Yizkor, Yom Kippur 5778 – The Sun That Still Shines Behind The Shadow

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

It may happen only once or twice in a lifetime, but you don’t forget a solar eclipse.  Even from our latitude, the experience at 2:42 PM on August the 21st was chilling.  The temperature dropped; the crickets started to chirp; the world seemed illuminated as if behind a tinted glass; and, through my officially approved eyewear, I saw it plain as day:   the shadow of the moon had taken a bite out of almost three quarters of the sun, leaving behind a glowing crescent.

In that moment I understood why the ancients looked upon eclipses as terrifying omens and why the Talmud does not provide a blessing for seeing an eclipse the way it does, for instance, upon seeing a rainbow.  The sun should not set in midday.  The sustaining light of life should not fall prey to the darkness.

To be sure, science gives some comfort.  We can explain what our ancestors feared.  This was no sign of divine wrath, no aberration in the laws of God or the universe.  Quite the contrary, really:  precisely because the earth and the moon and the sun carry on in their elegant and timeworn orbits do the rare intersections cause the shadow of one to fall on the other.

Still, it was a cold and strange day, and my mind will not dispel that image of the crescent sun, or the televised image of millions of Americans who turned out for totality to stare in awe at the heavens.

Grief is like this—a shadow that comes into our lives to block out the sun.  It comes to us, it visits us, it stays with us for a while, and then it passes from us; but even when grief is gone we are changed by its having been with us.

El Malei Rachamim, the memorial prayer that we will recite in a few moments, says of our dead:  k’zohar ha-rakia mazhirim, they shine like the brilliance of the firmament.  It is an extraordinary turn of phrase, one of the most beautiful in all of Jewish liturgy.  It says so much with so little.  It reminds us that love does not die; people do; and that the light our loved ones brought into the world while they lived does not fade into darkness when they die; it shines on, brilliantly.

Even the darkness of grief does not have the power to vanquish the light of life and the radiance of love.  It will eclipse our joy for a time.  It will take a bite out of us, leaving our human heart a raw and glowing crescent.  But grief will pass and love will remain.  The goodness of the people we’ve come here to remember has left a permanent mark on us and on the world that can never be eclipsed, not even by our sorrow.

Rabbi Jack Stern of blessed memory once shared with our congregation his experience of a concert at Tanglewood where “Isaac Stern was playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, and the melody sang with uncommon beauty. Suddenly, without warning, the skies darkened and the heavens broke loose. A strange sight as the man guided the bow over the strings as though without a sound, a pantomime, because all we could hear was the thunder. And then suddenly, the thunder still rumbling, above that rumbling, we could hear the magic melody of the violin.”

Judaism is wise to give us a lot of time for bereavement—seven days of shiva, a first thirty days to mourn called sheloshim, a year, give or take, for unveiling a gravestone and reciting Kaddish at yahrzeit.  We do not “get over” the death of a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a friend—we “get through”—slowly, steadily.  The 23rd Psalm acknowledges as much by declaring, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”—there is no way around the shadow,  only through.

But there does come “a moment,” Rabbi Stern said, “when we begin to hear the melody above the storm, when the remembering of the beauty and the laughter does not cause the pain but begins to soothe it.”

In 1883, Henry James, the American novelist most famous for The Portrait of a Lady, received a distressing letter from his longtime friend Grace Norton, an essayist who had fallen into a deep depression following a death in her family.  No stranger to depression himself, and writing just months after the deaths of his own parents, James replied with some of the most compassionate words ever put to paper:

“I don’t know why we live,” he said, “—the gift of life comes to us from I don’t know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup.”

“Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see….  [I]t is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end.”

So we come here today, to this Yizkor service of memorial, to listen, to hear the melody above the storm, to remember the beauty that surpasses the pain, to stand as living witness to the sunlight that unfailingly shines, even behind the shadow.

K’zohar ha-rakia mazhirim.  May all our departed loved ones continue to shine like the brilliance of the firmament.  And may the light of God’s countenance ever shine upon them.  Amen.

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Yom Kippur 5778: Is This A Safe Space?

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

SEPTEMBER 29-30, 2017

Shutterstock-Memo-Angeles-YouTube-screenshot-WWLP-22NewsFor twenty-five years I was proud to be a Lord Jeff.  This all changed last year, when I became… a Mammoth.

Let me explain.

For generations, Amherst College students and alumni proudly rallied around our unofficial but beloved mascot, the Lord Jeff.  In the 18th Century, Lord Jeffrey Amherst served as Commander-in-Chief of British forces during the French and Indian War.  With gusto we would sing our college song, “Lord Jeffrey Amherst”:

“Oh Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a soldier of the king/and he came from across the sea/To the Frenchmen and the Indians he didn’t do a thing/in the wilds of this wild country….”

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that Lord Amherst, in the course of his wartime correspondence, recommended distributing to the Native Americans blankets infested with smallpox virus.  While no one knows if his devious tactic was ever employed, Lord Jeffrey Amherst managed to distinguish himself as the granddaddy of germ warfare.

The College, like the town, will still be called “Amherst.”  But no more references to Amherst athletes or students as “Jeffs.”  No more Lord Jeffrey Inn on campus.  And definitely no more singing “Lord Jeffrey Amherst.”

According to a poll, 83% of current students viewed these references as offensive.  So a contest was held and the mascot “Mammoths” selected, because the college’s natural history museum houses a prized skeleton of a wooly mammoth.  At the end of the day, the Board decided that a mascot should unite and not divide, so purple Mammoths it is.

What happened at Amherst last year is emblematic of culture wars that have roiled campuses everywhere.

We have heard about student protests, from hunger strikes to requests for “trigger warnings” on curricula.

We learned about “microaggressions,” meaning subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.  Several universities now classify the phrase “America is a melting pot” as a microaggression, along with phrases like “Everyone can succeed in society if they work hard enough” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job,” on the grounds that such statements downplay the role of race and gender in attaining life successes.

We saw many schools abandon symbols and traditions with ties to racism, colonialism, and slavery.  Other schools underwent protracted disputes, like Princeton, which ultimately retained the name of President Woodrow Wilson on its School of Public and International Affairs, despite Wilson’s well-established white-supremacist views.

It seems that everywhere you looked this year, college students were demanding new deans and presidents, more globalized curricula, and school-endorsed “safe spaces.”

This past year, protestors at the University of Missouri linked arms in front of a “safe space” they’d formed on the quad, threatening to call the police if media—including student reporters!—didn’t back away.  At Wesleyan, students circulated a petition to cut funding for a school newspaper that ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.  The petition alleged that the school had neglected “to provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.”

Should college campuses provide “safe spaces” for their students?

Let’s hear what Judaism might have to say.  A visit to any traditional Talmudic study hall discloses that Judaism tolerates a high degree of spirited, boisterous, indeed heated debate in the service of sharpening opinions and reaching compelling conclusions.  The Talmud itself is an anthology of arguments among Rabbis.  Minority opinions are recorded alongside the majority; often the Talmud does not even make clear who “wins” the debate.  We Jews have a historically high threshold for dissonance and disagreement.

This past March, conservative political scientist Charles Murray was shouted down at Middlebury College by students and activists.  After moving his interview to another location, a violent confrontation erupted, pitting protesters against Dr. Murray and college officials.  The interview moderator was hospitalized with a concussion.

Does the demand for “safe spaces” mean that colleges have an obligation to shield students from opinions that cause discomfort?  That neglect to acknowledge a disenfranchised group’s mistreatment?

What about outright offensive or odious opinions?  Dr. Murray’s assertion in a book written almost twenty-five years ago, that intelligence is linked to race, has provoked controversy, to say the least.  Should Murray be silenced?

My own college experience informs my perspective.  When the Amherst Black Students Union supported bringing Louis Farrakhan to UMass just down the street, I engaged in a series of heated but respectful dialogues about the proposed talk.  I wrote op-eds to the student paper and enlisted the support of faculty and administration in denouncing Farrakhan’s demagoguery and notoriously anti-Semitic views.

At the end of the day, Farrakhan’s speech went forward.  And hundreds demonstrated peacefully outside.
That’s how free speech works.  In other words, we do not have a Constitutionally protected right not to be offended.

I am happy to see so many of our college students back at WRT today.  You who are on the front lines of this issue understand that college ought to expand intellectual and social horizons, not reinforce preconceived and parochial notions.  College should provide a safe space for thought, not from thought, as Salman Rushdie recently quipped.

Many of you bring heartening news that college administrations have taken seriously their commitments to do what is in their power keep students safe—safe from violence, from intimidation, from the dangers of binge drinking, from sexual assault—to the extent that any institution can regulate such matters.

