted their journey, called out to his father, and Abraham again responded: “Here I am”.

Isaac asked, reasonably, for clarification, “Where is the lamb?” Abraham had to be there for his son too, and placed his hopes and faith in it all working out in the end by saying, “God will see to the offering”.

And finally, on the top of the mountain, with the knife in his hand, Abraham has to be present for both God and his son Isaac. When he responds to God’s messenger “Here I am!”, Abraham is able to see the ram, and see his way to being there for both God and Isaac.

At no point in this narrative did Abraham respond to these interruptions with anything but his fullest self. The Torah doesn’t portray our ancestor as impatient or bothered by either his son or God in those moments.

Abraham offered full attention. “Here I am! Ready to listen to you with my full being.” Abraham was present and attentive to Isaac and to God. Abraham never turned away from facing the people who demanded his attention.

Abraham passed the test of full attention. He showed up fully, and, so what? We are still left asking: What kind of God asks this? What kind of father considered it?

We are not the only ones who ask, and asking is an age-old Jewish practice.

In the Middle Ages, Rabbi David Kimchi wrote that Abraham should have heard God say about Isaac: “take him up for an offering event” instead of “take him up and offer him”. The test is one of listening comprehension - can Abraham accurately understand what God is asking of him?

This is the rest of Rabbi Kimchi’s interpretation of the story.

Abraham originally misunderstood God and set out to take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice.

As he got closer to the event, Abraham had his doubts. Isaac asked Abraham along the way, “Here is the fire and the wood, where is the lamb for the offering?” Even though Abraham may not have thought through what would happen, he responded with a true vision of the future: “God will see to the lamb for the offering.”. This is what would eventually happen!

We can imagine Abraham’s distraction as he planned this terrible act. Abraham faced the horror, and went on with only those thoughts in his mind. He didn't even notice the ram that was already there caught in the thicket by its horns. It was that moment with the knife over Isaac, when Abraham hesitated and heard God’s voice saying, “Do not lay a hand on the young man, do not do anything to him!” In that moment he raised up his eyes and saw the ram.

In that instant Abraham understood God’s real message. Abraham understood the wrongness of what he thought he had heard, and allowed himself to learn what God had originally asked him.

Abraham becomes a model for learning to do better, as opposed to a parent applauded for his willingness to murder his son. Abraham is a model of growth. He starts out misunderstanding God’s demand, along the way he hears his son’s protest, and at the end, he stops himself from committing a calamity.

Meanwhile, we also redeem God through this reading. God is no longer a malicious deity trying to gauge Abraham’s devotion by asking him to do something vile. Even in the face of not being understood, God gave Abraham more opportunities to do the right thing. Rather than shame Abraham as a murderer, God offered him an explanation that allowed Abraham to learn and grow. God didn’t say: Abraham, your barbarian, you misunderstood me! God said, “Now I know that you are so in awe of me, you will run and do something that I never intended”.

When someone has power over us, we may listen too closely and hear things that weren’t in the message.

Listening requires more than hearing, and learning requires more than following the directions. We need to look more deeply for real communication.

One of the most central prayers in Judaism is Sh’ma: Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. After that opening line we continue with the paragraphs that start with “V’ahavtah” - You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your spirit, with all your being”. 

“Listening” closely was the lesson of Abraham, the first part of Sh’ma - “Listen up Israel!”

When Abraham paid attention he learned. The learning took place because Abraham also fulfilled the idea of the second part of Sh’ma - he listened, he loved, and he allowed what he heard and who he loved to change him.

Rabbi Zusya was the greatest and most righteous scholar of his time and he lay upon his deathbed, surrounded by his students and family. Rabbi Zusya looked around at all of them, and then began to cry. His wisest student asked him, “Master, why are you sad? You have lived a full life, touched so many lives, made such a difference, you have been like Moses to all of us.”

Zusya patted the extended hand of his student, reassuringly, and said, “That’s exactly what worries me. When I am judged at last, I will not be asked, ‘Were you as good as Moses?’ I will be asked, ‘Were you a good Zusya?’”

