Facing Loss at Rosh Hashanah

StengelThe images of the secular New YearTimes Square, Champagne in fancy glasses, funny hats and noisemakersare all fun and happy. By contrast the images of Rosh Hashanaha shofar, people praying, apples dipped in honeyare more subdued and complicated. They suggest introspection mixed with hope, intention and possibility.

And I’m glad it is this way because this combination of emotions allows both for the celebration of that which might be in the year to come and face the reality of loss of all that is no longer possible.

Sitting in the same space we sat in last year and hearing the same somber tunes we hear year after year grounds us in continuity. We know that come what may, we can be sure this place, these sounds, these words will be here again next year, just as they were here last year, just as they were here ten years ago.

But the continuity also reminds us of what has changed in the last year. Some of the changes are for the better, the new love, the child now wearing a tallit for the first time, the new job, the new home. But not all the changes are for the good. Looking around the sanctuary, or the dining room table, at familiar faces we may be acutely aware of those who are not there. Or maybe the tunes and prayers are familiar but the sanctuary and all the people because you have had to move communities after a messy divorce or a job change. Maybe the clothes are old because buying new ones was simply not an option with this year’s finances. Our losses, whatever form they take, can be painfully clear at Rosh Hashanah.

The liturgy of the season returns to the refrain, “Hashiveinu Adonai, Elecha, V’nasuvah, Hadesh Yameinu K’kedem” “Return us Adonai to you and we will return, renew our days as in the days of old.” The traditional understanding of this prayer speaks to the need to rededicate ourselves to the path of Torah so that the presence of God will be as profound as it was in ancient times. But my own experience with the loss of loved ones at Rosh Hashanah, gave me a different way to understand it. Loss can alienate us from God and from that which is holy, we need help and support to be able to feel grace and the presence of the sacred. We want to feel the feeling of blessing that has slipped away.

My favorite version of this prayer, one set to the Rosh Hashanah nusach or tunes, is somber and has the power to bring me to tears. I remember the last day of my grandmother’s life, the first day of Rosh Hashanah over 25 years ago. It was the only time I ever saw her pray, I got to hear her sing the traditional tunes. The next day she was gone. Each year since, on Rosh Hashanah I am returned to that special relationship and to her absence.

At Rosh Hashanah, we do need to look forward and imagine how we will improve ourselves, our communities and our world in the year to come. But we also should allow ourselves to grieve for that which has been lost and is not retrievable. Services might be somber, but it is also appropriate cry and feel the power of the music, the sounds, the liturgy and the visuals the moment. Our sense of loss can and should propel us to reach out to those who are still with us, to seek help and support for that which we cannot change on our own. Judaism gives us permission and space to feel both the joys and the pains of life. Unlike the celebration of the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah encourages us to take stock, not to ignore the bad, even as we hope for a better year to come.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Look Both Ways Before Crossing!

As we cross from 5774 to 5775, the Akeida (the Binding of Isaac, which is traditionally read on Rosh Hashanah) tells us to look both ways so we can perceive the fullness of our reality.

As he looked up, Abraham saw the place from afar (Genesis 22:4)three days before, God commanded Abraham to offer his son as a burnt offering on a mountain.  Even though he is still far away, the moment Abraham sees the mountain he begins to anticipate his grief. He doesn’t raise his eyes again for a long time.

We all know what this feels like.  This past summer, many of us stopped looking up as well.  We “saw from afar” news of rockets falling on Israel and on Gaza, the murder of another black childthis time in Fergusonthe Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, Robin Williams’ suicide, and the spreading threat of ISIS.  We were flooded with images of beheadings, pleas from helpless parents for the release of their captive children.

And to avoid the pain, we learned to look down.  And in looking down, we missed everything else.

Did you hear – just this month – about teachers at an elementary school in Cudahy California, who got together to donate 154 sick days to a Carol Clark, a sixth grade teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer?  Or about the zoo in Victoria that released five endangered species, including Tasmanian devils, back into the wild after their populations grew back to a healthy size?  Or about the UN report that the ozone layer is recovering?

No?

As Abraham looked up, he saw a ram (Genesis 22:13)in Rashi’s commentary on the Akeidah, he quotes a midrash that the ayil, the ram, is one of the ten things in existence before the creation of the world.  According to this midrash, the ram was always there and Abraham just never saw it.  With his eyes cast to the ground, Abraham has forgotten something central about the very nature of the world around him.

And with his gaze lowered, Abraham nearly kills his son Isaac (and some say, the news of what Abraham has gone off to do actually kills Sarah).  In the moment he raises the knife above his head, Abraham has come to imagine that nothing else is possible.  But when he lifts his eyes, he sees a new possibility, a new way of being in the world.