But safe doesn’t always mean comfortable.  College campuses can be laboratories for intellectual inquiry and free expression.  They can also be breeding grounds for misinformation and bias.

Especially when it comes to Israel.

Over the past decade, the BDS Movement—Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions—has proliferated.  In 2011, I led a successful effort to persuade Amherst college trustees to defeat a BDS resolution placed before them by Students for Justice in Palestine.  In a particularly disturbing example from earlier this year, students at Tufts University passed a BDS resolution on the eve of the Passover Seder, when most Jewish students were home for the holiday.

Some parents have even begun to ask me to recommend colleges to which their kids should not apply in order to avoid BDS activity.

This request, alas, I cannot oblige.

First and foremost, because BDS may not be everywhere, but it could be anywhere.

Second, because we at WRT equip our high schoolers with the confidence and knowledge required in order to speak up when confronted with pernicious speech about Israel.

If you are a high school junior or senior, I hope you will join me for this year’s “Packing for College” class on the first Wednesday of every month starting in January, where we do just this.  I also encourage all of our students and parents to take the new Campus Toolkit Handout provided by the Anti-Defamation League.

And third, because Judaism would not have us shrink from the challenges through which character is forged.

Recent events, of course, have tested the limits of my commitment to free speech.  We Jews should never take for granted that the guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of religious expression, and freedom to organize peacefully have strengthened our American Jewish community for centuries.  We do not live like the Soviet refuseniks of my childhood, who feared that an ill-chosen comment about the government could result in a visit from the KGB and a one-way ticket to the gulag.  Jews thrive here in large measure because of America’s Constitutional guarantees to all citizens.

Still, the rise in Neo-Nazism, and the license white supremacists apparently now feel to organize and take their message to the streets, as we saw last month in Charlottesville, could give pause to even the staunchest free-speech advocate.

Of all the words written in the wake of Charlottesville, I found these, from the Newseum, a DC institution dedicated to the First Amendment, most compelling:

“Hate-propagating neo-Nazis and bottom-dwelling white supremacists—the dregs of our open society—have and should have First Amendment rights to speak and march in public.

“We need to see them for what they are:  a disappointing collection of the disaffected …often ignorant of the real meaning and history of the symbols they display, carrying torches meant as much to intimidate as to illuminate.

“We need to hear them for what they say:  advocacy of discredited ideas involving racial purity and intolerance, couched in misrepresentations of U.S. history and the American experience.

“We need to understand them for what they are:  betrayers of what President Lincoln called ‘our better angels,’ of the principles of equality, justice and the rule of law.”

Just because we grant to such groups the right to organize and speak freely does not mean that we consider their opinions valid or valuable to society.  There can be no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis and the broad coalition of people who oppose them.  Anyone marching with a mob wearing swastikas and chanting “Jews will not replace us” has relinquished all claim to innocence.

Still, defending free speech means that we permit such ugly displays.  It does not follow, however, that we stand idly by when the torches blaze.   Is there anything more Jewish than standing up to Nazis?  This is no time for complacency.  Anti-Semitism—whether from the far left in the form of BDS, or from the far-right in the form of Neo-Nazism—demands a consistent and firm response.

Understanding how we Jews have been affected by anti-Semitism may stir our empathy for others who stand with us against hatred and bigotry.

Think of how you feel when you see a swastika and you may have an inkling how African-Americans feel when they see a Confederate flag.  Both were symbols of hate and violent subjugation flown by regimes with the military power to back up their intentions.

Although we Jews have benefited from free speech and should join in its defense, it does not logically follow that we should support enshrining all symbols in public, particularly Confederate flags and monuments which were erected predominantly in the 20th century as emblems of white resistance to black social advancement and civil rights.

Defenders of racial inequality under the banner of “Southern heritage” are welcome to voice their views, as is their right.  But public spaces should not be used to glorify their narrative.  If we put ourselves in another’s shoes, given everything we know about anti-Semitism, we can understand why a public Confederate shrine may not feel like a “safe space” for millions of Americans.

You know, we actually have a familiar English word that means “safe space.”  That word is “sanctuary.”  For almost thirteen centuries, English law recognized the church as a safe space to which fugitives could flee and obtain immunity from arrest.  Later the term “sanctuary” would apply to political asylum, and even today a burgeoning “sanctuary movement” has grown in houses of worship, to provide safe haven for immigrants fearing deportation.

All this begs the question:  as we sit here, in our beautiful sanctuary, on the holiest day of the year, is this a “safe space?”

The past year highlighted the vulnerability of Jewish institutions.  In the wake of bomb threats to JCCs and synagogues across the country, and a climate of rising anti-Semitism at home and abroad, WRT undertook a comprehensive audit of our security practices, from personnel to procedures to infrastructure.  Volunteer leaders and professionals collaborated to upgrade temple security, a decision we consider a wise and important investment in our spiritual home, especially for our children.

So I would love to stand here today and vow that you will always be safe here at Westchester Reform Temple.

But you know that I cannot make this promise.  We live in an era where no one can guarantee freedom from harm or loss, terror or violence.  In the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes, in the omnipresent shadow of bloodshed at home and abroad, we read with new eyes the verse from Unetaneh Tokef:  “We who are mortal—our origin is dust, and so is our end….  [We are] like broken vessels, like withered grass, like a flower that must fade.…”  Even the safest space offers limited protection.

All we can do is do our best to provide for your physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.  No matter your age or stage of life, no matter your ethnic or religious background, no matter your skin color, gender, sexual orientation, financial means, employment, or ability, we want you to participate fully in the life of this congregation, because WRT is your home.

The sanctuary in Jewish tradition has changed over time.  In the Torah, the sanctuary was the innermost shrine of the Tabernacle, housing the Ark of the Covenant, where the Israelites communed with their God.  It is called Kodesh Ha-Kodashim—literally, the “Holy of Holies.”  Fittingly, sanctuary comes from a Latin root meaning not “safe” but “holy.”

According to the Talmud, the Kodesh Ha-Kodashim was a private chamber where no person ever set foot—save for one man, on one day of the year.  On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would enter the sanctuary and whisper the secret name of God.

But even that sanctuary could not remain a safe space forever.  In the year 70, Roman battalions burned it to the ground, leaving a ruined platform above the Western Wall, the last vestige of the Temple compound.

The ultimate “safe space” in Jewish tradition had proved vulnerable.

A different kind of structure served Jewish communities in the wake of its destruction.  Unlike the shrine in Jerusalem, these were not called “sanctuaries”; at first, they weren’t even considered particularly holy.

They were known as synagogues, from Greek words meaning “place of assembly.”  In Hebrew, this becomes Beit Knesset.

Do you get the difference between a sanctuary and a Beit Knesset?  The sanctuary was off-limits to all but one man, all days of the year save for one, and even then, to speak but one word—barely audibly.

Today’s sanctuary is a true Beit K’nesset.  It is a house of assembly, a home for many voices.  We rabbis and cantors are not High Priests.  Our voices frame WRT’s mission and our spiritual direction, but ours are not the only voices that matter here.  We need your voices here.

Will this conversation provide a safe space for you?  

If by “safe space,” you mean a place where divergent viewpoints are considered valid, welcome, and deserving of respect—absolutely.  In this Beit Knesset, this house of assembly, this home of many voices, we will always make time to listen to dissenting opinions.  That means if you wish to disagree with one another, or with us clergy, so long as you do so respectfully and in the spirit of Jewish debate, then our sanctuary will always be a safe space.

It just might not always be a comfortable space.

Truth be told, Judaism has never guaranteed comfort, especially not on Yom Kippur.  Fasting, praying, refraining from all physical pleasure—all these add up to a pretty uncomfortable day.  (You can add “sermon length” to the list of afflictions.)

As for sermon topics, I want to state plainly that we clergy, taking our cue from centuries of Jewish practice, view our remarks as an opportunity to teach Torah and Jewish values, and to frame the important events of our time through a Jewish lens.

While never seeking to use the pulpit to advance partisan politics, you should expect that, in this Beit Knesset, we will continue to speak about how the Jewish tradition would have us respond to the pressing issues of our day.

We are bound to disagree from time to time.  That’s Jewish!  But we will never stop the conversation.

Here, we will speak about the environment, natural disaster, and the opportunities and threats wrought by human innovation and technology, because ethical stewardship of the natural world begins in the first chapter of Genesis and continues throughout all of Jewish tradition.

We will talk about our commitment to Israel, especially in her 70th year of independence which we will celebrate this spring.  We will continue to advocate for the right of all Israeli citizens to enjoy equal treatment under the law.  And we will speak about our relationship with the Palestinians, because Judaism has never considered us responsible only for our fellow Jews.