Zusya’s challenge was to be fully present at his death - not only for his loved ones and students who tell him how wonderful he is, but most importantly for himself.

How often do we turn away? How often do we let that moment that demands our attention pass?

Zusya’s question, “Am I a good Zusya?”, is our question during these holy days. Can I be the best even when faced with the worst? Can I show up for the demands of myself, my family, my community, my world, and be changed by them?

On this day when we celebrate the creation of everything, when the Shofar sounds to awaken us to our place in creation, our memory of who we are, and our task to make it all better, we must devote our full attention to being present, in the moment, no matter how difficult. We must allow ourselves to be changed and learn.

We have to be like Zusya when he worked to be present for himself. We have to be like Abraham when he allowed love to transform him. Self, parents, children, siblings, friends - we know that we need to do this in our close circle.

I am asking us to take this a step further and admit that we live in a world shared by one family - that we are all related and that if we follow the fundamental teachings of Judaism, that we are all created in God’s image and likeness, then we must aim to include everyone we meet in that close circle. We must be present for every person we meet.

Hard as this may seem, this is our task, we must save the world by being present and learning from everyone around us: one thought, one feeling, one conversation, one encounter, one relationship at a time.

We must overcome one of the first lessons we learned as children going out into the world - we must talk to strangers.

We must overcome our fears and reach out and be present for the person we will meet when we leave here today.

We get to be good people when we work on our relationships and when we reach out to the stranger. The stranger is the friendly person at the supermarket and the person whose presence makes us so uncomfortable that we normally ignore them.

We must be the people who break down the barrier between us and them.

This may be our mission, to be a light unto the nations as the smallest nation willing to reach out to everyone else.

The central message of the Torah is “Do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt”.

We know what it is like to be oppressed, and even if we don’t remember it ourselves, we remind each other of it every year at the Passover Seder.

When our prayers remind us to “Hear O Israel!” and “Love God!” we must show up, pay attention, and be transformed by our love.

Say, “Here I am.”

Talk to strangers.

Our love and attention transforms the world.

L’shanah tovah.

A Good New Year to All

L'Shanah Tovah - a good year to everyone from Buffalo!

Looking forward to a 5777 that we will fill with blessings of connection, togetherness, family, friends, and more!

May everyone find the small miracles on this beautiful Erev Rosh HaShanah that illustrate for us of the awesomeness of Creation, remind us of the good things from the past, and inspire us with the promise of the year to come!

Carl Sagan, the Jewish New Year, and Awe

For those of you wondering how we used a quote from Carl Sagan in last night's Friday Evening Shabbat Service previewing our new High Holy Day prayer book, Mishkan haNefesh, here is what we did...

The first blessing of the main part of the evening prayer service, called Ma-ariv Aravim, "the One who brings on evening", focuses on the miracle of creation, and so to honor creation we read this quote from page 5 of the prayer book:

"How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant'? Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.' A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths." 
- Carl Sagan

Judaism embraces the grandeur of a universe bigger than we can comprehend and grander than we ever thought as a basic component of awe for the mystery of the Creator of all. Perhaps that is how and why we Jews are distinctly "unconventional".

Wishing everyone a meaningful week, and a good end to the Jewish year of 5776 as we begin 5777 on Rosh haShanah, next Sunday evening, October 2.

Please check out the full calendar for services and events at Temple Beth Zion in Western New York here:
TBZ High Holy Day Info

Please contact me directly at: rabbifreirich@tbz.org
if you are interested in tickets - everyone gets to pray at TBZ!

A hinge in time

There are days around which the world seems to pivot and change - days that mark before and after for individuals, communities, and countries. In the last hundred years we think of: D-Day, Pearl Harbor, JFK's assassination, the Challenger Disaster, and today.

Fifteen years later those of us who lived through September 11, 2001, remember with clarity so many aspects of that terrible day.

Where have we come on account of that day? What more do we have to do?

More than ever we need to tap into the spirit of unity that brought us together then. We must remember that unity among many of us often excluded others in the wake of events that caused us to think terrible things and unfairly stereotype and abuse entire segments of our population.