Like Abraham, we learn to expect disappointment and loss, rather than to notice the unexpected wonders that surround us.  In order to protect ourselves, we learn to lower our gaze.  We get into the habit of looking down at the brokenness and shadows in our world, jobs and relationships.  And like Abraham, we cannot perceive reality until we start to look up and see that something else is possible.  The Akeida comes to us this year to teach us to look both ways before crossing.

How do we do this?

Before bed each night, my partner and I share with each other five things that we are grateful for.  Some people keep a gratitude journal.  There’s even a Facebook meme going around of sharing what you’re grateful for, and tagging other people to do the same.  There are so many ways to strengthen our instinct to look up, and get better at noticing what is going right.

On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate yom harat ha’olam, the birth and renewal of our world.  As we cross into 5775, we aren’t merely surviving anymore.  We aren’t just trying to hold back the knife, or protect ourselves from what is going wrong.  We can and must work on flourishinglifting our eyes to find a saving ram, connecting to the nourishment of our food, feeling the love of an old friend.

Before you cross into the new year, take on a practice that will help you break the habit of just looking down, and help you to look up and see what is good in this world.

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Posted on September 22, 2014

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Who Will Live and Who Will Die?

shofar

The Shofar calls us to atone

We live with a practical tradition. We begin the New Year with ten days devoted to introspection. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are asked to review our past; failures and victories, to evaluate our relationships and how we can make things better for ourselves and those we care for. We take stock of our lives and try to put ourselves back on the right path. “Chet” is the Hebrew word commonly translated as “sin.” It is derived from the term which means “to miss the target.” The assumption is that sin is a mistake; an action we would correct if possible. It is human to make mistakesit is brave to try to correct them. This makes “Teshuvah” translated as “to return” an attainable task. We are not expected to be perfect but we are expected to clean up the messes we have made.

Our tradition identifies two categories of relationships; those we have with each other and those relationship we have with God. The mistakes we make fall into these categories as well: The ways in which we hurt others and the ways in which we hurt God.

Isn’t it incredible that we can hurt God? Some may disagree and ask, “How can a perfect God be concerned with our sins?” In my opinion it is a measure of God’s love for us that God created a relationship in which God is affected by our actions. And, while some may say this is only a metaphor I am not so sure. If one truly believes in the concept of “Tikun Olam,” and recognizes our responsibility to fix the world, how can God not be disappointed and hurt when we fail?

This interplay between “Teshuvah” and “Chet,” our relationship to others creates a very involved dynamic and ideally forces us to face our frailties and responsibilities. We have made mistakeshow can we atone for them? We are always in need of repentance and atonement.

We learn from the Midrash (Mishle 6:6):

The students of Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Which is greater, Teshuvah or Tzedakah?
He answered them, “Teshuvah, because sometimes one gives Tzedakah to one who does not need it. However, Teshuvah comes from within (it is always needed).” They (the students) said to him, “Rabbi, have we not already found that Tzedakah is greater than Teshuvah?”

Fixing houses in Appalachia

Our crew working in Appalachia

How does one explore Judaism and derive deep meaning from it? What if you want to strengthen your Jewish identity? One way is to become introspective and find yourself in intense moments we create through silent ritual and prayer. This is the essence of “Teshuvah,” the “return to one’s tradition. This is one way, and it is a good way. But it is not the only way.

Another way to achieve this goal is to immerse oneself in Tzedakah. To experience the intensity of giving a bag of school supplies to a child who has never had them before, delivering 20,000 pounds of food to a shelter in Mississippi or building a house in Appalachiais a way becoming close to God.

I can tell you this; when I am alone and feel in the dark, scared and aware of my mortality, when I am in pain, it is the Tzedakah experiences I dust-off and recall. They bring me back. Ritual and prayer are vital expressions of my identity and form the basis of my observance, but my humanity comes from Tzedakah.

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Posted on September 21, 2014

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Meeting My Palestinian Neighbors For the First Time

Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsiderit might be dangerous, she saidbut I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.

Israeli and Palestinian Kids Playing Together

Israeli and Palestinian kids playing together

Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish historyand then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.

Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.

For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.

For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and sawdespite my prejudiceshuman faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heardof deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflictwere authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.

One Palestinian manwho turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homestold me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”

As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldierand it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.

Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.

These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuvasoul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this yearthe most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experiencedbe acceptable before God.

Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net

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Posted on September 19, 2014

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Waking Up Is Hard To Do

WClockyaking up in the morning a definite challenge for me. I hit the snooze button more often than I should. At least three times, I have to say to myself, “OK, time to get up.” I need some real motivation to get out of my comfortable bed.

So that’s why I could really use a product known as “Clocky.”