We will talk about genocide, racism, women’s issues, domestic abuse, inclusion of people who live with disabilities, and issues facing the LGBTQ community, because the Torah teaches time and again that we know the heart of the oppressed, having been oppressed ourselves in the land of Egypt.

We will talk about war, public safety, gun violence, global hunger, health care, and pandemic disease, because no mitzvah matters more than the preservation of life.

We will talk about wealth distribution and income inequality, because the Torah and the Prophets never shy away from addressing the complex relationships between people who have more and people who have less.

We will not be afraid to talk about Islamic terrorism, and we will not shy away from talking about Islamophobia, because Judaism and Jews do not exist in a vacuum—we exist in relationship with our neighbors, our allies, our enemies, and other faith traditions.

And, in this Beit Knesset, we will continue to talk about compassionate treatment of the world’s most vulnerable, including immigrants and refugees, because no Jewish value finds more passionate expression in all our literature and history.

This is what it means to study Torah, to promote Judaism, and to live in sacred community.  It means that we take a safe space and make it holy:  a true sanctuary.

To that end, please join us Sunday morning for our annual community Sukkah build.  I’ll be on hand to schmooze with you, to hear your feedback, and to continue the conversation about today’s sermon, and I would love to see you.  The Sukkah itself will provide the ultimate emblem of the “big tent” of ideas and people that WRT always aspires to be.

Until then, I will not conclude by wishing you “an easy fast,” as is traditional.  I will, of course, wish you a safe fast, because Judaism says that life and health come first.  But easy?  No.

I will instead pray that the fast we undertake today will unite us in our shared discomfort, inspire us to lessen the discomfort of others, and bring us closer to the God in whom the innumerable voices of the human family become One.

Rosh Ha-Shanah Morning 5778, September 21, 2017

WHAT I LEARNED FROM A LUCKY RABBIT’S FOOT ON LONG BEACH ISLAND

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

WESTCHESTER REFORM TEMPLE

At the northern tip of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from Barnegat Lighthouse, that stately red and white tower whose nocturnal beacon glances back and forth unceasingly from ocean to bay, stands a squat little souvenir shop called Andy’s At The Light.

For the last 72 years, Andy’s has been the place to buy what they call “novelties” (and we call tchotchkes).  Painted starfish, kitschy signs for your beach house, wiffle ball sets: you get the idea.

When I was a kid, no trip to the beach was complete without a stop at Barnegat Light for soft serve and schmying around Andy’s.  In the summer of 1981, when I was seven, Andy’s was the place to go for the tchotchke par excellence of the day:  A Pet Rock.  Remember those?

But what I wanted most was a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot, which they had, in every color of the rainbow.

You might ask:  Why did I want a lucky rabbit’s foot?  The answer is that my best friend Brian Katz had a lucky rabbit’s foot.

So I strode into Andy’s, clutching my allowance, and told my dad what I planned to buy.

What happened next turned out to be one of the formative Jewish lessons of my life.

He said:  “It’s your allowance and you can buy what you want.  But it seems to me that a lucky rabbit’s foot is not very Jewish.” 

Well that was enough to stop me in my tracks and re-invest my allowance in some other tchotchke, I don’t remember what.

Later, over ice cream, I asked, “So what’s ‘not Jewish’ about a lucky rabbit’s foot?”

Before I tell you his answer, you might find it interesting to learn that the superstition about rabbits’ feet goes back as much as 2,600 years to ancient Celtic folklore, and that the North American version originates from African-American folklore known as hoodoo.  It’s said that carrying a rabbit’s foot was thought to help with fertility, an inference drawn from their reproductive habits.

There are, however, several technical specifications the rabbit’s foot must meet in order to be considered lucky.  (1) It has to be the left hind foot.  (2) The rabbit needs to have been captured and killed in a cemetery.  (3) The rabbit’s foot needs to be cut off on a specific day—usually a Friday, but with variations such as the weather, date, etc.

So it may surprise you that my dad’s answer had nothing to do with a perceived incompatibility between Judaism and any of the following:  non-kosher rodent-like animals, Celtic superstition, pagan fertility rituals, hoodoo, hanging out in cemeteries, and animal dismemberment on Fridays—any one of which might have prompted a reasonable person to say, “it seems to me that a lucky rabbit’s foot is not very Jewish.”

“You see,” my dad explained, “they trap and kill rabbits for the express purpose of cutting off their feet, dipping them in dye, and then selling them for money.  It’s cruel.”

It was at that moment, I recall, that I lost my appetite for ice cream.

It was also at that moment that I learned something profound about Judaism.

Actually, three important lessons emerge from this story.

First, for the parents in the room, that you never know which of your words are really going to sink in.

Second, that the beating heart of the Jewish tradition—and this sermon—is compassion for the needs and feelings of others.

Third, that it’s strange talking about your father when he’s right here in the room with you.

Speaking of which, Avinu Malkeinu.  

All day long, Avinu Malkeinu.  “Our Father, our King, hear our voice.”

Avinu Malkeinu, Choneinu va-aneinu, ki ein banu ma’asim:  — literally, “be gracious to us and answer us, because we have no deeds in us.”

Aseh imanu tzedakah va-Hesed, v’hoshieinu:  Literally, “be charitable and compassionate with us, and save us.”

In other words:  “O God:  We lack the deeds to show for ourselves, so turn us into instruments of Your compassion, by which we save ourselves.”

I can think of no timelier message.

We are suffering from a Compassion Deficiency Syndrome of epidemic proportions.  As a new year begins, I want to argue for the restoration of compassion—Hesed in Hebrew—to its rightful place at the heart of the Jewish tradition.

It is this essence of our religion that my dad (perhaps unwittingly) captured when he said that a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot “isn’t very Jewish.”

My parents did go about raising my sister and me deliberately to be Jews.  I know they cared about us growing up to observe Shabbat with Friday night dinner and candles and wine and challah, the way we did every week.  As regular service-goers, board members and temple volunteers, they hoped to model participation in the life of the synagogue, and it was fully expected that in addition to Sunday school and twice-a-week afternoon Hebrew school, we would also attend Friday night services and the holidays, experience Jewish summer camp, and maybe even show up for Torah study on Saturday mornings.

After their first trip to Israel when I was a teenager, Zionism became a prominent thread in the tapestry of our family’s Judaism.  I know my parents hoped we would create Jewish homes of our own, and would not waver in standing up against anti-Semitism.

But, when I think about my Jewish upbringing, these themes take a back seat to the Hesed they modeled for us as the dominant thrust of Judaism.

In fact, one of the last things my parents asked me to do before going off to college was to write a check to Federation around the High Holidays.  “It doesn’t have to be a huge sum.  But it’s a good habit to start getting into on your own,” they said.

Good habits like these go by many names but they all mean the same thing.  We call them Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds, or Gemilut Chasadim, acts of lovingkindess, or, in the language of the Avinu Malkeinu, Tzedakah Va-Hesed,” charity and compassion.

Are we in the habit of Hesed? 

The American author Henry James gave this advice to his nephew:  “Three things in human life are important.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  And the third is to be kind.”

We seem to have missed the memo.  Public discourse has become coarse and cruel.  Schoolyard taunts have infected grownups’ speech.  Social media is contaminated with lies and libels issued with callous casualness.

And this is to say nothing of the amplification of hate speech and violent intimidation in recent weeks, about which I will say more on Yom Kippur.

Our collective failure of Hesed has created a culture of infighting that undermines Jewish solidarity.

In Israel, hardline Orthodox politicians routinely smear Reform Jews as enemies of the state.  Two weeks ago the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem called us “worse than Holocaust deniers.”  In American Jewish life, Jews are divided by politics and inane litmus tests of their loyalty to Israel.

It used to be the case that when a congregant felt offended, hurt, or even just mildly ticked off at something the rabbi said or did, or failed to do, the aggrieved party would approach the rabbi, perhaps meet privately, and air the grievance.  Maybe it would lead to a rapprochement.  Maybe not.  Sometimes the congregant would resign.

Nowadays rabbis worry that if they run afoul of a congregant’s opinions, feelings, politics or points-of-view, they will be subjected to a campaign of public humiliation and professional sabotage.

Such was the case last September in Austin, Texas, where Conservative rabbi Neil Blumofe became the center of an uproar in his community by having the audacity to suggest in a planning meeting for a joint Jewish-Christian trip to Israel that the travel itinerary might include a visit to Ramallah in the West Bank, the site of Yassir Arafat’s grave, in the spirit of interreligious cooperation… an idea subject, the rabbi insisted, to the interests and input of the travelers.

For this, Blumofe was excoriated in a letter sent to area philanthropists demanding that they withhold all funding of the JCC where Blumofe’s congregation is housed.  He was accused of ties to organizations of which he is not a member, all with the aim of removing him from his pulpit.