We need to remember that disasters are created by complex problems and that solving those problems will require long term strategic plans and emotional bravery and compromise.

In Judaism we constantly turn moments of past struggle into lessons upon which we can build a better future.

May the memories of all those we lost inspire us to create blessings in the future.

A Poem for the Seder by Yehuda Amichai

A beautiful translation of a beautiful poem - enjoy - Happy Passover everyone!

 

Meditations for the Seder night: what is different, we asked

What makes this night different from all other nights,
Most of us grew up and we don’t ask anymore, while some
continue to ask questions throughout their lives, like when they ask
How are you? or What time is it? and move on
without hearing the answer. What is different, every night,
like an alarm clock whose tick-tock calms us and puts us to sleep
What has changed, everything will change. Change is God.
Meditations for Seder night: the Torah spoke of four sons
One who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one
who does not know how to ask. But it doesn’t tell us
about the one who is good or the one who loves.
This is the question that has no answer and if there were an answer
I would not want to know it. I who passed all the sons
in different combinations, I lived my life, the moon shone
on me though I had no need for it and the sun went its way and the
Passover holidays passed without answer. What has changed, Change
is God and death is God’s prophet.

Yehuda Amichai, from “Gods Change, Prayers Remain Forever”

 translated by Rabbis Rena Blumenthal and Barbara Penzner

How We Can Talk about Religion and Politics

Here is a reflection on the Comparative Religion Series that I helped moderate on Tuesday evening here at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, and the video as well, at the bottom.

On Tuesday evening, March 1, Tim Funk, Professor Bob Whalen, and I discussed the history and present of American Religion and politics as the concluding session of the 19th Annual Comparative Religion Series.

Professor Whalen outlined a really interesting rubric that might help us asses how religion often impacts American politics using these three concepts:

1)    Civil Religion – we have a public and prominent form of religion – the holy sites in Washington DC are a good example of its positive expression.

2)    Charisma – leaders will often use their personal spiritual journey as a way of leading us to consider deeper questions about our country. The easy example is Lincoln’s religiosity, which challenged Americans to be better people without necessarily sharing his religious perspective.

3)    Revival – our public religion often undergoes enthusiastic reframing. Lincoln reminded us of core American values that required updating, even in his own mind, as he moved to make abolition of slavery a central aspect of American thinking.

In each of these three areas, we can see religion playing constructive and problematic roles – often based on whether or not we are trying to expand or limit the scope of the American experiment in democracy and governance. 

Both Professor Whalen and Mr. Funk urged us, in their own way, to ask whether politicians used religious viewpoints as broadening access to America’s hope and promise for more people.

In the wake of Super Tuesday, and in the middle of this political season, I was inspired by the idea that we might use the best of our academic and religious thoughts to bring the best of ourselves to bear on evaluating our situation in discussion together.

Let’s all go out and talk to people who hold strongly different opinions from us, and by listening to all of our stories, broaden our own sense of the concept of the American experiment.

[Content starts at 25:35]

The Temple Beth El 19th annual Comparative Religion Series concluded Tuesday, March 1, with "How the Pendulum Swings: An Historical Overview on Religion and Politics." Thanks to our special guests: Dr. Bob Whalen, Professor, History Department, Queens University of Charlotte; Tim Funk, Faith and Religion Reporter, The Charlotte Observer; and Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth El.


A call for real unity from Ezekiel

The Haftarah today, the reading from Ezekiel, provided some food for thought. Early on, when Ezekiel asks for unity in the bringing together of the different staves, or even trees of the tribes, he wrote:

37:17 Bring them close to each other, so that they will become one staff, and they will be one in your hand.

The word “one” for “one in your hand” here is plural, which seemed odd, since the intent of the prophet was to create a unity out of many.

This gets more interesting when compared to the way Ezekiel reports God talking about this unity a few verses later:

37:19 (excerpts) “Thus said God, here I take the staff of Joseph…and of the tribes of Israel, his companions, and place them upon the staff of Judah, and make them into one staff, they will be one in my hand.”