According to its description, “Clocky is the alarm clock on wheels that runs away beeping! You can snooze one time, but if you don’t get up, Clocky will jump off of your nightstand up to 3 feet high, and run around your room as if looking for a place to hide. You’ll have to get out of bed to silence Clocky’s alarm.”

Clocky is so valuable because very often, what we plan to do is not always what we actually do.

When we go to bed and set our alarm the night before, we’re expecting that when we wake up, we’ll leap out of bed instantly, ready to go. But when that alarm actually goes off in the morning, our best intentions often manage to fall by the wayside.

Understanding how we stumble and miss the mark is all the more important when we think about our choices that can lead us to become better people as we start the High Holy Day season. It is fairly easy to sit in the sanctuary on the High Holy Days and resolve that we will, say, “be more patient” in 5775. It is a lot harder to actually be more patient when we feel like it’s the twentieth time we’ve had to tell our child to clean up their room.

The resolutions about ourselves that we make can be very hard to hold onto when the moment of choice arrives. Indeed, that’s really what we reflect about on the High Holy Days each yearthe times when we “missed the mark,” when we aimed to do one thing, but ultimately did another.

So how can we do better?

Recently, psychologist David DeSteno wrote an article entitled “A Feeling of Control: How America Can Finally Learn to Deal With Its Impulses.” He notes that Americans struggle with self-control. We eat too much, we spend too much, we give into our baser impulses too much. And we tend to think that employing cognitive strategies (“you’ve just got to handle your anger better”) is the way to go.

But as DeSteno argues, rather employing cognitive strategies to overcome our urges. we should use emotional strategies. He gives several reasons and suggestions, but perhaps most importantly, he reminds us that

[w]e often make the mistake of assuming that cognition and reasoning will always favor the most objectively rational, long-term outcome. But in reality, reasoning is tainted by bias; we can rationalize pretty much anything if it suits our immediate needs…I deserve an extra drink, a smoke, a sweet, a break, or a luxury today. Why? It’s been a long week. I had an argument with my spouse. Fill in the blank.

So instead, DeSteno suggests, we should cultivate using emotional strategies:

These emotions—gratitude, compassion, authentic pride, and even guilt—work from the bottom up, without requiring cognitive effort on our part, to shape decisions that favor the long-term. If we focus on instilling the capacity to experience these emotional states regularly, we’ll build resources that will automatically spring forth in reflexive and productive ways. In essence, we’ll be giving ourselves inoculations against temptation that, like antibodies in our bloodstream, will be ready and waiting to combat possible threats to our well-being.

In the end, our goal on the High Holy Days is help us become better people, to use both our heads and our hearts to improve who we are as we start 5775. But as humans, our natural tendency is to be drawn towards the path of least resistance. So we need any and all strategies we can use to make sure our choices help us—and not harm us—on our journey.

And that brings me back to Clocky.

One wonderful metaphor for the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is that of an alarm clock, waking us up to the ways we have acted, and helping us to become the people we wish to be. But all too often, we are likely to hit the snooze button.

So for this year’s attempt to become better people, maybe willpower isn’t the best strategy. Instead, let’s not be afraid to use any tools, tips, or even tricks we can find to help us grow.

And if we do that, perhaps we’ll have just a little less trouble waking up.

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Posted on September 18, 2014

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When My Father Hit Me, I Never Did It Again

One of the reasons I love the fall is because of the NFL. Although I need to garner all of my religious faith to remain a Jets fan, I absolutely adore watching the weekly games with my son.

I am sure that I am not the only parent in America who had some explaining to do this past Sunday. Each day it seemed that yet another player was deactivated for horrific acts of domestic violence. The press kept reporting that it was a “bad week for the NFL.” I disagree. It was a bad week for America. Unfortunately, it takes something as popular as the NFL to focus our frenetic, multi-tasking minds on to an issue, which is horrifyingly prevalent across our nation.

This space is too small for me to take it all on, but I would specifically like to address the issue of corporal punishment of children.

Life was different when I was raised in the 1960-70’s. It did not happen often, but my parents hit my siblings and me when they thought we crossed certain lines. With hindsight, I can say some of it was effective parenting and some of it crossed the line.

I can still feel my father’s wallop across my five-year-old rear end, as I was about to run across the street. He gave me one hard spank, grabbed my arm, looked me right into my eyes and said, “You never cross the street without an adult. You could get badly hurt.” I cried from the physical and emotional pain, but I never did it again. My father feared for my life and he protected me in the way he knew best.

shutterstock_71241184My mother also hit me a couple of times and once took it too far. As a divorced parent of four, she tried desperately to keep us in line. We were rambunctious and probably a handful for her. She once hit me with a belt for misbehaving. Even at twelve years of age, I knew then that the punishment did not fit the crime. I told her so and added that I would remember it for the rest of my life. I have remembered it. It did not significantly define my childhood or my life, but there was nothing helpful about it in terms of helping to shape me into a better person. In fact, it took me a while to draw close to her again. We did draw close and were deeply connected until her death.