Let me be perfectly clear:  I do not endorse taking Jewish groups to Yassir Arafat’s grave.  But I do condemn the way in which our colleague was treated for the mere suggestion.

This story illuminates so many of the symptoms of Compassion Deficiency Syndrome:  The disregard of facts, the disproportionate response, the rush to judgment without proper understanding of context, the public airing of personal grievances, the entitlement we feel to vent our rage with impunity, the lack of compunction about lynching another person’s character.

And it’s everywhere, this malaise of meanness:  doctors, therapists, teachers, and business owners now fear that a single savage online review from a disgruntled patient, student, or customer could destroy a career and a reputation built over decades.

Judaism demands better of us.

Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:  “When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

Heschel would have admired Pope Francis.  In April the Pope traveled to a penitentiary which houses men and women who testified as witnesses for the state against associates or accomplices.  There, the Pope bent down and washed the feet of twelve prisoners in a gesture of service toward marginalized people.

Can you imagine such a practice in Judaism?

I hope you can, because the Pope borrowed it from an influential Galilean Jew who put compassion toward the meek, the poor, and the outcast at the center of his rabbinate.  And Jesus doubtless learned it from the Torah and the Prophets.

Now Judaism is emphatic about many things, including the pursuit of justice, our responsibility to the Jewish people, the importance of education.

But without Hesed at the center, without compassion, without the ability to understand and respond to the needs and feelings of others as our essential message and mandate, our entire religious enterprise collapses.  We become rote practitioners of empty ritual, passionate Zionists without menschlichkeit, learners of Torah with no Torah deeds.

In fact, the Rabbis placed compassion as the foundation-stone for all existence:  “The world stands upon three things,” they write.  “Upon Torah, service to God, and acts of compassion” (Avot 1:2).

These things go hand-in-hand.  Compassion toward others is how we live the words of Torah and serve our God.

In the mind of the Rabbis, the model of Hesed is God personified and God’s own compassion is the alpha and omega of Judaism.  The Torah begins and ends with Hesed.  God hand-stitches clothing for Adam and Eve.  In response the Talmud teaches, “Just as God dresses the naked, so should you dress the naked.”

A few chapters later, Abraham circumcises himself and his household.  God pays him a house call.  In response the Talmud teaches, “Just as God visits the sick, so should you visit the sick.”

At the end of the Torah, when Moses dies, God’s own hand lays him to rest.  In response the Talmud teaches:  “Just as God buried the dead, so should you bury the dead.”

All these basic kindnesses—clothing the naked, visiting the sick, providing a proper burial for the dead, consoling the bereaved, feeding the hungry, redeeming the captive, assisting the refugee, aiding the poor and the stranger, ministering to the vulnerable—come back to God.

For the Jew, Godliness is attained not through extraordinary accomplishments but through ordinary deeds of compassion, performed with extraordinary fidelity.

A little over 50 years ago, an MIT professor and meteorologist named Edward Norton Lorenz began to develop what became chaos theory, one of the most important scientific developments of the 20th century.  He discovered that minute differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere could trigger vast and often unsuspected results.

In 1972, these observations led him to formulate what became known as the “Butterfly Effect”—a term that grew out of an academic paper whose title asks, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”—a premise that seems eerily prescient this year of all years.

Since then, the “Butterfly Effect” has become a metaphor for any system in which small actions set off a chain reaction leading to monumental results.  A small commitment to everyday Hesed could produce a Butterfly Effect:  a revolution of kindness that would change the world.

So walk slowly behind or beside pedestrians who are elderly or disabled instead of passing them on the sidewalk.  Dial back the road rage.  Ignite less, ignore more.  Think twice before hitting “send.”  No matter how wronged we may feel in a disagreement, before giving a spouse the cold shoulder, or chewing out your kids, or reprimanding a coworker, pause to ask:  “Is my response apt to do more harm than good?”  Remember that animals have feelings too.  Remember that we people may have stewardship over the planet but that does not give us license to use and abuse at will.  Don’t indulge gossip.  Reach out when someone in your community is sick or hurting.  Remember your loved ones’ birthdays and anniversaries.  Call them often and try to work through whatever might be preventing you from ending conversations with “I love you.”

Every day at WRT I stand in awe of the Hesed happening here without fanfare or acclaim:  the volunteers who participate in Cooking for Hope, as they will this coming Monday morning; who show up to feed Thanksgiving Dinner to the visually impaired, throw a Chanukah party for guests with developmental challenges, and another one a few weeks later for Holocaust survivors.  The congregants who write condolence notes and make shiva calls and bring meals after a hospital stay.  The students whose B’nei Mitzvah projects take them to Mount Vernon and White Plains for after-school tutoring, who are teaching sports to kids who, because of their disabilities, have never been invited to put on a uniform or throw a ball.  The way in which you’ve responded to our Zero Waste initiative, by recycling and composting here and participating in Scarsdale’s new food scraps program.  The 175 of our congregants who have trained for months to welcome and furnish for the needs of a family escaping the war-torn Middle East.

The Hesed in this congregation alone could generate a Butterfly Effect far beyond our walls.

Coda

The famous Rabbi Marshak is not a real rabbi.

He exists only in the mind of the Coen Brothers, and he appears only in their movie, A Serious Man, set in the Jewish suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1960s.   

In his massive study the ancient, long-bearded Marshak sits in silent contemplation, barricaded from the world by his fearsome and imposing secretary, who denies entry to anyone who comes seeking an appointment.

“The Rabbi is busy,” she intones.

“He doesn’t look busy!”

“He’s thinking,” she deadpans.

Danny, the bar mitzvah boy, though, does finally get to see Marshak who proceeds to return the confiscated transistor radio that Danny had brought as contraband to Hebrew school a few weeks earlier.

The old man leans in close.  This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, when the sage will dispense the purest distillation of the wisdom of all his accumulated years.

Marshak’s voice is no more than a whisper.  He says:

“Be a good boy.”

And really, is there anything more Jewish than that?

Shanah tovah.

Gimme Some Truth: Shavuot (Confirmation) 5777

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

MAY 31, 2017

Oxford Dictionaries’ Word for the Year for 2016 is “Post-Truth.”

Here’s the official entry:

POST-TRUTH

ADJECTIVE

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’

We are indeed living in a post-truth age—an age of fake news, an age that doubts science, disparages intellectualism, and demeans inquiry; an age that would have us consider unfounded opinions acceptable substitutes for observable facts.  Welcome to the post-truth age.

This week, one of my least favorite landmarks of the post-truth age celebrated its tenth anniversary.  The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which is a half hour from where I attended rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, depicts the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs, portrays the Earth as approximately 6,000 years old, and disputes the theory of evolution.  It has welcomed over 2.5 million visitors since its opening.

Or consider climate change in the post-truth age.  In 1990, a year after I was confirmed, the first President Bush said, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and in unprecedented ways…. [T]he United States will continue its efforts to improve our understanding of climate change—to seek hard data, accurate models, and new ways to improve the science—and determine how best to meet these tremendous challenges. Where politics and opinion have outpaced the science, we are accelerating our support of the technology to bridge that gap….”

George H. W. Bush did not waver in his commitment to the science, to policy informed by facts.  Public opinion should follow the data, he argued, and not the other way around.  Over the past 30 years, the scientific community has also not wavered:  the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by industrialized nations is making the planet hotter, more precipitously than at any time in human history, and that the consequences—rising seawater levels, violent weather, destruction of already endangered natural habitats for plants and animals of all kinds—are real, imminent, and serious.  For decades, close to 100% of the scientific community has stood by these findings.  What has changed over the last 30 years are the tactics of opposition:  most sinister among them, the enlisting of climate change deniers—most of them economically and politically motivated—to oppose scientific facts with dubious counterpoints.

The media then compound the problem by presenting both “sides” side-by-side, equal partners in a “debate”—as if climate change is, in fact, a debate, rather than established fact.  The results of this campaign of disinformation are already disastrous and could become worse.  Consider that the term “climate change” has been removed from the White House website and you begin to get an idea of how influential the denial movement has become.  In a world where opinion masquerades as truth, everyone loses.

Of course, “[T]he story of the conflict between truth and politics is an old and complicated one,” as the brilliant Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote fifty years ago.  A refugee from Nazi terror, Arendt understood that “[t]he chances of factual truth’s surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed; it is always in danger of being maneuvered out of the world not only for a time, but, potentially, forever.”  Up against the power of a regime hostile to truth, facts become more than mere inconveniences—they become dangerous, and so the regime suppresses them, denies them, alters them, destroys them.  “Even in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia it was more dangerous to talk about concentration and extermination camps, whose existence was no secret,” than to hold or even speak anti-authoritarian opinions about anti-Semitism, racism, and Communism.  The most dangerous weapon of the regime was factual truth, and those in power knew it.