Here, in God’s voice, the “one in my hand” is singular.

This offers us a beautiful teaching on the idea of pluralism and unity. From our perspective, as humans who are in the middle of trying to come together around difficult issues, any consensus, any unity, will be a coming together of many ideas, a compromise of sorts. Often this will feel incredibly frustrating as the give and take to create a common ground among many differing viewpoints can be totally exhausting. And yet, there is a greater purpose afoot.

From the top down perspective, a “God’s eye view” as it were, our unity really means one-ness. We can easily get lost in the notion that common ground still leaves us a good distance from each other - we may be stuck in our singular perspective at that point - we are merely a “one” among many “ones”. And still, when we take a step back, or take a deep breath and raise ourselves above the immediate give and take, we can see the unity of the community that has come together around a common cause.

Creation Starts With Brokenness

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5776
Sunday, September 13, 2015
Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina

by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich

    I actually began to think about this talk in the Spring, when I heard a podcast by one of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, called “Kabbalah and the Big Bang”. When I looked at talk I had written, inspired by Rabbi Artson, I was crushed. I had put together a science lecture, not a sermon. In order to get to this talk, I had to break what I had written to begin with. And it turned out that in doing this, I also found the central message for tonight - that brokenness is the start of creation. Brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning.

    Which makes sense, since on Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the beginning of everything. Here’s the scientific part, so bear with me a bit. We start with a question:

    “How big was the Big Bang?”

    In 1964, two physicists, Alpher and Herman, who had already come up with an answer to this question, also figured out that the Big Bang was so big, that it would have left a faint residue, an after-glow, that could still be detected today, fourteen billion years after the original explosion. Being scientists they called this after-effect something official sounding: “Cosmic Background Radiation”, and calculated exactly how intense it is right now.

    Around the same time Bell Labs in New Jersey built the Horn Antenna, which was the largest of its type - it would listen farther into the universe with greater accuracy and sensitivity than ever before. As the lab started using this antenna, no matter what they did, they couldn’t get rid of some background noise, a hum that made the researchers think their new antenna wasn’t quite right. They cleaned it, chased off any birds or animals that might be soiling the surface, rewired it, and they still couldn’t get rid of that hum.

    Eventually, these technicians at Bell Labs complained about this persistent noise that they couldn’t get rid of, and Alpher and Herman heard about it. They drove up to the lab from Princeton, tested the frequency of this hum, and found that the persistent noise exactly matched their calculations of the current intensity of the Cosmic Background Radiation, that echo of the Big Bang. In other words, entirely by coincidence, the Bell Labs people developed the means by which they could actually hear what the Big Bang still sounded like, fourteen billion years later.

    Now, here’s the really interesting part - this sound, this original echo of the Big Bang, was the same everywhere. No matter where they pointed the antenna the same, steady, constant sound could be heard. What’s weird about this is that we don’t live in a universe that makes a steady, constant, sound. Our universe is incredibly varied, with different types of matter and energy and lots of space in between it all. It looks different, and sounds different, everywhere.

    This is a problem. The original thing that exploded out - the reality that came out of the Big Bang - exploded outward with perfect consistency. One big uniform ball of energy, matter, and space, without any variations. That’s what they heard and proved from the evenness of the sound of the explosion detected at Bell Labs. So, when did that big ball of consistent and unvaried everything turn into the beginnings of the very uneven universe that we recognize today?

    We don’t find out until 1989, when a research satellite detected faint ripples of intensity in this Cosmic Background Radiation - variations in the constant noise that is that echo of the Big Bang. These faint ripples showed the first appearances of areas where matter came together unevenly, leaving other places where things were spread thin, creating the variations in everything that would become galaxies, stars, solar systems, and planets. These faint echoes picked up within the background noise didn’t occur until 300,000 years after the Big Bang.

    Sir Roger Penrose, a physicist who works with Stephen Hawking, said: “From the view of modern physics the entire world can be seen as the manifestation of a broken symmetry. If the symmetries of nature were actually perfect we would not exist.” Symmetry, that evenness, orderliness, and sameness in all places, prevented the creation of anything at all. When the universe became irregular, matter and energy came together and became galaxies and stars, eventually creating us. All of this depended on a break in the evenness in which everything began.