My wife and I make a conscious choice not to hit our children. I don’t think that makes us better people than those who choose to do so within appropriate boundaries. Our youngest is still not careful enough when she crosses the street. We have talked to and even yelled at her. I wonder sometimes if a “potch on the tuchus” might be more effective. If we don’t get through to her with our current parenting approach, I would regret her getting hurt forever.

Adrian Peterson, the star Minnesota Vikings running back, crossed the line when he beat his son with a tree branch (a “switch”). I don’t think a four-year-old child can do anything which deserves the kind of beating his wounds seem to indicate. Peterson said that he did so because his parents raised him in the same way. That is a dangerous excuse. How we were raised has great impact on us all. But, it is up to each of us how we integrate it all into our own parenting philosophy. The impact of these decisions lasts a lifetime.

Judgment is one of the hallmark themes of this Holy Day season. We should indeed be wary of how we judge others. And, still, we must speak out to protect the innocent, even if they happen to be connected to our favorite players on our favorite teams. We do, indeed, have a lot of explaining to do to our children these days.

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Posted on September 17, 2014

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Taking the TARDIS to God

For those not immersed in the British television phenomenon that is Doctor Who, TARDIS (an acronym for Time and Relative Dimension in Space) is the Doctor’s mode of transportation. Because I am not a Whovian, I asked my daughter about it and later verified her explanation with Wikipedia: “A properly maintained and piloted TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and any place in the universe.”

Prayer, tefilah, is meant to serve the same function as the TARDIS. The words, the melodies, the movements, are all designed to transport us to another dimension, a divine dimension. For months, I have been thinking about this connection, dreaming about creating a Tefilah TARDIS to help me reach God. But I never did. It seems that I, too, was waiting for the arrival of a doctor—a spiritual doctor.

I got to see him on the second of Elul, the month in which we begin preparations for the High Holidays, at a meeting of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. Rabbi Avi Weiss was invited to teach a professional development workshop, but I knew to expect something personally meaningful, and Rabbi Weiss did not disappoint.

In the section of his lesson, Teshuva: Rendezvous with God, Rabbi Weiss introduced a variety of texts about seeking and encountering God. Here I found the inspiration for my TARDIS, in the poetry of Yehuda HaLevi (translation by Nina Salaman):

I have sought your nearness,

With all my heart have I called You,

And going out to meet You,

I found You coming toward me.

These words perfectly capture my intention when I pray, whether I am praying alone in my living room or surrounded by others in a synagogue. The goal is to be transported, to be elevated to where God is and to bring God to where I am. I regret that I am often unsuccessful in achieving this goal. My prayers, a perfunctory recitation of a fixed liturgy, fail to transport me.

In his book, Holistic Prayer: A Guide to Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi Weiss writes that prayer is “reaching inward to stir our soul, outward to embrace our fellow human being, and upward to encounter God. Here, holistic prayer enters a new realm.” I don’t know if he envisions the use of a Tefilah TARDIS, but Rabbi Weiss certainly recommends a properly maintained and piloted prayer experience, one that transports us to anywhere in the universe where God will meet us.

Could I create a tool with which to attempt a rendezvous with God? While Rabbi Weiss guided us through his lesson, I returned to this passage and imagined it inscribed on a Lucite box.

tardis 4tardis 3tardis 2

It took the better part of a week to collect the materials, paint the lid and exterior, and design the interior of my Tefilah TARDIS. Once it was completed, I began integrating this box into my daily routine, setting it on the table to remind me that the goal of prayer is to seek God. Sometimes I take a piece of chalk and write what I’m praying for—strength, patience, forgiveness, peace—on the lid. Other times, before I begin reciting a psalm, I remove the CD to write the names of friends in need of healing. Occasionally, I look up from my prayer book and turn the box to reveal the notes I’ve placed inside it.

As Elul ends and the High Holidays begin, I am ready to be transported.

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Posted on September 16, 2014

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High-Tech High Holidays

When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.

Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”Watching High Holiday Services

How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.

So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.

While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.

Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:

“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”

“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”

“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”

If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!

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Posted on September 15, 2014

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Honest Boundaries Make Good Neighbors

shuhada_st

Shuhada Street

I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.

As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.

As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.

In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”

Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.

But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.

Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.

The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.

Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.

I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.

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Posted on September 14, 2014

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The Destiny of the American Jewish Community: Assimilation or Isolation?

In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?

AssimilationWhen we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.

I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.

Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”

On one hand, we  encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.

jacob_wrestles_angel_rembrandt_harmensz1659The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.

The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.

Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.

When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.

AP120520062965-635x357The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.

These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.

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Posted on September 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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