At the height of the Vietnam War, in 1971, John Lennon wrote “Gimme Some Truth”:

I’m sick to death of hearing things from

Uptight shortsighted narrow minded hypocritics

All I want is the truth, just give me some truth

I’ve had enough of reading things

By neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians

All I want is the truth, just give me some truth

Fortunately, you, Confirmation Class of 5777, have inherited a Jewish tradition that loves, reveres, relentlessly pursues truth—a truth that promotes no political party, that privileges no personal preference.  Truth eternal, Truth with a capital “T.”

Today you read the passage from the Book of Exodus depicting the giving of the Law at Sinai.  Of this moment, the Biblical book of Nehemiah says:

וְעַל הַר סִינַי יָרַדְתָּ וְדַבֵּר עִמָּהֶם מִשָּׁמָיִם וַתִּתֵּן לָהֶם מִשְׁפָּטִים יְשָׁרִים וְתוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת חֻקִּים וּמִצְו‍ֹת טוֹבִים.

“You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven; You gave them  proper rules and teachings of truth, good laws and commandments.”

And then you blessed:  Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher natan lanu Torat Emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu.  Baruch ata Adonai, notein ha-Torah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, sovereign of all worlds, who has given us a Torah of Truth, implanting within us eternal life.  Blessed are You, Adonai, Giver of the Torah.”

A Torah of Truth, Torat Emet in Hebrew, where Emet is the Hebrew word for Truth.  It’s a word that comes up a lot in the Jewish tradition.  In Yiddish, we say something is “the real deal” by calling it “Emes,” the same word.  Elsewhere in the Torah, “Emet” or Truth is one of God’s signature attributes—a quality that we see in the divine and that, as human beings made in the divine image, we aspire to attain.

The Talmud teaches Chotmo Shel Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu Emet,  “The Seal of the Holy One is Truth,” because the word Emet, written with the three letters Alef, Mem, and Tav comprises the first, middle, and last letters of the Alef-Bet.  It implies that Truth, more than any other quality, encompasses and encapsulates God’s nature.  We find God’s Presence not in the miraculous or supernatural, but wherever truth resides.  To perceive the laws of Nature that govern the cosmos; to apprehend the wondrous fact of our existence; to revere the beauty and harmony of the universe—to know these is to know what Einstein called “the mind of God.”

Maimonides, the great 12th Century Rabbi, taught us to accept Truth from whatever source we find it.  He was not only a brilliant religious thinker and prolific author; he also was a medical doctor, scientist, and philosopher.

He taught that if the factual truth we learn from science, or observe from Nature, does not comport with what we may have learned from our religious tradition—even from the very words of the Torah itself—then our understanding of Torah is faulty and must be modified to fit the facts, and not the other way around.

For example, Maimonides sought to understand the fantastic miracles recorded in the Bible in light of what he understood about the laws of nature.  He rejected the idea that the Bible should (or could) be read “literally,” but rather insisted that our sacred books speak in the symbolic language of metaphor and allegory.  He said:  “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”

Maimonides illuminates the path for us.  The truth is not always easy or comfortable.  Seeking truth and speaking truth will not always make you popular.  The Prophets of the Hebrew Bible, whose words the Rabbis also called “Emet,” were the ultimate truth tellers.  They warned a wayward people of a God who cared little for ritual sacrifices but endlessly for morality and righteous behavior, a God who favored not the powerful or the rich, but the poor and downtrodden, the vulnerable and the victim.  For seeking and speaking truth, the Prophets often ended up ostracized and persecuted.

Confirmation Class of 5777, as you know, you need only read the headlines to know that you’re living in a post-truth age.  I wish I could reassure you that you can find refuge in your books, in the intellectually serious curriculum and climate of high school and, soon enough, college—and to an extent you can and I hope you will.  And yet even the college campus environment has been beset of late by a particularly noxious form of untruth that we, as Jews, must confront head-on.

At American colleges from Vassar to UCLA, a movement called BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, aims to demonize and delegitimize Israel and to tarnish Zionism—which means our belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in our national homeland—with charges of “racism” and “apartheid.”

This is happening in our backyard.  In recent years anti-Israel activists at NYU issued fake “eviction notices” to students living in predominantly Jewish dormitories.  This Spring, students at Columbia University staged mock “checkpoints” where students pretending to be Israeli soldiers harassed other students on their way to class or just hanging out on the lawn.  (On the positive side, last month, the Columbia University Student Council overwhelmingly rejected a BDS resolution.)

Even still, such encouraging outcomes are far from guaranteed.  Rather than sponsor intellectually rigorous conversation about the complexities of this critical juncture in Israel’s history—fifty years since the triumph of the Six-Day War, and fifty years of its military occupation of the West Bank—college campuses have become hotbeds of ill-informed activism, allergic to inconvenient facts.

Given this climate on campus, speaking your truth as a Jew and a supporter of the Jewish State—with all its complexities, all its challenges, and, yes, all of its shortcomings—takes courage.  Even on campuses like Oberlin or Michigan, with relatively large Jewish populations, approaching 30% of the student body, some Jewish students report feeling intimidated and many are simply choosing to keep the truth of their Judaism under wraps, as if it were a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor.

Confirmation Class of 5777, as you near your high school horizon, remember well what George Orwell once wrote:  “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

In truth, we all have high confidence from watching you lead our worship and speak your truth today.  Through your public prayers and personal statements, you give everyone in this congregation hope:  not only that the Jewish tradition will thrive through you, but also that our shared commitment to seeking and speaking the truth will accompany you wherever you go.

Your world will soon become bigger, more complex, much more diverse.  Never let your commitment to seeking and speaking your truth preclude you from listening to the truths of others.  Remember that while all scientific facts are, in fact, true, it does not, conversely, hold that all truths are scientific facts.  God’s world is big enough and the realm of human experience broad enough to accommodate multiple perspectives—different spiritual paths; different narratives informed by different ethnic and national histories; different conclusions about the world and our place in it; and yes, different political opinions and party affiliations—and we are, in fact, much the better for such diversity.

I hope that, as you continue to grow and go places, each of you will find the bravery it will take not only to share your truth with others whose experience differs from yours, but also to listen to theirs, to learn from the truths of others, to internalize some of the wisdom of traditions not your own.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel counseled:  “No religion is an island.”  God, whose seal is Truth with a capital “T,” who encompasses all, is so much bigger than any one human perspective, any one religious tradition.  No one person, no one ideology, no one faith, claims a monopoly on Truth.

Nehemiah may have hinted at just this in describing the experience at Mount Sinai as the giving of “תוֹרוֹת אֱמֶת” — not Torat Emet, a Torah of Truth, singular, but Torot Emet, literally, TORAHS of Truth, plural.  As Rabbi Larry Kushner put it:  “Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching.”

Confirmation Class of 5777:  Keep seeking, keep speaking, and most of all, keep discovering your Torah, each one of you refining the Truth of your innermost teaching.  Keep learning the Torah of others, the way you have learned the innermost Torah of your classmates this year, and have, as a result, become One.

And if, from time to time, the Truth seems to elude you, and you seem to lose your way, remember the words you chanted today, and find your way back:  …asher natan lanu Torat Emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu.  That within each of us God has implanted a kind of eternal life, a Torah of truth whose wisdom will not die with you but rather endures from generation to generation.

Amen.

The Right Not To Remain Silent: Shabbat Vayikra 5777

 

RABBI JONATHAN E. BLAKE

MARCH 31, 2017

Over the last week and a half I have participated in two conferences that have become welcome annual traditions:  the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, CCAR for short (a fancy way of saying the Reform Rabbinate), this year held in Atlanta, and the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC—the gathering of the America’s foremost pro-Israel lobby.

Let me list the key differences.

The CCAR gathering is small, about 550 of us, all in one compact hotel.  AIPAC is huge:  18,000 delegates spread out over the entire city, assembling for major events in the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center, where the Washington Capitals and Wizards play.

The CCAR is for Reform rabbis only.  AIPAC is for everyone—Jewish people of every denomination, young and old, clergy and lay leaders, and thousands of non-Jewish delegates too, all part of the multiracial, bipartisan network of pro-Israel activists.  WRT brought an enthusiastic delegation of about 20 participants including high schoolers, graduate students, lawyers, doctors, financial professionals, full time volunteers, and one musician/teacher/b’nei mitzvah tutor.