    George Smoot, a researcher who helped discover this irregularity, said: “If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God.”

    All of this research happened decades after the Big Bang Theory was proven.

    In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding, and then figured out exactly how long it has been expanding, leading to the proof for the Big Bang as a description of creation. In all the science about the Big Bang there is a point in time, near the moment of explosion, before which physicists cannot understand anything because nothing works in that space and time according to any rules anybody can figure out. When we look backward into time around the Big Bang we run up against a wall of mystery, a thing called a singularity, before which, nothing can be known.

    This barrier of knowledge is so serious that Penrose, that brilliant physicist, wrote: “Space-time singularities are regions where our understanding of physics has reached its limits. If one is trying to be scientific, it is understanding that appeals, and here, at the singularity, you just have to give up.”

    From a scientific point of view then, the story of creation sounds like this: a point of infinite density, a singularity, which we can’t even begin to understand, exploded, also for no reason that anyone can ever understand. Exploding outward evenly, that ball of everything got big enough and cool enough over a long time, three hundred thousand years after the original explosion, so that irregularities emerged in the unvaried state of everything, allowing clumps to form, and gather together, into the beginnings of what things look like today.

    Here is how we normally begin the Jewish story of Creation, and we’re going to look at it almost word-for-word:

Gen. 1:1 At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, 
2 when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters- 
3 God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
4 God saw the light: that it was good…

Later, after two days of creation, the Torah continues:

Gen. 1:14 God said: Let there be lights in the dome of the heavens, to separate the day from the night…

And then we hear all the details of the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars. What happened to the light from Day One?

    The Book of Genesis describes three days of creation, including the creation of Light, and “and there was evening, and there was morning, Day One”, then Day Two then Day Three. After that, on the Fourth Day we get the sun and the moon as if there were not already light. We could focus on this as an inconsistency, an error in an old story, or even a reason to dismiss Torah entirely.

    A Jewish way of reading says that this apparent inconsistency hints at a deeper truth, that we have to read between the lines and the letters. We use this as an opportunity to tell a story behind the story. This is when we create midrash, and imagine answers to questions in the text. The text is not broken, it is demanding interpretation.

    We can answer the question, “What happened to the Light of the First Day of Creation?” by retelling the story of creation from God’s perspective.

    Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, a Jewish scholar of the Bible and teacher at Pardes in Jerusalem, observed that all motivation comes from needing something - we notice something is missing and we work to fill the absence. From this perspective, Jewish mysticism suggested that God began to create because God did not want to be alone. God was lonely and wanted to fix it. Later in Genesis, God expressed this sentiment by sympathizing with Adam’s loneliness. God says: “It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:18).

    God was everything and everywhere, infinite, and alone. In Jewish tradition, God the infinite is entirely unknowable. According to the Zohar, the unknowable infinite God decided to become smaller in order to create and share reality with some company. God shrunk into an infinitely tiny point, and from that point, poured divine energy back into the empty space that God had left so that there would be room for creation. When God starts sending divine power into the world, that is the first creation of light, and it is the light of God’s unfiltered raw creative essence. God forced all that power into spaces, newly created vessels that were no longer made of God. These vessels couldn’t contain God’s energy, and they shattered, spreading shards containing the bits of the essence of God throughout the universe.

    Instead of a tragedy at the beginning of time, this enabled God to be present in all Creation as slivers, remnants that we uncover when we create, when we work together for a higher purpose, when we participate in repair of the universe.

    The shattering of the vessels explains where the original light went and why God needed to create smaller sources of light, the sun, moon, and stars, later in the creation story.

    A Late Medieval mystic, Menachem Azaria of Fano explained this need for things to break in order to create, in this way: “Just as the seed cannot grow to perfection as long as it maintains its original form, growth coming only through [the breaking of its shell]. So [creation] could not become whole as long as [it] maintained [its] original form, but only by shattering.”