The CCAR is our annual reunion with colleagues from across the US, Canada, and Israel.  Over prayer, study, meals, group activities and plenaries where the business of the conference is conducted, old friendships are strengthened, new ones kindled.  I met with the leaders of the Reform Movement in Israel, and pledged WRT’s support to continue to build a pluralistic and progressive Jewish society in the Jewish State even as they were heartened to hear that WRT has doubled down on Israel education, travel, celebration and advocacy here at home.

Rabbi Levy and I also came away enriched by our visits to the Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Temple, the landmark synagogue in Atlanta that was bombed during the Civil Rights struggle, an attack immortalized in the movie Driving Miss Daisy.

We took special pride in Rabbi David Stern’s inauguration as President of the CCAR—its first 3rd-generation president in 128 years.  Rabbi Stern hobbled up to the podium, both of his feet immobilized in boots following recent surgery, and said, “I… stand here in the presence of the generations that preceded me, aleyhem hashalom—my father Jack Stern and grandfather Jacob Philip Rudin, both revered presidents of this conference; my mother Priscilla Rudin Stern, who was the daughter of a rabbi, the spouse of a rabbi, the mother of a rabbi, and the mother-in-law of a rabbi, and was quite clear that the last was best.  Their legacy blesses and inspires me every day.  They are collectively either in the yeshiva shel ma’alah [the academy on high], or having a martini somewhere nearby.  (And I confess that when I prayed to the Holy One of Blessing to make me a rabbi more like Jack Stern, I wasn’t counting on the white hair and the limp.)”

We loved seeing a native son join WRT luminaries Rick Jacobs and Aaron Panken in the leadership of our Reform Movement.  Ashreinu—how greatly we are blessed!

AIPAC is also reunion of sorts—plenty of colleagues and congregants to catch up with.  It’s a learning opportunity, too—plenty of breakout sessions covering everything from Israeli advances in biotech to the complexities of the Syrian War, including the two sessions in which I participated, one a moderated conversation between Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, and the author and intellectual Leon Wieseltier, and the other a panel discussion with activist and politician Einat Wilf and Knesset member Nachman Shai.

I was honored to add my voice to these conversations about how progressive values can inform our advocacy and how the Jewish character of the Jewish State can and must remain compatible with Democracy, and vice-versa.

And AIPAC offers an extraordinary array of opportunities for our leaders—elected and appointed, American and Israeli—to share their policy positions directed toward Israel’s security and peace.  At this year’s conference, we heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, Vice President Mike Pence, Tony Blair, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Kirsten Gillibrand, and many more.

Still, the main point of the AIPAC Policy Conference is not learning or listening; it’s lobbying.

The important voices at AIPAC are the voices of the American people—the Jewish community, to be sure, but also the many non-Jewish American constituencies who understand that to support Israel is to support the strategic interests of America and of Western Democracy in the Middle East, one of the world’s least hospitable environments for the democratic freedoms that we Westerners take for granted.

On Tuesday the thousands of AIPAC delegates met with Representatives and Senators and their staffers from all fifty states, Democrats and Republicans, thanking them for their bipartisan support of Israel, and urging them to adopt policies that will:  counter Iran’s regional aggression and sponsorship of terrorism; urge generous financial assistance for Israel’s security; support direct negotiations toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians; and oppose boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (the BDS Movement) against Israel.

In this regard, my time at AIPAC and my time at the CCAR Convention coalesced around a common theme:  raising our voices.  Not for nothing is the CCAR’s theme for 2017, “Harnessing Your Rabbinic Voice in Troubled Times.”  Not for nothing did Rabbi Stern’s sermon at the Conference send a message of hope and courage to a group of rabbis made anxious by a climate in which cherished Jewish principles have been challenged as “political”— I would argue, principles made political by the current fractious political climate.

Breakout sessions in Atlanta addressed this unique American moment’s unique challenges:  “An Ethics of Social Justice and Repair: Values and Strategies.”  “Prayer and Spiritual Resistance.”  “Living Out a Racial Justice Campaign in Your Community.”

This week’s Torah portion, Vaykira, the first in the Book of Leviticus, is often mischaracterized as a litany of sacrifices and offerings, gothic in its portrayal of slaughter, blood and entrails, mind-numbing in its catalogue of sheep and oxen, bulls and turtle-doves, unleavened cakes of flour and oil.  But at its heart Vayikra is a handbook for getting right with God.  The sacrifices draw the offerer’s attention to his or her own behavior—ritual or ethical—and seek to recalibrate the distance between the Jew and God when we stray too far.  Forgot to fast on Yom Kippur?  Make an offering.  Improperly immersed yourself in the mikveh?  Make an offering.  Got a simcha in your family for which you want to express gratitude?  Make an offering.  Just want God to know that you’re there?  Make an offering.

In its discussion of “getting right with God,” of establishing spiritual balance after the disruption of sin, Vayikra notes:

נפש כי-תחטא ושמעה קול אלה והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם-לוא יגיד ונשא עונו

[Concerning] a person who sins by hearing a public threat, or witnessing, or seeing, or knowing [about it], and still not speaking up—that person shall bear the responsibility.

One cannot easily or definitively say what exactly the Torah’s writers had in mind here; what kind of “public threat,” exactly, is meant?  Still, where the cause reads ambiguously, the consequence does not.  This is the Torah’s version of the now ubiquitous sign:  “If you see something, say something.”  We are Jews.  We do not keep silence, least of all in the face of a public threat—a blight on society, a moral failing, a risk to the innocent or vulnerable—we do not hold our tongues.

Midrash tells this story:  “A man is passing from one place to another and sees a palace going up in flames, [apparently abandoned.]  He says to himself, ‘Can it be that this burning palace lacks an owner?”  At that moment the owner of the palace looks out [from a turret] and says, “This palace belongs to me.”

And then the man—Avraham, Abraham by name—concludes, “So too the world cannot lack a master,” even though it is burning.  For this reason, the midrash teaches, God selected Abraham to become a father of nations, a leader of peoples.

Because even though the world is burning—strike that—because the world is burning—God needs us to take notice, to speak up, to demand justice, to get involved.  A person who sins by hearing, witnessing, seeing, even merely knowing about a public threat, but who fails to speak up—that person bears the responsibility.

Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, explains, “Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be.  It is in that sacred discontent that Abraham’s journey begins.”

In these turbulent times, too many people of conscience and commitment in our communities—rabbis and cantors, to be sure, but also laypeople of every age and stage and point of view—are choosing not to speak their conscience, not to voice their views, out of fear of triggering an argument among family, or losing friends or congregants.  How many of you are worried about Passover Seder this year for just this reason?  As we gather on our festival of liberation, should we, for instance, keep silent about the plight of the refugee now that a longstanding matter of religious principle has, of late, been thrust under the klieg lights of partisan politics?

Judaism would not have us hold our peace when the world is on fire.

In part that’s why CCAR and AIPAC were so refreshing.  As you can imagine, put 500 rabbis in a hotel, or 15,000 Jews and a few thousand pro-Israel activists in a hockey rink and you will have no shortage of outspokenness.

In any other year the two experiences back-to-back might have proved fatiguing; I return to WRT energized and engaged, supported and strengthened.

I return to WRT excited to find commonality of purpose in last week’s temple mission to the deep South, where Rabbi Levy, Cantor Kleinman, and Eliana retraced the steps of the Civil Rights movement with 100 WRT eighth grade students and parents; thrilled to hear the stories of our Confirmation students who traveled earlier this month with Rabbi Reiser and Cantor Kleinman to Washington, DC, to lobby in the halls of Congress on Reform Movement positions.

These experiences teach our children and our congregants that the Jewish responsibility to speak out in the face of public threats belongs not only to clergy, but to all of us.

I return to WRT remembering why our own Rabbi Jack Stern’s printed anthology of sermons is called The Right Not To Remain Silent.

And I return to WRT carrying the visceral imprint of one experience that, ironically enough, required of me no speech; indeed, it demanded perfect silence.

In the Atlanta Center for Civil and Human Rights you will find an interactive exhibit.  It is a lunch counter.  There are four seats in a row and each guest at the counter is asked to put palms face down on the counter and wear headphones.  A 3-dimensional audio soundscape immediately transformed me, the listener, into one of the Greensboro Four, the students who sat down at a lunch counter inside the Woolworth store at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro and asked for a cup of coffee.  Following store policy, staff refused to serve the black men at the “whites only” counter and manager Clarence Harris asked them to leave.

The shouting, jeering, threats and curses grew louder in my ears.  After two minutes the chair began to jostle.  I got up, shaken, having lasted longer than most museum patrons.

The four freshmen in Greensboro stayed until the store closed at night.  Witnesses to a moral—and mortal—threat, armed with nothing more than the power of their own nonviolent resistance to do the talking for them, they showed a burning world that things could change.

Shabbat Shalom.

The True Measure of a Society: Shemot 5777

RABBI JONATHAN E. BLAKE

January 20, 2017 – WRT

January 22, 2017 – GREATER CENTENNIAL A.M.E. ZION CHURCH, MT. VERNON

 

“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

Exodus, Chapter One, Verse Eight – from this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

“There arose over Egypt a new king, who knew not Joseph.”

The Sages asked:  How can this be?  How could a king, even a new king, not know Joseph, the famed Israelite who had come up from the dungeon of despair to the pinnacle of power, the boy dreamer who had risen to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the visionary leader who saved Egypt from certain disaster by planning for seven years of famine, nationalizing Egypt’s farmland?

How could this new king not know Joseph?

The Sages argued:  Is this really a new king?  In the Talmud—that great collection of Jewish wisdom—one commentator named Rav said yes, this is a different person, literally, a new king.  His sparring partner, Shmuel, said, no, it’s the same Pharaoh as before—for nowhere does the Bible state that the former Pharaoh had died and a new Pharaoh taken his place.  Rather, only his decrees are new.  In other words, with Joseph out of the picture, the Pharaoh had a change of heart toward the Hebrews.  The Talmud interprets the words “who did not know Joseph” in verse eight to mean that the Pharaoh issued decrees against the Israelites as if he did not know Joseph (Bavli, Sotah 11a, also Shemot Rabbah 1:8).

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter—the end result is the same.  What matters is that this king—new or not—disregards the honorable legacy of Joseph and “otherizes” the Israelites, assigning them a permanent status as foreigners, no matter how long they had lived in the land nor how much they had contributed to the welfare of their adoptive country.

Matthew Henry was a nonconformist minister who lived in Wales and England in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  He published extensive commentaries on the Old and New Testaments.  Examining the question of the “king who knew not Joseph,” Henry concluded:

“The land of Egypt became to Israel a house of bondage.  The place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction…. All that knew Joseph, loved him, and were kind to his brethren for his sake; but the best and most useful services a man does to others, are soon forgotten after his death.  Our great care should be, to serve God….”

Rulers come and rulers go, but we, children of God, need to stay true to ourselves and to our God.  

We do that by remembering our own history of vulnerability and by remembering that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.

We know all too well that “the place where we have been happy, may soon become the place of our affliction.”  For Jews, Henry’s warning has become a twice-told tale, whether we refer to the flesh-pots of Egypt in Biblical times, the Roman diaspora from our native land in the century after Jesus walked the earth, the mistreatment of Jews in nearly every European country of the Middle Ages, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, the pogroms in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, the devastation of the Holocaust, and the violent repression and deportation of Jewry in places as vast and far-flung as the Soviet Union and numerous Arab states in the Middle East. Through all these difficulties, the Jewish people have demonstrated miraculous resiliency.  Just when we thought we were safe—even, at times, powerful, prosperous, and well-integrated into a society into which generations of our people had been born, so as to think of ourselves as native sons and daughters—along came some Destroyer to puncture our sense of safety with acts of hostility and hatred:  at times Pharaohs and kings, at times Popes and bishops, at times armies and police, at times peasants with pitchforks and torches.

For people of color, the story follows a different recipe but the basic ingredients, when you boil it down, are the same:  institutionalized discrimination, forced deprivation, and violence, often supported by the state.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes:  “The plunder of black communities is not a bump along the road, but it is, in fact, the road itself that you can’t have in America without enslavement, without Jim Crow, terrorism, everything that came after that.”

I do not recall these sad and sordid histories in order for any of us to wallow in despair.  In fact, I can imagine nothing more self-destructive than to build our identities exclusively around having been history’s suffering scapegoats.

The Jewish story combines industriousness, wisdom, luck and resourcefulness, leavened with a healthy dose of adversity and not the other way around.  Indeed, any contest over who is history’s biggest victim is one none of us should ever hope to win.

Still, whether you are Jewish or Black (or both!), or if you are a Muslim living in America today, or if you are part of the LGBTQ community, or if you are an immigrant—or the son or daughter or descendant of an immigrant—remembering our common histories of vulnerability—remembering without fetishizing—serves an important purpose:  It keeps us humble.  It is a hedge against haughtiness.  It protects us from the perils of pride—of treating any measure of power or privilege into which we may have been born, or any advantage that may have come to us from those who came before us—as a birthright or an entitlement.

Remembering our historic vulnerability teaches us never to take our success for granted.  Consider the words of Joshua, who charged the Hebrews upon entering the promised land to remember their roots and remember their God:  “I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.”

In one of his most misunderstood and misquoted speeches, former President Barack Obama sounded a similar theme:  “…[L]ook,” he said, “if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen….”

“The point is,” he concluded, “that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”

We succeed because we do things together.  Because we work and give and do for the sake of those who have less.  Because we lift up the disadvantaged, the deprived, the disabled.  Rulers come and rulers go, but the true measure of a society is in how it treats its most vulnerable.  The Bible itself instructs us to take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow—not once, but 36 times—more than any other commandment.

The minorities, the foreigners, the refugees, the immigrants, the poor, the women, the children, the homeless, the unemployed, the uninsured—today’s stranger, orphan and widow—no matter the society or the circumstances, all of these have always borne the brunt of suffering at the hands of the powerful.  Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century Rabbi and the founder of Modern Orthodox Judaism, explains that the alleged “new king who did not no Joseph” first exploited the Hebrews’ status as foreigners, aliens in order to carry out his diabolical schemes against them.

“The root and beginning of this indescribable maltreatment,” he says, “was the supposed lack of rights of a foreigner… In Egypt, the cleverly calculated lowering of the rights of the Jews on the score of their being aliens came first; the harshness and the cruelty followed by itself, as it always does and will, when the basic idea of right has first been given wrong conception.”

Hirsch is saying that singling out people who come from different places, speak different languages, have skin that looks more brown or black or yellow or red than it does white or pink or even orange—impugning their patriotism, raising suspicions about their loyalty, “otherizing” them, denying them the same rights and freedoms due every other citizen, inevitably leads to maltreatment, harshness, cruelty, violence.

The true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable!

That’s why WRT works with the Open Arms Shelter to open our doors to the homeless and hungry, dedicates our temple kitchen to “Cooking 4 a Cause,” and sends congregants of all ages to the Hebrew Union College Soup Kitchen in Manhattan.

That’s why WRT has for almost fifteen years partnered with Westchester Jewish Community Services and the Amazing Afternoons program of the Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon, to provide after-school help for students.

That’s why WRT is proud to have our own Cantor Abramson participate in a Global Justice Fellowship to the Dominican Republic, from which she just returned, where she worked with a cohort of rabbis and activists to learn about systematic discrimination and institutionalized statelessness for Haitian laborers, among many other pressing social concerns.

That’s why WRT advocates for public policy that protects the most vulnerable.  Because policy is how we make change.  And we need to start paying a lot less attention to what our elected officials say or Tweet and a lot more attention to what they sign into legislation!  This weekend our congregants will participate with our own Yoel Magid in the Raise the Age campaign through the Westchester Children’s Association which advocates for changing the age of juvenile offenders in New York State from 16 to 18—meaning that 16-year-old offenders could no longer be tried and sentenced as adults.

That’s why WRT is sending two buses with Cantor Kleinman and our Rabbinic Intern, Eliana Fischel, Saturday at (the admittedly ungodly hour of) 4:30 AM to join the Women’s March on Washington, declaring through united, nonviolent demonstration that women’s rights are human rights, regardless of a woman’s race, ethnicity, religion, immigration status, sexual identity, gender expression, economic status, age or disability.

And that’s why WRT has applied to be first in line in Westchester County when the State Department approves the resettlement of fifty Syrian refugees.  Working with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—an organization that, over the course of 125 years, has assisted over four and a  half million people fleeing hardship and violent conflict, WRT intends to devote substantial volunteer hours toward this effort in 2017.  Already almost 150 congregants have stepped up to signal their readiness and willingness to help, and our Refugee Resettlement Task Force is prepared and ready to go for when we receive a green light from the State Department and HIAS.

Because the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable.  And our God, the God of Scripture, the Living God of History, the God of our ancestors and our descendants, is a mighty God—but not a God of the mighty, but rather a God of the vulnerable.

Our God is mighty because above human power God places human dignity.  Above ambition God places altruism.  Above personal achievement God places the shared portion.

Our God is mighty because, as the Prophet declares, God has no need for sacrifice and prayer, ritual piety and even organized religion when one’s heart is saturated with greed and one’s hands are stained with blood.  Only when we take care of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow does God find favor in our offerings.