    What makes a seed grow is that it breaks open. The breaking of the seed’s shell is the beginning of the growth of the plant. This allows a root to emerge from the seed into the soil and stretch towards the sun. An intact seed, one that never breaks open, will never grow.

    Our universe, like a successful seed, broke, and thus grew. It had to be broken, it had to have irregularities, in order for creation to happen and our familiar world to emerge.

    The mystical version says we are created in the divine image because everything is from God. Everything is filled with the shards of God.

 

    Two parallel stories. Unknowable infinite points burst into reality spontaneously, meaning we have no idea why it happened, creating all that exists in the process, and only became recognizable as something like our world when wrinkles of brokenness, errors, entered into what was originally a flawless expression of power and energy. The brokenness in the stories is not a problem, rather it is the reason that everything can exist.

    We are the stuff thrown out from flaws that entered into the original explosions that created time and space. We developed the mindfulness, the awareness, to understand that we are made of that stuff from the stars. The mistakes in God’s perfection are us, and we evolved into souls who can look out and up at each other and the world and offer praise for the mystery at the core of everything. The story that we use to explain our Jewish texts helps bring meaning to the science that we use to describe the world.

    We need both versions. I know that the medieval Jewish Kabbalists did not come up with the Big Bang Theory. These are two separate stories. We need them both because the poetry and power of the mystical narrative that places us in relationship with the source of all things helps us find the ethics and the meaning in the poetry and power of the scientific narrative that shows that we are made of the same stuff as all things. No matter how amazing the work of Newton and Einstein and Hawking and their students and colleagues, taking the implications of their teachings and communicating them to the world in a way that emphasizes the behavior that responsible people might aim for, still remains the work of those of us outside the labs and observatories. We must take these insights about the way things work and transform them into inspirations that help all of us work together, better.

    At the heart of all of this lies the connection between creation and being broken. At this time of year, and on this day celebrating creation, when we turn towards the image of God as sovereign of all the universe, who brings order and crafted beautiful stable substances out of the tohu va’vohu, the “wild and waste” of early Genesis, we might get disheartened, thinking, “It took God to bring order. So much of my life feels broken. I can’t do what God did, I can’t do anything to fix it”.

    When we look at these two stories we realize that brokenness is not a problem, it is the beginning. Nothing begins from a sense of completion. All our motivations come from our recognition that we must do something to fix things.

    We are not the only people to think this way either.

    Japanese culture has the concept of Kintsugi, which is the art of repairingbroken pottery with a lacquer dusted in precious metals. The method, which results in beautiful pieces like this one,

is supported by a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

    Everyone of us is broken. We all bear scars, some internal and some external. We are all broken vessels containing shards of the divine. We all bear the history of our difficulties, our conflicts, our struggles. We do this as individuals and we do this as the people Israel. Israel is the name we bear from Jacob who earned it by struggling with an angel and walking with a limp from that experience for the rest of his life.

    From each moment and encounter of breaking we can create. We are the seeds that grow from broken shells. We bear the elements of broken stars that exploded and spread through the galaxy billions of years ago. We see with reason, feel with poetry, and bring them together to build a better whole. We are the remnants of shattered vessels from which we gain the strength and inspiration to participate in the completion of all creation. We can become the partners that God sought by helping alleviate loneliness around us.

    On this birthday of the world, as we celebrate the creation of all things, let us remember that everything starts by being broken. Our brokenness is part of the universe, part of God, and it is our strength for entering the year to come as a partner in Creation.

 

Notes:

Please listen to the entirety of Rabbi Artson’s talk here: http://www.zieglertorah.org/2015/04/14/kabbalah-and-the-big-bang-rabbi-brad-artson/ - his work was the Genesis of almost all of this talk, and the source of any unannotated quotes as well.

Biblical translations from Genesis adapted from Everett Fox’s translation, The Five Books of Moses, (Schocken - 2000)

Aviva Gottleib Zornberg's particular insight herein comes from this book, The Beginnings of Desire, (Schocken - 2011), particularly the chapter on Lech L’cha.