Our God is mighty because, as a wise rabbi once taught upon a Galilean hilltop some 2,000 years ago, God has reserved blessing for the lowly in station but pure of heart:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be sated.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

Abraham’s Better Angels: Shabbat Lech-Lecha 5777

 

RABBI JONATHAN BLAKE

November 11, 2016 – Veterans Day

Standing before a divided country, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.”

The same Abraham Lincoln, haggard and weary, would, four years later, conclude his second inaugural, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”  Leave it to Abraham Lincoln to sound the chord that must ever be sounded in times of national discord.

From this Abraham we would turn to the first Abraham.   Even as Abraham the President sought our better angels, so too Abraham the Patriarch.

Tonight I want to isolate three incidents from Abraham’s story that may help us call forth the better angels of our nature.

The title of the parasha, Lech Lecha, comes from God’s instruction to Abraham in its opening verse.  Lech Lecha m’artzecha, u’mi-molad’tcha, u’mi-beit avicha, el ha-aretz asher areka.  “Go forth from your country, from the place of your birth, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

Whatever you think about the outcome of this election no one will deny that we are entering uncharted territory.  What does Lech Lecha teach us about how to set out on such journey?  The ancient Rabbis would have us read the instruction literally:  not Lech Lecha, “go forth,” but Lech, “go,” Lecha, “unto yourself.”  They tell us that what God really wanted Abraham to do was not go out and discover a new land, not discover a new religion, but to go out and discover… Abraham.  After self-discovery, everything else would follow.

So this is the first lesson of Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within. 

If nothing else I hope and pray that this bruising and indecent election season will open up a period of introspection and critical reflection in America—a journey L’cha, unto and into ourselves.

We cannot journey forth until we commit to examine the deep divide in America, a rift that has left so many people feeling unrepresented by their government.  We need to understand the shifting forces of policy, culture, economics, technology and demography that have undermined their American dream and vaporized their hopes of prosperity.  We need to understand those who feel deflated by slow economic recovery, stagnant wage growth, skyrocketing health insurance costs.  We need to listen to people dismayed by the growing rift between Israel and the US, frightened by volatility and violence in Europe and the Middle East.  And we need to hear the voices desperate for change because they believe our politicians have failed us.

We also need to reflect honestly on how our national divide has widened during a campaign season that fueled division.  We need to probe the misgivings of so many Americans who recoil at speech that demeans immigrants, minorities, women, and people with disabilities, that traffics in insults.  We need to take seriously the anxieties of those who see bullies, xenophobes and anti-Semites emboldened in the new political landscape.  We need to be attentive to citizens who dread the curtailment of women’s reproductive choices; who are losing sleep over the threat of deportation; who are concerned about growing distrust between law enforcement and communities of color; and who believe that to deny climate change, to glorify torture, to allow unfettered access to guns, and to build walls—whether we fashion them of bricks and mortar or biases and mindsets—all represent backward steps for our country.

Lech Lecha tells us:  be introspective.  Be soul-searchers.  Do not let this moment for national self-reflection pass us by.  It may hurt—but it won’t kill us to learn more about our ingrained preferences and prejudices.  I pray that our elected officials and those who advise them will also take this journey of L’cha, of introspection, the wellspring of wisdom.

Lech Lecha:  Every journey into the unknown requires a journey within.

Later in the parasha, we read about Abraham’s evolving relationship with his nephew Lot.  Both have amassed much silver, gold, cattle, herds, flocks and tents.  So much material wealth, in fact, that one territory cannot accommodate both of them.  Their herdsmen begin to quarrel.  Abraham proposes that he and Lot go their separate ways.  He invites his nephew to have first pick:  “If you go to the north, I’ll go south; if you go south, I’ll go north.”  Lot sees the fertile Jordan plain and his eyes grow wide with tantalizing visions of prosperity and productivity.  Abraham stays in the land of Canaan with its rocky outposts and limited resources.

Lot, it turns out, has elected to live a life of luxury among the wicked denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah while Abraham has staked his claim on a piece of property that may represent a good spiritual investment, but which is definitely a dubious real estate investment.  Soon after, Abraham will tangle with Sodomites and even risk his life to rescue his nephew who, shortly after moving to Sodom, gets kidnapped by invaders.  From all of this we learn that Abraham cares about progeny more than property, about his nephew Lot more than his material lot.

Thus the second lesson of Lech Lecha:  put the greater good above what’s good only for you. 

Time and again Abraham demonstrates commitment to something bigger than himself.  He puts his own comfort and convenience, his fate and fortune at risk for the sake of family, community, tribe and people.  In Jewish tradition, Abraham serves as the exemplar for three of our most important mitzvot:  caring for the sick, redeeming the captive, and welcoming the stranger.

In the spirit of Abraham, the time has come to renew America’s great tradition of self-sacrifice and public service.  How poetically appropriate that we meet here on Veterans Day.  My grandfather, Harry “Acky” Garb, served in the First Marine Corps as a medic in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Only in my adulthood, decades after his untimely death at the age of 74 in a motor vehicle accident in 1989, have I come to appreciate the meaning of his service to his country.  He, on the other hand, would have rejected these accolades.  My Pop-Pop would have told you that the only real heroes were the corpsmen—his brothers-in-arms—who never came back from overseas, the ones who gave to their country, again to quote Abraham Lincoln, “the last full measure of devotion.”

Service in our armed forces is of course only one way to put country before self.  We need our Jewish traditions of tzedakah—righteous giving—gemilut chasadim—compassionate deeds—and tikkun olam—social justice—now more than ever.  We need to apply our Jewish values to advance policies that will do the greatest good for the greatest number above those that benefit chiefly the few and the privileged.

American democracy at its best has always aspired to such aims.  Our own Reform Jewish leaders wrote in a post-election statement this week:  “President-elect Trump has the opportunity to use his office to bring Americans together, and to move us toward a brighter future.  If he does so, we will be ready to work with him for the common good. If he does not, we also stand ready to be fierce advocates for the values that guide us:  inclusivity, justice and compassion.”  Those are Abraham’s values.

Lech Lecha:  Put the greater good above what’s good only for you.

By the time we get to the last part of this week’s reading, Abraham has become a real macher, a person of influence.  But even he defers to the higher officials.  Several times in our portion Abraham encounters a ruling executive authority—including the Pharaoh of Egypt, the king of Sodom, and King Melchizedek of Salem (probably Jerusalem).  In every case Abraham treats the sovereign with respect and charity.

Still, Abraham’s highest allegiance is always to God, with whom he shares an inviolable covenant.

So this is the third and final lesson from Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

It is important for us to remember that Jews have always subordinated ourselves to the office of the ruling power.  The famous axiom דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא, an Aramaic phrase meaning, “The law of the land is the law,” is repeated four times in the Babylonian Talmud and twenty-five times in the Shulchan Aruch, that great Medieval legal code.  We have been among history’s most loyal and patriotic citizens of countless foreign realms, none of which afforded us the kind of freedoms and opportunities that America has for nearly four hundred years.  Who among us has not had occasion to affirm the first line of The Godfather:  “I believe in America?”

We Jews have taken pride and comfort in the vision of our Founders, that leadership comes not by blood or birthright but by the will of the people.

And we Jews have always prayed for the welfare of the government under which we live.  We did so in the days of our Babylonian Exile in the 6th Century BCE, throughout our long history in the Diaspora, and we do so today.  Our prayer book includes these words:

O Guardian of life and liberty,

may our nation always merit Your protection…

Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.

May they govern with justice and compassion.

Help us all to appreciate one another,

and to respect the many ways that we may serve You.

May our homes be safe from affliction and strife,

and our country be sound in body and spirit.

Still, like Abraham, we Jews also recognize that above all human authority resides an authority we name Divine.  Like Abraham, we honor our leaders but bow down only before God.  Like Abraham, we know that potentates and presidents do not decide ultimate right and wrong.  Even the Biblical king was required to keep a copy of the Torah by his side and study it all the days of his life.

Here in America, We The People hold our leaders accountable to the law of the land.

We The People exercise our freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly to demand godly behavior from our elected officials.

We The People take to the press, the pulpit, and the public square to make our voices heard.  We live with loyalty to government and love of country and fellow citizen.  But we also live in sacred covenant with the Most High, the spiritual power that summons us to the better angels of our nature.

Lech Lecha:  Know before whom you stand.

One last thought.  When we stand before God during the Tefillah—the central prayers of our service—it is customary to conclude, according to the Talmud (Yoma 53) by taking three steps back, then turning to the right, and finally turning to the left, as we offer a prayer for peace.

An Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, the late Menachem Ben-Zion Zaks, explains that we cannot pray for peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others.  Achieving peace, he says, means acknowledging those on the right and those on the left—not just looking straight ahead.

Take a step back.  Look to the right.  Look to the left.  And pray for shalom.